September 30, 2010

Hari Ragat: Sorcerers & Taint

I’m still wrestling with the specifics of how Taint is acquired and recorded in Hari Ragat, but now there’s another thing I want to do with it: use it as fuel for sorcery.

I’m particularly fascinated by the ideas of the mambabarang, a sorcerer who can magically implant insects in the bodies of his victims, and the dukun, who in some stories can create necromantic servants called toyol out of dead fetuses.

The idea of the evil sorcerer in Hari Ragat is that this is a person who deliberately engages in spiritually polluting acts to gain power.  The more Tainted he is, the greater the Taint he can spread in the world, which in turn gains him more power in society through fear.

Just how this is going to work, I’m not quite sure yet. It may get confusing to keep track of Baraka and Taint separately. Hm, the devil is really in the details ….

September 28, 2010

Hari Ragat: Gods & Religion

The Vijadesan people practice a henotheistic religion so ancient and pervasive it has no name.  The entities venerated in this religion fall into three broad classes: the gods or Batarahs, the Diwatas who are guardians of nature, and the ancestral Anito spirits.  In addition, the Vijadesans hold certain animals to be of divine nature and look to them for omens.


The Vijadesans recognize fifteen Batarahs:

  1. Aman Bathala, the Creator, god of fate and the law

  2. Inang Silangan, goddess of the sun and the dawn, wife of Aman Bathala, mother of many  gods

  3. Apu Laut, god of the seas and marine life, eldest son of Aman Bathala

  4. Tala, goddess of the stars, wife of Apu Laut

  5. Maragayon, god of iron-working and warriors, god of men’s dances, son of Aman Bathala

  6. Lakapati, goddess of farming, wife of Maragayon, god of women’s dances, daughter of Aman Bathala

  7. Mayari, goddess of the moon, the tides, and passions, and thus of poetry and music as well, daughter of Apu Laut

  8. Lalahon, temperamental goddess of volcanoes and earthquakes, daughter of Aman Bathala

  9. Amihan, god of the dry eastern monsoon, friend of sailors, son of Apu Laut

  10. Habagat, god of the wet and stormy western monsoon, feared by sailors  but invoked by farmers to bring rain, son of Apu Laut

  11. Amansinaya, god of boatbuilding and navigation, son of Apu Laut

  12. Tulus, god of wild beasts and hunting, son of Aman Bathala

  13. Irawan, god of crafts and trade, god of cockfighting, son of Aman Bathala

  14. Anumati, goddess of weaving and the household arts, wife of Irawan, daughter of Aman Bathala

  15. Galura, a divine bird that is part rooster, part eagle, who serves as messenger to all other gods and is also the god of thunder and lightning; created by Aman Bathala

The Batarahs are honored with periodic offerings of fruit, grain, flowers, and on special occasions, the sacrifice of a large animal such as a pig or buffalo.  Other religious observances include animal fights – fights between bulls, horses, and roosters being especially popular – and the singing of epic verses.

Aside from their own holy days, various gods may be offered to when setting out on a long journey, building and dedicating a house, and during rites of passage such as birth, coming of age, marriage and funerals. For example, a smith will always offer to Maragayon before starting to forge a new sword, and perhaps to Irawan as well to help him make the sword a work of fitting beauty.


The Diwatas are a broad class of nature spirits, some of them powerful enough to be considered minor gods.  Each Diwata is believed to claim some natural feature or locale as their territory; there are Diwatas for each mountain, river, and lake, and many lesser Diwatas who hold only a single tree or pool as their domain.

All are highly mercurial, quick to punish with terrible curses when slighted, but equally ready to lavish extravagant rewards when pleased.  It is customary to offer to the Diwatas of a place when entering its territory, or when it is believed a Diwata has been offended; the offering may be as simple as a flower found by the wayside, while placatory offerings may consist of chickens, goats, hogs or cattle, even on occasion the life of the offender.


Virtuous people are said to become Anito spirits when they die, and every family venerates its own line of ancestral Anitos.  Anitos have a limited power to protect their living descendants, usually by blessing them with a little extra luck, and at times giving warning of disaster through animal omens and messengers. 

Reverence for the Anitos is shown by proper respect for family elders, and periodic offerings of food and drink during festivals.  Whenever a Vijadesan household throws a feast, a table of food and wine is set aside for the family’s anitos, and it is widely believed that should the table be upset or any of the offerings spilled, misfortune will follow.

Sacred Animals

  1. Gamecocks: gamecocks are the children of Galura, and the symbol of manly courage; killing a gamecock for food is bad luck, and slighting or injuring another man’s gamecock is considered a mortal insult.

  2. White Animal: any specimen of animal born white, where the species is not naturally white, is considered blessed by the spirits or may even be a spirit or Diwata in disguise.  This is specially true of white deer and boar.  It is considered bad luck to harm a white wild animal, and good luck to keep a white domestic animal, e.g. a white buffalo, a white rooster, etc. etc.  On the other hand, the  gods favor white animals as sacrifices.

  3. Hornbills: considered a symbol of matrimonial fidelity, the presence of a hornbill couple near a house is thought to signify a blessed union, while the killing of a hornbill will likely result in a spouse’s infidelity or a seduction attempt on her/him by a stranger.  Hornbills are also considered protectors of the community, so it is very bad luck to kill one.

  4. Limokon doves: these blue doves are considered messengers from Aman Bathala, giving omens by their calls and flight.  If on setting forth to a voyage or war you hear the limokon call on your right, or see one fly from your right to your left, fate will be in your favor; but should the reverse happen, your luck will be bad.

  5. Eagles: all eagles, but most specially the great sea eagles and giant forest eagles are sacred to Aman Bathala, as they are his watchers over the earth.  Killing an eagle or bringing harm to an eagle’s nest will bring serious misfortune.

  6. Black moths: Anitos, especially those of the newly dead,  sometimes take the form of a black moth that flutters around as if lost.  Harming it offends the ancestor spirits, who see the act as a sign of disrespect.  If a black moth lands on a person, that person is believed to be doomed to die within the year.

  7. Crocodile: the Vijadesans have a love-hate relationship with the savage saltwater crocodile.  It is said that crocodiles are reincarnations of the vengeful dead, so any adult victim of a crocodile is held to have been justly killed. 

    On the other hand, Vijadesans are infuriated when a child is taken by a crocodile because the spirit in the crocodile has descended to making war on innocent children. Because killing a crocodile is sure to anger the spirits of the dead, crocodile hunts are bookended by ceremonies and sacrifices to appease the spirits.

    Some families and tribes simply hold crocodiles sacred and venerate them, even making them offerings.  Strangely enough, these locales rarely ever suffer crocodile attacks.

Hari Ragat: A Warrior’s Assets

I’ll be maximizing the Assets mechanic to help detail characters in Hari Ragat.  I’ll also have to categorize the Asset types.

Asset Types

While other Assets are possible, I’ll focus on the following as the Asset types that best reinforce the flavor of the setting.

The size and quality of a hero’s following is indicated by his Retinue rating.  A hero’s Retinue follows him into raids and battles, and sometimes into hunts.

Your character’s Retinue can soak damage for you – e.g., a brave warrior takes the spear meant for your guts – but this costs you a permanent reduction to the Retinue rating. Your Retinue also acts as a unit in battle, capable of making attacks on its own or under your character’s leadership.

However, deeds performed with the aid of your Retinue only receive half the Karangalan you could receive if you had done the deed alone.

Your character’s Retinue can be increased by recruitment, or by volunteers applying to join your following.  The higher your character’s Karangalan, the greater his Retinue can be.

How do you recruit retinue? Whereas Karangalan dictates the maximum Retinue a character may have, and the chance of gaining volunteer freeholding followers (those who can support themselves), most of your retinue consists of clients.  To gain a client family, you have to assign them 1 die from any of your other forms of wealth, such as Land, Cattle, or Fisheries. You lose a die of wealth, and gain a die of Retinue.

Land represents your character’s farm properties, the basis of most wealth. 

Land can be increased by employing your Retinue.  Once a year, you can roll your Retinue rating, and if you get a six, your Land expands by +1.

Cattle represents your character’s ownership of buffaloes, pigs, and goats, which are very important to the community not only for food but also as sacrificial animals. 

Cattle can increase on their own every year, representing the birth of more animals; roll 1d6, and if the roll is greater than the existing cattle rating, gain +1 Cattle.

Fisheries represents ownership of fishing equipment, boats, and fishing rights.

Fisheries can be increased by employing your Retinue.  Once a year, you can roll your Retinue rating, and if you get a six, your Fisheries expands by +1.

Pearl Bed
A pearl bed is a spot on the sea floor where pearl oysters can be found in abundance. 

Once in a while a pearl bed yields such numbers or quality of pearls that it increases your Wealth instantly. Roll your pearl bed rating once every year; if you roll any sixes, add +1 to your Wealth rating for every die that came up a six.

Wealth represents your character’s ownership of easily movable, precious objects such as gold jewelry, weapons and armor, ceramic jars, brassware, etc. etc.

A Servant is an individual character who exists to aid your character.  You may recruit a servant the same way you recruit Retinue, but to gain a competent servant, you’ll have to give up more wealth.  The servant can be a specialist in something – an expert tracker, a great musician or poet, a shaman, etc. etc.

Legacy Rolls

Another idea I have for creating characters is to have Legacy rolls; use random means to find out who your character’s ancestors were and what you got from them!  I remember these worked very well in my Red Branch campaign, so I’ll resurrect the idea.

Ancestry Table:
Every player gets one roll on the Ancestry table.

  1. Descendant of Maragayon, the Warrior God
  2. Descendant of Apu Laut, the Sea God
  3. Descendant of Lakapati, the Farming God
  4. Descendant of a Diwata
  5. Descendant of a Vijadesan king
  6. Descendant of a Vijadesan hero

Inheritance Table:
Every player gets three rolls on the Inheritance table.

  1. Inherited rice fields
  2. Inherited a herd of buffalo
  3. Inherited upland swidden fields
  4. Inherited a good fishing boat and nets
  5. Inherited rights to a pearl bed
  6. Inherited a rich hoard of gold and heirloom goods

Roll 1d3 for the rating of each inheritance.

Treasure Table:
Every player gets one roll on the Treasure table. Roll first for the treasure type, then again for the specifics, or the player can choose the specifics.

  1. A magical weapon
  2. A magical defense
  3. A magical implement
  4. An heirloom item worth 3 Wealth
  5. An heirloom item worth 2 Wealth
  6. An heirloom item worth 1 Wealth

Retinue Size
To determine the rating or size of your Retinue, roll 1d3 and add +1 for each of the following:

  • Land worth 2 or more
  • Fisheries worth 2 or more
  • Cattle worth 2 or more
  • Pearl beds worth 2 or more
  • Descendant of Maragayon or king or hero


My character Lawin-laut (Hawk of the Sea) gets the following rolls:

  1. Ancestry: a 4, he’s the descendant of a Diwata.

  2. Inheritance: 4, 2, 5 – he inherited a fishing boat, a herd of buffalo, and woot! a pearl bed! Next I roll 3, 1, 1, so I’ll assign the Pearl Bed 3, Fisheries 1, Cattle 1.  He doesn’t have that much on the surface, but ever so often he’ll get lucky and get a dramatic increase to Wealth.  Also very appropriate to his name, hawk of the sea, since I’m envisioning this character as a warrior-navigator.

  3. Treasure: a 6, I  get an heirloom item increasing my Wealth by +1.

  4. Retinue: 2, plus 1 for my Pearl Bed 3, so my I have Retinue 3.

Hari Ragat: Core Stories

For its players to ‘get’ an RPG, and hopefully get hooked into it, the designer must have good answers for the players first two questions: “Who are we?” and "What are we doing here?”  It’s time for me to take a break from pure worldbuilding and address those questions.

Who Are We?

You are going to be playing the epic heroes of the Vijadesan people.  Most characters will come from the warrior aristocrat class, called the Orang Dakila (translated, ‘People of Greatness’ or ‘People of Valor’). 

By virtue of divine descent, wealth, and personal courage and prowess, the Orang Dakila are looked up to by all other Vijadesans to be their leaders and protectors against the many perils of the Jangalan Isles.

The Orang Dakila have three primary concerns: status, honor, and spiritual power.  Spiritual power, termed Baraka in the game, is the key to success in combat and in working magic.  It is gained through taking the heads of powerful opponents, hunting down and eating the flesh of powerful beasts, and as gifts or favors from supernatural beings such as the Diwata.  Orang Dakila have the benefit of starting with more Baraka than characters from other castes.

Honor, termed Karangalan in the game, is a measure of personal reputation; it is gained through success in combat and hunting, and in other trials undertaken for the good of the community. Karangalan is also gained through marriage to a bride or groom of high status and honor themselves, and by the giving of extravagant gifts.  As a character’s Karangalan increases, he attracts more followers and allies.

Status is a measure of the character’s importance in the community, and is based on a) number of followers, b) property, and c) titles awarded by the Datu or Rajah.

What Do We Do?

I’m thinking that by providing players with a good idea of what their characters can shoot for, they’ll become more proactive and can even go so far as to suggest adventures for themselves to the GM. Given that status, Karangalan and Baraka are the major goals a hero should pursue, I can come up with the following narrative structures that can be used in a game:

Community Defense
The heroes must protect their village or current location from a raid, from invasion, or from a monster.  Yields Karangalan, and possibly Baraka.

Grand Hunts
The heroes must hunt down and kill a powerful beast or monster, e.g. a giant crocodile, that has been troubling the community.  Yields Karangalan and Baraka.

The heroes organize a raid against some enemy, hoping to capture booty and heads.  Yields Karangalan and Baraka.  The consequences of the raid may also create new problems for the heroes, and thus more stories.

Courtship Quest
One of the heroes wants to court a famous maiden of high honor (or a youth, if the PC’s a heroine!) and needs the help of the other heroes to do it.  The courtship quest can consist of several sub-quests:

  1. Getting there – the maiden’s home is far and the journey dangerous

  2. Getting the maiden’s favor – the maiden will aid you if you can win her favor; a roleplaying challenge

  3. Contest or tournament vs. your rivals – tradition calls for a warrior’s bride to be won through challenge, in the form of ordeals, games, and  often duels with your rivals

  4. Bring the bride home – to the dangers of the journey are added the attacks of defeated rivals or their vengeful kin

The courtship quest is all about gaining Karangalan, as winning the noble bride (or groom) is itself a feat deserving honor.

Magic Quest
The heroes must plunge into the enchanted wilderness to win a magical treasure from the Diwatas.  The treasure may be an item, an animal or plant, or perhaps even the love of a Diwata.  Success in this kind of quest should yield Baraka – lots of Baraka – or wipe away a Taint.  A magic quest may also be divided into several subquests:

  1. Getting there – the realm of the Diwatas is mysterious, confusing and dangerous due to its magical nature

  2. Morality trials – the Diwatas will often test the heroes to find which one, in their eyes, is most worthy of the prize; there will be opportunities for the heroes to demonstrate their virtues, with the chance of gaining or losing the Diwatas’ favor

  3. Defeating the guardian – the magical treasures of the Diwatas are always well-guarded.  The guardian may be a hostile dragon or giant, to be defeated in combat, or the Diwata herself, who engages the hero in a game such as riddle-guessing

A hero organizes a journey to some holy site for the purpose of gaining Baraka or wiping away a Taint. The quest can be broken up into the following subquests:

  1. Getting there – the journey will be long and perilous, the peril being directly proportional to the Baraka at stake

  2. Ritual – the hero who wants to gain Baraka or wipe away a Taint must perform a ritual at the pilgrimage site; incorrect performance of the ritual could mean even more Taint, or require staying there until the ritual can be performed correctly

  3. Getting home – the journey home can be as dangerous or even more dangerous than the journey out; for example enemies, having heard of the heroes’ pilgrimage, may try to ambush them on their way home

Exploration and Colonization
As befits the tropical, maritime ‘virgin wilderness’ setting of Hari Ragat, exploration and settlement of the isles is a major theme.  The heroes must go forth into the unknown to find out what’s out there, and perhaps find a new home for their followers which they will then have to make safe for settlement.  Yields Karangalan and Baraka; extra Karangalan can be given just for discovering things, such as new islands, new resources, and so on.


New mechanic! A Taint is a mark of spiritual impurity.  It’s a way of tracking how much Baraka is locked up by impurity; when a character is Tainted, points are taken from his Baraka and added to his Taint.  When the Taint is cleared, the Taint points are zeroed out and the same number of points added to Baraka.

Hari Ragat: Baraka

All beings in the Hari Ragat universe possess Baraka, spiritual energy, in varying degrees; supernatural creatures have more of it, as do the Orang Dakila, the noble warrior class, being descended from the gods.

Transferring Baraka

Baraka can be transferred from one being to another in various ways:

Slaying a being rich in Baraka allows the slayer to absorb some of that being’s Baraka; eating of its flesh, or taking its head, allows absorption of all the slain’s Baraka.

Intimate physical contact also transfers some Baraka from the being with more of it to the being with less; thus a mortal who makes love to a Diwata will gain some of the Diwata’s Baraka.

Because Baraka can also be leached away, the Vijadesans have developed many practices to prevent its unnecessary loss. For example, because the act of sex transfers Baraka, warriors are enjoined to remain celibate just before a battle. Contact with anything that could make the warrior’s spirit impure will also leach away Baraka, so these too must be avoided. 

People also try to avoid sites known to be infested with spirits, lest the spirits draw away their Baraka. Similarly, people make sure to offer to the spirits with every meal, lest the spirits take offense and steal the diners’ Baraka.

Harvesting Baraka is a vital part of Vijadesan culture. Warriors and shamans are continuously expending their Baraka in their efforts to protect the community, so it is very important that they strive to gain more. 

In war it is customary to take the head of a worthy opponent, as this allows the victor to absorb all of the slain’s Baraka. As each side wants to prevent the enemy from taking the Baraka of its heroes, the fall of a hero often spurs a furious fight over the slain hero’s body to prevent the taking of his head.

Using Baraka

Players can spend their characters’ Baraka to achieve magical effects in the game.  Shamans spend Baraka when casting spells; warriors spend Baraka to increase the efficacy of their attacks and defenses.

It’s also possible to ‘fix’ Baraka into objects by ritual means.  Sacred tattoos convert a character’s Baraka into a permanent ‘tattoo magic’ pool at a 5:1 rate.  For example if my character has 25 Baraka, I can convert those to add +5 to my character’s tattoos.  This pool is self-renewing, unlike the Baraka pool which, like money, is gone once it’s spent. The same rule applies to magical weapons and shields.

Hari Ragat: Creation Myths

I took elements from the mythology of the Bagobo and other Filipino indigenous cultures for this creation myth, and the Maragtas epic for the story of man’s settlement of the Jangalan Isles.

Creation Myth

In the beginning there was nothing but the sea, without even a sky above it; and under the sea rested the Eldest God, Aman Bathala. Out of the deepest abyss of the sea crawled Oryol, the first and mightiest of the dragons, and she attempted to devour Aman Bathala for his power.

For thousands of years Aman Bathala and Oryol wrestled, and the tumult of their struggle caused the sky to separate from the sea. At last Oryol bit off one of Aman Bathala’s gonads, but before she could swallow it to gain his power he took hold of her jaws and tore her apart.

Then from Oryol’s bones Aman Bathala fashioned the land; and from her flesh sprang the first plants, the first fish, the first birds, and the first beasts. And from the brains and organs of Oryol sprang the first giants, from her unlaid eggs the first dragons, and from her venom, the first demons. But from Aman Bathala’s spilled blood there sprang the Diwatas, the guardian spirits of nature.

Then Aman Bathala left to make his abode in the sky, where he created the sun, moon and stars and married Inang Silangan, the Sun Goddess, and from her begat the rest of the gods.

The Origin of Men

As for Aman Bathala’s missing gland, it disappeared into the depths of the sea, but in time washed ashore in the form of a clam. Then a hawk, espying the clam, came down and pecked at it until its shell broke.

Then spilled from the clam a myriad number of seeds, which grew into the first men and women. The first people were tiny, and got into the hawk’s feathers like insects; and when the hawk took flight they were shaken off one by one over the lands of the earth. There they grew to full stature, and so the world was peopled.

Then Aman Bathala saw them and realized they were the fruit of his seed, so he blessed them and sent the lesser gods to teach them how to live.

Creation of the Jangalan Isles

Aman Bathala’s granddaughter Sinaya was wooed by the twin storm gods Amihan and Habagat. When she could not decide between either of them despite a thousand years of courtship, they confronted her and got into a heated argument; at last the brothers began to pull at her, Amihan to the east and Habagat to the west, until all her clothes were torn and her pearl necklace broken, the pearls falling into the sea.

Then Aman Bathala saw what was happening to his granddaughter, and pronounced swift justice. Amihan and Habagat were banished from the heavens, to blow continually as the winds of Karagatan; Amihan always blowing from the east, and Habagat from the west.

As for the pearls of Sinaya, the magical jewels had taken root in the ocean floor and burgeoned into thousands of fertile islands, so lushly covered with growth their Vijadesan discoverers would call them the Jangalans, the Forested Isles.

Origin of the Vijadesans

Legends say the kingdom of Vijadesa was founded by Lakan Vijaya, son of the god Maragayon and a mortal woman. Lying on the coast as it did, Vijadesa soon became a sea power and its rulers claimed the title Hari Ragat, All-Ruling Ocean King. Vijadesa flourished for hundreds of years, until the time of Hari Ragat Raja Samil, who was born accursed. For Raja Samil was born from the rape of a Babaylan, a priestess of the Diwatas, and so he was cursed by the Diwatas of the land.

In time Samil became king, but he was possessed of a growing madness that made him a great burden to his people. Raja Samil oppressed the people with his demands for tribute and labor on his great temples and palaces, got thousands killed in his wars with neighboring kings, and ordered massive witch hunts throughout Vijadesa that took many innocent lives. At last, tired of the king’s abuses, ten princes secretly set sail with their families and retainers into the unknown waters of the Western Sea.

There they found the Jangalan Isles, and after drawing up a treaty dividing the islands equally between them, went their separate ways. The Vijadesans of the isles all trace their descent from these Ten Sires and their followers. It is said the settlement of the Jangalan Isles happened some 500 years ago. In that time the Vijadesans prospered and increased, but conflicts born of passion, pride and wounded honor have driven them apart.

It is also said that Raja Samil’s evil reign was finally cut short by the wrath of the goddess Lalahon, Queen of the Fiery Mountains. Old Vijadesa was destroyed by volcanic eruptions, leaving the Island Vijadesans the last of their people.

September 15, 2010

Delineating Area of Effect

Unlike more mechanistic systems wherein spell effects are defined rigidly by area/volume, Sorcery in Vivid defines the area of effect in terms of delimitations.

The basic idea is a spell effect is created by spirits whom you have somehow persuaded to do as you will. However, their capacity to take instruction from you is somewhat limited - it's like trying to give complex instructions in English to a foreigner child who barely understands it.  Thus, instructions have to be given in very easy to understand terms.  When defining an area for effect, it's best to physically mark out the area you want affected beforehand, or during the casting of the spell.

For example: I want a ring of fire to spring into being when my enemies enter this place, thus trapping them.  To define the limits of the ring, I draw it out using powdered charcoal - as an inflammable material it's very appropriate for a fire spell, and it's easy to tell the fire spirits to create the effect using the physical traces of the charcoal as their guide.

What if no delineation is provided? Then the spell takes effect as the spirits want - possibly too little, possibly too much, very possibly with complications!  Hoo hoo!

Claiming Bonus Dice

In the previous versions of Vivid, I had a mechanic wherein GMs could award a deserving player bonus dice for interesting action declarations and good roleplay.  It was an attempt to get players away from the metronomic boredom of “I attack” that can be all too easily encouraged  by systems that try to package everything into the character sheet. 

It worked very well in my playtests so far, but then these playtests were with players I’ve known for a while and like to play the same way I do.  However, there’s always been the spectre haunting that idea: what if the GM isn’t sure when or when not to award  bonus dice? What if, the gods forfend, your GM is stingy with bonus dice?

I’ve thus reworked the mechanic so the burden is on the player to claim bonus dice from the GM.  Your guide to claiming bonus dice is found in the acronym SAMAT – Surprise, Advantage, Method, Aid, and Tagging.  For each of these conditions that the GM agrees is true in the way you declared your action, you get one bonus die.

Surprise: your action is very likely to catch your opponent off-guard

Advantage: you hold a significant advantage over your opponent, such as having a longer weapon (e.g. spear vs. sword), or being mounted while he isn’t, having a shield while he doesn’t, etc. etc.)

Method: you described your action with such detail and pizzazz the GM agrees it is much more likely to work than a ‘vanilla’ approach

Aid: you have help from another character or creature.  This is a way for you to bring in NPCs or pets into battle without having to bother rolling for them as independent agents – you simply assume they’re supporting your character.

Tagging: you have previously Tagged your opponent with a condition that is advantageous to you, e.g. you’ve Blinded him by flinging sand in his eyes, or Cornered him against the cliff face, etc. etc.

Will constantly giving bonus dice unbalance the game, though? No, I don’t think so, because the game was designed to use them. Player characters will often have less dice than a powerful opponent or challenging task, so it’s important to find ways to get more dice to improve the odds.  Besides, as I remember Marc commenting: It’s good to have the extra dice because it makes the player feel powerful. 

‘Countdown’ Method for Traits

I’m changing the way Traits are allocated in my Vivid system. To make things simpler, I’ll have players simply assign their Traits on a ‘countdown’ of ratings from 4 to 1.  This is the same way I’ll be creating monsters and anything else that needs statting in the game.

For example, Rafiq al-Husayri, countdown version:
    Student of the lute and romantic verse 4
    Son of a Feranian merchant prince 3
    Surprisingly competent duelist 2
    Dashingly Handsome 1

I’ve also come up with a mechanic for creating more powerful Traits that can only be used a limited number of times. For example, here’s an Arcurean Dragon from my Syrene setting:

Arcurean Dragon 5
Spit Flaming Venom 9/3
Master of Stealth and Camouflage 4
Lizard Form 1

In the ‘countdown’ system for creatures and NPCs, you can simply assign the dice for the highest Trait, and count down from there until you reach 1 die.  You can skip numbers for which you don’t have Traits. 

So in this example the Arcurean Dragon’s most powerful trait is its ability to spit flaming venom, assigned 6 dice; this was doubled, giving me 12, which I then split between its new die pool and the number of times the Spit attack can be used, which is 3 times.

The Arcurean Dragon has a strange ability that allows it to disappear without a trace, but is also a major weakness; it sleeps in the form of a lizard, no more than a foot or so long.  It was inspired by a dragon from a Spanish fairy tale.  (At least I think the origin is Spanish, as I first had it told to me in Filipino and the only time I ever saw the idea again was in a translated Spanish tale.)

Gondwane: People & Places 2

Mottled Folk

The Mottled Folk all live along the desolate Bonestrands, which abuts the Knifewind Desert. No large land predators menace them here, but there is hardly any game either thus their reliance on the sea. Why should adventurers visit this place? Because it's said some Ancient cities lie here. They do. But they're underwater now.

Crab People

  • A small tribe of coastal hunter-gatherers who have found a trove of Ancient arms and armor
  • Now almost-invulnerable, Crab warriors have dominated the Lizard and Stonefish people
  • Regularly sacrifice slaves to a giant crab god
  • Belong to the Mottled Folk race, a race of humans from a previous experiment with dark, mottled skins

Lizard People

  • A small tribe of coastal hunter-gatherers
  • Specialize in hunting giant marine iguanas
  • Now slaves of the Crab People
  • Worship pliosaurs
  • Belong to the Mottled Folk race, a race of humans from a previous experiment with dark, mottled skins

Stonefish People

  • A small tribe of coastal hunter-gatherers
  • Fight using spears poisoned with stonefish venom
  • Used to be feared raiders
  • Now slaves of the Crab People
  • Worship a stonefish death-god
  • Belong to the Mottled Folk race, a race of humans from a previous experiment with dark, mottled skins

Shark People

  • A small tribe of coastal hunter-gatherers
  • Worship sharks
  • Fight with shark-tooth weapons
  • Cannibals
  • Perennially at war with the Crab People


  • Neanderthals
  • Even more savage than the Hargath
  • Appetite for human flesh
  • Migratory hunters, traveling in surprisingly large tribes
  • Hunt in massive game drives that surround prey and trap them in canyons, etc.
  • Use similar tactics vs. human settlements

Modern Man

  • Kidnapped by the Shapers from across time
  • Usually appear on Gondwane naked and unarmed, but sometimes the demons bring back fully equipped wanderers
  • So YES, you just might be able to traipse around Gondwane carrying a broadsword and an Automag .44 ...

Cannibal Princes of Xavathor

  • Remnants of a former experiment
  • Appear as normal humans, save their irises are dark red and their teeth are sharp carnivore teeth
  • Carnivores who lust after human flesh
  • The former ruling class of Xavathor
  • All males style themselves as Princes
  • Now served entirely by a slave race of half-intelligent apemen

Apemen of Xavathor

  • Sub-intelligent apemen, short in stature, kept as domestic animals
  • Growing very rapidly in intelligence
  • Cunning thieves
  • Generally non-violent
  • But very acquisitive and curious
  • Able to speak broken Xavathorian


  • A kingdom dominating the Inland Sea
  • Known as the Corsair Kingdom
  • Its wealth and power are founded on successful piracy, mostly vs. Tartesh
  • Worship Astaris - most of Alshardan's nobles are descended from Tarteshian exiles


  • A kingdom by the Inland Sea
  • Worship the Dragon-Bird - a monster created by the Shapers
  • The Dragon-Bird lives on a mountain peak near Ornathor
  • It is regularly brought food from the city
  • Bitter foes of Alshardan
  • Rulers and nobles wear feathered capes, and soldiers wear helmets shaped like lizardbird heads, with plumes


  • A vanished people renowned for their smithcraft
  • Goffannen-made blades are renowned throughout Gondwane


  • A crumbling city beside the Inland Sea
  • Rebelled against their god
  • City walls destroyed when its living god, Thallos the Bronze God went on rampage against it
  • The Theriandorites eventually killed Thallos using Ancient technology
  • Watchers then directed a campaign to punish Theriandor
  • Theriandor now considered accursed


  • 'Queen of the Inland Sea'
  • Disputes dominance of the Inland Sea with Alshardan
  • But is seen as more highly cultured than Alshardan
  • Known as the Purple Kingdom from the purple-dyed sails of its galleys
  • Produces a purple dye from freshwater snails
  • Worship the goddess Astaris, whose oracle is in the main temple of Alshardan city
  • Astaris' oracle is of course a Shaper artifact
  • Annual sacrifice of children taken from neighboring peoples to Baal-Maloch, the Worm God
  • Baal-Maloch is another living deity, imprisoned underneath Tartesh but with strong psychic influence on his priests
  • Trapped there when Tartesh was conquered by its current rulers, who supplanted his worship with that of Astaris


  • A city that survived the Scouring, hidden in the mountains
  • Its people live in deathly fear of being found
  • All strangers who chance upon the city are killed
  • A repository of lost Ancient technology
  • Including a spaceship? And beam weapons!
  • The people of Ankyros don't know how to use them - they are descended from the Ancients' slaves


  • An Ancient city devastated by civil war between its castes
  • Three-way war between the warrior, priest, and engineer castes
  • The priests and engineers were wiped out, leaving remnants of the warrior and laborer castes to survive
  • Ghormyr but a shadow of its former glory
  • The entire city of Ghormyr is one great machine!


  • An Ancient city whose water has become contaminated by mutative substances
  • Its crumbling structures are inhabited almost entirely by miserable, savage mutants
  • However an enclave of The Pureblooded still hold out in one quarter of the city
  • Constant state of guerilla warfare between Pureblooded and mutant
  • The joke is, the Pureblooded are mutants too - for they have horns!
  • Only an outsider will be able to tell the Pureblooded this, for they believe they have always had horns


  • An Ancient city whose immortal, psychic lords idle the centuries away in drugged dreams
  • The lords are served by androids who can receive commands from them telepathically
  • When strangers happen to pass by the city, the lords set psychic traps for them to lure them inside
  • Any who enter the city are captured by the androids for the sadistic sport of the lords
  • The lords force captives to join them in their dreams, and there kill them in grisly fantastical ways

Gondwane: Peoples & Places

Quick ideas for fleshing out Gondwane.  I’m finding out that it’s easier for me to create a skeleton description with bullet points for each people or location, so I can go back to fleshing them out later.  I’m having way too much fun doing this, in fact I should be writing on another commercial project now but this idea just keeps hogging my brain cells.

People of Gondwane, Initial Ideas

The humans of Gondwane are related to the humans of Modern Earth only in the sense that they are the same species.  Man on Gondwane did not evolve naturally, but was bred by the Shapers in a continuing experiment to find out why human civilization survived and the Shapers did not. 

This experiment has been repeated more than once, each time allowing mankind to reach a height of technology equal or greater than Modern Earth, then wiped out as the experiment was 'reset.'  This means the human population of Gondwane consists of both the 'current batch' and the scattered, often secret, remnants of previous experiments. 

Because of the 'artificial' origin of man on Gondwane, and the many 'batches' so created, there are some interesting differences between them and Modern Earth humans.  First, the coloration: while all the skin and hair colors of modern man are known on Gondwane, there are additional variants and unusual combinations, such as green or blue hair, or green eyes and dark skin.  A small yet significant percentage of Gondwane humans are also born with Esper talent.


  • One of the most developed civilizations on Gondwane following the last Scouring
  • Classical Greek in style
  • Princely city states nominally ruled by a High King
  • Occupy the Antillean Islands and parts of the Saharic Sea coast
  • Domesticated some small and medium dinosaurs
  • Livelihood is mostly herding and fishing
  • Farming done on some pacified islands (i.e. cleaned out of monsters)
  • Populated concentrated in walled cities due to dangers
  • Frequently at war with Zyra
  • Searchers for knowledge
  • Premier seapower in Gondwane
  • Citizen-army of spearmen backed by archers and dinosaur-riding cavalry with javelins
  • Domesticated dryosaurs as personal steeds
  • Domesticated iguanodons as heavy draft animals
  • Frequent hunting and exploring expeditions to mainland
  • Practice slavery on a very minor scale
  • Overthrew their old gods, the Dragon Kings, and embraced the Shaper religion
  • Practice the Games, including gladiatorial combat, but rarely to the death


  • Highly militarized empire
  • Constant conflict with Antillea, Dilmun, and Makkar, and the barbarians of the north
  • Breakaway colony of Antillea
  • Classical Greek in style - but with more of a Roman flavor
  • Ruled by an Emperor
  • Domesticated large iguanodons as heavy draft animals and war beasts
  • Domesticated dryosaurs as personal steeds (let's make this universal)
  • Livelihood is plantation farming using slaves, hunting, herding and fishing
  • Because of their labor requirements, they raid for slaves frequently and widely
  • Obsessed with capturing Ancient technology especially from Antillea
  • Worship Sabellis, the Dragon Queen
  • Many lords are secretly worshippers of the Void Lords
  • Avid audience of the Games, and demand gladiatorial combat to the death


  • Loosely based on the Phoenicians
  • Trading nation
  • Sources trade goods from the east via caravan, to ship to Zyra, Antillea, and elsewhere
  • Domesticated giant sauropods for long-distance caravans
  • Domesticated dryosaurs as personal steeds
  • Often at war with Makkar and Zyra
  • Worship the stars, which they believe speak to them through the Oracle of the Great Crystal
  • Melkarth is the premier Dilmunian trade city
  • Followed by New Dilmun
  • Old Dilmun was destroyed in a civil war; it lies across the ? River from New Dilmun

Elgabal, Sarkoris, Tarquin

  • Former colonies of Dilmun
  • Occupied by the Zyrans and considered part of the Zyran Empire
  • Bronze Bull cult served by 'minotaur' priests
  • Not true minotaurs, but wear bull masks with Shaper-created circuitry giving them powers


  • Loosely based on Assyrians
  • Fading remnant of a once-great empire
  • Archers and charioteers
  • A line of mad kings and disastrous campaigns and rebellions have weakened them severely
  • Life in the cities of Belshazzar is a living hell for its citizens
  • Laws are harsh and very slanted in favor of the nobility
  • The ruler is very capricious
  • Dur Ashrak, the capital, houses one of the best Shaper oracles known
  • The Shaper oracle is a major source of income from pilgrims who come to consult it
  • Zyran conquest stopped here, by a hair
  • Worship Zahur, the supposed father of the royal line
  • Also worship the Four Lords of Chaos: Vorax, Thamogorgos, Belerion and Maya

Samurrad, Tomaria, Harakpur, Askelos

  • Former Belshazzarian cities
  • Now ruled by a Zyran elite, after it was conquered and occupied by Zyra
  • Now independent kingdoms, having broken from Zyra
  • Samurrad is the 'city of mercenaries' - hanging on to its independence by a nail, using mercenary army
  • Harakpur and Askelos are now  Belshazzarian protectorates
  • Hybrid culture - inspired by Hellenic Central Asia and Syria
  • Conflict between local and Zyran religions
  • Locals worship Zahur and the Four Lords of Chaos


  • Desert kingdom southeast of Dilmun
  • Occupies the Zahuran Desert
  • Traditional enemy of Dilmun
  • Ride protoceratops
  • Loosely Arab-inspired
  • Fight mainly with lances
  • Use ankylosaurs as living siege engines
  • Worship tribal ancestor deities - their religion is not under Shaper control
  • There could be a Watcher-led campaign to convert the Makkarans to another religion


  • Great black kingdom
  • Secret cities carved from the mountains
  • Live on the great Arwe Mesa
  • Arwe cities line the sides of the mesa
  • Arwe usually fight with axes
  • The interior is held as common farming land, a secure place from dinosaur infestation
  • Worship the Sleeping Kings, the dead kings they have kept mummified in an ice cave high in the mountains
  • Shaper control is through a family of near-immortal witches, the Spirit Speakers of Gagool
  • The Spirit Speakers claim to speak for the spirits of the Sleeping Kings


  • Eshkorians recolonized the Ancient city of Eshkor and assumed the Ancients' mantle
  • Ruled by a Priest-King
  • Eshkorian nobles believe they are heirs to the Ancients and thus have the status of living gods
  • Highly militarized
  • Nobles go to war on chariots drawn by dryosaurs
  • Stegosaur 'tanks'
  • Eshkorian nobles wear masks to emphasize their supposed divinity
  • High percentage of Espers in their population
  • Always at war with Zakkar
  • The rest of the populace are slaves
  • Worship their own noble class!
  • There is a yearly demonstration of 'divine power' by the noble espers of Eshkor
  • Many slaves are incinerated by esper power for the occasion


  • Zakkar is a breakway colony of Eshkor
  • Ruled by a God-King
  • Zakkarian nobles wear masks and artificial wings
  • Nobles go to war on chariots drawn by dryosaurs
  • Stegosaur 'tanks'
  • The rest of the populace are slaves
  • Worship their God-King alone
  • The God-King demands a new bride every year
  • God-King's brides are sacrificed after a year unless they have conceived


  • Neighbor to Eshkor and Zakkar
  • Ruled by a Priest-King also
  • But upper class here are the priests, not the nobles
  • Omnorian priests control every aspect of life
  • Hermit kingdom - no one comes in, no one goes out - on pain of death!
  • Thus very few people know of Omnor
  • Known largely through accounts of Eshkorian and Zakkarian sieges that have failed
  • Omnor occupies a whole mountain - it is a city of terraces
  • (Oops, I switched the positions of Zakkar and Omnor on the map!)
  • Food is grown on the terraces sufficient for the population
  • Worship the Ancients

Hargath (Neanderthals)

  • Occupy the Hecatoncheiros Mountains north of Zyra and elsewhere
  • Frequently band together to raid Zyran farms
  • Cannibals - or rather, man-eaters
  • Rapidly replacing stone weapons with metal weapons taken from killed Zyrans
  • Tribal society led by warrior-priests
  • Most seem to worship the allosaurs that are Gondwane's largest land predators

Sons of Gabbaras

  • A race of giants, averaging about 9 feet tall
  • Forge great armor
  • Live among the Dilmunians and the Eshkorians
  • They are the remnants of a fallen civilization
  • Their ancestors built great temple and burial mounds in the north
  • Renowned as dinosaur-killers

Pale Ones

  • Subterranean remnants of a technologically advanced civilization
  • Nonfunctional eyes - can only sense light, but not form images
  • Motivation - revitalize their race using captive women


  • Degenerate humans
  • A failed experiment of the Shapers, abandoned to their fate
  • Retreated to the Bahanadon Swamps
  • Small in stature, tailed, hairy, and very strong for their size
  • So degenerate they no longer use tools
  • Very good swimmers and climbers

Valkeir and Urdryk

  • Inspired by the Goths - erk now they're Vikings, or Saxons ...
  • Large migrating tribes from Laurasia, pushed from ancestral home by earthquake and volcanic eruption
  • Seeking land free of dinosaur infestation
  • Savage fighters who have twice defeated the Zyrans
  • They have recently accepted Zyran subsidy in exchange for a military alliance
  • Valkeir warriors now join the Zyran legions
  • The Urdryk invaded Antillea and now hold some of the northern islands
  • Worship The Kraken and Aegir, two gods of the deep locked in eternal struggle with each other
  • The Kraken and Aegir cause earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions with their struggles
  • The Valkheir consider themselves Sons of The Kraken
  • The Urdryk consider themselves Sons of Aegir
  • There is a constant blood feud between the two tribes


  • Obscene hybrids of man and ape, with the worst qualities of both
  • Incredibly strong for their size
  • Warlike riders
  • Raid for human captives and herd them like cattle
  • Ceremonial cannibalism - butcher and eat their human captives en masse at winter solstice

Living Gods of Gondwane

The false god and its exposure by the hero is a very pulpy theme, often used by Burroughs, and serves as my inspiration for the idea of living gods.

The Shapers, in their studies of mankind, discovered the destructive potential of religion throughout human history and resolved to see if they could aggravate the effect.  To this end they manufactured ‘gods’ for each civilization they created and gave each directives that would conflict with those of the other ‘gods.’

The Living Gods

Each of these living gods is a marvel of Shaper science.  The god may be a mutated creature, an automaton, a device that can be worn to give its user powers and memories as though he were the god reborn, and so on. 

Each god is jealous, programmed to want all humans to worship itself, to be hungry for human sacrifices, and to be malevolently capricious, ordering this and that of its followers in the cause of creating misery and chaos. All sorts of strange and sinister customs, or events that become plot hooks, can be manufactured for the various locales on Gondwane based on these ideas.

For example, a god might order the building of a great temple, then several years into its construction suddenly decree that the current site has been defiled and that the whole thing must be restarted on another site.  The need for slave labor becomes so high that the kingdom must go to war to acquire more slaves.

Another god may impose a custom of being provided slaves that it cruelly toys with for a year, then discards for a fresh batch of slaves.  A reincarnating type of god may institute strange and repellent customs regarding its host’s sacred weddings to the most beautiful women that can be captured within its kingdom.

Rebelling Against the Gods

Some peoples have actually turned away from their living gods, and as some societies have formed without Shaper interference, these often have religions that are not under the Shaper thumb. 

Where the Shapers and their agents were able to act directly against these rebellions, great death and destruction have followed.  Theriandor turned against its god Thallos, who awakened and destroyed the city. 

However Thallos was also slain, a key historical event that has encouraged more societies to throw off their gods’ yokes.  Across Gondwane stand the crumbling ruins of cities abandoned by their inhabitants, and now guarded only by the lonely presence of whatever it was they used to worship.

Quests to destroy or otherwise oppose a living god can be a major ingredient in your Gondwane adventures.  It may be to steal the god’s treasure, to heroically free a people from tyranny, or even because another living god ordered it.

The Watchers

Keeping tabs on humankind are the Watchers, powerful organic androids created by the Shapers.  These move through human societies in human guise, observing and quietly sending back data, and when necessary engineering events to steer a target society or individual along a course of the Shapers’ devising.

For example, if the king of Samurrad suddenly decides to stop worshipping Samurrad’s god, the Watcher residing in Samurrad might arrange for the king’s assassination.  Or a Watcher may expose Zyra’s invasion plans to the kings of Dilmun, thus assuring that Zyra will take a weakening blow from the coming war.

This constant meddling has been going on for millennia, and as yet none have truly seen the pattern.  However the destruction of some Watchers at the hands of past heroes has come down through history as proof of the presence of demons among man, and people are always alert for any signs of strangeness that might betray a nonhuman nature.

The Watchers are thus being forced to greater secrecy and use of proxies in their work, for their numbers are being discovered and falling more rapidly than expected.



A new project! This map is based on an actual map of Gondwana, one of the two supercontinents that formed from the breakup of Pangaea. I’ve added mountains and rivers, and enlarged some of the lakes and rift valleys to make seas.

What’s it for? My new setting, Gondwane: Legends of the Lost Land.  Sword and sorcery with dinosaurs, alien artifacts, sinister alien conspiracies, and an open invitation to destroy the world! For those of you who’ve seen my Smaragdis setting, consider this the bigger, badder, bastard child of Smaragdis.   It’s inspired by a host of lost-world stories from H. Rider Haggard’s African tales, to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar and Caspak novels, to Mike Grell’s uber-fun chronicles of The Warlord.

Legends of the Lost Land is set in Earth’s middle Jurassic period, some 180 million years ago.  Man shouldn’t exist in this world yet – but he does, and not only that, several human civilizations even more advanced than our own have already come and gone.  Behind this anachronism are the alien Shapers, who, on learning that their civilization no longer existed in Man’s future, decided to find out just what kind of danger this upstart ape posed to them by conducting a series of millennium-long experiments. 

Humans would be bred from captured genetic stock, given varying levels of technology, and even given a genetic strain that would occasionally produce psychically-talented Espers.  Capricious living gods would be provided for these fledgliing civilizations, who would make sure to keep their worshippers mired in competitive chaos.  And when, despite everything, the humans grew too powerful, the Shapers would ‘reset’ the experiment by genocidal means.

Now another cycle of observation has begun.  But despite the Shapers’ power, remnants of the previous cycles cling to existence, their powerful secrets just waiting to be seized ….

September 7, 2010

Exotic Eats

One of the ways I like to bring my game world alive is to describe in detail what’s being served to my players’ characters, specially when they visit a strange new location. It helps bring home to the players that they’re somewhere exotic.

As a foodie who loves to cook, I can easily come up with ideas for various foods based on location and give multisensory descriptions of them.  On some occasions I’ve even been threatened with grievous bodily harm for making my players so hungry with my descriptions! :-D But could a GM who doesn’t cook do the same? Definitely!  Here’s how:

1) Eat Different! The most pleasurable way to research on food is to eat it! Try eating different cuisines, specially those you’ve never tried before.  Try to identify the key ingredients and what makes each cuisine different.  Try to remember the tastes and smells so you can describe them later.

2) Leaf through cookbooks and food mags.  Reading the recipes in cookbooks and food magazines will give you an idea of what ingredients are out there and how they can be used, and the pictures will help you build visual descriptions of food.

3) Location, location, location! Where in your gameworld are the PC’s? What’s the climate there like? What’s the terrain and vegetation like? What natural food-bearing resources are nearby?

This will be specially important in a world with pre-modern technology, as without fast, cheap transport and refrigeration people will have to eat mostly what’s locally available.

You’ll want to relate the geography of the place with what livestock can be raised, what crops can be grown, and what wild foods, including fish and game, can be found in the area.

4) Go by the seasons. Again, with no refrigeration many foods can only be enjoyed at certain seasons.  Some foods become available only at harvest time, while some meats and fish will only be available when those animals pass near a settlement during their migrations. 

For example, fresh salmon may be available only during the spring run, and the rest of the year you’ll have to be content with smoked, salted or dried salmon instead. 

Similarly the traditional Christmas ham is a product of Christmas happening in midwinter in the Northern hemisphere; if you wanted a big festive hunk of meat then, it’d have to be salted or smoked from the autumn slaughtering season. 

5) What you eat is what they ate. Many animals will acquire a distinct flavor at various times of year, or based on where they were raised, because of their diet. 

For example, Parma in Italy prides itself on ham made from pigs that have been fattened on chestnuts.  Here where I live, ham from the city of Cagayan de Oro is famous because swine from there are fattened on pineapples. 

In my world of Syrene, one island’s specialty is a dish of nine different kinds of wild dove, each kind distinctly flavored because it specializes in eating a particular wild fruit.

Sometimes diet will also dictate what you can’t have, for example during certain times of year or under certain conditions, some fish become toxic or foul-tasting. There were months when my mother wouldn’t buy fish from a certain lake because they’d have a terrible muddy flavor.

6) Think luxurious and decadent. What might the aristocracy of your game world eat? Often the foods eaten by the rich and powerful are different not just from the ingredients that go into them but also the number of ingredients and how elaborately they’re prepared. 

Ever heard of turducken? It’s a turkey stuffed with a duck, which in turn has been stuffed with a chicken.  There’s an Arabian Nights story that describes a roast camel with a whole sheep inside, within which is a fowl, a peacock I think, in which was a hen, in which was a dove, in which was a songbird …

The rich also show off their wealth by serving foods imported from afar.  Signature products from various regions will often be featured at a patrician’s table.  Maybe the sausage of a certain town is famous, or the cheese from another, or the apples from a certain valley.  Animals or fish may even be imported live from where they were caught, at great trouble to the merchant, because the rich are sure buyers.  In a fantasy world, of course, the rich may develop a taste for certain monsters that must be brought back alive so they’re served as fresh as possible.

Another luxury only the rich can afford is food made by painstaking, low-yield methods.  One real-world example that had me spinning the first time I tried it is ice wine; made from grapes that were allowed to shrivel on the vine in frost, ice wine is very concentrated and very smooth, very different from ordinary wine – and because it’s made with drying grapes, it takes a lot more grapes to make every cup of ice wine.  The more a food has to be aged, or the more processes it has to go through, the more expensive it rapidly gets.

7) Think Bizarre! One of my favorite TV shows is Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.  I love the guy’s storytelling style, and I admire his chutzpah in trying out stuff that’d make most of the people I know blanch.  The funny thing is, as an Asian who grew up in a small town (well, it used to be a small town), I find a lot of the items featured in the show to be familiar and in fact quite yummy, similar to treats I’d savored in my childhood.

Before the advent of freezer trucks and grocery chains, people ate a lot more different things, and every part of a butchered food animal would be consumed save for the skin and bones (which weren’t always safe either!).  Notice how hearts, livers, kidneys and brains keep popping up in traditional ‘peasant’ recipes the world over?  Waste not, want not was the motto of the day, resulting in great foods like Britain’s steak and kidney pie, fish head curry, Spanish callos, and dinuguan (blood stew). In a medieval or ancient-style setting, organ meats would be much more common; in fact because these meats spoil first and so are only available near a recent butchering, they would probably be regarded as delicacies.

Another pattern we find in the less-Westernized parts of Asia and Africa is the eating of plants and animals considered unusual as food.  From frogs, crickets, grubs, monitor lizards, ants, snakes, and even poisonous puffer fish almost nothing is safe from the human appetite.  What unusual animals might be served in your game world?

The poisonous puffer (fugu) so highly regarded in Japan also gives me another idea.  Quite a few items that we eat are actually poisonous unless prepared right.  The akee fruit of Jamaica and West Africa is one, as is the cassava. What poisonous animals, fruits and other products are enjoyed in your game world? What must be done to remove the poison? What benefits are thought to be derived from eating the potentially poisonous item? What happens if the detoxification goes wrong, and what can the player characters do about it?

Or maybe you don’t want to go the poison route, but just want to torment your characters with some revolting ideas.  What foods might make even a drunken dwarf go “Ick!” in your game world? Let’s take the real-world example of the durian, which really is one of the worst things I’ve ever smelled, my own sneakers included.  Revolting foods are often considered thus because of the smell, and often because of their treatment.  Fermented and aged foods abound in cultures across the world, from European blue cheese to Asian miso to Norse lutefisk.  The meat of sharks and rays often have a pissy odor because of the urea they contain. 

To help give you more ideas, check out the Omnivore’s 100, a list of 100 interesting foods from around the world including some bizarrities.

8) What’s Taboo? Defining food taboos is a good way of helping to define cultures and beliefs across your game world.  Food taboos are often religious in nature; the food in question is forbidden because it is sacred to a god, detested by a god, or considered spiritually polluting. 

Spiritual pollution is often considered contagious, so an animal that eats something polluting – for example, corpses – is itself usually considered polluting to eat.  Scavengers are often considered taboo to eat for this reason. 

Many bottom-feeding fish, such as catfish, will fall under this classification.  So too, in ancient times, did hogs, which are omnivores and will eat carrion when they can.  I also remember talking to a fishmonger once, sometime after the sinking of a ferry; he noted that nobody wanted to buy shark meat anymore because of the chance the shark might’ve been feeding at the wreck site!

Sometimes the taboo comes from the mythical associations of the animal.  For example, in his history Barangay William Henry Scott notes that ancient Visayan warriors were forbidden from eating the timid deer before a battle, lest their courage fail them.  The root of the belief is that you take on the properties of what you eat. Thus you should avoid any food coming from animals or plants with qualities you want to avoid in yourself.

9) But It’s GOOD for You! Some foods are served more for the supposed benefits they bring than for their flavor or nutritional qualities.  I would have to point to Chinese cuisine as one of the strongest examples of this approach to eating. 

The Chinese have a great philosophy toward food and health: it’s better to prevent than to have to cure, and the best way to prevent a lot of problems is to eat right.  Chinese medical philosophy is oriented toward instilling the body with vigor and restoring its proper balance of the elements, so a lot of Chinese foods are made with this idea in mind. 

Another very strong concern in Chinese therapeutic cuisine is virility and fertility.  A lot of foods are considered aphrodisiac in Chinese cuisine, and the ingredients for these always bring top dollar  because of it.  Again, many of these beliefs are associative: Soup Number Five, made with bull’s genitals, stimulates male potency because, hey, it’s made from bull’s genitals!  If it’s phallic-shaped, if it comes from an animal of supposedly great sexual vigor or power, you can bet it’s considered an aphrodisiac somewhere.

While I don’t agree with many of these suppositions on environmentalist grounds, I have to say the idea can be easily adapted to your game world.  A rich host, wishing to show his regard for the player characters, might regale them with a very strange feast designed to restore their health or give them powers.  Failure to eat the stuff would seriously insult the host. 

Again going back to the idea that you become what you eat at some level, a quick glance at your Monstrous Compendium or whatever bestiary you’re using in your game will quickly reveal some monsters with qualities someone will pay much to internalize, so to speak.  Who wouldn’t want to partake of the magical power of a dragon?

This could even get rather sinister, as the desire for various magical qualities spurs a demand in forbidden meats.  What if orcs wanted to eat elf meat to gain elf-like longevity? What if an evil wizard thought he could gain god-like powers by eating the flesh of various magical creatures such as unicorns and the like? What if an evil wizard, entertaining the PCs as guests, serves them foods designed to weaken their powers? What if the PCs are guesting with an alien race who think nothing of consuming something manlike, for example a giant, because they think doing so gains them power?

10) Get your hands dirty.  Why not try cooking, yourself?  Research an authentic period or regional recipe that’s related to the game you’ll be running, get contributions from the players for ingredients, and bash it together in your kitchen for them.  It’ll be different from the usual gamer diet of pizza, and a great way to immerse yourselves in the game.  Me, I think I’ll make a biryani for the next session of the Arabian Nights-inspired Sea Rovers of Syrene

Exotic Brews & Drinking

What do your players’ characters drink in your world? If like me you like to run games in worlds inspired by Asia or Africa instead of Western Europe, coming up with a local tipple that’s not just ale or wine can help add to the flavor of the game.  It helps your players remember they’re not in Kansas anymore … 

So how can you come up with original brews for your own campaign? Quite easily, in fact.  You just have to remember a few things about alcohol and brewing.  All our alcoholic beverages are created by a fermentation process that turns sugars from plant products into ethyl alcohol, a substance we can safely ingest in moderate quantities.  So if a plant product has sugar in it, it can theoretically be fermented into a drink. (There are other factors why not all fruits can be made into a good beverage, but let’s leave that aside as we’re doing a fantasy setting after all).

So let’s go into the first stage of brewing your own fantasy hooch:

What’s it made of?

The most common alcoholic beverages are made from the fermentation of either grapes or grain.  Vodka, also very common, was originally made only from grain but now some vodka is made from potatoes.  Rum is made from sugarcane. So much for the common stuff. What else is out there?

Mead, as Ibn Fadhlan found out to his great encouragement in the movie 13th Warrior, is made from honey.  Mongolians make kumiss from mare’s milk. Some African peoples brew a kind of beer from plantain bananas.  Palm toddy, also known as arak in some countries and as tuba where I live, is made from the sap of the coconut palm.

Tuba is further refined by distillation into a hellish (but delicious!) potation called lambanog. In the provinces of the Cordillera range, far to the north of Manila, a wine made from the berries of the bugnay bush is becoming popular.  In Polynesia, the root of a pepper-like plant is pounded to make kava.

As anything with sugar can theoretically be fermented, you can also look elsewhere for your sugar sources.  How about nectar? In my Twilight Age setting, I came up with the idea for Nineflower Wine, an exotic and very rare wine made from the nectars of nine different rare jungle flowers.  And because of the exotic ingredients, I decided the wine also had some extra side effects – it was an aphrodisiac and euphoric. 

Where’s it from?

Another major factor to consider in creating your world’s booze is where it comes from.  Today we can often expect to pay much more for a certain bottle of wine just because it came from a reputed winery.  What regions in your world are known for their beverages?  Why are said beverages famous?

What else is in it?

Many liquors are made with the addition of other ingredients for flavoring.  A lot of spices and condiments make their way into liquor as well as food in our own world – from chocolate to caraway seeds to citrus fruit essences to worms and snakes! What else might your fantasy world’s people put in their drinks? The blood of rare and dangerous monsters? Venom from a sea serpent?

What does it do?

We all know of course what in the end all alcohol will do: it gets us drunk.  But what else could drinking an exotic liquor do? You can think in terms of drug-like effects, or aspects of your game world that might be interesting to affect in this way. 

How about a very rare and expensive wine that really slows down ageing? Or a wine that causes you to dream prophetic dreams?  A wine that saps the ability to work magic? A wine containing sea serpent venom that gives you water breathing and the ability to understand the languages of sea creatures and marine races? Lots of possibilities there that you can arrive at just by free association.

Drinking Customs

Sometimes it’s not so much what you drink as how you drink it.  Here’s a table of possible drinking customs your world’s societies could have, many of them culled from various real-world cultures:

  1. You may never refuse a drink offered to you, otherwise you insult your host’s hospitality
  2. When someone offers you a toast, you must toast that person back or offer a toast to another guest
  3. It is an honor to be invited to drink from the host’s cup, and an insult to your host if you refuse
  4. You may only offer a drink to your social inferiors or equals
  5. You must always offer the first drink to the gods or spirits
  6. There is a precise order in which toasts are offered, e.g. first to the king, then to the queen, then to the patriarch, then to the local lord, then to your host; missing any of them is considered discourteous and unpatriotic, maybe even treasonous.
  7. Before taking your first drink, you or a representative of your party must offer a verse in praise of your host
  8. Some kinds of wine or other liquor are considered reserved for ceremonial uses, and consumption of them outside of the ritual or by non-priests is sacrilegious
  9. If you leave a banquet sober, you have insulted the hospitality of your host
  10. Being offered a cup by a maiden is a sign she wants to be courted by you; by extension, offering a cup to a person of opposite sex is considered a courtship ritual or the preliminary to a proposition
  11. You must consume exactly as many cups as your host, no more and no less
  12. No banquet is complete unless it ends with a drinking game in which the loser of every round must drain a full cup; the game may involve guessing or riddles, contests of poetry, knife- or dart-throwing in a warlike society, maybe even insults and contests to see who can tell the bawdiest joke

If you want to use these in your campaigns, feel free to just roll a d12 on this list.  Cheers!

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