Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mammoth Lords vs. Totems of the Dead

One of my setting germs is MAMMOTH LORDS, and it's one that I've actually been very excited about for a long time.  Not that I've talked about it much here, but it's still one of my favorite potential settings.

The idea of it was Howard's Hyborian Age but instead of using various Bronze Age, Iron Age and even Medieval peoples and nations of Europe and the Middle East, I applied the idea to the Viking settlement of America.  This allows me to use, as Howard did, alternate names for historical peoples, but because they're alternate, I don't have to worry about chronological exactness or correctness, or other details of actual historical fiction.  I whipped up a draft map that looks a little bit like North America, but not exactly, and put names and places down so I knew who was sitting around next to who.  Because it was specifically Hyborian style sword & sorcery, I also added some Atlantis in the moundbuilder area, and decided that the pre-Clovis peoples like Kennewick Man, etc. were from the sunken continent of Mu, and would be represented by New World Ainu or something like that.  Sounds like a great idea?

Well, apparently it was, because Gun Metal Games totally stole my thunder and did almost exactly the same thing when they published Totems of the Dead for the Savage World game.  I don't have this product still, but I do have the sample pdf that they released a while ago that had was a demo or teaser for the product, and which describes very briefly the concept, the geography and some of the peoples.


I also found their map.  It looks a lot like mine again.  Sigh.  Of course, I have the pluvial lakes, and I have a much bigger Chinese (Fusang) presence on the west coast, and I have my Vikings (Vendels) a bit more southerly as well; they're not just up there by L'Anse aux Meadows, they're also the builders of the Newport tower, and the Kensington runestone and the Spirit Pond runestone, etc.  In other words, it's not just a handful of villages far up on the Canadian east cost, it's a significant Eastern Seaboard presence.

Like every other setting using the Hyborian model of fantasy everywhere, it's fairly easy to tell who is supposed to represent who.  Where I was Vendels for Vikings, they use Skadians.  Yeah, that's easy.  Where I use Fusang for west coast Chinese settlement, they have the one settlement of Shen.  Where they have Anazi badlands and the Ahabi desert, I have the Azani and Kayenta cliff-dwillers.  Where they have the Maztlani Empire I have... well, actually I don't really get into Mexico or have an Aztec analog—the American southwest is as far south as I really go.

Anyway, I found this map of the setting, and thought I'd post it.  Again: Sigh.  I need to make my own draft into something presentable and post it too, but given that I haven't even done that for CULT OF UNDEATH or even DARK•HERITAGE yet, don't hold your breath.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Cult of Undeath 5x5

Well, here's the 5x5 matrix.  It actually ended up being 6x5 when all was said and done, but I do have to point out that this ended up being a hybrid between the campaign model and the module model.  I think it's actually best interpreted or seen a "mega module" rather than a campaign per se.  And why not?  One of my big complaints about the Pathfinder adventure paths is that they are too long and end up being big sloggish death marches anyway.

In the campaign model, each box would be the equivalent of a "module" whereas here most of them end up being brief shorthand notes for an encounter or series of interlinked encounters at best.

A few other notes.  Ideally, there would be a lot of cross pollination between the various boxes, but because I did a rather simple "transcription" of the outlines of the various modules in the adventure path into the matrix, there isn't nearly as much of it as would be ideal.  Most of the columns end up being rather discrete "chimneys" that don't interact much with the others, and there is relatively little opportunity to bounce back and forth from one campaign stream (i.e., column) to another.  Assuming I'm happy with the CULT OF UNDEATH experience, I might try to do a slightly more radical restructuring of another one of the adventure paths down the line (Legacy of Fire, Serpent's Skull and/or Skull & Shackles stand out as the most likely candidates for me.)  But for the time being, each column reads a lot more like a traditional module than like something that can be remixed with other modules to create a more organic feeling campaign.

I'll need to add a few new optional monsters; I realized (somewhat belatedly) that while I have wraiths, I don't have any other kind of ghost or incorporeal monster.  Among a few other misses.  I honestly don't want a proliferation of ghostly like creatures, but I do want to have an a la carte option of special abilities that can be added or layered on as needed to basically turn the same monster into the equivalent of wraiths, ghosts, spectres, allips, and who knows what other similar standard D&D monsters.

Playing this as an m20 game, I'd figure that a "mega module" is still only a 4-5 levels at the very most, so if I start the game at 1st or 2nd level, I'd only get to 5-6 or so by the end.  That means we won't be fighting Orcus at the end, I guess.

To start the campaign off, prior to even embarking on the matrix, keep in mind that the PCs are all going to be called to Ialomita for the funeral of an old friend, a professor.  They won't know this yet, but he was murdered by followers of the Black Path, a cult that seeks to resurrect the Charnel God trapped under Grozavest.  They're on one of those rather video-gamey quests to assemble a bunch of artifacts, and the professor had at least one of them.

Anyway, the will of the professor gives the PCs some incentive to stay in town for a few weeks to make sure that his heir and daughter lands on her feet, and column #1 happens while they're still in town.

Cult of Undeath 5x5
Columns 2, 3 and 6 have an optional block, depending on how the pacing goes and what happens.  Pacing can also be modified somewhat, if desired, by throwing in encounters with bandits or the occasional monster or wild animal while traveling, or the proverbial Raymond Chandler advice, modified for the fantasy genre, of course—when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun.

After you're done with the matrix the capstone adventure is a simple set of a few encounters, where the PCs go to the Pit of Neb Ankh where Tarush is buried under a gigantic, enchanted and chained pit.  They won't go all the way down to find Tarush, of course, which would be a foe well beyond the PCs no matter what level you're currently running at, but the Black Path's cult leader Grigore Stefanescu must be faced along with his inner circle of undead.  I thought about making Grigore a lich, but my liches according to the rules I came up are really formidable and are only suitable for really high level opponents to face in combat.  So I'll have to make him a unique statblock, I guess.  That's OK.

Grigore Stefanescu, the cult leader of the Black Path 
Anyway, what's next?  Over the next several weeks, I'll be filling out more details on each of the blocks in the matrix and the steps before and after the matrix, and when I'm done, this will be a complete, ready to run campaign of sorts.

Then, I just need to actually run it!

UPDATE: Have a slightly more detailed version of the matrix in Google Docs, which should be, I believe, made viewable to anyone with the link, which is right here.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Cult of Undeath Outline

My method of adventure design usually bears little resemblance to the running of a pre-published game like Carrion Crown.  Not only do I like to incorporate a pseudo-sandboxish approach where the PCs aren't led by the nose from one encounter to the other, but where they feel like they have some elbow room to wander.  This doesn't mean converting adventures into hex-crawls, but it does mean offering a slightly different approach in terms of addressing the adventure.

Usually, I have several "hooks" and the PCs could potentially follow one of several hooks.  Each hook, in turn, has a number of "suggested" or likely outcomes, usually spelled out as vaguely defined scenes or encounters.  These aren't exact or precise, because depending on which hooks the PCs prefer to follow, and how they resolve the scenes and encounters, the following ones could be very different either in terms of what they actually are, or in terms of what characteristics they have when the PCs get there; i.e., the PCs might have a more or less hostile situation on their hands depending on what they've done previously.

There is a method that works very much like this already, although it's a bit more organized than my more intuitive approach, called the 5x5 model.  Strictly speaking, the 5x5 model is meant to be used to develop  campaigns rather than adventures, but it's also been adapted into the adventure design approach.  Given that I'm actually attempting to adapt the entire Carrion Crown adventure path into a simplified campaign, I can use the 5x5 model to do so, and then use the 5x5 model to adapt each of the adventures as well.

To be honest, the way I've done it in the past is often more like 3x5 or 3x7 or something like that, with many of the permutations down the line not ever really defined.  So specifically attempting to use the 5x5 method is very familiar to me, yet also a bit more disciplined and organized than what I normally do.  What the 5x5 method doesn't  really seem to offer, though, but which I think is important, is a 1x1 introduction and a 1x1 conclusion.  The PCs can start driving the adventure from what the options are on the table after they've managed to get a handle on their characters, but I believe in a little bit of "virtuous railroading" at the beginning of the campaign and then I prefer to funnel them back into a conclusion.

Also; check out Dragon Magazine #429 for the most recent (and author's favorite) write-up of the 5x5 method.  I'll be posting my 5x5 list/grid as soon as I've finished it up, which with any luck, will be quite shortly.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

m20 Updates

I've updated the m20 document to version 1.1.8.  This is mostly just a fix of some typos and a few minor issues.  It's more of a clean-up and very slight rebalancing than it is anything else.

Of perhaps more interest is that I added a Supplemental and Optional section; not to the document, but to the wiki.  Once I have enough material here—a critical mass, if you will—I'll create a Supplemental document pdf and make it available as well.  But until then, you'll have to get the goods on the wiki, which conveniently, I'll give you the link for right here:

A few designer's notes, if you please.

  • The Shadow Sword class was one that I wrote up quite some time ago on this blog.  If you search the m20 tag, you'll find it, and it's not much (if any) changed from that.  
  • Optional class features: I'd already played around a bit with making a la carte classes, similar to how I did races in my m20 Star Wars game.  This more or less incorporates that.  Each core class has a major schtick, or core mechanical conceit, if you will: for the fighter, it's the bonus to hit and damage, for the Rogue it's Sneak Attack, etc.  Each also has a minor mechanical benefit, a +3 to a skill.  This allows for you to trade in your minor mechanical benefit for a different minor mechanical benefit, to get a customized version of the class.  It can be as simple as changing the skill which gets the +3, giving non-Experts limited access to an Affinity, or even giving any class the ability to gain an animal companion or familiar.
  • As an aside, there is some play in terms of what is a core mechanical bonus vs. a minor mechanical bonus.  The Outdoorsman really has three minor mechanical bonuses rather than a core and a minor mechanical bonus, so I'm treating two of them as if they are together a single core mechanical bonus.  The Affinity bonus of the Expert, if limited to only one affinity, can serve as a minor mechanical bonus even though when it's one to start with but more to come as you level up, it serves instead as a core mechanical bonus.
  • The Shadow Sword isn't subject to modification in this way, at least not without more work than I was willing to put into it at this point.  It's core mechanical conceit is a bit more powerful than most, being basically a core mechanical conceit plus about half a minor mechanical benefit too.  To accommodate this, the Shadow Sword's minor mechanical bonus is more limited than for the other classes, meaning that you shouldn't be able to trade it out for a regular minor mechanical bonus.
  • Although the Outdoorsman animal companion is meant to be switched out for more powerful animals, I can see that one might rather keep the same signature animal and have it grow in power commensurate with what a switched out animal would be, more or less.  Since an animal companion (also a familiar, although there aren't separate rules for them if that's what you want to call it) is now a electable minor mechanical bonus, I figured the concept needed some bulking up.  I also added a list of more animal stats, including a number of what I would consider to be the most traditional animal companion or familiar type animals.
I'm keeping this at the optional house rule level for now.  I have to admit, though—some of these rules changes I like enough that I may decide at some future date to incorporate them fully into the main rules, and if I do, that will finally be what brings me to consider it a sufficient enough revision to update the version to 1.2.

Cult of Undeath updates

I've made a minor executive decision, and I'm going to rename Prezov County; I'm going to use the word Timischburg, which is a combination of the Romanian and German names for an actual city in Transylvania (Timişoara/Temeschburg).  I've decided over time that the name Prezov County just didn't really feel right, and in a game that's supposed to evoke the visceralness of the horror genre, how the name feels is important.  Prezov still works as a name for a location somewhere within the country, though.  I'll log that one away as a useful name I can still recycle.

In any case, I've also made a sketchy map, bulked out in pencil rather fast on a handy piece of printer paper.  Eventually, I'll make a nice map, on resume paper and with ink and watercolors, scanned and names and labels with Paint.NET or GIMP or something (I don't have Photoshop, and I'm not paying for a graphics package I'd rarely use.)  But the sketchy map is sufficient for now to block out the geography.  In fact, I'm somewhat following the guidelines from this article in doing the map in this format. But I love a good, beautiful map, and it's long past time that I really put one together for this world.  This isn't it, but it's a map at least, and like I said, it sufficiently blocks out the geography for my needs right now.

The map also, in case that isn't obvious, isn't labeled per se, and it applies equally to Timischburg and to Tarush Noptii, since I'm deliberately making them the same with one main exception: Tarush Noptii is meant to be a region within my DARK•HERITAGE setting, while Timischburg needs to stand alone for the CULT OF UNDEATH setting.

Anyway, let me give a little context to all of the labels.

  • Haunted Forest - infamous as the redoubt of a group of wildlings who brook no trespassers.  Very dangerous to pass through; makes an effective barrier to the world beyond to the north.
  • Eltdown Fens - actually fens, ings and carrs -- all a former lake that is gradually disappearing into marsh.  Rumors have it that the Lost Lake still hides somewhere in the fens, and that as it dries, the ruins of a fabulously ancient benighted city will reveal themselves.  Named for the nearby hamlet of Eltdown.
  • Eltdown - a small, suspicious little hamlet that has been here since before the rise of the modern nation.  Infamous for a number of inscribed pottery shards found nearby that, when partially translated, proved to be terrifying works of darkest occult provenance.
  • Thursewood - another dense forest, infamous for the ferocious thurses, or beastmen, who inhabit it.  Even more dangerous than the Haunted Forest.
  • Mittermarkt - in the shadow of a Lone Mountain, Mittermarkt is most famous for its Academy.
  • Vetala County - the lands that belong to the Vetala clan of vampires.  Mittermarkt is located within.
  • Strix County - rural, agrarian lands that belong to the Strix clan of vampires.  They have no major cities, but the land is dotted with many farming villages and hamlets.
  • Innsburough - on the shore, technically claimed by the Baron of Strix.  This decrepit fishing town is shunned even by the citizens of an already frightening country.
  • Vyrko County - lands claimed by the Baron of House Vyrko.
  • Ialomita - a prosperous village not terribly far from Baron Vyrko's castle.  Was once the site of the Hellstone Prison, which burned to the ground a number of years ago.
  • Nosferatu County - lands of House Nosferatu.
  • Grozavest - belongs to no county, but is the capital of the entire nation.  Located along the Black River, its most impressive physical features include the fact that it is always night in city and for many miles around it, an astronomically improbable occurrence to say the least, and the large sealed crater in the center of the city where Tarush the Charnel God is, according to legend, buried after his fall along with the Primogenitor Vampires.
  • Bitterwood - a large, forested part of Ubyr County where the nobles and well heeled often hunt.  Rumored to be frequented by werewolves who remain undiluted from the Ancient Days.
  • Ubyr County - lands of the Ubyr clan of vampires
  • Rusalka County - lands of the Rusalka clan of vampires
  • Dracul County - lands of House Dracul
  • Orlok County - lands of House Orlok
  • Veszok - large coastal city in Orlok County
  • Inganok - relatively large city associated with the onyx mining operations in the nearby chain of volcanic hills and mountains.
  • Prezov - city that grew around the castle of the Lord of House Dracul, one of the largest in the country and a rival, in many ways, to Grozavest itself.
  • Dragomiresti - site of a former town which is now abandoned; a terrible massacre during a three-way House War between Dracul, Ubyr and Orlok.  The conflict was resolved in the capital, but the site of the former town sits still abandoned.
  • Sighing Farms - farmland worked by slaves who lived in and around Dragomiresti.  For many years, the farms were undermanned due to the House War.  This resulted in widespread shortages and even famines across the country, but the Sighing Farms are gradually being reclaimed and reworked.  Many of them remain overgrown with weeds and wild beasts.
This list of locations that are charted on the sketchy map is not, of course, meant to be exhaustive.  Other cities or towns could easily be worked in all over the place, and hamlets and villages are assumed to be ubiquitous, although largely unshown on this map.  Other features such as additional rivers, brooks, streams, creeks, etc., hill lands, cliffs and bluffs, downs, wetlands, woods, are also assumed to exist that are not shown.  For the most part, I have only marked, labeled and described areas that either 1) I think are interesting enough to get a mention and I may yet have a desire to use them for something, 2) were identified in my trawl through the Carrion Crown adventure path as locations needed to adapt the adventures, 3) already existed as part of my development of Tarush Noptii, or 4) were so obvious that it seemed silly not to call them out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Minor pantheon updates

I decided that "Latinizing" my deity names was an unnecessary and in fact more troublesome than it was worth, since the benefit of suggesting that if Cthulhu were an actual entity that was worshiped in real life by a "Hispanish" culture it would probably be written something like Cathulo is a dubious benefit at best--one that really only caters to a kind of philology nerdism--I'm tweaking my DARK•HERITAGE pantheon yet again, a slight amount.  Whew.  Long sentence.

Here's the modified list:

The Four Horsemen
  • Chernavog - the Black Pharaoh.  Said to be the "father" of Baal Hamazi and the kemlings.
  • Perun - The Thunderer - a "slavic" Thor - a kozaky god who's worship has spread throughout the region
  • Culsans - The Judge
  • Charon - The King in Yellow.  Often followed in iconography by Tarush, the Fallen One
Other Major Deities
  • Ishtar - The Heirodule
  • Dagon - The Sleeping Sea God.  I prefer Dagon to Cthulhu.  Cthulhu's just a little bit too on the nose.
  • Susinac - The Traveler
  • Cernunnos - The Hunter, stag-headed god.  I liked the Celtic title better than the more esoteric Etruscan one for a god of the woods and wild-places.  Plus, I like the antlered iconography.
  • Surtur
  • Pan, the Great Beast of the Woods (ape-god)
  • Azathoth - Blind Idiot Daemon-sultan
  • Yog-Sothoth - The Gate
Lesser Deities
  • Grigori - The Watcher
  • Samyassa and Iblis - Fallen Angels
  • Herne - The Green Man, master of the Wild Hunt
  • Dog
The Heresiarchy (not actually deities, but demigod-like characters)
  • Bartolommeo, the Many Angled
  • Esmeraude, She Who Ushers the Apocalypse
  • Sébastien, He of the Beast Aspect
  • Kefte Taraan, Mistress of Forgotten Secrets
  • Kadashman, He Who Peers Into the Void
  • Djemaa Mennefer, the Gnomic
  • Amrruk the Ancient
  • Jairan Neferirkare, the Soul-less
  • Arzana, Clad in Black
  • Siggeir Sherihum, the Sangremancer
  • Shimut the Flesheater
  • The Master of Vermin

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tarush vs. Naggazz

As I was attempting to modify my CULT OF UNDEATH setting of Prezov County somewhat to allow it and my DARK•HERITAGE nation of Tarush Noptii to overlap and to allow development of one to fit seamlessly into the other (in spite of a few minor differences at the macro level, like what races are available for PCs, etc.)  In other words, I want to go back to my old idea of making it a modular campaign element; one that can fit in a more "standard" D&D-style fantasy world, and one that with a name change, can fit into my DARK•HERITAGE setting without issue as well.

One thing that became obvious after I starting noodling over the details, though, was that I had overlap I didn't necessarily want.

After making a big deal out of Naggazz, the Dweomer Lich, which is basically a retooled Whispering Tyrant (since the point was to adapt the Carrion Crown adventure path, which features him as an element quite prominently), it occurred to me that of course I already had a big, buried, slumbering Necromancer figure in Tarush Noptii; Tarush himself.  While it's true that they're not exactly the same conceptually, is it really all that different to say that there's a buried, slumbering, imprisoned arch-Necromancer slash lich vs. a buried, slumbering, imprisoned Charnel God of vampirism and undead?  Especially in a setting where "gods" are somewhat less like deities of mythology and more like glorified super-antagonists; Kina, The Dominator, etc. from the Black Company books are more like what I imagine "gods" to be; combined with powerful demon princes, fallen angels, and powerful nature spirits--not exactly the same thing as, say, Zeus or Thor.  But even if it's not exactly the same thing, it's a little hard to see it as really meaningfully different.

So that kind of nixed my more overt homage to Warhammer and Nagash (although I still love the recent artwork of him, and may find a way to use it, if possible)--the Dweomer Lich is going to be Tarush, the Fallen Charnel God.  In both versions of the setting--CULT OF UNDEATH and DARK•HERITAGE.  Because why make it different?

A few other names harmonization things: For Tarush Noptii, depending on whether you look at the entry here for the blog, or at the map (which is still private--never digitized and hand-drawn on a poster board, for now, the capital city is either Èrdely or Vèzhok, whereas I came up with the name Grozavest for Prezov.  All three are from Hungarian and are deliberately meant to recall the Transylvania region to some degree, and to represent the Tarushan language.  I like the most recent the best, in part because it avoids diacritics and is therefore easier to type--honestly, I long ago decided that I didn't really like Èrdely anyway, even though it is the Hungarian name for the region of Transylvania.  Especially after the scandal of Sabrina Rubin-Erdely, the totally fake journalist for Rolling Stone came out earlier this year.  Let's harmonize to Grozavest, and the name of Vèzhok can still be used for another location within Tarush Noptii as necessary.

Anyway, although I've been very busy, having just come back from vacation, needing to catch up at work, I had some friends blow through town from their expat work assignment, and we visited with them--but I still have as a high priority open item to remap and digitize said map, the Tarush Noptii region, to be followed by the rest of the DARK•HERITAGE setting.

Friday, July 10, 2015

In case you were waiting for the movie...

Because it's always better to see a slideshow of a hike with moody spaghetti western music in the background, right?

Wednesday, July 08, 2015


I've been out of town for the better part of two weeks (and very busy preparing for a week or two prior to that) which is why I haven't been posting.  Check out my hiking blog to see what I've been up to!

And then, give me a day or two to get back up to speed; I should have some more CULT OF UNDEATH and DARK•HERITAGE updates coming in shortly.  Got some great ideas brewing for both.