December 10, 2013

Shadow of the Horn-Crowned King

alexander-helmet

There’s a shadowy character that weaves in and out of my stories in Swords of the Four Winds, always off-camera but still casting a lengthy shadow on my setting, thanks to a  movie based on a Rudyard Kipling story. I still remember seeing The Man Who Would be King on TV one late night with my late dad, who filled me in on the historical background. I think I was no more than nine or ten at the time, but that started a long fascination with the career of Alexander III of Macedon.

When I was a kid, he was to my mind Alexander the Great. But reading his histories again as an adult, I began to realize there was another side to the man, specially if you looked at him from the point of view of the Persians and Indians; in our time, Alexander would’ve been declared a war criminal. And yet these same people revered him, naming him Dhul-Qarnayn, the Two-Horned, perhaps in reference to his wearing the ram’s horn crown of Ammon on his commemorative coins. Tribes and dynasties from Afghanistan to as far away as Southeast Asia would claim descent from Sikanda Jokanin; Sikanda being Alexander in Sanskrit, and Jokanin, the Malay pronunciation of Dhulcarnein.

It was the mystique and Asian legacy of Alexander that gave me the ideas first for The Sons of Zhulkarnein, an Orhan Timur story in which Orhan fights to win the treasure of the legendary conqueror Callistos Zhulkarnein from the city where it’s been hidden for the past thousand years, only to find out it’s not what he had hoped. Betrayal, mayhem, dark sorcery and more mayhem follow, of course.

That story was very quickly followed by the character of Arios the Spearman, whose stories are set very shortly after the end of Callistos’ career. For the Arios stories, my main inspiration came from the wars of the Diadochi, the generals who usurped power after Alexander’s death. Arios for me is a real milestone in my writing. While Orhan is a savagely ambitious barbarian in the mold of Attila or Hengist, Arios is a tired old soldier who only wants to get back to his family. In building the character I read up accounts of soldiers from the Vietnam and Gulf conflicts, and the stories – thanks to David Gemmell – ring on themes of chaos and suffering and the futility of war. Don’t get me wrong though – the Arios stories are as filled with the clangor of battle as any of my tales, it’s just that the hero’s motivations are very very different.

I’m now planning to start writing up Volume II of Swords of the Four Winds (whenever I’ve time from my shoots, like tonight), with some of the existing characters and maybe some new ones. I tend to base my stories on snippets of history or legend that I pick up, so I’m pretty certain this Conqueror figure will be part of my background again. Maybe something based on the old Buddhist kingdoms of Bactria? Hmmm …

Among the Ata Manobos

Ata Manobo woman

Activity on this blog’s been very slow lately, thanks to a spate of research – er, I mean, work. For the past several weeks my wife and I have been covering a series of cultural revival workshops wherein crafts masters from the more traditional indigenous communities like the Kagan, Tausug, and here, the Ata Manobo, come to teach their more assimilated brethren the traditional ways. Needless to say, it’s been a great experience.

We spent most of the past week in the Paquibato District of Davao City, a remote hilly area that can only be reached overland by looping through the province of Davao del Norte – there’s no direct way from Davao City proper.  As the crow flies, we were surprisingly close to home, but the terrain simply makes this area practically another world. The roads are still dirt and rock in many places, steep, winding, and without safety rails or lights. The regular afternoon thunderstorms make travel after sundown doubly difficult, as there are a number of bridgeless rivers that cannot be crossed once their waters swell with rain. The result is that these highland tribes’ communities are still relatively isolated, giving them space to keep their old ways. The remoter the community, the more traditional they are.

And what traditions! I’m learning a lot of things that’ll make great additions to Hari Ragat. Among them:

  • The Tuno – a giant with the upper torso of a man and the underparts of a deer or boar; those with deer underparts are benign, but those with a boar half are evil;
  • The La’aw – tiny, mischievous but benign elf-like beings of the deep forest, whose feet grow backward.
  • The Timbusaw – a kind of Busaw ogre, tall, hairy, and with enormous claws, that eats men’s souls. A datu of the Tiguahan Manobos told me this story:

Two hunters once went into the jungle. After a whole day of hunting, they made camp beneath a tree, one hunter choosing to sleep in the branches, the other on the ground because he wanted to lie beside the fire. Late in the night, the hunter in the tree awoke to ominous grunting sounds; he looked down and saw a Timbusaw tearing apart his companion. He froze with fear and could do nothing to help.

In the morning, though, he discovered his companion apparently alive and well, and without a mark on him. They returned to the village, but the first hunter continued to have misgivings and warned the other’s family. They paid him no heed though. The morning after, the second hunter’s body was found on his sleeping mat, stone dead. The Timbusaw really had eaten his soul, but delayed his death.

  • Many Manobos have Christianized, but still revere the diwatas and other nature spirits. I found their justification for this really interesting. My source, Datu Roger Limbo of the Tiguahan Manobos, told me that his people don’t worship the diwatas as such, but consider them as very real, very powerful neighbors, so it’s only good manners for them to give signs of respect. They fell no tree and plant no field without trying to make contact and ask permission, usually with gifts of food.  Such offerings must be cooked without salt, because salt repels the diwata’s kind. It’s an interesting correlation between this and the belief that salt (and ashes) repel or harm the supernatural – for example Visayan belief is that the manananggal can be killed by sprinkling salt or ash on the stump of its lower torso.
  • And the best for the last: By Manobo law, the honor of one Manobo woman is worth the lives of ten men. Yep, that’s exactly what it means.

November 29, 2013

Swords of the Four Winds in Print!

sofw-cover

Woohoo! Swords of the Four Winds print edition is now up on Amazon CreateSpace! To order a print copy please visit https://www.createspace.com/4545528. If you prefer to order through Amazon.com, the link there should be up by next week. Thanks!

I spent most of yesterday afternoon trying to come up with my back-cover blurb. I’ve always been bad at tooting my own horn, but finally I think I cobbled one together that sums up what SOFW is about:

“Five desperate warrior heroes swash and buckle and slay across the exotic landscapes of an original, Asian-inspired setting in eleven novella-length tales. From serpent-goddess temples in the jungle lands to the snowy peaks and hidden valleys of the Drokpa Mountains, Swords of the Four Winds delivers rousing sword and sorcery adventures in the classic vein, rife with cruel schemes, betrayals, grisly magic, and swift, savage swordplay.”

And, oh yeah, this marketing noob forgot to mention: two of the stories in this anthology are based in the Hari Ragat setting!

November 27, 2013

Swords of the Four Winds is on Amazon!

sofw-cover

At last! I’ve finally finished editing and laying out Swords of the Four Winds, and it’s now up on the Amazon Kindle Store. Print-on-demand version will be coming up – I’ve a shoot over all of the coming week starting this weekend, so let’s see if I can get the CreateSpace version up in time for Christmas!

Thanks to my incredibly patient wife Cathy and to artist Raymund Bermudez for helping me produce this book!

November 21, 2013

There’s No Place Like Hyborea

“In between the time that the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed …”

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Yup, it’s that unforgettable intro to Robert E. Howard’s setting for his Conan yarns, and for gamers of my age, you probably hear it in your skull to the accented declamatory tones of good old Mako, may he rest in peace.

And yes, there’s no place like it – because there was never a place called Hyboria or Hyborea. Ever so often I run across a reference to the setting as ‘the world of Hyboria,’ which I usually take as proof that the writer is below the age of forty. No such thing.

There’s a Hyborian race in the setting, a Hyborian tongue, and by virtue of their spreading so far and creating a network of powerful kingdoms in the north and west of the continent, the age has been named after them. The setting is the Hyborian Age – an age, not a place, because the world of Conan the Cimmerian is none other than our own.

Howard’s setting his yarns in this ‘black hole of history’ gives the stories an added cachet for me. It’s not just the added feel of realism. It’s that feeling that you’re reaching back into a past that no one remembers straight, but still echoes in in the known world, for Howard based all his races and nations (loosely) on real-world history. It’s tales like Red Nails or The Slithering Shadow that make you wonder what may still lie undiscovered beneath the jungles of Africa or the Amazon Basin, or make me nostalgic for the days when I’d spend weeks lost in the works of Charles Berlitz and Erich von Daniken.

Now I’m really getting nostalgic … wonder when I can run a Hyborian Age game on G+? Looks like next year’s the earliest, what with this last quarter of 2013 being taken up by my new studio’s growing pains ….

October 22, 2013

Clock of the Jungle

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Another interesting tidbit found while researching Hari Ragat: the living clock of the jungle! The Kalaw, or rufous hornbill, is known in Philippine folklore for its regular routine of calls – before sunrise, at midmorning, at noon, at midafternoon, and before sunset.

October 21, 2013

Hari Ragat 1st Online Session Playtest

At last! I was finally able to get playtest session going through Google Hangout, with Marc, Gelo, and toward the end of the session, Bots.

We spent most of the time re-parsing the characters for the revised system, and the latter part of the session running through the Quest Pitch. Gelo and Marc went over their character logs from previous sessions – good thing Bots put them all in one Excel file – and we thrashed out which elements went where and did what in the revised system. In particular I had to rule on which Assets in the old system became Traits (unrated) or Aces (rated, for spending) in the revised one.

For example, here’s Dimasalang, Gelo’s character after the makeover:

Dimasalang
Warrior 3, Orang Dakila 1, Orang Malaya 1

Heroic Strength, Tattoos of Ferocity, Secret of the Fearless Blade, Witch-Finder Barong, Black Pearl of Hiyasan, Sarangay Vitality, Sarangay Gem

Bala 9 (with the bonuses), Bahandi 1, Dulohan 1, Wealth 1, Bannog-Feather Kalasag 5

Timang the cockatoo, irreverent messenger of Galura; Under Suspicion – Datu Awi and Datu Sina; Oathbound – Gat Dula son of Awi, Ligaya daughter of Sina, Sangita the Diwata of the Pearl Beds, Soraya Diwata of Mt. Galura; Suspicious but Respectful of Sri Minaya; Enemy – Gat Alamid the Corsair

Analysis: this character has 3 main sources of Advantage in combat – his Strength, the tattoos of ferocity, and the fighting secret. The character also has a lot of staying power or energy for combat, with a spiritual power of 9, but given that Gelo tends to spend his resources like crazy in play … heh heh heh. The character’s also bursting with plot hooks, what with his being oathbound to so many characters. Much of this is explained by Dimasalang’s back story, that he was born Orang Malaya and has only recently been elevated to nobility; he owes the people who backed him.

The next part of our playtest involved the Quest Pitch. I’ll call it a qualified success, but the mechanics may need a bit more work. One important factor here was that we weren’t testing from a clean slate, but rather with the weight of previous adventures already shaping the characters’ motivations. I had the PCs returning to their hometown of Hiyasan to rest and regroup, the courtship quest of Marc’s character Badong Amats cut short because the Maiden of Kandako had been abducted before they even got there.

Marc thus ended up driving the Quest Pitch, presenting a plan to Datu Awi to divine the location of the kidnapper – who turns out to be their old enemy Gat Alamid the Corsair – catch him before he can get to safety, and rescue the Maiden. These three goals will now be the main plot points and challenges of the adventure.

I’d hoped Gelo would try to add his own character’s objectives at this point, but he didn’t. I’ll allow amendments to the adventure next Sunday, when we hold Part II, so Bots and Gelo can work their characters’ agendas into this. As of now, I’ve got a pretty interesting structure:

Act 1: Divine the location or destination of Gat Alamid, with the help of the god Apu Laut; to secure his help, Badong Amats proposes to obtain and offer an enormous pearl being grown by some katao, malevolent and powerful merfolk who dwell in the deep end of the pearl beds;

Act 2: Voyage to catch Gat Alamid; I’ll set up the threats here, and taking the guideline that the month in the game is the same as the current month, there’ll definitely be a typhoon to contend with;

Act 3: Take back the Maiden, and if possible Gat Alamid’s head. Badong Amats has promised to present the head of Hiyasan’s old enemy on a stake to Datu Awi, and Bots is also keen on doing this, so I know I’ll need a big honking battle here.  (Bots: “Can I finally kill him? Can I? Can I?”)

As GM, I’m free to spice this up with some additional complications if I want to. It all depends now on how long I want this to play; if I want a one-shot, I can just run it as is, if I want a two-parter I can throw in some monkey wrenches.

Things to Fix:
Marc pointed out that one reason he ended up doing the Quest Pitch almost solo was that he was very familiar with the milieu, having created a similar setting before (Isantao), on top of helping me create the Hari Ragat setting. Combined with the fact that his character had a very strong issue to settle, I guess Marc’s taking charge of the pitch was a foregone conclusion. I may have seen different play if I used a clean slate.

Marc and Gelo also pointed out that perhaps players would need a more concrete structure for creating the Quest Pitch. I’m looking into this to see how I can do that. What if I gave each player a token, representing their involvement? The Quest Pitch is considered complete only when every player has given up their token, signifying their buy-in into the adventure.

I’m also wondering how to get better connections. My internet here in Davao is still too slow to handle video properly, forcing us to go audio-only last night, and Gelo’s was dropping out intermittently through the session. Strangely enough, Bots, using the same ISP as Gelo but in the recently earthquake-stricken city of Cebu, had a very clear and consistent line.

I’ll be working with Bots on his character tonight, let’s see how this goes. Am excited to continue play!

October 14, 2013

A Game of Gongs

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Found out yesterday that the tradition of the kulintang gong orchestra had aspects of a dating game in some of Mindanao's tribal cultures.

Young women traditionally displayed their delicacy and grace through playing the xylophone-like kulintang, while young men would show off to them playing the bigger gongs and drums. The idea was to play a rhythm so complex the other would miss a beat. Those who missed the beat became the butt of much good-natured laughter and ribbing from both audience and the rest of the orchestra, goading them to up the ante with even faster and more complicated rhythms.

The tradition also appeared in some of the epics. In one epic, a princess secretly informed a kinswoman of hers that a certain hero would be coming to visit. The other princess prepared a kulintang performance that bowled over the visiting hero, making him fall for her and propose marriage at once!

So - there will definitely be Games of Gongs in Hari Ragat. They'll be part of the Courtship Tournament rules.

September 30, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 30/30

The last day of the 30-day D&D Challenge is about your favorite Dungeon Master/s. Yup, I’m making that plural because I do have multiple favorites. No DM was ever perfect for me, but then there’s no such thing anyway. Instead, I thoroughly enjoyed the games of various DMs for different things:

There was Augs, my very first DM, who had a very laid-back yet technical approach to the rules; he made lots of allowances, but could use the rules very aggressively to challenge his players.

There was JJ, whose rulings I often disagreed with, but who ran some of the absolutely funniest scenarios I’ve ever gotten into.

There was Vic, the other Cabazor brother, who didn’t DM much but tried his best to get a good, entertaining story going despite the insanity of his players.

And there was Adrian, the dedicated storyteller, who would’ve thrown all the rules aside in his quest for a good story but needed the technical backup when we players got weird.

Save for JJ, I would get to join quite a few non-D&D games with these other DMs, so I really remember them more for their overall style than for just their D&D style alone. Learned a lot from all of them too. Since I’ve not occupied a player’s chair once in the past few years, always running my own games, that was really really useful.

September 26, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 29/30

Well now! Looking back, this 30-day D&D Challenge has been a nice jog to the memory. I’ve said before that D&D was the game that introduced me to the hobby but turned out not to be to my taste, but this has made me remember the good bits quite fondly.

Rather than talk about the suggested topic, though, I’ll talk about something that’s also dice-related – my love-hate relationship with rolling up character stats. I’m the kind of player that usually comes to the table with a character concept already in mind, with the result that random-rolling my stats feels more like an obstacle than an aid. I’ll contrast this to the approach of my friend JJ, who rolls first then picks a class and builds a concept around that after.

Granted, rolling stats does make for a more interesting distribution of abilities at times, sometimes giving you an interesting weakness such as a really low Wisdom or Charisma. On the other hand, you do get the phenomenon of the ‘dump stat’ – the one stat that’s been identified as least useful in the game, so you’ve all the incentives to assign your lowest roll to it. This was usually Charisma; low Wisdom was useful to us because we could play it for laughs. But if 90% of your character’s time is spent dungeon crawling or wandering with only your own party, Charisma’s of very limited use.

I think rolling up stats also made us focus a bit too much on our numbers. Since the very first challenge of the game was to assign your stats so they’d do you the most good, we ended up focusing on what our characters could do more than what our characters were and their place in the game’s setting or story.

Once I got introduced to other RPGs with point allocation, I never looked back. If I remember correctly, in the last D&D game I played we were allowed to distribute a set number of points to our abilities instead of having to roll. I thought this was the answer, but it proved to be not quite it either. The more points you get to allocate, the more you think about numbers. I of course agree with building in limitations and dilemmas so players can’t just create Mary Sue characters, but I quickly found assigning lots of points a bore.

This reached its height for me when I tried making characters for Castle Falkenstein (a game I otherwise enjoyed) because you had to assign a heck of a lot of abilities. Same thing with GURPS and BESM.

The net result of all this was to give me a direction for my character creation system in Vivid: to make the description of the character as close as possible to the actual game stats.

September 25, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 28/30

For this 28th post in the 30-day D&D Challenge, I’ll talk about the character class I’ver never played and will probably never play at all – the Thief.

I’ve never played a Wizard before, but I can think of playing one; I’ve played a Cleric only once, and didn’t get much out of it, but I’m still open to playing it again; but I’ll always leave the Thief’s role to other players. The Thief class seems to embody all the D&D tropes I prefer not to deal with,  save the magic system.

First, the Thief is a class that seems to have been built with the mechanics in mind over the fiction; we have dungeons with locked doors, and locked chests, and traps, so we must have a class that is good at dealing with those things. If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know by now that this makes thieves rather useless in my preferred settings, which are mostly wilderness. I don’t use traps much in my games either, and if something is contained in a locked chest that’s absolutely vital to the plot, I can’t count on there being a thief in the party and that the thief can open it – anybody must have  a chance to do that if the plot is to forward.

Second, I’m not really comfortable with the thief class’ built-in conflict hook with the rest of the party. I can enjoy a betrayal story if there’s real drama in it – say, someone is actually the son/daughter/apprentice or what not of the villain, or does a Boromir – but to have conflict with another PC simply because that PC ‘is a thief and is acting like a thief would’ is merely annoying.

On the other hand, a custom build of this class that emphasizes more of the pulp archaeologist aspects ala Indy Jones would interest me.

September 24, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 27/30

Day 27 of the 30-day D&D Challenge is about a character I’d like to play in the future. I’ve sort of answered this in a previous post, so I’ll do something else here.  Earlier I’d talked about the character class I’d always wanted to play, the merchant-adventurer. This time I’ll talk about another character class I want to experiment with: the wizard, or as I’m more used to saying, the Magic User.

Why did I use the word ‘experiment?’ Two reasons.  First, because a magic user’ style of play is very different from what I usually prefer, since I tend to play fighters.  Second, because I’ve never liked the Vancian magic system of D&D that much, nor do I like the way the game tends to favor direct-damage spells over all other types.  So playing a magic user would be an experiment in finding a way to enjoy this character class given my biases.

While non-artillery spells like Sleep and Web and IIRC Darkness become available at pretty low levels, economically you seem to be best off with Magic Missile or Burning Hands. Magic Missile is guaranteed damage – no roll to hit (at least in the editions I’m familiar with) and no Saving Throw for the target. Thing is, magic-as-artillery doesn’t feel that magical to me. But not taking an artillery spell at low levels will cost my wizard character a good deal of survivability. What to do?

Well, at one extreme there’s the character that my friend JJ once rolled: a mage with 18 Strength, aptly dubbed Macho the Mage. He was a pretty mean customer with a staff. At the other extreme, I could choose from the non-artillery spells in the list but only if I’m with a strong party, or if I can get some boost to survivability such as the group being started at higher than level 1.

However, on a higher level this is still playing with a trope I don’t enjoy – that the only magic I’m considering is for combat. Well heck, the way D&D plays magic really matters most in combat. But there are other ways. Spells like Spider Climb – also available at pretty low level – can change the way my mage moves around. Illusion spells like Phantasmal Force can do a lot, specially if I play my wizard according to my ‘sorcerers are terrorists’ idea. And if the DM allows the Cantrip rules (from Dragon Magazine – forgot which issue), the wizard becomes much more flexible.

Hmmm …

September 23, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 26/30

Day 26 of the 30-day D&D Challenge asks for my favorite non-magical item.

cbowimages

My go-to build for a fighter is usually some kind of steppe nomad warrior, using bow and scimitar. Thus the non-magic item I find most useful is the Strength-adjusted composite shortbow, for the added Strength damage bonus. I believe the rules for this kind of bow were introduced in AD&D, but our DM Augs allowed it for my character in a BECMI game. Combined with the Weapon Mastery rules, it made for a really deadly archer.

I’ve always been fascinated with bows and archery. Researching the topic led me to finding out that the steppe peoples did not all practice archery the same way, so their bows and arrows, while made of the same three basic materials – wood, horn and sinew – actually had different designs. Some were made for greater hitting power at the expense of range, some were made for distance shooting like the Turkish bow and flight arrow, and some were made for rapid shooting at the expense of power and range. Interestingly, accuracy did not seem to be a priority – perhaps because it was a given that a decent bow was accurate enough in the hands of a practiced archer, or because much of military archery revolved around getting as many arrows into an area as possible rather than hitting individual targets.

Applying this to your D&D setting, you could have different races or cultures making more varieties of bows than just the long, short, and composite types standard to the game. Maybe the elves don’t have very powerful bows, but the ones they have are so finely made that they’re more accurate than normal. Steppe nomads, and perhaps halflings, tend to like bows than can loose a lot of arrows in a short time – add +1 to the ROF. Or maybe more – take a look at this video!

And you can have a human culture modeled after the medieval English, who shoot big yew bows that pack more punch than normal.

September 22, 2013

Character Death in Hari Ragat

A game of epic, heroic fantasy would be watered down if nobody could die a heroic death. At the same time, this is a game, and who wants to stop playing simply because his or her character died? To maintain the flavor and at the same time keep the play of Hari Ragat fun, I’m thinking of the following options for PC death:

advantage

Rule 1: You Only Die When You Want To
Your character only dies if you so choose. However, survival for your character means accepting some kind of cost for it: you may take a disabling Scar, let yourself be captured, or be left for dead and face a weeks-long recovery, complicating the adventure by extending it. Perhaps while your comrades wait for you to heal fully the monsoons turn, facing your group with a voyage against the winds. On the other hand, accepting a character’s death may bring you some benefit.

Rule 2: You Get a New Character
You are always allowed to make a new character and re-enter play as soon as makes sense. The new character could come from your current character’s following, in which case the new character may enter play immediately. Or the new character may join the party at the next village or town. Another option, and a common thread in the epics, is of the hero’s relative who dreams the hero will come to a bad end, follows, and arrives shortly or just before the hero’s death and so is on hand to avenge him.

Heroic Sacrifice
You may choose to sacrifice your character for automatic success in one last action.

Blaze of Glory
You may take 5 Anito Dice, but if you are defeated in your next action your character dies.

Gift of Fury
You sacrifice your character, but immediately give your group +10 Anito Dice, to be distributed by you. These additional ADs, if not used up, are lost when your new character comes into play.

Legacy of Vengeance
Create a bare-bones character immediately (Role, Traits and Aces only). This new character is your designated avenger, and enters play with +5 Anito Dice for your exclusive use. If the character is explained as one of your followers who was present, the new character can enter play immediately. Continue fleshing out the character once play hits a good pause, such as reaching the next town.

September 21, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 25/30

I skipped question #24 in the 30-day D&D Challenge as I’ve absolutely no idea what to answer for it. So instead, here’s my post for Day 25: my favorite magic item.

You’ll probably want to see me tarred and feathered for this … but I just can’t help it.  They’re just so, uh, awesome. I’m talking about John Legasca’s infamous Boots of Plenty, the wandering adventurer’s answer to starvation. The farther you walk in em, the more food they’ll produce!

More serious and utilitarian answer: Potions of Healing. We’d never finish most adventures without them! Specially when no one wants to play a cleric!

September 20, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 23/30

Day 23 of the 30-day D&D Challenge asks for my most disliked monster. It’s this one:

rustimages

Yup, this gigantic flea-like thing is the Rust Monster, bane of all adventurers who made bad starting money rolls. I hate it because it makes no sense to me at all. It exists solely to endanger PCs by taking away their armor and weapons. There’s nothing heroic about having to deal with one, just fear of material loss. Rust monsters have never existed in any of my (admittedly few) D&D games.

As a sci-fi monster, however, I could imagine making this critter smaller, say cockroach-size, have it appear or breed swarms, and turn it loose inside a space station or starship …

September 19, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 22/30

Day 22 of the 30-day D&D Challenge asks what is my favorite monster of all time. That’s easy: the Gazebo!

Take the time to read this anecdote from the trenches. I’m sure you’ll agree with me. You’ll have to. Gazebos are evil. As are DMs with a bigger vocabulary than you.

September 18, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 21/30

Day 21 of the 30-day D&D Challenge asks for your favorite among that iconic class of D&D monsters, the dragon.

the Cerilian Dragon

The dragon permeates the D&D game about as much as it does the mythologies of the real world, though some creatures that are draconine in nature, such as the Lernaean hydra and the Asian naga, are classified differently in D&D. Dragons are so iconic to the game that I know of at least one player who got into the hobby because the idea of fighting a dragon fascinated her. And of course there are all those artworks featuring dragons, from what seems to be a third or a quarter of all Dragon Magazine covers to the caricatures featured in the Dragonmirth section of the mag.

So what’s my favorite dragon type? The Cerilian Dragon, from the Birthright campaign setting. It’s the dragon that has the most mythical feel for me – there’s only one species, all are extremely ancient, and have the stupefying gaze attack attributed to dragons in The Hobbit, the Silmarillion, and the Germanic sagas that they were based on. And because there are only a very limited number of dragons left on Cerilia, but all of them pretty much gods, slaying one will truly be an epic accomplishment.

preview001

Call me a heretic (but then again, if you’ve read my posts in this series you probably know that already), but there’s something that niggles at me with the standard D&D dragon types. See, I find that D&D’s taking creatures from myth and trying to work them into settings as though they were naturally occurring, naturally evolved species of that world’s biosphere, tends to weaken the fantasy angle of the game for me with some creatures.

If dragons really existed as a natural species in your game world, and they’re its top predators, civilization shouldn’t even exist. Think about it. If dragons were truly as powerful, voracious, and intelligent as they’re hyped up to be, they’d get rid of all other rival species quickly. So to tell me that dragons are as natural to a fantasy setting as lions are to the Serengeti will quickly start to thin my suspension of disbelief.

Truly supernatural dragons, however, that spend most of their time in magical slumber, and perhaps represent cosmic forces of some sort, and are extremely rare, make a better setting element. In this, the Cerilian Dragon more resembles the wyrms that bedeviled Beowulf and the Knights of the Round Table. I guess my fondness for Birthright (though I never got to play it) stems from its being very Arthurian/Celtic in flavor. It was a tragedy that Birthright came out in TSR’s failing days.

Why Play Hari Ragat? 10 Cool Features

There are times when I wonder why I’m even doing this project. Times when I ask myself, why slave over designing a new game when there are already so many awesome games out there? When I ask myself why would a gamer even want to check out Hari Ragat? So I made myself list down at least 5 things that a gamer would find cool – and came up with 10:

1) Epic adventure in a unique, rich Southeast Asian-inspired setting

2) Heroes united by a common hometown they must protect and can build up from humble village to mighty kingdom

3) Option to play an Arthurian-style campaign to determine the next Rajah Hari Ragat

4) Fast and easy character creation with many colorful, setting-specific options

5) Adventure auction mechanic encourages players to suggest adventures they want to play, and attract the other players to help out; GM just has to fill in some blanks

6) Played using a system that encourages colorful, cinematic action

7) Fighting Secrets based on Kali/Eskrima techniques

8) Risky, usually low-key but potentially very powerful spirit magic, and unique shaman powers and perks

9) Ancestor spirit-based group resource encourages players to role play and immerse in the setting

10) Easy to use rules for sailing, jungle travel, naval combat, mass combat, and social competitions from intrigue to boasting to courtship!

And of course the most important reason – I love the setting to bits. This is the game I wanna run and call my coolest campaign ever. And the good news – I’m already editing the draft.

September 17, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 15-23/30

Yesh, I am a cheater. Sort of. As I never played 3e much, when the monster classifications came out, I didn’t think of D&D’s monsters in terms of the categories asked in the 30-day D&D Challenge. So let me answer as best I can:

1) Favorite Monster – Undead
I would’ve liked to try taking on a Lich. We never got to – never got to a high enough level for it or played a campaign long enough. As I mentioned in my first post, D&D actually forms a minority of my gaming experience since I got into gaming in the early 90s explosion of different RPGs.

2) Favorite Monster – Aberration
Do my fellow-players count? Oh, Monster Manual entries only, right. Nope, can’t think of any.

3) Favorite Monster – Animal/Vermin
Thanks to an amusing episode  with the legendary dwarf Rorax, I’ll never forget the Giant Centipede. A barrel of giant centipedes + dwarf played by a player (Augs) who always seems to roll a botch on Dexterity Checks = barrel of fun.

4) Favorite Monster – Immortal/Outsider
This is not from a D&D game, but from Pendragon – we once faced an avatar of Thor. Our knights were fighting off a Saxon thrust into Cambria sometime after King Uther’s death, when the GM (Adrian Martinez) described the Saxon champion as a hulking redhead wielding a maul, surrounded by an obviously supernatural aura and felling all who dared to face him. 

Those of us players who were familiar with Norse mythology looked at each other with that sinking ‘oh shit’ expression. Thanks to some good rolls on our side and some bad rolls on the GM’s, one player, Dennis, was able to take the avatar down without too much trouble. But it was a most memorable battle.

5) Favorite Monster – Elemental/Plant
As I like jungle and lost world settings, I’ve got a weakness for all sorts of carnivorous or otherwise animated vines. Specially if you can’t tell them apart easily from natural or harmless vines.

6) Favorite Monster – Humanoid/Natural Fey
I would’ve liked to run an adventure involving the sahuagin. These fish-men would’ve made a bad-ass villain race for the kind of island-hopping odyssey I’ve always wanted to run.

Less Fiddly Travel Mechanics for Hari Ragat

Eureka! I’m revisiting the travel mechanics I created for Hari Ragat and came up with an alternative that I think works better.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may recall that I earlier came up with mechanics that called for rolls vs. the environment to cross it. Well, on reading that again I started to think it was a bit too fiddly, so I came up with something that’s more narrative, requires less rolls, and is more easily customizable to what the players want.

Every journey now takes place in one, two, three or more Stages depending on how far your destination is and other factors. Sea voyages against the monsoon winds, for example, require an extra Stage. Each Stage is an encounter of some sort; it could be against foes who will fight you, monsters who will try to devour you, a highland tribe that won’t let you pass, or even a ruler who’d like to have you over for dinner, but you’ll have to impress his court!

GM and players may collaborate on what they want to have happen in each Stage. For example, if you players are itching to test yourselves against a Raksasa giant, fine, we’ll have a Raksasa move against you in one Stage. Or you may ask for a certain amount of Renown for the Stage, and the GM can cook up an encounter to fit.

Successfully completing the trials of a Stage lets you move on to the next Stage. Failure means another Stage may be added. Complete all the Stages required, and bam, you’re at your final destination.

Hari Ragat: Traits for Shaman Characters

Yup, looks like the shaman class is in for the core game after all. However, I’m recommending that GMs only allow one in the group. Shamans in Hari Ragat as I’ve posted before come in three varieties, the female babaylan, the male katalunan, and the asog, who are transvestites. The differences in their powers manifest in the Traits available only to them, such as:

Immaculate
So long as you break no taboos, you radiate a powerful aura of purity that makes Prayers and Rites of cleansing and healing easier for you. You may claim Advantage from this to heal, break curses, and drive away evil spirits. Moreover, you are immune to Terror. If you break a taboo, this Trait is blocked until you have made amends to the spirits for it. This is only available to babaylan.

Beloved of the Ancestors
You are a special favorite of your lineage’s ancestor spirits. This gives you Advantage for any Rites and Prayers in which the spirits you roll against are your ancestor spirits. This benefit will not apply, for example, if your Rite involves rolling against a diwata. This is only available to babaylan.

Diwata Tamer
The force of your personality helps you resist and overawe diwatas, specially the lesser ones. You may claim Advantage from this in any Prayers or Rites directed at diwata. This is only available to katalunan.

Scourge of the Night
Your spiritual strength and force of personality are feared by the evil spirits and other supernatural forces of darkness. You may claim Advantage from this in any Prayers or Rites, and even physical combat, against any evil spirit, aswang, sorcerers and witches. Moreover, you are immune to Terror. This is only available to katalunan.

At the Gates of Life and Death
You can easily find and stand at the borders between Life and Death in the spirit world, from where you have Advantage to control the passage of a spirit from one to the other. This gives you Advantage to any Prayers or Rites for safe childbirth, reviving the dying, and laying the unquiet dead to rest. This is only available to asog.

Diwata Blood
You are descended from a diwata, and her blood runs strongly in your veins. You have +2 Bala, and a maximum of 7 Bala. However your diwata nature also makes you take offence easily, thus making you more likely to cast involuntary curses. When rolling to see if you cast an involuntary curse, rolling even a single 1 means you did.

Ancestral Familiar
One of your ancestor spirits has been reborn as an animal and attached itself to you as a familiar, for purposes of its own. Choose a purpose, and a small animal as your familiar’s form: the usual taken are snakes, birds, or civet cats, all forms you can carry on your person or can easily travel with you.

The familiar cannot speak, but it can communicate with you by signs and empathy, and it aids you in performing Rites which further its aims (claim Advantage). In addition, you may use the familiar to distract or attack opponents in combat, but this risks its life. Familiars use the same rules in combat as normal Companions, see above.

Totemic Twin
You were born with an animal ‘twin’ – perhaps it was physically born with you, or it was born or hatched at the exact same moment as you, and your soul is linked to this creature.

You may exchange souls with your animal ‘twin’ at will, allowing you to travel, scout and even fight in its form while its soul sleeps within your human body. Your totemic twin will also do its best to protect you when you are in danger and it is nearby.

Unfortunately, this close link is a double-edged sword: the injuries of one are always suffered equally by the other, and if one dies, so does the other twin.

Gift of Prophecy
You have a special gift for seeing the future and reading fate. You gain Advantage to perform the Rites of Divination and the Prayer/Rite for Victory.

Witch Sniffer
You have a knack for detecting the traces of dark magic on people, places and things, which gives you Advantage to find out and identify witches and sorcerers, including aswang.

September 16, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 14/30

Day 14 of the 30-day D&D Challenge asks for my favorite NPC.

Again, I’ll have to give a somewhat off-the-wall answer here: my favorite NPC is just about any NPC run by my friend JJ. They could be annoying as hell, but they were also incredibly amusing. There was the tavernkeeper who fell in love with Elonna Melonna (the Melon Elf) and followed us into the dungeon, the bawling elves we found by the side of a lake who’d been beaten up by pixies, and when there were too few of us present to complete an adventuring party, JJ’s henchmen and mercenaries such as Macho the Mage.

We could never get a serious story going with JJ running a game, but we were always guaranteed a lot of laughs.

September 15, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 13/30

Hoo boy, this is going to be difficult – Day 13 of the 30-day D&D Challenge asks about my favorite trap or puzzle.

Um, I was never a puzzle/trap guy, I tended to be the villain guy. There is a kind of trap I really do like, though you won’t find it in a dungeon: the culture trap.  Get the PCs in trouble in a strange place because of some strange custom they didn’t know or chose to ignore. Or get them in trouble because of some unique cultural concept, like the Japanese/Chinese idea of ‘saving face.’

This works best for me in historical or semi-historical milieus, where my players at least have a good idea of what the ground rules are for a certain society.

For real physical ‘traps’ though, nothing beats Nature itself! Weather, loose stones on a mountain trail, slippery moss-covered rocks as the only way across a rushing torrent of a river … these can test player ingenuity as much as any trap, and don’t require the thief to do it. Thieves in my games would do well to prioritize their hiding, listening, climbling, and if included, fast-talking skills over their lock-picking and trap detection.

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 12/30

Day 12 of the 30-day D&D Challenge asks about your favorite dungeon or adventure location.

I’m really glad the Cabazor brothers had the complete BECMI set, and later AD&D 2e, as I quickly found that my fun lay in the wilderness settings, not dungeons. We got a lot of utility from the Expert rules.

I’ve never been fond of mazes, and the idea of gratuitously placed ruins stashed with gratuitously placed lootable objects tended to strain my sense of disbelief. I’d rather have my player characters struggling with crossing a river in full spring flood, or scrambling to avoid a wild animal stampede, than dealing with dungeon traps.  If ever I placed a dungeon, it wouldn’t consist of too many rooms and levels. And I prefer placing foes to traps.

If I ever get to run an Al Qadim game or something similar, though, I’d like to run a mostly urban mini-series (I don’t have the time anymore for long campaigns, alas). It would be a great challenge to create a fantasy Arabian Nights city the players can get to know and attached to, with lots of special little sub-locations and NPCs.

September 14, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 11/30

I’ve just passed the 1/3 mark of the 30-day D&D Challenge! Am I missing D&D yet? I’m missing gaming, period. I only get my gaming fix nowadays when I go to Manila. Hope to change this by fixing up the continuation of the Hari Ragat playtest online, soon.

Day 11’s question is indeed relevant to the playtest, as it asks what’s your favorite adventure that you’ve run? Once again I have to say my answer won’t be something from D&D, but it was related. The adventure was about two villainous brothers who could not be killed by any ordinary means thanks to a curse, from my Red Branch (ancient Ireland in the time of Cuchulainn) campaign.

I liked running it because of the story, and the fact that the way to kill the brothers involved solving a prophetic riddle.  The action was also intense, with a very cinematic duel scene held with Tommy, and a slam-bang chariot battle at the finale. I also liked very much the fact that my players were struck by the weirdness and magical feel of the setting I tried to weave. Setting is really important to me, and if my players feel something from the setting that’s really really satisfying.

September 13, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 10/30

It’s day 10 of the 30-day D&D Challenge! And this time it’s about the craziest moment you ever had in a game! This may well be the most difficult question yet – not because it’s hard to answer, but because I can’t choose between our worst moments.

Yep, the Band of Rorax would become notorious for playing our games, all our games, for laughs. There were the shameless ripoffs from various geek cult classics, from Star Trek TOS to Conan the Barbarian (1982) to Star Wars to Monty Python and back again, and everything in between. We had characters like Elonna Melonna the Melon Elf and Macho the Mage (natural 18 strength!), JJ’s characters whatever the class were always royal perverts played like Rumiko Takahashi’s Happosai, while John and Barry always made a great comedic team, largely by John’s wit and at Barry’s expense.

In one of these episodes, John was playing a ranger scouting a deserted enemy campsite, where he sticks a finger into some horse dung, tastes it, then reports to Barry:

John: “Five men. On horses. One lame. They went south. They ate corn.”

Barry: “Wow, you could tell all that just by tasting the horse dung?!”

John: “No. Saw tracks.”

Barry: “So why did you have to taste the horse dung?!”

John: “I like corn.”

We also had some of the worst magic items appear in our games, among them the Shuriken of Healing (3/round, 1d4 damage per hit, 1d8 healing per hit), the Groin Guard of Incontinence, and the dreaded Boots of Plenty (the farther you walk in em the more food they produce).

September 12, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 9/30

Day 9 of the 30-day D&D Challenge asks an interesting question: what’s the favorite character you’ve never played? I guess some will answer this in terms of characters they’d rolled up but never got to use, but I’m going to answer this in terms of character class.

sindbadimages

I’d always wanted to play a swashbuckling merchant-adventurer, a fusion of Sindbad from the original Arabian Nights and the Sindbad of Ray Harryhausen’s Hollywood. I’ve always liked the idea of exploring faraway, exotic locations, so a class that’s made to travel like this would’ve really been up my alley.

A fan-created take on the merchant-adventurer for D&D 3.5 can be found here.

September 11, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 8/30

Day 8 of the 30-day D&D Challenge asks about your favorite character ever played.

mcbride images

Well, my fave Dungeons and Dragons PC ever has to be Jehangir, my nomad fighter from my very first game. Why? Because Jehangir was my first character ever! I named him not so much after the Mughal emperor, but because I liked the name’s meaning: He Who Seizes the World.

My backstory for him had him as an exiled heir to chieftainship of a nomad tribe, with designs on vengeance then conquest if ever he got back. His motivation for adventuring was to gain the treasure, followers and experience needed to stage a successful comeback to the steppes. I kinda blew a lot of money on this character, as if I remember right I bought a horse, chain mail, an expensive composite bow, and on Barry’s advice, a bastard sword. Made a mistake there – I should’ve opted for a normal sword and shield instead, I could’ve used the AC.

Alas, I never got to play Jehangir for more than a module or two. I would re-use the backstory, however, for my sword and sorcery fiction character Orhan Timur.

September 10, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 7/30

What’s my favorite D&D edition?

dcc-images

Yow good question. If you were strictly looking for an answer that’s more or less recognizable as D&D, I’d say it’s the Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) retroclone, because of its treatment of magic.

Magic in DCC comes much closer to the way magic is portrayed in Sword and Sorcery classics such as Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Moorcock’s Elric series: dark, dangerous, very likely to exact some  grisly – or amusing -price from its practitioners.

September 9, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 6/30

Day 6 of the 30-day D&D Challenge asks about my favorite deity. Again, it’s a question I’m afraid I can’t answer from a D&D perspective. The clerics in our games were never strictly tied to any one god, nor did any gods have much of an appearance in our games.

Kraken-cthulhu

If I had to choose, it would be a toss-up between Cthulhu for sheer eldritch badassitude, and Zeus for sheer story potential. Zeus’ raunchiness, position and relationships in the Olympian family, and jealousy make for a never-ending mill of conflict and possibility, and I like that.

A MICE-based Excuse for Vanilla Fantasy?

I’ve noted several times in this blog that I’ve become jaded with ‘vanilla’ Western medieval fantasy, specially as a setting. But there’s an interesting dichotomy between that and my ongoing enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, de Camp’s Incomplete Enchanter, Feist’s Riftwar series, Gemmel’s Drenai series, REH’s more identifiably Western Medieval Conan stories, and others.

A loophole through which some new writers may yet find their way into my favorites shelf – I need to find new favorites to follow, practically all the authors I like nowadays are already dead! And it all lies in the balance of MICE.

MICE refers to Orson Scott Card’s idea that we can categorize elements in fiction as Milieu, Idea, Character or Event. I’ve noted before that Milieu tends to be really heavy in science fiction and fantasy, because you need to establish that the fiction is happening in a world unlike our own; properly handled, these differences make the world practically a character in its own right.

What’s this have to do with ‘vanilla’ fantasy settings? Familiarity. Western Medieval tropes such as knights, feudalism, monolithic organized religions and so on are so familiar across the world (or across the world that’s exposed to Western-aligned education systems and Western media) that they’re like a shorthand already. There could be a good MICE ratio-based rationale for choosing a ‘vanilla’ setting over creating a more exotic one if one wants the background to, uh, fade into the background, and have the characters or other elements stand out more.

Take Feist’s Midkemia for example: probably one of the most vanilla fantasy settings I’ve ever read, but I didn’t mind that much because of the simple, direct appeal of the characters, specially in Magician: Apprentice. Pug and Tomas tapped directly into the childhood dreams of adventure everyone must’ve grown up with, the elderly wizard Kulgan comes across as a kindly avuncular figure (contrast this to the often distant and mysterious Gandalf), and there are noble-minded heroes like Arutha and lovable rogues like Amos Trask. The Midkemian characters have a universal appeal because we’re confronted with their choices and trials in a universal human light – growing up, the responsibilities of power, good and evil.

Contrast that with Feist’s Kelewan, which mixed Japanese culture with elements from Mesoamerican civilizations and some touches from MAR Barker’s Tekumel. Characters in Kelewan such as Mara and Kasumi are written in such a way that they’re very much creatures of their milieu, their every action being a response to some quirk of Tsurani law or custom. Using Card’s analysis technique, you could say that M and C were almost equal in the Kelewan-based parts of the Riftwar series, and very intertwined. (Which to me is good world-building by the way, or good use of the milieu.) But page count wise, look at how many pages of the books have to be about the milieu.

Gemmel’s Drenai series is another triumph of Character over Milieu. There are very few details I can remember about the nations of Drenai, Vagria, Gothir, etc., but if I were to try writing a Druss fanfic I’m pretty confident I could nail the character with little effort. Motivations and powerful internal conflicts leap right out of the pages in Gemmel’s stories, making his characters into emotional dynamos. You’re caught between simultaneously admiring them, fearing them – Gemmel’s heroes are often borderline psychos -- and sympathizing with their all-too-human plights. There’s another element that Gemmel plays upon masterfully, that makes his characters so memorable: in the realm of Idea, Gemmel’s big on spiritual themes like guilt and redemption, the journey to maturity, and the difficulty of the virtuous path.

In my own fiction, I think I’m still trying to find the ideal balance of Milieu, Idea, Character and Event, with Milieu often pretty heavy since I really love exotic settings. But there’s a lesson to remember from these authors, and it’s that characters are what really carry the story. Perhaps as a gamer I can be a bit too focused on the setting at times, because I’m thinking of ways to incorporate that cool stuff in my campaigns later; and as a GM, I’m not spending that much time inside my player characters’ heads – they’re not my characters. But I need to study how to make my characters come alive the way Gemmel and Feist do.

And that’s one of the things I’ll be looking for in new fantasy. I need to find new stuff that’s as compelling as the adventures of Druss, Pug, Harold Shea and the lot …

September 8, 2013

Hari Ragat: Discouraging Alpha Strikes

I was reading the review of 13th Age when I realized that Hari Ragat/Vivid has a potential problem in the combat mechanics: it encourages the ‘alpha strike.’

An alpha strike is when the players use their greatest powers on the very first round of combat, hoping to deal the opponent/s the greatest damage and so seize the advantage in the inevitable war of attrition. Makes good tactical sense, but weak drama. I mean, would you watch Godzilla if Godzilla falls to the first missile strike? Heck no!

Right now, the Vivid mechanics make the characters most powerful at the very beginning of combat, before anyone’s lost any Guts/Bala or spent any Anito Dice. In 13th Age, by contrast, the Escalation Die goes up in value from round to round, effectively making the PCs most powerful when the combat drags out. May not make as much tactical sense, but makes for much, much better drama. Guess which side I’m on.

So, how to get the benefit of increasing drama in Vivid/Hari Ragat, without a total rework of the rules? I’m thinking of a ‘valve’ rule, with a widening ‘valve’ for use of Anito Dice and Bala as combat goes on longer or when the heroes take damage or setbacks. I’m also recalling the Animecha game of Dennis Ching, where we pilots all had a Fury stat that increased whenever we or our mecha took damage.

Hm. Got it, I think. From now on, the limit on Anito Dice spending is equal to the current round number; 1 on the first round, 2 on the second, 3 on the third, and so on, with an additional +2 if you’re down to only 1 Bala. What do you think?

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 5/30

Day 5 of the 30-day D&D Challenge: Your Favorite Die.

From a player’s point of view, I‘ve always liked the d6 best for all RPGs: easily available even in a country where RPGs are very uncommon, and since we’ve been used to them since childhood, they’re very easy to read even when the values are printed on them as pips instead of numbers. The only thing wrong with the d6 is its limited roll range, which challenges us game designers to come up with creative ways to extend it.

As favorite-die-that-was-hostile-to-me, though, you can’t beat the d20! Specially when it was in DM JJ’s hands! Those blasted icosahedrons had a way of turning up 20 whenever JJ’s orcs/ bugbears/ temple guards or whatnot were stepping up to the bat, to groans, merriment, and the terror of our characters.

September 7, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 4/30

Day 4 of the 30-Day D&D Challenge asks for your favorite game setting.

I can’t really answer this in D&D terms, as our BECMI games were always set in Mystara, and I never got to join an AD&D game long enough to tell whether we were in Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms. They were all vanilla Tolkien-clone worlds to me, still more fun than the real world, but still lacking the exoticism I craved. My first taste of a setting that had a distinguishable personality was Oriental Adventures, which our DM Augs adapted to work with AD&D 2e.

I remember OA more for John’s comedic takeoffs on Kurosawa’s Ran and the Seven Samurai than anything else, though, and the really bad interlingual puns. We had a samurai named Fugu Zushi, a lord named Tokuwa Babuyasu, a wandering samurai or ronin named Mukahito Mustashi, and of course John’s renowned Itchi Bayagi of the Bayagyu Clan!

We never got to have an Al-Qadim game, which I’m sure I would’ve loved, nor did I ever get to join a Ravenloft game. In the end, the most D&D-like setting I liked was Chaosium’s Pagan Shore, the medieval Ireland supplement for Pendragon.

The Myth of the Bearskin Diaper

Tell me who this is:

ssoc index

It is, of course, Conan the Barbarian, as represented in the Savage Sword of Conan comic. Even if you weren’t quite a fan, you probably recognized the character by his trademark bearskin diapers. The Hollywood posters did nothing to dispel this image:

conan82 images

Know something funny? Robert E. Howard, Conan’s creator, hardly ever described the character wearing nothing but a fur loincloth. He wore armor whenever he could, and usually wore the local clothing. Time and again the stories set in Iranistan, Shem, Turan and thereabouts had Conan wearing burnoose and kaffiyeh, or ‘hill tribesmen’s garb’ or the gaudy silken pantaloons of the kozaki. Whenever Conan was in the military, he would usually be in armor: in Beyond the Black River, he wears chain mail even in the depths of the Pictish forest, having ‘carefully oiled the links so they would make no sound.’ In the pirate adventures with the Barachans, Conan even puts on the rather anachronistic but iconic greatcoat and hat.

Even the 1982 movie actually got this right, it’s just that we tend to remember it for the iconic images where Ahnold is showing a lot of skin.  But guess what, Conan’s every appearance in fur loincloth is justified in Milius’ movie. He wears armor whenever he can get it, as seen below during the climactic battle at the standing stones:

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In the ‘82 movie, Conan is semi-naked only when a) he is, or just came out of, captivity; b) when he’s training; and c) when he’s trying to move stealthily, as in the raid on Thulsa Doom’s hideout. So where did this penchant for the bearskin diaper come from? It probably began with the Margaret Brundage covers for Weird Tales, which tried to sell the magazine on sex appeal:

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This was carried on by Frank Frazetta and later Conan illustrators such as John Buscema, Ernie Chan, Rudy Nebres, and others on the pages of Savage Sword of Conan and Conan the Barbarian:

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Like Brundage, these 60s and 70s artists understood the primal appeal of rippling muscles and violent, dominant poses. The fur loincloth would then become a visual shorthand for Conan, which along with his long hair would keep the character in permanent contrast to the civilized milieu he often moved in. The Italian ‘peplum’ movies of the 1950s and 60s also must’ve influenced the look: like the Conan series, these films would feature oiled bodybuilders in short kilts.

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Unfortunately this trend would go into the ridiculous, often depicting the Cimmerian in bearskin diapers even in situations where he wouldn’t have worn them in the Howard originals: I remember one moldering copy of SSOC where Conan runs around the deserts with the Zuagir tribesmen wearing only a fur loincloth and horned helmet! (Oh, and boots. Mustn’t forget boots.)

Make no mistake: I enjoy the art of SSOC and Frazetta and all their spiritual heirs. But when I read a Conan story, or craft a Cimmerian-like barbarian character, my mind’s eye will use images like this:

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Because the thought of all that fur … there … makes me … itchy.

September 6, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 3/30

Day 3 of the 30-Day D&D Challenge asks for favorite character class.

If you’ve read my initial posts, or just about anything else on this blog, you can probably guess this already. Yup, as a die-hard Robert E. Howard fan my choice was very predictably the Fighter. I probably would’ve chosen Barbarian or Ranger if they were available in the Mentzer rules. Those old pulp S&S stories were almost always about fighters. The old epics that were the ancestors of S&S were about fighters.

Since we played BECMI most of the time, we tended to use the Weapon Proficiency rules from the Master rulebook even for beginning characters. Looking back, I think this actually made our characters far more effective for their level than they would’ve been using the Basic and Expert rules alone.

However, it seemed the Master rules presaged the power creep and complexification by exception that would peak in the D&D 3.x series, which would increasingly turn me off. D&D 3e’s addition of Feats initially excited me – I tried building a swashbuckler character, and for the first time the character (on paper) looked right for a swashbuckler: increased chances to hit with a rapier and a Dexterity-based attack bonus, and a better AC even without heavy armor. As I delved deeper, though, I found that these features I had initially liked were proving to be obstacles to my preferred style of play. I didn’t like the way 3e was encouraging players to focus so much on making the most effective ‘build,’ thinking solely in game terms instead of the fiction.

Yeah, I admit it – I’m something of a story snob. I want my character to  be part of a cool saga.  I wanted fiction first. I wanted concepts first. In a way, my entire gaming history has been a rebellion from the tropes and assumptions introduced to me through D&D. In the end, I could say I found my true preferred character class in Pendragon’s knight.

Pendragon knights had backgrounds that mattered, had a very definite role in society and thus more built-in role playing hooks, alignments that related concretely to persons and game world institutions instead of abstract ideals, and I liked that your character’s fate was linked to mortality in the setting, not a one-way stair to immortality. 

September 4, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 2/30

Day 2 of the 30-Day D&D Challenge asks for your favorite PC race.

That’s easy: Human, always and all too human. My approach to D&D was always more from the Howardian, pulp S&S end of Appendix N’s spectrum than from Tolkien’s end, and the idea of a human with no special supernatural advantages rising to heroism despite these limitations was always more appealing to me.

This preference though led me to one of D&D’s early blind spots: Humans are most interesting if they can be from different cultures, but the core rules had nothing to support this.

The BECMI elf race/class was a close second choice though, for the role-playing potential of being a stranger in a strange land. LOTR geeks that we were, we always assumed D&D’s elves were clones from Tolkien, and we tended to give them names cobbled together from online Quenya dictionaries.

September 3, 2013

Confessions of a Jaded Geek: 1/30

Saw the 30-day D&D Challenge at Armchair Gamer, and it got me reminiscing over my first RPG experiences. My first RPG ever was of course Dungeons and Dragons (BECMI), but I can’t consider myself much of a D&D player because I’ve played more sessions of other games than D&D. I had the luck of getting into gaming at a time when many other options were becoming available, so I got to spend time exploring those. Thus for me this 30-post challenge will be as much a search for insights on RPGs through the lens of D&D as a celebration of that grandfather of all RPGs.

So, Day 1: How I got Defl – er, Started
First, a confession: I am an old, and somewhat jaded, gamer. Old as in I got into gaming at a rather late age – it was in 1992 or 93, and I was in my early 20s, with my tastes in fantasy fiction already well-set. 

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What I remember D&D BECMI best for is that it served as a platform for some good casual fun. It allowed us to blend in influences from anime, Howardian sword and sorcery, Tolkien, and the Elder-Gods-know-what-else into one crazy, incoherent, yet amusing hash.

My first session was with the group that would later become infamous as the Band of Rorax (more on Rorax later!), with Augs as DM, his brother Vic playing the busty, warhammer-chucking cleric Zhardanie Hammertoss, Barry as a fighter, JJ and John as (perverted) thieves, and I made a nomad fighter named Jehangir. As JJ and I were making characters to join an existing group, Augs allowed us to start at a higher level than usual – I think we started at level 3 or 4, maybe even 5.

Fortunately for me, the module Augs was running was a wilderness adventure – I would later find out that dungeon crawls bored me. We were supposed to run a herd of horses to some outpost in the wilds, and were attacked by goblins along the way. This was great for my horse archer, as Augs gave me the chance to do some shooting at the gallop that turned out to be quite effective. The same goblin tribe would later trap us at the outpost, where I learned the value of a good AC – I’d traded a chance for a shield and better armor for a bastard sword, so with a few lucky rolls on Augs’ part poor Jehangir was quickly in trouble. He was saved only by a desperate stunt from John’s thief.

First impressions from that game – RPGs were great fun, but you couldn’t really create a viable light/swashbuckler fighter type as the rules favored tank builds, and character backgrounds didn’t really mean anything. The built-in bonuses for race and character type were all Tolkienic; there were no culture incentives, or at least none in the ruleset we used.

I also learned that different players would come to the game with very different expectations, some of which the game met more easily than others. I wanted a Howardian saga, dark and dangerous yet cinematic; JJ and John were in it for the pranks and japes; and Vic was in his cool-badass-anime-babe phase, which meant our games were always accompanied by his great art. Art was also the reason I started devouring the Cabazor brothers’ stack of Dragon magazines, looking for inspiration; it was through these that I first learned there were other role playing games available aside from D&D.

(C) Victor F Cabazor: a Rhiyannin Stormcaller from my Twilight Age game

I got to join some more D&D games with this group, but once Augs got WEG’s Star Wars I found my cinematic fix. My first Star Wars session (again GM’d by Augs) had me as smuggler pilot Ganelon Shrike, Vic as Buttfuzz the Ewok Death Commando – a white-furred Ewok with black markings oddly resembling stormtrooper armor! – Barry as a bounty hunter, and Ron guest-starring as the voice of our astromech droid D1-LD0.

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Augs’ plot called for us to be captured by the Empire, so the game opened with my ship being chased down by a squadron of TIE fighters. What Augs didn’t count on was how far we’d go to resist – we used all our escape pods as torpedoes, and we hit! Bye bye Imperial squadron, bye bye plot, hello winging it. Most important takeaway from this session was the value of being able to improvise and respond to player actions, which tend to be really unpredictable.

CZ2-VC-L5Rposter

The year after my introduction to D&D, we got to be part of AEGIS, a spinoff of Mensa Philippines’ gaming group, which was into a lot of different games: we got to try Castle Falkenstein, White Wolf’s World of Darkness line, Legend of the Five Rings (which we quickly turned into an anime parody) and a whole bunch of members’ homebrews under playtesting. But by far the best RPG I got to try with this new group was Chaosium’s Pendragon (4th edition). My er, magnum slowpus Hari Ragat is very much in the vein of Pendragon.

And that, friends, is how I got started in this glorious little hobby of ours. Yes, I ended up preferring other RPGs, because those supported the fiction I wanted; but the seed was D&D.

September 2, 2013

Hari Ragat: Boasting Mechanics

Had to pause work on Hari Ragat through most of August so I could be with my dad through what turned out to be his last days. Well, I’m back now, and I better get cracking because I don’t know how much time I’ll have left to write when wifey and I open our studio!

New addition for this week is boasting mechanics. Just as you play D&D for treasure and XP, Hari Ragat is played for Renown; situations in the game have real meaning if there is Renown to to be won or lost. In this game, you can even win Renown at parties. 

Vijadesan feasts often culminate in drinking marathons accompanied by boasting. This is resolved as a contest where the competitors take turns rolling against each other’s Orang Dakila ability (which represents skill at oration, manners, leadership, etc.).  The stake is an amount of Renown set by the GM based on the Renown Value of the highest-ranked or most famous character present.

Victory means you out-boasted your competitor, and Defeat means you had to sit down in shame. A Stay (tie) means the current contest continues, possibly with tempers fraying if a contest goes on for too long. Yup, a boasting contest gone wrong may very well end up in a brawl or a duel!

August 5, 2013

Was This What Inspired the Bakonawa?

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The bakonawa: a fish-dragon  with ‘a mouth as wide as a lake,’ so big it could swallow the moon. What gave the early Visayans such an idea? Well, I’m starting to think it might’ve been this fish, caught by accident somehow or washed up on shore. This is a gulper eel, a deep sea fish with an incredibly oversized mouth and stomach capacity.

gulperimages

Deep sea fish are cool – particularly because they’re so frighteningly bizarre!

August 4, 2013

How the Raksasa Got Their Banes

From the legends of the Vijadesan people:

“Raksasas feared and hated mankind from mankind’s birth, knowing they would be enemies and that mankind had the favor of the gods. Now it is known by both man and Raksasa that the gods can be swayed by extreme shows of devotion, so Dasakan, first Rajah of the Raksasas, was able to come up with a plan to outwit Aman Bathala himself.

“Dasakan made grandiose sacrifices to Aman Bathala for seven years, then fasted and purified himself under a waterfall for seven more, and then had himself buried in a cave for yet another seven.  At the end of this time, Aman Bathala had no choice but to relent and finally granted Dasakan one boon.

“Dasakan immediately answered, ‘Make us Raksasas unkillable.’ But the Creator said ‘No, it is your fate that you can be killed. Ask something else.’ Then Dasakan said, ‘Let no Raksasa die save but by the means he or she chooses at the moment of birth.’ To this the Creator agreed.

“Now every Raksasa born gets a choice of how it may die, and some made stupid choices and some made cunning choices,  but all of those choices are written in the stars, and may be read by the truly wise. This is how Aman Bathala outwitted Dasakan, who thought he could outwit the Creator himself.”

Building Unique Giants for Hari Ragat

When I refer to Raksasas in Hari Ragat, I mean creatures like this:

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and this (by the way check out the Kickstarter for the card game I got it from):

rakshasa

not this:

rakshasa

nor this (awww, but why not!?):

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The Raksasas in the Hari Ragat setting are based on the epic opponents of the Ramayana, as filtered through Southeast Asian lenses. The ‘kaiju’ of the Indarapatra at Sulayman epic were probably also Raksasa. These legendary Raksasa were gigantic, often multi-armed and multi-headed, and very hard to kill.

To model that in the game, and the fact that every major Raksasa had very different powers and abilities, I’m putting together a random-roll creation system for making them. Among the ideas I’ve got right now are:

  • Number of heads indicates spiritual power (which in Hari Ragat = hit points)
  • Number of arms = greater Advantage in combat as they increase
  • Defensive powers such as scaly hides for more armor, or poisonous blood that harms the wounder
  • Randomly rolled Banes such as:
    • vulnerable only in one head
    • vulnerable only in one eye
    • heart hidden in another creature
    • vulnerable only to a specially prepared weapon
    • vulnerable to something you’d never think of as a weapon (cf. Baldur and the mistletoe)
  • Shapeshifts to diminutive form to escape attack
  • Shapeshifts to another giant form for different attack strategies
  • Regenerates damage
  • Reforms two whole giants every time it’s cut in two
  • A Roar attack that can paralyze opponents with fear

And so on. I’ll have to organize all these ideas into a table form to make them usable. Hopefully the result will be that every Raksasa the PCs encounter will be so different the players will have to rethink their strategies all over again each time!

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