Thursday, August 29, 2013

A few m20 revisions

So, for "my m20" houserules, I adopted most of the spells and whatnot from Microlite74.  Microlite74 was, naturally, designed to "feel like" 0e style D&D, although utilizing a minimalist interpretation of d20.  I don't know that the differences are really all that major between Microlite74 and other Microlite fantasy games (in fact, I'd argue that they are not) but I was, at least, not terribly thrilled that my magic system for DARK•HERITAGE felt like the magic system for D&D, which is mostly did.

So, I've tweaked it ever so slightly.

First off, it's not my intention that the game should ever be played beyond 10th level.  Because of this, I've only made available up to 5th level spells normally.  As in the rest of the microlite family, there isn't any "fire and forget" or spell-slot type mechanism; it costs you hit points (that can't be healed magically) to cast spells, which naturally limit your ability to continue casting ad nauseum but which feels much more "naturalistic" than spell slots, which always felt really arbitrary and weird.  In addition to not having spells over 5th level, I also trimmed the spell list just a bit for spells that just didn't feel right for my game.

In reviews (and after a glance at the rules I agree that this is most likely true), the sorcerer is probably too powerful.  Lacking many of the "lows" of typical d20 magic-using classes, like low BAB or low hit points, but still having access to potent spells with the relatively "cheap" cost of taking a few points of hit point damage when casting them, this was neither balanced, nor did it fit with the tone of my setting.

Also, the spells were so recognizably D&D spells, that they would never feel like anything other than D&D anyway.

So... a few things needed fixing.  First off, casting spells also comes with a risk of taking damage to your MND score.  This approximates the sanity cost that spellcasters would incur in a game like d20 Call of Cthulhu--right up my alley.  Secondly, I only took the magic-user class and the arcane spell list; there's no such thing as divine magic or clerics (either with another name or not) in my world.  Thirdly, if you roll a natural 1 on your "save" to avoid taking the MND damage, you attract the attention of 1d3 hounds of Tindalos with your bumbling meddling with the forces that separate the Realms (by metaphysical theory, magic is taking energy from one realm, or from the space between realms, and using that energy to create an effect that is out of whack with natural law within the realm in which you cast it.)  Casting a spell, taking both hit point and MND damage and then having hounds of Tindalos show up to attack you makes using magic a risky affair--again, exactly in line with the tone of my setting in which the supernatural is fundamentally an unnatural and dangerous thing.

Then, I also used the ritual magic rules, which are in one of the versions of Microlite74 anyway, to bring some spells back.  I have a truncated list of higher level spells which can only be cast as rituals.  You can also cast any spell on the spell list, even if it's not in your repertoire, assuming you have a copy of the ritual requirements, as a ritual.  Rituals are even more dangerous (in many ways) than regular spells, and they take a lot longer.  You can, however, spread the risk around and mitigate it by casting it as a coven, or with a partner or two.

Finally, I renamed all of the spells, even though I did very little to change their effects.  Even though the game rules may be the same, casting magic missile feels like D&D, while casting withering of the Haunter does not.

T is for the Tether

Deep in the wilderness territory that once made up the Baal Hamazi empire is the Tether.  Located in a thickly wooded hanging valley on the edge of the Kindattu Mountains, overloooking the much drier grasslands of the Hallashu Basin, the Tether is not a destination for many.  Too far away, and bounded by mountains that are difficult to cross, or a vast savanna where the availability of water is uncertain, the large hanging valley is also infamous for its savage tribes of head-hunting and man-eating changelings; the most barbaric and violent enclave of a race that is not known for its peaceful interactions with others in most cases.  In this case, the Hallashu changelings, as they are sometimes called, make even the dangerous woses of the Shifting Forest seem tame.  Legend holds that the curse of lycanthropy itself originated in this very hanging valley (called the Wose Basin) and that even today genuine werewolves sometimes lead hunting bands of woses.

Despite this, sometimes people do want to reach the Wose Basin, to see the Tether.  The Tether is the unofficial name for a large city built on a floating rock.  It is believed that the city itself would float completely away except that it is tethered (hence the name) by four gigantic chains that are rooted in the bedrock of the mountains.  Nobody except legendary, or at least semi-legendary, characters have ever managed to climb the chains to reach the city, so nobody is for sure who lives in it.  It is apparent that someone does, as occasionally litter falls from the waterfalls that course off the floating rock, and lights can be seen in the windows at night.  Occasionally sounds, as of celebrations or clashes of arms can be heard from high above.

The inhabitants of the Tether interact very little with the world below, although clearly they can see it and know of some of the other nearby cities amongst the hamazin and elsewhere.  The city is known to them as Mael Aaru.  About 2,000 individuals live there.  A few of them are regular humans, although it is unknown of what original racial stock they originate, or how they got on the city.  There is also a very small number of embodied spirits of various types, who call themselves either angels or djinn.  The majority of the inhabitants are mostly human, with a touch of angelic or djinnic blood in them (i.e., nephilim.)

In reality, the inhabitants of Mael Aaru interact much more with various inhabitants of beings who live in "Nearby Outside"; i.e., in otherworldly realms that are similar in many ways to the world itself, and populated by creatures that are not terribly alien.  This cosmology is too complicated to be summarized too quickly here (besides, it surely deserves its own post at some future point, assuming I get around to defining it--in reality, DARK•HERITAGE is not meant to be a "planes-hopping" setting anyway.) King Semyaza of Mael Aaru self-identifies as an angel, although he is extremely lustful and cruel in his personal life, if not necessarily to his subjects overall.  He maintains relationships with other polities from the Near Realms, such as the City of Brass.  Because of his, the Tether is a fairly cosmopolitan place, and can be a nexus by which Outsiders from the Near Realms make their way into the world--much as the Plateau of Leng is a nexus by which much more alien Outsiders from the Far Realms make their way into the world.

Despite the fact that Outsiders from the Near Realms are less alien than some Outsiders, they are not often friendly to humanity or their closely related sister-races, such as woses, neanderthals, hellspawn or jann.  In reality, the Tether, if one were to make their way up the chains to the city, is not a hospitable or safe place for any mortal of any kind except perhaps those who are native to it and know how to navigate its intricacies.  On very rare occasions, semi-legendary heroes have climbed the chains, and even more rarely won the favor of a citizen of Mael Aaru and been allowed to stay, or travel from there to the Near Realms.  Powerful sorcerers occasionally frequent its streets, but as they are equally strange, nearly inhuman due to their exposure to eldritch witchery, and able to hold their own against powerful deity-like entities, they don't really count.  It is rumored that the Heresiarchy meet on occasion for conference on Mael Aaru.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Primeval Thule vs. Dark•Heritage

Well, since discovering the Primeval Thule website (admittedly, a little belatedly.  The Kickstarter's long gone.  I guess I just don't pay attention to RPG biz news anymore.) I've been giving some thought to how it compares (and contrasts) with my own setting, since they're built on somewhat similar conceits.

Primeval Thule is built firmly on an old-fashioned sword & sorcery take on the genre, with an emphasis on the Lovecraftian.  As I've said before (in fact, on my own take on the definition of SWORD & SANITY which is maybe a little cheeky of me, since I didn't coin the phrase) sword & sorcery already comes with a hefty dose of Lovecraftiana, or Yog-Sothothery as it's often called.  The original writers of the genre were firmly in Lovecraft's Weird Tales inner circle; Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith were all amongst the "Three Musketeers" of Weird Tales, and were good friends, and while they all had their own personal takes on things, they also purposefully worked in the same ouvre, and borrowed liberally from each other.  That said, as sword & sorcery evolved, its focus on Yog-Sothothery waned; even later writers of Conan, for instance, didn't really get it.  Later writers of other characters either purposefully eschewed that aspect of the genre, or didn't understand it.  In that sense, the SWORD & SANITY label remains useful, because it refers to work that emphasize the Yog-Sothothery, rather than minimalize or eliminate it.  Now, DARK•HERITAGE, keep in mind, is not necessarily built on a sword & sorcery chassis to begin with, as Primeval Thule clearly is.  Rather, DARK•HERITAGE freely borrows elements from all kinds of adventure tales--old-fashioned westerns, swashbuckling pirate stories a la Rafael Sabatini, hard-boiled or even noir crime stories--and, of course, Yog-Sothothery.  Why it "counts" as fantasy is because I've made a regular "secondary world" fantasy setting, complete with exotic races and everything.  It just doesn't have the pseudo-Medieval or pseudo-sword & sandal feel to it that most fantasy does.

So, that introduction out of the way, let's make some specific comparisons.  There are two pages on the Primeval Thule website that are useful for this, because they summarize the setting.  First, Primeval Thule in seven sentences, and then also sword & sorcery or D&D?  The latter is more about contrasting sword & sorcery to D&D as it's become, which is still useful, because of course most gamers are more familiar with D&D than with any other mode of fantasy.  But both pages give me a format I can mimic to compare and contrast Primeval Thule with DARK•HERITAGE and by doing so, help better define what I think SWORD & SANITY really is.

First, "Thule is barbaric."  Savage tribes, and Bronze Age-like cities are an important part of the sword & sandal feel that created the first sword & sorcery stories.  This is true in some senses for my setting, but not in others.  Savage tribes of barbarians are certainly important, but DARK•HERITAGE doesn't feature cities that reinforce that First Civilization feel; rather, its cities are old, decadent and baroque.  Characters don't wear loinclothes and sandals as they explore the wilderness; they're more likely to be in buckskin and fur caps. 

Next, "The Wilderness is Savage and Spectacular."  Yes, indeed.  One of the conceits of my setting is that it features Pleistocene megafauna, that is, animals like you'd find on Stone Age cave paintings in Europe, or dug out of the tar pits at La Brea.  The Wilderness is like the Old West in some ways, and like a safari in Africa on steroids in others.

"Cities are Wicked Places."  I also agree strongly with this in my own setting.  I've said many times before that every city in DARK•HERITAGE  is by default, a "wretched hive of scum and villainy."  That has not changed, and will not.  I prefer that corruption to be just below the surface, rather than overt--a convention that I probably got from noir type stories.  Organized crime, piracy, dangerous cults, corrupt leadership--these are all daily facets of life in my setting.  But the inhabitants of the city at least put on a show of being civilized.  They're not so brazen as to openly claim to be party to the iniquity, because it's still unacceptable to get caught red-handed involved with it.

"The World is Mysterious."  Yeah, geographical knowledge is relatively scarce, and there's a lot of odd things in far corners of the setting (which, lets not forget, is hardly the entire surface of my planet.  I've mapped out an area that's maybe roughly equivalent in square mileage to the lower 48 states or Europe (which, for the curious, are about 3.1 million square miles and 3.9 million square miles, respectively.)  Even in relatively well-known areas, there are lots of broad expanses of wilderness, and who knows what's hiding in it.  Some of this is because the great "empires" of the age have fallen into disrepair.  Loose connections along thin ribbons of road or caravan route connect the cities, which are often islands under seige, surrounded by barbarism.

"Magic is a secret Man Was Not Meant To Know."  While my current m20 set of rules doesn't necessarily punish spellcasters too much, and it hews a bit closer in mechanics to D&D than I'd like in many ways, magic is still a perilous endeavor to undertake in DARK•HERITAGE and as in Primeval Thule, sorcerers are feared and shunned.  Magic is not, fundamentally, a human endeavor, and the human mind is poorly equipped to handle it.  The secrets of magic were almost certainly stolen from... something else.  Something inhuman.  And powerful sorcerers, the real movers and shakers of magic, are more like the Ten Who Were Taken (from The Black Company) then thay are like Gandalf or Merlin.

"Ancient Evils Threaten to Destroy Humankind."  Yes, this is the crux of Yog-Sothothery.  If neither of our settings featured this, they'd be hard pressed to claim any kind of link to Lovecraft, wouldn't they?

"Thule is a world of adventurers, not heroes."  I've long made a similar claim about my setting; I almost prefer amoral, mercenary, freebooter types of characters to a goody-two-shoes "hero."  This is, of course, totally in line with the old sword & sorcery stories, where Conan, Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and others were pretty rough around the edges, although basically honorable.  Other characters like Kane, Cugel and more were even worse.  But they were always entertaining!

In comparison to high fantasy, which has suffused D&D in many ways, the Primeval Thule people consider sword & sorcery to be more action driven.  This is, as they point out, also a feature of D&D, which was always a hybrid of sword & sorcery, high fantasy, and a number of other things as well anyway.  Now, I certainly like action as much as the next guy, and I'm not going to say that DARK•HERITAGE is lacking in action, but my setting, on the other hand, does overtly feature a lot of horror elements--and not just in terms of having horror monsters for you to shout huzzah at and go beat up with your sword.  In terms of pacing, in terms of tone, and even in terms of what you should expect to do (after all, running in fear for your life is also action, if not quite as heroic as standing to die horribly at the claws of some kind of elder evil) I think there's a difference between how I expect the game to feel compared to either D&D or sword & sorcery.

Sword & sorcery, unlike many D&D games, doesn't really feature earth-shattering threats on a daily basis.  Not every game is about saving the world from the Dark Lord.  These are features of high fantasy, and neither sword & sorcery nor sword & sanity should see that as the default mode.

In comparison to D&D, sword and sorcery (and sword & sanity) is relatively low magic.  Now, this means a few things.  The Primeval Thule folks created four separate bullet points as sub-headings of this category of description.  I think all are interesting:

First, it's humanocentric.  There are fewer non-humans, and they will be less fantastic in many ways.  In fact, most sword & sorcery is completely  humanocentric to the point where non-humans are just monsters, not potential player character races at all.  In PT, this means that they've still gone with the high-fantasy influenced races (elves, dwarves, etc.) but "savaged" them up a bit, and made them rarer.  I, on the  other hand, have completely disregarded the "typical" fantasy races, in favor of a collection of fantasy races that mostly consisted of human bloodlines that have been altered, or perhaps even cursed, into something a little more exotic.  Many folks complain about science fiction and fantasy aliens (or races) just being men in funny suits, but in my case, that's exactly what they are; men who were cursed or altered which brings out some of their human characteristics in sharp relief.

As in Primeval Thule, spellcasters are rare and not-trusted.  That doesn't mean players can't play them, but it does mean that they won't find a lot of NPC sorcerers around, and if they do, they will likely be rivals, opponents, or at best, folks who are completely uninterested in interacting with the PCs in any kind of friendly way at all.

There is also no magic item market.  You don't buy and sell magic items.  They are rare and mysterious, and if you find one at all, you'll probably use it forever.  I don't even anticipate that magic items play an important role in any DARK•HERITAGE game except as plot devices.  After all, magic items is also synonymous with "cursed item" in most respects.  Magic isn't every something that one uses lightly.

The last point they highlight as "Monsters, not ecology."  This is, no doubt, a reference to a popular set of articles in the old Dragon magazine called "Ecology of the..." followed by some D&D monster.  As in Thule, in the land of the Three Empires, monsters are more likely to be almost singular rather than members of a species.  They don't have ecologies, they're monsters.  Remember: DARK•HERITAGE is as much informed by horror conventions as by fantasy ones.  If you meet a monster of any kind, it should be very memorable.  Monsters are never random encounters; the occurance of one is the subject of an entire module worth of trouble for the PCs.

In summary, I found a lot of elements of commonality between Primeval Thule and my setting; but many of them were not as marked as I thought they would be.  Primeval Thule is sword & sanity in the sense that it's seeking to restore D&D to its sword & sorcery roots, Yog-Sothothery and all.  It feels, in fact, very highly informed specifcally by Clark Ashton Smith and his Hyperborea Cycle (although other elements of pulpish sword & sorcery are evident, and it is, of course, an original setting.)  It's "old school" in a sense that even the oldest version of D&D never was, since D&D was written after fantasy had matured and evolved quite a bit from its sword & sorcery roots, and has done so even more since 1974.

DARK•HERITAGE, on the other hand, often has similarities that are superficial, and come from a different place, even though they might seem to bear a close resemblance to sword & sorcery.  Taking a more amoral, noir-ish approach, focusing on the horror aspects even more than the fantasy aspects, and grafting in genre conventions that aren't even associated with fantasy as its typically known today at all, make DARK•HERITAGE a perhaps even more unfamiliar place, at least to those who don't stray far from fantasy normally.  Much of what is common between my setting and PT is based on our shared emphasis on Yog-Sothothery and Lovecraftiana.

As an aside, for that illustration, from the PT website, I sure hope that guy isn't going commando under that loincloth...

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sword & Sanity go big time!

Well, well, well... quite by coincidence, I came across this nice little site and recently funded kickstarter: Primeval Thule, a setting (for multiple systems) that perfectly encapsulates the concept of SWORD & SANITY, but rather than being a fan or OSR or whatever type project, it's a "real" project by folks who are well-known game designers.

Just to make sure I hit all the bases, I have to link this.

m20 Dark•Heritage

After spending a fair bit of time on it, I've taken my posts on m20 and created an entirely complete, fully ready to play game from them using the m20 chassis.

Many of the actual m20 documents are not really written in such a way that they're "complete"--rather, they're complete if you can fill in the gaps on what this means because you have prior experience with playing d20, the more complex parent of m20.

Although I don't anticipate that I'll actually have any non-d20 veterans that will play my DH m20, I've still written it in such a way that it's a "complete" game by my reckoning--including, having a decent list of spells and monsters, and my own custom character sheet (don't get excited; it's not that big a deal.)  Those items take up about a third of the document.  With a page dedicated to a cover sheet, one for an "Author's Note", one for the OGL (in fairly small font) and one for the character sheet, this is really quite a compact game.  Keep in mind that the original D&D Basic set was 48 pages, and the Moldvay set (where I came on the scene, and widely regarded as one of the best-written of the first generation of D&D games) was 64.

Now, I'm not really an OSR type of guy, and it's not my intention to create a game that feels "Old School".  There's some discussion from out there on the internet that says "Old School" is light rules and fast and loose style, while "Modern Games" are heavily loaded up with tons of rules and detail.  This is frankly preposterous, and only holds true if you assume that gaming is D&D (and games that spun off of the OGL) and ignore everything else going on in the entire RPG industry.  AD&D is demonstrably "Old School" and demonstrably complex and complicated.  Other game systems, such as FATE are demonstrably modern and demonstrably rules light and fast and loose in structure.  To give just a few examples.

Rather, this is an attempt, made by me (and by my predecessors who have worked on the m20 systems already extant) to take a d20 game, and make it easier, less complex, and less complicated.  It's not really meant to feel too much like D&D, although for simplicity's sake, I've used D&D spells, more or less.  This will make it feel more like D&D (at least in some ways), but the other changes to the system will hopefully make it feel significantly less so.  

Because the state of the Microlite74 was more conducive to being modified than "basic" m20, I've used a lot of text (particularly spells and monsters) from that game rather than from "basic" m20.  This will also drive some very superficial resemblances to OSR type games, since Microlite74 was specifically meant to be a way of using m20 to mimic OD&D (or perhaps OD&D's retro-clone Swords & Wizardry.)  Despite this, I believe these similarities to be more superficial rather than meaningful and significant.

Anyway, here's the m20 document, in full.  The entire thing, including character sheet, cover page, OGL and everything else is 27 pages.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Fascinating commentary on the state of book publishing right here.  Personally, I don't think I've bought more than a dozen regular "narrative reading" books in a brick-n-mortar bookstore in the last ten years (and most of those were in one fell swoop when I burned through a gift card.)  Otherwise, I'm all Amazon all the time.

And I am a very late adopter of ebooks.  I still don't really do them much, and I don't have a dedicated device for them.  But the writing is on the wall for bookstores (heck; that writing was on the wall 10-15 years ago.  Now everybody's moved past it already.)  The writing is on the wall for traditional publishing houses.  Turns out, hey!  People don't like elitist gatekeepers enriching themselves while limiting supply.  With no need to work through the gatekeepers anymore, the only thing keeping them running is inertia.  I'll probably run them on for a few more years.  Maybe even a decade or two.  But at some point, it'll be obvious that the value they provide to customers and writers both is negligible.  And who wants to pay someone a bunch of money for negligible return?

Wrtiers will increasinly be self-promoting via the internet, and will reach their market on their own merits, and may, in fact, quickly become mostly self-published.  This will not only benefit the writer when the customer base finally is completely on board, but will also greatly benefit the customer, who will have much more selection and much more choice.

In theory, the publishers could make the argument that they do provide a service, to me the customer, by filtering poor manuscripts, and providing editing and polishing work (as well as snazzy cover art, which let's face it--I still like.)  But in reality, I'm not thrilled with their service, I think it poorly serves me, and it generally adds little to no value to me.  I've read far too many piss-poor novels that were published to suspect that the ones that aren't are really even worse.  Plus, almost every author has a story of being rejected multiple times before finally finding a publisher who goes on to make a killing with their story.  The idea that publishers are actually effective filters for customers is proveably false.

On the other hand, I do buy a fair bit of books from stores that are not bookstores per se.  I buy many of my gaming books from a game store, for instance.  I buy Boy Scout books from a hobby/hardware store.  I buy model railroading books (on occasion; that's just an armchair hobby for me, I'm not really a model railroader) from a hobby shop.  For those kinds of markets, traditional publishing still has a potentially rosy future, and the article linked above seems to suggest that as well.

But frankly, I don't even buy that many books anyway, compared to how many I read.  Thank you, public library.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Can't... post... comment...

EDIT:  Whoops!  Linked the wrong post from the blog...  Fixed now.

I tried to comment on a blog post that I got led to via some link or other.  For some reason, my comment didn't take.  But since I had spent a good 15-20 minutes composing it, I didn't want it to go to waste.  Here it is in full.  And here's the post I was responding to...

Meh.  If not the original post, then a great deal of the comments are putting the cart way before the horse.  Ideally, the politics of writers (and musicians, and comedians, and actors, and every other type of entertainer) shouldn't matter, because they should be quiet enough in the background, and they shouldn't so blatantly inform their work, that it doesn't matter.  Going out of my way to inform myself on artists political or social opinions so I can decide who not to patronize seems more likely to hurt me than them. 
And for those artists who do come out publicly, and who do let their worldview slant their writing so much so that it taints their work, I'm clearly not going to keep patronizing their work, nor will I review it kindly, because ham-handed messaging in a work of entertainment is... not entertaining. 
I actually find this nearly as true for writers on the right as much as I do for writers on the left, when their social and political views are really on their sleeve in their work.  
When they're more subtle, on the other hand, I prefer writers who I agree with. 
So, with the case of Joss Whedon (one of the most over-rated artists of our time) I'm certainly not going to miss the next Avengers movie, because I loved the first one, and I can always choose not to go to conventions where he's speaking, or at least not go to his workshops, or watch them on youtube, or read transcripts of them.  Because I don't want to.  Why go out of my way to discover what a commie-pinko jerk he is, if he goes out of his way to tone it down in his movie? 
When he makes another plodding, whiny, overtly feminist TV series that I already know is going to suck just because he's involved with it, and will most likely be cancelled before the first season is over anyway, because everyone will know it will suck, then I'll avoid it. 
Ellen DeGeneres learned this lesson the hard way; her first show, which at one point was apolitical and had no social messaging to speak of, was wildly successful once upon a time.  When they hyped her coming out, it was a big event.  In the wake of that, when the show became all gay all the time, nobody wanted to watch it, and it quickly got cancelled. 
When she came back to TV, she kept her social views and political views, and personal life, for that matter, mostly to herself.  Viola! Turns out she remembered how to be funny and charming again, and people would watch her. 
Rosie O'Donnell essentially killed her career for the same reason; one too many flip-outs about far left issues that made her look like some kind of lunatic, and then nobody wanted to watch her anymore because doing so was painfully annoying. 
Except in niche markets, in which case, sure; pander to a social and/or political niche all you want; that's the whole point, the system more or less works already.  More or less. 
I do think "pimping" genre books that are Right-wing friendly isn't a bad idea, though--as long as the books are reasonably entertaining.  I do admit, that's part of the reason I got into Larry [Correia]'s work in the first place, and I stayed because I think he's a reasonably good author.  I also like Jim Butcher because, although Harry Dresden epitomizes (at least in a few respects) some left-wing garbage from time to time, by and large the Dresden files are friendly to Christians, and people with good old-fashioned beliefs.  Butcher might be as communist as they come, but you don't know it from reading the Dresden Files, because it's about an entrepreneur who has a middlin' successful business, and keeps at it, and works hard, and eventually "graduates" into the big time, so to speak.  It takes elements of Judeo-Christian folklore ("angelology", mostly) and doesn't use it to subtly or not so subtly dig at Christians.  Many of the supporting characters, who are painted extremely sympathetically, are classic, conservative, Christian type characters, including Murphy, Forsythe, Michael, etc. 
And I'm sure left-wing readers also read those books and find much that supports (or at least doesn't contradict) their worldview too.  Is it really so much to expect that by and large the biggest successes will be the ones who don't get all smug, pretentious, holier than thou, ham-fisted message-fest on us in our entertainment?  I don't think so.  And mostly, that seems to be the case. 
You can also witness the spectacular failures of left-wing progaganda filled The Lone Ranger, Elysium, White House Down, The Purge, etc. 
As an aside, E. E. Knight--I have no idea if he's conservative or not, but it seems like his Vampire Earth post-apocalyptic novels have a background Conservative viewpoint as a chassis that supports the stories, so I suspect that he is.  Even if he does live somewhere in the Chicago area. 
As a second aside, I think feminism is one of the most corrosive and toxic agendas ever to hit our culture.  I still like a good kick-ass hot chick as an action star.  They're sexy.  And unless you think the ancient Greeks and the ancient Egyptians (and even the Vikings) were a bunch of male feminist losers, you're hard pressed to claim that the archetype has to belong to feminism.  It's all in how its presented.

Friday, August 16, 2013

R is for Rumors

Porto Liure is one of the signature towns of the DARK•HERITAGE setting, and I envision many if not most of my potential games will take place there.  It is also extremely cosmopolitan, being both a destination and a refuge for all kinds of folks from all over the region, due to its policy of not asking many questions.

The following are rumors that can be heard in and around Porto Liure, and (mostly) have to do with local affairs, although some really bizarre expatriate rumors do make the rounds from time to time.  The truth of most of these will have to reside with the discretion of any particular game master (although for my money, most of them are mostly true.  Mostly.)

When (or if) players are specifically looking to hear rumors, or if they're in a position where they might, feel free to use this table.  Roll 1d20 as many times as you need to determine which rumors they will be hearing.
  1. Baronette Montazin de Galard is a witch, and has designs on the Lord's throne.
  2. One of the guards at the Lord's palace is a spy for a band of pirates.
  3. The Lord's chief contender for the title of Lord-Consort, Segnore Bonolva, is land-poor and his family is nearly penniless.
  4. The Lord's chief contender fo the title of Lord-Consort, Segnore Bonolva is immensely wealthy, with an unguarded fortune tucked away in the cellars of his house here in town.
  5. The owners of the Dog & Drake tavern are former assassins, and still have connections if you need to hire one.
  6. The clergy at the cathedral in Low Tide plaza have been infiltrated by demon-worshippers.
  7. A guard at a warehouse in Foghorn Park dropped dead a few days ago during a scuffle in a tavern with two local, well-known ne'er-do-wells.  But... I saw the guard again the next day, and the bodies of the two scalawags were found on the edge of town, slashed and burned to death!
  8. I once saw a butcher in Qazmir Park fire a shower of flame out of his hand right into a thief's face!  The poor ruffian fell over into the street, dead.
  9. A child was bitten and killed by a gigantic rat near the well in the center of the square in White Stones.
  10. The Emperor in Terrasa is really a vampire, in thrall to overlords from Tarush Noptii.
  11. I once saw what looked like a walking, talking human skeleton down by the docks, directing the unloading of a casket that looked suspiciously like a coffin!
  12. This town isn't nicknamed the Port of Ghosts for nothing!  Beware the ghost of Black Maria, the drawn and quartered daughter-in-law of Jacobo Bernat, the founder of the city.
  13. The dead walk the land near Rocky Hill, outside of town.
  14. I have seen the archbishop of Terrasa come to town himself on occasion!  I don't know why he'd be in Porto Liure.  He was traveling incognito, but when he saw me looking, he covered his face and gestured to his plain-clothes guards.  I beat it quick before they could rough me up.
  15. Something weird is going on up north.  Refugees from the far northern cities of the old Baal Hamazi lands have been fleeing southwards.
  16. The Condor Cliffs is a haven for bandits.  Watch yourself in the woods outside of town.
  17. The woods around Bald Top Hill is a common camp ground for folks who prefer the woods and are not bandits.
  18. There is a pack of fierce, hyena-like animals with dark fur and glowing red eyes that wander the woods to the south of town.
  19. I couldn't believe my eyes.  There he was; larger than life--Dog, drinking from a stream, near the Rockswaddles.  Then he sauntered into a small, hidden defile in the rocks, and disappeared.  I think it might be his mysterious den!
  20. The banks of Pebble Creek is a safe place to make camp if you're ever in the area on the island, outside of town.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Cover art

I’ve said before that DARK•HERITAGE is an odd combination of a number of facets, and a number of genres and a number of tones. While it’s clearly a dark fantasy setting, dark fantasy can be a number of different things, and have a number of different “shades” if you will. One “shade” as an overly, or filter, if you will, of noir over the dark fantasy. Another is an overly of the Golden Age of Piracy, a third is Arabian Nights romanticized Orientalism, and a last is classic Westerns. Those Western and Noir shades come with a tinge, if you will, of steampunk, almost by default. I’m OK with this; while I’m not really (at all) into the steampunk subculture, the rather vaguish steampunk themes in early Iron Kingdoms D&D material were influential in encouraging me to continue to wander afield from “classic” fantasy as my ennui with the genre was developing, but I still wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. Earlier versions of the setting were more overtly steampunk than the version that exists today, where any steampunk elements are exceedingly (and deliberately) vague and rare.

Part of what brings this up is my growing motivation to continue work on my long-suffering novel attempt. Perhaps I should just write the darn thing and then worry about what to do with it, but I’ve been very interested following the career of successful self-published authors who have avoided using “the system” and published their novels as ebooks, without much of the hassle, and with greater control over the finalized project. Some of these guys have been successful enough that major book publishers have then come to them as cold-calls and reissued their books as regular books again. Not saying I expect that to happen to me (although wouldn’t that sure be nice?)

In thinking about what kind of cover art I could get on the (extremely) cheap to use as on a self-published work, I’m leaning towards the following. Dress up my teenaged son, who’s a lot better looking than I am, in a kind of pseudo fantasy/cowboy/steampunk get-up (or at least his top half), take a bust shot, Photoshop that in front of a landscape picture of my own taking of the American southwest (like somewhere in Big Bend or Arches National Parks, since I have some decent and recent pictures of those areas, then sepia tone the whole thing, and add some noise to make it look like a grainy old photo. If I have my son grow a scraggly week or so of Indiana Jonesish scruff, or the best he can do, anyway (he’s only 17) he’d be a close enough approximation of one of my main characters. Maybe a little on the young side, but anywhere from late teens to mid twenties all look about the same, right? Close enough, especially if the image is later manipulated with some grainy noise and color-toning.

My only concern is that rather than looking like a Larry Rostant cover for a good buddy comedy dark fantasy weirdo hybrid, it’ll look like the cover for some kind of really cheap romance novel in fantasy/steampunk drag. But that’s the risk I take for doing this on my own on the cheap. If I were a little bit better artist in my own right, I’d try to paint my own cover, but that’d just end up being embarrassing.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Myths Revisited: Part II, the Olympians

Zeus, the Skyfather, Lord of Lightning and Thunder, is the King of the Gods of Olympus according to most treatises on Classical Mythology. Most treatises on Classical Mythology, however, ignore the long history and historicity of the cults of the gods of Olympus, where they came from, and what happened to them. Consequently, these details are shrouded in over-simplified myths and metaphor.

In reality, Zeus came upon the Greek pantheon as a new god prior to its identification with Mount Olympus. At the time, a loose collection of gods including Artemis, Athena, Dionysos, and the Mistresses (Demeter and Persephone), Hephaestus, Hermes and Hera, along with a number of gods that later became more or less forgotten—Paean, Erinya, Eileithyia, and Despoina ruled a small pocket dimension that was tied to Greece on planet earth, allowing them to occasionally roam over this circumscribed geographical area. Over this loose collection of gods, Poseidon was champion and “first among equals”—a powerful force individually, but their loose collection made them vulnerable to another militaristic pantheon, the so-called Titans of Mount Othrys, who’s own pocket dimension was anchored in another part of the Greek peninsula, putting them at odds because of proximity.

Zeus arrived with some of his young and untested allies: Ares, Apollo, Hades, Aphrodite, Herakles, and others, and due to his own war-like nature and off-the-charts personal magnetism and physical power, was able to unite the disparate Mycenaean pantheon into a powerful force. They set up their paradise on Mount Olympus (in reality, a pocket dimension called Olympus, which is most often accessed via a semi-permanent portal on Mount Olympus in Greece) and waged the terrible war known as the Titanomachy. This was one of the first and most terrible examples of open warfare between pantheons of Outsiders, and the triumvirate of Zeus, his “brother” Hades, and Poseidon, the champion of the region before the arrival of Zeus and his entourage, proved to be unstoppable.

The New Olympians overthrew the Titans, incorporating some few of their members who surrendered into their own growing pantheon and imprisoning the rest so that they couldn’t be reborn to threaten their rule later. Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, the most powerful of the new Olympian pantheon, declared themselves brothers, retroactively declared themselves sons and heirs of Cronus, the King of Othrys and the Titans overall, and ruled Olympus jointly, with Zeus the new “first among equals.” In truth, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon don’t always get along, or trust each other too much, and the lusts, envies and politics between them are often brutal and cruel. However, all three of them recognize that it is the power of their joint triumvirate that has led to their long dominance. Breaking their triumvirate will expose them to their enemies (of which there are many, mostly due to their own aggressive nature) and creates a situation in which as much as they may not like it, all three have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Indeed, all three of the triumvirs have at times been killed, but on being re-embodied and reborn, the other two remaining triumvirs made sure that they were raised and taught their place so that they could assume it smoothly again on reaching their full maturity of power.

The Olympian pantheon later made war against two smaller pantheons; those later known as the Etruscan gods and the Roman gods. After suffering a number of losses in lightning raids that left their forces imprisoned and depleted, the Etruscan and Roman pantheons merged, and brought a titanic battle to the Olympians. Echoes of this struggle remain in mythology in garbled form as the Gigantomachy, but the effects of the war are better illustrated on the practices of the worshippers of these pantheons. The Etruscan pantheon, as transmitted to archeologists, adopted more and more Roman and Greek influences, and the Roman pantheon adopted the stories and personalities of the Olympians, although in most cases the names remained Roman. As with the titans, many of the original Roman and Etruscan deities were imprisoned and their places taken by Olympians, who adopted their names and titles for local worshippers, while others were integrated into the Olympian pantheon.

There were some bitter and brutal moves during this integration. Ares was slain and his reborn soul was hidden by the Romans, for example. Later, the Roman Mars took his place in Olympus, leaving Ares as an exile with no knowledge of his heritage for many centuries. Today, Ares remains a bitter outsider, unconnected with the Olympians, since Zeus and the triumvirate had to “adopt” Mars as part of the cessation of hostilities with the remaining Roman pantheon. Hades “adopted” a number of deities with similar interests—Orcus, Ploutus, etc. and announced that they were permanently part of his entourage.

This was the last great Outsider war in which the Olympians participated—following the naked aggression of Zeus and his brothers against the Roman and Etruscan pantheons, few other outsiders would trust or deal with the Olympians anymore, and many would rather make common cause with their rivals against the Olympians rather than give the powerful Zeus a chance to work his way into another pantheonic conquest. That said, two additional powerful deities were later associated with the Olympians during the later Roman times—Isis, a goddess from the Eqyptian pantheon who dallied for many years with Poseidon and had a powerful alliance with him (and him alone, not with the rest of the Olympians). Zeus also befriended Mithras, a wandering deity who was part of an pre-Avestan pantheon that imploded in brutal warfare and politics, and the Mithraic mysteries were an important part of Olympian worship for some time. Mithras eventually wandered again, although his friendship with Zeus remains an important trump card that Zeus can pull when needed, for Mithras was a solar figure and infamously powerful warrior.

The Olympians had a long-running “Cold War” with a Celtic pantheon that was separate from the later attested Irish and Welsh mythologies, but this never erupted into full-scale war. While historically the Roman mortals did eventually conquer and assimilate most of the continental and many of the insular celtic groups, their pantheon was able to form a temporary alliance with the up and coming Teutonic pantheon, an early incarnation of what is later known better to us as the Norse pantheon, where it was actually transmitted to archeologists via writing. Having just come off a war of their own, in which the Æsir and Vanir gods merged to form a much stronger Teutonic pantheon, they were a militarily powerful group and rival for the Olympians that the Olympians were not ready to tackle. Some small part of the warfare and politics between the Teutonic—later Asgardian, Celtic—later, Avalonian, and Olympian pantheons is reflected in the complex relationships between the Celtic, Germanic, and Romano-Greek peoples, but as all three populations were eventually Christianized and became significantly intermingled culturally and ethnically over time, later events in the pantheons are not reflected in mythology or history, but in the secret history of the Outsiders, which is unknown to most peoples.

This later history, however, mostly coincides with that of the other pantheons—as worship of the Outsiders as gods has faded and failed, they have found that their connections to Earth have become less stable and predictable. This has also led to a dampening of hostilities between pantheons, as without easy access to Earth and “the Porch”, they don’t have the means to make war on each other. It also means that individuals are often stranded on Earth, and sometimes are even killed here. Re-embodied without the ability of their “home” pantheons to raise them to take the same place that they held before their deaths, many pantheons have holes missing in them, and the presence of Exile outsiders, who have little or no knowledge of who or what they are, is growing. Some believe, for example, that Samson or Beowulf (or perhaps both!) were actually lives of Herakles, who while wandering far from Olympus was slain, grew up amongst a foreign people when re-embodied and reborn, and became a local hero to them before being killed again.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Myths Revisited, part I: what are the gods?

I decided to name this little series and give it it's own tag: MYTHS REVISITED wherein I discuss a modern-day setting in which mythological characters--gods and heroes--are reinterpreted as superheroes, basically.  As I said in my previous post, this is hardly anything new: the Marvel comics character of Thor (as well as all the backstory around him) was quite successful, and spawned a fair bit of additional mythological Marvel stuff, including Hercules and later Ares as Avengers, the Chaos War storyline (as well as several others), as well as the spin-off (which was later integrated into the mainstream continuity) of the Eternals.  DC has done their part as well, since the character of Wonder Woman is strongly rooted in Greek mythology, and many characters from myth appear in their continuums as well.  And where Marvel has the Eternals, many see that as a reflection of Jack Kirby's New Gods; after it was cancelled, he filed off the serial numbers, changed a lot of the details, but basically explored a lot of the same themes--a science fiction adaptation of mythological concepts.  This more overtly science fictional presentation has a number of important legacies--Darkseid, one of the favorite mega-villains of the DC universe, for example, started as such.  Marvel, in integrating the Eternals, made the Titanians and the Uranians into Eternals, basically, so Thanos (often viewed as a Marvel counterpart to Darkseid himself) is one of them.  Curiously, although it's one of the "other" continuities of the Marvel multiverse, Superman analog Hyperion, i.e. Mark Milton, is specifically said to be an Eternal in that universe, although in the Supreme Power version of the character, he's even more overtly Superman-like, and he and Princess Zarda are aliens--bringing the concept full circle of tying mythology to science fiction.

For what its worth, the newish Thor movie, which establishes its own related but different continuity called the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Earth-199999 for the curious, who are into that kinda thing) also posits an Asgard where Asgardians, including Thor and Odin and Loki and the rest of the Norse mythological characters, are as much based on pulpish super-science as on magic and mythology.  I'd also be lying if I didn't note that the Percy Jackson movies (I never read the books, although my kids mostly all have) aren't an influence as well.

All that said, in Myths Revisited, what, then are the heathen gods of various mythologies?  Do they all exist, and how do they relate to the stories that we probably know (at least for well-known mythologies like Norse and Greek?)  The characters do exist, and they are (mostly) human-like in appearance, and in fact, often pose as human beings and live among us--or at least can do so.  Like comic-book characters, they exhibit superhuman strength, speed, reflexes, durability, resistance to injury and disease and aging, as at least a baseline.  Individual characters may have other superhuman abilities as well--Thor's ability to call lightning, for example, Hermes incredible speed, etc.  The named, known gods are characters who are more active in human affairs, and/or more heroic in terms of accomplishments than their compatriots, but in reality, there is a bigger population of these types of characters than are known on Earth.  Most of them live in pocket dimensions that "orbit" the dimension of the Earth (for lack of a better description) and are connected via a transitory dimension colloquially known as "the Earth's Porch" or simply the Porch.  Individuals from these worlds (as well as people from Earth, actually) may travel via the Porch to one or more of these pocket dimensions, and occasionally do so, but the journey is often harrowing, and requires specialized, esoteric knowledge that few in any dimension possess.

One of the great mysteries of humanity is exactly what happens to the souls of those who die, however, such is not the case with these Outsiders, as they are collectively sometimes called.  While not actually immortal, and certainly capable of being slain, the souls of Outsiders eventually re-coalesce and reform to be reborn when one is slain.  They will grow up to possess all of the abilities that they had before, although none of the memories of their prior lives.  This does grant them a measure of immortality, but a very limited one, since if you are killed, have to be reborn a number of years later, grow up, and then still don't have any of your prior memories, death to the Outsiders is fairly final, and is certainly a viable solution to dealing with the plans of a rival or enemy.

Certain rituals can give characters random (and usually more confusing rather than helpful) glimpses into their past lives, and can be done on occasion, although they are very fearful of doing so because prolonged exposure to these glimpses leads to insanity and violent, paranoid madness.

Outsiders can often manipulate "magic"--forces from beyond the boundaries of the Worlds We Know that leak through like dark energy directly from the bulk (to give a vague reference to brane cosmology theory. There are a number of other, more exotic beasts that live in these pocket dimensions--creatures that may be semi-human like, as in centaurs or rusalka, or others that are purely monstrous, such as trolls, hydras or worse.  In addition to this "magic", they have access to often advanced science--in fact, the magic is merely manipulation of energy from the bulk, and thus fits the old maxim of being merely sufficiently advanced science rather than actually magical.

In the past, various populations of Outsiders usually had limited geographical exposure to Earth, but as the population of Earth has become increasingly scattered and intermingled, that is no longer true, and the various populations of Outsiders now interact not only with humanity, but also with each other quite a bit.  In addition, as their wars and often brutal politics proceed, in many cases, individual heroes are reborn, or hidden after their birth, on the Earth, where they may be completely unconnected from their forebears (and in an ironic twist, may in fact grow up to later become more familiar with a rival population of Outsiders.)  Also, the myths as presented show a point in time only--echoes of past upheavals are reflected in the mythology, such as in the Æsir-Vanir War or the Titanomachy--are merely past upheavals, and others of often similar scope have taken place since the time that the myths were first transmitted to "mortals."

When next I return to this topic, let's discuss some more specifics--starting with the Greek mythos and its reflection in the Myths Revisited settling.