Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Meet the Tyrants, Part I: Proceratosaurs

The tyrant lizards are a rather diverse family, and can be divided roughly into five groups, with a sixth that is somewhat dubious and who's relationship to the rest of the family (if it is indeed one at all) is uncertain.  Due to the strange way in which cladograms are constructed, one of those five groups is kind of "everyone else who doesn't fit into one of the other four"; i.e. "basal" tyrannosauroids.  For this first catalog, I'll be covering the proceratosaurs, which are the earliest appearing and generally the most primitive, showing marked gross morphological similarity to other basal coelurosaurs, like say, Ornithomimus or the Coeluridae.  In fact, the Coeluridae have occasionally been recovered in some studies as very basal tyrannosauroids (I won't do that for my purposes here; I think it most likely that they are basal coelurosaurs, and possibly the sister group to tyrannosauroids at best; which seems to be the most common belief among practicing paleontologists today.)  Although I don't accept that placement, the point is that guys like Tanycolagreus, Ornitholestes, and Coelurus, who are found in the Morrison Formation, are very similar to guys like Stokesosaurus, which is a tyrannosauroid and in fact they have often all been confused for one another at various times without very careful analysis. This highlights the environment, if you will, in which the tyrants got their start and the type of animal that the earliest tyrants really were.

Because different cladograms have different data points, i.e., sometimes basal tyrannosaurs are included in proceratosauridae, which in other cladograms will not be, etc., I've had to settle on one way of doing things.  For convenience, because it breaks up the genera into more or less equally sized groups (more or less) I'm going to be following Hone's "standard" cladogram, more or less, with a few changes from the very recent Brusatte and Carr cladogram that I posted in my last post, and the Loewen cladogram (specifically, the inclusion of Alioramini within Tyrannosaurinae.  So, proceratosaurs with this post, then the rest of the tyrannosauroids who don't manage to belong to Tyrannosauridae specifically.  There really should be a better "paraphyletic" family name for this group in common usage (like we have for iguanadonts, or hypsilophodonts or prosauropods) but there isn't, so rather than type out "basal tyrannosauroids" all the time, I'll probably call them 'roids for short.

Proceratosaurus bradleyi. The earliest (or tied for that position anyway) tyrant is known from an incomplete skull and lower jaw, missing the top/back of the skull, but we have the mandibles, the nares, and a bit of the forward skull roof.  It's from the Bathonian (Middle Jurassic; 167 or so million years ago) in the Cotswold region of southwest England.  It's remains aren't much to go on, in fact until just a very few years ago, it wasn't known what kind of animal this really was.  Because it had a nasal crest, it was presumed to be a small ancestor to the Morrison therapod Ceratosaurus, hence the name.  Later, it was recovered as a generic "coelurosaur" and considered to be similar to Morrison therapod Ornitholestes.  Based on the size of the skull, the entire animal was fairly small; similar to a medium to large sized dog like a collie or labrador and would not have come up to a normal person's waist.  It was recovered quite early (1910) and at the time, little care was made to attempt to link the skeletons to a fossilized ecosystem, if it were even possible, so the environment and surrounding fauna in which it operated is unknown—although nearby fossils from the same age (roughly) include Megalosaurus, primitive sauropods (possibly Cetiosaurus) and some indeterminate ornithopods.  Also from the same general area (although probably a few million years earlier) are the indeterminate Iliosuchus remains.  Nobody knows for sure what these are, because they're too fragmentary to be diagnostic, but they may represent an even earlier (and smaller) earlier tyrannosauroid of some kind.

Kileskus aristotocus. Aside from the possible Iliosuchus, Kileskus is the next proceratosaur, found in Middle Jurassic (probably also Bathonian) strata in southern Siberia.  Not only is it about the same age as Proceratosaurus, curiously it's also about the same size (maybe a little larger, although based on the sample size of one for each, I wouldn't make much of that), and mostly known from very similar fossils; most of the head and a handful of foot and hand bones.  Like many of the proceratosaurids, it had a bony head crest along the nose, although apparently not as dramatic as that of Guanlong.  Little is known of the region in which these fossils were found, so little can be said about its environment or contemporaries as of yet.  That said, its discovery in 2010 was the catalyst that led to the recognition of proceratosauridae as a valid family, and as an early radiation of the tyrant's lineage.

Guanlong wucaii. A little bit later, at 160 million years ago in the Oxfordian of Chinese Turkestan, we find Guanlong.  This guy is known from two relatively complete specimens; a fairly complete adult and an even more complete subadult.  Because of the completion of the specimens, they are useful in reconstructing what more incomplete forms were probably like (like Proceratosaurus and Kileskus.)  At about 10 feet long, much of it tail, Guanlong was about the same size as the former two as an adult, and it shows that tyrants still had fairly long, grasping three-fingered arms.  Its crest is quite tall and delicate, significantly larger in the adult than in the subadult.  In fact, quite a few changes occurred physically between the adult and subadult, including the spreading and growing of the crest, the younger specimen had a comparatively larger orbit, hand, and smaller pubic boot.  Like other rather undifferentiated coelurosaurs, it had a comparatively small head (compared to later tyrannosaurs, certainly), longer neck, slender build and jaws, and overall probably fairly speedy build.  It is from the Shishugou Formation, which is relatively well known with many sauropods, a stegosaur, a tiny, extremely basal ceratopsian (Yinlong) and larger carnosaurs and other primitive tetanurans—all in all, a very similar environment to the Morrison at least in terms of comparable fauna.  It might have competed directly with basal coelurosaur Zuolong which was almost exactly the same size and build, although the stratigraphy isn't completely clear to me; they might not have overlapped.  The environment was a marshy woodland not far from a small, occasionally active volcanic mountain range, and the deposits tend to be fluviatile and lacustrine with a fair bit of volcanic ash.  Because this type of environment is the best for preserving fossils, that isn't necessarily meant to mean too much, though—most dinosaur-bearing fossil beds were similar (with some notable exceptions) but that isn't meant to mean that dinosaurs didn't live in places were erosion was happening, merely that their remains are extremely unlikely to have been preserved.

Stokesosaurus clevelandi.  This Morrison Formation fossil is known from only pretty scanty remains; the holotype is a broken pelvis from the Tithonian of the Brushy Basin member at the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry in central Utah (150 million years ago.)  Another smaller ilium was recovered from South Dakota a few million years earlier, and some other material has been occasionally referred to the genre, but in general, all of that is dubious, and many of those have since been rescinded.  Little is therefore known of Stokesosaurus, but it appears to be, like the three above, a fairly small creature, about 10-13 feet long as an adult, maybe.  For contemporaries, Stokesosaurus has the entire rather famous panoply of Morrison dinosaurs: Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, Ornitholestes, etc.  If you were a kid growing up loving dinosaurs in the 70s and 80s like I was, almost every creature referred to the Jurassic that you've heard of was a contemporary of Stokesosaurus.  The Morrison was a large semi-arid basin with seasonal monsoon-like weather patterns where rivers flowed from the newly rising Rocky Mountains to the epeiric Sundance Sea.  Fern savanas made up much of the environment, and riparian forest valleys, and seasonal flooding and volcanic ash were periodic threats; although aeolian dune-like conditions persisted in the southern end of the formation.

Juratyrant langhami.  Although discovered in 1984, this fella wasn't described until quite a bit later; 2013, specifically.  Although initially believed to be con-generic with Stokesosaurus, it was later determined that many of the features that unite them were in fact quite common among all kinds of Jurassic tyrannosauroids.  Cladistic analysis still shows the two of them as the closest to each other among the proceratosaur family, however, with Sinotyrannus (see below) the next closest relative.  Juratyrant is quite a bit more complete than Stokesosaurus, and combined with the rather large distance between them, it was decided that it was too speculative to assume that they were the same genus, so the name Juratyrant was erected.  It comes from the Kimmeridge Clay formation of Dorset (although not from the Kimmeridgian period of the Jurassic) Tithonian age, about 150 million years ago, like the Morrison, but a more coastline habitat.  A number of dinosaur remains are known from the same formation, but few of them are complete enough to be diagnostic; although indeterminate larger therapods (Megalosaurus?), sauropods (Cetiosaurus?), and ornithopods and the stegosaur Dacentrurus are known from the region.   I've seen size estimates for Juratyrant that range from 10-20 feet, so it would have been (so far) possibly the largest of our specimens; although built lightly and probably rather speedy, it would have weighed maybe as much as the American black bear.

Sinotyrannus kazuoensis. The largest and latest of the proceratosaurs, Sinotyrannus is from the Jiufotang Formation from the Aptian of the Early Cretaceous, 120 million years ago.  This is the formation that is famous for it's lacustrine birds and feathered dinosaurs, including two-winged tiny maniraptorans and what-not that were buried in volcanic ash following eruptions nearby—newly famous critters like Confuciusornis and Microraptor.  Although famous for small fossils, which are normally quite rare, the Jehol biota captured here does not reveal it's secrets with regards to larger fauna very easily.  Psittacosaurus is known from the area, small caudipterids, some scanty ankylosaur remains, etc. No doubt many other animals lived here, and the slightly younger Yixian Formation (which I'll have to refer to later) has a more balanced faunal view.  Sinotyrannus is the largest known predator from the entire formation and one of the largest from the entire 11 million year old Jehol biota spread.  It was initially reported rather sensationally as "as big as late Cretaceous tyrannosaurs like T. rex" but that's not really true.  Although known from reasonably good remains, it's not complete, of course, and estimates for its length range from 20 to over 30 feet, with a weight of up to close to two tons—although probably considerably less (like I said, the early estimates were pretty wild.  I'd think it'd be comparable in weight to a large grizzly most of the time, possibly more in exceptional individuals.)

Note: According to the 2016 Brusatte and Carr cladogram, Stokesosaurus and Juratyrant are 'roids, not proceratosaurs, while Yutyrannus on the other hand is a proceratosaur instead of a 'roid.  The "standard" cladogram prior to that had that reversed, so we'll talk about Yutyrannus next time.  I suspect that over time, the Brusatte and Carr cladogram might gain more steam, but like I said earlier, the one presented by Hone was more convenient for me in terms of breaking the groups up into more or less like-sized chunks.

Tyrannosaur Chronicles

I'm finishing up (probably today; I've only got about 35 pages to go) David Hone's The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, a very recently published (this year) popular science book about the tyrannosaur family.  It's quite good, and I certainly recommend it, but there are a few comments I have about it.  First; I find it curious that he presents the Loewen phylogeny as if it's an unusual alternate compared to the "standard" phylogeny, but on Wikipedia, the Loewen phylogeny of Tyrannosauroidea is the only one presented.  There's a lot of interesting "what-ifs" in the details of the phylogeny of the Tyrannosaurini clade in particular floating around.  A very recent phylogeny that I like is included here as an image; one thing that it also does is show in graphical form more or less where and when the various species lived, which is really important.  One recent theory (too recent to have appeared in the book, unless it's in the last few pages, which I doubt) is the notion that tyrannosaurines in particular underwent two distinct radiations; a North American (Laramidan) one, and an Asian one.  The North American radiation gave us classics like Daspletosaurus and as well as more recent finds like Teratophoneus, Lythronax and the odd Nanuqsaurus.  T. rex himself, while appearing in North America, of course, would be an interloper in this scenario; a member of the Asian clade that includes Tarbosaurus and Zhuchengtyrannus and who came to North America across the land bridge and basically out-competed the local tyrannosaurines and replacing them through the Maastrichtian.

One odd find in the cladogram attached, which is at odds with most that I've seen, is that it shows Bistahieversor as a sister-group to Tyrannosauridae rather than nestled comfortably within the tyrannosaurines.  Either way, however, it points to something different going on in the north vs the south of Laramida.  It may not require an Asian Invasion of T. rex itself (the invasion might have gone the other way, for instance—Zhuchengtyrannus and Tarbosaurus might be North American invaders of the same type as T. rex—perhaps descended from Daspletosaurus.

In any case, I encourage you to have a look at the various phylogenetic proposals and come to your own conclusions.  Even if you don't like the way the tyrannosaurines are positioned in the one I've attached here, you've got to admit that the graphical presentation of the geography and timeline are extremely useful.

Another thing that I was unaware of, because I hadn't really been paying close attention is the raising of the subfamily alioramines which would have played a similar ecological role, I suppose, in Asia as the albertosaurines did in North America; smaller, more slender predators which presumably had either a different hunting strategy or different prey targets than the tyrannosaurines.  Similar to leopards in the same region as lions or tigers, if you will, or coyotes or golden jackals in the same region as wolves.

However, the most disappointing thing that The Tyrannosaur Chronicles didn't include was a good catalog of the various members.  This was always one of my favorite parts of Greg Paul's old Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, and a brief catalog with time-frame, size, location and some description of both the animal itself and the environment in which it lived would be welcome.  I guess I'll have to do it myself; it shouldn't be too hard to start with Infogalactic, look at the primary sources from there to add, if necessary, and put my own little catalog together.

So... I guess that means I've got at least a few more PALEONTOLOGY tagged post coming up in the very near future...  Maybe while I'm at it, I'll even add the Megaraptorans just in case they end up belonging to the same family tree as well (as opposed to Neovenatoridae, as they are traditionally albeit hesitantly placed today.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Ad Astra Iconics (not with stats... yet)

Crew of the Wayland's Forge (or Dub-Eff for short)
  • Donovan Flint; (Dono, Donnie) — a knight, trained by his father as an independent.  His father was killed by Shadow Knight assassination team years ago.  He is the nominal owner of the Dub-Eff, a repurposed and heavily modified (to the point that it’s original model is almost completely unrecognizable) UX-83 corvette with an expanded cargo hold.  While not particularly angry, he does have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about the Seraean Empire, but mostly he resents any authority.  He’s somewhat friendly with the Monarchy (from whom he has a Letter of Marque, although he doesn’t use it too often), as long as he stays in the fringes where the Monarchy’s influence is relatively light.  His main goals are to keep themselves in enough money to keep flying and maintain their freedom and nomadic lifestyle, so he tends to make shipping runs (sometimes of questionable legality and political expediency) between what are essentially little backwaters.  Dono is fairly tall, with light brown hair and hard gray eyes.  He tends to have a laconic smirk on his face.  Think somewhere between Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Han Solo, but a bit younger and played by someone that looks like Richard Spencer.
  • Surt — an alien, a former soldier of the Monarchy, and an electro-organic Tearexian hulk.  Surt is an incredibly large example of the species; at over 8 feet tall and 600 lbs.  He has bright red skin and dark hair; his eyes have a black sclera but an almost chrome-colored iris.  There is a organic electronics system that the Tearexian hulks have evolved and are born with.  Physically this means that he has a tiny series of markings, mostly on his torso and limbs that have the appearance of a circuit board schematic.  Usually they are very fine and difficult to see, but sometimes they flare up brightly.  This organic electronics system in the Tearexian hulks offers them some modest benefits to purely regular organic beings (like humans) but mostly it’s the very large size and strength of the hulks that makes them in demand.  Surt is a former janissary of the Monarchy, who would probably be considered a deserter by them if anyone cared to chase him down, although Dono makes sure to keep the crew in the backwaters and fringes where this isn’t much of a serious risk.  Surt is relatively gentle and friendly most of the time, but when provoked, becomes a seriously dangerous opponent.  He carries a massive radium chaingun sometimes, and fights with two high tech seaxes.
  • Jeiry Edwards — The pilot.  He grew up on a hot, dry world drag racing and hot-rodding speeders, and was press-ganged by a Revanchist merchant marine crew.  His talents as a pilot were quickly recognized, and he also showed the ability create to learn bulk drive technomagium, so he was trained as a full pilot.  In spite of this investment, he was always angry at the Revanchists for kidnapping him, so when Dono raided the ship he was on—at the time, Dono did not have bulk drive capabilities (although his ship did have an bulk drive) so he was only raiding locally, Jeiry eagerly jumped on the opportunity to ditch his erstwhile crew.  Jeiry is a bit nerdy.  He doesn’t socialize that much with the crew (and when he does, he’s wont to talk too much about things nobody else is very interested in) and he seems to get along better with the mechanical aspects of the Dub-Eff than with his crewmates, in many respects.
  • Had Kulan — an Idachar spy; he was a double agent who was informing handlers from both the Monarchy and the Revanchists on the activities of the Seraean Empire.  When his cover was blown on Omad Gan, he was nearly killed.  Luckily for him, Dono was running an operation of his own in the system and took Kulan with him, making him the third member of the crew to be on the run from someone at least.  Kulan is an alien human of the Idachar race, which is the majority race in the Seraean Empire.  This means that his skin is a chalky kind of gray color, as are his eyes and even his hair.  Kulan is actually an accomplished spy; not just in terms of procuring information as a double agent, as he did, but also he is trained as a cat burglar and assassin.
  • MP15-22 (Empie) — a bot.  He belongs to an older, slightly obsolete class of combat bot, but as with the ship itself, Empie has been fairly heavily “hot-rodded” into high performance.  Painted black and bright yellow, with a nearly featureless face-plate, Empie is surprisingly sarcastic in the way that he talks, and crows frequently about his emotionlessness—belied by his smugness, of course.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

GMing advice

As a teaser from my FANTASY HACK m20 game, here's a portion of the text in Appendix I; basically it's meant to indicate a quick summary of my GMing advice of many years, distilled down to just a couple of pages worth of text.  This should be pretty basic stuff to anyone who's run for any length of time, but the audience that this is written for is primary newer GMs.
Successfully running a game of FANTASY HACK m20 (or any other role-playing game) is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor.  Besides; someone has to do it, otherwise there's no game for anyone!  If you accept the challenge of being the Gamemaster, there are a few things you should know.  This section has a very small bit of advice, based on my own experience, followed by a fair number of tools that can help you.  In no particular order: 
You're a player too.  Although your task, and therefore what makes the experience rewarding and fun for you is perhaps a bit different than for the other players, this is still a game and you should be enjoying yourself too.  GMing is not a chore; it's not a job, it's not what the guy who gets the short stick has to do.  If you are not motivated and having a good time, the game will suffer because of it for everyone.  If so, consider giving the reins to someone else. 
Be fair and be consistent.  One of the things that the players need most is feeling like they can make decisions for their characters based on reasonable risk assessment.  In other words, they need to feel like they understand the way the world works (and most likely they expect it work like the real world does.)  Although this is one of those "perception is reality" kind of things, especially on a highly rules-light game like m20, the players will rely solely on your judgement about how likely things are to be successful.  If they can't get a handle on that because your rulings and DCs are inconsistent, or if they are consistent but out of whack with their expectations, either one, it will create the strong impression that the game is arbitrary and therefore unfair, which will dramatically reduce the enjoyment that your players feel. 
Be varied and interesting.  There is a wealth of sources in terms of ideas for your adventures.  Don't ever feel bad about borrowing from any and every source you can imagine; books, TV shows, movies, video games, whatever.  Just don’t borrow the same kinds of elements from the same kinds of sources.  Even Gary Gygax wrote (although this is often forgotten) that the game was not supposed to have been mere dungeon-crawling, and some versions of the game stressed doing other things (not that this was often appropriated by the players.)  FANTASY HACK m20 is flexible enough to be used for all kinds of activities, and it actually is not designed specifically to be a dungeon-crawling game at all.  In addition, if you pay attention to your players, you will before long find it easy to judge when they are engaged and entertained, and when they are more bored or frustrated.  Pay attention to this and give them more of what they like and less of what they don't.  They may not all be on the same page about what their favorite aspect of the game is (and they may be in different moods to do different things at different times anyway) but some situational awareness is crucial for good GMing. 
Be generous and say yes.  Although I personally dislike games that are overly concerned with the acquisition of character wealth and powers, in general, players tend to be happier when they get what they came to the table for, rather than feeling like it's denied them.  This doesn't mean give them "stuff" necessarily; but it does mean allowing them to indulge what they want to do as a character.  FANTASY HACK m20 is meant to emulate swashbuckling action stories.  Think of a well-known example like the Star Wars franchise.  Do the characters ever get bogged down looking for equipment that they don't have access to?  While getting passage to Alderaan is a key plot element of the first movie, it's easily accomplished.  When Luke needs a lightsaber, he has one.  When the characters have the opportunity to have a speeder bike chase, they're readily available.  How does Luke even get his X-wing that he flies for most of the movies?  I dunno.  It's there when he needs it.  This is the kind of story that I intend to emulate.  Hoarding of gear, doing tedious accounting and shopping are not at the heart of this kind of story; they are things that are typically breezed over because they are tedious and boring.  Now; some players actually do enjoy that kind of thing, so I don't recommend excising it entirely.  But I do recommend a focus more on the action, role-playing and the solving of interesting problems than I do on making things arbitrarily difficult for the characters.  That's the spirit of swashbuckling adventure stories, after all. 
Let the PCs dictate the game.  Don't overplan, because you will tend to get locked into your plans the more time you spend on them.  This isn't your novel that the other players get to have a minor role in.  This is their game, and you're supposed to represent the environment and the setting.  Let them be the stars of the game, not anything that you’ve created.  Let them decide what kinds of characters and what kind of party to create; don't passive-aggressively punish them for not picking your ideal of a "balanced party" or whatever.

Don't give them simply one solution to problems and ensure by fiat that anything else fails.  If you are too prone to trying to not let the PCs have their head, as the saying goes, then maybe you should rethink being the GM.  If that’s the only way you can enjoy the game, then you are probably not equipped to be the GM.  Being a successful GM means always remembering that it’s their game.  You'll have plenty of interesting and fun things to do, and honestly, you'll probably be a great deal more entertained by seeing what they come up with then you will be trying to ram them into your own ideas of what they should do. 
That said, it's also my experience that few groups have enough initiative, especially at early stages of the game, to know what to do from scratch if you give them total freedom.  Usually they will wander around aimlessly and even with a great deal of frustration "trying to find the game."  Once they are able to anchor themselves a bit more into the setting and their characters, they are much more capable and willing to take the reins, start making things happen that they initiate, and pursuing character goals that they themselves have set, rather than plot goals that you have created for them.  So ease them into it, but when they're ready to take control, absolutely let them do so.
Be prepared with things to do if the players seem lost, bored, or just need some kind of motivation.  To quote Raymond Chandler, "when in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."  An ambush by brigands, thieves, highwaymen, cut-throats, or dangerous wild animals is sometimes just the thing to get the game going again when it flags.  Have a list of names appropriate for your setting that you can draw from to give NPCs that you didn't anticipate the feel of being more than a hastily constructed expedient.  If the PCs ignore threats or certain events, in the back of your mind think about what is happening while they're not intervening.  Make their decisions (or lack thereof, as the case may be) have consequences that they can see in game.  Maybe they still won't care, (although you should take that as an indication that you're probably not presenting them with the kind of game that’s engaging or interesting to them if so.) 
 More likely, they'll take the perceived failures personally and be more motivated to keep them from happening again.  Nothing gets players more motivated than a rivalry with an NPC that has gotten the best of them at least once in the past.  In short, make your setting feel like a real world, not just an environment for them to interact with.  This is the big benefit of table-top RPGs over computer ones; you can have flexibility to do all kinds of things that a computer programmer could not anticipate, and you can react to PC actions that they wouldn't even be able to do in a computer game.  Do not make the mistake of sacrificing this advantage for your own convenience; your game will suffer from being too much like a computer game… but without the nice graphics. 
But again don't over-prepare. You don't need gigantic campaign settings the size of a continent.  You don't need a lot, actually.  A very brief outline of what you think is likely to happen over the next session or two, including a few details about some NPCs, monsters, and locations that the PCs are likely to encounter is usually sufficient.  I rarely type up more than a page of outline, and it usually ends up lasting for several evenings worth of play.  But in order to do this well, you simply have to practice.  Don't be afraid of not running the best game ever when you're starting.  You'll probably do better than you think, and even if you don’t, you’ll get valuable practice and experience and be better at it next time, if you pay enough attention to your group to notice what went well and what did not. 
The Secret Roll. As GM, you probably need a few details about your characters—a single line will suffice, but have the character and player names, their stat modifiers, AC, and skill modifiers and level noted at least.  There are always times when as GM you will want to make rolls for the character that the player is not aware of, or at least cannot see the result of, because a failure would give them knowledge that their character could not have.  A great example of this is where another NPC is trying to sneak up on the character, or when the characters are traveling and may get lost but not realize it while traveling through the wilderness.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Fantasy Hack m20 v1.1

I've made a few minor corrections and formatting fixes to FANTASY HACK m20.  It is now up to v. 1.1, as this is the first modification made since it's launch.  I don't anticipate major (or even minor) changes to follow, but I thought I'd announce the update just in case.

UPDATE: As is often the case, as soon as I make an update, I find more things that need doing; from the simple (correcting some spelling or grammar errors that I didn't see before) to the slightly more expedient (alphabetizing the spell list.)

So... as soon as I released v1.1, I needed to update it again to v1.2.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016


We interrupt our normal gaming and science fiction discussion to comment very briefly on current events.

Note: physiognomy works.  There's an exception or two here, but mostly you do not see any male that looks like a man, nor any female that looks like a woman.  Or at least not an attractive one...

And this... holy cow.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Putting some names to the map...

What are some of the regions of my newly drawn Mk. V DARK•HERITAGE map that are already pretty for sure?  The Six Colonist nations are already established: Westry, the Archenlands, Brochwel, Trondmark, Vingulfold and Agdalen.

Kurushat and Baal Hamazi carry forward from Mk. IV, as does Terrasa and Porto Liure (and the big island of Gandesa that Porto Liure is located on.)

Lomar up north in the forest.  I may well rename the gigantic great lake (in Mk. IV I had the Indash Salt Sea in the Baal Hamazi region, and the Karkose Sea in the Kurushat region.  I don't know that I like either of those for this gigantic lake, though.)  It might have more than one name; one given by the Wendak, one given by the Norsmenn, one by the Kurushi and one by the Lomarians, etc.  Don't know yet.  I admit, I'm pretty tempted to name it the Cerenarian Sea...

The lower, rounder eastern mountain range is to be called the Wendaks, Wendak Range or Wendak Mountains.  They are named after the Wendak tribes that still haunt the region and who former lived in much of the territory now occupied by the Six Colonists nations.  The Wendak are themselves best viewed as an analogue to the Five Civilized Nations of Indians that the early Americans dealt with: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole, etc.

I'm not quite sure where to fit Baal Hamazi; I'm thinking that they are to the south, in the Hill Country and up to the Great Escarpment.  The Untash, Haltash and Tazitta have spread since then; not only has the destruction of the central power of the Hamazin "unleashed" them, but they have taken back a lot of territory that once was considered Kurushi.  Kurushat becomes essentially a riverine power that spreads maybe as far as the southern shores of the inland sea, and goes no further than Finger Rock into the steppes.  Or do I decide that the center of Baal Hamazi is actually on the other side of the mountains, and that all of the guys that we see on the eastern side of them are "expats?"

I'm actually finding that my sketchy map might be a bit on the constrained side.  Maybe I do want to have more geography located to the west.

Either that, or I need more detail so I can have more variety and stuff.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Sketch map of Dark•Heritage Mk. V

Well, here it is.  No labels yet, because I'm not sure what names will be attached to what places quite yet; that's still a work in process.  Of course, no doubt there will be a lot of names carried forward from Mk. IV (just like Mk. IV has most of its names carried over from either LENG CALLING or Mk. III.

As you can (probably) see, this map has a certain rough resemblance to the eastern half or so of North America during the Ice Age when the Sea Level was higher.  The Great Lakes are fused into a gigantic super-great-lake, Florida is fatter, and the West Indies are lumped together into one really big island and much fewer smaller islands—although this is a sketch and isn't supposed to indicate that there can't be more details.  The rounder mountains are older, weathered mountains like the Appalachians, Urals or the Scottish Highlands.  They're heavily forested, and the rolling, hilly piedmonts around them are also heavily forested (as can be seen) although the coastal floodplains are by now more settled, cleared and farmed.

The northland is almost completely covered by a vast boreal forest, north of which remain vast glaciers.  A range of jagged, high alpine mountains makes up the effective western limit of the mapped area, although I do have a few ideas of what lies beyond and more or less where; I just don't want to get into spending too much time detailing it either way.

A vast plain separates the forested lower mountains from the rocky craggy mountains of the west south of the gigantic lake, and a few unusual features mark it (see that little Chimney Rock look-alike I drew there? That's not meant to imply that it's completely unique...)

Rolling limestone karst hill country is south of these great steppes until a great hundreds of miles long escarpment leads to the high plateau and red rock desert of the south—not as hot as one would think given that it's 4,000-6,000 feet high.  And finally the jungles of the southern shore of the Mezzovian Gulf are the southernmost area mapped... although I don't have much intention of spending a lot of time detailing what's going on there.

The boreal forests up to the southern edge of the super-great-lake is where Lomar now is, after their former home further north was inundated with Inutos, forcing them into new lands.  Sometimes known as the "Forest Ghosts" the pale-skinned and white-haired, gray-eyed Lomarians are a strange and alien bunch who have little interest in congress with the rest of the southern races.  Most impacted by the move south from Zobna are the Wendak Tribes, who mostly live between the great lake and the eastern mountains.  This large group used to occupy territory east of the mountains as well, but has been displaced in that direction as well by the Norsmenn and their petty kingdoms of Trondmark, Agdalen, and Vingulfold.

The southern reaches of the eastern Highlands are mostly made up of the Gaidhel and their mixed kingdom of Brochwel.  Their allies, the Marrings live in the forests south of the Highlands with their petty kingdoms of the Archenlands and Westry, although in reality all three ethnic groups are fairly mixed, and all six of these kingdoms are known as the Colonists, who are united politically in loose confederation.

South of the great lake and between the mountains and the forest, stopping (perhaps arbitrarily) at the great natural landmark of Finger Rock (seen on the map) is Kurushat, an ancient kingdom ruled by a race that has (apparently) little to no connection to any of their neighbors.  The Kurushi have brick red skin, pale, wispy blondish hair and golden "wolf eyes."  While they seem to have once ruled a larger empire, they are not the original inhabitants, and strange ruins cover much of the land that they live on (and other territory further east as well, for that matter.)

In the mountains are the hamazin, the former lords of Baal Hamazi, a rump state of another older empire in decline.  Most of the subject peoples have revolted against the old hamazin dynasties, however, and now wander the southern plains and the hill country as nomadic herders and raiders; the Untash, the Haltash and the Tazitta.

A few communities of the Kayenta and Azani peoples still live in their traditional cliff dwellings in the Red Rock plateau, but for the most part, these peoples have been conquered and ruled by the Terrasans for many generations now.  The Terrasans came, like the Norsmenn, Gaidhel and Marrings, from across the great Eastern Ocean many generations ago, but they came earlier and in more force, and their "New World" empire is now greatly in decline.  Much of their population is originally aboriginal Kayenta and Azani in nature, but they now speak Terrasan and to greater or lesser degrees are genetically mingled together; the vast lower classes are, however, still strongly aboriginal in character and the upper classes are taller, with Mediterranean features.

The large island is culturally Terrasan (mostly) but an independent entity (well, a city on the west coast of it is, anyway): Porto Liure,

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Dark•Heritage through the ages

I find myself at a forking point.  The DARK•HERITAGE setting isn't supposed to be seen as "complete" of course, but it's been "complete enough" for long enough that I've kinda wandered away from it, and have dabbled in other ventures, for the most part.  At the same time, I've gotten kind of unhappy with a few details of the setting, and thinking that they need updating.  I thought I'd do a quick retrospective first, and then at a very high level, give a brief for where I think DARK•HERITAGE will be going in the future.

Now, keep in mind that I've been homebrewing for as long as I've been involved in the RPG hobby.  Possibly even longer; although I think my discovery of the "modern" fantasy genre and RPGs happened really about the same time, about when I was in 5th grade.  This isn't strictly speaking true, of course, but in 5th grade, I was introduced to Lloyd Alexander and J. R. R. Tolkien (it took me a little longer to read the latter than the former) as well as the old B/X D&D sets.  I'd been flirting with both for years already by that point, but it wasn't until 5th grade that it really completely coalesced and I became a fan most especially of fantasy in literature (as opposed to all kinds of boys' adventure stories that I read prior to that) and of the RPG hobby, which was just coming into mainstream prominence at that point (but I'd been a fan of stuff like the Choose Your Own Adventure books and whatnot for years even before I heard of D&D, so I was well-primed to adopt it.)

In those days, especially after reading Lord of the Rings, I used to almost routinely doodle during class by drawing Christopher Tolkien style maps of fantasy settings that I was mostly inventing on the fly.  Of course, I had little understanding of the mythological underpinnings that made up even modest details of Middle-earth (I was more familiar with Norse Mythology at a higher level by then, of course, but wouldn't have been able to tell you much about the Eddas, or the the Nibelungenlied or anything like that).  But the notion of home-brewing came so naturally to me, even if I was doing little more than imitative pastiche, that I was literally doing it from the get-go as a little kid.

Of course, coming from a literary background (rather than a wargaming one, like Gygax and Arneson themselves did) there were all kinds of things about D&D that never sat well with me.  If it didn't allow me to recreate my own versions of The Book of Three and Lord of the Rings or the other fantasy stories that I was devouring at a rapid pace back then, then what was the point?  The whole notion of the dungeon itself I never liked, and although I can understand its genesis in theory, I've never liked spending much attention on them at all.  Over time, my fascination with high fantasy itself faded a bit as well; as anyone who's ever read this blog knows, I haven't focused on a high fantasy style game in, quite literally, many, many years.

Anyway, after the release of Third Edition in 2000, I picked up my old late elementary and junior high school hobby of messing around with fantasy role-playing games more or less permanently, and I've obviously been homebrewing that entire time.  My first forays after getting back into it were very standard plain-Jane vanilla D&D style settings, but it didn't take me long to start diverging significantly into stuff that was quite different.  For the following review, I'll be talking about any setting I worked on that contributed in any way to DARK•HERITAGE in a recognizable way—including of course, earlier versions of the setting that bore the name.

Bloodlines.  The first setting that I worked on that really ditched the standard D&D assumptions, after coming back to D&D, was Bloodlines.  It's amazing looking at it (and it's still available, actually, on an archive of Geocities) how much it paved the way for DARK•HERITAGE.  Not deliberately, of course—DARK•HERITAGE was supposed to be very different.  But as it evolved, it actually reverted in many, many respects to ideas that were pioneered in this setting.  A few examples:
  • It was the first setting where I really significantly ditched the rules.  Bloodlines was meant to be a d20 Modern setting, but modified to be... less modern, I guess.  I started working on Bloodlines before d20 Past was out, but much of what I was doing was deliberately designed to create from scratch the material that d20 Past provided.
  • The geography was based on the lands ringing prehistoric Lake Bonneville—a gigantic pluvial lake that filled up at least half of the square miles of Utah, plus some of Wyoming and Nevada on the edges.  The idea of a southwest desert setting surrounding by a big inland sea should, of course, sounds familiar...
  • I'd already deliberately hybridized the rules a bit with the d20 Call of Cthulhu book, specifically the way magic worked.  I think my influence was more from Warhammer 40k than CoC honestly, although it was the CoC rules that I mostly used.
  • I'd skipped 2e almost entirely, but early on in 3e, I got fascinating with the concept of the plane-touched races.  I decided that a magical catastrophe in the distant past had shaped the world, and as part of it, elemental magic seeped into the world, creating all of the plane-touched races (which, of course, I gave new names to.)  By the time DARK•HERITAGE came out, I'd kept only modified versions of the fire genasi and the tieflings, (although I later added aasimar back in) but my wildlings or woses have a similar origin.
  • Prehistoric fauna.  I toyed briefly with giving a late Permian fauna but decided to go with a Hemphillian NALMA fauna—not exactly the same as my Rancholabrean NALMA used in DARK•HERITAGE, but clearly you see the similarity!
  • A gritty, urban noir and espionage focus, with some steampunk elements and swashbuckling, Golden Age of Sail style firearms, which at the time seemed radical in fantasy to me (I know, right?  Not anymore.)
  • I even had an area where the sun never shone; the first time the seed of Tarush Noptii reared its ugly, undead head.
It's almost amazing, even to me, to see how much if you ignore the little details, that Bloodlines really is DARK•HERITAGE.  Ironically, DARK•HERITAGE itself looked a bit different for much of it's life...

Dark Heritage Mk. I.  When I first used the name, it was because of a shift in thinking applied to a setting very much like Bloodlines, which of my early post 2000 homebrews had been my favorite.  I still used a hybrid of d20 Modern and CoC as the rules.  I had moved into a more overt sword & planet rather than fantasy approach, although that's best seen as an alternate route to get to the same place rather than a radically different approach.  What started that was thinking more and more about the prehistoric fauna and deciding that another world should have actually alien fauna.  Rather than borophagine dogs and barbourofelids, why not something like thoats, zitidars, calots and banths?  And if I'm going to do that with the animals, why not with the people?  Instead of elemental magic suffusing the world, what if the various races were bred by an ancient race of slavers for various functions, which had then disappeared for whatever reason?  The world also changed slightly; I started actually implementing geographic features from Mars; Valles Marinaris and the Tharsis volcanoes, specifically—although I rearranged them to suit.  In general, Barsoom became a much more overt influence as I migrated into a semi-science fiction approach.  Other than that, though, it's actually a little surprising now little this changed.  A lot of details did, but at a high level, this isn't really super different than Bloodlines except now with more pseudo-science and steampunk.  Probably the latter was the influence of the Iron Kingdoms setting, which hadn't yet been published, but we did have the Monsternomicon and the original modules to give us an idea of what to expect.  Heck, I'm pretty sure Warmachine hadn't even been released yet.  I also spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about a pseudo-scientific explanation for magic in the world of brane cosmology.  I very briefly ran an online game in the setting, but it fell apart when most of the players ended up being kind of AWOL.

Dark Heritage Mk. III.  I'm skipping Mk. II because it was basically just Mk. I with a radically restructured geography—an experiment that I decided I wasn't happy with after all.  For Mk. III I de-emphasized the pseudo-science again, and used a completely different geographical model based loosely on the ancient Silk Road Tarim Basin—Kucha, Karasahr, Turfan, Khotan, etc.  This was rather heavily developed, although after all was said and done, I ended up ditching most of the ideas that were unique to this version, although I did develop a lot names of places and persons, and I even had a fairly complete novel outline that I could still turn out today that was to be set here.

DarkDND/Leng Calling.  I took a break from my signature setting to develop one that was specifically meant to use D&D elements, albeit maybe in a way that would look really radically different than most D&D settings.  Shockingly, this ended up becoming the basis for much of what DARK•HERITAGE became, not because of the rules, races, magic system, or any of that stuff, but because of the geography especially.  Leng Calling was originally meant to be a Jupiter-sized world but of lower density so that it had a surface gravity the same as Earth.  This was just a little trick to make the surface area as big as I could possibly ever need it to be, which turned out to be ridiculously over-fluffed, because I never really did develop that much material for it.  What I did, develop, however, was the Terrasan Empire, which was the "star" polity that I would feature for the setting.  Not that the Terrasan Empire was't already heavily influenced by the oasis city-states from Mk. III already (because it was) but this actually put them into a completely different political framework.

Modular DnD Setting.  This is where I first developed Tarush Noptii and Kurushat; originally meant to be modular elements that could be used in any setting without much fuss.  Later, I added Baal Hamazi and Terrasa, but honestly; at some point, this just evolved seamlessly into DARK•HERITAGE Mk. IV when I decided to hang them together into a geography that was based on...

Pirates of the Mezzovian Main.  I was asked to run a game without much prep time for my group, and I needed a custom setting right away.  I took the geography of Leng Calling, mostly, which already resembled the Mediterranean a great deal, stuck Terrasa on a pseudo-Italian peninsula, stuck Kurushat in a psuedo-Egyptian location, stuck Cryx (from the Iron Kingdoms) on Crete, more or less, etc. I actually named the big inland sea for this setting; the Mezzovian Sea.  This geography got a few minor changes, but by the time we get to here, we're pretty close to where Mk. IV was—I mostly borrowed the geography from Pirates as is, and just added to it.  Pirates was a D&D game, though, and used D&D rules, D&D races, etc.  The tone was more Warhammer FRP or "Fantasy Cthulhu + X-Files"—a common theme for me, but it was definitely a D&D game.  I had enough fun with it that I was convinced that I needed my big inland sea and pirates back in Dark Heritage.  I played around with it for a while before completely ditching my Barsoom feel for the DARK•HERITAGE details that are pretty much as detailed here on this blog.  Of course, a few other homebrew elements had an impact too.

Demons in the Mist.  This was an online game I ran, really on the fly.  I made everything up on the fly, almost, which means that I liberally stole it from somewhere else.  There's actually a lot of it that's stolen specifically from Edgar Rice Burroughs, including Opar, fighting gorillas, and a much more swashbucklery tongue in cheek rather than horror tone.  The success of this approach eventually seeped into the development of Dark Heritage until I decided that significant tone changes and a lot more wahoo wasn't necessarily a bad idea at all.  You can actually see that change here on the blog if you read enough posts with the DARK•HERITAGE tag, though.

There was a sequel to Demons in the Mist that used yet another geography and was meant to take place in Green Ronin's Freeport (or at least that was the starting point.)  I stuck it in a geography that was basically the East Indies, with at the northern edge, Thailand, the Philippines, and the encroaching Han, and at the southern edge, the blasted wasteland of what was kinda sorta Australia.  Again, as these settings developed, they all started converging onto each other to a very great degree, so that lots and lots of details are repeated, and they really cross-pollinate and influence each other.  By this time, DARK•HERITAGE Mk. IV already existed, but it still had a rather immature level of development compared to today, so lots of stuff made it over from these games.

Mammoth Lords.  Meant to be a stand-alone sword & sorcery setting that does for the New World what Robert E. Howards' Hyborian Age did for the Old.  I've talked a fair bit about this one here, but there are obvious convergences between this and Dark Heritage already, especially given the faunal elements featured, and the gradual shift of my setting into becoming a bit of a love letter to the wild landscape of the American West.  

Where to now?  I actually threw Mammoth Lords in there, because I see the next development of Dark Heritage to come as a fusion with that setting.  One thing that I deliberately did with early Dark Heritage was leave alone too familiar cultural ties; anything like the Anglo-Saxons was to be ignored.  The balshatoi ethnicity (later the Kozaki) was meant to be more like the Scandinavian Rus; a combination of early Medieval Russia and Vikings.  That was the closest thing to your typical northern European Hajnal Line traditional fantasy ethnic group that I had.  Now, I didn't do this because I dislike the Anglo-Saxons or other northern Europeans; quite the opposite, as a descendant of Anglo-Saxons (including the heavy Viking influence on their language, culture and politics prior to the Norman Conquest—and of course, the Normans were mostly just Vikings who moved to Normandy and started speaking French) and Scottish people myself, they are my favorite historical peoples.  But, I just wanted to do something a little different.  In the years since, I've really had my eyes opened quite a bit more to the contempt with which much of the so-called "mainstream" science fiction and fantasy community has for our culture, and I now feel like deliberately going somewhere else is now the mainstream that I need to break away from rather than the reverse.

So, DARK•HERITAGE Mk. V will be geographically redrawn yet again, to look like a distorted and compressed version of North America (although in size probably more comparable merely to Greenland.)  I'll have Terrasa take the place of Nueva España in the south.  I'll have Porto Liure be similar to a Tortuga.  Baal Hamazi and the various tribes that now over run much of it's territory (the Untash, Haltash and Tazitta) will be similar to the Indian Nations, with more specifically Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlements encroaching from the east like the spread of America across the continent.  I'll have a north-south mountain range that will probably be the western edge of my map, a large red rock desert area, northern boreal forests, vast grasslands, and a subtropical southern forest.  The Anglo-Saxons and Scottish area will be more or less equivalent to the South, expanding westward with settlements not unlike that of Texas.  The north will be more Viking-esque.  The rivalry between these two white nations will at times intense, but at other times, they'll see each other as necessary allies.  I'll have hints of Chinese settlement somewhere far in the West (the West Coast Fusang, essentially, using the New World interpretation of Fusang).

The al-Qazmir nation actually doesn't really have a place in this setting anymore, I realize.  But, I think I can still rescue some elements of it.  Located smack dab in the middle of the continent, will be a big red nation.  Not red as in "Injun territory" (that'll be more to the west still) but red as in the red men of Barsoom.  Sorta.  I mean, I've already got the Indian Territory being somewhat reimagined as my Baal Hamazi, so it won't be so exotic as to be out of place.  Besides, I've always, always loved exotic red-skinned people, ever since reading the Barsoom books for the first time.

Anyway, I'll sketch out the new geography, scan it and post it here in the next day or two.