Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sheep among wolves

An under-utilized trick of GMs who have lowish level characters slogging it through the wilderness is attack by wolves.  I'm not sure why this is, as it's a perennial feature of a lot of Medieval literature, as well as fantasy literature.  Heck, Tolkien himself has two wolf attack scenes--in The Hobbit where the dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo are treed by a number of wolves, and later in Fellowship of the Ring when their campsite is attacked by wolves shortly before attempting to tackle the crossing of the Misty Mountains a second time through the Mines of Moria.

Gray wolf
The reason for this is that wolves were dangerous to solitary travelers or small groups moving through the wilderness areas of Medieval Europe, and they were greatly feared.  Sadly, this iconic archetypical threat of a real world from a time period in which most fantasy is vaguely similar to has had little traction in RPGs.  I know of few modules that feature attacks by wolves on lonely travelers, and frankly, wolves aren't very dangerous combatants singly, as a CR 1 creature.  In packs, they're somewhat more dangerous (and realistic) but even so, unless given a significant tactical advantage, a typical group of four 1st level PCs can still be expected to plough through a good dozen or so of these without worrying too much about their own eventual safety.

To give you a little variety, there are essentially six stat-lines from the SRD that can be used to represent various wolf-like pack-hunters, and they range from CR 1/3 (dogs) to only CR 3 (dire wolves) with the increase in difficulty being mostly correllated to an increase in size.  However, this variety is somewhat misleading, since there really isn't much difference between the statlines of a wolf, riding dog and hyena.  The worgs are a Magical Beast, but since they have no supernatural abilities, treating them as an Animal instead puts them right smack in the middle.  Dire wolves are supposed to be Large--the same size, mechanically at least, as a horse.  They're listed as weighing up to 800 lbs.  There wasn't really ever any dog-like animal that was this large with the exception of Dinocrocuta gigantea, but of course "dog-like" could be stretching it on that animal anyway.  And again; the exact size is more flavor than meaningful; I don't have to say that any pack hunters in my setting are 800 lbs. to use the stats for a D&D dire wolf to represent larger and more threatening pack-hunters like real dire wolves, or cave hyenas or something would be.

Cave hyena compared to regular spotted hyena
In the DARK•HERITAGE setting, where characters are always lowish level and lowish powered (compared to standard D&D, anyway) and where trekking through the wilderness is often a feature of the game, I've got a lot of potential pack hunters that could waylay travelers.  But, since the statistics for these animals are all very similar, it doesn't really matter too much which one it is, except as a matter of color.  This would also probably be true in real life; if spotted hyenas and wolves somehow coexisted in the same place, it's not clear that it would make a lot of difference to a supposed Medieval traveler if he got attacked by a pack of wolves or a pack of hyenas--except that hyenas would be more likely to attack him on the plains and wolves more likely to attack him in the forest.

In DARK•HERITAGE, the following animals are possible pack hunters that could menace a PC or group of PCs.
  • Coyotes.  Typically only weighing about 50 lbs. and hunting in small groups or alone, a coyote isn't likely to be a threat to any character other than a wounded solitary commoner NPC or small child, or to the livestock of anyone who happens to be a farmer who raises sheep or goats.  Use SRD stats for a dog.
  • Golden jackal.  The Eurasian equivalent to the coyote--maybe slightly smaller, but functionaly equivalent in most respects, and frankly, it would even look really similar.  Technically common in the southern area of the setting while coyotes are common in the north.
  • Carolina dog or American dingo.  This rare animal is probably an ancient breed of dog that went feral many, many generations ago.  They weren't even discovered in America until the 1970s, and without DNA research, nobody would have suspected their antiquity.  Similar to a coyote, though, in all meaningful respects.  I don't know what I'd do with them other than show off my knowledge of esoteric fauna, which isn't particularly helpful in a game.
  • Gray wolf.  Or simply wolf.  Known from both North America and Europe, large specimens of this animal--such as those in the north of both regions--can weigh over 150 lbs, but more commonly, they'll weigh closer to 120 or so.  Potentially dangerous to both livestock and the characters themselves, especially when attacking in packs of about a dozen individuals and in tactically advantageous conditions.  Use SRD stats for wolf.
  • Dire wolf.  The dire wolf is a wolf-like animal with shorter legs and stronger and larger body and jaws than the gray wolf.  Common in the Pleistocene of North America and South America, it was a good 25% larger than the gray wolf (up to almost 200 lbs.), and when both existed at the same time, the dire wolf often kept the gray wolf from spreading into the same territory.  Best represented by SRD stats for worg--although there's no reason to make it a magical beast instead of an animal, and its intelligence shouldn't be any higher than standard animal intelligence.
  • Bone-dogs.  Known in the literature as either Borophagus diversidens or Osteoborus sp., this was a dog that lived up to the end of the Pliocene and had powerful jaws more like a hyena.  Fairly heavy; nearly 200 lbs., they'd look a bit like really heavy-set dingos, or feral labs with a melanistic mask or something--except with a highly domed forehead and extremely large teeth and jaws.  Just here for more flavor; would be best represented by the worg stats from the SRD, with the same caveats as stated in the dire wolf entry.  Like hyenas, they'd prefer large packs and open territory; just in the north, whereas hyenas occupy that same niche in the south of the setting.
  • Cave hyenas. In the southern parts of DARK•HERITAGE, where a more Pleistocene European fauna is the norm, you could come across packs of cave hyenas, which are an extinct sub-species of the spotted hyena which is common in Africa today.  Cave hyenas were quite large, though--225 lbs. individuals wouldn't have been unusual.  They prefer more open habitat then wolves, and would compete with them if they existed in the same place, which they rarely do--where cave hyenas are common, wolves remain in the forest.  Only in the north, where hyenas don't live, do wolves spread across more ecosystems.  Possibly hunting in much larger packs than wolves, they would also use the stats for worgs, with the same caveats discussed under dire wolf.
Golden jackal
You may notice that I've specifically created a dichotomy between the wolves of the forest and the hyenas and bone-dogs of the plains.  I've also created a dichotomy between the bone-dogs of the north and the hyenas of the south.  There's a similar geographical dichotomy between the coyotes and the jackals.  I admit, this leaves the dire-wolf as a bit of an orphan without a place to call home.  I'm OK with this; in practice, a dire wolf is too similar to a gray wolf to provide much of a colorful difference.  This is why I specifically went back a bit further in time to Borophagus diversidens.  Not that the difference is really that significant even so, but it's at least a bit more significant than the very modest difference between the dire wolf and the gray wolf.

The dire wolf stats in the SRD bear no resemblance to the actual dire wolf; the authors just liked the name.  The only historical animals that could fit those stats would be the slightly earlier Epicyon haydeni, or the unrelated but similar Pachycrocuta and Dinocrocruta--which as the name implies, were actually extremely large hyenas or Percrocutids.  Even older creatures like hemicyonids or amphicyonids could also use those stats--although no such creatures exist in DARK•HERITAGE.  If for some reason you really wanted to use the stats for the SRD dire wolf, they'd be just exceptionally large individuals of either the cave hyena or bone-dogs, most likely.

Buckle them swashes

Although I frequently call DARK•HERITAGE a dark fantasy setting, appropriate for secondary world true fantasy, but with a feel and paradigm more rooted in horror movies and Call of Cthulhu, I also have to point out that many horror movies are quite campy and wander a bit into two-fisted or swashbuckling action as often as they do into true horror.  I'm actually thoroughly OK with that.  In fact, in many ways, that's the vibe I want more than actual horror.  I often think of Stephen Sommers The Mummy from 1999 as not only the perfect blend of swashbuckling comedy/action and horror, but the tone and feel template that I most want my games to resemble.  And while I talk a lot about my love of the horror aspects, I don't really talk enough about my love of the swashbuckling, and The Mummy is at least as much a swashbuckling action/comedy as it is a horror film.  Maybe even more so.  In fact, Stephen Sommers (the director) compared Brendan Fraser directly to Errol Flynn, and cast him on purpose in an attempt to capture that same kind of vibe.  You don't get much more swashbucklery than Errol Flynn.  I think he even beats out Douglas Fairbanks Sr., if only because Fairbanks' star faded quickly with the advent of the talkies, and silent movies aren't much remembered today by the collective conscience.

One of the classics of swashbuckling tales is, of course, Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers.  While I actually prefer to read Rafael Sabatini for my swashbuckling novels, I love seeing adaptations of Dumas' books--particularly this one--on film.  The David Lester version, split into two movies and released in the early 70s (when I was just a baby/toddler, actually) starring Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Charleton Heston, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway and others is the gold standard when it comes to filmed versions of the movie, but I've seen many others. 

Sadly, many of them aren't very good.  Some have some redeeming virtues in spite of not being very good, but many do not.  A good example of the former is the Paul W. S. Anderson version.  I'm not much of a fan of Anderson's body of work, so I went in with very low expectations, but the movie actually turned out to be quite entertaining.  Much more than I expected it to.  I even bought that one and showed it to my kids, who probably liked it even better than I did.  (My daughter especially liked the young actor who played D'Artagnan, Logan Lerman.  My teenaged son especially liked the young actress who played Constance Bonacieux--Gabriella Wilde.  I liked Orlando Bloom and Mads Mikkelson's exceptionally over-the-top, moustache-twirling villainous renditions of Buckingham and Rochefort respectively.  And there was a surprisingly degree of humor, charisma and chemistry amongst the rest of the cast as well.  And we all liked the sword fighting, of course.)  Surprisingly, I think it's quite a bit better than the other "modern" Three Musketeers adaptation; the one from 1993 with Chris O'Donnell as D'Artagnan, Tim Curry as the Cardinal, and Oliver Platt, Kiefer Southerland, Charlie Sheen, and Co.

There is one other relatively mainstream modern adaptation of the novel, The Musketeer from 2001.  I had only vague memories of it as a mostly forgettable but not terrible version of the story, so I had it on my Netflix Queue.  I just streamed it last night.  It was worse than I remembered.

Its main claim to fame was that Jet Li's sometime stunt double Xin Xin Xiong, who also does stunt choreography and directing in Hong Kong, was hired to choreograph the stunts.  So... it's kinda the Hong Kong version of The Three Musketeers... kinda.  The acting was terrible in this movie.  But it's hard to blame that, really, when the editing and the script were also so terrible.  The titular three musketeers (well, in this version, I guess they're not actually titular) are so bland and relatively absent that I'm not even sure which actor is supposed to be which musketeer--with the exception of Aramis, and that's only because D'Artagnan actually says his name a few times in conversation with him.  None of their personalities are on exhibit at all.  I also didn't recognize many of the actors.  Justin Chambers plays D'Artagnan, but this is a few years before he was cast on Grey's Anatomy so nobody knew who he was supposed to be yet.  Mena Suvari and Tim Roth are the only recognizable names--who also happen to play the only characters with any charisma at all whatsoever--as Constance and Rochefort.  Except.... well, actually no.  Suvari's character is renamed Francesca for no reason whatsoever, even though she plays exactly the same role as Constance in most adaptations.  And Tim Roth's character is renamed Febre, even though he plays exactly the same role as Rochefort, and even looks like a Rochefort, including the trademark eye patch.  Curiously, there's another character with about three lines of dialogue who's named Rochefort, although his role in the movie is completely inconsequential.  This fast and loose adaptation of the book, with bizarre changes that serve no purpose, is emblematic of the movie overall.

It's perhaps worth watching... once... for the fight scenes alone, although even there, I haven't decided if they're kinda awesome or kinda stupid--I'm actually leaning more towards the latter currently.  Curiously, I've long thought that my perfect fight choreography would be a combination of musketeer action and Asian martial arts cinema, but not like this.  What I'd love to see is choreography that is reminiscent of the David Lester version in style, but with the speed and energy of Ong Bak.  This is just really weird wire-fu musketeering.  Perhaps if the characters or plot were more interesting, I'd like the fight scenes better, because I'd care a little bit about what the results were.

I found the experience of watching this movie again, some ten years or so after seeing it the first time, kinda painful, and I almost didn't bother finishing it at all.  I can't really recommend it in any way whatsoever.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

In praise of generic roleplaying systems

In the earlier days of the hobby, most of the games that people played the most came from TSR--the producer of Dungeons & Dragons.  This isn't surprising.  What is perhaps more surprising is that none of these games really made an attempt to capitalize on the familiarity of using a similar system to D&D--games like Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Gangbusters, Top Secret or Boot Hill tapped all kinds of genres--most of them pulpish action genres that had at least enough similarity in tone and feel that they could have benefitted from a similar approach.  But they didn't really; they were all completely stand-alone games.

After D&D started permeating the market a bit and competitors started cropping up, some other publishers used "house systems" for their games.  These weren't exactly meant to be generic, but they were meant to utilize the same system, tweaked and slightly modified for the specific game that they were being used in, but otherwise operate very nearly the same.  The Hero System, first published with the superhero game Champsions was one early one that later spawned Star Hero, Pulp Hero, Fantasy Hero and more; gradually evolving into a generic by design system.  The Basic Roleplaying System had a similar provenance; it was the system of Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, Stormbringer, and many others... it later evolved (in fact, it was probably among the first to do so) into a generic engine that is expected to apply broadly to a wide variety of settings and genres with minimal tweaking.  GURPS was probably the first to actively pursue such a goal; published as a generic system (the G in GURPS is for generic) with setting-specific add-on modules.  More recent such engines, which are specifically designed to be generic, include Savage Worlds, FUDGE, FATE, and d20 Modern--a derivative of the 3.5 rules of D&D.  Others, such as Storyteller, CODA, the d6 System, or Unisystem, have never tried overtly to be generic, but are included as the "house system" of a publishing house, and as such they find their way into a variety of genres and can readily be adopted as nearly generic systems as well.

Why do I like generic systems?  Why not one that's designed specifically for the needs of a given game?  Mostly because I don't really like system for its own sake anymore.  These days, I prefer the ease of slipping into a system that's well-known and which I can play without having to worry about, "do I and my players actually know the rules well enough to do this without it being a hassle?"  One way to do that is to focus on well-known systems that can be easily adapted into a variety of genres.  This is exactly why--although it's not really my Holy Grail of system designs by a long-shot--I've decided that d20 works for me.  I don't have to worry about knowing the system.  I usually don't have to worry about my players understanding the system, since almost everybody in the hobby has played a d20 game at some point or 'nother.  The trick, then, is finding the system to settle on, and for that, you want to make sure that the tone that the system fosters and the one you want at the table are in synch.  That's exactly why I'd never really entertain adopting GURPS, or Hero or Rolemaster as my basic system--all focus on minutia which doesn't cater to the kind of tone and feel that I want in the game.  I prefer a much faster and looser approach. 

I also like relatively durable characters that I can throw stuff at and not worry too much that they're going to die willy-nillly.  And finally, I like to have a lot of material available.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's better to have a tool you don't need than to need a tool you don't have.  The biggest reason I prefer d20 to any other generic system--aside from the ease of finding players who are familiar with it already--is that I have so much d20 material that I can use.  I have so many monsters.  I have so many modular rules add-ons.  I can tweak and mangle the rules easily--usually without even having to do any amateur development of my own, because I can easily find somewhere in print where someone's already done it.

It's always surprising to me that d20 Modern was specifically billed and presented as a modular, generic system, whereas D&D 3.5 is believed by a sizeable chunk of the market to be a carefully balanced, tightly integrated system where nothing can be changed without risking the entire thing toppling over in disaster--considering that the two games are virtually identical system-wise.  I've always found that d20--of any variety--is almost painfully easy to houserule and modify, to the point where I can't really even remember playing it completely as written pretty much ever.  And the fact that there are so many options and variants in print--to say nothing of the house-rules of gamers all across the world--should belie the notion that it can't be done easily enough.  But it doesn't seem to.  I really don't get it.

To me, a good generic system should probably leave F/X--magic and whatnot--to modular add-ons.  The magic system for D&D is one of the main culprits in terms of making D&D non-generic.  The non-magical aspects of the system, however, can and should be generic enough that they'll work for a variety of settings without change.  In this regard, again, D&D fails because so few of the core classes (archetypes) are non-magical that you have very little you can do with character generation that doesn't involve the very specific D&D magic system.  d20 Modern on the other hand, is an action-hero system that can produce all kinds of non-magical characters with a lot of variety--and then F/X is given to us as three sample modular add-ons that work differently to encourage slightly different expressions of tone and genre.

For DARK•HERITAGE, I've gone with the SHADOW CHASERS campaign module, which is meant for a horror/action hybrid; something like The Mummy, or maybe the Buffy or Supernatural television show.  Or, for decidely less high-quality movies which hit the same tone, Van Helsing, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Hansel & Gretel.  The other two campaign modules included in the rulebook are URBAN ARCANA and AGENTS OF PSI; one of which proposes magic that works more or less like modern-day D&D, and one of which that replaces magic with psionics--not that the distinction is really all that meaningful in real, significant terms.  I'm not aware of any additional modules, or third party F/X, although any other d20 type F/X systems can be ported without too much trouble; even if the F/X classes are merely truncated to ten levels and given Advanced Class-like entry requirements.  Because the SHADOW CHASERS model, complete with Incantations to give me any additional magic using needs that I may have already works exceptionally well for the tone I'm looking for with DARK•HERITAGE, I'm already in business.  All I had to do was ignore any skills, feats or equipment that's too modern, and make a few other minor tweaks here and there. 

I could have also used d20 Past; in fact, for a long time I did overtly do so.  However, since that was never part of the MSRD and its now out of print, I decided to go for a simpler model that just ignored it.  There are a few Occupations and feats that would be great to use in DARK•HERITAGE for those so inclined who have the book; but otherwise, you hardly need it to proceed.

Buddy fantasy

One of the most enduring traditions of American cinema (although it also extends beyond this, of course) is the concept of a buddy movie.  Abbot & Costello were early practitioners.  Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made a lot of hay with the concept with their series of "Road to..." movies.  There's a lot of buddy movies of various types, and they usually have some common themes.  They tend to be about, well... buddies.  Good friends, who's loyalty and friendship with each other tend to transcend other relationships in general (although in the Hope/Crosby movies, there was always a rivalry between them for the affection of the leading lady, played by Dorothy Lamour.  Bing Crosby always won in the end and got the girl, but he and Hope remained best friends.)  Don't take the Wikipedia article on the concept too seriously; the notion of veiled homosexual inferences is more a case of much later appearing academics projecting onto the genre.

The buddy comedy declined later in the 20th century, but the buddy cop movie became incredibly productive, giving us (for example) the Lethal Weapon series, the 48 Hours series, the Bad Boys series, the Rush Hour series, the Beverly Hills Cop series, the Men in Black series, and Starsky & Hutch.  One could even make the case that the original buddy cops were Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.  From even just that list, you can see that it often crossed a number of barriers--MIB has a strong science fictional element to it, for example.  The "cops" aren't always cops; in fact, "buddy criminals" is an interesting twist on the concept as well.  The point of the buddy cop movie is that rather than being slapstick comedy, as many of the earlier buddy movies were, these were action movies, with comedy being more situational based on the contrast between the personalities and natures of the "buddies" in the storyline.  In fact, the Hope/Crosby movies usually had the characters as con artists of some type to begin with; maybe the buddy criminal movie is one of the original forms of the genre.

The reason I thought of this was that I've been reading Michael Sullivan's Theft of Swords which is, actually, a "buddy criminal" fantasy novel.  Two fantasy novels "omnibussed" together, to be precise, out of a series of six (three in the new printings.  If that makes any sense.)  Despite the fact that Hadrian Blackwater, highly capable mercenary and Royce Melborn, highly capable thief, are in fact criminals, they take the role of rather heroic (if somewhat sardonic) protagonists in the story.

I'm also reminded, reading this, of the Hawk & Fisher series.  Technically six books long (also "omnibussed" three at a time into two trade paperbacks) but including an ancillary sequel and prologue book that don't belong to the series proper, this is a husband and wife tough cop routine in a city that's a fantasy version of a "wretched hive of scum & villainy."  Having a husband and wife team is a bit unusual for a buddy movie, in which the platonic, same-sex friendship between the two protagonists is one of the defining features--although Hawk & Fisher might as well be asexual for the most part in terms of how their relationship is explored in the books.

Talking about Hawk & Fisher always reminds me of the venue where I first heard of them, drnuncheon's Freeport Story Hour thread on ENWorld (one of the few times I'll recommend this site; the Story Hour threads are--sometimes; when they're good anyway--pretty fun and the topic is one that can't exactly get mired down in silly arguing or pedantic nitpicking.)  Because he was running a game for two players--with a single character each--he decided to let them be members of the Freeport City Watch, consciously mimicking the Hawk & Fisher scenario.  In fact, with a small group, "buddy movies" tend to work well in a gaming environment, because most gamers play their characters completely asexually anyway.  I've actually had really good luck in my "Demons in the Mist" game with creating a buddy movie vibe.  It was a larger ensemble cast, as gaming groups tend to be, but two of the characters somehow managed to stick out and develop "leadership roles" who drove the game forward, while the rest of the group acted more passively and became--to some extent--their entourage.  Lash, the grumpy hobgoblin con artist, and Ricardo, the somewhat hapless would-be Don Juan, gradually filled in and embellished a back story of having been a long-running buddy team; two very different personalities who argued like an old married couple and frequently inadvertently caused each others' schemes to fail spectacularly, yet couldn't imagine somehow managing without the other.

Hawk & Fisher by Luis Royo
For me as the GM, I always thought it was a bit tricky running that and making sure that the other players had enough moments in the spotlight.  Lash and Ricardo's players were content entertaining each other (and everyone else) but it would have been easy to have made the game all about them while having everyone else kinda fall off to the side.  That would have been a mistake, I believe, and bad GMing--since the players of the other characters would most likely have found that situation not very fun had I indulged it.  But at the same time, their antics did a great job of propelling the game forward without much involvement on my end; a situation which as a GM, I greatly desire.  I've long thought that doing something similar to drnuncheon's Freeport game; a game that's designed to be kind of a buddy cop scenario from the get-go with a small group (of two, although you could probably make it work with a small ensemble of 2-4 as well) would be a lot of fun.  In fact, I'm tempted, if I get off my duff and start recruiting for my game, I might find that a smaller group would be nice (heck, I've had three people over the last year or so approach me on Obsidian Portal; if they're all still available, I'm ready to go now!)

This isn't, however, a theme that's easily explored in D&D, assuming that you accept the premise of D&D.  I'm not quite sure how going into dungeons with a crack team of experts to beat traps, fight monsters, and acquire treasure and experience is a "story" that can be told using anything like the buddy cop paradigm, which is primarily a description of the inter-character relationships between PCs.  The prevalence of the paradigm in cop stories means that heroic, or even semi-heroic type games can use it; although I've had great experience with the concept of heist or con-artist buddies over time as well.  This isn't so much a question of system; where D&D characters can absolutely be "buddies" in the buddy movie sense, but rather with the premise of the game.  Of course, not all D&D games follow the generic D&D premise anyway.  Certainly none that I've ever run have done so.

In fact, my long-stalled, frequently aborted and then restarted DARK•HERITAGE novel attempts use a scenario derived from the buddy movie paradigm--or at least some versions of it have done so.  I also have a male/female duo, but as a brother/sister team, their relationship is by default platonic and therefore much more buddy-cop-like than otherwise.

Although, granted, that was never meant to be a gaming theme regardless.

But it's not like Gygax didn't obviously quite enjoy the stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser--the original fantasy buddies.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Naiadi della fontana

A number of backwoods waterways are infamous as the supposed haunting place of the naiadi.  These naiads are beings of unknown provenance.  The balshatoi kindgoms knew of them and called them rusalka in their language--they believed that these eerie and beautiful women of the waters were the vengeful spirits of drowned or spurned women who committed suicide, then came back to haunt and kill men especially.

A man led to his death by naiads
There is an old Tarushan tale about them, though, which is the most intriguing.  The Tarushan legend links the naiads with the river gods; chthonic and inhuman entities that live in freshwater, and prove remarkably difficult to kill (or to find, for that matter.)  The river gods were exclusively male, and procreated asexually via budding, like some kind of protean creature.  As the waterways became increasingly congested with the traffic of humans, the river gods became increasingly angry at this trespass on their domain.  They took to hunting humanity in the waters, and became greatly feared.

Like the situation summed up by the (alleged) quote of Admiral Yamamoto, these attacks accomplished little other than to "wake the sleeping giant."  The river gods, while powerful, could not contend with humanity openly, because they were so vastly outnumbered, and because humanity could retreat to drier terrain to recover and plan more assaults.  The most disastrous were the repeated dryings and floodings of the Eibon River which flows through what is now Tarush Noptii by damming.  In retreat, and scattered, the river gods settled on a plan of deadly, menacing stealth.  Feigning their own extinction, or nearly so, some of the asexual beings transformed themselves via their magic into the first rusalka.  In this form, they appeared as beautiful, young women, bathing naked in the waters, and singing and dancing with ethereal, hauntingly beautiful voices.

River gods in their natural form
In this form, they were able to even insert themselves for a time in human society, and hide in plain sight, although too long a time away from their waters still caused them great distress and eventual death.  Many men were lured to their death before anyone even suspected that anything other than tragically accidental drownings might be at fault.  Even today, the naiads are considered to be semi-mythical, and most people aren't sure that they believe that they exist.

One caution, the Tarushan folktale warns: as a result of their magical transformation, the naiads are capable of concieving and bearing children with human lovers.  Such children are born normal, and grow up that way.  At some point, however, midway through their adult lives, the ancient heritage of their river god ancestors starts to catch up with them, and they begin a slow transformation into something inhuman--they become river gods themselves.  In this way, the river gods have managed to stealthily and malevolently infiltrate human society, and prolong the life of their population.

But all of that is merely a strange, Gypsy folktale, right?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Post updates and series

*sigh*  I'm reading the last of five books that I borrowed from my friend Franz in the last month or two (he's lent me several more in the months previously.  I think he likes to feel like his books are getting used after he reads them, and he likes to think that he can talk with his friends about books that we've both read.)  Immediately on the heels of that, I've got two books from the library--one of which is actually an omnibus of what was originally published as two separate novels.  My list of books that I own but haven't read, on the other hand, keeps growing.  I just ordered four more items from Amazon a couple of days ago--but one is a DVD, and one is a pre-order for a Wayne Reynolds art book, so I've really only got two new novels coming on; both of them tie-in novels, and continuations of series that I'm already reading (one of them the third Dave Gross Pathfinder novel about his "half-elf Holmes and tiefling Watson"; the second a Lovecraftian book tied to the Arkham Horror game) so that's not quite as bad as it sounds.  However... the omnibus is the first of three; there were originally six novels in that series.  If I like the first one, I'll have to read the rest.

More to the point, M is the next letter on my A to Z challenge, and what I'd really like to do for that letter is post the map of my setting.  I have not had much luck, however, in finding a way to get my hand-drawn posterboard converted into a digital file via scanning.  I might attempt to scan it in pieces and then assemble them in Paint. NET, or I might attempt to simply redraw the entire thing digitally in Paint.NET.  Either way, it's unlikely that I'll have a chance to do that before the weekend--at the earliest-- and I already feel like this series is dragging on longer than I'd have liked it to.  Plus, I also feel like I'm chomping at the bit just a little to get to some of the letters that follow M.  So... I'm trying to decide whether or not I want to skip M and come back to it later.

I'm not sure why I'm posting just to ramble about whether or not I want to make a specific post or not, or about what I'm going to read next (Theft of Swords, then The Black Swan and then, finally, Tyranny of Ghosts) except that... well, I dunno.  I'm in a rambly mood this morning, I guess.

On the gaming front, I spoke to my wife about our schedule, including the difficulties we've had in getting our normal game together.  I told her that I was seriously thinking of getting a second, closer group together if I can drum up support at a new FLGS that's not too far away from our house that has a bulletin board for potential recruiting.  I don't want to bring strangers to my house, but I could potentially play there sometimes.  My wife was actually quite supportive of that notion; which surprised me a little bit, because we tend to be really busy and me taking off and leaving her with the kids once every other week (or whatever it ends up being) is something that I expected to engender some resistance.  So... if that gets off the ground, we have actual DARK•HERITAGE gaming going on much sooner than I ever anticipated!  That's a prospect that I find exciting.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A few generic RPG and D&D related thoughts

Today, I'm going to punt and just "react" to some posts on some other blogs.  These posts are old, so this is probably a completely meaningless exercise, but that's what I feel up to today.  I've got a very busy afternoon--after a relatively busy morning, so I'm just going to spend a few minutes of my "lunch" creating a post that's relatively low effort, but which documents my approach to a few "important" facets of gaming and life in general.  This also, as it turns out, is very specific to my attitudes towards D&D.  I'm not particularly interested in D&D Next, or whatever they call it these days (clearly, I haven't been following the news with baited breath.)  I'm not particularly interested in the OSR.  Both, however, are post tags I have that are as close to discussing D&D specifically as I can think of.

BAM!  I disagree with some of his details: for one thing, I think the D&D system--regardless of edition--has only ever been mediocre at best at replicating anything familiar from the fantasy genre.  And I think he vastly overstates the complexity of skill systems, which don't just cater to a niche of hyper-minutia-enthused hardcore gamers.  In fact, quite the opposite; the skill system is a fairly quick and dirty approach to make gaming significantly easier.  But I'm not here to talk about where I disagree; I'm here to talk about where I completely agree with the premise of this rant.  Which is that the premise of D&D is stupid.  It's really quite dumb.  Going into holes in the ground--repeatedly--for treasure and XP.  Boring.  Tedious.  And just plain silly.  I also think it's actually been significantly counter-productive to the growth of the hobby, since it doesn't really highlight the potential of the game.  In fact, that's exactly the kind of thing that is better replicated by computer games.  It's the more open type of environment; intrigue, character development and relationships, action scenes that are a bit less predictable, organically developing plots, etc. that are the real potential of the RPG medium to "beat" their competitors in the computer gaming, or fiction-reading media--it offers an experience that is recognizably similar, but also recognizably different and expansive relative to those.  A novel where you direct the actions of the main characters in a semi-authorial stance--but without all of the hard work and tedium that actual writing gives you.  A computer game where you aren't constantly frustrated by the constraints that the system gives you; by default, a computer game has to give you only predefined options; you can't just "do anything" you want to. 

This, then, is the promise and potential of the RPG hobby.  And the D&D premise not only does not cater to that promise and potential, but it purposefully undercuts it.  Silly.

BAM again!  I agree with the basic premise.  However... I don't think that's D&D's fault.  At least, not completely.  They have to have mechanics to represent the in-game properties of magic.  If that makes the magical seem mundane, that's by and large the player and GM's collective fault.  The game can add all kinds of "fluff text" around a +1 sword, but at the end of the day, if the player and GM treat a +1 sword like a +1 sword, that's all it will be. 

Since my tastes run a little more to the dark fantasy rather than the high fantasy--secondary fantasy worlds heavily influenced by horror and sword & sorcery--I've actually blogged before about making monsters monstrous.  You can easily swap out monsters with anything magical, and swap out scary/monstrous with the adjective "magical" and that blog post will apply nearly 100%.  In other words, both the culprit and the solution to the problem of making D&D magical lie at the table, not with the developers and not in the books.

Although that's not to say that the books couldn't do a much  better job of supporting and exemplifying those traits.

This one I agree with a whole lot less.  I mean, I kinda sorta do... but the "side show" commentary that Edwards adds doesn't help.  See; a lot of that is what I've called before the "pulp aesthetic"--it's often lurid and sensational in a gratuitous sense.  Edwards seems to exult in the gratuity--while simultaneously bend over backwards to deny that it is in fact gratuitous, making the case that he thinks its integral to the artistic vision of 70s fantasy that was "hallucinatory", "phantasmagorical" and other adjectives that imply a hippyish, drug-addled, counter-culture mentality.  He then makes the completely straw man argument that his "collective flinch" was somehow dishonest, juvenile, and morally reprehensible, and that it was the victory of a small niche that somehow infected and took over mainstream society.

He then includes another blatant logical fallacy by implying that there is no middle ground (the excluded middle, or false dilemma fallacy)--he seems to ignore or be ignorant of the probable (in my experience) vast majority of gamers who don't necessarily desire vulgarity, nor attempt to use it gratuitously or "because they can" but who still desire more than the pendulum swing towards self-censorship that happened in the mid-80s and which often threw out the baby with the bathwater.

So, in that sense, I do agree with him.  That "collective flinch" he references did, in fact, throw out the baby with the bathwater.  But as a mature gamer (or at least one who's in early middle age; if the Wikipedia definition of middle-aged is to be accepted) I find the hullabaloo about the issue to be extremely over-wrought.  Again; the solution is to be had at your table.  You don't need lurid art of naked breasts or whatever to have a "mature" game--in fact, I'd argue that that's hardly a very mature thing to include, regardless of whether or not you're in denial about it and trying to pass it off as "naturalistic" (save it, Ron.  I've seen most of the same art you're specifically referring to--and I'm not that much younger than you anyway.  I lived through the age that directly followed that, before the "collective flinch's" impact was felt.  Plus, the books and whatnot that he refers to were commonplace in used bookstores during my real age of fantasy, which postdates his by a few years.  It was soft-core semi-porn cheesecake in most cases.  Not in the least mature.  Especially Boris Vallejo's work.  It was no accident that he did the covers for most of the mass market paperback versions of the Gor novels that were big in print at the time.  See below for a pretty tame example--there were a lot that were worse.)

If questions related to sex come up--and I don't mean "heaving bosoms" described at the table; I mean more things like bastard children to lords pressing their claims, and stuff like that--the more ancillary rather than direct references to sexuality--how is that really something that the content of the game books can really do much to encourage or discourage either one?  That's totally a local, game-group specific type of question.  The same is true of the monstrous, the horrific, or whatever other elements he claims were "neutered" during the 80s.

And regardless; if they were neutered during the 80s, they've certainly swung the other way since in  mainstream society; to the point of complete denial of everything he's railing against.  If Ron Edwards is still hacked off by Tipper Gore's warning labels on gangsta rap CDs or the Meese Commission's data-driven report that pornography is harmful to society (or the inadvertent side effects of that report in which not-exactly pornography like boobies in D&D books was--again, sometimes thrown out with the bathwater on occasion) then he really has nothing to complain about, given the complete mainstreamization today of pornographic content, profanity, and violence.  If anything the complaint should and could be made that we've gone way too far in the other direction.

Edwards' rant comes across as a frustrated bohemian who--having won the culture war, at least across the specific points on which he's ranting in this essay--doesn't know what to do but keep fighting anyway vainly.  That tone greatly reduces the utility of his essay.  But in my attempt to not throw out the baby with the bathwater, I'll certainly acknowledge that D&D--and other RPGs too, for that matter--benefit from being associated with mature topics.  This doesn't really mean mature in the sense that Ron Edwards seems to be using that word, which comes across to me as more "puerile" or "lurid" or "sordid" or "gratuitous"--but rather honest to goodness maturity.  A commodity that is in short supply in today's society (and my observation of that most definitely marks me as middle-aged mentally--if not actively old.)  But counter-culture fantasy fans in the late 70s (and shortly beyond, when the same works were still commonplace) wasn't exactly mature; and Ron Edwards' implication that it was means that you have to glean the point of his essay in spite of the specific arguments he makes, rather than because of them.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Beastmen of the Haunted Forest

The northern border of the nation of Tarush Noptii is the Haunted Forest, a vast realm that is mostly untrammeled by human (or even vampire) feet.  As the name indicates, the Haunted Forest is a land with a dark reputation.  Tarush Noptii claims it in theory, but in reality does not pass under its eaves--or even very close to it--with its troops, merchants, or anyone else.  It is a realm of wild, dark wilderness, and those who pass under its boughs rarely emerge again.

The tribesmen who live to the north, members of the most eastward-pushing Untash group, have some experience with the savages that live within the Haunted Forest and give it its name, as they sometimes come raiding onto their lands looking for captives in their dark sacrifices.  While the Untash are themselves consummate raiders and cavalry, the savages of the Haunted Forest are surprisingly fast and hardy.  While they can't sprint like a horse, they have the endurance of a wolf, and can run seemingly without stop.

The savages of the Haunted Forest are sometimes compared to the xenophobic changelings or woses of the Shifting Forest, but in reality, they have nothing in common.  The changelings are the diluted descendents of werewolves, but savages of the Haunted Forest are some other kind of savage beastmen of uncertain provenance.  Hairy, and with a stocky skeleton and thick muscles, the strength and endurance of the beastmen is beyond that of men, and comparable (if not even greater than) that of a Neanderthal.  They are also tall.  With grayish black or leathery brown, hairy (although not furry) skin, the savages have clawed feet.  They have curled ibex-like horns that occasionally give them an almost goatish appearance, but in reality, their inhuman faces are more ape-like than goatlike--flat, with wide, spreading noses, and wide mouths full of sharp teeth, with molars that can crack open bones like a hyena.  They wear little other than a kilt of roughly tanned (or even untanned) hide, sometimes that of a human.  They savagely hunt and kill anything that enters their forest, and occasionally leave it in search of victims for their savage rites.

Sometimes called satyrs or thurses, but also known as beastmen, they have no formal contact with any civilized nation.  Indeed, except among those who live on the borders of the forest, many believe them to be a myth or legend, and dispute their reality.  This is, however, not the case.  The thurses exist, and their evil may be more dire than many could believe.  On their blood-stained sacrifice stones lie the lives of many innocents.  More to the point, their dark god, who slumbers deep in the woods, is starting to slumber much more fitfully.  An ancient, chthonic entity named Demogorgon, it is a being capable of perhaps unmaking the world as we know it, and the sacrifices of the thurses, its children, may wake it much sooner than many expect.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Blood Bowl

I used to really enjoy painting miniatures here and there.  I wandered around the fringe of the Games Workshop hobby for many, many years.  However, collecting and painting an entire army for Warhammer or Warhammer 40k was kind of intimidating, and frankly I didn't believe that I'd still enjoy painting after doing that many minis.  So, a long time ago (mid 90s or so?) in an attempt to get into the hobby but in a more manageable way, I picked up Blood Bowl Third Edition, and the Death Zone expansion pack.  My thoughts were that the game itself looked like tons of fun, it was considered a classic, the Third Edition was getting rave reviews (it was still fairly new at the time) and I could literally get all the teams for the price and commitment of time that it would take me to get one army in one of the other games.  Plus, it was easier to sit down and play. 

I ended up finding a group that was playing with a few houserules cribbed from the old bbowl-l listserve that were written by Jervis Johnson himself (the author of the game) and had a great time playing.

Fast forward a few years, and I'm out of grad school, moved across the country, and mentioning off-hand to a friend of mine that I'd played a few years ago.  Before I know it, he's bought a copy, we're using the newer Living Rulebook (which I think gutted a lot of the insanity that always made Blood Bowl so fun, but eh, whatever.)  We ended up playing a fair bit, got some other friends involved, and had little leagues that went through the process of building, maintaining, and improving teams (as per the rules, of course.)  Then he moved away, as well as most of the guys who were playing with us, and my Blood Bowl slumbered.  By this time, frankly, I was a little done with painting miniatures.  I have a nice, full team of orcs, completely converted from Warhammer, 40k, and Gorkamorka models, that include squigs for counters, a referee, a wizard, an apothecary, etc.  The only thing I'm missing is cheerleaders and assistant coaches.  But when it came time to paint my skaven or chaos teams... my motivation dried up.  I haven't cracked open my mini case in probably two years.

However, this friend of mine, who in many ways was the driving force of getting us to play, recently appeared via email having bought me aa a slightly belated Christmas present, copy of Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition on Steam, no doubt with the hope that we'll get to play online from time to time.  I installed it a while ago, but other than run through the tutorial--kinda--I hadn't done anything with it until last night, where I created an orc team, the Washington Greenskins, and played two games in Campaign mode against--I presume--randomly selected teams of various races.  I played against a Necromantic team--a new "remix" of undead types that post-dates my involvement with the boardgame version of the game by an edition or two of the Living Rulebook.  Then I played High Elves, an old bane of mine (my friend used to play high elves.)  I played orcs, just because I thought it would be nice to start out with someone familiar--plus, I think they have the most balanced roster out there, with pretty decent catchers, big guys, and big tough black orcs--not to mention fairly good throwers and blitzers, and standard linemen.  I tied the Necromantic team 2-2, and I lost to the high elf team 0-3.  I always struggled with high elves, and frankly, I'm still struggling a little bit with getting accustomed to the interface of the game (I accidentally gave away a few turns by taking actions that I didn't mean to and then, of course, failing them.)  I'm still relatively happy with my performance though--even with the scathing loss.  It was a good experience to figure the game out.  Plus, I got a little vindictive; when I had the ball dropped and the elves took it out of my reach (they're a lot faster than I am) and headed out for their third touchdown, my troll went and fouled a downed player and killed him dead.  That's a devastating thing to happen to a really expensive team like the elves, so suck it, pointy-ears!

Anyway, I had a blast trying the game out.  I'll certainly want to keep playing more.  Heck, maybe I can do a marathon of sorts on Monday while we're off for a federal holiday (my wife still has to work, so I need to kinda stay out of the way.)  And I'll probably want to branch out a bit.  I've played a lot of orcs in the boardgame, and although the graphics are pretty sweet, and the animations are nice--in reality, this plays almost exactly like the board game.  Once I get all my wrinkles with the interface worked out.  That shouldn't take too long, though.  Hopefully within another game or two, I'll have the kinks worked out completely.  So it's really nice that the game, at least in classic turn-based mode, plays almost exactly like the boardgame.  Just with fancy animations and much fancier stadiums.  They look nice.

My younger boys also think the game is fascinating.  I'll try and teach it to them.  Maybe even my oldest son will play.  It could be a great family activity!  Well, except for my wife who thinks the concept of playing computer games is a waste of time, and my daughter who doesn't think this particular one is something that she's interested in at all.  But I say, an over-the-top, caricaturishly violent football game with fantasy races sorta like Lord of the Rings except "grottier"--what's not to like?  The boys seem especially interested in the various undead teams (of which there are four varieties if you count the vampires--although they're really different from the others) and for whatever reason, it seemed easy to find screenshots of them.  So, that's mostly what I have.

Plus, although this video below mostly shows animation of the cheerleaders and touchdown dances--I really like it.  That really encapsulates the silliness and insanity that makes Blood Bowl so much fun.  I created a post tag for it, but honestly--I don't know how much I'll talk about it.

It appears that if you use your Legendary Edition pass-key, you can get the Chaos Edition as a download for pretty cheap--maybe I'll pick that up too.

And for your viewing pleasure; here's a few more screens.  Just so you don't have to Google Image Search all yourself.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Archeology" of D&D

I just had pointed out to me earlier today a youtube video channel, called Grognard Games, which the narrator describes as "the History channel for RPGs."  Martin Brown, the narrator, seems like a nice chap, and as a fan of both history and archeology myself, I find the premise of the channel intriguing.  I haven't seen all of the videos yet, but I watched the first one (linked here in this post) and the Appendix N one.  Anyway, I like the premise, like I said, so I'm passing along the link.

Filling in holes...

I was giving some thought to my setting and rules last night while laying in bed waiting to fall asleep.  Some of this is stuff that I've said before, but forgive me if I'm restating to get the foundation laid for where I'm going.  Plus, it helps to restate stuff from time to time, not only because blog posts tend to be somewhat ephemeral (not that they're gone, just that they're forgotten and "left behind" as the years march on) but also because it helps me to hone the edge on what I want from the setting and game.  Since I'm giving much more serious than normal thought to the possibility of recruiting the "mistress group" so I can run DARK•HERITAGE on the side without attempting to sabotage the game of the guy in our group who's running now (which I don't want to do both because he's my friend and that wouldn't be nice, and because I'm enjoying it too much to want to stop it just so I can run) I think honing the edge on what I want is timely.

First off, although I talk a fair bit about houserules and system on this blog and on my wikis; I'm not actually much of a rules-oriented kinda guy.  I think worrying about rules in the actual game itself is counter-productive to fun.  I'm much more concerned about everything else going on in the game; I want the rules to fade into the background.  That's part of the reason why I picked a rule system that I'm pretty familiar with, which runs predictably and based on common principles rather than a lot of ad hoc and disparate subsystems (feats notwithstanding, grumble, grumble), and which is easy for me to run (and based on its popularity and commonality in the market is presumably easy for everyone else to play.)  It's not the perfect rule system.  In fact, I had to make peace with a number of elements that I don't really like and which don't really quite replicate the setting.  Most of those I've houseruled to where they aren't a major factor in the game.  The one lingering one that I haven't is combat.  ALL d20 combat, by nature, is much harder to do in a narrative fashion than it is to do grid-based.  I intensely dislike grid-based combat, however, so we're going to do it narrative style, and do our best.  You'll have to expect and accept a little bit of a fast and loose approach, and plenty of GM rulings in place of painful consultations of the rules themselves.  I'm just not interested in doing it otherwise.  With the right group (and yes, I've had them in the past) that works just fine.  With the wrong group, that's a potential disaster waiting to happen.  I'm just going to have to be up-front about my tastes and style and do my best to filter potential players to make sure I don't get someone who's really into the tactical aspect of d20 combat who is going to be continually frustrated by my lack of emphasis on it, and hope for the best.

Next; I've given before three themes as central to DARK•HERITAGE: intrigue, crime, and horror.  However, in my setting development on the blog, I've actually not given a lot of "meat" around the theme of intrigue, meaning that if I were to really focus on that in a potential new game coming up, I'd have to be making stuff up from scratch, because I don't have enough of it to work with really.  That's a hole that needs filling.  Expect me to do a few posts in the next few weeks that give some good hooks for intrigue.  If nothing else, just so I can run with them without having to come up with them last minute.  I do think I've got a lot of hooks for crime; including lists of organized crime syndicates, and development of Porto Liure and Sarabasca, two locations that have their economy largely driven by smuggling, piracy, and other criminal enterprises, and who have governments who have as a matter of semi-public policy made a notable point of looking the other way to facilitate that crime.

I've also done a fair bit of development in the arena of supernatural horror, both traditional/gothic in style, and overtly Lovecraftian.  Both are elements that are hugely important to the game as I envision it, and I couldn't call my setting SWORD & SANITY if I didn't, nor could I use the tagline: "D&D rules, Call of Cthulhu play paradigm."

I've also considered four genres to be the most foundational "add-ons" to the obvious secondary world fantasy of the setting: the Golden Age of Piracy, the Old West, mainstream thrillers, and again; supernatural horror.  I'm not sure that I've really talked about how, exactly, I see those "add-ons" contributing to the game, or how to incorporate them.  I've mentioned them.  But that's about it.  Again; another hole that needs filling; something that I need to talk about a bit more from time to time.  Especially if I'm about to run a game in the next few months or so; I need to know how I'm planning on approaching that.

And finally, I've talked about how I have three "core" areas of the setting, combined with numerous peripherals.  I've developed one of those core areas, the Terrasan sphere, a fair bit.  I've done enough with the Baal Hamazi region for the time being.  The al-Qazmir region is, on the other hand, woefully underdeveloped and inadequate.  I'd have to, by default, avoid that as a region that gets much attention, just because I've done too little development of it to make it workable.  On the other hand, I've done enough development of some "peripheral" areas like Kurushat and the Forbidden Lands that I could have at least some element of a campaign travel to those lands.  Since those are supposed to be peripheral and al-Qazmir is supposed to be core, that's a hole that desperately needs filling.

In summary; three holes that need to be talked about and filled in more: hooks on which to hang intrigue, how to go about incorporating genre "add-ons" to the game in a way that doesn't feel artificial, and develop the al-Qazmir region at least sufficiently well that I can talk about it as intelligently as I can the Baal Hamazi region. 


Well, I tried to type this in the comments to a post on another  blog.  It's not working.  Apparently I'm too long-winded or something.  So, I'm posting the comment here, and I'll link to this post.

For those of you who read my blog otherwise (Hi, Mom--I know you're my only reader)... just ignore this post or something.  Sorry.  The post I'm responding to is here:

I liked watching (or listening, I admit that I opened up some other windows on top of it and did some work) for it's own sake. Sure, reading and listening/watching are two different experiences. But seriously; is anyone worried about slow or metered connections anymore to the point where they can't watch Youtube? What is this, 1996? I think at this point, if someone can't watch a youtube vlog, then they'll just have to accept that they're going to miss out on stuff. Youtube's a pretty darn mainstream format for content delivery these days.

To make a post that's a little less light on meaningful content, I think that this type of vlog discussion is part of the reason that the OSR is often stigmatized by many for being too reverential, and going through a kind of "this is the way Gary did it, so it's the One True Way to play the game." Whether or not that's fair (and it probably isn't, really) vlogs like this still perpetuate that view. It's one thing to like the same kinds of stories that Gary did, but to pronounce that their PRIMARY MERITS are that Gary liked them and based some element of D&D on them doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the analysis of the books.

I DON'T like a lot of the material that Gary liked, and that he used to base elements of the game on. I like a lot of stuff that Gary couldn't have read, because it didn't come along until long after he wasn't involved in D&D anymore. Then again, maybe I'm not the right person to be commenting here, because frankly, I don't know how much I like D&D itself really. I love fantasy gaming, but D&D--as you say in the vlog--is very specific about a lot of things, and those are often the things that I dislike, because they don't resemble the things that I like in fantasy literature, which was ultimately my avenue into gaming. HOWEVER, I think it's perfectly within the Old School way of thought to houserule the heck out of my games to get them to provide the experience that *I personally* want from the game.

But I guess that's where I often find myself--not exactly at odds, because it doesn't bother me in the least that people do this--but scratching my head at commentary from the OSR. There's not necessarily a lot of discussion that goes something like this: "I'm doing this because I like it, and it brings xyz to the game that I think is really cool." Rather, there's more commentary like this than I expect: "I'm doing this because Gary did it this way, or because the sword & sorcery literature that Gary liked was done this way. No comment whatsoever on what I like or why. Not clear if I'm gaming because I like it, or if its some kind of ritualistic recreation of my best estimate of a Gygaxian gaming ideal." Again; I'm probably vastly overstating that tone from the OSR. The OSR is clearly a big, sprawling thing with all kinds of people who like it for all kinds of reasons. But I'm a bit surprised that that sentiment exists at all, sometimes. I just can't figure out why it's relevant. I don't care what Gary liked or what Gary read. I care about what *I* like and what I've read. I'd like to see stuff discussed on its own merits, not simply held out as "this must be good *a priori* because Gary liked it, or because it was foundational to D&D" or whatever.

Again to clarify; I don't mean this as a complaint. Even if someone is merely joylessly and ritualistically trying to recreate Gary Gygax's prototype 1974 gaming experience from right as the game was being published or whatever; that's fine, if that's what they want to do. However, I just don't find that a very compelling argument on why to do something or why to read something, or why the game should be carefully maintained a certain way, or whatever--and I do think that there's a surprising amount of that tone in OSR discussions, which I find turns me off somewhat.

However... I do find it amusing that two grognards are arguing on how to pronounce grognard. For what it's worth, I know that in French it's pronounced somewhat like groan-YAR, but I also agree that in ENGLISH it would be pronounced as it looks--grog-nard. :)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me!

Yep.  Today's my birthday.  Last year was a Big Round Number™ so this year is just kinda "meh" and anti-climactic.  But, it's still my birthday, and that means some small celebration of the fact that I came to be.  For me, I'm giving some thought to my roots; the things placed in motion that led to me being born.  The lives and actions of my immediate (and less immediate) ancestors.

And... as such, I'm giving some thought to the inception of my setting, DARK•HERITAGE.  I don't mean how I came to think of it (I've already done that thought experiment here, here, here, here and here--best read in that order), I mean the internal history of the setting.  So far, I've resisted going too far back, or telling too much about the history of the setting except in somewhat immediate terms.  There's a reason for this.  Three of them, actually.  First, it isn't likely to be relevant to any gaming (or fiction) in the setting for quite a long time.  Therefore, it isn't a high priority to develop.  Secondly, it's a factor of the fantasy genre that writers like to come up with long time lines and histories.  I'm purposefully avoiding this in part to distance myself from traditional fantasy, but also because this usually tends to be overly long, tedious and somewhat bloated.  If done right, it can be pretty cool, but I'm not going to take the chance that I don't have the chops to do it right.  And thirdly, whatever history there is, will no doubt be a Secret History.  After all, this is "D&D rules, Call of Cthulhu paradigm."  And the Lovecraftian view of history is well documented in stories like "At the Mountains of Madness" and elsewhere, as a dark, secret history that man does not know about, and indeed flees from the knowledge of, because it does not imply a bright heritage or future for mankind as a whole.  It implies, in fact, a DARK•HERITAGE.  Heh.  No coincidence there.  Nope.

Anyway, as a Secret History™, it's best left undescribed.  Heck, I'm not even interested in necessarily describing solely for my own benefit.  Leaving it undeclared means that I have flexibility to hint at all kinds of stuff, but not really decide what's going on for a long time.  This is, to use an analog from gaming, similar to the death of Aroden in the Pathfinder setting.  It's one of the most important events of the semi-recent past in terms of getting the setting to the state that it's in today, and yet it's completely unexplained.  The Paizo developers have pretty much said outright that they have no intention of ever publishing the "solution" to the mystery of Aroden's death, because it works better as a mysterious thing that happened in the past then it does as something with a published solution.

For what it's worth, Keith Baker said something very similar about an element in Eberron; the mysterious "accident" (or maybe it wasn't) that completely destroyed the nation of Cyre, created the Mournland, and brought the war to an end.  Nobody knows what happened there, and there's no answer coming anytime soon, if ever.

I don't know that I like the notion of never having an answer to mysteries, but certainly there's no rush to get there.  The setting loses a significant amount of its mystique (and thus its appeal) when certain big mysteries that all of the characters who inhabit the setting itself don't know the answer to is revealed to the readers/players.  Then again, as the capstone to a long campaign or novel series, you like to see those kinds of things finally answered too, or they become irritating loose ends.

Secret city of the Elder Things
The problem with a secret history is not only that it needs to remain secret to be effective--at least for quite some time, but also that it needs to contrast to the mainstream history.  One of my complaints about Doug Hulick's novel Among Thieves, which I quite liked otherwise, was that it presented a secret history of the setting before the established history was... well... established in the mind of the reader.  Therefore, the impact of the secret history was pretty minimal.

So, for today, I'm thinking of giving a few big picture views of the history of the world of DARK•HERITAGE.  These views are fairly well-informed, internal opinions that certain people or peoples of the setting may have.  But they are not perfect.  The formulators of the opinion are not perfect in their knowledge or their process for acquiring knowledge.  These big picture views probably contradict each other--or they may treat with subjects that do not intersect exactly.  They can't literally all be true.  In fact, they might be completely untrue.  But... it's the best you can get.  This is, in fact, much more knowledge than I'd be likely to give to a player in a campaign set in DARK•HERITAGE, at least at the outset of a new campaign.

Mainstream View History of the World:  In the beginning, there was nothingness.  In the midst of the nothingness, elder, chthonic consciousnesses formed.  These beings, by their basically instinctual and non-sentient natures, spawned descendants.  From these came the first Great Spirits, the Primordial Gods.  The Primordial Gods created the world, but it was very different in form from the world today.  In time, a new generation of gods came to be.  These are the gods we know now.  They had a plan to create Mankind to people the world, but the harsh, alien nature of the world would be inimical to the life of Mankind.  Therefore, the gods went to war with the primordial gods, and overthrew them.  Once the way was cleared, they created Mankind, and sent them forth across the face of the world.  Mankind today worships the gods as not only their creators, but also their protectors who paved the way for them to come forth.  Of course, this doesn't mean that the gods are necessarily benevolent, especially to individuals.  The Gods are, therefore, propitiated in an attempt to continue their favorable practice of relative non-intervention, and so they can protect the world in case the primordial gods ever arise again and attempt to wrest the world back from the hands of the mortals and their divine protectors.

First Secret History of the World: Paraphrased from an esoteric academic associated with the Universitat at Razina two centuries ago, as published in the book De Vermis Mysteriis.  The book itself has been outlawed, and its author, who's name is expurgated from the historical record by the Inquisition, was tortured and put to death.  Fragmentary copies, and other works that paraphrase or summarize the book do exist, and from such is this history mostly constructed.

In the beginning there was raw chaos situated amongst a sea of nothingness.  The friction between these two states created the first consciousnesses, sentiences, or vast spirits of intellect.  Over time, these beings create the concept of "place" and places are made from the chaos within the nothingness.  One of these places is the World.  To perpetuate their "place" these vast consciousnesses create, perhaps consciously, perhaps merely as a side-effect of their acts of creation, the first life.  Prior to the coming of human life, other beings dwelt on the world.  Some of these were attuned to the chaos, and others to the nothingness--humanity, however, was attuned to neither, but capable of using elements of both.  This is the foundation of mortal sorcery.  With the advent of mortal sorcery, the consciousnesses took notice of humanity, and humanity was put forever at risk of annihilation.  The greatest of mortal sorcerers--beings of vast power that no one today can comprehend, took up arms against this threat and banished the consciousnesses to somewhere Outside; a prison or Hell created for them, where they slumber and sleep fitfully, unable to directly threaten humanity again until some day in the far future, when the stars are right, and the prison opens and the End Times come.

The survivors of this war ascended to Godhood, and became the first deities worshipped by early humans.  Direct knowledge of them faded over time, and the gods worshipped today are the pale echoes of truth that was once widely known.

Second Secret History of the World: Paraphrased and summarized from a book brought from across the sea by the jann when they arrived on the shores of the Land of Three Empires.  The book, Prophecies of the Daemon-sultan by Abdullah al-Azrad presents a secret history of the world theory, including surprising and disturbing details that seem to apply quite well to the Forbidden Lands--even though the jann did not live on the same continent and should not have known anything about the Forbidden Lands before arriving on these nearer shores.

In the beginning, the world was filled only with plants, and beasts, and other low creatures that arose spontaneously by the natural forces that created the stars, the sun, the moon and the world itself.  But a thinning or tearing in the walls between our world and the Worlds Outside allowed for alien intelligences to come into our world, and from such is the root of humanity.  "Engineered up" from the beasts to serve as the slaves of these alien races, humanity suffered in cruel humility for millenia.  Finally, heroes who understood the basics of sorcery could start to stand up to these aliens and had weapons capable of dealing them harm, although the use of sorcery was usually as deadly to the user as to those it was used on (hence its general state of outlawry today in any civilized society.)  The first Great King, Jhaddar al-Mazad, was finally able to defeat these aliens and exterminate or drive them from our world to the great Worlds Outside.  The tear or thin spot was "patched up"--although the patch is not perfect, and strangeness still leaks through in slow and insidious fashion.  The center of this leak is Leng, a desolate plateau located in the area known today as the Forbidden Lands, and from there, this alienness spreads slowly but surely throughout the world.

But the heroism of Jhaddar al-Mazad allowed for the freedom and development of human society.  It is said that he will be reincarnated someday in the future when the strangeness from Leng threatens to rip open the boundary between the World and the Worlds Outside anew.  This time, however, the seal will be perfect, and the aliens will be shut out forever.

Third Secret History of the World: Summarized from personal communication that a researcher from the Academy at Porto Liure received in an interview with a vampire elder from Tarush Noptii.  Never published, but circulated in limited form as a series of hand-written notes.

The supernatural and alien life forms didn't come to earth prior to humanity; it fell from the sky in the distant past.  Tarush, the fallen god of Tarush Noptii, was only the most recent of the fallen gods to come to earth.  A large concentration of them fell in the Forbidden Lands thousands of years ago--maybe tens of thousands of years ago.  Maybe even much longer ago than that.  The entire plateau of Leng and the mountains that surround it are their prison, and unknown Kadath, that dark, mysterious fortress-city, was meant to keep watch over them.  Servitor races meant to be "wardens" and "prison guards" for the gods still wander the area, in many cases their purpose forgotten, which is why that place is so much more alien and so much more dangerous than anywhere else.  Who created these servitor races and gave them their mandate?  Why, newer gods, who took over from the Old Gods and imprisoned them in the Vaults of Zin for all time.  But the time will come when the newer gods will in their stead be the older, out-going gods who will be overthrown, perhaps by mortals ascended.  (Or undead ascended, as the case may be.)