Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Legend of Cagayan

One of the performances I enjoyed the most during the Sayaw Mindanao 2014 finals was this one below, which felt to me as if it had jumped right out of the pages of an epic. Or perhaps an epic session of Hari Ragat, because this is exactly the feel I want. The story, told in dance, tells of a Lumad chieftain in the wars against the expanding Moro sultanates and a star-crossed romance, a tale which supposedly gave rise to the name of the province of Cagayan (de Oro) in northeastern Mindanao.

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Once upon a time, a brave Lumad chieftain led his people in war against the expanding Moros. Here the chieftain (center) offers to his ancestors before going to battle as the balian priestesses dance and chant prayers.

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Our hero leads his war party out …

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Their first raids are victorious, thanks to our hero’s valor …

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But then he comes upon the party of the sultan’s daughter. Thunderstruck by her beauty, he falls madly in love.

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His comrades try to restrain him, but he breaks free of them and professes his love to the princess. She returns his love, and entices him into deserting his tribe for her sake.

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“For shame, for shame,” the chieftain’s women cried. Without their champion, the Lumads are worsted in the next battle. It’s said the name Cagayan sounds like the word for ‘shame’ in this tribe’s tongue.

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There are two versions of how this story ends. In one, the chieftain is driven into exile with his princess, cast out from his tribe. In another, happier one, the couple becomes a bridge between the two peoples.

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The troupe performed the happier version for the finals. Here the Lumad chieftain marries the sultan’s daughter, while the prince, the sultan’s son, takes the new chieftain’s hand in peace. I found this story really powerfully told, so I’m hoping to have similar ones happen in my game.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Genre/Milieu Reinforcement Mechanics

Enactment of an epic battle, Sayaw Mindanao 2014 Finals, Davao City

One of the design guidelines I set for myself with Hari Ragat is that the game should encourage players to play the setting’s tropes. I strongly believe game mechanics shape player behavior. I believe that players  want to have fun with as little fuss as possible, and are intelligent and will quickly figure out the easiest/most rewarding way of doing things. Most of all, rules will shape the way the players think. For example:

Anito Dice
Anito Dice are an adventuring essential, and a player reward that encourages thinking as an inhabitant of the milieu. Because you earn Anito Dice by working to please the ancestors, you start thinking in terms of what your characters’ ancestors want of you. And if you took a specific patron ancestor, you think in terms of that particular ancestor’s values. This gives room for some very different viewpoints and goals between PCs.

Renown = XP
Hari Ragat doesn’t use XP, or rather, its XP are entirely in the form of Renown, which is a social thing. True, you get Renown for kicking monster butts, but there’s more to it than that; your character must observe certain standards as well, because you can also lose Renown, or not rise to the next Renown Rank. (There’s a new Renown mechanic, by the way, which is rank-based and is even more grounded in the milieu’s culture.)

Hometown and Ties
Heroes in Hari Ragat aren’t homeless, penniless wandering desperadoes, but instead are the high-status protectors and providers for their community. Again, the game follows my source material which is the old pre-colonial epics. To reinforce this, we start all PCs with a common hometown, and ask the players to come up with Ties linking them to key figures in the hometown. This approach should be familiar to players who’ve played L5R or Pendragon or HeroQuest before.

Martial Arts Secrets
Heroes in Hari Ragat may have martial arts Secrets, special techniques based on FMA such as Kali/Eskrima and Dumog, and also on heroic feats mentioned in the epics. These Secrets are weapon-specific, some working for a whole family of weapons, while some only work with a specific kind of weapon. Following FMA philosophies, there are Secrets built around creating openings in your opponent’s defenses,  using the off-hand, wielding two blades, etc etc. Epic feats such as the Cordilleran hero Aliguyon’s catching his foe Pumbakhayon’s spear and throwing it back are also modeled.

Speaking of combat, we’ve also designed a bunch of mechanics that better reflect the source material and our desired cinematic style of play:

Shields > Armor
Armor is a better option than shields in most FRPGs, but since armor is rare in this milieu, and in fact many fighting Secrets are built around not using any, we made the shield provide more protection than even the best armor. There are also Secrets for using shields, such as one that uses the prongs on the upper and lower edges of some kalasag shields to pin your opponent’s weapon or limbs.

Spears are Cool (we hope)
Spears are very much used, and revered with almost the same respect as for swords, in the source material. I’ve found the spear rather short-changed in other FRPGs though, specially D&D, so we added some spear-wielding Secrets that will make you happy to specialize in this weapon too. I’ve mentioned the catch-and-return trick, and there are also techniques for pinning the opponent, throwing your spear to shock and prepare the way for an in-your-face blade assault, and more.

Mechanics for Fighting Very Large Monsters
There are quite a few extremely large monsters in this game, and I wanted a combat mechanic that draws you into visualizing a fight with such and encouraging daredevil stunts like leaping onto a dragon’s back to hammer your sword into the back of its head. Hari Ragat has mechanics for maneuvering your way into a very close position that lets you strike directly at a big beastie’s vitals, and rewards you for doing so.

And as for magic, that gets its own milieu-specific treatment too:

Spirit Magic
Magic in Hari Ragat as I’ve mentioned in previous posts is based on interaction with various kinds of spirits. Instead of spells that you’re more or less sure will go off when you want, magic is uncertain and somewhat dangerous, as every effect requires a contest with the spirit you’re bargaining with for that effect. How to get better at magic? It’s less ‘leveling-up’ than about cultivating relationships with the spirits you need. The more good spirit relations you’ve got, the more versatile and certain you are with your magic.

Omens
I’ll end this list of custom genre mechanics by going full-circle, as this one refers back to my first item, the Anito Dice mechanic. Both GMs and players have a way to introduce complications and enforce the flavor of the milieu more through taking Omens during play. Good Omens, usable only by the GM and shaman characters, point to opportunities to earn Anito Dice by doing something that pleases the ancestors. Bad Omens, usable by the GM and, I’m thinking, any other character, point to complications; do something that may be dangerous or unpleasant, or lead to a side adventure, else you will lose Anito Dice.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hari Ragat: The Shaman’s Expanded Role

Interesting. I’ve just realized how powerful and versatile shaman characters can be in Hari Ragat, which means greatly expanded opportunities for the player to shine and explore the character.

A shaman can Invoke spirits to compel favors and effects from them, which includes coaxing Anito Dice out of the spirits, banish them, appease them if offended, and very importantly, ask them questions. A shaman can Spiritwalk, to roam the world in spirit form and interact freely with the spirit world including dreaming persons. There’s also a pretty powerful Curse mechanic, though right now I’m in a quandary whether to fold this in with the Invocations or maintain the current mechanic.

If this set off warning bells in your head, you can be sure it did the same in mine … but I think I’ve got the balance questions covered. Shaman magic in Hari Ragat is bounded strongly by difficulty and risk, both of which add to its resource cost; shaman players will have to choose when and how to use their magic carefully, because any working can end up costing more than planned if you roll badly. There are vulnerabilities built into the magic system; the more powerful the effect you want, the more powerful the spirits you’ll have to Contest with to get it done, which very likely means more Bala/Anito Dice spent.

The way the shaman plays, it’s much safer and surer to be a supportive team player than to try to hog the spotlight by scoring the most or the biggest kills. But don’t worry, there will also be times when it’s obvious you’ve got the winning strategy, and the rest of the group will have to support your character by running interference and sharing resources so you can pull off The Big One.

A shaman is also bounded by her need to maintain certain relationships with various spirits. All shamans are very dependent on the favor of the ancestors, for one, and may also have relationships to maintain with other spirits like the Diwatas of their homeland. If you want more power you need to have stronger relationships, but stronger relationships also mean more requirements and more taboos. This can present unexpected complications when you’re in action. For example, what if the villain you’re up against is of the same bloodline as you? Suddenly your ancestors aren’t as eager to help you, because hey, the person you’re fighting is their descendant too.

Playing a shaman should be an interesting role playing challenge.

Bala and it's Fate approach

Bala in Fate vs Bala in Vivid



One of the key differences between the Fate version of Hari Ragat and the Vivid version is how Bala is handled.

By definition though they're similar:

In Vivid, Bala is a depleting resource and a rated attribute that fuels magic and acts of heroism.

In Fate, Bala is a rated attribute with it's own stress bar that fuels magic and acts of heroism.

Functionally speaking, in Vivid, Bala adds directly to your dice pool when attempting to clear contests. However in Fate, adding dice makes this similar to modifying your roll, which overlaps with how Fate Points work. I did not want to add more complications to what I perceived as the "Core" of fate, so what I did was I took the definition of Bala back to it's story definition:

"Bala is a measure of your character's spiritual power."

I interpreted this as the ability of your character to perform acts of magic or heroism, and I treat this like a Skill in Fate. So you could have Bala of Good (+3), Fair (+2) etc.

Now Bala has a depletion track, to keep it somewhat compatible with Vivid, and this is implemented in Fate via the means of a stress track. This stress track is by default equal to your rating in Bala.

By taking stress on the Bala stress track, your character can either do an act of magic or an act of heroism. Here are the definitions:

1. The Bagani Surge - You perform an act of heroism, ignoring all fatigue and physical injuries. Unless a consequence makes an act physically impossible (like you lost a hand, or limb) you cannot be compelled by any consequence for this exchange. Furthermore your action gains the aspect "Heroic prowess" which can render certain condition aspects that affect your roll inapplicable. (more on this in a later blog post)

2. The Spirit Caller's Will - You shout your will into reality, allowing your voice to reach far and wide into the incorporeal world. This allows you to act as a conduit for spirits and the magic that they can work into the world for a single exchange.

When your Bala stress track is tapped out, you can't do either of the above actions.

Regaining Bala - The Stress track will naturally clear out after each scene that you do not use Bala.

Advancement of Bala - Your Bala is treated as an Approach rating in Fate Accelerated, and when a milestone allows you to raise an approach, you may opt to raise Bala instead. However, there is a story prerequisite to raising Bala. Since in general you must consume a more powerful source of Bala to increase it, you need to play this out in game in order to justify the Bala rating increase.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Philippine Armor, Part 2

Thanks to Waw Maw, and my ex-student Joey who gave me an excuse to poke around the Aldevinco antiques and crafts arcade, I was able to get some more material on Philippine armor. I cannot be sure of the antiquity of the examples below, or whether they were ever used in war, but we can surmise that they at least resembled real war gear.

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In my last post, I noted that I hadn’t seen Moro helmets that were not based on the Spanish morion design. Well it seems I’m getting old. Here’s a pic from the vikingsword forum of Moro panoply, likely Maguindanao, showing plated mail shirt, round taming shield, budiak spear, kris, and … a kulah zirah type helmet. It looks like a South Indian type of kulah zirah, like the one below, but has no nasal.

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There were quite a few examples in Omar’s Antique Shop in Aldevinco, but alas I didn’t have my cam with me so no pics. Most of them were shallow caps with metal side and back panels, linked by brass mail. However none had the long neck guard of the Indo-Persian kulah zirah, nor did any have nasals. I guess lightness was more a priority than full protection. That said, the helmets were heavy. Perhaps they’d have been lighter if made of steel? Might that have been the reason the morion design got adopted, the morion design having pretty good neck protection if you wore it tilted up?

We also saw quite a few hardwood salakot, conical hats that were common civilian wear but could likely stop a sword cut. Here’s a pic similar to what we saw, found in the vikingsword forum:

maranao salakot

Were they ever used in war? This pic of a salakot accompanying a padded suit of armor (looks like abaca) also from the Philippines (region not indicated) seems to argue for it:

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Again, I keep noticing the ubiquity of brass and organic materials. Comparing the pretty good state of the brass items with the woeful rusting on the antique blades also on display, it looks like resistance to corrosion was a big factor in the choice of brass over steel for making armor. In this humid climate, you’d likely have to replace steel armor far more often than is economical. Below is a leather coat from Sulawesi – an Indonesian island quite near Mindanao, and very likely to have traded influences with it. It also looks similar to some of the items I saw in the Escudero Museum.

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Speaking of organic material, Waw Maw sent me reference pics of two helmets, one from the Cordillera and another from Mabate. The wooden one below is credited as Ifugao.

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And this one, made of porcupine fish skin, probably stretched over leather, gourd or wicker, is from Masbate:

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Now that is one oddball helmet, reminds me more of the Polynesian ones. The decorated metal finial makes me think it belonged to some person of authority; however it looks very crudely made. Now I’m very curious about the story of this helmet! The quest continues …

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Play Aid: ‘What Would My Ancestors Do?’

Playtesting of Hari Ragat continues, with Marc Reyes running sessions in Makati using his FAE conversion, and recently another Manila-based gamer, Fabs Bulwayen, running the test scenario impromptu last weekend. Thanks guys! Hoping to get after-action reports posted here soon.

One of Marc's players learns the 'Summon Stunt Double' technique of taking damage!

One of the lessons we’re learning from these playtests is that we need to help players navigate the milieu. The epic background we used in Hari Ragat is actually unfamiliar even to the typical Fiipino teenager (which points to a gaping hole in our educational program!), so sometimes they’re not sure how to proceed at certain points, or take actions with their characters that aren’t optimal or considered admirable in the setting.

Marc and I were discussing this earlier via Google hangout, and we came up with this: a ‘What Would My Ancestors Do/Know?’ card. It’s just a card, you could use a standard playing card or even a calling card. Holding it up signals the GM that you would like info that should be common knowledge to your character, or you’d like to know what the ancestors would’ve considered the proper thing to do in your character’s current situation. Likewise, the GM can hold up this card at anytime during play to impart such information to the group.

Addendum:
I’m getting old! I forgot to add that this: If you took a specific patron ancestor at character creation, the GM may give you an answer based on the viewpoint of your patron ancestor. So if your patron ancestor happened to be a notorious pirate, well, you’ll get a piratey reply! Arr!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Origins of Philippine Armor?

Surviving specimens of Philippine armor are rather few, and mostly rather recent, many of them from the 19th century captured by American forces in Mindanao. While there are sources stating that Philippine armor was copied from Spanish models, anyone familiar with Indo-Persian armor will immediately see that’s not the full story.

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Here is a suit of Moro armor from Mindanao. It’s a plate-and-mail shirt of brass, designed to close in front so it would be very easy to don or doff quickly. It’s topped by a helmet that looks very much like a copy of a Spanish morion, and very likely is – which may have led to the assumption that Philippine armor is derived from Spanish. However, I’m quite sure the model for the body armor is something more like this:

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This is a zirah bakhtar from Sindh, in India. The design and construction techniques are very similar, save that this one is mostly steel, though the plates look like they have brass borders. It’s also long-sleeved and comes with bazu bands, arm protectors integrated with hand coverings. I’ve yet to see any long-sleeved suits of Moro mail, nor Moro armguards. I believe the prevalence of short sleeves and lack of arm or leg protections in Moro mail is due to the fighting styles and conditions here; less armor is better for amphibious operations in tropical, jungled terrain, and a lot of that action was in the form of raiding by sea.

Now, if Philippine armor were indeed copied from Spanish styles, what should it look like? When the Spanish invaded, they would’ve been wearing mostly breastplates, or jacks and brigandines. Here’s a brigandine from that period, c. 1500-1600:

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There are American photos of Bagobos in padded armor, and W.H. Scott mentions padded armor along with breastplates of carved hardwood, batung. I’ve also seen scale armor vests in the Villa Escudero museum, some made with coins, most with lacquered carabao hide scales, and even one with oyster shell scales! There were probably a lot more of those than of metal armor, but they of course don’t last in this climate so few have been preserved.

The wet tropical climate and scarcity of iron seemed to be the main limiting factors in development of local armor, and the reason why Moro mail is almost always of brass. Use of zirah bakhtar-style vests wasn’t limited to Mindanao, though, as shown by this Bugis specimen from Indonesia:

Baju Perang BUGIS Inggris

But what about that very Spanish helmet? It is Spanish. Were there no local helmet designs? It’s also very interesting that Indo-Persian designs influenced body armor, but I’ve yet to see local helmets of the kulah zirah/kulah khud styles. Scott mentions Chinese-made helmets, probably of the Ming chapel de fer styles, called kupyangan, used by the Tagalogs:

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There were also a wide variety of salakot, the pan-East Asian conical hat, which could be made of gourd, hardwood, lacquered leather, or tortoiseshell:

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501px-Silver_enlaid_torquiose_shell_salakot

The Spanish design may have proven more practical than either, and if the Spanish had given away a few of the beautifully chased officers’ morions as gifts, there would’ve been a prestige motive to copy them. Here’s a European parade morion, followed by a Moro helmet:

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The Moros further adapted the Spanish style by adding elaborate plumes of rooster feathers or horsehair:

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It’s interesting that I’ve yet to see helmets that look more purely indigenous in design like these Nias and Poso helmets:

Helm Perang NIAS - Versi INGGRIS

Topi Perang POSO - Versi INGGRIS

Was it simply because none were preserved? Because all who could afford armor – and they were never many – converted to using the Spanish helmet design? Or was it simply because collectors ignored the plainer examples in favor of the flamboyant Moro brass helms? I’d really appreciate pics and links if you find more interesting pieces of Philippine armor.

Anyway, that’s it for this morning’s ramble. I’ll leave you with some more ‘mail pawrn’ …

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