July 7, 2016

The Greatness of David Gemmell

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Psychological Sword and Sorcery. Two trope families that at first seem incredibly distant, perhaps even exclusive. And yet David Gemmell seamlessly blended them to awesome effect. How did he do it?

Perhaps the answer lies in Gemmell's own rough past, his reformation at the hands of his stepfather and boxing training, and most heavily in how he got started in fantasy. Diagnosed with cancer, Gemmell thought he had only a few months or years left to live, and was moved to write a story about it. The story would take the form of a hopeless siege, as an allegory for the cancer; if he got cured the fort would stand, if not the fort would fall. Thus Legend, and a legend, were born.

Time and again in his novels Gemmell goes back to the lessons he learned in life to animate his characters. One of the most striking features of the Gemmell novels is how much they emphasize psychology. The crippling effects of fear and doubt. The false power of anger, and its ultimate weakness. The colossal role of confidence in victory. Inner demons, always larger the greater the hero wrestling with them.

In Legend, the aging, has-been champion Druss rallies the confidence of the demoralized garrison to the point that they successfully hold the doomed fort. In The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, the young Druss receives valuable lessons in anger management from a champion boxer. I think a large part of that was Gemmell paying homage to the life debt he had to his foster father. In The White Wolf, Skilgannon has to live with the guilt of an entire city massacred by his command. And in almost every novel, the line between living and dying for the mortally hurt is neither strength nor science, but their will to live.

The result of this outlook is incredibly powerful narrative, the equal or even the superior of Robert E. Howard's breathless energy and pacing. Yes, sword and sorcery can work even when written from inside a character's head rather than dwelling on his iron thews. We can only wonder, with regret, what an even older and wiser Gemmell could have accomplished had he not been taken away by a heart attack in 2006.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a compulsive homage to Gemmell in the form of a little RPG, Chronicles of the Drenai. I tried to adopt Gemmell's approaches to character building and narrative by building the game around overcoming Passions, like Fear of Harm to resolve combat.

Re-reading it, I have to smile at how crude the game is. The passion mechanics still seem promising*, though, making me wonder if it's suitable for a generic sword and sorcery game with a psychological bent. Perhaps with enough work it will make a worthy offering to the great Saga Masters now in Valhalla.

*Original French blog post for the link above.

July 6, 2016

Living Arrows of the Sea

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Balo
A Vijadesan riddle asks about an arrow of moonlight that swims by day; the answer is the Balo or garfish. This long, slim fish can grow up to a yard long, with a sharp six-inch beak, and often bursts out of the water in spectacular jumps, impaling anything in the way. Sometimes entire schools jump in unison, raining over ships and boats like a flight of arrows. They do this not to attack, but to escape predators in the water, or merely because something surprised them.

When hooked, though, Balo will sometimes charge the fisherman. They are a very common hazard across the Janggalans, and have injured or killed many. The worst thing about them, though, is that their flight is all too often just a harbinger of something much bigger and nastier coming.


This creature for Hari Ragat is based on the real-life Needlefish, aka Garfish or Houndfish. It’s very common in tropical waters, and I used to encounter them often when I was snorkeling as a kid in Puerto Galera. Little did I know then how dangerous they could be. Here’s a scary description of what they can do.

July 5, 2016

Ottoman Origin of Philippine Mail?

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I once found a blog claiming that the kurab a kulang, the signature brass mail and plate armor of the Mindanao Muslim tribes, was of Turkish origin. The blogger pointed out the Ottoman expedition to Aceh as the start of manufacturing this kind of mail in Southeast Asia. This is an interesting point, and with lack of clear evidence it’s hard to prove or disprove. Personally I don’t agree with it.

Item: The kurab a kulang was used by the Tausugs, Maguindanaos, Maranaos, and the Bugis people of Sulawesi. It was not found in large quantities by either the Spanish or the Americans, and was likely used only by leaders, very rich people and perhaps their bodyguards. However, there are still quite a few examples floating around, specially among American museums and collectors, and the Museo Armeria Real in Madrid.

Item: The kurab a kulang is mail and plate in Indo-Persian style, which does encompass the Turkish style. However, it is not fashioned after the Ottoman prestige style of the krug, which has a rounded or octagonal belly plate.

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The krug was the armor worn by Ottoman officers and its elite cavalry, the equivalent of European knights, called spahis. Had the Moros been imitating the Ottomans, and given the fact that Moro armor was made for the elites, why didn’t they adopt the round belly plate? All the Philippine and Buginese armors I’ve personally seen or found photos of have square or rectangular plates.

Item: Other styles of Ottoman armor are usually characterized by plates set very close together, even overlapping. This makes the armor really heavy, but that worked for the Turks because they were meant for mounted combat. The kurab a kulang however is characterized by plates spaced rather widely apart, likely to save weight and to remain cooler in the tropical heat.

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Item: The closest kind of armor I’ve seen to Moro armor is Indian, in particular the armor of Sindh.

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As you can see, this Sindhi armor consists entirely of rectangular plates spaced widely apart and connected by mail, very much like the kurab a kulang.

If the kurab a kulang owes its origin to the Ottoman expedition, it is not a Turkish design but rather derives from their allies and mercenaries, which included many Sindhis, Gujaratis, and Malabarese.

Chances are, though, that such armor was already being made in the islands well before 1565. For one thing, armor was known and used much more widely here than we think.

The indigenous epics often mention the heroes wearing ‘war-coats.’ These were mostly of fabric and padded with cotton or abaca fiber. Some were stiffened with scales of hardened carabao hide, brass, carabao horn and other materials. American forces found these in widespread use throughout Mindanao, and the Spaniards did mention some of the natives wearing ‘escaupilles,’ the same word they applied to the padded cotton vests used by the Aztecs.

For another, Malacca and Borneo had long been trading directly with India and Arabia, and by the time the Spaniards arrived the rajahnate of Manila was a Bornean vassal state, while Butuan had already passed its glory days as a rival of the Cham empire in Vietnam. Indian armorers were likely long in business already in the major ports and royal capitals when Magellan arrived, and their techniques were quickly learned by the locals.

These armorers had had time to adopt their design to tropical usage, stripping away the long sleeves and leg pieces, which would’ve been too hot and heavy to use here. And they had turned to working almost exclusively in brass, with non-metallic plates on some pieces (horn, lacquered leather, etc), likely due to the scarcity of iron and its tendency to rust easily. Brass mail rings were common in India, but there they were mixed with iron rings to form Ganga-Jumna mail, with alternating yellow and gray patterns.

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Perhaps another factor in the use of brass was the local affinity for it; brassworking is a well-developed art all over the Malay lands, specially but not exclusively among the Muslim Malays. Among the non-Muslim Lumad tribes of Mindanao entire villages would specialize in brassworking, existing in intricate trade networks with other specialist villages that produced basketry, pottery, weapons and tools, and so on.

The kurab a kulang though existed only among the Muslim tribes. Only these coastal traders could afford the sheer quantity of metal that went into them. So whether Turkish or not, these armors are really interesting examples of how Indian and Islamic arts influenced the Philippines. Maybe one day I’ll find evidence that’ll settle the question for good.

July 4, 2016

The Strangler Fig (Balete)

The Balete Tree of Samal Island

The Balete or strangler-fig tree is common throughout the Janggalan Isles, where it's known as a lodestone to all sorts of spirits. The Balete has a strange life cycle, for it starts as a scrawny parasite growing on other trees, but grows even larger than its host. By the time its host is killed the Balete may encompass an area the size of a large house or greater. Sometimes dying Balete become possessed by evil spirits, and then it truly lives up to its name of 'strangler-fig.' It becomes a flesh-eater, its limbs and aerial roots turning into strangling tentacles that drag screaming prey into the cavernous, moaning mouths that form between its roots.

Hungry Balete 3/7; Scores of Ropy Tentacles, Strong Grip, Gigantic Scale Trunk, Immobile Trunk; Renown Rank — Maharlika

July 3, 2016

Your Spirit is Loaded!

Many Filipino players of Hari Ragat may be surprised to find that a key character resource is named Bala, which in our vernacular means ‘bullet.’

Now how in the world did a stat representing spiritual power get named after bullets? I’m actually using Bala in its far older sense, which as so many Southeast Asian religious ideas comes from Hindu India. Bala in Sanskrit means strength, strong or powerful, and is the root of names like Balarama and Baladeva, probably also Ballava. I’m guessing bullets got named ‘bala’ because of their seemingly mysterious killing power, given the noise of a gun and the invisibility of a bullet in flight.

Spiritual  power was a key concept in Southeast Asian myth. Anybody could be a muscle-bound strongman, but the title heroes had much more. Our epics and folktales are replete with themes of the hero’s invincibility, magnetic charisma, luck, and innate magical powers. Similarly, East Asians have the concept of Chi, which in fully developed form also enabled wondrous feats.

Thus the Bala resource in Hari Ragat. It can be spent to power feats of strength or speed, or the luck to evade a blow, to survive wounds that would kill an ordinary man, or even the magnetism to overcome an opponent in social contests.

Because Bala is a spiritual quality, it’s not increasable by normal means. Instead, the way to gain more is to take Bala from powerful creatures. Spiritual power in this milieu resides in the viscera, and is most concentrated in the liver. Eating the livers of certain monsters can instantly raise your characther’s Bala – if he survives.

July 1, 2016

Handling Poisons in Hari Ragat

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Poisonous creatures and use of poisoned weapons abound in the Hari Ragat setting. They have to, for  me to faithfully depict the historical and natural inspirations behind Hari Ragat. Coming up with satisfactory mechanics for handling poisons, though, was a real challenge for me.

I rejected the idea of Save or Die quickly. Poisoning is too likely and frequently to happen that a Save or Die treatment will move from being a remote frisson of fear for the player to a big ball of no fun.

Likewise, I didn’t want to use the system of Damage Over Time, as it would introduce added bookkeeping to the game. DoT is good in computer games, where a machine tracks this for you, but I want neither GM nor player to have to think about it.

Nor did I want prepared antidotes to be readily available nor work as instant magical cures. Poison should be feared (by the way, I’m using poison to mean both poisons and venoms). Easily available and instant antidotes would simply have my players buying antidote every chance they get. And antidotes shouldn’t be generic; they should be unique for every different kind of poison.

Then it hit me. The poisoning of a character isn’t a player problem: it’s a party problem. Becoming Poisoned can be a subplot trigger, that subplot being the search for a healer of sufficient skill, or if there is one is in the party, the search for antidote ingredients a la Aragorn’s search for athelas in Fellowship of the Ring.

Thus, to summarize the current poison mechanics for Hari Ragat I have:

  • Poisons have two effects, an Immediate effect which is usually Disadvantage for the character from pain/swelling/shortness of breath or whatever, and a Terminus, what happens if the poison runs its course and when.

    For example, one snake’s poison could have an immediate effect of severe Disadvantage because it hurts like hell, and death in three hours.
  • Antidotes are herbal, and require fresh herbs. The good news is, the entire pharmacy is right outside the characters’ doors, or more likely, they’re already in it. The whole jungle is stocked with good stuff. It’s just a matter of finding the right herb in time.
  • All Baylan characters automatically recognize poisons after a minute or two of observing the victim. The idea is to use different poison types to inject an exotic jungle flavor into the game rather than make them failure points for the players. (Yes, you can see the Gumshoe DNA here). The game is in the search for antidotes.
  • If you’ve no Baylan with you – shamans being the healers and herbalists here – then the search can be for a healer instead. The good news is you’re either near a settlement, which means you’re near a healer, or you’re far from civilization, which means you’re near a Diwata or other nature spirit. What will you offer for a comrade’s life?

Oddly enough, I’m finding that the Immediate effect + Terminus treatment is closer to reality despite my admittedly Narrativist motives in coming up with it. The toxins found readily in nature are pretty slow, even cobra and mamba bites can give the victim half an hour or more to get help before they’re lost.

June 29, 2016

Mythic Archaeology for Hari Ragat

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One of my personal goals for Hari Ragat was to stick strictly to pre-colonial material for the setting. Thanks to the works of scholars like Scott and Eugenio I was able to get into the epics pretty easily, but coming up with the bestiary was a bit more challenging.

A lot of Philippine lower mythology creatures acquired Spanish names and properties over time. Mermaids became sirena; dwarfs were duwende; evil spirits maligno; diwatas and wizards became encanto; ghosts were multo, from Spanish muerto; and so on. Popular Philippine culture has become so Westernized that Philippine dwarfs are often represented wearing Western-fairytale trappings, complete with pointy caps a la Doc, Grumpy, et. al.

Fortunately equivalent terms could still be found in different Philippine languages, specially the Lumad tongues, Tagalog and Bisaya. In some cases I went a little farther out, to the next closest culture which was Indonesian. Thus the replacement of sirena with duyung, which originally did mean mermaid. I guess the Spanish idea of the pretty Melusine-type mermaid was more appealing than the picture of the dugong, thus the switch!

Speaking of merfolk, the Philippine merfolk do seem more fearsome than the post-medieval Western archetypes. While the aspect of drowners and terrors of the sea became muted in Western merfolk stories as we remember them now, probably thanks to modern fairytale adaptations, Philippine merfolk definitely had a monstrous side. The siyokoy mermen were thought to be misshapen fish-men, more Lovecraftian Deep One types than Ariel’s pretty boys in the Disney movie. The twin-tailed mambubuno was  a drowner of fishermen, its very name evidence of its brutal nature: mam- “one who,” buno, “wrestles.” The marindaga of Bicol was a mermaid with eel- or sea snake-like tail that lures fisherfolk to her then eats them.

Though I’m actually done with the main rulebook of Hari Ragat (yes, it’s done!), I’m always on the lookout for more mythic creatures for possible expansions. And I’m having a ball doing so.

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