April 30, 2011

Syrene: Pilgrims of the Waves

One of the great religious pilgrimages made in Syreen is the annual Mourning of Mekran, when the descendants of the Mekrani people (and many of their Palmarian kin) flock to the Palmarian coast to offer prayers and gifts to the memory of their ancestors drowned in the Great Flood. (Palmarians consider Mekran to be their cultural mother)

The pilgrims come from all over the world now, and on the anniversary of the Flood they go out to sea in whatever vessel they can find, dropping anchor at the sites where the cities of Mekran are thought to lie. There they spend a torchlit night vigil that culminates at sunrise the next day with the throwing of finely made gold chains, coins, cups, bowls and other valuables into the sea while singing hymns in honor of the gods and the dead.

There is a great traffic in transporting the pilgrims, and their arrival is a signal for the beginning of a weeks-long festival all across Palmaria that ends on the anniversary of the Flood. Traders come in from far and wide to display their goods at open-air fairs, the inns bustle with guests, hawkers grill spiced meats over coals for round-the-clock feasting, and street entertainers stage energetic and noisy performances for coins.

Diving for Offerings
When the pilgrims leave, the divers get to work, gleaning the bottom for whatever they can find of the pilgrims' offerings.

Offerings "returned" from the sea are considered good luck charms, and they are specially lucky if they came from the pilgrim himself or a close relation. They are considered to be a sign that the gods of the sea and the pilgrim's ancestors have replied favorably to his prayers. During the yearly pilgrimage bazaars, returning pilgrims eagerly comb the stalls trying to find items they threw into the sea in previous years.

Strangely enough, writing on the offerings is forbidden; you must recognize an offering by its appearance alone! This is a great spur to artisans to make ever more intricate designs, and an artisan is considered to share in the luck derived from a found offering.

Of course, only a fraction of the offerings made are ever found, and of that only a fraction ever goes back to their true owners.

Diving for offerings is usually performed in water over 50 feet deep, and under very dangerous conditions; there are predatory sharks and serpents, poisonous fish and jellyfish, treacherous currents, and sometimes clouds of stirred-up silt that make seeing impossible. Also, the currents quickly scatter and bury the items, so finding them is difficult.

STORY HOOKS:

  1. A monster or group of monsters has been seen in the area where the vigil is to be held; adventurers are needed to clear away the monsters
  1. A pilgrim needs transport, but his route is a dangerous one
  1. A pilgrim is the object of a manhunt, either by the bad guys or the heroes
  1. A horrible crime is committed during the festival
  1. An enemy plans to slip soldiers into Barisa disguised as pilgrims
  1. A cursed object or powerful magic item is about to be thrown into the sea as an offering, which must be prevented
  1. A cursed object or powerful magic item shows up in the pilgrims' bazaar
  1. A fearful omen or warning is delivered during the festival, causing widespread panic
  1. It is learned that the Venarians plan to attack during the festival
  1. Pilgrims fail to arrive under mysterious circumstances
  1. A god in disguise has joined the pilgrimage

April 29, 2011

Gondwane: Aquatic Reptiles

Another thing I found out in my Jurassic era researches was the variety of large aquatic reptiles living then.  Taking a boat or swimming in Gondwane may lead to a run-in with one of these:

The Shoal Lurker is a teleidosaur, a kind of crocodilian that has taken completely to the water.  With its paddle-like feet and shark-like tail, it’s sure to be a fast swimmer. However, they’re not armored like the crocodiles we know today.

The Shoal Terror is a dakosaurus, another totally aquatic crocodilian.  Whereas the Shoal Lurker feeds mostly on fish and may only occasionally harm man, the Shoal Terror is an apex predator that can and will attack anything near its size or less.

Long-Neck to the Gondwaneans of course refers to plesiosaurs, which however are generally harmless to man; their heads and jaws are too small for man-size prey.  The only time Gondwaneans fear the Long-Neck’s bite is when hunting them with harpoons, or when they intrude on their mating lagoons.

What the Gondwaneans truly fear are the Longjaws, the big ferocious pliosaurs like the Liopleuredon illustrated above. These creatures can and do hunt larger prey, and will not hesitate to attack a human being in the water.

The Stonebiter is a living fossil in Gondwane, inhabiting only a few lakes and inland seas.  With its incredibly powerful bite, it can feed on anything it can seize with its jaws – and at 20-30’ long, that includes humans and many of the smaller dinosaurs.

The Stonebiter is of course based on the Dunkleostus, a fish that scared the bejabbers out of me when as a five- or six-year old kid I first saw an illo of it in my How And Why Wonder Books.  It’s really from the Devonian period, but it’s pretty easy to posit enclaves holding out in some places.

April 28, 2011

Gondwane: Dinosaurs

I’ve been researching Jurassic era dinosaurs for my Gods of Gondwane game, and I’ve been finding a lot of interesting stuff.  For one thing, a true Jurassic instead of Cretaceous setting turns out to require much more research because the world really was quite different then.

Flora

There are no grasses, flowering shrubs or fruit trees of any sort in the Jurassic.  Instead we have ferns, ginkgos, cycads, and conifers like pines and cypresses. 

The dietary staple of the Gondwaneans is the breadcrown cycad, which sprouts a huge cone containing starchy but poisonous seeds every year. 

Eating improperly processed seeds will result in vomiting, paralysis, and eventually liver failure leading to death. I based the breadcrown on the real-life sago cycad, which really has this poisonous property.

Microfauna

The insects and other arthropods of Gondwane will tend to be bigger and nastier than their modern-world counterparts.  For one, it’ll be more interesting, and second, any bug that can bite through dinosaur hide should be reason for a human to worry. 

There’ll also be quite a few mammals and proto-mammalian critters in the underbrush, even in some Gondwanean homes.  They fill rodent-like, shrew-like, and weasel-like ecological niches, and Gondwaneans call most of them “zoraks”. 

Several species of Compsognathus are also common in and around homes, where they are kept to control vermin and as ready food – Jurassic barnfowl. Gondwaneans call them Trillers for their call.

Macrofauna

The big boys of the age of course are the dinosaurs and other big reptiles, and it was here that I had to really research.  The dinosaurs most commonly shown in media, even in Jurassic Park, were not from Jurassic but the later Cretaceous period. 

So no tyrannosaurs, no triceratops, no hadrosaurs, no big Jurassic Park raptors.  Instead we’ve got stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, allosaurs, ceratosaurs, megalosaurs, and dryosaurs.  And many sauropods; the Jurassic was the age of the big sauropod, like Diplodocus. I’ll be using descriptive names for most of the dinosaurs.

Dryosaurs are called Striders and the smaller kinds are widely domesticated as meat and riding animals.  Strider-mounted cavalry are the main striking and scouting force of many Gondwanean kingdoms.

Runners refer to various species of small herbivorous such as agilisaurs, othnielia and early psittacosaurs that are very common across Gondwane, filling the eco-niche of gazelles and deer. 

Stegosaurs are called Oarbacks, after the big bony plates on their spines.  Some nations domesticate them for use as living tanks.

I also have an idea for a nomad group that uses the Diplodocus or Argentinosaurus as a mount, transporting entire families on the back of each lumbering titan. Gondwaneans refer to all large sauropods as Earthshakers.

Just check out the size comparison and imagine how many people would fit on a howdah sized for this critter!

Allosaurs are called Devourers, and ceratosaurs are Horned Devourers.  They’re the big bad land predators of the era.

And then there’s the small but nasty Darter, based on the Sinornithosaurus.  I’m taking the hypothesis that this possible ancestor of the raptors had a poisonous bite, based on its grooved teeth and a jawbone cavity where a venom gland may have been.  It’s too small to want to eat humans, but annoy it at your own risk …

April 27, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Lothanid Dragon

Lothanid dragons are very rare, three-headed, golden-colored dragons that have the most powerful venom of all dragonkind, and like the Azhdaeans they can draw nourishment from the land itself by absorption.  In their case, any land they live in progressively grows drier and hotter, until in the end it becomes a desert.  Their ancestor Lothan turned Elsayal and much of Palmaria into desert in just this manner, before being entombed by the divine eagle Simmur under a glacier.  Lothanids cannot abide cold, and their Bane is ice – unlike the immortal Lothan, they can freeze to death.

Lothanid dragons do not hunt much, drawing the bulk of their sustenance directly from the land as they desiccate it.  When they find limited sources of water such as a spring they drink them dry, and their magic prevents the spot from ever refilling.  When they do get the chance to feed on a lot of meat, they get sleepy and bury themselves under sand to sleep for up to months at a time.

April 25, 2011

Gondwane: Character Origins

I’m seeing basically three possible origins for characters in Gods of Gondwane:

Anachronists
Anachronists are those who have been transported to Gondwane from modern Earth.
Anachronists may come from any time-period in history, but taking the 1920s to the 1940s as your character’s point of departure is most appropriate given the pulp feel of this game.
Gondwane will be a strange and almost unexplainable place to you, specially with its traces of ancient super-science and its living gods – not to mention men living with dinosaurs!

Gondwaneans
Gondwaneans are of course people born and bred in Gondwane. Gondwaneans are human in every respect and look quite ordinary; the most common racial type in Gondwane stands 5.5 – 6 feet tall, is brown-skinned, dark-haired and dark-eyed.

Most Gondwaneans come from civilizations that are roughly on par with the civilizations of the Classical Era – i.e. Greco-Roman, Persian, Phoenician, etc. etc. Most Gondwanean peoples possess bronze and iron technology, sailing ships and oared galleys, and use domesticated dinosaurs as mounts and draft animals.

Some Gondwaneans are born with psychic powers, and go on to develop these as mystics, wizards or sorcerers. All these weird disciplines are considered as unnatural and malicious witchcraft in most Gondwanean societies.

Remnants
Remnants are people who have somehow escaped the Shapers’ efforts to exterminate mankind at the end of previous cycles of the Great Experiment. As such, Remnants should be very rare.

Remnants may have appearances that vary quite far from the modern human norm: some are very tall, some are dwarfs, some sport strange coloration, some even have non-human genes.

Quite a few Remnants will also have psychic powers – in fact a higher proportion than ‘modern’ Gondwaneans, because of course these are the more likely ones to survive the Shaper exterminations.

Most Remnants will look strange enough that they are readily identifiable in Gondwanean society unless they take steps to disguise themselves.

Because Remnants may ‘contaminate’ the current experiment, Shaper policy is to eliminate them whenever they are found. This is often done through agents, who simply have to plant suspicions of witchcraft against the Remnants as the Remnants’ appearance and strange ways make them stand out. Remnants who travel only know that they are marked for persecution in Gondwanean society.

In the Courts of the Crimson Kings

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“Feral engines!”

That was just the sexiest single sentence that just set my skull to bursting with vivid imagery and ideas.  Now this is what SF is about! 

In the Courts of the Crimson Kings is S.M. Stirling’s celebration of the sword-and-planet genre, an unabashed homage to greats of the past like Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore that’s just so full of interesting characters, world details and story, written with such panache, it makes me feel like whooping with joy every time I crack open the cover. 

Though quite serious in tone, Crimson Kings unflinchingly acknowledges its antecedents with a fun intro that has some of Golden Age SF’s greats sitting in front of a TV together watching the NASA broadcast of the first Mars lander coming down – and being intercepted  by Martians.

What’s a feral engine? In the Mars of Crimson Kings, biotechnology is king.  Unfortunately Mars is also senile, and in some ruined cities the mollusk-like creatures that were designed as airship engines have bred wild.  And they’re hungry.  And they have a multitude of tentacles.  Woo hoo!

In the Courts of the Crimson Kings is planned as part of a trilogy of connected but readable as stand-alone stories.  The first book in the series is The Sky People, set on a jungled Venus and featuring dinosaurs and cave people. Again, it’s a proudly-done homage, this time to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

April 24, 2011

Gondwane: Jonathan Carse

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Sample character for Gondwane. 
“One moment I was in this Mayan pyramid, I remember I was reaching for this glowing crystal skull, then suddenly everything was spinning round and next thing I knew I was lying on desert sand, with what could only be a dinosaur loping toward me.  I got out my revolver, though I knew it would be hopeless – then a robed and masked figure rose up out of the sand and beckoned.  I followed him into a tunnel … “

April 23, 2011

Gondwane: Sneak Preview Character

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Creatures of Syrene: Balaurean Dragon

Balaurean dragons are known by their multiple heads, and always an odd number of them.  They begin life with a single head, but every few decades, after gorging to satiation, they sleep for a year and wake up with two additional heads.  This adding of heads stops only when the Balaurean dragon has nine heads. Unfortunately for its victims, this is the only time a Balaurean dragon sleeps, unlike other dragons that sleep frequently every year.

The Balaurean dragon’s body is short and thick, growing ever thicker as more heads grow out; the tail is short and thick, as are the four stubby legs that are only capable of humping the creature along at a slow pace.  Overall length is about 40-140 feet, with the longest necks making up almost a third of this length. Its scales are black.

Balaureans use their magic not to corrupt their territory, but to enrich it.  Their mere presence in an area for an extended period makes the land and nearby waters more fruitful in all ways – there is more game, more fish, fruits and nuts grow larger and sweeter, pearls form in shells, and eventually gold and gems will be found where the dragon has laired.  All this of course is nothing but bait for the Balaurean’s preferred prey, man. It will only eat enough wildlife to sustain itself, but waits to gorge on human flesh.

April 22, 2011

Story Idea: Iron Planet

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of a prison planet. I’ve also been itching to write a slam-bang action sword-n-planet adventure story for some time, so here’s my idea.

Illustration from FAKK2 by Simon Bisley

A prison planet out on the distant frontier, run by a totalitarian regime …

The inmates are a mix of hardened criminals, terrorists, and innocents deported there for being political dissidents or undesired minorities …

The planet’s economy runs on drugs and rare minerals, extracted from the earth by slave labor, exchanged for food, drugs and weapons for the exclusive benefit of the gang lords and their henchmen …

Rumors say that beyond the sere wastelands hemming in the wretched Terran settlements lie the sinister remnants of an alien civilization, tempting the ambitious with the promise of super-science powers bordering on sorcery …

And onto this stage strides a mysterious man known only as Pilgrim, a deadly fighter, tortured by unknown inner demons, a dark soul who’s nevertheless an island of humanity amid the violence and chaos of the Iron Planet.

To be written in a style that fuses Brackett’s sci fi-noir fusion and Clint Eastwood Westerns, with Simon Bisley’s art and Mad Max as inspiration.  Let’s see what happens …

April 21, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Azhdaean Dragon

The largest dragons are the Azhdaean breed, those that have inherited the most power from the Serpent Mother through their grandsire the immortal Azhdakhar, who mated with his own mother before setting forth to attack the stronghold of the gods. 

Azhdaean dragons can grow to enormous lengths of up to 180 feet or more.   An Azhdaean dragon has a long serpent-like body with four short legs, a head with multiple horns, barbels on its chin, and a spiny crest running from the back of its head to its hips. Their great scales are of metallic bronze and green, almost midnight black in places, with fine red-gold markings – a great prize for any who can slay the beast.

Azhdaean dragons are near-immortal, having very tough armored scales and the power to regenerate, and can rejuvenate themselves by shedding their skin but only after they have fed well for many days in a row.  So tough is the Azhdaean dragon’s hide that practically the only ways to kill one are to use its Bane against it, or to attack its only soft spots, its eyes and mouth.  Like all other dragons, their venom bursts into flame on contact with air, and they can spit this as far as a spearcast.  

Their powerful innate magic also manifests as abilities to mesmerize their victims into immobility, to command animals, and to draw nourishment from the living land itself, thus slowly corrupting and destroying life by their very presence.  This leads to Azhdaean dragons not being able to hide their presence for long, and a need to move territories every few decades. This magic is in their blood, and any who drink the blood of an Azhdaean dragon and survives may acquire a magical ability.

April 20, 2011

Dragons of Syrene

Dragons exist in several distinct breeds, and more could appear at any time as a result of crossbreeding between the currently known types.  However, the dragons of Syrene all share some common characteristics: a serpentine or lizardlike reptilian form, a horned head, four limbs or less, and the capability to spit a venom that bursts into flame on contact with air.  Many of them possess innate magical powers such as the Lothanid dragon’s ability to reduce land to barren desert, or the Arcurean dragon’s ability to mask itself with illusion.  Only the Zemaean dragon is winged and can fly.

Dragons may be encountered anywhere on Syrene, but they will usually be found in the islands, specially among the Vanishing Isles, for good reason.  All dragons of Syrene have their origin in the sea.  The first dragons were born from the womb of the titanic serpent Seshana, who created them to be weapons in her war against man and the gods, and gave birth to them in the sea. 

Now dragons still migrate to the Eye of Syrene, where they mate, then disperse to lay eggs on deserted islands.  The hatchlings immediately make for the sea, where they spend their first several years until large enough to survive as major land predators.  Only a few dragonlings of all those hatched will make it to adulthood.  Dragon hatchlings often look like ordinary lizards or snakes, and so draw little attention until they mature. 

All dragons are loners and will tolerate no other dragons near them save in the mating waters.  Dragons will attack, kill and devour any other dragons that invade their territory, or be killed and eaten themselves if the invader is stronger. 

April 19, 2011

Hari Ragat: Treasures

I just realized, after my last post on Roles and Assets for Vivid, that there should be a category of items that should not be considered as Assets.  These are the mythical treasures that some heroes are born with or acquire during the course of their adventures.  They’re just too special. So for Hari Ragat, there will be a separate listing of Treasures.

What’s the difference? Put it this way: a Herd of Buffaloes is an Asset; a Talking Prophetic Buffalo  is a Treasure.

Unlike Assets, Treasures are:

  • Unique and not usually acquirable by purchase;
  • Listed individually;
  • Often do not need a rating;

Treasures may be inherited, given as a divine gift, come as part of a bride’s dowry, won as booty, or traded for another Treasure.

What’s the value of a Treasure? Treasures are simply too special to have a value translatable to Wealth or any other Asset. Instead, a Treasure is worth whatever other Treasure you’re willing to part with.  You cannot buy a Treasure, but you can barter a Treasure for one, or get it as a gift in exchange for something proportionately heroic.

Moreover, I’m going to make Treasures count toward the endgame by having them contribute to your character’s Renown.  The more Treasures you have, therefore, the higher your total score.

April 18, 2011

Vivid 3.0: Roles & Assets

I’ve been thinking of how I represent characters in Vivid.  I want to end up with a character creation system that requires very little player learning to use, can easily create a wide variety of characters, and doesn’t encourage excessive number crunching.  I’m going to change character makeup somewhat to make it easier.

Roles
The first thing you define about your character is a set of Roles.  Roles are words or phrases describing what your character is, and so function as a shorthand listing of the character’s skillsets.  I’ll also encourage qualifying Roles with adjectives, for better flavor and character individuality.

Fighter is a Role.  Inveterate Skirt-Chaser is a Role.  Two-Fisted Bush Pilot is a Role. 

Wait, isn’t this the same thing I was calling Traits in previous Vivid versions?  Yes, mostly – but simply by changing the term for it I think I’ve finally focused on what I want to happen here.  Roles don’t just establish ability, they establish identity and roleplaying directions.

When a player writes down a Role on his character sheet, he’s telling me he wants his character to do that.  It’ll be my job as GM to give him opportunities in that direction, because that’s what that player will enjoy. 

Assets
Assets remain pretty much the same as in previous Vivid versions.  Assets can be physical or mental qualities, possessions, wealth, authority, social affiliations, even followers and pets.

Now I plan to give only 10 dice worth of Assets just as there are 10 dice worth of Roles.  I can imagine some players complaining this is too little.  Should I increase it?  I’ll make that decision after some more playtesting, but so far it feels right.  It makes players focus on what they really want for their characters. 

It also serves as a sort of hidden niche protection device.  If you invested 5 of your 10 dice in an Asset like ‘Bulging Muscles,’ chances are no other player will have done the same.  And if you choose something more unusual as your highest Asset, chances are even higher no other player will have it too.

Armor as Hit Modifier

I am about to commit an act of heresy.  I’m going to say that it actually does make sense for armor to be a to-hit modifier as it is in D&D.  Say what? Dariel are you falling for that b-s- again?!

Well, consider what it takes to go through armor as opposed to going around it.  I’m not saying the idea of armor as damage reduction is bad, but rather that the choice need not be exclusive. Most of the time, muscle-powered weapons will not cause significant injury unless they strike an unarmored part of the body. It takes a really heavy weapon, the strength to wield it properly, or better yet an energy source stronger than muscle –e.g. gunpowder – to truly pierce armor.

How can we model this?  We have to regard armor now in terms of two properties, coverage and material strength.

Coverage refers to the amount of body protected by the armor, with a 15th century style full plate panoply including helm, arm and leg defenses as the ideal, down to single-piece partial armors like having only a Roman gladiator’s manica.  This means each piece of armor will matter now. Helmets will add a bonus, as will shields, greaves, vambraces, pauldrons, gauntlets, etc. etc.

Let’s then consider Material Strength. This is the difficulty of piercing or cutting through the material the armor is made of, and takes account of both the material – leather, bronze, iron, etc. – and the construction technique used to build the armor.

Compound AC
I’m thinking, for simplicity, to give AC as a compound of Coverage and Material Strength.  The base AC is from Coverage, then we’ll tack on bonuses if the material is good (assuming the base material is pretty soft, something like quilted linen or tanned leather). 

You’ll have pretty decent chances to hit a barbarian in a leather vest and nothing else, but good luck fighting that antipaladin in full panoply of adamantium plate!

Changed Damage Dice
Another idea is to keep AC based entirely on Coverage, but change weapon damage dice based on the Material Strength of the armor.  The premise is that if a hit did go through the armor, the armor would reduce the damage; or if it did bypass the armor’s coverage, the hit still went somewhere less vital.

So you could for example posit that damage for any weapon is 1d12 vs no armor at all, 1d10 for light armor, 1d8 for medium armor, 1d6 for heavy armor, and 1d4 for very heavy/very hard armor.

For critical hits, assume that the hit was made to an unprotected spot, so use the highest damage die.

Armor and Dexterity
What about the DEX bonus? I’d say it applies only if the character is wearing armor of a certain weight or less.  Perhaps base it on character Strength. 

If your AC from armor alone exceeds a certain proportion of your STR, no more DEX bonus.

This means that the light-armed swashbuckler is as valid a concept in combat as a tanklike knight, but they will have to fight quite differently.

Tactics
With each piece of armor now important, you can play with tactics aimed at reducing your opponent’s armor coverage.  Break or otherwise take away his shield.  Get him to take off his helm.

You can also choose between defensive strategies.  Will you risk going in with less armor, relying on your high Dexterity bonuses for protection but chancing more damage per hit, or will you trade a higher chance of being hit for a lower damage die? 

April 15, 2011

Lands of Syrene: Toramban

The small, mountainous island of Toramban is considered holy by all Islanders, and was before the Flood one of the Nine Sacred Cities of the Khamsaran Empire.  So holy is this isle that only a special order of monks are allowed to live here; all other visitors are discouraged from landing, and the rocky beaches are guarded by carnivorous giant crabs.  The island’s interior is one huge temple complex, with great temples carved right into and through the mountains.  The monks grow all their own food on terraced fields.

It is said the inscriptions and carvings on the temples detail the immense astrological lore of the Khamsarans, the ancient people most learned in that art, and careful study of the temples will yield knowledge of the future.  The monks consider it their sacred duty to learn the meaning of this legacy, and to guard it against all who would abuse that knowledge.   Islanders consider the monks an oracle, and from time to time a raja or a deeply troubled individual will make a  pilgrimage to Toramban, fighting or sneaking their way past the giant crabs to get to the temples.

The monks however are loath to give answers, and exactly what they want for their services, or what would convince them to make a prediction, remains unknown.  Once, and only once, did a raja attempt to force an answer from Toramban’s monks; but he and his warriors were never heard of again after they set foot on the island.

April 13, 2011

Dark Lord of Delirious Detail

From the pages of Metal Hurlant, here’s one of the artists whose works never fail to fire the imagination.  These are a few pages from the works of psychedelic comic artist and painter Philippe Druillet, whose science-fantasy Sloane series simply drips with sexy, horrific, and highly mythological details.  Enjoy. 

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I’ve been looking for copies of his comics in English, having been first introduced to them through the Heavy Metal serialization of Salammbo, his adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s work.  Still no luck.

Lands of Syrene: Kermassar

The island of Kermassar is tiny, but it is one of the most important ports in the entire Sea of Mirages because of its harbor, Ten Gods Bay.  What makes Ten Gods Bay even more interesting is that it is largely artificial; its huge stone enclosure is the remnant of an ancient Khamsaran city that was destroyed by the Great Flood, and it is named after the ten gigantic statues that remain standing in the water.   On prominent display is the ancient skull of a sea serpent stuck atop a huge broken column, placed there by the hero Datu Nagamatta after he slew the serpent and led settlers from Ceram to found his own kingdom here.

The people of Kermassar live among the ruins dotting their harbor and the hilly island, many in houseboats moored to ancient stone quays and pilings, and they are masters of aquaculture.  Scattered across the shallower parts of the bay are floating bamboo pens of hogfish, which the Kermassarim like many Islanders raise for food.  The Kermassarim also grow oysters and mussels on weighted ropes left hanging in the water, and leave myriads of clay pots on the bottom to attract lobsters and octopi which they harvest simply by pulling up the pots.  Thus without any arable land at all Kermassar can support a surprisingly large population, with as many as thirty thousand full time residents and sometimes a thousand or more visitors at a time. 

Sea rovers come here to spend the typhoon season in the sheltered waters, and to trade for pearls, gem coral, edible birds’ nests, and the euphoric, aphrodisiac drug kharibdas, which the Kermassarim extract from a poisonous snail native only to these waters.  Kharibdas is normally taken mixed with wine, and is one of the most expensive and highly desired trade items in Shingtsao.  In turn the Kermassarim buy grain, charcoal, timber, pottery, metal and metalwares, textiles and other such things as they cannot make themselves.

The Kermassarim are a warrior people, used to fighting both pirates and the monsters of the sea, but the raiders of Pirai are their most hated enemies.  The Kermassarim fight with spears, small round shields, and most warriors favor the wavy-bladed kris over other blades.  The colors of the Kermassar kingdom are red, white and black, and its banner shows a lionfish.

April 12, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Fever Toad

The fever toad is a carnivorous toad native to the swamps of the Narvari River basin.  It is  the size of a calf, with  a huge ugly head that is more than a third its body length, and a mouth that can stretch wide enough to swallow a human being whole. The Lakhonese peoples tell many tales of finding human remains inside a slain fever toad, and detest it as a killer of children.  The toad is extremely slow and clumsy, so awkward it's easy to think it could never catch a man or any other creature, but it makes up for this with its poison. 

The creature is called the fever toad because its skin secretions cause a violent fever within minutes of contact, and it deliberately oozes this poison onto the ground and vegetation.  Passing creatures that touch a contaminated object fall sick, thus becoming easy prey.  Hunting the toad however is a tricky thing, as its skin is not only as tough as chain mail and very hard for arrows to penetrate, but any hit with a hand weapon is likely to spray the attacker with poison.  If one gets into a rice field, it can poison the entire crop with its secretions, so as soon as one is seen the Lakhonese call a hunt, using torches to drive it into an enclosure where it can be killed safely.

April 7, 2011

Spellbinding: Low-Fantasy Magic System

I’m thinking of a variant of the D&D magic system for application in a low-fantasy milieu.  The system takes a twist on the hoary old spell memorization mechanic and replaces it with Spellbinding, a mechanic that challenges magic-user players to be more resourceful and interact more with the game milieu and environment.

Premise
Spells are not rote formulas that give set effects, as in the default rules.  Instead, each spell is actually a spirit that is bound to do one thing in the caster’s service, and then is gone – perhaps destroyed, or withdrawn into the spirit realms too deep to contact ever again.  Whatever the final outcome for the spirit, it is no longer available to the caster for the same task.

Spellbinding
Spirits are bound to the caster’s service via the ritual of Spellbinding.  During spellbinding, the caster quests into the spirit world, perhaps while in a trance state, seeking out spirits that he can cajole or dominate; when he finds one, and succeeds in binding it, it becomes bound to a specified Focus.  The Focus is then used in casting the spell when needed.

Spell foci can be permanent, in the form of rings, staffs, amulets, etc. etc., or consumable, in the form of potions, powders, candles, scrolls that are burnt or torn when the spell is cast, etc. etc.  There could be a bonus to spellbinding for using consumable foci – it’ll make the player characters spend more!

Affinities
Magic-users are aided in binding particular spirit types by having Affinities to them. These Affinities are qualities and materials that create associations with certain spirit types.  Part of the roleplaying of Spellbinding is to seek out and use potential Affinities.  Among the potential sources of Affinities and examples of possible uses are:

Location
Spellbinding in a particular location gives you easier access to the spirits that would be associated with that location.

For example, spellbinding in a graveyard or old battlefield will give you easier access to the spirits of the dead, for spells such as raising undead servants, causing weakness or decay, and so on.

Material
Possession of a particular material will make spellbinding easier on spirits associated with that material.  The said material usually becomes the focus of the spell, or is consumed in the ritual.

For example, you find some eagle feathers. You put them away, and later when you have the time you do a spellbinding to gain the spell, Summon Eagles. 

The beauty here is that summoning spells become much more flavorful, as you can only summon what you’ve previously bound.  Wanna be able to summon a roc? Find some roc feathers or bones or eggshells!  A shark? Get some shark teeth! An alluring, naked nymph? I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Another consequence is that other magic user’s treasure troves become so much more valuable without necessarily getting into the realm of cheesiness.  Exotic materials, with or without spells bound into them, become attractive in themselves whatever the monetary value because of their potential utility.

Phenomenon
It’s easier to access certain kinds of spirits by doing spellbinding during times that they are most active. 

For example, it’ll be easier to spellbind storm spirits during  a raging storm.  Spellbinding the spirits of war is easier while observing a desperate battle.


Of course things can be much simpler if your aims are more modest; for example, binding a minor fire spirit may be possible simply with the aid of a lit lamp.

Lore
The goal of most sorcerous research is to gain more lore on specified spirit types.  For example, you could research Lore: Fire Spirits or Lore: Nature Spirits.  More exotic spirit types may require ‘research trips’ to exotic, dangerous locations.

Inborn Affinity
Characters of supernatural origin, or with some kind of supernatural taint, can more easily spellbind spirits associated with their otherworldly nature.

Thus a character descended from an air elemental will more easily bind wind spirits, a character descended from demons can more easily bind demonic spirits, and so on.

Spellbinding Mechanics
Spellbinding is a skill challenge, the difficulty being commensurate to the power level of the spirit being bound.  Affinities give bonuses to the roll, and multiple Affinity bonuses can stack.  Difficulties will be such that skill alone will rarely suffice; the player must actively find ways to get bonuses.

There are no limits to how many spells a character can have bound; however each spell must have a physical Focus.  Fear the NPC bedight with bling!

The gameplay effect of this should be to make magic users more powerful and flexible even at lower levels, but balance this power by making magic user players want to actively quest for their spells instead of just getting them every rest period or as goodies when they level up.

You can use this system with D&D simply by converting spell levels to spirit levels.  Higher-level spells mean having to bind a more powerful spirit.  Some spells that are more effective than their stated level could be bumped up.

Supporting Powers
While this system may give greater variety in the spells possessed by magic users, it can also cause shortages of spells during times of crisis.  To alleviate that lack, I’ll suggest the addition of innate Powers.  Magic users may have the following Powers in addition to their spells:

  • Read Magic – as per the D&D spell
  • Sense Magic – sense spellcasting/spellbinding activity and the presence of magic users
  • Mesmerize – a very sword and sorcery style power that lets the sorcerer paralyze or even dominate another character or creature
  • Familiar – a small magical creature accompanies the character and acts as his servant and aide
  • Guardian – a large and/or powerful creature accompanies the character and acts as his guardian
  • Baleful Presence – the character’s mere presence causes fear
  • Baleful Touch – the character can make touch attacks at will that have some harmful effect; paralyzing pain, inflicting burns, causing terror, etc. etc.
It’s up to the GM how to ration out these powers, depending on the D&D edition being used and desired flavor of play.

Hari Ragat: Roles

One of the great strengths of D&D is how it offers a simple, easily learned set of roles for players to choose from.  Wanna bash things? Be a fighter.  Wanna sneak around? Be a thief. As the game complexified from the ground up, with players searching for more things to do outside the scope of the dungeon, the available roles expanded to take 'face' roles like the bard.  How to do something similar for Hari Ragat?

Main Roles

In Vivid, the following can be taken as Traits and delineate player character roles central to the game:

Orang Dakila
Orang Dakila is a catchall Trait indicating the character's membership in the aristocratic warrior class. It covers all things a Vijadesan warrior aristocrat may want to do, from wielding a kampilan to wooing maidens to helming a caracoa through a sea battle. However, you can only take this Trait at a maximum rating of 2. If you want to be better at a specific aspect of being Orang Dakila, you take it as a separate Trait.

Warrior
Warrior indicates possession of the typical Vijadesan warrior skills and disciplines -- athletics, proficiency with spear, shield, blade, unarmed combat and athletics. It's mainly used in combat with human foes.

Hunter
Hunter indicates specialization in the skills of hunting, tracking, wilderness travel and general survival on land. It's used in finding wild beasts and monsters in the wilderness, and can be used in combat vs. beasts and monsters.  It can also indicate proficiency with the bow, which is primarily a hunting weapon among the Vijadesans.

Aside: how to differentiate between hunter and warrior in combat? I'm thinking it's a question of what weapon you want to use.  If you're using a weapon like a bow, spear, javelin or sling, hunter is better; but if you're using a blade, or fighting unarmed, warrior is better.  The rule in Vivid is to use the Trait most specific to the action.

Mariner
Mariner indicates specialization in the skills of being a seafarer -- sailing and small-craft handling, fishing and survival on the sea or along coastal areas, and navigation.

Aristocrat
Aristocrat indicates specialization in the arts of being a courtly noble -- etiquette, diplomacy, understanding and being able to participate in the complex and turbulent Vijadesan political arena where clan feuds and loyalties spark with the touchy Vijadesan pride and sense of honor.

Secondary Roles

Aside from the central roles above, players may also take some secondary roles that allow them to engage other aspects of the game or try different approaches to interaction.  Some suggestions for these include:

Ballplayer
The Vijadesans play a vigorous kickball game called sipa, wherein players compete to keep a woven rattan ball in the air.  Aggressive and competitive by nature, Vijadesans set much store by prowess in this sport and it often features in the courtship trials of Orang Dakila maidens.

Cockfighter
The character is a specialist in raising, training and matching fighting cocks. Cockfighting is not only a very popular pastime among the Vijadesans, it is also an important means of divination. Winning a cockfight can help settle a dispute, prove one's power or favor with the spirits, and even dissuade a potential foe from attacking.  It's also a way of gaining -- or losing -- wealth.

Craftsman
All Vijadesans learn some basic crafts, but taking one as a specialty allows the creation of items of quality. Such items are treasured as gifts and can help increase one's reputation or build up good relationships with another character.

Poet/Singer
Vijadesans sing about everything, but a character specializing with this Trait is capable of composing and reciting poetry with true artistry and flair.  Again, this is a skill typically used to impress other characters, specially when visiting the court of another ruler.

Trader
A trader knows the value of things and how to haggle, has an inside line to procuring treasured items like ceramics, silks, brassware and jewelry, which in turn can be given away to build up relationships.

April 5, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Eldfish

Eldfish are supernaturally beautiful fish with scintillating colors that are actually sea spirits in mortal form, favorites of the goddess Syreis.  No two eldfish look exactly alike, which can make then challenging to identify; they will often be mistaken for unusually grand specimens of some other kind of game fish. They normally have nothing to do with man, but having the instincts and appetites of fish they can sometimes be caught by nets or hooks.  They are intelligent, but usually cannot speak. 

Freeing an accidentally caught eldfish will bring good luck, but killing it or eating its flesh will bring down a curse: the offenders must give up all their Fate, or be transformed into fish overnight.  The curse or blessing will only affect those directly involved in catching, killing, preparing and eating the eldfish.  The only cure for the curse is to make offerings of reparation in a temple of Syreis, and bathe the victim in the temple’s moon-reflecting pool. If freed, however, a caught eldfish will give either 5 Fate or reveal a useful, interesting secret such as the location of a treasure.

April 3, 2011

La Santa Muerte

a typical Santa Muerte statue

My creative juices just got all fired up yesterday while reading the May 2010 National Geographic.  One of the articles dealt with the rise of new saint cults in Mexico, particularly that of La Santa Muerte, Saint Death. 

La Santa Muerte, according to the article – apparently the cult has also been covered in Time – is a deity of death and personal protection currently venerated in the guise of a Catholic saint, with mostly Catholic rites.  (The Catholic Church itself condemns the cult).

In Mexico’s troubled society, the cult of La Santa Muerte is just one of several that have sprung up, or perhaps been revived, due to prolonged and serious social stress.  The cult seems to be specially popular among the poorest sectors and in the criminal underworld, to the extent that one of her labels now is ‘The Virgin of the Incarcerated,’ a riff off the many titles of the Virgin Mary.  In fact so closely does the criminal underworld identify with La Santa Muerte that gangsters actually pray to her for success in their capers, petitions that would be improper to address to any of the Church’s myriad other saints.

Cult beliefs seem to hark back to pre-Columbian practices, or perhaps more universally to a time when gods were considered to be much closer to man, readier to intervene and at the same time imperiously strict in requiring repayment.  Devotees claim that La Santa Muerte is more likely to listen to and grant petitions than other Catholic saints, but cheat her not of your promised repayment or you’ll be sorry! There are even rumors that veneration rites in some places have included blood sacrifice, possibly including human. 

Which leads me to some observations that could be used in a game:

  • New deities and cults  can spring from societies in crisis
  • Deities considered to have power over death and similar dark forces may gain popularity during troubled times
  • Deities considered to be ‘easy to talk to’ gain popularity during troubled times
  • Deities from older religions, specially religions that have been driven underground by the currently dominant religion, may resurface when worshippers begin to feel that the current faith isn’t working
  • The new religion or cult will usually be considered a problem by the authorities, both sacral and temporal
  • The new cults may co-opt existing rites from the current dominant religion, possibly altering them to suit the new beliefs, and possibly including practices that we would consider anti-social

Once again, Toynbee’s principle of Challenge and Response is very evident here (see my article on that in Roleplaying Tips).  I’ll definitely be taking these observations as a guide for designing new cults in Twilight Age.

Filipino Swords and Sorcery Comics

Hara Siri by Gregorio C. Coching

Alcala. Nebres. De Zuniga.  Nino.  If you’re familiar with comics, this litany of names should sound quite familiar.  They’re among the perhaps-not-so-surprising number of Filipino comic book illustrators who’ve made it big, and interestingly, got a lot of their mileage from the swords and sorcery genre. 

April 1, 2011

Why I Like Episodic Adventures

Like many other gamers I know, Real Life™ now demands an increasing share of my time.  In the few occasions when I do get the opportunity to game, I want a quality experience – and part of that is wanting closure.  I want to play in, or run, a story that actually ends.  I also appreciate being part of an evolving saga, however, and it’s easier to slip into a famliar character rather than create a new one every time I play.

Thus my preference now for the episodic structure in my games.  Similar to the story structure of many TV series, an episodic adventure is a self-contained story that can be strung together with more such stories using a common cast of characters.  For me, the benefits of running my games in this manner include:

  • Ease in introducing new players – less commitment burden, and they get the satisfaction of having been in a complete story;
  • Freedom to start with a one-shot, and grow it into a series if the players liked it;
  • Freedom to have a revolving cast of characters – you don’t need to have all the player characters from previous sessions, and new ones can come in any time;
  • Freedom to explore many story possibilities, as the player characters aren’t tied down to a strict long-term plot every game session;
  • Players can still enjoy playing the same characters through multiple adventures and seeing them develop.
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