Friday, August 31, 2012

Another style questionaire

I've said it before and I'll say it again; I'm a sucker for questionaires.  Here's somebody's questionaire about gaming style, with my answers.  I don't think this is quite as good at pinning down GM style as the Merit Badges (it's much less succinct, for one thing, and also curiously not as comprehensive) but I like approaching the same question from multiple angles to see if doing so susses out nuances or details.

Question 1:  Which of these genres interest you the most? (choose one or more)
Sci-fi, fantasy, modern, historical, horror, humor/satire, realistic shooting, superhero, surreal, detective, post-apocalyptic, multi-genre, other?

Fantasy, but honestly I like my fantasy to be a bit non-traditional and often mingled with other genres. My own setting I see as a hybrid of fantasy, swashbuckling pirates, westerns, and Arabian Nights with a strong overlay of horror and spy-thriller type intrigue.

Question 2: What sort of emphasis would you like the game to have? (choose one or more)
Troubleshooting, action, tactics, plotting, wackiness, story, character growth, technical stuff, business-simulation, epicness, survival, other?

Action, story, character growth. Most of the best games I've run or played in have had a fair helping--although not overwhelmingly so--of wackiness too.

Question 3: Will you be willing to get to know the game and learn to understand the game-world? Will you read the GM’s e-mails and hand-outs outside the game?

Within reason, absolutely. If he's inundating me with the equivalent of a dissertation, though... probably not.

Question 4: Which of these are you and how much? Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist

My tastes and approach to the game are definately mostly narrativst, with a dash of simulationist. I find gamism as an approach to my RPG to be tiring and I quickly lose interest in games that focus on those elements.

Question 5: What guarantees a good game? Short answers please.

Well, nothing guarantees it of course, but it seems to be most likely to happen when you're with a bunch of guys (and/or gals) that you like hanging out with, and you have a somewhat similar approach to the prospect of gaming.

Question 6: What is the ideal size of a gaming group?

3-5 players plus GM.

Question 7: Do you prefer a designated GM or a GM hot-seat?

I don't mind different GMs for different campaigns, but within a single campaign, a single GM please.

Question 8: How challenging the game should be to player characters? Please note that this has nothing to with how challenging the game is to players.

Fairly challenging. The crux of good drama is when bad and difficult things happen to interesting characters. This means that by default, a good game is one where the characters are challenged. I know that this isn't what you're asking, but a lot of the traditional methods of challenging players (puzzles, tactical challenges, etc.) on the other hand bore me to tears, and I really don't want to spend my leisure time engaging in them.

Question 9: Can bad dice rolls kill characters? Can characters die at all?

Yes. Character death should always be a possibility... although at the same time, it ideally it would also happen rarely.

Question 10: How much the GM should help players in game? With rule-questions the GM must help of course but if the character is in a tight spot and should make a decision, should the GM offer an option (thus putting words in the players mouth – “ok, I’ll do that!”) or should the player be given the right to make his/her own decisions, whether right or wrong? Should the GM have a GMPC which guides players through difficult spots?

As much as he needs to and absolutely no more. The GM's job is to facilitate the game and make it as fun as possible. To accomplish this, one of his key skillsets is the ability to "read the crowd" and react immediately and appropriately. If the players seem frustrated with a situation, then a hint is a good idea. If they're having a great time anticipating and dealing with a challenge, then back off. If they're having a great time anticipating an action that you think is a bad idea, maybe you should rethink your plan and be more improvisational. Being warned off by a heavy-handed GM from something that you're really excited to do can be a real enthusiasm damper. If you really must do it, you better be darn sure that what they have to take as a consolation prize is really cool and exciting so they don't feel gypped.

Question 11: What do with a PC when the player can’t come?

Quietly ignore the fact that he's not there.

Question 12: Do you like traditional gaming (whatever that is?) or do you enjoy groundbreaking, innovative games.

I rarely appreciate mechanical innovations for their own sake. Give me something tried and true so I don't have to focus on the mechanics and can just get busy playing.

That said, I've had a lot of fun with Dread, for instance. Then again, there really aren't a lot of mechanics to think about.

Question 13: Do you want the GM to prepare the session and to write the story or would you like the characters to create the story themselves? Script vs. freedom, which do you prefer?

I like the GM to provide lots of hooks; things that we could potentially pursue. But if I later feel like I can't actually play the game other than to follow along a pre-programmed course, that's usually a major letdown.

Question 14: How fast-paced the game should be? Can we stop to buy equipment for an hour or should the GM be ruthless and skip over the parts that he doesn’t deem vital to the story? (referring to “guards at the gate”)

Again, the GM needs to know how to "read the crowd." Sometimes that kind of stuff can be fun. Sometimes its not. He should skip when players are obviously feeling bored or ready to move on, he should stop and savor when the players are enjoying it. I think pace control is mostly an element of the game that I look to the GM to control, but there's no one size fits all answer to the question of what kind of pacing is the best kind. Even within the same group. Even to me personally. Sometimes I like to savor the little world-building moments. Sometimes I find shopping tedious and want to get on to something more exciting. Mostly, I'm keen on a faster pace. But not always.

Question 15: How do you feel about having off-game discussions about in-game-issues, i.e. meta-game table talk?

I feel that it's absolutely essential for a successful game.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

E is for Eltdown

Eltdown is a strange border town, located deep in the hinterlands.  Much of the population is Tarushan, and while Eltdown is occasionally plagued by troubles from that benighted land, Tarush Noptii does not claim it amongst its territory, and does little to interfere as a matter of policy.  Nestled deep in windy and perpetually shadowy downland in the wild lands between the borders of the Razine city-state of Terrasa and Tarush Noptii, it's fitted uncomfortably as neither.  It is nestled up against the boughs of the so-called Haunted Forest, but also manages to reside in the small gap that separates those rumor-darkened woods from the more overtly dangerous Shifting Forest.  Few travelers from any direction have cause to pass through Eltdown.  As such, its inhabitants are very insular and untrusting in strangers.

It's not clear why anyone ever settled the area in the first place, as the soil is not particularly fit for farming, there are little to no mineral resources, and even timber means going into the Haunted Forest--an activity the natives are very reluctant to do unless they pass only a few steps under the trees in the full light of day.  Rather, it appears that much of the core population has been here since before the founding of the current empires of the day.  Many families trace their lineage--through admittedly semi-legendary sources--to before even the founding of Tarush Noptii, although what kingdom or country they belonged to before the rise of the vampires is long forgotten.  Possibly it was settled because of the gap between the two forests, which may have been a lake in ancient times that has slowly been retreating and turning into fens and marshlands for centuries.  This lake would have made a natural highway from the lands to the south into the lands of the north.  Without the benefit of water travel, the marshlands are nearly as treacherous as the forests on the west and the east.  The Eltdown Fens, as they are now called, are also the source of a nearly perpetual roiling fog that surges over the town frequently.  When the streets are so foggy that it is difficult to see your way, the locals whisper that more than just workers returning to their homes wander the streets.  The residents of Eltdown seem to have resigned themselves to a frequently low life expectancy, abnormalities and occasional birth defects or mutations, and high infant death rates.  When pressed to explain such things, the whisperings and mutterings cease, but furtive and veiled glances towards the fens take their place.

Although few outsiders will be able to hear it from a local, there is an ancient book, The Parchments of Pnom, which refers to an ancient city on a lake that appears to be geographically contiguous with the area where the Fens now squat.  And the few travelers and traders who occasionally pass through Eltdown speak of rumors of haunted, ancient stone circles, menhirs, cromlechs and possibly even an entire city lurking somewhere in the fens.  There are no accurate reports of it, for nobody is believed to have seen it.  Exactly how the rumors were started, then, remains a mystery--or for sceptics, a matter of scorn.

The most erudite in matters of arcane and forbidden--indeed often heretical and highly illegal--knowledge, on the other hand, are more likely to be believers in the mysterious Fen-city, sometimes called Pnom itself (although that label is merely one of convenience; no true scholar believes that the city was actually ever called Pnom.)  The reason for this is the even more secretive and poorly known manuscript copies of Translations of the Eltdown Shards, which purport to be garbled translations of ancient tablets found in the environs near the Eltdown Fens.  This text is blasphemous in the extreme, and fewer texts are more noxious to the health and sanity of the human mind.  Possessing one is an instant sentence of death in any civilized land for both the possessor, and anyone else who might have seen the text while in his possession.  In some places, even knowing of the existance of the book, much less having ever seen a copy, is enough to earn a burning at the stake by the Inquisition.

But because of the notoriety of the Eltdown Shards amongst the small and eclectic community of scholars who study such arcane and forbidden knowledge, the locals of Eltdown have learned to accept that occasional strange and disquieting foreigners lurk about their lands, looking for something that should be left alone and forgotten.  Sometimes such foreigners are caned and sent on their way for their trouble, and sometimes even worse is done to them; they may be hanged or placed in a gibbet.  But mostly the locals know to leave such individuals alone, for far too often they turn out be witches or sorcerers of foul repute--or even worse.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What exactly do you mean by "dark fantasy" anyway?

I frequently call my setting one of "dark fantasy" but I think that might require further elaboration, since there's a trend to migrate to dark fantasy in general in the genre... but the end result is not always the same.  And if you look up dark fantasy at Wikipedia, or Google it elsewhere, or whatever, you can get a lot of different interpretations on what it means.

One trend that's pretty noticeable in modern fantasy has rather pejoratively been labelled "grimdark"--although lacking any other descriptive adjective that really fits, I think the pejorative is becoming the mainstream label for it.  Probably the most notable example that I've personally read of this kind of stuff is by Joe Abercrombie.  When I say that DARK•HERITAGE is dark fantasy, this is not what I mean.  I thought Abercrombie's novel Best Served Cold was just gratuitously nasty and edgy, long after being nasty or edgy had any meaning anymore.  It just kept on serving it up until I was sick of it.  Sex, violence, seedy betrayals, torture, incest, cannibalism--it had it all, and it was all luridly on display.

So, again, just to get that out there--that is not what I mean when I say dark fantasy.  But Joe Abercrombie didn't come from nowhere, and he hardly is responsible for starting the trend.  I look at pioneers like Glen Cook and see a tone that I like better.  Sure, it's got pretty rough anti-heroes doing pretty nasty things; but not really gratuitously, and usually "off camera" anyway.  I most especially like the notion of likeable scoundrels and rogues; folks who are more anti-heroic, yet charismatic and interesting to read about.  I also love the idea of anyone who uses magic being scary beyond all reason.  Something about the very nature of using magic is corrupting, unnatural, and just... inhuman.  I like that.  It's very Lovecraftian.

So there's not a lot of black and white good and evil in DARK•HERITAGE.  Lots of folks are bad.  Most folks that you'll encounter, maybe.  Most likely the protagonists and PCs will be more anti-heroic rather than traditionally heroic.  Think of it as a strong patina of noir over a sword and sorcery (rather than high fantasy) base.

A lot of so-called dark fantasy today is in modern-day paranormal " chicklit"--the successors, contemporaries and collegues to Laurell Hamilton and Stephanie Meyers.  Clearly DARK•HERITAGE doesn't fit that mold; I greatly enjoy the pleasure of constructing a "secondary world" fantasy setting, and I'm looking to emulate--to some extent--Westerns and swashbucklers with that, not the modern world.

But one thing I do have in common with that brand of dark fantasy is the focus on the paranormal that is more horror-like in approach rather than typically fantasy like.

In fact, I'd say that that's what I consider to be dark fantasy; the kind that I'm trying to emulate in my setting, at least.  It's sword & sorcery specifically (as opposed to high fantasy) with a thick coat of noir and horror laid on top of it as thematic elements and tone.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

On "fixing" d20 games

Although I'd long noticed that the price of used 3.5 books was not coming down on Amazon (and was in fact increasing) indicating robust demand, I'd never really thought much about the notion of who plays what and trying to gauge the relative sizes of the various fractured "camps" within the D&D playing world.  It wasn't really until recently that all of that crystalized in my head around the idea that their are basically four large camps which, while maybe not exactly equivalent in size, are certainly on the same order of magnitude.  This includes 1) the OSR, 2) folks who never left their d20 D&D games, 3) folks who migrated to Pathfinder as the spiritual successor to the D&D that they used to play, and 4) of course, folks who did migrate to 4e after all.  Because Pathfinder was positioned as the successor to 3.5, I figured that most folks who played in that same vein probably played Pathfinder rather than 3.5, and I presumed that my own hesitation with migrating to Pathfinder was merely my own inertia and conservatism in taste, as well as the fact that I'd spent a lot of time getting 3.5 to what I wanted it to be already and didn't need what were, in effect, Jason Buhlman's houserules on top of my own.  That isn't to say that I didn't buy a lot of Pathfinder product (in pdf, where it was relatively cheap) or adopt a few of it's better rules as houserules of my own, but again--my assumption was that there was the OSR, Pathfinder and 4e, and lingering d20/3e/3.5 players like me and my group were the exception.  I probably shouldn't have been surprised, given the sales of 3.5 books on Amazon, but I kinda was, and I hadn't really thought about the idea that maybe the group that's quietly been playing 3.5 (or even 3e) all along without migrating to either 4e or Pathfinder might have been a significant group; on the same order of magnitude as the other three.

So, in many ways, I've been a little reluctant to talk too much about the specific d20 nature of my games, assuming that that's not of interest to anyone.  Granted, it's not like I have a big and loyal following of readers anyway, and I'm mostly doing this blog for my own benefit not for anyone else's... but subconsciously, I felt like talking too much about a system that I assumed was obsolete was wasted effort.  Now that my admittedly somewhat speculative analysis leads me to the opinion that actually the d20-playing crowd is bigger than I thought (plus, it also encompasses Pathfinder players--although I suspect Pathfinder players are generally fairly committed to their system and aren't necessarily interested in "fixing" it) I feel more emboldened to talk about it more openly.  For occasions when I do so, I've created a new label, d20 which will be for posts in which the d20 system explicitly plays some kind of role in what I'm talking about.

All that said, "fixing" a game system, of course, is heavily dependent on what you think the problems are, and they are unlikely to be universally regarded.  I do tend to think that there are some problems I see with d20 that many players of d20 also see as a problem, but I believe that many other problems I have with d20--or at least specifically with the D&D iteration of it--are questions of taste and I may actually be in the minority with what I prefer.  By and large, what I prefer is a system that runs fairly fast and loose at the table, without bogging down in minutiae and tedium.  I do, however, really like a robust and detailed character generation method.  I like being able to give characters plenty of definition through the rules... but when we're actually playing the game I want it to fade more into the background and be easy and intuitive to run.

Much of this can be accomplished by merely remembering the "Tools, not rules" maxim that was present at the launch of 3e back in 1999 or 2000 or so.  If you believe that the GM adjudicating an attempted action by picking a skill that sounds relevent and making up a DC that sounds reasonable, for instance, then all that business in the skill description part of the rules becomes merely example and modeling of how it might be done rather than a straitjacket on how to play the game.  I've always run this way, so much of the "choking on rules" complaints I've heard about d20 over the years struck me as a bit odd and I'm not sure why otherwise reasonable people who played that way in other systems get hung up on that in d20 specifically, but it's worth stating explicitly again for emphasis--tools, not rules.  Use the tool that's appropriate for your game; when it's not appropriate, don't use it.  Just as you wouldn't use a circular saw to put a nail in a 2x4, you don't need all the detail that the game gives you if it's not something that's benefitting your game.  That should be intuitive, but... apparently it's not.

So, with that, I'll divide the remainder of my post into two blocks--generic system fixes, and fixes that cater to my specific taste.  Each block will first identify a problem, and then provide a solution.  For the most part, luckily for us, these solutions are already in print.  Folks have been tweaking d20 for quite a while now, so it only seems fair that actual designers and others will have come up with great solutions that I should look at first before attempting to reinvent the wheel.

Generic system fixes
Problem #1) High level D&D is too complicated and cumbersome.  The math doesn't work out very well or sensibly, it's too difficult to use, and it feels too different from D&D at lower level.  It's as if the entire genre of the game changes.

Solution: Use E6.  Avoid higher levels.  Even without E6, you can have campaigns that end before you get into higher levels.  E6 (or you can arbitrarily set it at E8, or any other fixed point you wish) allows for continuous play with the same characters, though, and avoids the problems with higher level D&D.

Problem #2) Base attack bonus increases with level, meaning that you're better at hitting things.  Armor class does not.  This means that unless you wear increasingly heavy armor, or have a high hit point total, you can't really be involved in melee very well.  The idea of the swashbuckling rogue is a nice one, but it doesn't actually work in the system. 

Solution: D&D itself patches this clumsily by assuming that you will have access to magical equipment that closes this gap. Every other d20 game--Wheel of Time, Star Wars, d20 Modern, etc. on the other hand, give you a level/class based AC progression.  In other words, you get harder to hit as you advance, just as you also get better at hitting.  There's also a rule in place for D&D for this in Unearthed Arcana, although it's not perfect.  Here, since it replaced armor proficiencies, the same classes that have heavy armor are better at avoiding getting hit.  Somehow this doesn't seem quite right; the swashbuckling rogue, for instance, isn't really  much better in this system than he is in D&D normally.  Ideally what would be done is that after looking at the d20 Modern or Wheel of Time or Star Wars game for inspiration, the progression would be manually assigned to each class as appropriate.  This just means doing a little bit of shuffling on who has which bonus, though.  And I freely admit that I might be biased in my opinion on who should have the better ones--because they're the classes that I most like the archetypes for.

Problem #3) Iterative attacks (i.e., once you have a BAB of +6, you get a second +1 attack as long as you make a full attack option) bog down combat.  They also have the (probably unintended, although you never know) side effect of making combat very static.  Since one of the major literary influences of the game is swashbuckling action stories, this somehow seems totally wrong.

Solution: In an E6 game, only characters with a full attack bonus will ever get to this point.  Instead of advancing to +6/+1, however, they'll advance to +6... and then get the ability to move both before and after making an attack, similar to the Spring Attack feat.  Unlike Spring Attack, however, you can make this move even in heavy armor--although, of course, your speed and therefore movement will be less.

Problem #4) Attacks of Opportunity create a major complication in combat, plus they force you to use the grid-based miniatures combat instead of narrative "just describe what happens" combat.

Solution: That problem isn't strictly speaking true, although I can see your point.  You can play narrative combat with attacks of opportunity as long as you do a good job describing stuff, and make sensible rulings about when AoOs (and feats related to AoOs or the avoidance of them) come up.  However, you'll just have to be careful to avoid playing with any overly rules-lawyerish or argumentative players.  Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, that's a requirement anyway, and is only coincidentally related to solving this particular problem.

Problem #5) Combat takes way too long, and long combats get boring.  Also,

Problem #6) Preparing for the session takes way too long.  Statting up all these NPCs is a ton of work, and takes forever.

Solution: Schrödinger's stats.  Do you really need to know all of those stats?  I submit that you do not.  And if you do not, your players will never know the difference anyway.  Don't be a slave to the stats.  I don't know how many combats I've run with NPCs or monsters who were never statted up at all.  Even in the midst of combat, I didn't know what any of their stats were.  I made up to hit and damage bonuses (and dice type) on the fly, and combat ended when I could tell that the players were ready to move on, or that the result was inevitable.  I.e., they didn't necesssarily have set hit points either; I have the ability to decide as the GM that any given hit took the combatant into negative hit points by "retroactively" adjusting wha tthe hit point total is.  This can be done even if there is no hit point total.  It takes a bit of a paradigm shift, and sometimes we think that doing this is "cheating".  It's not.  It's the GM's responsibility as the adjudicator of the game to make sure that it runs at optimum at all times.  And frankly, that doesn't  mean always following all of the rules as written by the letter.  Taking some kind of moral high ground because your game is more "correct" but less fun is a poor consolation prize.

Problem #7) There's too many skills.  Some of them seem to overlap, or otherwise make it difficult to split out.

Solution: Eliminate Move Silently.  Every Move Silently check can be done with the Hide skill.  Eliminate Listen.  Every Listen check can be done with the Spot skill.  Maybe even eliminate Gather Information and Bluff and simply use Diplomacy.  I'm a little less sold on that last one, though.

Problem #8) There's too many feats.  Lots of people don't think you can do something if you don't have the proper feat to do it.  Plus, feats are like little rules subsystems that don't operate the same way as the rest of the game (often) so it greatly increases complexity.

Solution: Yeah, there are a lot.  Don't use them all.  There's no reason you have to.  Plus, although there's a lot, for the most part, players need to worry about the feats that their characters have, and none others.  And you don't need to worry too much about it either.  Feeling paralyzed because you think you need a feat in order to do something unusual isn't a problem with the rules so much as it is a problem with the approach to the game.  You just have to... y'know... not play that way.

Problem #9) The 15 minute adventuring day.

Solution: Well, this is a problem partly caused by two problems.  1) The way magic works in D&D, which if you see below, I'll be changing, and 2) the way adventures are structured.  That's all on you as the GM, buddy.  If you have a problem with it, then do it differently.

Specific system fixes
Problem #1) I hate D&D magic.  It feels very mechanical, bland, highly focused on combat-utility applications, and plus there's way too much of it.  I haven't yet read a fantasy book with magic that felt like D&D magic... even D&D novels.

Solution: Luckily for you, there are a lot of alternate systems in print, much of which is Open Content.  I prefer Incantations, which are in Unearthed Arcana and Urban Arcana (and the SRD.)  Although it does require that the GM make a lot of spells, or create ritual costs associated with existing spells to adapt them as Incantations, which I admit is a minor drawback.  But there are plenty of other options too.  I've gotta have no less than half a dozen "magic systems" for d20 games, and only one or two of them was bought specifically because I was looking for other ways to do magic.

Problem #2) If you change the magic system, you've hardly got any classes left!  Almost every class had a spellcasting progression except Rogue, Fighter and Barbarian.  And monk too, I guess, but he had all kinds of weird supernatural abilities.

Solution: I have no idea how many alternate classes in OGC I have.  Scores.  Hundreds, probably.  Lots anyway.  It's certainly possible to give your players lots of options while still curtailing the overtly magical ones.  Another way to increase the effective number of character classes without adding more actual classes is to adapt archetypes from Pathfinder.  The archetypes work by, essentially, swapping out some class abilities with others that are more in keeping with a specific archetype.  Some archetypes are only extremely modest changes to the base class, but others make for some interesting changes that significantly change the feel of the game.  And the great thing is, they can mostly be adopted as is even into a 3.5 game that's not necessarily a Pathfinder game, although naturally keeping an eye open for some areas where they don't quite fit is important. 

For example, the Rogue class has a number of archetypes introduced in the Advanced Player Guide section of the PRD (the Pathfinder version of the SRD.)  These include the Acrobat, Burglar, Cutpurse, Investigator, Poisoner, Rake, Scout, Sniper, Spy, Swashbuckler, Thug, and Trapsmith.  It also introduces a ton of new Rogue Talents, which are alternate class abilities useable by any archetype.  Most of the archetypes really only change one or two class features, but then they also recommend Rogue Talents that complement the archetype.  It's somewhat subtle, but many of them get rid of a lot of problems players might have with playing a Rogue, when the Rogue isn't exactly what they want.  For many, the specifically Dungeoncrawling Trapfinding and Trapsense abilities are the ones that get sacrificed to give you something more flavorful.  The Ultimate Combat section of the PRD gives us a bunch more archetypes, at least for non-magical classes. 

Problem #3) How is it possible that there aren't any rules for running chase scenes in D&D?  Isn't that pretty much one of the main, staple action sequences from any cool adventure story?

Solution: No kidding, right?  What a major miss.  Luckily, a few folks have stepped into the breach to offer us alternatives.  I think the simplest and most native d20-feeling chase seqence ruleset I know is from Five Fingers and is written by Wolfgang Baur (I actually think it might have been lifted from some other source--such is the way open content works, after all.)  I've actually posted them, in simplified form, here on the blog myself.

Problem #4) d20 doesn't have Madness, or whatever other rule that I really like from some other game.

Solution: So add it in.  I prefer the Madness option from The D20 Freeport Companion, but there are other options out there in print, including one in the SRD which is the same as that in Call of Cthulhu--almost word for word.

Problem #5) D&D--and to a lesser extent, d20 games (and any RPGs for that matter) don't offer much support for structures other than dungeoneering.  I don't like dungeoneering.

Solution: I don't either.  But, as was done back in Ye Olde Days of the Hobbie, we just had to make it up ourselves.  It's a shame that there aren't great products out there that support something other than dungeoncrawling, but there aren't really much.  Luckily, the system is flexible enough that you can do other things easily enough with it and it still works, so... well, do your best.  But you're kinda on your own.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Blood of Angels and Magnimar, City of Monuments

I finished the last two Paizo books that were part of my Amazon order, the slimmer Blood of Angels, a kind of aasimar counterpart to the Blood of Fiends book I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, and Magnimar, City of Monuments, a sourcebook on the city of the same name that has appeared in numerous adventure paths to date.

These will be shortish reviews; after reading and reviewing several Paizo books in a row, I'm starting to feel like my reviews of them are getting repetitive.  So rather than repeat them, I've lumped the two together, and will not give too many details about each.

Blood of Angels follows much of the same format as Blood of Fiends, and as such is the "definitive" guide to playing aasimars.  It gives a number of alternate and modified ways to construct the race; you can swap out physical descriptions with a d% with physical quirks based on your celestial blood, it has a similarly long chart that gives alternate racial abilities, and it also offers more focused aasimar types which are more closely tied to a specific type of celestial.  As with the other book, the last several pages are pretty specific to their ruleset, and don't work quite as well if you're still playing 3.5, or whatever.  But much of the content will be as useful as Blood of Fiends was, and for the same reason.

In terms of the fluffy stuff, some of it feels kinda obvious, although the book makes an interesting point that aasimars can grow up burdened by expectation, and feel very alone regardless of any other factor in their life.  One thing that occured to me is that how is it that people know a person is an aasimar?  Depending on the physical features such a character develops, it doesn't necessarily resemble an angel exactly; and frankly, with some of those features, why are they not assumed to be tieflings, even?  And at the beginning when it discusses the genesis of aasimar bloodlines, it came with the same kind of feel--I couldn't help but ask how any of this was "good"?  How is it that angels are acting this callously towards mortals, and how is this any better than what fiends supposedly do?  This is where I found the book to be surprisingly inspirational to someone like me who ignores alignment and specifically cultivates a dark fantasy vibe to my homebrew gaming.  First off, what really is the difference between a celestial and a fiend, other than alignment?  There are a number of different fiendish types already, depending on your choice of source material, as well as a number of different types of celestials.  Each "type" has a suite of special abilities.  A number of other outsiders exist with similar suites of abilities--but they are neither fiends nor celestials.  The differences between them start to grow very esoteric and fluffy after a while, though.  Why aren't creatures like efreet or slaads fiends?  What if celestials aren't necessarily any more "good" than fiends, because in a dark fantasy milieu, what is good and evil?  Is the only difference between celestials and fiends who is prettier and has better PR?

If you've ever read Scar Night, you might think that actually that's a pretty compelling scenario.  And even if you don't, the notion of fallen angels is, of course, heavily ingrained in our collective mythological lexicon.  And the notion of pitching aasimar as nephilim appeals to me greatly.  So much so that I might even officially make it a possibility for DARK•HERITAGE.  And when a book makes me consider adding a new, potentially significant element to my setting because it's got something that I like, well, I call that a success.

Magnimar was more overtly successful in that I can more easily see myself using it as is without having to get there through proxies and by making changes to setting assumptions.  Magnimar is a city in the "frontier region" of Golarion, the big Varisian area, which is similar in some respects to the "points of light" setting of 4e, although coincidentally, I'm sure (for one thing, it predates it by at least a little bit, or at best they were coming out at more or less the same time.)  This PoL setting has scattered villages, roving barbarians, and then basically three or four significant population centers.  One of them is a pirate port, one of them is a weird, bohemian crazy place, one of them is a little Chelaxian wannabe, and then there's Magnimar... maybe a glimpse at what Cheliax might have been before the diabolist House of Thrune took over.  In this sense, it's an interesting addition to the setting.

It's also a fairly typical D&Dish place.  It's relatively ordered, and can therefore be a relatively safe "home base" for PCs to strike out from in search of adventure, but it's also got a fair bit of adventuring possibilities right there within city limits, from dealing with cults, shapechangers, corrupt nobles, organized crime, and (yawn!) the ubiquitous "dungeon ruins within the city."  It's a little bit less of a "wretched hive of scum and villainy" and more a place that's hoping to do the right thing, but teetering on the edge of going the wrong way.  If, of course, the PCs aren't there to nudge things along.  To be honest with you, my reading of Magnimar left me a little less impressed than I hoped to be, and even while I was reading it, I was thinking back to passages and places in other books like Freeport or Five Fingers, where I liked what they did better.

One interesting little mechanical addition to the rules was the notion of performing some kind of ritual in front of a monument to get a temporary benefit.  This seemed very similar to the notion of shrines and whatnot in Five Fingers, and I'm pretty sure that the Paizo folks must have gotten the idea there.

After describing the various locations around the city, there were a few pages of plots and secrets and stuff going on around town, and then there are a number of pages of bestiary.  There are only a couple of actual new monsters, though, and quite a few sample NPC stats.  As with Isles of the Shackles which I just reviewed, I'm a little skeptical that this is a good use of pagecount, and if this becomes the modus operandi of Pathfinder setting books, I'm going to knock them down a notch or two in estimation from where they used to be.


But despite that seemingly negative approach, I thought the book was well done, and I think Magnimar is a great resource for anyone running a Golarion game, or even a regular D&D game in another setting.  It's especially nice if you're going to run one of the adventure paths that spend a significant amount of time in the city, like Rise of the Runelords or Shattered Star.

D is for House Dracul

Infamously, Tarush Noptii is openly ruled by vampires.  The quick version of their history is that some... thing fell out of sky thousands of years ago.  Several heroic generals and their armies went to investigate.  They were all slaughtered.  The generals themselves were somehow corrupted by what they found, and became the Primogenitor vampires--twenty of the most loathsome creatures in existance.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves; P is for Primogenitors, and today's blog entry is only D.  For now, the important thing to know is that there are eight houses of vampires which are "descendents" of one of the primogenitors.  Not all of the primogenitors spawned houses, and not all of the houses which used to exist still do.  But one of the most notorious and traditionally most politically powerful of these houses has always been House Dracul.  Aristocratic, arrogant, and somewhat social by nature, the vampires of House Dracul tend to deliver the classic image of a vampire to a game of DARK•HERITAGE as sexy, monstrous, and clannish.  They match the classic archetype of Dracula himself (as the name implies) and are also similar to other gaming vampire clans as Warhammer's Von Carstein, and in Vampire: the Masquerade, they'd find their closest analogs amongst the Ventrue and the Giovanni.

Although they are, of course, somewhat secretive and keep their power close to the vest in their incessant power struggles with other Houses, it is believed that there are upwards of 200 vampires in the entire kingdom who owe some kind of allegiance of fealty to House Dracul, making them by far the largest of the houses, if true.  Because of this, House Dracul is often forced to "go it alone" as their rivals tend to form alliances against them.  Few prefer to deal with Dracul, since Dracul treats them constantly as if they approach them from a position of strength.

In addition to the vampires, House Dracul has an army of about 5,000 Untouchables, mortals who have pledged their service to the house in return for protection from vampiric predation for them and their families.  These Untouchables are apread throughout the kingdom of Tarush Noptii and wear distinctive uniforms (and travel in platoons.)  Because of their priviledged position, they are usually given a wide berth by the common people, who have a number of myths and rumors about what they are up to.  It is widely believed that the Untouchables harvest non-Untouchable Tarushans for feeding.  This is actually mostly false; the vampires of House Dracul all insist on hunting their victims themselves as much as possible, and only extreme circumstances of some kind or another will have a vampire "fed" by a captive brought to them by someone else.

In addition to their activities within Tarush Noptii itself, House Dracul is the "face" of Tarush Noptii to the outside world, and Tarushan embassies and official contacts between Tarush Noptii and others nations are almost always staffed by Draculans, often including one or possibly two vampires, a bodyguard of a score Untouchables, and possibly some other soldiers or mercenaries or other valuable workers of some kind.  These expatriate Tarushans still serve the house loyally, but are also more pragmatic and more likely to enter into alliances with indivuals from other Houses if they happen to come across them, seeing themselves as not just representatives of House Dracul but also the entirety of Tarush Noptii as a whole.

This outward looking attitude has greatly increased the coffers of House Dracul relative to many of the other houses, even further increasing their strength and influence.  In addition to the Untouchables, several thousands--numbers that are unknown to anyone other than the Dracul elders--of mercenaries serve their wishes within Tarush Noptii as well.  In all things, House Dracul seeks to expand its own influence and blunt the influence of other houses.  In response to the success of the house in opening embassies, some of the other houses have started opening communications with power groups outside of the nation of Tarush Noptii, but given the headstart and other natural advantages that House Dracul has, nobody has yet managed to parlay that into the kinds of benefits that House Dracul takes for granted.

In a d20 environment, I prefer to represent House Dracul with the eldritch template from Monsternomicon rather than the vampire template from the Monster Manual.  Remove any reference or requirement related to being elfish (since of course there are no elfs in DARK•HERITAGE) and it works great as a less limited version of a vampire; one who is not unduly hampered by the sun--although they still prefer to avoid it whenever possible.

Friday, August 17, 2012

New WotC announcement

Well, in the wake of the ongoing GenCon and other things, a lot of news is coming out of WotC about stuff happening in the next little bit.  One of them is that, as of September 18th, the 3.5 core books are going to be reprinted with new cover art in a premium format--which I think just means that they'll be really expensive like the 1e reprints where, and otherwise be very similar to what they would have been in an "original" format.  This is curious, and has sparked more than a few debates.  I've even been a little bit involved in one such.  Hence my lack of an update to my A to Z series.  Sorry, folks!  D for House Dracul is coming soon, I promise!

So, here's the sitch, along with some commentary by me.  1e reprints have been out for... what, a couple of months now?  3.5 reprints will be out within about a month.  5e, or DnD Next, or whatever they're calling it, is about two years away is what official scuttlebutt is saying.  4e continues to be out, but with 5e prominantly announced, will probably have reduced sales on its titles as folks hunker down in anticipation of switching over.  This means that, other than 2e which was already quite close to 1e in terms of core books at least anyway, every edition of AD&D or its successors ever published will be in print at the same time!   In addition to this, most of the other stuff that's not in print will still be available via PDF again.  Why in the world would WotC do this?

Here's where I meander into pure speculation and make crap up.  But allow me to iterate some assumptions, and you can tell me how wrong I am afterwards...

  • First, WotC has an imperative to generate revenue to pay for development of DnD Next.  I think the reprints do a nice job of creating a probably reasonably high margin revenue stream in the meantime while 4e sales will (presumably) be lower than they would be because of the impending new edition.  It's a nice move for the fans, it's a nice move towards "healing" the fractured player base somewhat, generates some customer goodwill, and hey, brings in some money at the same time.  Win/win for customers and WotC both.
  • Second, lots of people theorize based on some sketchy and circumstantial data that Pathfinder might actually be outselling D&D these days.  If it isn't, it's at least got to be making a noticeable bite out of their market share.
  • Third, on Amazon, the used market for out of print 3.5 edition books has prices still as high or higher than new for many, if not most books.  Even in mediocre condition, in some cases.  This suggests, although it certainly doesn't prove, that there's still a robust demand for 3.5 edition books.  Which in turn suggests that many groups are quietly still going about their business playing 3.5.  Maybe even in really pretty big numbers.  Maybe, and this is where I get really speculative, in numbers rivaling that of groups playing Pathfinder or 4e.  
  • This in turn means that the D&D market is more or less fractured into four significant chunks, the OSR guys, the 3.5 guys, the Pathfinder guys, and the 4e guys.  I hesitate to say that they're roughly equivalent in size, but I bet they're at least on the same order of magnitude.  By reprinting the 1e core books and the 3.5 core books, WotC are making a direct warning shot against two of the three non-4e market segments that they are interested in getting their attention again.  I don't know how they directly address the Pathfinder guys, but then again, Pathfinder was supposed to be an iterative improvement on 3.5.  A 3.75, if you will.  
  • Speaking of which, what's the relationship between lingering 3.5 groups and Pathfinder groups and whatnot anyway?  Here, I hesitate to even speculate on the market at large, but I can at least offer my perspective.  Keep in mind that I rather reluctantly migrated from 3e to 3.5 in the first place.  In fact, because of the SRD being freely available, I never even bought the 3.5 core books (although I did buy the Monster Manual--that one I at least thought would be more convenient to have in book format rather than as a webpage.)  I don't think that 3.5 as a core ruleset necessarily improved on 3e.  For everything it fixed, there was something else that it broke and half a dozen other things that changed just for the sake of change, being neither better nor worse, but sadly being different, meaning that it became difficult to remember exactly how it was supposed to work properly (although to be fair, I remember this being an issue back in the day when people migrated freely and openly from the B/X or RC line into AD&D and back.)  With Pathfinder, the situation was very much the same, although because of the way in which it was done, Paizo managed to generate a fair bit of customer goodwill rather than cynicism with the move.  But from a purely systemic standpoint, it's not at clear to me (or to a number of other players I've spoken to) that Pathfinder is actually an improvement in 3.5.  Sure, some things are better--archetypes are great, for instance, and the skill list consolidation was a good thing.  CMB/CMD was a nice clean-up of a perennially ugly part of the mechanics.  But they did absolutely nothing to address what seem to be the two most common complaints about 3.5--that it breaks down at higher level, and that it's too complex and fiddly.  In fact, in the latter case, it gets qualitatively worse.  Their solution the first problem seems to have been elegant yet also pretty dubious; in their flagship product, the Adventure Paths, they simply started having them end earlier instead of going all the way up to 20th level.  And plenty of other things are just different for the sake of being different again.  Long and short of it, it's not really clear that it's universally accepted that Pathfinder is an improvement on 3.5.  I'm certainly not sure that I think so, and I don't think that I'm alone.
  • All of this means that there is circumstantial evidence of WotC acting somewhat strategically, without being arrogant or tone-deaf either one, in terms of trying to woo some of the big blocks of "lapsed" players; by which I mean players who don't buy anything from them because they don't play the current edition of the rules.  No matter what else you might think of WotC or DnD Next either one, that's still a pretty good thing, right?

My hombrew races discussion

I made an off-hand comment in a messageboard discussion about race demographics that I'd removed most of the iconic D&D races from my homebrew, and the thread-starter asked why I had done that and what had motivated me to remove what he considered to be among the most popular D&D races.  I got a little long-winded in my reply, and since I thought it was germaine and along the same lines as the kinds of posts I make on my blog anyway, I'd reproduce my answer here.  Enjoy.  Or not.  Read it anyway! 

Hah! I thought my proclamation of a somewhat radical taste had killed the thread! Nice to see that there's at least a little life left.

First off, I'd argue that of those four, only two are popular: elves and dwarves. Gnomes and halflings get relatively little love, and gnomes in particular only play to either players with esoteric tastes, or characters of an esoteric nature. Reading between the lines, it seemed apparent to me that WotC agreed with me at the launch of 4e, since the gnome was not a player character option at first.

But far and away the most popular character type, in my own personal experience and in polls that I've read here and elsewhere--at least since the launch of 3e, if not before--is human. Not only that, except for Lord of the Rings (and books that are to a greater or lesser degree a pastiche of Lord of the Rings--stuff by Fiest or McKiernan, for instance) and D&D or Warhammer fiction, the assumption of elves and dwarves is not normal in fantasy fiction. Especially the kind that I read, which more and more is drifting into non-traditional molds. In other words, the elfs, dwarfs, gnomes and halflings of D&D are something that really is specific and unique to D&D and have little or no analog between the covers of the very same fantasy literature that inspired the game--excepting Tolkien, of course.

Now, granted--D&D isn't necessarily supposed to emulate fantasy fiction, and some folks would say that that's not the point, and that's not a problem. But for me, and I suspect a number of other gamers who came into the hobby through the same vector as me, the whole point of playing D&D, the whole reason that it was an attractive idea as a hobby in the first place, was because of our love of fantasy literature. What made the game sound like fun was being able to be involved more intimately in an experience that was not unlike a collaborative and semi-improvisational fantasy literature experience. As such, many of the disconnects between D&D and fantasy literature (speaking of the genre generically, of course, since obviously there's a lot of variety in setting, tone and feel amongst fantasy literature) got to be more and more grating and frustrating over time. In my case, it led to me leaving D&D entirely in the late-middle 80s over "creative differences" and I played some other games for a while before getting too busy to really game at all. Sometime in the mid-90s, I started poking my head back in the hobby again, checking out what was on the shelves at stores, and stuff like that. Around this time, White Wolf was at their heyday, and for a little while, I was captivated by the high concept of those games. That didn't last all that long, but it did manage to bring me back into the fold as a gamer, at least.

When 3e was released, I was ready to embrace more traditional fantasy again, and since the game was flexible enough to allow me to play the games I wanted to, I became specifically a D&D player again, and an enthusiastic one at that. But before long, the same issues that I had before started to grate against me again, and I felt more and more like D&D was a subgenre of fantasy unto itself that bore little relationship to anything else in the genre that wasn't specifically D&D already. So, again, I started casting my eyes about at what else was going on.

This time around, I had come to peace with the rules, at least--for the most part--and part of that was the flexibility inherent in all the various modular subsystems that were developed for other d20 games, or in Unearthed Arcana or by third parties who had developed new magic, new races, new classes, etc. So rather than ditch D&D for some other game--like Savage Worlds, for instance, which I suspect would be right up my alley if I ever got into it--I just houseruled the game more to my liking.

In the case of the races specifically, I came to associate them quite strongly with the D&D paradigm which I was rejecting. Luckily for me, I probably have literally hundreds of other racial options in print from one source or another, so I was able to give potential players in my campaign other options. Curiously, I ended up literally homebrewing most of my races myself rather than using ones in print, although there are some obvious similarities between some of mine and some that are more familiar. So for my setting, I have:

  • Humans. Still the baseline, as in D&D.
  • Azhar from the d20 Freeport setting. Conceptually, they are not far removed from an LA+0 fire genasi, though. I call mine jann, re-imagined them visually (based with Red Men from Barsoom, actually, with a bit more "fiery" details) but use them mechanically as is.
  • Another race that takes the azhar and gives it a more darkness/shadow twist rather than fire twist, but otherwise is built off the same mechanical "chassis." Visually, I imagined these guys as a hybrid between Nightcrawler of the X-men and Darth Maul. They have some obvious similarities to tieflings, so I even adopted a kinda sorta Bael Turath analog for their backstory too.
  • Changelings are a custom-mechanics race, based loosely on the half-orc, but given a more wildman approach. Although I frequently say that they're based on the wildman/wose archetype from medieval heraldry, art and folklore, in reality they're probably more based on the shifters from Eberron and the tharn from Iron Kingdoms than anything else.
  • Neanderthals from Frostburn are adopted pretty much exactly as is. Plus, everyone knows what a Neanderthal is, right?
  • Although I've since decided that this is just another human culture after all, I also had a goblinoid empire, and made hobgoblins and goblins specifically PC choices in an earlier iteration of my setting. I kept everything except the mechanics--like I said, it's now just a somewhat exotic human culture rather than humanoid. I do maintain gnolls amongst this group, but rather than a separate race, it's a magical transformation that individuals can undergo to become elite shocktroops of this race's harsh and militaristic state religion.
  • Not really a PC option, but vampires play a significant role in my setting too.
Other than that, I've also done away with most of the monstrous humanoids in my setting. Quite frankly, D&D has way too many. It's nice to have them as buffet options when you want them, but to consider that all of those races are really going to be in any given campaign is unbelievable and unworkable.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Isles of the Shackles

I just finished Isles of the Shackles, the last of the four Paizo setting books that came with my aforementioned shipment of Paizo books on order from Amazon.  And just in time!  If the package tracker on Amazon is to be believed, the other two books that were on pre-order arrived in town earlier this morning, and should be waiting for me at home when I get there later today.  And although I have to do some Cub Scouts work, and I promised my wife that I'd clean the bathrooms while she folds laundry after that, I hope to still have time to flip through the two new books and maybe start reading the shorter of them, Blood of Angels--aasimar-themed counterpart to the Blood of Fiends which I recently read and reviewed.

I put off reading Shackles for a while, in part because I actually expected it to be my favorite of the current crop, and wanted to end that run "on a bang."  As it turns out, Distant Worlds probably will end up having been my favorite of the four that I got in that shipment, and Shackles which, while still interesting, somehow managed to be a bit less than I would have hoped.

It starts off almost without any preamble whatsoever as a gazeteer of the islands.  This section takes up probably close to 2/3s of the pagecount, with most islands/areas making up a single page.  This is kinda nice, and offers a nice collection of ideas.  Many of them are oddly disparate--here we have the little tropical Japan, here we have the little tropical Byzantium city, here we have the island with dinosaurs, here's the undead island, here's the dragon island, etc.  This gives the region, unlike most of the other regional books from Paizo, a strange patchwork feeling, and there's little context to unite them or give them any kind of cohesion other than geographical proximity and that you need to reach them by ship.  Several of them are--surprisingly--not even necessarily all that piratical feeling.  This section, being the meat of the book, was a bit disappointing to me relative to other Paizo regional detailed books.  That's not to say that it's bad, exactly.  There are a lot of ideas here, many of them reasonably good.  However, since I've touched briefly on crowd-sourced similarly themed projects before (check this out, for instance) I found it less impressive than I hoped it would be.

And the remainder of the book was mostly a list of opponents, including some rather esoteric new sea-going monsters, and some statted generic NPCs that might be common in the region.  I don't recall ever seeing that latter in any Paizo book before.  While it might be a convenient shorthand, it also seems a bit unnecessary, and probably mostly just padded the pagecount.  Do I really need stats for a generic pirate captain (fighter 5/rogue 1), several officers and crewmembers, a pirate sorcerer, pirate undead (which, again, use standard Bestiary undead templates and are applied to classes and equipment lists that maybe feel more piratey than some other alternatives... maybe.)

So... this isn't exactly a negative review, however, I do admit that I had high hopes for this book in particular and found that it didn't completely meet them after all.  I also have high hopes for the book that should be sitting in my "inbox" at home when I get there, which is a city-book dedicated to Magnimar.  Magnimar is a city that is not unfamiliar to Paizonians, having been part of the setting for the Rise of the Runelords campaign.  Within some of those volumes, it got a fairly decent treating already.  I like city books in particular, and am always keen to pick them up by people who do them well (and I think that is one of Paizo's particular strengths--they haven't yet done a city-book that I didn't like).  So I have high hopes, but... I'm also concerned that it will feel like deja vu; rehashing a lot of info that was already present in the RotR books, and adding relatively little to it.

20 Questions

Some of my friends have been posting the Jeff Rients "20 Questions" questionaire on their blogs.  I was initially reluctant, because the questions are so geared towards D&D specifically and I thought some of them were kinda banal, but finally after reading, I dunno, half a dozen or so, I figgered I'd take the plunge anyway.

1.What is the deal with my cleric's religion? You don't play a cleric.  If you want to play a cleric in a generic sense, i.e. a member of some clergy, I guess you can do that, but you're not a D&D specific "divine caster" archetype.  The DARK•HERITAGE setting has some basic religious info on the campaign brief already, but basically organized religion is a small part of most people's lives, and people tend to be superstitious rather than religious.  There are plenty of mystery cults and whatnot, but exactly how that works is probably up to you. 

2.Where can we go to buy standard equipment? Almost anywhere.  That's why it's called standard.

3.Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended? There's plate and then there's mail.  Platemail?  Huh?  Also, you won't be befriending any monsters.

4.Who is the mightiest wizard in the land? Nobody owns up to being a wizard.  They'd be lynched or burned at the stake, or otherwise killed with extreme prejudice and extreme superstitioius precautions. 

5.Who is the greatest warrior in the land? Don't know.  You've been living in a period of protracted yet uneasy peacetime.  There really aren't any ongoing wars, therefore, no warriors famous for their current exploits.

6.Who is the richest person in the land? Probably the Caliph of Qizmir.  Or the King of Terrasa.  Or the khagan of Kurushat.

7.Where can we go to get some magical healing? Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!  Oh, you're serious?  Well, you can't.

8.Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath? I'm sorry, I'm trying not to laugh.  Go see a doctor and hope for the best, I suppose!

9.Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells? No! If there were such a thing, it'd be so paranoid, evil, and xenophobic that there's no way you could join it anyway.  Do you mean is there some kind of organization from whom you could steal more spells?  Possibly.  Holy cow, but you're a reckless one!

10.Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC? Urban areas.  Most cities are full of expert NPCs of all kinds of stripes.

11.Where can I hire mercenaries? Again, urban areas.  Especially cosmopolitan ones where people are coming and going.  Caravan towns or port cities, or whatnot.  Also, border regions. 

12.Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law? Magic is outlawed everywhere.  Weapons are, mostly, acceptable everywhere.

13.Which way to the nearest tavern? Thataway three blocks.  (Huh?  Weird question.)

14.What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous? Dude, this isn't D&D.  Monsters don't run around terrorizing the countryside, and adventurers don't run around killing terrorizing monsters.  I guess if you want to style yourself some kind of monster hunter, Porto Liure's a good place to start.  It's famous for being haunted by all kinds of things.

15.Are there any wars brewing I could go fight? There are rumors of wars in the far northwest.  There are also worries of invasions in the Black Mountains near Kurushat, and in Baix Pallars.  And, of course, the Terrasan empire is creaking under strains, possibly to fall apart in civil war and seccession.  But you'd have to be some kind of instigator to get the war kickstarted before you could fight in it.

16.How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes? Lots of that in Sarabasca.  Some of that in Porto Liure.  A bit elsewhere too, but those are the best ones to enter voluntarily and get cash prizes for victory.

17.Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight? Are you kidding?  They're all over the place.  You'll probably be introduced to three of them in the first session or two.

18.What is there to eat around here? Seriously? 

19.Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for? If you have time, I'll be sure to throw some rumors your way.

20.Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure? In that other guy's D&D campaign.

Monday, August 13, 2012

C is for Cannibal Island

For to the east and north lies a large body of land called Cannibal Island.  It isn't far from the mainland, although it is far from any "civilized" location recognized by citizens of the land of the Three Empires.  Qizmiri sailors exploring the northland have occasionally stumbled across it, as well as curious and foolhardy explorers from Baal Hamazi.  Because it is buffered from the land of the Three Empires by other locations that are collectively known as the "Forbidden Lands", however, little traffic goes to the island.  It is known as a rumor and a byword amongst travelers and those who like strange tales, as well as in esoteric circles where forbidden, heretical and illegal knowledge is sought.  And, perhaps surprisingly, there are more inhabitants of the Cannibal Island who come to the land of the Three Empires than vice-versa.

Cyclopean architecture on Cannibal Island
At about a quarter milion square miles, Cannibal Island is a significant landform, almost the size of Madagascar.  Much of it is covered in tropical jungles, but it also has significant areas of high elevation that are cool and foggy.  Cities, ziggurats, temples and villages dot the area, and it boasts a significant population of decentralized yet architecturally and technologically fairly advanced people of unknown original extraction.  Yet these people are cursed, in ways both overt and subtle.

People from the Cannibal Island are visually very easy to spot.  Of course, few in the land of the Three Empires know what they look like, so they are instead considered to be merely albinos, or non-hamazi hellkin, or simply pale-skinned people of some other race when they are seen.  Many of them are careful to avoid showing their faces, and thus their features are not obvious even when one has been met.  Their skin-tone is a chalky pale gray or almost white, a most unnatural color for most humans.  There is no trace of pink or flesh-coloring, as one would expect in a true albino.  Hair can be either silvery white or jet black; only turning something else artificially, or perhaps going iron gray with age.  Their eyes are also extremely pale--beyond the lightest gray eyes normally seen amongst the balshatoi or other northerner races, verging on completely colorless.  The pigmented cells of the iris look like finely etched silver lines on a white background against the whites of the eyes--again, not a feature associated at all with true albinos.  Many Islanders also feature dark tattoos on their face, giving them stylized skull-like visages.  Those who leave the Cannibal Island are often assassins for hire, or cultists making pilgrimages to the strange and fell spirits whom they worship.

As the name of the island suggests, the inhabitants of Cannibal Island are, in fact, cannibals.  Normally they raid each other for "long pork" since they have few visitors and few outsiders live within easy striking distance of their island, but some of them do indeed travel farther afield in search of their ghoulish repast.  There are even rumors of an entire pirate ship crewed by Cannibal Island natives, who's search for treasure to loot is less important to them in search of captives to add to their larder.

Feral cannibal
As a matter of fact, the corrupted and fell environment of the Forbidden Lands has caused the inhabitants of the Cannibal Island to become cursed, and their cannibalism is a direct result of that curse.  If an Islanders does not indulge in an anthropophagic repast, over time his body will become corrupt, his mind will wither, and he will devolve into a savage beast.  Twisting painfully, his body will become emaciated, yet hard and strong as iron, his teeth will grow and develop points, his eyes will become sunken and sharp.  His mind and behavior will become feral and uncontrollable.

In d20 game terms, this curse can be treated as a magically induced disease (similar to Mummy rot) with a save DC of 15.  Every month that human flesh is not consumed (incubation period 1 month), the targeted character's Intelligence drops by 1 if they cannot make the saving throw.  If the targeted creature's intelligence drops to 0, the character becomes a ghoul.  It is impossible to treat this malady except magically--restoration or lesser restoration can restore lost ability points.  To eliminate the curse completely, the curse must first be broken with break enchantment or remove curse (requiring a DC 20 caster level check for either spell), after which a caster level check is no longer necessary to cast healing spells on the victim, and the disease can be magically cured as any normal disease.

Keep in mind that in the DARK•HERITAGE campaign setting, however, which does not have "regular" spellcasting classes, access to these spells is much more limited than in D&D, and may not be available at all.  For this reason, inhabitants of the Cannibal Island who come to other lands or regions almost always turn to the hunting and eating of other people.  It is not necessary that a new victim be hunted each month--a person can provide enough meat for several months assuming that the meat can be properly preserved somehow.  They either prefer rural areas where missing victims are unlikely to be missed for some time, or seedy urban areas where missing victims are, again, unlikely to be missed due to the activities of criminal gangs, or other reasons that would cause the poor, destitute or disenfranchized to be unmissed and unwanted.  There is a thriving albeit small population of cannibals living in the slums of Porto Liure, for example, and they even operate semi-openly in Sarabasca.

DARK•HERITAGE Soundtrack

I've mentioned this before, but I like to revisit it again from time to time.  I like music.  Lots of different kinds of music, actually.  Because I play(ed) two different instruments (piano and trombone) I came to appreciate music as music, that is, I came to appreciate music that I otherwise might not of because it's doing things artistically and musically that I can understand and appreciate.  I like a lot of 80s music (because I was a kid and teenager during the 80s.  That's not surprising.)  I like a lot of electronic music, especially synthpop and futurepop.  Also, that reminds me of a lot of my favorite 80s music, and I like it no doubt for many of the same reasons.  I like some modern pop music.  I like some few "New Age" artists, although again--it was my appreciation for Enya and her heyday in the late 80s and early 90s with hits like "Orinoco Flow" or "Book of Days" for instance, which made me aware of the genre.

And I've always been a fan of classical music.  By classical, I really mean the "Romantic" era stuff--Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Wagner, Liszt, Dvorzak, later Beethoven, Mahler, etc.  That kind of stuff.  And, I've been a fan of good musical movie music scores.  Of course, given my age, I barely remember a time before John Williams and the Star Wars score, which really changed movie music forever.  In fact, I still consider the Star Wars music amongst my favorite music of all time.  I bought the two-disc (each) Special Edition soundtracks when they were released years ago.  Great investment.

In fact, I got a bit carried away picking up movie soundtracks a few years ago, and while I'm arguably still carried away, I don't buy as much as I used to.  Movie soundtracks are, I've also found, great to play in the background while gaming, or while working on gaming, or while writing, or while developing, or whatever.  Most movie soundtracks are scored specifically so that they can emulate a tone and theme.  Sure, moods may change within the course of a movie, but picking a movie that has the same kind of "feel" as you want your gaming to represent, and then playing the music for that movie in the background, is a great way to make sure that your game has the right feel too.

DARK•HERITAGE, being a setting that has pluralistic influences, naturally needs a pluralistic soundtrack, and no single movie or series of movies even, can hope to give me everything I want in terms of tone, feel and theme.  But I have taken several stabs at creating the "ideal" soundtrack for DARK•HERITAGE.  For various reasons, I've decided that I will only accept as much music as I can burn on a single CD-R (as mp3s), so depending on file size and quality, I can get between 7-12 or so soundtracks on it.  Ten is usually the target I'm aiming for, but if there's still room, I'll add some more.  CD-Rs are very convenient for me because they are easily portable, really cheap (so I can redo them if I feel like it later), I can play them in a variety of devices, and because of their constant size (700 Mbs) it keeps me from getting carried away and adding more than I need.  Plus, I can play it in my car, in my DVD player, in my stereo, and on my PC.  While I can mostly do that with my mp3 player too, it's not as convenient as just throwing a CD-R in.  It's the perfect solution for me.

Because I'm always picking up new soundtracks, I find from time to time that I need to adjust my DARK•HERITAGE soundtrack--or if I don't need to, I want to because some new soundtrack fits so perfectly with what I want my game to "feel" like.  So although I haven't yet burned a CD-R with this new listing, here's what I'm thinking of doing for the "new" DARK•HERITAGE soundtrack, when I make my new CD for it.  For now, it's eleven soundtracks long, but with some judicious editing of tracks, I can probably fit some more stuff in too. 
  1. Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End
  2. Pirates of the Carribean 4: On Stranger Tides
  3. The Wolfman
  4. Sherlock Holmes
  5. Sherlock Holmes 2: Game of Shadows
  6. Red Dead Redemption
  7. The Mummy
  8. Prince of Persia
  9. Batman Begins
  10. The Dark Knight
  11. The Woman in Black
Stuff to add?  I also have some tracks from Pirates 2 that I'd like to fit in.  I have the new Dark Knight Rises soundtrack, but I don't know if well enough to know if I feel like I need to add any tracks from it, or if the earlier two already cover that territory.  Signs has some nice creepy songs that I'd like to add, as well as Bram Stoker's Dracula.  And there's a few tracks from Stargate, Cowboys & Aliens, and maybe Predators that I think would make a great addition.  A main track or two from The Godfather would be brilliant.  But any and all of those additions are subject to space limitations--like I said, I could get really carried away and easily double or even triple the amount of music that I accept, but if I do that, then I lose my focus and defeat the purpose of trying to limit it in the first place.  No, I want to make sure I can keep it to a single CD-R in length.

If you look at the list, you'll notice a few themes that are represented more than once.  Westerns, although darker revisionist Westerns, not heroic stuff (I could have added The Magnificent Seven, for example (great themesong, by the way) but deliberately did not), I've got pirate-sounding music, I've got a bit of Victorian Gothic type stuff, I've got "Arabian Nights" sounds, and there's a strong vibe of horror.  Frankly, the new Batman soundtracks sound like horror soundtracks rather than superhero soundtracks, which makes them perfect for my purposes too.  James Newton Howard is brilliant.

Now, any given game within DARK•HERITAGE might not hit on all of those themes.  It would probably be rare for a game to focus on both pirates and cowboys, at least at the same time, for instance.  But I don't want to get into themed variations, I want a "one size fits all" DARK•HERITAGE soundtrack that I can always use and which always works.  I think this soundtrack fits that bill nicely.

Distant Worlds

On Friday I finished the third (of four so far arrived) Paizo books I bought with my Amazon gift card.  This book was Distant Worlds, a book that I was simultaneously excited about conceptually, and very worried about.

See, it became fairly obvious early on that Paizo envisioned the solar system of their setting as one that has a very planetary romance vibe to it; the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, C. L. Moore and Leigh Bracket are hugely influential in the discussion of the solar system of Golarion.  At the same time, Golarion is, of course, basically a D&D fantasy world.  Although one of D&D's strengths is that it manages to gobble up influences from all kinds of genres and reflect them in its idiom, this was a big bite to eat and regurgitate, and I could imagine all kinds of ways in which it could go wrong.  And as a huge fan of much of that source material, I am also somewhat particular in my presentation of pastiche of it.  All that, of course, harks back to my former tagline on this blog; "most opinionated guy on the Internet."  Needless to say, I had my doubts about the concept and if Paizo could pull it off to my satisfaction.

Luckily, in my opinion, the book works marvelously.  In fact, Distant Worlds was a great book, and one that got me really excited again to attempt to run a kind of exotic game.  While it was in many ways heavily and transparently influenced by the space opera and planetary romance (that not coincidentally Paizo published until recently in their Planet Stories line of fiction reprints) the book itself had much of the same feel that reading 3e's The Manual of the Planes did.  Keep in mind that while I was naturally familiar with the concept of the Great Wheel and planar adventures in D&D, I left D&D during the 1e era, and never saw the original Manual of the Planes book.  When I picked up the 3e Manual of the Planes, the concepts weren't unfamiliar to me, but the context was, and realizing that there were really all these exotic adventuring possibilities in the planes was a bit of an eye-opener to me.  Needless to say, I missed Planescape altogether.  In fact, the modular nature of that book is part of what made it so intriguing to me rather than the standard conception--creating a new cosmology that used portions of the planes as presented in a new context.  If Star Trek was famously first presented to management and the networks as "Wagon Train" to the Stars" (even if that wasn't exacty what Gene Roddenberry wanted to do) then my putative game might be called "Wagon Train to the Planes"--and I find that material from Manual of the Planes, Beyond Countless Doorways, and now Distant Worlds are all gold mines for that kind of exotic type of game.  Reading this got me excited about it again; I may actually attempt to run such a beast via Google+ or something, if I can round up an online group.  It won't have any connection whatsoever to my DARK•HERITAGE setting, and the timing is impossible for my home group, but I hate getting excited about game concepts and not being able to run them, so I'm seriously considering something here.

What exactly are some of the concepts that Distant Worlds offers us?  We have Akiton and Castrovel, very much influenced by Barsoom and Amtor respectively.  Castrovel even has a sea of mist ("Lorelei of the Red Mists" anyone?  Paizo knows their pulp fiction, that's for sure.)  There's Diaspora, an interesting concept of an asteroid belt that is the remnant of a past apocalyptic "Death Star" esque attack--but survivors linger in the foreign and hostile environment of the ruins.  Eox is the undead world--a much better concept for "extraplanar home of the undead" than the Negative Energy Plane, in my opinion.  There is also a world that is not unlike Brackett's Mercury, tidally locked with a permanent hot zone, cold zone, and a weird terminator zone that's temperate.  There are two gas giants, which are an even more exotic place to visit.  There is magical equipment that replicates pressure suits.  There are spells that allow temporary survival--although since they already existed as planar spells (they changed the word planar to planetary and called it a different spell--a silly move, IMO).

As you get further out into the solar system, Paizo borrowed more and more from Lovecraft.  While there's not an analog to Yuggoth exactly, there is Aucturn, "the Stranger" which is a somewhat Lovecraftian planet.  The South Pole of "Mars"--Akiton--is hinted at to be similar to the south pole of At the Mountains of Madness, complete with Elder Things and Shoggoths.  The Dark Tapestry is a dangerous cult dedicated to worshipping the darkness between the stars, and the names of Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep and others are actually printed in Distant Worlds explicitly linking them to that cult, and explicitly making Golarion a part of the Yog-Sothothery pastiche (not that that hadn't already happened in many ways throughout various setting elements here and there over the last few years.)

The main way that I judge a setting book to be good or not is how much it fires my imagination, how much I read something and immediately begin looking ways to integrate that detail or that element into my own personal gaming somehow.  In that respect, Distant Worlds is by far the best setting book I've read in quite some time (not that I've read a lot of RPG books in recent months, but still.)  The book is fairly light on details--it's more big picture and ideas, without maps and without a heavily detailed element, but in that respect, again, it reminded me very strongly of the 3e Manual of the Planes.  Since that is still one of my favorite RPG books of all time, that is high praise indeed for Paizo's Distant Worlds.

And I really am serious about wanting to put together an online game of some kind kitbashing this book with MotP and Malhavoc's Beyond Countless Doorways in a kind of "Wagon Train to the Planes" game.  I've even started up an Obsidian Portal campaign around the idea.

Friday, August 10, 2012

B is for Baal Ngirsu

Baal Ngirsu is a major city-state with cultural and historic ties to the ancient Baal Hamazi empire.  In that regard, it was always an isolated outpost of sorts, a marchland city build in the furthest southwest corner of the empire nestled among the peaks of the large and free-standing massif known as Shatur Rock, at the headwaters of the Nikash River, which flows eastwards through often very deep and steep chasms towards the Kindattu Mountains, where it dives underground to disappear beneath the roots of the mountains altogether.  The Nikash is not navigable, so Baal Ngirsu is cut off from its more easterly "brethren"; fellow successor states to Baal Hamazi such as Ishkur and Simashki on the eastern side of the range.

Shatur Rock
Although separated by distance, the terrain between Baal Ngirsu and the more northerly lands of the Baal Hamazi heartland are not terribly difficult to cross--assuming one makes accomodations for finding water while crossing the dry and fairly flat Hallashu basin.  And south of Baal Ngirsu are the lands of the Haltash tribes--more wooded, and covered in their timber hill-forts.  It is no great distance from Baal Ngirsu to the Vajol Downs, and from there to the "lost province" of Calça, yet contact between the far-flung hamazins and equally far-flung Terrasans has been intermittent and light.  In many ways, except for their relationship with the Haltash, the Ngirsans have been more on their own than not.

As such, their resemblance to classic hamazin culture is somewhat distant.  They've always had a much more symbiotic relationship between the hellkin and humans who inhabit the area, especially given the relative strength of the Haltash "barbarians" who have been interbreeding both culturally and genetically for many generations now.  As such, the Ngirsans have always seen themselves as more "enlightened" than their brethren, who didn't throw of the shackles of oppressive tyranny under their hamazin overlords without violent revolution; at Baal Ngirsu, the tyranny was never all that oppressive and the way forward was established collaboratively.

Besides the lure of isolation in a beautiful wilderness setting, the risk of the Haltash, who are often territorial and aggressive, and relatively easy access from the north to the lands of Calça beyond, there are a few other draws to Baal Ngirsu.
  • While Shatur Rock is itself not known for harboring any mineral wealth in the form of mines, there are fortunes to be made panning in the streams and creeks that feed the Nikash river for gold.  Baal Ngirsu went through a period of growth not unlike a boomtown economy in the past.  This has since slowed, but enough people still make a good enough living panning that the draw isn't gone completely.  This of course means that outside of the city itself (and even inside, in its rougher parts of town) there is a very real danger to be faced by bandits, robbers, and other toughs who would rather shoot first, search for body for gold dust second.
  • The area around Baal Ngirsu is one of the best sources for adamantine, or starmetal as it's commonly known, in the entire Land of the Three Empires.  This is also not mined, however--the source is a gigantic ball of rotting and rusting metal, as large as a palace, that floats above the ground, at least a thousand feet in the sky.  It makes a curious and often unpredictable "orbit" of sorts through the area.  While its height makes it inaccessible to most, it appears honeycombed with holes, either as an artifact of its construction, or because of decay.  This honecombed structure means that from time to time chunks break off and fall to the earth, to be found by enterprising folks who wish to harvest the ore.  This gigantic ball of skymetal is called the Skysphere.  It is obvious from the pieces that fall that it is artificial--strange glyphs or letters or markings of some kind are carved on many of the pieces, though no one has deciphered them.  It has been in the sky as long as anyone knows--the Haltash have no legends of its arrival, merely that its always been there, and the hamazin discovered it as it is.  Nobody has any idea who could have constructed it, who could have caused it to float and wander over the area, or why.  It's known only that the skymetal ore is the same as that occasionally found at meteor impact sites. 
  • Refugees fleeing the hamazin cities to the north have entered Baal Ngirsu in great numbers recently, creating a great deal of tension and strain on resources and space.  Rumors of Hutran Khutir's rebirth might be garbled and incoherent, and exactly who is leading it is still anyone's guess until reliable reports come down from the north, but it is clear that some kind of great militaristic crusade is going on, and the only options are to join with it or flee to the lands southward.