May 11, 2016

Shapeshifting in Sword and Sorcery Games

It's been a long time since I posted here, lot of changes going on. I'm alive, though, and still interested in gaming.

I just wanted to share a random thought that struck me out of the blue. Shapechanging magic, and the way it should work in a sword and sorcery milieu. One of the core elements of sword and sorcery is the tinge of horror that should surround magic, so a high-fantasy, or worse, a pseudo-scientific approach to shapeshifting magic puts my immersion in the genre off. But what if we posited a more shamanistic way of thinking about shapeshifting and gave it a bit of metaphysical horror?

The basis of shapeshifting magic in my scheme is that you 'borrow' a form from a spirit; want to assume wolf form, you need to deal with a wolf spirit, a mouse form requires a mouse spirit, and so on.

There's an innate danger to shapeshifting, though, that works like an addiction. I call it the 'seduction of the wild.' Turning into a flying form seduces you with the freedom and power of flight. Turning into a tiny, easily hidden form seduces you with freedom and secrecy. And most of all, turning into a big, powerful form like a wolf or bear or even worse, something as badass as a dragon, simply intoxicates the soul with sheer power. The effect of this intoxication, if uncontrolled, is that you forget your humanity.

Should this happen, you can no longer return to your original form unless reminded of your humanity somehow. Moreover your shapeshifted character gradually becomes incapable of human thinking, until recovery, or even the desire for recovery, is impossible. This makes beast magic very dangerous to the caster, as it should be.

December 9, 2015

0 AD Alpha Syllepsis … A Great Improvement!


Wildfire Games released its latest version of a game I’ve been avidly following, 0 A.D. Alpha 19, codenamed Syllepsis. After a couple of evenings trying it out, I have to say there are some fantastic improvements and new features to have fun with:

First off, there’s a new gameplay feature: capturing buildings and siege units. This is a load of fun, and fondly recalls to mind another small-press yet very enjoyable game, Haemimont’s Nemesis of the Roman Empire: the Punic Wars. In the latter game, an extra level of challenge was added by requiring you to defend various buildings across the map lest your enemy cut your supply line or gain a vital resource you needed.

Capturing in 0 AD does something similar, as now there’s always a risk of the foe capturing isolated town centers, towers, and even siege units that are cut off from their escorts. There’s a satisfying feeling of poetic justic when you take the Briton’s battering rams (seems the AI favors rams with the Celtic factions) and using them against the foe.

Capturing also speeds up the game a lot, as you no longer have to stop to build new town centers to replace enemy ones you’ve destroyed. The need to guard your own from capture also adds a breathlessness to the game’s pace as you shuttle armies back and forth  between threatened centers.

Formations and Pathfinding Improvements
The developers have redone the formations and pathfinding AI, and there are now some improvements and interesting tactical wrinkles. This 19th alpha version is still bugged, as the developers clearly warn, but overall I see improvements.

One interesting wrinkle of the new patfhinding/formation AI (they’re inextricably linked) is that units go out of formation whenever they build or repair, and skirmishers break formation in combat since that is indeed their job. So another challenge of the game is that you have to remember to re-form your units ever so often in combat, which for me makes it feel closer to actually having to command an army. Formations count for a lot in upping offensive and defensive power.

Going out of formation also makes movement much faster, specially when going through forest or around obstacles. Again, this makes sense: an army wouldn’t be able to stay in formation in a forest.  The game also runs with far less lag now thanks to these improvements.

Unfortunately, there is still a bug with  movement, and it tends to come up when moving through thick forest. The one time the game crashed on me, it was I tried to force an army through forest toward an enemy town center. I had a save game just prior to that, and when I tried chewing through the forest instead (by gathering wood from it), the crash did not repeat. Seems the best way to deal with thick forest is to do as the Romans did on the Rhine – they cut roads through them.

You can watch the new features preview video and download the game here.

December 8, 2015

Sword and Sorcery … with Rockets


Sword and sorcery with rockets. That’s what she wrote, and I just found out today would’ve been her 100th birthday. Who? Leigh Brackett, that’s who.

This won’t be the first time I’m saluting Brackett on this blog, and it likely won’t be the last. I’m STILL waiting for a proper Eric John Stark movie. When it finally gets made, I hope it’s handled much better than Disney’s failure to realize the potential of John Carter of Mars. (The House of Mouse execs totally missed what made the movie special to SF fans – and they missed the fact that they’d released the movie on the centennial of the novel it was based on!)

Anyway, back to S&S. Leigh Brackett was best known for her ‘planet adventure’ stories, set on fictional versions of Mars, Venus, and extrasolar planets (e.g. Skaith). Beginning as a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Brackett rather early on made a resolution to be a science fiction writer. She hit her stride in the 40s and 50s, and continued writiing into the 1970s. Her last project was to draft an early version of the script fro Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Brackett used scientific ideas in her stories with a light and often wavy hand. She was never a hard sci fi kind of writer. Instead she specialized in character and atmosphere, all tied together with very tightly paced plots. She brought the hard-boiled vibe of the 1930s detective stories into her F&SF, with hard-hitting results. She had very punchy ways of describing characters, almost impressionistic yet incredibly brief.

Her heroes were definitely in the old-pulp school of S&S: tough and two-fisted, scarred, honorable but with moralities well off from the norm. Take her signature creation, Eric John Stark: Stark is a fighter on the level of REH’s Conan, a feral child like Tarzan, but with a very hard-boiled personality that’s not without idealism. He’s been an outlaw, and when we first encounter him in Queen of the Martian Catacombs (aka The Secret of Sinharat), he has just been a mercenary aiding native rebels on Venus, and is wanted by the law for it.

Queen of the Martian Catacombs goes on to involve Stark in a secret plot to restore power to the Ramas, a civilization of immortals who steal bodies from the young and able and transfer their minds into them. There’s a mad ride through a sandstorm, swordfights, secret tunnels and hidden wells, and all of it happens against the  backdrop of Brackett’s splendid vision of a dying planet. Save for the dying planet bit and the fact that the protagonist is explicitly called an Earthman, this could’ve been sold as a straight sword and sorcery piece.

But it wasn’t. Brackett’s first love had always been the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs, not the Hyborian Age. Her sword and planet stories combine the very best of what we liked in Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs: vivid worlds, sparely-drawn yet memorable characters, stories that whisk you away into another place and time and leave you breathless before the end. Brackett wrote magic.

And that’s why I’m blogging about her on her 100th birthday, because so many F&SF fans now have never read a Brackett story nor even known her name.

November 29, 2015

Preview: Folk Magic in Hari Ragat


There are many things, such as plants, minerals, and the viscera, specially the livers, of certain animals, that are held to have an innate spiritual power. Over the centuries the Vijadesans have become familiar with some of these and learned to use them, and this is the basis of Vijadesan folk magic Charms.

Knowledge and use of Charms enables any character, even those without shamanic talent or training, to cope with the supernatural though in a very limited fashion. Here are some sample Charms:

Wild Ginger
The roots of wild ginger are commonly used in cooking, but even more importantly, they have powerful purifying and warding properties. When you keep a knob of peeled wild ginger in your mouth, most evil spirits, and most witches and sorcerers cannot touch you or directly affect you in any way.

The challenge is to know when to use this charm, to find and prepare the ginger in time, and finally to tolerate the extreme heat long enough, as wild ginger is a very hot spice. You can resolve this by rolling 1d6 (Oracle Roll), on a 4 or higher the character manages to keep the ginger in his mouth. You may spend Bala or Ancestral Favor to reroll the die, one point per reroll.

If you fail the roll, you find the ginger too spicy to bear and spit it out.  Getting caught doing this however is considered a deadly insult to the host, as it’s a tacit accusation that she’s a witch!

There are many things, such as plants, minerals, and the viscera, specially the livers, of certain animals, that are held to have an innate spiritual power. Over the centuries the Vijadesans have become familiar with some of these and learned to use them, and this is the basis of Vijadesan folk magic Charms.

Knowledge and use of Charms enables any character, even those without shamanic talent or training, to cope with the supernatural though in a very limited fashion. Here are some sample Charms:

Salt and Ash
Salt mixed with wood ash is a charm against evil spirits. No evil spirit can cross an unbroken circle drawn of salt and ash; however, cunning beings often find ways to get this circle broken for them.

Evil spirits and tainted creatures such as Asuang are repelled by salt and ash thrown against them, and if you sprinkle salt and ash on the lower torso of a Manananggal or the neck-stump of a Pugot it will perish outright. The challenge is to hit the Asuang with the thrown salt and ash, or to find the body stump and use the salt and ash despite the monster’s interference.

Betel Chew
Betel chew — a wad of betel leaf with areca nuts and lime, often flavored with tobacco or spices — is also attractive to some of the most man-like supernatural beings.  Thus many Vijadesans will make betel chew offerings to local spirits and such when crossing their domains. (Note: betel chewing has been linked to oral cancer, so we do not recommend trying this!)

Alum Crystal (Tawas)
Alum is a mineral salt that is sensitive to spiritual influences and presence, and so is used in a variety of divination and curing rites. A non-shaman character who touches a lump of alum to their eyelids can see the normally invisible spirits and other enchanted creatures.

This ability however lasts only a very brief time, just enough for 2-4 actions (1d3 + 1 rounds),  as this salt irritates the eyes and will cause them to water until you can’t see at all. When you wipe away the tears caused by this, you also lose the ability to see spirits. (Note: we don’t know what alum will actually do to your eyes, but it is useful as a deodorant; GMs could use it cast Purify Player!)

The liver is the organ in which spiritual power is most highly concentrated. The livers of spiritually powerful creatures, including human beings, thus have great magical significance. Consuming them can restore lost Bala, and the livers of the most powerful creatures can outright increase your Bala if you survive the experience.

The livers of creatures ranked between Datu and Karanduun can automatically refresh all your lost Bala when consumed. The livers of creatures ranked Rajah or higher can increase your Bala, but only if you win a contest vs. the beast as if you were fighting it again. If you win your character’s Bala goes up by +1, but if you lose your character falls sick.

The bile of certain spiritually powerful animals, usually dangerous reptiles like pythons and crocodiles, is held by the Vijadesans to have powerful medicinal properties. Python, crocodile and king cobra bile may cure minor bewitchments and curses; roll 1d6, on a 5 or 6 a cure has been effected. On a failure, the character likely found the bile just too foul-tasting and spat it out before it could have effect!

(Note: we have no idea whether animal bile preparations really do any good, but we do know it’s often sourced from endangered species.)

Stingray Tails
Whips made from the tails of albino stingrays (which are very rare) have an innate ability to frighten and harm spirits. Simply cracking a stingray tail whip can repel most minor evil spirits, and even a non-shaman can attack an evil spirit or enchanted being with a stingray tail whip and claim Advantage to do so.

Whips are tricky weapons to manage, however. On a Flub (a roll of all 1’s), your stingray tail whip hits an ally, or if no allies are present, it hits your character. Mortal victims hit by a stingray tail whip become Poisoned.

November 22, 2015

I Got Lost in Jakalla


My wife’s cousins had their resort on Samal Island renovated last year, and one of their requests to the designers was a look that blended Balinese, Cambodian and Aztec. In the beautiful afternoon light, it looked like I’d suddenly been transported to the world of Tekumel …



November 6, 2015

Because the Ancestors Like Movies

There were points in writing Hari Ragat when I start thinking, ‘Daymn, these ancestor spirits really treat life like watching a movie.’ Proof? Check out these Heroic Displays, feats of daring in battle which can be performed to earn Ancestral Favor:

Dance of Defiance
If you dance within missile attack range of the enemy — bowshot if they have bows, a spear’s throw if they only have spears — and do it so well you do not get hit, add +3 Ancestral  Favor to the pool. Note that because a lot of foes will be attacking you at the same time they will be rolling with a +2 or even +3 Advantage.

If instead of shooting, the foe also sends out one or more dancers, resolve this as a contest of dance; if you win, you get the +3 Favor. If the contest rolls get tied two or three times in a row, one of the enemy dancers will usually challenge you to single combat.

Awesome Taunt
Warriors traditionally yell insults and other taunts at the foe just before combat is joined. If a player delivers a taunt in-character that reduces the GM to helpless fits of laughter, add +3 Ancestral Favor to the pool.

Heroic Divestment
The ancestors are pleased when a hero dares the foe by deliberately ridding himself of  his weapons and armor and exposing himself to attack in this state. Add  +3 Favor simply for dropping your shield, armor, and all but one or all your weapons, and +1 more every round that you continue fighting thus.  If you pick up and use a weapon or shield, or don armor again, you cease earning Favor from this feat.

If you fake your divestment by rearming yourself right after the bonus was given but before combat, however, you will anger the ancestors: for the rest of the combat and until you atone, you cannot gain nor use Ancestral Favor.

Duel of Champions
If you challenge an enemy champion to single combat and he accepts, add  +3 Favor to the pool.  If you win the combat, add another +3.

First Spear or First Kill
If before combat is joined you boast that you will be the first to strike a foe with a spear, or make the first kill, and you succeed at doing so, add  +3 Ancestral Favor to the pool. More than one character may make this oath, which results in the heroes racing madly toward the foe as they vie for the honor of first spear. 

In the Eye of the Storm
To display your skill and bravado, you stand within missile range of the enemy without a shield and spend an entire combat round just parrying the missiles launched at you with only a sword, spear, or even bare hands. If you win the roll you gain  +3 Ancestral Favor. Note that because a lot of foes will be attacking you at the same time they will be rolling with a +2 or even +3 Advantage.

Returning the Spear
The first time in any battle that a player character catches and throws back a spear, hitting a foe, add  +3 Favor to the pool. To attempt this feat, the character must have his weapon hand free and you must announce your intent to catch and throw back as your action. The most daring heroes often try to segue from the Dance of Defiance to this stunt.

Barehanded Kill
If your character began a round fighting barehanded and kills his opponent without recourse to any weapon, add +3 Ancestral Favor to the pool. This is assuming the opponent was a worthy foe, though — the Threat rating must be at least equal to your fighting Role.

November 2, 2015

Hari Ragat Update: Magic System Overhaul

I’m now in the final (I hope) rewrite stages of Hari Ragat, after overhauling character creation and the magic system. The ideas are flowing again, and I finally have the time and energy to write them!

Good news for those who want to play Baylan or Katalunan (shaman) characters, there are now a lot more options available for you. Specifically, I’ve detailed the Curse mechanics to be a lot more atmospheric and closer to the feel of Philippine folklore, and giving you ways to use it even at a moment’s notice.

One of the points where Marc and I were going round and round was the ability of shamans to contribute to combat. While I still refuse to budge on what I call ‘point n zap’ magic, I did recognize his concern as valid. Players will look for ways to solve combat problems with magic if that’s what their characters are about.

Magic options in combat now include:

  • Raising Ancestral Favor by chanting and dancing just behind the front lines – the most traditional option, and the safest; besides, every PC relies heavily on Ancestral Favor the way the game is built;
  • Calling upon environmental spirits to ‘attack’ the foe with powerful environmental effects such as storm, flood, earthquake or landslide, and the like;
  • Calling upon spirits to distract or hamper the foe;
  • Casting Sumpa curses, which make ‘accidents’ happen;
  • Casting Usog curses, which overwhelm a targeted foe with your own spirit’s aura;
  • Switching bodies with a powerful Totemic Twin creature, such as a crocodile, so you can fight in that form;

Each of these approaches comes with its own risks and rewards, and depending on how you built your character some may be easier for you than the others.

I’ve booked a playtest session on January 31 next year – alas, I’ll not be in Manila again any earlier – tentatively to be held at a game club in Makati. I can’t wait to have my players try these new things out!

P.S. I’m back to using Scrivener! I tried to continue using Open Office, but Hari Ragat has gotten so big that I just can’t keep it organized properly without a working outline view editor. Fortunately, Scrivener had exactly what I needed. Yay for Scrivener! I’ll just worry about my exporting and final formatting problems later.

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