November 29, 2016

Of Battle Cats and Saddle Birds

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One of the coolest ways to say ‘You’re not in Kansas anymore’ is to have flying mounts in your world. Or if not a flying mount, some bad-ass horse-alternative like a giant flightless bird, or giant canine, or even a giant feline; in short, badass often means carnivore.

Done carelessly though, this can shoot a conworld’s believability full of holes. Let’s leave the questions of gravity and aeronautics aside for now, but focus instead on the factor that has the greatest impact on the rest of the setting; fuel. What does your big, badass, carnivorous, maybe flying mount eat? How much, and how often? And where do you get it?

An animal large and strong enough to carry a human in flight is certain to require lots of food. If it’s a carnivore, it needs a lot of meat; if a herbivore, it needs a lot of fodder, an even greater mass of it since plant matter contains a lower calorie concentration than meat. There’s also the issue of a herbivorous digestion requiring a larger stomach or constant feeding, or both. It’s why a cow spends more time eating than a tiger does.

Carnivorousness creates another problem: territoriality. Eagles, which weigh far less than a dog and would have difficulty carrying even a small child any distance, require huge hunting ranges just to feed themselves. This makes them highly territorial, and thus, rather antisocial among their own kind. How can we then keep giant eagles or the like in a stable?

In Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, the pastoral economy of Pern revolves around providing the dragon-weyrs with a tribute of livestock. The dragonriders are few, but their mounts consume a large proportion of their world’s food production. The weyrs’ requirements are so high, that in Dragonriders of Pern one of the lord holders threatens to rebel against the system.

In James Cameron’s Avatar, the Na’Vi tame giant raptors for hunting. Their entire planet is a jungle, and the Na’Vi are few, so as long as they keep their planet a jungle, there will be enough meat to go around. Avatar also offers a solution to the eagles-in-a-stable conundrum: the mountain banshees nest in rookeries like seabirds. They’re already social by nature, despite their carnivorousness.

In S.M. Stirling’s In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, a few elite Martians keep stables of genetically engineered giant eagles, Paiteng. At first I found this really odd by the lights of the setting – how do you get enough feed on a  dying planet? But then you remember that the Martians are master biotechnologists, and their main source of meat is renewable; their domesticated, or rather genetically engineered Rooz bird grows a neck-flap of meat that regrows after harvesting. The Paiteng are very few, reserved only for the elites. As for their territoriality, again they’ve likely been genetically engineered to be social.

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel offers a very valuable insight for world-builders in the section where he compares animal domestication patterns worldwide. Why, of all the animals large enough to carry a human being, did the horse end up our main carrier by such a huge margin? Diamond cites a host of factors that all came together in the horse that were lacking in other ungulates, even in its close relatives the zebra and the wild ass.

The horse had just the right mix of anatomical build, sociability and disposition, genetics (which allowed the development of different breeds for different purposes), dietary requirements, hardiness and adaptability to suit our needs. Zebras, donkeys, antelope, the South American camelids, buffaloes and oxen did not. Charles Saunders’ vision of African tribal cavalry on Cape Buffalos kicks ass, but it’s very unlikely; the Cape Buffalo is simply too badass to be tamed that way.

Finding the right balance between Rule of Cool and plausibility is always a challenge. I’m currently mulling over a new sword-and-planet novel, and yes, I want flying mounts in it; but coming up with a believable premise that hasn’t been done before is not easy.

Giant, social flying piscivores won’t work because the setting is a desert planet. The genetic engineering/advanced biotech angle doesn’t work for me either, because the setting is post-apocalyptic. That environmental premise also knocks out the Avatar-style notion that there’s simply enough to be hunted.

I think I have my idea down for the terrestrial riding animal though: A fleet desert-dweller, warm-blooded dinosauroid, lives in small herds, scratches insects and roots from the desert floor with its big foreclaws rather like a meerkat. Rears up into bipedal stance to fight with those same claws, thus battle mounts are fitted with thoracic armor.

Since I’ve a fascination with Asian history and war elephants, I couldn’t resist coming up with a giant-size war beast: A big ape-like creature, normally walks on four limbs but switches to bipedal mode to fight. Its hands are often armored in steel, because its favorite attack is to smash down with doubled fists, a la the Hulk. In sieges, it throws big stones and tears gates from their hinges. A living tank, catapult, and wrecking machine all in one … and yes, it’s a herbivore because otherwise it’d be too much to feed.

PS. I started writing meaning to say something about Tolkien’s wargs and He-Man’s Battle Cat, but I guess I said all I needed to about predators as riding animals already.

November 6, 2016

Hari Ragat Art Previewed in Wellington NZ!

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Thanks to Ambassador Jesus Gary Domingo, Philippine envoy to New Zealand, for including Hari Ragat art posters in his recent Diwata-themed exhibit at the Pistang Pilipino in Wellington!

Some of you may have been wondering if I’m dead. I’m not, heh. But a bad back has kept me from writing at all the past few weeks, so progress on readying Hari Ragat for release has slowed.

September 19, 2016

The Shield from Across the Sea

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Round shields are far less common in the Philippines, most tribes from back to the arrival of the Spaniards being recorded as carrying the tall, narrow kalasag instead. The round shield is called Tamin in parts of Mindanao, but elsewhere it is also known as Palisay.

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Now I’d always thought that Palisay was a local word, until while browsing an article on Sinhalese arms and armor I came across a very surprising detail: they called their round shields Palisa. Further research revealed a bunch of other very similar names: Phari in Northern India, Paliha in South India, Perisai in Sumatra. They all referred to a round shield, often of wicker, with a central boss; as one goes south, additional bosses are added around the center to form the pattern you see at top.

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I’ve seen shields both with and without the bosses here. The boss-less shields are usually of carved wood coming from the Sulu and Maguindanao areas. There are also wicker ones, both with and without brass bosses; and a few entirely of brass, with very ornamental bosses in the form of six- or eight-pointed stars, or other symmetrical polygons often seen in Islamic art.

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I think this gives a clue as to where the Palisa came from. The word itself is very likely Indian, given the spread of the term across various Indian languages down to Ceylon. The predominance of Islamic motifs and the almost exclusive use by Muslim tribes tells me the most likely source of this shield design: it came from our west, that is across the Indian Ocean, brought by Indian and Arab traders, likely adopted in Malacca, and from there to Mindanao.

September 8, 2016

Beer-Braised Chicken

It’s been a while since I posted a fire-n-forget cooking recipe, but tonight’s dinner reminded me that it was perfect for this topic. The whole point of this ongoing series is to give gamers who like to cook something quick and easy to make for game night, and what could be easier than dicing a few ingredients and popping them into an oven?

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2kg chicken, preferably thighs
  • 1/2 can strong-ish beer (pilsen)
  • 1 medium red onion
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 2-3 tomatoes
  • bay leaf
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • chili powder, to taste
  • 2-3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

PROCEDURE

Combine brown sugar and seasonings with all the liquid ingredients. Arrange the chicken in a deep baking dish and pour the mixture over it. Mix well; if you have the time, it’ll be good to let the chicken marinade in this for about an hour. I didn’t, but it still turned out good.

Bake at 240-250 C for 45 minutes. Serves 3-4 people, just multiply the recipe as needed for your group. And remember, whenever you cook with beer you’ll get the best results by pouring half into the cook.

July 7, 2016

The Greatness of David Gemmell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Original French blog post for the link above.

July 6, 2016

Living Arrows of the Sea

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

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


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

July 5, 2016

Ottoman Origin of Philippine Mail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 4, 2016

The Strangler Fig (Balete)

The Balete Tree of Samal Island

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

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

July 3, 2016

Your Spirit is Loaded!

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

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

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

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

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

July 1, 2016

Handling Poisons in Hari Ragat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 29, 2016

Mythic Archaeology for Hari Ragat

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

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

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

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

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

June 28, 2016

Epic-Heroic Scenario Guide

Since most potential players/GMs for Hari Ragat will already know Greek mythology, likely much better than they’d know Philippine mythology or epics, I’ve come up with a scheme for adventure design based on Classical heroes. Namely, we can model adventures on Hercules, Achilles, or Odysseus.

Herculean Adventures
Herculean adventures revolve around dealing with the monsters, spirits and gods of the wild. They involve exploration, epic monster hunts, battles with giants and dragons, and taming the enchanted wilderness to make it safe for mankind. Some sample scenarios:

  1. Village children have disappeared; who or what took them?
  2. A giant is ravaging the countryside, or demanding a ruinous tribute
  3. The Diwatas are angry and have sent a pestilence on the land
  4. Fishermen report something huge has been attacking their boats
  5. There has been a rash of merman raids along the coast; why?
  6. The heroes are given a chance to establish a new colony; they must lead the exploration and clearing of the new land

Achillean Adventures
Achillean adventures revolve around war and vengeance. The heroes are out to win glory in either hit and run raids or epic pitched battles, seeking out enemy champions to duel and vying with each other in performing crazy Heroic Displays to win Ancestral Favor in the midst of combat. Some sample scenarios:

  1. Tulisan bandits have been raiding the farms
  2. Guests from a neighboring kingdom commit treachery during a feast
  3. A royal wife or daughter has been kidnapped; this means war!
  4. A long-running blood feud is finally coming to a catastrophic climax
  5. An enemy has questioned or impugned a hero’s honor
  6. The ancestors demand for an ancient crime to be avenged

Odyssean Adventures
Odyssean adventures revolve around voyaging and exploring a wider world as heroic chieftains or kings. These adventures can have a very interesting mix of scenarios from sailing and survival at sea to fighting monsters to contests of courtesy and epic largesse at the exotic courts of various kings. Some sample scenarios:

  1. The heroes are invited to the courtship tournament of a famous binokot maiden
  2. The heroes are tasked with a sensitive diplomatic mission to a distant kingdom
  3. The heroes are offered a lucrative opportunity for a trading expedition
  4. The heroes learn that an enemy town will be unguarded as its chiefs sail off to another war
  5. The heroes get shipwrecked on an island ruled by a malevolent or eccentric Diwata
  6. The heroes anger a god after a successful raid; now they’ve got problems getting home with the loot

June 27, 2016

Grounding Hari Ragat NPCs

A Datu or Rajah character from the Amaya TV series

One of the ways a Hari Ragat GM can make an NPC come alive and give the players more ‘handles’ for actions and interactions is to give them interesting Ties. This is specially true if the NPC is of high status, which is to be expected from an epic-heroic kind of game. Such persons should be well-connected, with well-defined allies and enemies, so that their interactions with the PCs will have repercussions the way an orb-weaver’s web vibrates with every fly that gets into it.

With that in mind, this is my [draft] writeup for a Rajah NPC:

Here is a more or less typical Rajah opponent, a hero in his own right and by virtue of his ancestry, claimant to the throne of Hari Ragat. He is clad in brass mail-and plate-armor over rich silken clothes and a plumed brass helm, and carries two spears, a Kalasag shield, and kris. He commands a personal squadron of three Karakoas.

Vijadesan Rajah 6/8/28; Cunning Statesman, Tattoos of Sovereignty, Tattoos of Poison Resistance, Ancestor: Rajah Marawid; Vassal — Datu Sumanga of Balayan; Vassal — Datu Dailisan of Balayan; Reluctant Tributary — Lakan Tupas of Mancalon; Feud with the Bangkawils of Balayan; Renown Rank – Rajah

I don’t know who Sumanga, Dailisan and Tupas are yet, nor will I bother writing them up; instead I’ll let every GM make that up for himself. What’s important is this Rajah has other chiefs bound to him, that he’s got a potentially problematic underling, and an outright feud. And he’s in position to gun for the high kingship!

June 26, 2016

How Five Dragons Became Eight

In the Hari Ragat setting there is a powerful empire to the north of the Janggalan Isles with which the Vijadesans, the player characters’ people, trade with. I was originally going to name this the Tien Xia Empire, but got beaten to the punch by Vigilance Press’ Tianxia kung-fu RPG.

So my next idea was to name this the Five Dragon River Empire, and got Philgamer Jay Anyong’s help to translate. This translates to something like “Go Long Jiang” – and “Go Long” sounds too much like the Tagalog word for tires. I’d have too many of my players giggling over the name!

The next Chinese-y number that came to mind was eight, Wu, so this empire got named Wulongjiang, “Eight Dragon River [Empire].”

June 23, 2016

Using Your Followers in Hari Ragat

Scene from the Amaya TV series

Player characters in Hari Ragat can have followers, in the form of Dulohan points. These are some of the interesting things you can do in combat with your Dulohan:

Fan Out
By having your followers fan out and surround your foe, you gain Advantage to fight that foe. Your followers spread out and menace the foe with their spears and hem him in with their shields. However, it’s up to your hero to take the risk of actually going for the kill.

Fight Harder
You can Push a combat roll you have already won or tied by spending Dulohan points to redouble your assault, with your followers taking exhaustion and casualties as they fight more aggressively.

Shield of Blood
You can Push a combat roll you have lost by spending Dulohan points to represent your followers doing their utmost to save you, taking casualties and morale loss in the effort. This can be used in combination with Fight Harder, by spending enough Dulohan to turn a lost roll into a victory.

Close Ranks
You order your followers to close up with you, lending you and each other greater protection from their shields. This lets you claim Advantage to resist enemy attack, whether melee or ranged. However, it’s harder to move around while huddled together like this so while in Close Ranks you are at a Disadvantage to any contests of movement.

June 22, 2016

Preview: Trading Expeditions for Hari Ragat

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Trading expeditions can make for interesting adventures, having a good mix of role-playing, combat and survival challenges. Setting out in small and rather fragile ships, the heroes must brave storms, pirates, sea monsters and greedy local rulers to trade their goods for treasure. Trade is handled very simply in this game, with minimal bookkeeping so you can focus on the adventure aspect.

Trade Opportunities
Trade opportunities rise from a constant demand for certain items in certain places, or from a temporary shortage of an otherwise common item somewhere. Exotic marine and forest products are in high demand wherever foreign merchants call. Locusts, typhoons and even the raids of giants may cause a rice shortage somewhere.

You can find out about trade opportunities by talking to travelers; this is a good reason to hang out at the Datu’s hall and join the conversation when he has guests. As a rule the best opportunities are on other islands — the farther they are, the less likely that they also have your trade goods. There may also be good opportunities inland, necessitating voyages upriver or trekking into the mountains.

Trade Returns
A trade opportunity is given in terms of a return rate for an item at a certain place: X Wealth points for Y item, at place Z.

For example, the GM may declare that “Pearls bring a 3:1 rate in Penjan.” This means for every Wealth point worth of pearls you bring to Penjan, you may bring back 3 Wealth.

This gives you the feel of actually doing trade without having to go into detailed and onerous bookkeeping.

Bargaining
Successful bargaining with a buyer can raise your profits, while bungling negotiations can lower them.

Continuing our example, Lawin-laut as the most experienced traveler does the negotiations. He asks for a 4:1 rate on their pearls, but his buyer, a canny Wu Long merchant, angrily insists on 2:1. A contest is rolled, but with Dimasalang and Hagibis scowling fearsomely at the Wu Long merchant, Lawin-laut gets enough Advantage to win the contest. The merchant reluctantly pays a 4:1 rate for the pearls.

Natural Wonders in Hari Ragat

Indangan Falls, also known as Hidden Falls, one of the little-known natural wonders of Cotabato province.

Impressive natural spots, often charged with spiritual power, add fame and beauty to your settlement, and may even yield income if they become pilgrimage sites. Many of them will have their own spirit guardians, often a Diwata. Some Diwata may ‘own’more than one wondrous site. Some possible wonders you may find while exploring include:

Visitation Peak
Some of the most majestic mountain peaks are habitually visited by gods. One god may favor particular mountains, or some peaks may host periodic gatherings of deities. These peaks should never be trespassed upon lest misfortune befall; on the other hand, this is one of the few means a Vijadesan hero might get to speak with the higher gods.

Pygmy Forest
This fog-bound, high-altitude forest consists entirely of trees and other flora at only a fraction of their normal size outside. Amongst them grow ferns, mosses and fungi found nowhere else in the world, and which may have unique magical properties.

Colossal Caverns
These huge caves are filled with the most impressive and otherworldly rock formations, and its depths practically reverberate with strong magic. They are the kinds of caves favored for royal burials, for the training and testing of new shamans, and for making offerings to the spirits of the earth and hidden places. Caves on the coast may have water-level mouths so big that warships can be rowed in — making it a great secret base site. Sea caves may already be occupied by pirates.

Hidden Valley
This beautiful valley has a well-hidden entrance; perhaps over a high and hidden mountain pass, or through a tunnel, or behind a curtain-like waterfall. Within is a natural paradise of lush, primeval growth, and the animals here, never having been hunted before, are unafraid of and even friendly to man. This could be a ‘navel of the earth,’ the source of the surrounding area’s fertility of plant life and game. What will you do with such riches?

Anthropomorphic Formation
Mountainsides, peaks and cliffs may suggest the face or body of a human being. Such anthropomorphic formations are signs that either a powerful Diwata or Tarabusaw dwells nearby. Formations of black basalt, or that have scowling or snarling features, almost always indicate Tarabusaw presence.

June 14, 2016

Player Roadmap for Hari Ragat

"What should my character be doing?"

Hari Ragat encourages proactive play, which means player characters can and should look out for themselves and act on their own agendas. If you're new to the game and the culture it's based on, though, you may want a sort of roadmap to get your character started in an interesting direction. So what should be in your agenda?

- You should be seeking adventures that you can boast about later. Accumulating such boasting points is how your character advances. The harder the adventure is for you, the bigger a boasting point it will be if you win.

- You should be seeking means to increase your character's resources, specially your wealth and your trove of ritual treasures, your Bahandi.

- You should be seeking to make or change Ties that will aid your character. Making friends and allies, making peace with (some) enemies, getting married, getting on good terms with the spirits, will all help your character grow in the world.

- You should be seeking to gain good Reputations for your character, and to erase your bad ones if you have any.

- During the adventure, you should be seeking for ways to gain the favor of the ancestor spirits for your group, because it's Ancestral Favor that powers your craziest, most epic-heroic stunts.

Note that I said seeking. That's because you're free to say to your Game Master, "Hey, I wanna do this." And if the other players like it, that's your adventure for the evening! Did you say you wanted to explore an uncharted island nobody's ever returned from? Sure! Want to find a bride or husband for your character? Go! Want to gather your hometown's young hotbloods to go a-pirating in enemy waters? I did say Hari Ragat is basically a game of playing Southeast Asian Vikings before, so yeah!

But what if the other players voted to do another adventure instead of the one you proposed? No problem. You've got a lot of possible goals from the start, so if you can't work on one on this adventure, you can find a way to work on another as part of the adventure. Feel free to suggest details for your friend's adventure that will test and reward your character. We've got a mechanic for that.

As for the rest – let the GM worry about it!

May 11, 2016

Shapeshifting in Sword and Sorcery Games

It's been a long time since I posted here, lot of changes going on. I'm alive, though, and still interested in gaming.

I just wanted to share a random thought that struck me out of the blue. Shapechanging magic, and the way it should work in a sword and sorcery milieu. One of the core elements of sword and sorcery is the tinge of horror that should surround magic, so a high-fantasy, or worse, a pseudo-scientific approach to shapeshifting magic puts my immersion in the genre off. But what if we posited a more shamanistic way of thinking about shapeshifting and gave it a bit of metaphysical horror?

The basis of shapeshifting magic in my scheme is that you 'borrow' a form from a spirit; want to assume wolf form, you need to deal with a wolf spirit, a mouse form requires a mouse spirit, and so on.

There's an innate danger to shapeshifting, though, that works like an addiction. I call it the 'seduction of the wild.' Turning into a flying form seduces you with the freedom and power of flight. Turning into a tiny, easily hidden form seduces you with freedom and secrecy. And most of all, turning into a big, powerful form like a wolf or bear or even worse, something as badass as a dragon, simply intoxicates the soul with sheer power. The effect of this intoxication, if uncontrolled, is that you forget your humanity.

Should this happen, you can no longer return to your original form unless reminded of your humanity somehow. Moreover your shapeshifted character gradually becomes incapable of human thinking, until recovery, or even the desire for recovery, is impossible. This makes beast magic very dangerous to the caster, as it should be.

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