Monday, April 13, 2015

Ruins and Relics for Hari Ragat

Gratuitous picture of Khmer ruins, Cambodia

If there’s one FRPG trope that Hari Ragat will always be short of, it’s dungeons. They are, quite simply, few and far between in this setting. Partly that’s because the focus is on living communities and wilderness adventures, and partly because dungeons simply don’t appear in my source materials.

Indeed, some classic ‘delving’ tropes are inverted in Hari Ragat:

Manunggul burial jar, used to contain bones

Tombs and Grave Goods
Exploring ancient, underground stone tombs to plunder them of their treasures is standard fare in many FRPGs. Not in Hari Ragat. This form of burial isn’t practiced in the milieu, as grave sites are much simpler, and moreover the heroes are cast this time as the protectors of the tombs.

Grave robbing is a very serious offense against the ancestors, and allowing it to happen brings down the wrath of the ancestors on your folk. The heroic thing to do, therefore, is to keep those pesky grave robbers out. Specially if are enemy sorcerers, planning to steal the remains for necromantic purposes.

The biggest inversion of all is the way treasure is treated. In a typical FRPG, you steal shiny stuff from the dead, to finance your living; in Hari Ragat, you take treasure from the living in large part to give to the dead! Ancestor worship is a big thing in this milieu, with your ruler, relatives and even followers expecting appropriate gifts of treasure from you to accompany them to their graves when they go. Failure to do so results in disrepute in the society of the living, and disfavor from the powerful dead, which will impact your character’s fortunes.

Nasuli Spring in Bukidnon, an example of what would've been a sacred site

Again, there are no big stone temples in this setting. The sacred sites are found in the wilderness, because the people of the setting are animists who worship nature spirits. Once again, the heroes are cast not as plunderers of these sacred sites – an attitude I’ve always felt represented colonialist ethics – but as protectors, and occasionally as victims of the dangerous magic present in those sacred sites.

On the other hand, I love pulp fantasy and the old Hollywood adventures, such as Harryhausen’s Sinbad series, not to throw in some old school standards:

Lost Cities
Yup, there are lost cities in Hari Ragat. Not many, but they’re there, overgrown by jungle. Who built them? And why are they on islands the Vijadesans (your character’s race) believe they’re the first people on?

Another possibility for exploration is an abandoned Vijadesan settlement, deserted after it was destroyed or its inhabitants scared off by volcanic eruption, evil omens or hauntings, war, or the like. There will be little trace left of the buildings that were once here, as they were all of wood, bamboo and thatch, but here and there you may find markers of human presence: log pilings that once held up splendid torogan or astana palaces, pieces of finely carved wood, a grave marker of carved hardwood or even an entire buried ship, all overgrown by jungle.

There may be no extensive stone tunnel dungeons in Hari Ragat, but caves are very definitely part of this setting. Southeast Asia has quite a few big caves that we can use as models.

Batu Cave, Malaysia

There’s Batu Cave in Malaysia, which houses a huge Hindu temple complex; Han Son Doong Cave in Vietnam, now considered the world’s largest cave; the Underground River at Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Lagbasan Cave in Sultan Kudarat, whose innermost chambers were once used as tombs by the native Manobos; the mummy-filled caves of Sagada; and more.

Common characteristics of these tropical caves are the presence of water, sometimes entire lakes or underground rivers of it; lairing snakes galore; and a sacred status, regarding them as either the homes of Diwatas or other supernatural beings, or fitting burial sites for the most revered ancestors.

Special touches could include: albino crocodiles found only inside this cave; thousand-year old serpents capable of human speech and possessed of powerful magic; treasures hidden away for a fated hero to find; shapeshifting giants or dragons; ‘lost tribes’ who’ve sheltered in the cave for generations; or even an entire pirate lair hidden in a sea grotto.

Introducing the Pilandok

pilandok laughs

The Pilandok is a new character archetype for Hari Ragat, which the GM can use as an occasional NPC, and may be made available for play if the GM agrees.

Based on a trickster character from Peninsular Malay and Maranao/Maguindanao culture, with some admixture from the Tagalog figure of Juan Tamad, the Pilandok is a clever good-for-nothing who manages to live and have fun at the expense of the powerful.


The word Pilandok means Mouse Deer, referring to the tiny chevrotain of Southeast Asia. Malays have always had a special regard for this creature, regarding it as a paragon of cleverness and spunk because it can survive a world of pythons, crocodiles and tigers despite being so tiny and weak. It’s known as the Sang Kancil in Malaysia, and the Pilandok and Sang Kancil stories are very similar. Here are summaries of some of the tales:

The Sang Kancil and Prince Parameswara
Prince Parameswara fled his kingdom of Singapura after a Madjapahit invasion, and while despondently pondering his future from under the shade of a Melaka tree, he saw his hunting dogs corner a mouse deer. He was sure the mouse deer was a goner, but the little animal suddenly kicked the lead hound in the nose, halting it, and then sprang away into the jungle. Parameswara took hope from the mouse deer’s spunky gesture despite its weakness, and decided to found his new kingdom on the spot. He named the new kingdom Melaka, after the tree where he had received the good omen. This legend is why Malacca has a mouse deer on its coat of arms.

Pilandok and the Crocodiles
This tale exists both in Malay and Maranao folklore. Pilandok wanted to cross a mighty river one day, but there were no boats or bridges for him, and he dared not swim because of the crocodiles in it. Then he thought of a trick. He called to the crocodiles, summoning them all to shore, where he told them the sultan had sent him, Pilandok, to count the crocodiles so the sultan could send them gifts. The crocs duly lined up under Pilandok’s direction, arranging themselves in a line from one bank of the river to the other. Pilandok then skipped across the river from the back of one croc to the next, pretending to count aloud, but when he had safely reached the far bank he called to the crocodiles and revealed the trick. The crocs were furious, but what could they do?

Pilandok and Prince Sumusong-sa-Alongan
Pilandok, the son of a poor family, was sleeping hungry beneath a tree where hung a large beehive, when Prince Sumusong-sa-Alongan came riding up with a bag of gold. The prince asked Pilandok what he was doing, and the trickster answered that he was guarding a magical gong in the tree for the sultan. He emphatically repeated that no man save one worthy was allowed to beat the gong. The proud prince, nettled, immediately demanded the right to beat the gong, until finally he offered Pilandok the bag of gold for the privilege. Pilandok agreed, but on condition that the prince wait until Pilandok was far away lest the vengeance of the sultan fall upon him. The prince did so, then beat upon the gong – which of course was the beehive! Pilandok got away with the gold, and Prince Sumusong-sa- Alongan was stung almost to death.

In this story, we see that Pilandok can have a ruthless side; he doesn’t care for the consequences of his tricks, so long as he gets what he wants.

Pilandok and the Kingdom Beneath the Sea
Datu Usman had gotten tired of the tricks played on him by Pilandok, so he had the trickster arrested, meaning to throw him in a cage into the sea. While his captors are resting, however, a merchant passes by and Pilandok begins weeping. The merchant of course asks why he’s in the cage, upon which Pilandok cries that he doesn’t want to marry the princess. The foolish merchant says that Pilandok is a fool he’d gladly change places with, for who wouldn’t want to marry the king’s daughter? Pilandok changes places with the merchant, taking the merchant’s clothes and goods, and of course it’s the merchant who gets drowned.

Later, Datu Usman encounters Pilandok again and is very suprised that he’s not dead. Pilandok then whips up a tall tale, telling Datu Usman he did not die because he was thrown right into the kingdom beneath the sea, where he found favor and riches. This incites Datu Usman’s curiosity and greed, so he agrees to be locked in a cage and thrown into the same spot. The end is predictable, and Pilandok is permanently freed from Datu Usman’s persecution.

The Pilandok in Hari Ragat
The Pilandok archetype can be used as comedy relief in a game of Hari Ragat, or more seriously, as a counterpoint to the idea of the epic hero. The epic hero in Hari Ragat does have a dark side, enjoying power and privilege at the expense of the common folk. A raider may be a bringer of wealth to his own folk, but to his victims, he’s a destroyer.

Enter the Pilandok. The Pilandok is an Everyman response to being victimized, by turning the tables around through guile. The GM can alternately cast a Pilandok as a victim who needs the protection of the heroes when he gets in over his head, or as a danger to society who must be stopped, or as a provocateur who gets the heroes in trouble with the powers that be.

For example, say the Pilandok in your game is a player character’s servant. The Pilandok insults a visiting, unpleasantly high-handed Datu, who of course wants to punish the trickster. Now the player may have to choose between punishing the Pilandok or losing honor, or if the datu tried to harm Pilandok directly, Vijadesan honor demands that the PC defend or seek redress for his own servant. Either way, it’s a pickle!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

To Scrivener and Back Again to Open Office

After the issues I’ve had lately with Windows 8 – screwy updates that obstruct work, antivirus issues, a bad scare after AVG locked some vital startup files – I’ve decided to go back to writing Hari Ragat in Open  Office.

I don’t have Scrivener installed in any of my other PCs, nor can I view Scrivener files in my tablet; Open Office RTFs thus maximize compatibility across platforms. Though perhaps I should use .doc or .docx so I can easily move through Google Docs as well.

After making the move, I realized something else: it was easier for me to work with Hari Ragat in discrete chunks, with chapters in separate files.

Back to work!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Remembering: The Coming of the Terrans


Life’s not fair. Why do the French get such awesome covers and illos for Leigh Brackett books?  Check out this one above from a French Brackett omnibus, and the one below by Philippe Druillet.

Illustration by Philippe Druillet

And this!!!!


Anyway, I’ve never hidden my love for Leigh Brackett’s pulp sci fi, particularly her visions of Mars and Venus and her growing anticolonial themes. I was specially drawn by the latter, being a Filipino, and because my first taste of Brackett’s work was the anthology The Coming of the Terrans. And I suddenly remembered that I’d never reviewed this book nor the stories in it. Gotta remedy that!


Sadly, this anthology is out of print, but some of the stories in it are available in other Brackett anthologies such as Sea Kings of Mars by Gollancz and the Ace Best of Leigh Brackett. The cover is in a psychedelic 70s style that faithfully captures the contents of the book.

Brackett is half the reason I have red sand between the ears (ERB being the other half). I was already totally hooked on Barsoom when I first encountered Brackett, but her vision of Mars – truly dying, truly decadent, glowering helplessly at the arrogant Terrans – really haunted me.

The book was first released in 1967, the height of the Vietnam War, when some Americans were starting to realize the Vietnamese had a real grievance behind their hostility. Asia and Africa had been in ferment since the late 1800s, and by the time these stories were written matters were fast reaching a head. All over the world, ancient peoples were confronting a brash young West they were tired of having around uninvited.

I think Brackett mined that a lot for her stories, resulting in a flavor that’s very different from her earlier pulp works such as Dragon Queen of Venus. Let’s dive into some of the stories to explore those themes.

Mars Minus Bisha
A mysterious Martian nomad child, Bisha, is abandoned in the arms of the Terran physician Fraser. Disdaining the warnings of the Martians that the child is cursed, Fraser keeps her safe from those who would slay her, only to find out there’s a terrible element of truth in Bisha’s ‘curse.’ The Martian condemnation of the child was based not on superstition, but a real memory of a race that, without others of their kind for company, unwittingly become psychic vampires.

The crux of the story is Fraser’s mistaken rejection of the Martian warnings, and a good swipe at the attitude of ‘White Man’s Burden.’ The high-handed Terran, despite all his good intentions, mistakes a considered lesson from history to be rank and ignorant superstition simply because the Martians are living a ‘primitive’ lifestyle.

The Road to Sinharat
Brackett revisits the coral-carved city of Sinharat, home of the ghoulish Rama civilization, in this second swipe at White Man’s Burden. (Brackett first uses Sinharat and the Ramas in Queen of the Martian Catacombs, an Eric John Stark stories, later re-released as The Secret of Sinharat; events from that are alluded to in Road to Sinharat).

In this story, Terran archaeologist Dr. Carey journeys to the lost, forbidden city of Sinharat, evading attempts by Terran police to arrest him all the while, to fetch ancient records that will prove a vital point of history. His purpose is to halt a Terran project to ‘rehabilitate’ Mars by drilling up and pumping out its existing water reserves, a project violently opposed by the Martians of the Drylands. Again, it turns out that the Martians knew better all along, for the records of the Ramas prove that something similar had been done before, only for Mars’ inexorable dessication to triumph in the end and leave the intended beneficiaries in worse straits than before.

Anticolonial themes seem blend here with anticipation of environmental concerns. Did Brackett anticipate later findings about the environmental impact of damming rivers and similar problems brought about by ‘progress?’ Perhaps she did. Or perhaps I’m seeing that because I read this in the 80s and 90s?

The Beast Jewel of Mars
This is a little less stridently anticolonial in sentiment, as the Terran hero is very much a victim of the Martians, but it’s still rife with themes of resistance and revenge against a colonial power. I like it though that the story also explores what it could be like for an ordinary Joe to get caught up in this volatile milieu.

Spaceship captain Burk Winters returns to Mars, ostensibly to purchase the ultimate forbidden pleasure of Shanga, an ancient Martian technology that causes mental and physiological regression to an earlier stage of evolution. The Martians gleefully and scornfully let him – but it turns out the ultimate Shanga den is a sadist’s zoo where hopelessly regressed Terran Shanga addicts are kept and tortured for the Martians’ pleasure. Shanga, it turns out, is a conspiracy by the ancient royal house of Valkis to make money and get revenge on the Terrans for trampling over Mars.

The villainess of the story puts it thus:

"Mars," said Fand quietly. "The world that could not even die in decency and honor, because the carrion birds came flying to pick its bones, and the greedy rats suck away the last of its blood and pride."

Sadistic and screwed up, but yeah, if you were a Martian you probably couldn’t help but sympathize with her a bit, no?

Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon
This story has a nicely Lovecraftian chill to it. Innocent Harvey Selden, a cultural specialist, comes to Mars and gets into an argument with old Mars hand Altman over the Cult of the Mad Moon. Selden dismisses the stories of the cult as mere superstition.

Altman and his Martian friend Firsa Mak drug Selden and smuggle him out to the forbidden city of Jekkara. There they disguise him as a Martian and join a procession into a cave, where the horrified Selden is made to watch a human sacrifice, and catches a tantalizing (but only to the reader!) glimpse of what the sacrifices are being fed to.

Altman then appeals to Selden; no Terran authority has ever listened to his warnings about the creature, perhaps Selden can make them listen. Because something like that is a threat to all Martians and Terrans alike.

Again, it’s as if Brackett really did see into the future. Yes, a lot of what’s going on in the world today is a legacy of the West’s unbridled expansion and exploitation over the rest of the world. But there are bigger and more inhuman threats that affect all, and we should work together to face them. Things like climate change, industrial pollution, and the other monstrosities created by our unconsidered addiction to ‘progress.’

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Forget About the Gods! RPG Religion Design

When I was a kid, one of my favorite reads was Bullfinch’s Age of Fable. And when I got into D&D, I found the pantheons very familiar. There’s a god of this and a god of that, and sometimes the gods meddle for you and sometimes the gods meddle against you.

But the flavor … well, the flavor felt very very vanilla.

Same thing with my first attempts at world-building. Why? What was I missing? Why were my made-up religions not interesting?

I’m now thinking I got it wrong. I started, as I guess many other world-builders have done, by creating the mythology first. Which isn’t bad for a story, but not quite as useful for a game. It’s better to forget about the gods, and instead focus on what religion does to your world’s people.

Insight #1: Mythology is of limited use to your players. Stories of the gods and of the world’s origins are there to back up and serve as the skeleton of your world design, but unless they really matter in play your players won’t have much to do with them.

A good example here is the system for magic items in Earthdawn. To unlock an item’s powers, you must discover aspects of its legend and do certain things as dictated by that legend.

Another example is the Glorantha setting in its various incarnations, where ‘heroquesting,’ a rite/ordeal that strives to emulate/re-enact the deeds of the gods, is a major way of gaining magical gifts.

Insight #2: Religions must shape way of life. I looked back at the F&SF stories where the religion mattered, and found that the common thread in all of them was that the religions dictated certain aspects of life – beliefs, behaviors and attitudes – that affected the main characters.

I’m sure, if you’re a D&D old-timer, that you also remember when the gods never mattered to an adventuring party save when your cleric needed something or when a god opposed them. If you’ve ever been to Asia, though, you’ll know there’s far more to belief than that. And that there can be a whole lot of diversity in what people will believe, and what they’ll do for it.

Here’s a good place to insert oddities and story hooks into your world. What’s forbidden for religious reasons? What’s considered bad manners or bad luck for same? Think of something that your players would normally take for granted, such as cats being beloved pets, and twist that.

In China and Japan, you shouldn’t give gifts in sets of four because the number four is bad luck; the word for it sounds too much like the word for death.

In a Victorian-era game I ran set in Afghanistan, an Englishwoman PC in disguise was found out because she’d asked for lunch during Ramadan, a time when every Afghan was fasting during daytime.

Insight #3: Religion provides motivation. This extends far beyond kooky cults trying to awaken sleeping alien gods! Indeed, we need to get away from the trap of religion mattering only when it’s taken to extremes. Nope, if your character is part of a world, then that world’s religion should have a good reason to be part of your character’s motivations.

In my own Hari Ragat, for example, I underpinned the quest for glory with the concept of the afterlife and its accompanying practice of ancestor worship. Only by dying with great renown will you be assured of ascending to full Anito status, which assures a stream of offerings by your descendants that will sustain you in the afterlife.

Insight #4: Religion exists because people have needs and fears. Religious beliefs and practices are there to comfort, calm the people’s fears, and to reinforce a society’s values. Therefore a religion that developed within a particular setting should answer the concerns of the people there*.

Case in point: in the very volcanic islands of Hawaii, the volcano goddess Pele was of major importance. Same with the volcano goddess Lalahon, who was particularly associated with Mount Kanlaon on the island of Negros in my own country.

What creatures do the people fear? What natural forces? For example, there’s no lion god, nor any god with the aspect of a lion, in Hari Ragat: ain’t no lions in these islands! Crocodiles however have mythic significance, because they’re the big bad threat of nature present.

Again, the concept of the afterlife plays a very large part in this. What is the afterlife? What’s the desired state in the afterlife and how do you reach it? If I do something wrong, how do I make it right? Quite a few of the world’s grandest religious edifices were sponsored by penitents. For example, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka took it upon himself to spread Buddhism in penance for the carnage he caused in a war with the Kalinga kingdom.

Or, preparations for the afterlife can be seen as a means to perpetuate and project glory, as seen in the pyramids of the Pharaohs in Egypt. On the other end of the scale there are religions that treat the dead very simply because their belief in the afterlife is very different. Some Tibetan Buddhists expose corpses and even let them be consumed by scavengers, firm in the belief that with rebirth, the old body is best returned to the elements and the circle of life.

Insight #5: Design the rites of passage. Since I’ve been spouting about funerary practices already, let’s dive into another way to spice up your setting’s religion and make it feel more real: its rites of passage.

Most of the world’s religions celebrate at least four great life transitions: birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. What are the symbolisms associated with these? How are they observed? What are the associated superstitions? Why should they matter in a game? Because I want my games to immerse players in a living, breathing world – and that means a society, and unless it’s a society of immortal sterile asexual elves, there will be births, deaths and weddings. And because characters in the games I like are not nameless, rootless hobos, but heroes of their people who have a definite place in the world.

All these insights will be reflected in Hari Ragat, which I want to be as immersive and engaging a world as Tekumel or the Britain of King Arthur Pendragon.

*What if the people follow a religion that didn’t originate with themselves? This can be an interesting thread to follow too. The religion should still offer something that the people want, but it can also be disjointed in some ways from local needs. For example, what if a people were converted to a religion that does away with the ancient gods of the land, resulting in a far more exploitative attitude toward the wilderness? What happens to the environment?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Giant Boar Encounter, by Jerald Dorado

Baboy Damo final

Feast your eyes on this second piece by Jerald Dorado for Hari Ragat! Check out that all that wild detail – the boar’s fur, the warriors’ tats, the wood grain on the spearman’s shield.

If you asked me what the story of this was, I’d say it was either a surprise encounter or a hunt for some supernatural demon boar that’s been haunting the countryside. The warriors are armed for battle, not an ordinary hunt – and that boar is way too big to be natural!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Hari Ragat Art by Jerald Dorado

Woo hoo! Two new pieces just in from artist Jerald Dorado! They’re so good I’m going to put them out piecemeal, they each deserve a solo post :-)

Bakunawa and Child final

First up: Inang Bakunawa giving birth. Compare the size of the sperm whales Jerald included. These larval bakunawa are already very bad news …

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