November 30, 2011

Anne McCaffrey & Michael Whelan

In remembering Anne McCaffrey, who died last November 21st, I also ended up reminiscing over Michael Whelan and the impact his art has had on me. 

Dragon Flight (C) Michael Whelan

I picked up my very first Pern book, Dragonflight, partly because I’d read an excerpt from it in an anthology (Weyr Search), and partly because of the cover.  At the time I was not yet aware of Michael Whelan, only appreciative that the cover always gave me a good visualization of Pern’s dragons.

White Dragon (C) Michael Whelan

My favorite Pern book was The White Dragon, as I found its young hero very sympathetic (I being also an adolescent at the time), the wilderness exploration angle and discovery by the Pernese that they’d come from another world getting my sci-fi adventure glands all a-tingle, and of course there was this astounding Whelan cover.  The Whelan covers did a lot to sell McCaffrey’s books to me then, and when I take them down from my shelf for an afternoon’s reading it’s often the cover that makes me do it.  Guess it’s all part of being very visually oriented.

The Many-Colored Land (C) Michael Whelan

I first realized that I was consistently getting Whelan-covered books when I got Julian May’s The Many-Colored Land, book one of the Pliocene Exiles series.  I was floored by the gorgeous artwork and incredible attention to detail as soon as I saw the book on the shelf, and on picking it up to skim through it, I got hooked on Julian May’s warm characterization and subtle wit.  This is the one Whelan painting I really really want to buy a print of, but for some strange reason it’s not even listed on his site.  I wonder why.

Vanishing Tower (C) Michael Whelan

Sailor on the Seas of Fate (C) Michael Whelan

I also began to find the M-rune, as my friends and I called it, on editions of Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone series and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, the latter having been my very first introduction to the speculative fiction genres but with the Gino D’Achille covers.  I now set about buying as many of these books as I could.

Llana of Gathol (C) Michael Whelan

Princess of Mars (C) Michael Whelan

Whelan’s often cunningly-hidden monogram became a seal of approval for me when buying books.  With a Whelan cover, I could trust that what I was seeing was actually related to the stories and imagined worlds I would find between the covers – not always a guarantee with other artists!  Indeed, had Del Rey’s new release of the Pliocene Exile (non-Whelan cover) been my first contact with it, I may not even have looked at it!

Tarrant's Realm (C) Michael Whelan

Green Angel Tower (C) Michael Whelan

It was through Whelan also that I got hooked on two of my current favorite authors, Celia S. Friedman and Tad Williams. Whelan’s cover for Green Angel Tower, the conclusion of Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, is my second or third favorite Whelan painting (can’t decide between this and A Princess of Mars!). 

So.  I’ve been buying Pern books and Whelan covers since the late 70’s, and I’m still doing it.  Looking back, it’s amazing how much my tastes were guided and influenced by these two masters. Madam McCaffrey’s gone, but here’s hoping Michael Whelan will continue pointing us to good reads for many years to come.  Hope you enjoyed this visual trip!

Hari Ragat: Vijadesan Cities

Before describing the various settled terrains of the Jangalans, it’s necessary to get acquainted with the Vijadesan idea of a town or city. Unlike the well-defined, stone-enclosed cities you might find in a European-inspired fantasy world, a typical Vijadesan bayan sprawls across the land as a network of villages, waterways, and farmland.

Click to enlarge

Vijadesans refer to towns, cities and kingdoms with the same word, bayan. The bayan has no definite borders, but instead is defined by a web of patronage and alliances. Most cities are ruled by a lakan or rajah, who is patron to all the lesser datus in the area. Some cities however have no rajah, but instead are held by a coalition of datus, who have all agreed to settle the area together and run a cooperative community. The territory of a bayan is thus all the land contiguously occupied and used by its residents. 

This dispersed pattern of settlement means that cities can grow very big in terms of area, and yet have a pretty small population. Some coastal and riverside trading cities, however, are very densely populated, with most of the people living near the waterfronts. A few cities center around a stone fort, a kota, which usually figures in the city’s name – for example, Kota Batulao – but effectively includes a much wider area.

November 29, 2011

Hari Ragat: Agimat

Agimat are magical amulets or charms, which in the Hari Ragat setting are obtained as gifts from the diwatas (or, very rarely, the Busaw).  They may take the form of jewelry or clothes to be worn, or a fruit or seed that must be swallowed.  Their powers are usually protective – the ability to soak damage, immunity to a certain weapon or effect, longevity and health, etc. etc.

In Filipino folklore, it was possible to obtain agimat by performing certain rites at specific locations of power – often graveyards, or the wilderness – or by holding nocturnal vigil to be able to catch some enchanted object that only appears at midnight under certain conditions. I’m blending with this the Hindu concept of tapas, spiritual austerities practiced by heroes to gain gifts from the gods, as told in the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

In the Hari Ragat setting, a hero wanting to obtain an agimat must persuade a diwata into doing so.  This is done by making offerings to the diwata, and by undergoing an ordeal in the wilderness.  Diwata are loath to give out agimat, as these things are charged with their own life force; making and giving one away weakens them, possibly for years. 

Thus to convince a diwata to give one away means passing some difficult tests of temptation and fear.  The supplicant must endure repeated attempts to frighten him or her, or temptations to break a taboo, for nine straight nights; if this is accomplished, the diwata has no choice but to relent, for it is bound by the rite.  Sometimes the diwata specifies that an agimat must be returned to it after a set time, so the power may be enjoyed by a generation or so after the first hero who acquired it, and then it must be let go or the diwata who made it will turn it into a curse.

Of course, some diwata have given away agimat not because they were pressured into it, but for love.  Such treasures are of permanent benefit, and eagerly sought after. 

Because agimat often have a form that can be stolen, their possessors are usually secretive about them.  Sooner or later, however, the possession of an agimat becomes obvious, and then the possessor finds that his rivals increase as more and more people want to wrest the magic away from him.

November 27, 2011

Hari Ragat: Beware the Halimaw

Sumatran Tiger: image from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been debating whether or not to include the tiger in the fauna of the Hari Ragat setting.  But wait, Hari Ragat is inspired by the ancient Philippines, and there were never any tigers in the Philippines, right? 

The Malay word for tiger, harimau, exists as halimaw in several Philippine languages, but here it is a generic term for ‘monster.’  Anything large, frightening, and usually supernatural in its nature can be termed halimaw.  Show the typical Filipino a picture of a tiger, and he’ll call it a tigre, using the Spanish word.

So, no tigers.  Until, motivated by a curious itch, I searched Tiger + Philippines on the net.  And came across this: archaeological evidence of tigers on Palawan from 10-12,000 years ago.  Apparently Palawan was connected to or very near Borneo in the Pleistocene, when sea levels were lower; for the same reason, it was also a much bigger island then. After sea levels rose at the end of the Pleistocene, Palawan shrank, and this loss of habitat plus perhaps conflict with man ended the tiger population there.

So – there will be one, possibly more, islands with tigers.  These islands will be ‘lost world’ environments.  Now this has got me thinking of including the Malay were-tiger (harimau akuan) as an optional member of the Aswang family.

Hari Ragat: The New Aswang

I’ve decided on a new take for the Aswang and similar shapeshifting banes of mankind in Hari Ragat.  I’m hoping this will make them feel creepier and at the same time add a bit of human tragedy to them.

All Aswang were formerly human beings, more frequently female than male, who acquired the power to transform into the shapes of beasts or monstrous  beings through black magic, or inherited it from an Aswang forebear.  The temptations to become Aswang can be very powerful: longevity, youth, beauty, and increased spiritual power, which of course is useful for a lot of things.  Another possible motivation for a person to seek to become Aswang is revenge, often for crimes against women such as rape.

There are many kinds of Aswang; some transform into animals like dogs or crocodiles, some take on a ghostly, immaterial shadow-form, some simply grow hideous fangs and wings.  An Aswang’s ‘monster’ form depends on the ritual used to initially become Aswang.  Each form also prefers a different kind of ‘food’ – some prefer human corpses, some prefer unborn fetuses, some children, and so on.

Aswang can masquerade as ordinary people most of the time, with few if any signs of their supernatural aspect.  Cunning predators, they employ many tricks to keep their nighttime forays secret, and to cast doubt as to why their victims disappear or die.  For example, an Aswang that feeds on unborn fetuses may choose sickly mothers to victimize; when the child is lost, or if the mother dies during pregnancy, no one is surprised.

However, the longer an Aswang lives, the greater its hunger becomes.  New Aswang may feel the need to feed on human flesh or viscera only once in a year; as they grow older and more evil, they may start needing to feed monthly, then weekly, then nightly.  At this point their presence in a community can no longer be hidden, and the hunt for them begins. 

The hunt for an Aswang can be an intriguing whodunit type of adventure, with multiple suspects and the need to find out which is the real culprit without harming any innocents, and keeping the body count from getting any higher.

November 25, 2011

Hari Ragat: Sign of the Monkey

These snippets of history are extracted from the Song of Namwaran:

Rajah Mangawarna was vouchsafed a secret oracle by a diwata, who foretold that one of his descendants would do mankind a great good if he were to sail south until he saw a sign foretelling that future.

When he encamped on the island of Bannang, Mangawarna saw a monkey, the leader of its troop, battling and defeating a monitor lizard twice its size. Believing this was the sign, he settled on Bannang. His descendant Rajah Indarapatra would later conquer the Busaw giants, just as the monkey had conquered the monitor lizard.

November 23, 2011

Hari Ragat: Fall of Maha Vijadesa

These snippets of history are extracted from the Song of Namwaran.  The following takes place after the end of  the Burning Wars, when Rajah Matanglawin conquered Maha Vijadesa and forced the Samil kings to submit to him.

Some forty years after the death of Rajah Hinayon Samil, his kingdom of Maha Vijadesa was a fragmented land divided between several rival rajahs. These often raided into the kingdoms of Dharupala and Uparaya, until King Darmadewa of Uparaya led an allied army into Maha Vijadesa and extirpated them all.

This left the Jangalan Vijadesans as the only independent remnants of their race, the inhabitants of Maha Vijadesa either being enslaved or fleeing west to join with their Jangalan kindred.

The last surviving Samil, a boy named Isah, was spirited off to Namwaran by some loyal followers. There he was placed in the protection of Rajah Bagwis, son of Rajah Matanglawin who had conquered the Samils. Rajah Bagwis Namwaran Sikanda Bayahari* received Isah Samil into his court, but never allowed Isah the title of Rajah, instead giving him a small settlement to rule and the rank of Datu.

It was said that Rajah Bagwis denied Isah a rajahnate because Bagwis too had a claim on Maha Vijadesa, and wanted no rivals for it when he was ready to advance his claim. Bagwis’ mother was Bai Lila Mayari, who had married Rajah Matanglawin a few years after the war’s end, and she too was a Samil closely related to the main Samil line. Thus his claim was both by conquest through his father, and by blood through his mother. Isah on the other hand was only distantly related to Rajah Hinayon, and so was held to have a lesser claim.

This slight however never to be forgotten by Isah or his descendants, and would lead to much evil later.

*This long name indicates that Bagwis is of the line of Namwaran, of the line of Sikanda Bayahari.

Hari Ragat: Mount Kumintang

Mount Kumintang is a volcano in the south-central region of Balayan Island, and is the home of a male diwata which the people keep asleep through a curious custom.

To keep the diwata from being angered and thus causing an eruption, there is always a maiden who serves as the Flautist of Mount Kumintang. She must be a virgin, and she must of course be good with the flute, for she must spend her days lulling the diwata to sleep with music.

Spellbinding, Take Two

In a previous post, I talked about an alternative magic system for D&D where, instead of a fixed spell list, player characters could come up with spell effects on the fly, based on found items.  Now Trey’s post on using a flavor of magic closer to what’s described in medieval literature got me back to this idea.

To reiterate what the Spellbinding system is all about, it’s a system whereby player characters build their spells based on associations with a found object.  For example, an eagle feather might let you summon an eagle, talk to an eagle, or grow eagle’s wings and fly, whichever is more useful to you at the moment.  Now for my new ideas on this:

Gathering Foci
Spell foci must be gathered for use, and because by default the focus is consumed in the casting, there’s always a need to gather more. 

Numinous Items
Player characters may find Numinous objects, which grant bonuses to the spellcasting because they are of an innately magical nature. 

For example, an eagle’s feather gives me a normal casting roll to do any of the above effects; but a feather from Gwaihir Windlord gives me a big fat Tolkienic Bonus for the same effects!  Now if you want an even bigger bonus, try questing for a feather from Thorondor himself.

Starting Spell Foci
GMs should work with players to determine what their starting spell foci are.  To give new, low-level characters some versatility I’d suggest Level + 3 foci, to be chosen from a list of items provided by the GM, or worked out based on character background.  (Level + INT modifier also works)

These first foci are presumed consumable; players can have a permanent focus, but it costs 2 slots. 

Let’s say I want to play a disciple of Radagast the Brown, a wizard who had an affinity with birds: given this theme, the GM lets me pick 4 consumable foci related to birds, or 1 permanent focus and 2 consumable foci related to birds, since I’m starting at first level. 

I pick an eagle’s feather, which I associate with combat uses, a crow’s feather for wise and wily scouting or trickery, a  plover feather because plovers have this neat trick of decoying predators away from their nests, and I think I can associate this with a spell for escape, and finally an owl’s feather, for finding things in the dark and maybe fighting rodents. 

November 22, 2011

Dice Dynamics in Vivid

Based on the last playtests, it looks like the dice dynamics of my Vivid system are falling into place.  The players have found it very easy to grasp the rules, and it’s been very easy to run the games – fast, good action pace, and according to players Bots and Gelo, even though they finished the combats quite quickly they felt a healthy fear of defeat.

So what works and what doesn’t? 

Replacing bonus dice for description with Risk Dice, which also require additional description to use, has worked well.  I no longer feel I’m handing out freebies or being subjective, and the players were cool with the idea of proposing their own complications or negotiating them with me before the rolls. 

The Risk Dice also reinforce a dynamic I like, which is that the players must feel they are gambling.  Games of chance are innately appealing to the human brain it seems, even to the geek  brain, as long as there is the perception that the odds can be swayed in one’s favor.  The fact that either they or I could roll multiple sixes at any time also heightened this feeling of playing for high stakes.

I’m still fine-tuning the amount of resources available to player characters and the die ratings I give their opponents.  Because to my mind, more formidable = longer to defeat, I’m starting to think of defining my encounters in terms of how long they should ideally last, rather than giving concrete numbers for how much Resistance (hit points) an opponent has.  Minor encounters should last 1-2 rounds, major encounters 3-4, epic encounters should last quite a bit longer, maybe 6 rounds or more. 

Perhaps what I’ll do is simply arm the GM with whatever is needed to keep the encounter going to the target range of rounds.  On the other hand, this could make players also metagame by simply calculating how many rounds they need to last.  Is this bad? Or is it good because it gives them a guide for how they should manage their resources?  What if the GM secretly rolls for the length of a challenge as 1d3+n rounds, or 1d6+n for more epic encounters?

If I do this, this means that the Resistance for major monsters will be open – it’s whatever the GM wishes.  The players however will not be short-changed in this, as a longer battle, requiring more Victory Points to win, simply gives more Renown afterward as the Victory Points are translated directly to Renown.  Which should end up posing the players the question, is the fame worth it or should I run now?

November 21, 2011

Hari Ragat: the Sikanda Brothers

These snippets of history are extracted from the Song of Namwaran:

The first three sons of Rajah Sikanda – Namwaran, Magat and Dakila – all had strong followings already by the time the exiles sailed from Maha Vijadesa. When Sikanda decided to remove from Irayon, his three sons spearheaded the founding of new settlements on Namaya’s rich coast.

While exploring, Namwaran encountered and slew a titanic python at the mouth of the Lakansawa River, to which he gave its name – the River of The Noble Python. On slitting its stomach open to recover the body of a follower it had devoured, Namwaran found a quantity of exquisite gold jewelry. Concluding that there must be a wealthy, cultured people living upriver, Namwaran made an expedition and so eventually met and befriended the Taglawas of Kaboloan and Maysapan.

Along the way back from Kaboloan, Magat and Dakila fought off an ambush by headhunting highlanders and then led a retaliatory raid. This was the Vijadesans’ first fight with the Dimalupi, who then were calling themselves the I-gadda. The early years of Namwaran, Tinagong-Dagat and Kaliraya were rife with wars against the Dimalupi, who despite the Vijadesans’ efforts always threw them back; for this reason Namwaran later named the highland tribes Dimalupi, the Unconquerable Ones, and they, liking the meaning, have identified themselves thus to all Vijadesans ever since.

Namwaran and Magat later married the daughters of the Rajah of Kaboloan, and Dakila married the daughter of a lakan in Maysapan. The friendship with the Taglawas also established the wealth of the Sikanda line, for the highlands of Namaya were very rich in gold, and the Taglawas spent it like water. Namwaran founded the settlement of Namwaran on the mouth of the Lakansawa, and Magat, following a Taglawa request, settled in the northwest, in Kaliraya.

November 15, 2011

Hari Ragat: Battle of the Cockpit

A snippet from the history of the Vijadesans:

Shortly after the settlement of Irayon, Lakan Ibar, son of Rajah Liyabtala, stole Dayang Bulanadi, the youngest wife of Rajah Matanda.  This began a conflict that threatened to destroy the confederation created by the exiles, so Rajah Sikanda Bayahari brokered a judicial combat.

It was agreed that Lakan Ibar and Lakan Makisig, son of Rajah Matanda, would duel for who would keep Dayang Bulanadi. The duel was to be held in the cockpit at Niladan, Rajah Sikanda’s capital.  All the other rajahs were invited to the cockpit at Niladan, Sikanda’s capital, to witness the event.

But memories of old feuds were stirring. The rajahs had started to align themselves with one camp or another, based on conflicts carried over from before the exile. Rajah Baginda, remembering an old slight against him by Matanda, had openly sided with Rajah Liyabtala and was urging him to abort the duel, by force if necessary. Rajah Bangkawil, in turn, was suspicious of Rajah Baginda’s intentions after noticing that many of Baginda’s men were staying outside the cockpit, despite their love of gambling.

Matters came to a head when, in the middle of the duel, Bangkawil saw Baginda’s men outside getting torches. He threw his spear at one of them and killed him, which caused a great uproar. In the distraction, Ibar slew Makisig with a treacherous blow. Matanda then fell upon Ibar, but was speared in the back by Rajah Liyabtala before he could kill Ibar. Thus began the tragic Battle of the Cockpit.

On one side were the men of Matanda, Bangkawil, and Tulum; on the other, the men of Liyabtala, Baginda, Mangawarna, and Sumuron. Rajah Sikanda and Rajah Laksamana tried to stop the fighting, but were powerless to do so. Sikanda and Laksamana then ordered their men to attack both the warring parties, to eject them from Niladan. 

The fighters retreated from a ruined Niladan, and the island of Irayon came to be divided between two camps: Liyabtala with Baginda, Mangawarna and Sumuron on one, Dimaranan son of Matanda with Bangkawil, Tulum, and later Laksamana on the other.  Thus began the Confederation Wars, which would later cause most of the rajahs to remove from Irayon and settle on other islands.

November 9, 2011

Recipes for Gamers: Rosemary-Crusted Roast Pork

"Sometimes, when you're a man, you get this urge to wear stretchy pants." -- Jack Black, Nacho Libre.


And I say, sometimes, when you're a man, you get this urge for Meat.  Specifically, roasted meat.  This urge is always swimming just at the edge of my consciousness, ready to surface like a Great White when I smell a barbecue on a charcoal grill, or, as happened earlier, I saw a nice cut of meat.  When I saw these ribs earlier today, I knew just what I wanted to do with them.  And yes, a diet of this will eventually necessitate stretchy pants.  What the heck.  It's good.

1 slab baby back ribs/other roasting cut (about 600+ g)
1 tsp+ rock salt
1 tsp black pepper, coarse ground
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp dried rosemary leaves
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp Italian Seasoning herbs
2 tbsp panko bread crumbs
2 tbsp olive oil

Wash and pat dry the meat.  (There are some barbecue gurus who say don't wash meat.  I say, wait til you see the overfed flies in a typical supermarket, even the good ones, and you'l change your mind.) 

Combine all the rub ingredients in a bowl, mix thoroughly, and rub onto the meat.  Make sure to massage it in well.  Drizzle the meat with olive oil; this will help keep it from going dry, and make the rub crust up nicely.

Bake for 1 hour at 300 F, and for a final 15 minutes at 450 F to brown. 

Seems the panko was really effective in keeping the juices in.  This was good without garlic, which I avoided because I was afraid garlic in the crust would burn and go bitter.  Next time, and when I have a big enough stock of olive oil, I'll make some garlic oil for cooking.  That way I can get the garlic flavor without fear of burning it.

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