July 29, 2013

Shaman PC Questionnaire

Shamans may take some unique Ties because of their supernatural connections. To round out your shaman character, answer the five questions below, or mix and match Ties from this list and from the normal character creation list:

1) You have had a vision of some impending evil, and only you have the means to stop it. What is it, and what must you do?

2) Someone in your community has been practicing foul sorcery. You can’t be sure who, but you have three suspects. Who are they?

3) The ancestors are offended with someone in the community, but this person refuses to make the required placatory offerings. Who is it, and what do the ancestors want with this person?

4) Another shaman has become your mortal enemy. Who is it, and why?

5) Some time ago, you gave someone a supernatural gift, but this person is now abusing it, so you have to take the gift back. This person won’t give it back willingly. Who is it and what was the gift?

July 28, 2013

Hari Ragat: Naval Combat

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I’m now writing up naval combat for Hari Ragat. Since all the references I could find are very sketchy about naval tactics, and in any case record 'anomalous' engagements -- karakoas were never built to take on gun-laden galleons! -- I'm having to extrapolate quite a bit based on the design of the karakoa. From this and from what’s known of ancient Filipino weaponry, I’m making the following assumptions:

1) The karakoa is not built for ‘ship to ship’ combat as we understand it with our modern thinking, as it’s not equipped to destroy enemy ships. Instead it’s built as a fighting platform for warriors using personal weapons.

2) The karakoa is so narrow that ranged attacks by its occupants are most effective when the karakoa is broadside-on to its opponent. If a karakoa is bow- or stern-on to its opponent, I’ll only allow 2-3 characters to make ranged attacks in a round. You’re throwing/shooting from a catwalk that’s only about 8-10 feet wide. When broadside on, all fighters can make ranged attacks if capable (and not assigned to steering or rowing/paddling).

3) The outriggers make boarding from abeam difficult, so boarding attacks are made from the prow to either the bow or stern of the enemy.

4) From the above, I believe karakoa captains would use one of two tactics depending on the strength of the opponent:

Smaller vessels or those with weak crews will be overtaken, and as soon as the karakoa’s prow contacts the enemy’s stern the most agile warriors will jump aboard and try to open a bridgehead for the rest. The hand to hand combat will be savage, since it’ll be at very close quarters.

A karakoa captain will try to circle around stronger enemy vessels, maneuvering to get broadside-on to the enemy so his warriors can make ranged attacks while trying to prevent boarding combat until the enemy has been sufficiently weakened.

5) I’ve found no mention of how karakoas did boarding combat, but I’ll assume some kind of grappling device was used. Maybe grappling hooks, maybe just plain rope, tied on by the bravest warriors willing to have both hands occupied while under threat of attack.

6) Because the vessels in this milieu have very low freeboard and the outriggers provide convenient means for climbing onto them from the water, I suspect divers/swimmers could be very useful in attack. A ‘commando’ group could surreptitiously dive from the far side of their ship, unseen by the enemy, swim underwater to the enemy ship, and emerge on the far side of the enemy ship where they wreak havoc on the oarsmen before climbing up to attack the helmsman or the warriors on the fighting deck.

What do you think?

July 27, 2013

Anito Dice and Shamans

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Looks like the shaman character class is going to be quite important to the start of an adventure thanks to the Anito Dice mechanic. (Does that mean I’ll include the shaman in the first Hari Ragat game book after all? Looks like it – probably give the GM the option to offer it as a PC class or not.)

Anito Dice represent the favor of the gods and ancestors. Where another FRPG may have a Luck mechanic of some sort, Anito Dice fill this role in Hari Ragat, but come with a price that should immerse players more into the setting. To gain Anito Dice, player characters must seek out blessings from the diwatas and ancestor spirits, and engage in various Vijadesan rites (note – player characters, not players! however if you want to offer Me a roast pig I will not turn it down!).

Act I of an adventure will revolve around finding out what the adventure will be about and what needs to be done, and courting the favor of the supernatural to increase the chances of success.

However, taking omens and divinations and making sacrifices are only half as effective if there is no shaman (PC or NPC) to perform them. Rites done by a shaman yield 1d6 Anito Dice; rites performed without a shaman yield only 1d3.

July 26, 2013

Kaiju of Mythic Mindanao!

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“A long, long time ago Mindanao was covered with water, and the sea extended over all the lowlands so that nothing could be seen but mountains. Then there were many people living in the country, and all the highlands were dotted with villages and settlements. For many years the people prospered, living in peace and contentment. Suddenly there appeared in the land four horrible monsters which, in a short time, had devoured every human being they could find.

Kurita, a terrible creature with many limbs, lived partly on land and partly in the sea, but its favorite haunt was the mountain where the rattan grew; and here it brought utter destruction on every living thing. The second monster, Tarabusaw, an ugly creature in the form of a man, lived on Mt. Matutun, and far and wide from that place he devoured the people, laying waste the land. The third, an enormous bird called Pah, was so large that when on the wing it covered the sun and brought darkness to the earth. Its egg was as large as a house. Mt. Bita was its haunt, and there the only people who escaped its voracity were those who hid in caves in the mountains. The fourth monster, Kuraya, was a dreadful bird also, having seven heads and the power to see in all directions at the same time. Mt. Gurayn was its home and like the others it wrought havoc in its region.” – from Mabel Cooke’s Folktales of the Philippines.

Having just seen Pacific Rim, re-reading this could not help but produce one burning word association – Kaiju! Kuraya in particular reminds me of King Ghidorah from the Toho movies.

Cooke’s summary is from the epic Indarapatra at Sulayman, a Maranao tale commemorating the exploits of the heroic brothers Indarapatra and Sulayman* (surprise!). Rajah Indarapatra, who rules a golden land to the west – might this have referred to Malacca or one of the old Malay kingdoms like Pattani or Srivijaya? – hears of the monster infestations and sends his younger brother Sulayman to deal with it. Sulayman battles and slays the first three monsters, but Pah in its death throes crushes the valiant prince with its wings.

Indarapatra learns of Sulayman’s death from the death of a tree whose fate he bonded to his brother’s, and swearing vengeance, girds on his weapons and flies to Mindanao. There he finds the corpses of Kurita, Tarabusaw and Pah, and under Pah’s wing the bones of Sulayman.  He resurrects Sulayman with some enchanted water, and then goes on to slay Kuraya. The two have more adventures, winning royal maidens and founding new kingdoms. (Some versions seem to have Indarapatra dying in combat with the last monster; the happy-ending version I believe is the older one, as the Philippine epic pattern is to have the heroes found a kingdom after their trials, the epics being used as origin stories and glorifications of lineages claiming descent from the heroes).

So, are these kaiju-oids going to find their way into Hari Ragat? You bet your betel nuts they will!

*The names of the brothers also make me believe this epic is either a revision of an older, pre-Islamic story, or it dates back from the very earliest years of Islam’s adoption by the Malays. Indarapatra is a Sanskrit name, meaning son of Indra, while Sulayman is the Old Testament’s Solomon, a figure highly revered in Islam.

July 25, 2013

Stealth and Chase Mechanics

Thanks to a post from The Artifact RPG, I’ve just realized something: I can use Vivid’s chase mechanics to model stealth attempts.

The problem with the way stealth is handled in most games – and that would’ve included Vivid before I read the post – is that it’s usually handled with a sudden-death kind of roll. Blow it once, and that’s it – you’re cover is blown too. So players were finding stealth an unviable approach, and abandoning it entirely – even the characters that ought to be stealthy by nature.

So, idea: sneaking around in Vivid will be handled as an Extended Contest, just like a chase or combat. Defeats along the way may be recovered from, unless you take enough that it becomes impossible to stay undetected.

Hari Ragat: Karakoa Stats!

Karakoa by Bernard Lacanlale

Woot! Statting out the vessels to be used in Hari Ragat adventures, using the really simple system I’ve developed for Vivid. Rather than come up with a lot of stats, I’m trying to keep focus on the player characters by presenting props like this in a very simple manner.

So what do the stats mean? Hull tells you how sturdy the ship is – reduce Hull to 0 and the ship is destroyed. Crew is an indication of how many men you need to crew the ship, expressed in terms of Dulohan rating, which is a character asset. Endurance is how many days’ worth of supplies are carried.

Type is used as basis to claim Advantage in appropriate circumstances; for a Karakoa, this means you’ve Advantage in combat vs. any lesser type of vessel.

Description:
The karakoa is the premiere warship of the Vijadesans, and the largest, fastest vessel they build. It is a kind of galley, propelled by both sails and oars, or paddles, but is much slimmer and lighter than a Mediterranean galley. An elevated fighting platform runs across most of its length, giving warriors upon it a height advantage vs. anyone in a lesser craft. Unfortunately its light weight and its height make it hard to handle in a strong crosswind or bad weather*. It can carry up to 100+ men.

Type: Karakoa, Hull 5, Crew [10], Endurance 6 days

Dimensions:
Length 75-90 feet, hull width 15-18 feet, outrigger width 30 feet, outrigger length 50-60 feet, waterline to gunwales 4 feet, waterline to fighting deck 10 feet, draught 2 feet.

*Meaning the GM can claim Advantage against you if your karakoa is caught in such a situation.

July 24, 2013

Pacific Rim and the Balance of MICE

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The late 70s and early 80s were my formative years, that glorious time when your reading, listening and viewing tastes are all formed pretty much for life, which pretty much means that I was doomed as a mainstream consumer.  Heck, it was the age of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, the third or was it fourth revival of heroic fantasy and sword n’ planet as both the Conan and John Carter series got reprinted again, and Mike Grell’s Warlord came out. And of course, it was the age of Voltes V and Mazinger Z.

A time I was kicked back into, grinning goofily, the other night as wifey and I saw Pacific Rim. Aside from the incredible marriage of CGI and visualization that del Toro and the ILM wizards put into the movie, what impressed me most about this movie was that it was both an original work, not based off any existing license, while at the same time being an effective homage to two Japanese genres (super-robot anime and kaiju movies).  It’s a good demonstration to Hollywood that you don’t always need an existing franchise base to make a blockbuster!

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One reason the movie works so well for me is that del Toro and Beacham got the balance of MICE elements just right. Huh? Mice? What’re mice doing in my mecha? Not the furry li’l cheese-eaters, I’m talking about Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient – Milieu, Idea, Character, Event, and the idea of analyzing the balance between them.

According to Card in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, all stories have MICE but in varying proportions. Speculative fiction tends to be heavy on Milieu and Idea, and sometimes Event, since that’s where most of the speculativeness will lie. And here’s the disconnect between the classically educated film critic vs. the sci-fi fan: your typical professional critic is oriented toward mainstream fiction, which is biased much more heavily toward Character. When I asked wifey to see the movie with me, we noted that there’d been some negative reviews; I dismissed them, though, because the reviews that provided more meaningful info for this particular movie – the scifi and gamer blogosphere – were generally positive. (That, and Eddie Boy Escudero, a photographer whose eye I admire very much, was raving about the visuals on FB).

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The trick in speculative fiction is to get the MICE balance right, specially with Character. Too little, and we’ve no way into the story, no one to relate to and carry our viewpoint. Too much, and we’ve got soap opera, the surest way to bore a scifi geek. So what del Toro and Beacham did, painting Pacific Rim’s characters in very broad, light strokes, worked very well for the movie because in the scheme of things, M, I and E were very heavy in the story.

I’m speculating on how the writers put Pacific Rim together, but I’ll stake tomorrow morning’s coffee (which is a necessity for continued life and the world’s survival!) that Event and Idea came to them first: what if Earth was invaded by giant honking monsters, and what if the only way to fight them was with giant robots? ‘Casting’ the characters was then a matter of thinking up what went well with these initial givens.

The movie being very much a homage, the templates were already to be found in 70s robot anime: the suffering hero, the hotshot bastard who proves a true samurai in the end, the commander doomed to lead a suicide attack, the super capable ninja babe. Having put it that way, I’m sure you can imagine how badly a lesser director could’ve botched this!

Instead, like skilled sushi chefs, del Toro and Beacham seasoned their mix with a very light hand, letting the quality of the ingredients shine true. As wifey noted, it worked even if you didn’t realize it was a homage, and it works even better when you do. Mako Mori, as played by Rinko Kikuchi came out as very believable and interesting – badass but vulnerable, and with definitely more role in the story than token romantic interest. If the character hadn’t been cast as female, they’d still have needed to fill Mako’s role.

PACIFIC RIM

And when you have Ron Perlman pimped out as a Hong Kong crime boss, you got all the character you need … This guy practically stole the show, all the more effectively for me because I somehow missed that he was in the cast, so his appearance on screen was a total surprise. As Hannibal Chau, black market dealer in kaiju parts, he also made the Milieu of the movie feel much more solid – and was an amusing dig at the Chinese talent for finding pharmacological uses for anything that moves.

So there you have it – E = kaiju invasion, I = jaeger tech, C = anime archetypes successfully reloaded, M = near future Earth and a Hong Kong that feels like Hong Kong. Of course, these were not my thoughts during the movie: those were more like OH, YEAH! BAM! POW! YEAH!

July 23, 2013

Anito Dice and Magic

Eureka! The price for casting spells in Hari Ragat is paid for in Bala and/or Anito Dice. Different levels of power will have a commensurate cost, which the shaman must pay either in her personal spiritual energy (Bala), or with temporary favor won from the ancestors (Anito Dice).

Since Bala is also your ‘hit points,’ I imagine most shaman players will prefer to tap Anito Dice first.  An unintended twist which I now find very appropriate is that Anito Dice are a group resource, which changes how players of shamans can get magic.  To let the shaman work more powerful magic, the group will have to agree to give up a measure of individual power.

I think this will have two – no, three! - beneficial effects for gameplay.  First, it limits magic because all players are competing for the same resource.  Second, it encourages the shaman’s player to think of ways to earn more Anito Dice, thus encouraging roleplaying and immersion in the milieu. Third and I think best of all, it makes the whole group more invested in the shaman’s use of magic.  The shaman’s player will feel validated by the group’s decision to let her use more Anito Dice – it’s like the whole group telling you, ‘yeah, we think what you’re planning to do is cool, we’re all behind you.’

At least I hope it’ll work out that way … :-)

Eldworld Saga: a High Fantasy Concept

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A long long time ago, a desperate band of refugees from Medieval Europe’s ceaseless wars fled into an ancient forest, and through it into the Eldworld, the realm of the Fey. There they made a bargain with the Erlking, who allowed them to found the kingdom of Arthleon in exchange for their giving up the use of iron which was deadly and repellent to the Fey and promising to obey Fey customs.

There followed a long era of peace and prosperity, with Arthleon burgeoning into a magnificence never seen on Earth. Many Arthleonese intermarried with the Fey, and through the admixture of Fey blood gained the power to work magic. But then more humans invaded the Eldworld, hardbitten mercenaries looking to found their own realms, and they began carving dominions for themselves with the power of cold iron. These became the Iron Dukes, and there was war between them, Arthleon and the Fey. And in a grievous disaster, an Iron Duchies patrol recently chanced upon the Erlking while he was hunting, and slew him with an iron lance.

Now the Fey are leaderless and angry, with many of their lords recalling their ancient hatred of man. Arthleon stands without its old friend the Erlking, and the Iron Dukes are once again preparing for war. Arthleon needs heroes. Will you be one of them?


I’m thinking of developing this into a ‘small’ RPG, one that runs less than a 100 pages, for PDF release. Funny how while working on one thing (Hari Ragat) my brain keeps interrupting itself with other ideas …

July 22, 2013

Lost Empires Magic

I just downloaded the Lost Empires beta and I’m finding myself enamored of its magic system. It’s a spell-point system at its core, but to my mind one done right – it looks like it’s almost painless in play, with very simple tracking.

All mages have a mana point pool. Various spells are rated in terms of dice they take from your mana pool, rather like Life Force in Pendragon 4e. A weak spell may be rated d4, while really powerful ones may be d20. There are no level limits for what you can cast; if you want to risk casting a d20 spell at first level, go ahead! The downside, however, is that whatever you roll in excess of your mana is taken as hit point damage. Yup, dangerous.

What’s even better, I think this magic system can be grafted onto almost any version of D&D or its clones with ease. Hello dangerous, sword-and-sorcery style magic!

July 21, 2013

Track of the Wolfhound

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I’ve finally gotten to see the Russian fantasy flick Wolfhound, after a long time of searching for a DVD. I first heard of this movie on another gamer’s blog, and was intrigued enough to start hunting for a copy. Verdict: the search was worth it.

The story is very familiar territory for fans of classic sword and sorcery, with a beginning very reminiscent of the 1980’s Conan the Barbarian: The young Wolfhound is the son of a smith who is slain in a village massacre along with his wife and all his people, and Wolfhound himself is dragged off into slavery. 

The movie picks up his story again as a grown man, sneaking into a castle with the apparent intent of assassinating someone. It turns out that this man was indeed The Maneater, one of the leaders of the raid, and Wolfhound takes him down in one glorious rough and tumble fight.

From there Wolfhound winds up guarding a caravan that is secretly bringing Princess Elen home to her city of Galirad, which is under a curse of perpetual winter. There he discovers that they have a common enemy in Zhadoba, a warrior-sorcerer who aims to awaken the dark goddess Moranna. Wolfhound takes the opportunity to confront his enemy by becoming Princess Elen’s bodyguard. The rest, as I said, is familiar territory for sword and sorcery fans.

Wolfhound 8

Despite that familiarity of plot, I found this movie a refreshing take on fantasy. The character of Wolfhound is interestingly quirky, and differs from your standard S&S barbarian hero in some major points. Though quickly established as a formidable warrior, he’s injured almost to death several times. He’s also got a surprisingly humble touch of chivalry, as after rescuing Elen he gives her up to her betrothed Prince Vinitar despite being in love with her (and knowing she returns the feeling). He’s also got a quirky companion in a bat he calls Torn Wing, who seems to be more than just a bat.

The setting, replete with touches from Slavic myth and filmed on location in the majestic landscapes of Slovakia, is also refreshing. Were I a superstitious Iron Age peasant, I’d definitely need my vodka to get any sleep in those haunting, brooding forests! The wintry visuals of cursed Galirad, the forests, foggy mountains and marshes really transport you to a different place and time.

Then there’s the uniquely Russian touches: Elen has a woman warrior, Ertan, as another bodyguard, and she is armed and armored like a Central Asian. (Ertan is the woman to the right of the blonde Elen). The raiders who strike Wolfhound’s home village are mostly mounted archers.  It’s a reminder that to a Russian, the word ‘barbarian’ will conjure not images of Vikings and Celts, but of nomad raiders from the steppes. Costumes and armor styles are also interesting, showing an interesting blend of Nordic and Central Asian in style.

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The Wikipedia article on this movie erroneously describes it as High Fantasy, but it’s definitely not. It is more of a mythical Low Fantasy, with magic pretty low-key throughout, but very grounded in a pagan religion. When Wolfhound and the Princess are surrounded in the ruins of an ancient temple, Elen summons supernatural aid by slicing her forearm and dripping her blood on the altar stone. Wolfhound himself is guarded by the gentle mother goddess Kendarat, who heals him from mortal injuries more than once. I think this hero-returning-from-death-to-destiny thing is an element taken from the old Russian bylina epics. (BTW check out Jared Sorenson’s Bylina and Bogatyr, a free RPG based on Russian myths.)

Wolfhound also departs from traditional S&S in not relying on ‘blood and bewbs’ for visual appeal. There’s surprisingly little gore in it, though the film’s fight scenes are frenetic and very physical, and there are only two scenes with nudity, neither very long nor exposing much. Actress Oksana Akinshina’s fresh, innocent beauty is something we can enjoy without her having to take her clothes off! Instead the movie relies on that good old device Hollywood might want to relearn – a simple story powerfully told.

The movie was based on the first of a series of fantasy novels by Maria Semyonova.  According to the Wikipedia entry on her, she wrote a fantasy novel based exclusively on Russian mythology because ‘why do you prefer the chewed-out Tolkien-esque sandwich while our richest native tradition stays forgotten?’ Now I’m wondering if I can ever track down English versions of those books!

July 20, 2013

Hari Ragat: PC Questionnaire

I’ve been thinking about my character creation system for Hari Ragat, and how I want it to focus the player more on the experience of being an epic hero in a tribal community. The quickstart version I was running for the playtests relied on random rolls, which could give really funny results, but leave some players shafted.

On the other hand, I’m not totally comfortable allowing players completely freeform choices in this, since most would still be unfamiliar with the milieu. I also want character hooks to be links to the setting, and suitably epic in flavor; that’s why I’m renaming them Ties, and making sure to exclude phobias and neuroses. So I’ve thought of doing this as a simple 5-point questionnaire:

1) The spirits of your ancestors have given you a task: what is it?

2) Someone owes you a favor: who is that person, and what is the favor? Why does that person owe you? The favor is major, but can only be called on once.

3) You owe someone a favor or restitution: who is that person, and what is the price? Why do you owe that person? The favor is a major one, and may be called on at any time, but only once. Or this could be an unpaid debt of some sort.

4) You have a grievance against someone: who is it, and what is the issue? Personal or family honor is at stake.

5) Someone has a grievance against you: who is it, and what is the issue? Personal or family honor is at stake.

6) Option: you may replace any one of the five items above with another kind of Tie – a rivalry, a romantic connection, etc. etc.

You are free to invent characters and locations as needed for your answers to these questions. Each item is a Tie to someone or something or somewhere in the Hari Ragat setting. You may choose to have Ties from among NPCs and PCs within the home community provided by the GM, or to NPCs from outside.

Ties to characters within the community can be beneficial – I suspect a lot of players will choose to have the ruler or shaman as the one who owes them a favor! Tensions within the community are also good for roleplaying. And Ties outside are of course leads to adventure!

Hopefully, the result of this questionnaire will be characters that come pre-loaded with story hooks for both player and GM to follow. The GM will only have to run the game, since every player will be trying to forward their own story.

July 4, 2013

Hari Ragat: Group Renown

Caught a bug of some sort and was down for most of the past two weeks, but finally recovering. Back to crafting Hari Ragat! One of the issues that surfaced during the playtests was that of some characters lucking out with much more Renown gain than others, and thus advancing much faster.

I’ve come up with a workaround that still lets me award individual Renown based on exploits such as making the first kill in a battle, or landing the finishing blow on a monster; you get individual Renown, but advancement is now based on Average Group Renown (AGR).  Simply, I add the Renown of all PCs and divide by the number  of PCs, and compare that to a table – you get advancement points every time AGR hits a multiple of 10.

While this still allows players to compete with each other for Renown, in the long run it should encourage cooperation: having a laggard in Renown gain will slow down advancement for the leaders, so it’s in your long-term interest to help your comrades gain Renown for themselves too.

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