March 29, 2014

Building Southeast Asian Settings, Part I

I've always wanted to see more of Southeast Asia in role playing games and fiction, not just because I'm Southeast Asian myself, but also because of the fantastic color and diversity you can find in this region. I'd like to see more game designers publish more Southeast Asian-inspired material like Kenneth Hite's Qelong, but at the same time I'm left wondering why more haven't done so already.


It doesn't seem to be for lack of demand per se -- I keep seeing posts on RPG forums and blogs about looking for such settings, and Bryan Thao Worra, a Lao writer and gamer based in the USA, has also been pursuing this line of thought. The Hari Ragat project covers only part of the full potential of the region, being concentrated on Island Southeast Asia. Thus this projected series of blog posts, aimed at helping GMs understand Southeast Asia and find the roleplaying hooks and story ideas in it, particularly in that part of history I'm most interested in, the pre-colonial eras.

This first post is about the environment, and how it shapes the flavor of Southeast Asian civilization, with occasional comparisons to Medieval Western Europe which is the 'baseline' setting for most fantasy.

Monsoon System

Climate and the Monsoons
Southeast Asia lies entirely in the tropics, and its climate is regulated by the monsoon system. This cycle of winds alternately brings cold dry air from Siberia and hot, moisture-laden air from the southwestern Indian Ocean, and it has a very big role in shaping our history and culture. It's one reason why the Southeast Asian landscape is both amazingly rich and amenable to human life, and at the same time very hostile.

On the one hand, there's the humid heat prevalent during our summers, followed by driving rain and violent typhoons. On the other hand, it's nice and warm year round, and we're incredibly rich in water, which means lush jungles, a long growing season, and big rivers that can support large-scale irrigated farming. That much rain however means we also have to deal with big floods quite often, a factor that influences lifestyle and architecture.

Lastly, the monsoons are an engine of civilization. You can think of the monsoon winds as a wheel or circular conveyor belt that very conveniently reverses direction after half a year. You may be wondering, 'so how the heck does this affect my game?' Well think on this: the monsoon winds allowed Indian, Persian, and later Arab traders to bring our spices all the way to the Roman Empire.

Silk and Spice Routes

The monsoons brought traders from the west, first the Arabs, Persians, and Indians, and then the Portuguese, and the Chinese and Japanese from the northeast. They also encouraged these visiting traders to stay a while, because the winds would bring you here, then you'd have to wait until they turn around so you can go back. That's what makes the Southeast Asian port cities such lively melting pots. The monsoon system made the Indian Ocean our Mediterranean -- even though it's much bigger, the predictable cycle of winds made getting around equally easy. And melting pots make for great adventuring bases and locations.

Southeast Asia is defined on maps as that part of Asia and nearby islands lying between China, India, and New Guinea, but in terms of people and landscape the borders get a bit blurry. States, tribes and languages straddle the modern borders, which after all are just imaginary lines on a map. You can think of Southeast Asia as beginning where it gets wetter than India and people stop speaking Sanksrit-based languages coming from the west, and where it's warmer than China and you no longer hear Chinese much if you're coming from the north.

When making maps of Southeast Asian-inspired settings, think of the kingdoms and civilizations there like blobs of ink rather than discrete shapes, the peoples and cultures naturally mixing and shading into each other at the edges. For example, the modern country of Thailand has Thais, a people originally from southern China, in the central area, Malays in the south, Khmers in the northeast, and a whole lot of different tribes scattered through its northern highlands. India and Bangladesh have pockets of a Southeast Asian people, the Assamese, within their borders, and there was once an Assamese kingdom. And though Taiwan is now considered Chinese, its aboriginal people are not Chinese but Austronesian, speaking a language that's more closely related to the various Filipino languages than to Chinese.

But Southeast Asia is also not one unit. While I've seen some settings that are loosely based on Indochina, like Qelong, there's hardly anything based on the Philippines, Indonesia or Malaysia save the token aswang or penanggalan here and there, nor have I seen anything based on the Hmong or Miao peoples.

You can think of Southeast Asia as divided into Lowland Southeast Asia, which corresponds more or less to the river valleys of modern Indochina on the map: Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and the eastern outlier Vietnam; Maritime Southeast Asia, which corresponds on the map to the lower Malay Peninsula, and the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagoes including Borneo; and finally, following the Zomia theory, I'll also put in Highland Southeast Asia, under which I'll include the Zomia mountain chains of northern Indochina and also the Cordilleras of Luzon and the mountains of inner Mindanao, and also the real 'odd man out' thanks to history, Taiwan. These geographic zones aren't exactly contiguous and homogenous, though, with parts of them sort of intruding into parts of the others.

Mainland Southeast Asia

Maritime Southeast Asia


Lowland Southeast Asia
Lowland Southeast Asia is the Southeast Asia most likely to spring to the Western eye when you mention the term; it's the Southeast Asia of the big Hindu-Buddhist temples, lazy wide rivers and floating markets, green rice fields as far as the eye can see and elephants and tigers in the jungles. This includes Indochina, but you could also include inner Java and Bali in this zone, despite the fact that they're islands, because they've more in common with this than with the rest of Maritime Southeast Asia specially in terms of how their civilizations developed.

Lowland Southeast Asia is characterized by the wide, pretty flat valleys of large river systems such as the Mekong, Chao Phraya and Irrawaddy, which allows wet rice cultivation on a very large scale. With large, relatively concentrated populations, Lowland Southeast Asian peoples could produce a lot of trade goods, sustain large urban centers, and so can build large, powerful states. The river systems became highways for communication and trade, which also helped maintain larger states. These parts of Southeast Asia were also very easily accessible from India, with an overland route through Burma and long coastlines easily reached by Indian ships. The eastern parts are also easily accessible from China, in fact the Chinese and Mongols both tried to invade Vietnam multiple times.

Now, to understand why Indian and Chinese influence is so strong in Lowland Southeast Asia, we're going to have to talk about rice. The Malay peoples outside the main centers of the peninsula, Java, and Sumatra also had extensive contacts with Indian and Chinese traders, but why aren't there more cities and huge temple complexes there? The answer is in rice, and how rice paddies lead to kingdoms.

Again, I'm going to point out the extreme friendliness of Southeast Asia to human life; it's very easy to grow food here. If I were a farmer, it wouldn't take me too much effort to support myself and my direct family on not too much land (once I'd cleared it of jungle of course). And I don't even have to grow rice if that's all the people I'm feeding; I can get enough from yams and other crops, for far less work than it takes to maintain a rice paddy. By contrast with Lowland Southeast Asia, Maritime Southeast Asians practiced paddy farming on a much smaller scale until recently (with the exceptions of Java, Sumatra and Bali).

So why are the farmers of Lowland Southeast Asia tending vast tracts of paddy fields if they don't have to? Because somebody makes them do it. Because somebody can get the people together and make them clear and dig the paddy fields, dig the canals that bring water into them and drain excess water away, build flood control systems, granaries to store the harvest, et cetera et cetera. The ideal lands for growing ‘wet’ rice are naturally swampy, and must be drained with massive labor before they can be tilled. Nowadays, the force that makes the farmers maintain their paddies is money. Back then,  it was the the threat of coercion and the promise of protection.

Slavery became rife; there was a lot of usable land, but people were still scarce enough that if you wanted to expand your rice lands, you had to get your neighbors to work for you instead by force. The kingdoms in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam often raided each other for captives for just this purpose. But the best method would be to make the farmers want to tend their paddies for you, and that's where the influence of India would come in.

India and China both offered important, useful models for building states and social hierarchies, models that could be used to concentrate and organize populations and have them support royal states. In western Southeast Asia, the model was provided by the Indian caste system, reinforced by Hinduism, and the Hinduism-derived idea of the Devaraja, the god-king with divine right to rule. Southeast Asian rulers began styling themselves as Rajah or Maharajah or Devaraja, adopting names that linked them to Hindu gods specially Shiva and Vishnu. Later, Buddhism became more popular, and kings specially in Siam began considering themselves Dharmaraja, 'kings of the Law' or 'kings of the righteous way.' Kings started adopting Indian methods of warfare and military organization too, using war elephants, cavalry, and possibly chariots*.

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana were taken as gospels, eventually cut and reshaped to be closer to local tradition; both were used to justify royal tradition and privileges. To further cement their rule, Hinduism and later Buddhism were made state religions, and it became an act of religious obligation to build and maintain the great temple complexes like Angkor in Cambodia, Borobudur and Prambanan in Java, and the Pura Besakih in Bali.

Like the temple-cities of the Aztecs and Mayas, these great state temples became the centers of communities organized to serve them and their rulers. The temples also served as vehicles for teaching religious lore, their carvings serving as 'picture books' of stone; pilgrims would be led around the temples in a clockwise pattern, and as they did the mythological stories could be told to them. Later kings would include histories on their temple carvings, commemorating victories, coronations and the like. Indian scripts became the basis for writing Burmese, Thai, Javanese, Khmer, Cham, even Tagalog and some other Philippine languages. This Indianized civilization would extend from Burma in the west to southern Vietnam in the east, and to Java and Sumatra in the south.

Scholars now believe that Indianization was a voluntary and selective adoption, not a colonization or conquest from the Indian subcontinent**. Local rulers adopted aspects of Hinduism or Buddhism as useful supports to their reigns – again, that aspect of being able to concentrate and organize people – it was not imposed upon them from outside the way the Philippines would be converted to Catholicism.

The original animist and ancestor-worshipping religions prevalent throughout Southeast Asia did not have mythological support for dynasties, while Hinduism offered the concepts of the Devaraja and the sanctioned imperial drive of the Mahabharata. Hindu culture was thus a useful tool for the ruling elite.

In the end, only the elites remained Hindu, while most of the population remained more animist; when the elites lost power or converted to other religions, the temple cities would be abandoned. Buddhism would prove more popular and longer-lasting, but still required strong states to support its core, the monastic community of the sangha. Thus Buddhism would last in countries like Thailand, but disappeared from Java when its rulers converted to Islam.

Vietnam would follow a different track, however, thanks to its proximity to China. Vietnamese kingdoms based on paddy rice agriculture were already rising during the Bronze Age, but then Northern Vietnam was invaded by the Han Dynasty's forces. It would become part of the Imperial Chinese system, with a few short breaks from rebellion, for some 1,000 years. In the meantime, South Vietnam would be colonized by the Chams, a Maritime Southeast Asian people who became Indianized and went into a Hindu state-temple-city building phase also, creating an empire that would rival that of the Javanese and the Khmers. Eventually the sinicized Northern Vietnamese threw off Chinese rule and conquered the Indianized states of South Vietnam, leaving all of modern Vietnam with a culture that is far more Chinese than any other part of Southeast Asia. Vietnam ended up organized on the Imperial Chinese model, with an Emperor and a mandarin bureaucracy supported by Confucian principles instead of the state-temple-centered structures of western Southeast Asia.

Coming next post: Maritime Southeast Asia and the Bamboo and Curry Networks!

*Chariotry was associated with the Vedic heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, but were likely too impractical to use for long in muddy, mountainous Southeast Asia.

**Historians like George Coedes and R.C. Majumdar would argue that Indianization was a result of Indian colonization for trade if not conquest, while the theories of Paul Mus and Van Leur argued for voluntary borrowing, and only at the elite levels of society.

March 27, 2014

If It’s Too Big to be Natural …

In Hari Ragat, one of my design guidelines for creating creatures is that if it’s too big to be natural it’s supernatural;  that is, it’s likely to have some special abilities beyond being a super-sized version of whatever animal it’s based on.


Today I got inspired by this kuday crab I shot in Kingfisher Park, Coron, and by Bagobo mythology to create this monster, using the guideline I mentioned:

Tambanokawa, or Elder Cave Crab

This Elder Crab inhabits a sea cave on any island of your choice and is the size of an elephant. It is thousands of years old, which has given it not only time to grow in size but also in spiritual power. It will defend its territory from intruding boats, will happily take divers and fishermen for breakfast, and sometimes comes up to land to hunt. Now it has discovered your village.

When Tambanokawa hunt on land they summon a heavy rain to cover their approach; this keeps their gills wet, drives prey to cover where they're easier to find and corner, and gives them advantage in combat. In combat they use their two differently-sized claws in deadly combination: the large claw is often used to hammer prey down first, the faster small claw is then used to seize the prey, the large claw grabs and holds fast making escape impossible, then finally the small claw starts tearing off chunks of flesh to put in the crab's mouth.

If it can grab an opponent thus, it starts to feed while its vicitim is still alive, even if it has to continue fighting while eating.  Assume the Tambanokawa hits with its big claw on an even, and with its small claw on an odd roll.

If it loses both eyestalks in battle it retreats immediately back into the sea. Any eyestalks, claws or legs it loses in battle will regenerate within a year while it hides in its cave, and then it comes back. It can only regenerate however in its own cave.

Tambanokawa 6/24, Impenetrable Carapace, Monstrous Scale Right Claw, Summoner of Monsoon Rains, Retreats if Blinded, Regenerates Lost Eyestalks and Limbs After a Year, Renown Value 30

March 24, 2014

Hari Ragat: Mancalon Island

This map locates Mancalon Island, the location for the upcoming playtest adventure.

mancalon bigmap - click to enlarge

And the waters off Hiyasan, the Place of Pearls, is something like this:

Sanipaan Shoal, a marine reserve off Samal Island

It is early in the month of Da’on Habagat, the hottest, sunniest month of the year, and the pearling season is at its peak … who knows who might come visiting?

March 23, 2014

Hari Ragat: More Templates

I thought of a couple more character templates, so I’ll put them here for your enjoyment (and hoping they’ll get you interested in playing).


There was a myth that went around in the 70s or 80s that Lapu-lapu, the hero of the Battle of Mactan in 1521, wielded neither kris nor kampilan in that fight but instead a heavy pambayo, a long wooden pestle used for pounding rice. Was it true? We don’t know. But if Magellan and his soldiers were wearing good Spanish plate, such a weapon would’ve been a good idea. Anyway, the idea that this is a kickass weapon stuck in my head, so I made a character template around it. It’d also make sense that such a character would be quite strong.

fleet archer

This next character is actually inspired by the Greek heroine Atalanta, favorite of Artemis, reinterpreted in the Hari Ragat milieu.

The module for the playtest by the way is done, I’m just editing it one more time before I PDF it.

March 22, 2014

Hari Ragat: Character Templates

The first six character templates for Hari Ragat, meant for use in the upcoming playtest. Each potentially the star of his or her own epic! If they live, of course. :-)

Players will be free to tweak as desired: Roles and Aces may be shifted around, as long as the respective point totals are maintained, Traits and Ties changed.







March 20, 2014

Hari Ragat Character Sheet v. 1.0

Click to embiggenate

Trying out designs for a character sheet, for the upcoming Hari Ragat playtest in Minneapolis. This is the one I like best so far, with a tweaked version of Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer blogger Jay Anyong’s character. I reduced the number of Traits on the character to 3 + 1 free, as per the planned changes I noted in my last post.

I’ve also changed starting Renown to 3, because starting player characters should’ve already done something noteworthy – and it’s up to the player to determine what. That should help make characters more distinctive and fun to play. This also makes the character’s first ‘level up’ come sooner as advancement is based on Renown.

March 18, 2014

Hari Ragat and FATE: Meeting Log w/ Marc

Just had an online meeting with Marc, where we clarified the Vivid rules and brainstormed how to do the FATE conversion. Things agreed on included:

  • Hari Ragat will be converted to FATE Accelerated Edition (FAE), as we think it’s a better fit;

  • Marc finds enough similarities between Vivid and FATE that conversion should be easy; however they’re also different enough that the flavor of the game will be slightly different in each;

  • Thanks to John Till, we’re preparing for a playtest with a U.S.-based group, specifically in Minneapolis; however as Marc may not be staying there til August as originally planned, we’ll have to do as much testing as possible before he’s flown back to the Philippines;

  • I need to prep Character Templates, for use in the upcoming U.S. playtest and the published product; also a Cheat Sheet for using the Vivid system, and an adventure;

  • 5 Traits at start is a bit too powerful; we’re reducing this to 3 or 4;

  • New idea – Tattoos bind spirits to your character’s body, which has side effects; this may be behavioral, for example Tattoos of Ferocity make you more belligerent – and the Tattoos of Virility make you want to prove their efficacy all the time!

  • I need to write up some GM advice for certain situations, such as boss battles; the rules already exist for making boss battles more formidable, but GMs new to Vivid could use tips how to maximize them;

  • Marc finds the combat rules as written cinematic and tactical at the same time, it’s a game of guessing what Advantages might work and how to negate a strong opponent’s Advantages;

  • I like that, because this means the GM is no longer subjectively giving bonus dice, but has a good benchmark to decide who gets them; the fiction is also reinforced as player experience because players are encouraged and rewarded for finding creative ways of winning.

  • Ways of negating or denying Traits will be written into their descriptions. This is pretty obvious for weapon- and shield-based Secrets – simply deprive the foe of that weapon or shield – but there are also Traits that have more specific and complex weaknesses. For example, having a legendary Ancestor works for you only as long as you’re in favor with that ancestor – so if someone could get that ancestor pissed off at you …

March 15, 2014

Hari Ragat: Comparisons to Other RPGs

It’s a very natural thing for us human beings to explore using what we already like as leads. I loved Cambodia: so wifey and I are planning a trip to Isaan, in Thailand, where there are more Khmer temples. Likewise, I’m sure a lot of gamers find out about other products through similarities or comparisons with things they already like. So what RPGs would I compare Hari Ragat to?

Here’s a list of other FRPG’s and campaigns that could act as ‘springboards’ into Hari Ragat:

1) Pendragon – the big one. Pendragon is about noble knights questing for glory. Hari Ragat is about Orang Dakila noble heroes questing for Renown. Also like Pendragon, the choice of character ‘classes’ is pretty narrow, but there’s a lot of scope for making your character different. Social growth over time is also emphasized: your character can fall in love, court for a spouse, marry, attract followers, even become a ruler.

2) Pagan Shore – the tribal, Iron Age Irish society presented in Pagan Shore, a Pendragon supplement, has strong parallels to Hari Ragat’s social milieu. If I had the Pendragon supplement for Vikings and Saxons I could probably draw parallels to that too. The seafaring raider culture of Hari Ragat is also very comparable to the Vikings.

3) Legend of the Five Rings – this RPG based on a fantasy version of Japan grounds characters very strongly in the society of the milieu. L5R society is stratified, and character roles are dependent on their place in society. As in Hari Ragat, the core game of L5R is based around the noble martial caste. Ancestors also play a large part in defining a character in Hari Ragat.

4) Tekumel – the Tekumel setting has a loyal following because of its lovingly detailed, very exotic culture that takes a lot of influences from South and Southeast Asia, which are also my sources for Hari Ragat. Society in Hari Ragat however is not as rigid as in Tekumel, and the default campaign starts you as full members of a community rather than as outsiders who’ve just arrived. I’ve done a longer comparison in a previous post.

5) Trojan War: Roleplaying in the Age of Homeric Adventure – this is a book in Green Ronin’s Mythic Vistas line that offers a D20 treatment for creating Trojan War era heroes. Epic combats, interfering gods, heroes of divine descent, lots of mythic creatures to fight. Imagine something like this ported to tropical Southeast Asia :-)

6) Suwarnabumi  - also a fantasy Southeast Asia-based milieu, created for the True20 system. Its world is also mostly islands, most of it under the rule of a maritime empire. (This is actually similar to a supplement I plan to produce for Hari Ragat, detailing the time of the Nayyalinga Serpent Kings).

7) Glorantha – hm, this is the second Gregory Stafford opus I’m listing as inspiration. There’s a trend here … :-) The culture of the Heortling tribes of Dragon Pass is quite similar to that in Hari Ragat. The Hero Wars version has very good mechanics for integrating a new character into a home community.

There’s also the potential for every character to have some bit of augmentative personal magic in Hari Ragat, through mystical tattoos. Unlike Glorantha, Hari Ragat focuses more closely on a specific part of its world, the Janggalan Islands.

8) Agon – this indie RPG by John Harper is also set in the age of Greek myth, and focuses on quests like that of Jason and the Argonauts. It feels very much like the Clash of the Titans movie, and that’s a good thing in my book. Agon lets heroes be of divine descent, and features lots of battles with mythic monsters. GMs are given the tools to create unique mythic monsters – something I also did, specially with the Raksasa giants.

9) Any Viking RPG – I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, the simplest way to describe Hari Ragat is ‘a game of Southeast Asian Vikings.’ That says it all, really – the emphasis on fighting heroes, the glory-obsessed culture, the voyaging, a home milieu that’s surrounded by other, more urbanized nations that you can trade with or pillage.

March 12, 2014

Hari Ragat: Epic Frameworks


What’s a nekkid guy in a lionskin doing in a Hari Ragat post?! Well this guy happens to be Hercules, and he’s got a lesson for would-be Hari Ragat players.  I’ve been thinking of how to introduce the game more easily and attractively to players who may never have heard of the milieu or its inspirations, so I’m looking for common denominators. I found them in Greek mythology.

Now Greek mythology’s pretty common knowledge the world over; if you’re a product of a modern educational system with an English curriculum, you’ve very likely had to read up on some of the Greek tales by this time. And even if you’ve not, you’ve very likely seen some of the recent sword-and-sandal fantasies like Clash of the Titans*, and/or will see the upcoming Hercules with The Rock in the title role.

How am I tying this to Hari Ragat? By using the Greek heroes to define adventure and campaign types. There are three basic kinds of stories you can play out in Hari Ragat, which I’ll name the Herculean, the Achillean, and the Odyssean. These story types, by the way, map very closely to the main character Roles offered for Hari Ragat, the Hunter, the Warrior, and the Corsair, in that order. Not that the other character types can’t join the ‘signature’ adventures of the others, but you can expect the indicated types to do best in these adventures.

Herculean Adventures
Herculean adventures occur against the backdrop of a fragile new settlement, with the heroes struggling to tame the dangers of the wild and the supernatural monsters of the wild. Opponents can include giant snakes, giant crocs, nagas (the serpentine dragons of the setting), headhunters, and most specially giants.

Achillean Adventures
Achillean adventures occur against the backdrop of bloodfeud or war, perhaps with subthemes of dynastic struggle and questions of honor. Opponents will be mostly other Vijadesans, with the occasional foreign ally or summoned monster. Another possibility is fighting off a foreign invasion.

Odyssean Adventures
Odyssean adventures are picaresque explorations of the milieu, with a blend of nautical and wilderness challenges plus social challenges, just as Odysseus spent time alternately fighting storms, then slaying Cyclopses, then impressing the socks off the Phaeacians.

Odyssean adventures can give the greatest variety of things to do, and the fullest experience of what Hari Ragat is. This is where players get to participate in Courtship Tournaments, attend or throw royal feasts, go on long trade or diplomatic missions, and so on. One possible epic scenario is to go on an embassy to the capital of the Wu Long Empire, a very long and danger-fraught journey indeed.

Odyssean adventures are best for players who’ve already gone through simpler scenarios first, or are willing to bone up on the milieu before play.

*Bonus XP to you if you saw the 1981 version and preferred it!!!

March 11, 2014

Hari Ragat and Tekumel, Part 2

Found another interesting parallel between Hari Ragat and Tekumel. Well, it shouldn’t be that surprising considering how M.A.R. Barker was sourcing inspirations from across South Asia, including Southern India and very likely the lands of Suvarnabumi (Southeast Asia) – but I personally think this one rocks.


This is a Tsolyanu plaque from the Empire of the Petal Throne sourcebook. Note the script: it’s one invented by the Professor.


And this is a tracing of the Laguna Copperplate, a real archaeological artifact from around 900 AD found in Laguna province, Luzon island. It’s written in a form of Baybayin script, which was developed from Javanese Kawi script, which in turn is South Indian in derivation.

Now I’m actually getting inspired to do a variant font of Baybayin specifically for Hari Ragat – maybe to use as a calligraphic border design, or something …

March 10, 2014

Hari Ragat and Tekumel

Thanks to John Till and Howard Fielding, I’ve learned that the Hari Ragat setting seems to be attractive to Tekumel fans. How true is that? Well, Marc and I need to meet/talk to more Tekumel fans to see how much the appeal reaches, and why. Any leads would be really appreciated!

hari ragat map gridded

In the meantime, I thought maybe I could do some quick comparisons between Hari Ragat and Tekumel to sort out similarities and differences for those who’d like to know more. First, the similarities:

Hari Ragat-Tekumel Similarities

  • Non-European based milieu
  • The setting is a tropical environment
  • An exotic, differently structured society
  • Strong influences from history, specially Asian history
  • Concept of honor price is similar to Tekumelani Shamtla
  • Slavery exists

Hari Ragat-Tekumel Differences
I’ve been downloading all the free Tekumel material I can find (not much cash here!) to check out the setting more, and already I can spot quite a few differences. They may provide variety for Tekumel fans, they may turn out to be key Tekumel features you liked but aren’t in Hari Ragat.

Historical Grounding
While Hari Ragat isn’t meant to be historically accurate, or even an alternate history, it’s still quite recognizably closer to the history of Island Southeast Asia than Tekumel is to any part of Asia or Mesoamerica. The main inspirations are taken from ancient Filipino epics such as the Darangen, the Hinilawod, the Biag of Lam-ang, the Ibalon, etc. etc. There are also no science-fictional elements in Hari Ragat, unlike the post-starfaring milieu of Tekumel.

No Conlang
I certainly don’t have the linguistic credentials of The (Great) Professor, nor do I think I can invent a language or six out of whole cloth just like that. So Hari Ragat’s terms and names are based mostly from my own cradle tongue, Tagalog, with admixtures of Bisaya – which is Marc’s cradle tongue -- and a sprinkling of Ilocano, Kapampangan, Maranao, Manobo, and whatever other interesting bits of mythology we could find.

Tighter Focus on Epic Adventure
While Tekumel offers a very broad experience of MAR Barker’s world, with all sorts of careers open to player characters, Hari Ragat is more tightly focused on the experience of playing an epic warrior-hero.

The game is about the hero’s neverending quest to gain and keep Renown, through a range of heroic pursuits ranging from combat to Sindbad-like voyages to romance. Think of Hari Ragat as like playing a mashup of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Viking sagas in a Southeast Asian setting.

I’m hoping this works out as a rather easier entry to Hari Ragat. Just think ‘Southeast Asian Vikings’ and you’re good to go.

Animistic Religion
While Tekumel has a very interesting henotheistic religion, Hari Ragat is more animistic in approach, with characters far more likely to worship and interact with local environmental gods and with ancestor spirits. Ancestor spirits are a key component of the game, as characters can gain more power (Anito Dice) by actively trying to please their own ancestors.

A Looser Society
The milieu in Hari Ragat is based on a stratified society, divided into noble warrior, freeman, and slave castes, but it isn’t quite as rigidly defined as Tekumelani society. Player characters don’t need to belong to monolithic clans, instead they’re grounded in being members of the same community.

While Tekumelani society can be compared in feel to medieval Japanese society, specially as depicted in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, Hari Ragat society is closer to loose warrior aristocracy of Celtic or Viking society as depicted in the Pendragon supplement, Pagan Shore.

For lovers of Tekumelani-style Byzantine politics, though, fear not: similar things are very possible in Hari Ragat! Political and caste concerns in Hari Ragat are usually more intimate in scale, though, unless you want to involve your characters in the struggle to crown a new Rajah Hari Ragat.

A Wilder World
There’s far less urbanization in the world of Hari Ragat than in Tekumel, and a greater emphasis on wilderness adventures. For one thing, the Hari Ragat setting has no huge ancient ruins or underground complexes to use as ‘dungeons;’ instead Hari Ragat adventures occur mostly in the jungle or on the high seas. Pioneering in a fantasy wilderness is also a big source of adventure in Hari Ragat, as player characters can found new settlements, exploring, clearing their new home of monsters, making deals with the local diwatas, and so on.

If I can think of more useful comparisons to make I may post a part two to this entry. It seems the main intersection between liking Tekumel and Hari Ragat is the fact that both are detailed non-traditional settings for fantasy role-playing, both located in that yawning gap between Western-inspired milieus and the rather standard treatment of samurais-ninjas-and-kung-fu monks in the Far East.

For now, I hope this gives you all a clearer picture of Hari Ragat, and how or why you might enjoy it if you like Tekumel too.

March 8, 2014

Hari Ragat: More Appealing Roles

Had an online meeting with my collaborator Marc Reyes this morning, and came up with some more ideas for Hari Ragat as a result. One of the points raised was ‘what makes one Role more appealing than another?’ for a player.

Princess Urduja

So, in the interest of having A Different Cool Thing for each Role (read, Character Class) in Hari Ragat, I came up with this:

Warriors get one Tattoo for free. This encourages the creation of Pintado-type characters, whose tats are evidence and measure of their fighting prowess. Do click on the link by the way for sampler of artist Wylz Gutierrez’ art; awesome depictions of ancient Visayan tattooed warriors!

Hunters may choose to have either Junglewalker or Slayer of Beasts for free. One makes you better at tracking and jungle travel/being a jungle guide, the other makes you better at fighting beasts and animal-like monsters (but not humanoid giants or the like).

Corsairs, being voyagers who need crews and of course tend to accumulate loot and souvenirs, get the choice of a free +1 to either Wealth, Bahandi (ritual goods wealth), or Dulohan (followers).

Amazons get the Secret of Urduha’s Vow for free. Adherence to this vow gives them +1 Bala and Advantage to rally their followers in battle. (This is of course a homage to the legendary Princess Urduha, supposed to have once ruled the kingdom of Tawalisi in what is now Pangasinan).

Babaylan shamanesses may take either Immaculate or Beloved of the Ancestors for free.

Katalunan shamans may take either Tamer of Diwatas or Scourge of the Night (bonus vs. sorcerers, aswang and the like) for free.

Asog shamans may take At the Gates of Life and Death for free, giving them better chances at contacting the recently dead and at bringing the dying back to life.

March 7, 2014

Creepier Undead

I believe the undead category of creatures has been badly nerfed ever since  the first FRPGs came out, and I’m looking for ways to make them more formidable to players.

EDIT: That should be lower-level undead. Liches are scary enough, thank you.

Consider the Skeleton in D&D for example: though very plainly a creature that shouldn’t exist in a sane world, encountering one doesn’t necessitate any kind of fear check, and if you’ve a blunt weapon it’s really quite easy to destroy one. And once you’ve got a cleric, you really don’t fear skeletons anymore.

Contrast this treatment to horror-film and the darker sword and sorcery fiction takes on skeletons, zombies, and the like. In one Conan story, the final battle takes place against hordes of zombies raised by the sorcerer-queen Vammatar the Cruel, and the horrified Cimmerian and his Aesir comrades almost cannot bring themselves to strike because many of the dead were their own living sword-brothers only the day before.

Worse, the undead simply can’t be killed: ordinarily mortal injuries don’t bring them down, and even those that have been hacked to pieces still try to grasp and bite with severed hands and heads. The Aesir despairing skald gasps ‘How can the dead die twice?’ Tellingly, Conan doesn’t win that battle; he only manages to get the Aesir chief’s daughter Rann on Vammatar’s horse, and then is overwhelmed by the undead.

So what could we do to make undead more respectable? The clue’s right there in their name – UN-DEAD, the NOT DEAD. They shouldn’t be alive, but they are. They break the rules of life and death. Let’s see how we could game that.

I don’t advocate a fear check, unless you’re running a game that’s more horror than anything else. Players don’t enjoy actions being forced on them by the rules, so fear checks are usually no fun.

Instead of a fear check, I’d give undead a Terror bonus to attack, to represent the paralyzing effect of dread that they bring. If I bring in a fear check, it’s to determine whether or not this Terror bonus will continue to apply.

Second, I’ll make putting down undead more complicated. I remember one Pendragon session in which we battled some kind of barrow wight, which had an awesome enchantment upon it: it could only be killed permanently if we defeated it then had someone watch the corpse all through the night without break, or it would awaken again. Now that was AWESOMESAUCE.

And it gives me the idea I want. To make undead both more terrible and more unique, come up with unique ways to give them permanent death. Some ideas along this line:

  • The undead has to be burned;

  • The undead has to have earth from its own grave thrown over it;

  • The undead must have a funeral rite recited over it;

  • The undead can only be commanded to return to its grave by a certain person, or kind of person, such as a woman, or a member of a certain family;

  • The undead’s head must be taken away and buried in holy ground – and the rest of it’s going to try to get it back!

The GM can also consider why there are undead in a certain location, and how they came to have that curse. The method of putting them down should be related to that origin. For example, in The Mummy Returns movie (2004?) the mummies could be ordered back to rest, or turned against their original awakener, by reading an incantation from the Book of the Dead.

Whatever you do to flavor your undead, the thing to avoid is making undead encounters an auto-response opponent for your players. Simply breaking out the holy water and pushing the cleric out front is just so 1970s.

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