March 31, 2011


Sensawunda.  A word supposedly coined by sci fi fans sometime in the 40s or 50s, derived of course from the phrase ‘sense of wonder.’  And one of the main reasons why I play RPGs.

The question is, what exactly creates it? How to bring it into my games and share it with my players? Are exotic and detailed settings the key?  How to take themes that every game designer has done before and give them a fresh, inviting spin? Is sensawunda even important to the current crop of gamers as a whole?

Questions, questions, questions ….

March 30, 2011

Hari Ragat: Reasons for Voyaging

The Vijadesan people enjoy one of the most bountiful environments that can be imagined: a lush tropical paradise wherein the jungles are full of fruits and game, the seas full of fish, the climate so mild clothes are practically unnecessary all year round. So why risk voyaging? Many reasons, if you’re a member of the Orang Dakila warrior caste. Roll 1d6:

  1. Raiding
  2. Courting a noble maiden
  3. Answering a plea for help
  4. Diplomatic mission
  5. Quest for magic
  6. Exploration and pioneering

Then add details:

  1. What’s the specific objective?
  2. What’s at stake for the heroes?
  3. Who or what opposes the heroes?
  4. Who else can the heroes interact with?
  5. What wondrous thing might the heroes encounter?

And voila, an adventure!

Creatures of Syrene: Fire Apes

The fire apes of the Axuman jungles are dreaded by all Axuman tribes for their cunning, ferocity, and taste for human flesh.  Standing as high as eight feet tall when they walk erect, fire apes are incredibly strong and are intelligent enough to use fire and make themselves fire-hardened weapons like spears and clubs. 

Fire apes normally live hidden in the deep jungle, but from time to time sally out in small bands to steal cattle and take human captives for devouring in their lairs.  They have even been known to set a village on fire in order to force its inhabitants out so they can catch the fleeing villagers. Fire apes look very gorilla-like, save for having longer legs that let them walk upright better; from afar, they can be indistinguishable from the peaceful gorilla.

March 28, 2011

Hari Ragat: Voyage Narrative Structure

The core story upon which Hari Ragat adventures are built is the Voyage.  The heroes depart, go somewhere wondrous and dangerous, and if things go well, return with some kind of treasure and tales of deeds increasing their renown.  More specifically, I’m thinking this can be broken into four acts:

Call to Adventure
A player character – either volunteered by a player or chosen by whatever means the GM likes – states a destination and a reason for going there, and recruits the other PCs to join him/her on the voyage. 

Preparations are made and the heroes set off.  The voyage will usually be a trip by sea, but it may also involve an overland trek.  Obstacles and hazards will be encountered, and must either be avoided or defeated.

On reaching the destination, the heroes wil undergo some great trial of their courage, cunning, or other abilities.  The purpose of this great trial is to give the playes something satisfyingly exciting to play against. This may be a battle, a duel with some champion, a fight with a monster, a challenge involving diplomacy or intrigue, or a series of courtship challenges.  The latter should give players who want to roleplay more an interesting hook.  

Their purpose achieved, the heroes return home.  Depending on the desired play time and presence of unresolved story elements, the GM may give the players another challenge or two to get home.  Perhaps the princess they just won had rival suitors who now want to try abducting her.  Or perhaps that giant they slew has an angry brother.  The return act should reinforce the feeling of triumph and epic accomplishment for the whole adventure.

I’m also thinking that this simple 4-act structure can help Hari Ragat GMs create and run episodic one-shot games.  From my perspective, the episodic one-shot is the best compromise between Real Life™ and natural desire to maintain a character and see that character grow over successive sessions of play.

Hari Ragat: Flavors of Magic

There are basically two kinds of magic-workers in Hari Ragat.  There are those with magical gifts, which include most supernatural monsters and characters with supernatural gifts; and there are those who work magic through their ability to communicate with and coerce members of the spirit world.  These latter can be divided into several distinctive traditions.  First, practitioners of gift magic:

Gift Magic
Characters can be created with innate magical Traits or with Assets detailing their magical possessions.  Such magic is always narrowly thematic, but its use is merely an effort of will by the character.  No lengthy rituals or paraphernalia are involved, save for magic that is bound to a specific item.

Innate magic is usually the result of supernatural parentage and may take many forms.  For example, the child of the wind god may have the power to control the wind and fly, or possess an heirloom item that has wind-based powers.

Shamanic Magic of the Babaylans
The shamans of the Vijadesans, called babaylan or katalunan have a combination of native ability and esoteric learning passed down through family traditions and spirit-quests which they can use to communicate with and coerce, repel, or bind spirits. The main function of the shaman is to maintain good relations between their mortal community and the spirit world; however they are also very capable of using their powers to protect their people or for personal gain.

Vijadesans recognize four basic types of spirits: anito, the spirits of dead ancestors; diwata, the noble, man-like and powerful guardian spirits of Nature; taung-lupa, the 'Little People,' a diverse class of beings universally known for being small in stature, and mischievous or outrightly malicious demeanor; and finally the dreaded halimaw, monstrous unnatural beings who hate and prey on man.

Witchcraft: Barang
Sorcerers called mambabarang use magical insects to work their foul magic.  They can infect their victims with insect-borne diseases, implant insect colonies in living bodies as a horrible and often lethal curse, or even possess another's mind by implanting a magic insect in the victim's head*.

Witchcraft: Kulam
Sorcerers who use salves, potions and philters to work their magic are called mangkukulam, 'those who work kulam.'  The mangkukulam uses subterfuge to get his or her preparations onto or into the victim, which can then make the victim fall sick, writhe in crippling pain, go mad, etc. etc.

Witchcraft: Gaway
Practitioners of the gaway tradition use fire in a gruesome manner to inflict their victims with burning pain and even cause them to spontaneously combust.  The tools of the manggagaway's trade are candles, incense, wax and inflammable oils.

Witchcraft: Tuyol
One of the possible perversions of a shaman's powers is creating tuyol homunculi.  A shaman can bind the spirit of a dead child, usually a stillborn one, into the child's body to create an undead servant.  A tuyol can become invisible at will, climb like a spider, and share its sensory inputs with its master.  It can only act at night, sleeping by day inside its funerary urn which the master must hide.  The tuyol is bound to follow whoever possesses its urn, and destroying this urn also destroys the tuyol.

*That last one doesn't exist in the stories of mambabarang that I've seen, but it seemed a logical and interesting addition to their portfolio.

March 27, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Skinmasker

Skinmaskers are creations of the vile ssathra, living weapons meant to cause terror and confusion to man.  When the ssathra capture a human being they use their foul magics to take that human’s skin and seed, and from the latter create a human-ssathra hybrid that can wear the skin.  Wearing the human’s skin lets the ssathra assume the appearance of the now-dead person, and in this guise it tries to join the victim’s comrades and family. 

If successful, the skinmasker then embarks on a career of murder; it stalks and devours individuals, taking their skins as new disguises.  If attacked and cornered, a skinmasker can shed its human guise to take the form of a large venomous snake (a king cobra).  Doing so however prevents it from ever taking human guise again, and it dies soon after.  Skinmaskers can look and sound like the victims whose skins they have taken, but will usually not know some details of the person’s life and can thus be caught by perceptive characters.

March 26, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Shrakkai

The shrakkai are a savage race of bird-men haunting a few of the Perfumed Isles.  Once a prince of the Barracoan tribe dared to ravish Shiraki,  daughter of the wind god, and for vengeance she formed her offspring into the shrakkai.  Now the bird-men plague the Islanders, raiding their livestock and fish-drying racks, carrying off children to devour, attacking and sinking boats.  They have a magical link to the Barracanuns, such that whenever a sea gypsy walks on any of the southern isles the shrakkai will sense him or her and be drawn to that isle.

The shrakkai look like humanoid crows or frigate birds, with black plumage and tall red crests on their heads, but their wings have three clawed digits at the joint that serve as fingers and as weapons.  Their most powerful weapon however are the bony spurs on their feet. 
They do not use tools or manufactured weapons.  A favorite tactic is to pick up an opponent, lift him several feet into the air, and drop him into the sea or onto a hard surface.  (Shrakkai can’t carry an adult human very far, so the maximum height they take up a victim is usually less than 6 feet).

The oldest shrakkai also gain the power to organize a shrakkai flock to do a Stormdance; these are called Storm Chiefs.  The flock must number at least twelve, including the Storm Chief, and when they do the wheeling aerial dance, storm spirits are awakened and gathered, thus birthing a typhoon.  The Stormdancers continue wheeling in the eye of the typhoon until the storm naturally peters out, and they can direct where the storm should go and maintain its strength as long as the storm is over the sea.   To stop a shrakkai-raised storm, the Storm Chief must be slain.

March 25, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Red Apes

Red apes are man-size carnivorous apes that relish human flesh and will even fatten human captives for later feasts.  Red apes stand about 5.5 feet tall, but are much broader and stockier than humans; their arms are proportionately longer, and their posture is hunched, with large swag bellies.  Very dark crimson fur covers their bodies and limbs, but their faces are naked, marked by large round eyes and heavy jaws full of sharp teeth.  They live in tribes led by the largest, strongest males, or bulls.

Red apes are good climbers and swimmers, faster and more powerful than humans in any environment, and usually kill their victims by strangling with their big hands.  They usually hunt at night, surrounding and rushing shore encampments, or sometimes even swim out to board anchored ships to drag away a few captives.  Within their forest lairs, the red apes may feed their victims with a drugged root that deadens the mind but stimulates constant eating. The victims fattened thus are slaughtered and eaten whenever the tribe’s leader desires, which may be within days or not for years.

March 24, 2011

Battle for Hindustan Video

Creatures of Syrene: Mudfang

Mudfangs are hideously ugly, pop-eyed and needle-toothed fish about eight inches long that can survive out of water for a time. They hunt on the shallows and mudflats of some southern islands in large swarms.  Mudfangs move about by hopping on their leglike front fins, and can hop faster than a man can run in the sticky, sucking morasses that they dwell on.  These fish lie buried up to their eyeballs in mud most of the time, almost invisible, but when prey enters their range they burst out of hiding and attack en masse.  They will attack creatures larger than themselves, and can pull down wading birds, wild pigs, sea lizards, even humans by sheer force of numbers. 

March 23, 2011

Vivid 3.0: Resource Management & Sanctioned Cheating

I’m making the Vivid RPG as a genre-generic but play style-specific game, specifically to encourage cinematic role-playing. Role-playing shouldn’t stop when an action scene begins, it should intensify and charge up the whole table! So my quest for the past several years, when I had time to work on the system or playtest it, has been to find ways to encourage player behaviors and develop player experiences I want using my mechanics.

To add that feel of a desperate race against time and hostile forces, I wanted to add resource management to the game – but it had to be simple.  Thus the idea of Assets.  You can ‘tap’ relevant Assets for extra dice to roll for character’s actions.

However, tapping the Asset drains it – you temporarily lower its rating by one for every die you took.  The internal logic here is that you’re exhausting a resource – tapping physical assets like ‘Strong as an Ox’ or ‘Pantherish Agility’ leads to fatigue, tapping armor to save your character’s life makes the armor weaker, and so on.  And because I’m keeping the numbers pretty low, it encourages players to think and plan according to their character’s strengths.

Which leads to the other mechanic that I rely on to encourage desired player behaviors.  I want my players to really entertain me – after all, as GM I’m in the game for fun too – so I want my players to get creative with their actions and their narrations of them.  So I introduced sanctioned cheating: if you can describe your actions so well I either see an advantage for your character in it or I’m really entertained  by it, I’ll give you bonus dice! You get more dice to roll without having to pay for them.  After all, who can resist a freebie?

Creatures of Syrene: Lamia

Lamias are hybrids bred by the ssathra for the destruction of human sailors and fishermen, using captured human women.  A lamia has the form of an extraordinarily beautiful woman from the waist up, and a scaly serpent from the waist down.   They live in colonies of 3-6 or so, choosing always rocky shallows near an island, and some colonies have a larger, more powerful lamia queen ruling them. 

Their voices are magically alluring, and they use songs to lure sailors and fishermen to the rocks where their vessels break up, whereupon the lamias come out and seize the floundering men to devour them.  Their enchantment however does not work on women.  When forced to fight, lamias attack with claws. Sometimes the lamias are used by ssathra as living lures to capture humans for their vile experiments.

March 22, 2011

Vivid 3.0: Representing Species

Even in a human-centric fantasy or science fiction game, there will always be the player who wants to play some kind of alien species.  Elves. Half-orcs. Vulcans. Twi’lek.

Now, my eyes always glaze over when I look at the D20 stat blocks for creating an alien character, so I want something much simpler for Vivid. The answer I think is in this simple template:

Attach the species/race/culture name to your main occupation Trait.  For example, in an Arthurian campaign you could make a French Knight, in a high fantasy campaign you could have an Elven Ranger of Somethingmoon Forest.

There may be required or suggested Assets for you to buy with your allotment of 10 Asset Dice.  You may even be allowed to buy up an Asset to a higher than normal rating.

Of course, doing so will leave you with less for other stuff, balancing out your access to these nifty things with lessened spending power. For example, you might be able to buy Natural Armor, which can ‘stack’ protection with worn armor.

There may be required or suggested Hooks for your chosen race/species/culture.  For example, Felyrans in the Sea Rovers of Syrene setting are supposed to be Afraid of Deep Water.

Vivid 3.0: Assets

Assets represent a character's special qualities that aren't covered by any Traits, plus a character's significant possessions, privileges, and other benefits.  This is where an imaginative player can have a ball really customizing his or her character.

You have 10 dice to distribute to your Assets, max of 5 dice to any one Asset.  Wanna be strong? Make up an Asset like Steel Cord Thews and assign dice to it.  Wanna be Dejah Thoris? Make up an Asset like Incomparable Beauty and assign dice to it.   Wanna own a neat suit of armor? Make it up and assign dice to it.

My setting books for Vivid will include suggestions on what unique Assets characters can take, divided by region/culture.  As a GM I'll normally enforce restrictions on what a character can get based on their origins - for example a player in Sea Rovers of Syrene who wants a Saberhorn Bow will have to be a Palmarian or Felyran, this item only being available in Palmaria.

The most important function of Assets is to aid in actions by providing bonus dice.  You may 'tap' an Asset for extra dice to roll until it is exhausted, after which you must take some kind of action to refresh that Asset.  For example, a Sorceress with the Asset: Beloved of the Wind Spirits 4 can get up to 4 extra dice when casting wind spells.

Another very important function of Assets: damage is soaked or avoided by spending dice from your appropriate Assets.  Armor and shields are of course Assets, but again here a creative player can come up with ways to use other Assets to save their characters.

Vivid 3.0: Knacks

New idea: Knacks.  Knacks are used to represent unquantified special abilities like immunity to a certain type of damage, the ability to breathe water, the ability to fly, etc. etc.  Player characters don't always have to have Knacks, but Knacks can be a neat way of making creatures and villains excitingly different.  Some nonhuman races could have free Knacks.

Vivid 3.0: Traits

Characters in Vivid 3.0 are defined in terms of their Traits, Assets, and Hooks.

Traits tell you what the character is and thus what the character can do.  Traits are freeform – players get to choose or make up Traits for their characters.  Players assign four Traits on a 4-3-2-1 ‘stepladder’ so everyone ends up specializing in something, and is weak at something.

I envision Traits to be shorthand dramatic role descriptions that can immediately tell the GM what the player is interested in doing and maybe how he wants the character to do it. 
If for example I give my character a Trait: Debonair Lady’s Man, my GM should expect that I want to have a crack at roleplaying seduction attempts and/or romantic entanglements.  If I give my character a Trait: Cunning Swordsman, my GM should expect that my character tries to win in close combat using tricks and quick thinking.

I’m also heavily influenced by S. John Ross’ Risus system, wherein players are encouraged to write up highly descriptive Traits. I just love this idea, and will go so far as to bribe players to do it: if by your Trait description you can do something even better than normal, and you do roleplay according to that Trait description, I'll give you an Advantage bonus die.

Creatures of Syrene: Diminun

Islander legendry is rife with conflicting tales of “Little People,” or Diminun, manlike supernatural tricksters who can bedevil folk with theft, bad luck, rotting crops, and disease unless placated with offerings of food.  It is said the Diminun will often kidnap a child to play with, and if pleased, will release the child a few days later with no memories of the event and a gift.  Other accounts, however, portray them as ferocious cannibals.  It is believed however that they have either left or been forced out of the oldest-settled islands, but may still be active in Nava Langra, the Almaryans and other relatively recent colonies.

The truth: Diminuns are the remnants of the southern islands’ original people, transformed and corrupted by the magic of a rebel deev.  Their minds have been reduced to a retarded, child-like state ruled by emotions, and further warped to give them cannibalistic tendencies, which however manifest only occasionally.   They have the magical power to become invisible and inaudible in shadows or darkness, which has led to them adopting nocturnal habits.  They live as primitive hunter-gatherers, without any tools or weapons, but often steal food and any objects that take their fancy from human villages and encampments.  If angered they can inflict curses of ill-luck and ill-health, or even attack en masse with thrown rocks.

March 21, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Tokayids

The tokayids are a race of small, nonviolent lizardmen that inhabit some of the Perfumed Isles.  Like all lizardmen, the tokayids are products of ssathra breeding and mutation magic, but judging from their inoffensive nature, they must be a failed experiment from the ssathra point of view.  Tokayids stand no more than three feet tall, with a very thin build, large splayed hands and toes, a long tail, and very large round eyes on their snub-snouted lizard heads.  Their scales are mottled in subtle brown hues that let them blend easily into jungle, making them very hard to see when they are in the trees.  They eat fruit and small animals, which they stalk and bring down with just their hands and teeth, and if endangered they can spit globs of nauseating mucus. 

Over the years, the gentle nature of the tokayids has won them friendship with the inhabitants of some islands.  In Malacaria and Kanga, tokayids are often seen as servants and helpers in the fields and orchards.  However, they are known for a propensity to theft, as they love to steal and hide shiny objects; it is said that only male tokayids do this, and it may have to do with their mating instincts.  Wild tokayids are also known to steal chickens and other small livestock, but never prey on humans.  The only time tokayids become a danger to man is when they fall under the spell of a ssathra or skinmasker, who can magically command any reptile to do their bidding.  The Malacarians and Kangans of course have no knowledge of this aspect of their friendly servants.

Creatures of Syrene: Ssathra

The ssathra are the wisest and probably the most evil of the children of Seshana, cunning and malicious lurkers in secret places who are always planning the downfall of man.  They were defeated in their last attempt to war openly against mankind, however, and so exist only in small, hidden colonies on uninhabited islands and remote places, usually underground. Some live in caves that can only be entered from the sea.

The ssathra themselves are a physically unprepossessing race, being quite weak and delicate.  They have the form of a scaly humanoid with snakelike head from the waist up, and the tail  of a serpent from the waist down.  They are thin and very pale in complexion, with the red eyes of albinos.  If pressed to fight, they defend themselves with rope darts and serrated sabers, or with claws and teeth and a constricting attack.   However, they cannot stand strong sunlight.  The barbed rope dart used by the ssathra warriors can capture an opponent and drag him into the ssathra’s reach, often to be overwhelmed by a whole gang of ssathra warriors.

The ssathra are masters of creating magical hybrids and mutations, and they take a horrible delight in capturing humans for their unholy experiments.  Many kinds of giant reptile as well as reef devils, tyrogs, skinmaskers and lamias are ssathra creations, and some of these will always be present as guardians at a ssathra lair.  All ssathra possess an innate power over all reptiles; lesser ssathra can always pacify any reptile, while ssathra sorcerers can actually command any reptile to do their bidding.

March 20, 2011

Creatures of Syrene: Ghost Ship

by nasirkhan

Ghost ships are a terror sailors whisper of on fog-bound nights when nothing can be seen.  Always appearing out of a fog, a ghost ship appears as a battered hulk with torn and tattered sails, her crew nowhere to be seen.  Some ghost ships, however, might appear but newly abandoned, or even completely normal save for a few small details only a sharp eye might catch. In fact the crew are all dead, and their restless spirits possess and animate the ship itself, filling it with their misery and anger.  Deranged, these spirits want nothing but to have others join them in death. 

A ghost ship may tempt sailors to board her, then kill them off by causing accidents – ropes suddenly loop into nooses, doors may close by themselves to lock characters into flooding bulkheads, etc. etc.  Or the ship may simply inspire everyone with terror, and drive the PCs’ ship toward rocky shoals.  A ghost warship may attempt to ram.  A funeral rite successfully performed aboard the ghost ship will send its spirits onward to their rest, and end the haunting; but once this is done, the ghost ship will sink, possibly dragging down anyone left on board.

A ghost ship may also serve as a plot device, introducing a new quest or clue to the PCs – if they’re brave enough to investigate.  Finding out the ship’s name, its history, and why it became a ghost ship could reward the player characters with useful information or items.

March 14, 2011

Magic System Idea

For some reason I got started thinking about magic systems today.  Here’s the germ of an idea, inspired in part by the Pendragon magic system:

First, magic-capable characters have a pool of Power dice.  This is what is used to cast spells.  If you’re out of Power dice, you can’t cast spells until you somehow regain your dice. Let’s say your Power dice are all d6’s.

Second, spells where the effect has to be quantified are cast by rolling a chosen number of Power dice to generate an Effect Rating.  This gives spellcasters great flexibility and the tactical challenge of managing their Power as a resource. 

For example, you could pop off quite a number of 1d6-power spells and call them Fire Darts; or you could save your energies, and throw an 8d6 Fire Storm to take down a single BBEG or a large number of enemy cannon fodder.

Spells where the results need not be quantified are cast simply by spending a required number of dice from your pool. No Effect Rating is needed.  For example, if you want a spell to turn yourself invisible you just pay the needed dice, say two dice.

The Effect Rating of a cast spell will also be the sum needed to dispel or counter it.  For example, a king is cursed by an evil sorceress to assume a beast’s shape; the spell was cast with an Effect Rating of 47.  To undo the curse will require that our heroes cast a dispel with an Effect Rating of 48 or higher.

This simple system can be made more interesting by throwing in another simple mechanic: a limitation on the number of dice any spellcaster can roll at any one time.  The nature and effects of the limitation are up to you, there are a lot of possibilities here:

- Maximum number of dice that may be rolled at any one time is based on skill.  A sorcerer may have a lot of raw power, but not enough skill to channel it effectively.

- A spellcasting character may have several different disciplines of magic under his belt, each rated at a different number of dice.

- Perhaps casting a spell using more dice than one’s skill limit has potentially harmful effects, e.g. fatigue, injury, even death or worse. You could play it safe, or intentionally break your limits to achieve an epic result, with an attached heroic cost.

- This dice pooling mechanic easily allows for the addition of group-casting mechanics in your magic system.

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