December 9, 2015

0 AD Alpha Syllepsis … A Great Improvement!


Wildfire Games released its latest version of a game I’ve been avidly following, 0 A.D. Alpha 19, codenamed Syllepsis. After a couple of evenings trying it out, I have to say there are some fantastic improvements and new features to have fun with:

First off, there’s a new gameplay feature: capturing buildings and siege units. This is a load of fun, and fondly recalls to mind another small-press yet very enjoyable game, Haemimont’s Nemesis of the Roman Empire: the Punic Wars. In the latter game, an extra level of challenge was added by requiring you to defend various buildings across the map lest your enemy cut your supply line or gain a vital resource you needed.

Capturing in 0 AD does something similar, as now there’s always a risk of the foe capturing isolated town centers, towers, and even siege units that are cut off from their escorts. There’s a satisfying feeling of poetic justic when you take the Briton’s battering rams (seems the AI favors rams with the Celtic factions) and using them against the foe.

Capturing also speeds up the game a lot, as you no longer have to stop to build new town centers to replace enemy ones you’ve destroyed. The need to guard your own from capture also adds a breathlessness to the game’s pace as you shuttle armies back and forth  between threatened centers.

Formations and Pathfinding Improvements
The developers have redone the formations and pathfinding AI, and there are now some improvements and interesting tactical wrinkles. This 19th alpha version is still bugged, as the developers clearly warn, but overall I see improvements.

One interesting wrinkle of the new patfhinding/formation AI (they’re inextricably linked) is that units go out of formation whenever they build or repair, and skirmishers break formation in combat since that is indeed their job. So another challenge of the game is that you have to remember to re-form your units ever so often in combat, which for me makes it feel closer to actually having to command an army. Formations count for a lot in upping offensive and defensive power.

Going out of formation also makes movement much faster, specially when going through forest or around obstacles. Again, this makes sense: an army wouldn’t be able to stay in formation in a forest.  The game also runs with far less lag now thanks to these improvements.

Unfortunately, there is still a bug with  movement, and it tends to come up when moving through thick forest. The one time the game crashed on me, it was I tried to force an army through forest toward an enemy town center. I had a save game just prior to that, and when I tried chewing through the forest instead (by gathering wood from it), the crash did not repeat. Seems the best way to deal with thick forest is to do as the Romans did on the Rhine – they cut roads through them.

You can watch the new features preview video and download the game here.

December 8, 2015

Sword and Sorcery … with Rockets


Sword and sorcery with rockets. That’s what she wrote, and I just found out today would’ve been her 100th birthday. Who? Leigh Brackett, that’s who.

This won’t be the first time I’m saluting Brackett on this blog, and it likely won’t be the last. I’m STILL waiting for a proper Eric John Stark movie. When it finally gets made, I hope it’s handled much better than Disney’s failure to realize the potential of John Carter of Mars. (The House of Mouse execs totally missed what made the movie special to SF fans – and they missed the fact that they’d released the movie on the centennial of the novel it was based on!)

Anyway, back to S&S. Leigh Brackett was best known for her ‘planet adventure’ stories, set on fictional versions of Mars, Venus, and extrasolar planets (e.g. Skaith). Beginning as a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Brackett rather early on made a resolution to be a science fiction writer. She hit her stride in the 40s and 50s, and continued writiing into the 1970s. Her last project was to draft an early version of the script fro Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Brackett used scientific ideas in her stories with a light and often wavy hand. She was never a hard sci fi kind of writer. Instead she specialized in character and atmosphere, all tied together with very tightly paced plots. She brought the hard-boiled vibe of the 1930s detective stories into her F&SF, with hard-hitting results. She had very punchy ways of describing characters, almost impressionistic yet incredibly brief.

Her heroes were definitely in the old-pulp school of S&S: tough and two-fisted, scarred, honorable but with moralities well off from the norm. Take her signature creation, Eric John Stark: Stark is a fighter on the level of REH’s Conan, a feral child like Tarzan, but with a very hard-boiled personality that’s not without idealism. He’s been an outlaw, and when we first encounter him in Queen of the Martian Catacombs (aka The Secret of Sinharat), he has just been a mercenary aiding native rebels on Venus, and is wanted by the law for it.

Queen of the Martian Catacombs goes on to involve Stark in a secret plot to restore power to the Ramas, a civilization of immortals who steal bodies from the young and able and transfer their minds into them. There’s a mad ride through a sandstorm, swordfights, secret tunnels and hidden wells, and all of it happens against the  backdrop of Brackett’s splendid vision of a dying planet. Save for the dying planet bit and the fact that the protagonist is explicitly called an Earthman, this could’ve been sold as a straight sword and sorcery piece.

But it wasn’t. Brackett’s first love had always been the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs, not the Hyborian Age. Her sword and planet stories combine the very best of what we liked in Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs: vivid worlds, sparely-drawn yet memorable characters, stories that whisk you away into another place and time and leave you breathless before the end. Brackett wrote magic.

And that’s why I’m blogging about her on her 100th birthday, because so many F&SF fans now have never read a Brackett story nor even known her name.

November 29, 2015

Preview: Folk Magic in Hari Ragat


There are many things, such as plants, minerals, and the viscera, specially the livers, of certain animals, that are held to have an innate spiritual power. Over the centuries the Vijadesans have become familiar with some of these and learned to use them, and this is the basis of Vijadesan folk magic Charms.

Knowledge and use of Charms enables any character, even those without shamanic talent or training, to cope with the supernatural though in a very limited fashion. Here are some sample Charms:

Wild Ginger
The roots of wild ginger are commonly used in cooking, but even more importantly, they have powerful purifying and warding properties. When you keep a knob of peeled wild ginger in your mouth, most evil spirits, and most witches and sorcerers cannot touch you or directly affect you in any way.

The challenge is to know when to use this charm, to find and prepare the ginger in time, and finally to tolerate the extreme heat long enough, as wild ginger is a very hot spice. You can resolve this by rolling 1d6 (Oracle Roll), on a 4 or higher the character manages to keep the ginger in his mouth. You may spend Bala or Ancestral Favor to reroll the die, one point per reroll.

If you fail the roll, you find the ginger too spicy to bear and spit it out.  Getting caught doing this however is considered a deadly insult to the host, as it’s a tacit accusation that she’s a witch!

There are many things, such as plants, minerals, and the viscera, specially the livers, of certain animals, that are held to have an innate spiritual power. Over the centuries the Vijadesans have become familiar with some of these and learned to use them, and this is the basis of Vijadesan folk magic Charms.

Knowledge and use of Charms enables any character, even those without shamanic talent or training, to cope with the supernatural though in a very limited fashion. Here are some sample Charms:

Salt and Ash
Salt mixed with wood ash is a charm against evil spirits. No evil spirit can cross an unbroken circle drawn of salt and ash; however, cunning beings often find ways to get this circle broken for them.

Evil spirits and tainted creatures such as Asuang are repelled by salt and ash thrown against them, and if you sprinkle salt and ash on the lower torso of a Manananggal or the neck-stump of a Pugot it will perish outright. The challenge is to hit the Asuang with the thrown salt and ash, or to find the body stump and use the salt and ash despite the monster’s interference.

Betel Chew
Betel chew — a wad of betel leaf with areca nuts and lime, often flavored with tobacco or spices — is also attractive to some of the most man-like supernatural beings.  Thus many Vijadesans will make betel chew offerings to local spirits and such when crossing their domains. (Note: betel chewing has been linked to oral cancer, so we do not recommend trying this!)

Alum Crystal (Tawas)
Alum is a mineral salt that is sensitive to spiritual influences and presence, and so is used in a variety of divination and curing rites. A non-shaman character who touches a lump of alum to their eyelids can see the normally invisible spirits and other enchanted creatures.

This ability however lasts only a very brief time, just enough for 2-4 actions (1d3 + 1 rounds),  as this salt irritates the eyes and will cause them to water until you can’t see at all. When you wipe away the tears caused by this, you also lose the ability to see spirits. (Note: we don’t know what alum will actually do to your eyes, but it is useful as a deodorant; GMs could use it cast Purify Player!)

The liver is the organ in which spiritual power is most highly concentrated. The livers of spiritually powerful creatures, including human beings, thus have great magical significance. Consuming them can restore lost Bala, and the livers of the most powerful creatures can outright increase your Bala if you survive the experience.

The livers of creatures ranked between Datu and Karanduun can automatically refresh all your lost Bala when consumed. The livers of creatures ranked Rajah or higher can increase your Bala, but only if you win a contest vs. the beast as if you were fighting it again. If you win your character’s Bala goes up by +1, but if you lose your character falls sick.

The bile of certain spiritually powerful animals, usually dangerous reptiles like pythons and crocodiles, is held by the Vijadesans to have powerful medicinal properties. Python, crocodile and king cobra bile may cure minor bewitchments and curses; roll 1d6, on a 5 or 6 a cure has been effected. On a failure, the character likely found the bile just too foul-tasting and spat it out before it could have effect!

(Note: we have no idea whether animal bile preparations really do any good, but we do know it’s often sourced from endangered species.)

Stingray Tails
Whips made from the tails of albino stingrays (which are very rare) have an innate ability to frighten and harm spirits. Simply cracking a stingray tail whip can repel most minor evil spirits, and even a non-shaman can attack an evil spirit or enchanted being with a stingray tail whip and claim Advantage to do so.

Whips are tricky weapons to manage, however. On a Flub (a roll of all 1’s), your stingray tail whip hits an ally, or if no allies are present, it hits your character. Mortal victims hit by a stingray tail whip become Poisoned.

November 22, 2015

I Got Lost in Jakalla


My wife’s cousins had their resort on Samal Island renovated last year, and one of their requests to the designers was a look that blended Balinese, Cambodian and Aztec. In the beautiful afternoon light, it looked like I’d suddenly been transported to the world of Tekumel …



November 6, 2015

Because the Ancestors Like Movies

There were points in writing Hari Ragat when I start thinking, ‘Daymn, these ancestor spirits really treat life like watching a movie.’ Proof? Check out these Heroic Displays, feats of daring in battle which can be performed to earn Ancestral Favor:

Dance of Defiance
If you dance within missile attack range of the enemy — bowshot if they have bows, a spear’s throw if they only have spears — and do it so well you do not get hit, add +3 Ancestral  Favor to the pool. Note that because a lot of foes will be attacking you at the same time they will be rolling with a +2 or even +3 Advantage.

If instead of shooting, the foe also sends out one or more dancers, resolve this as a contest of dance; if you win, you get the +3 Favor. If the contest rolls get tied two or three times in a row, one of the enemy dancers will usually challenge you to single combat.

Awesome Taunt
Warriors traditionally yell insults and other taunts at the foe just before combat is joined. If a player delivers a taunt in-character that reduces the GM to helpless fits of laughter, add +3 Ancestral Favor to the pool.

Heroic Divestment
The ancestors are pleased when a hero dares the foe by deliberately ridding himself of  his weapons and armor and exposing himself to attack in this state. Add  +3 Favor simply for dropping your shield, armor, and all but one or all your weapons, and +1 more every round that you continue fighting thus.  If you pick up and use a weapon or shield, or don armor again, you cease earning Favor from this feat.

If you fake your divestment by rearming yourself right after the bonus was given but before combat, however, you will anger the ancestors: for the rest of the combat and until you atone, you cannot gain nor use Ancestral Favor.

Duel of Champions
If you challenge an enemy champion to single combat and he accepts, add  +3 Favor to the pool.  If you win the combat, add another +3.

First Spear or First Kill
If before combat is joined you boast that you will be the first to strike a foe with a spear, or make the first kill, and you succeed at doing so, add  +3 Ancestral Favor to the pool. More than one character may make this oath, which results in the heroes racing madly toward the foe as they vie for the honor of first spear. 

In the Eye of the Storm
To display your skill and bravado, you stand within missile range of the enemy without a shield and spend an entire combat round just parrying the missiles launched at you with only a sword, spear, or even bare hands. If you win the roll you gain  +3 Ancestral Favor. Note that because a lot of foes will be attacking you at the same time they will be rolling with a +2 or even +3 Advantage.

Returning the Spear
The first time in any battle that a player character catches and throws back a spear, hitting a foe, add  +3 Favor to the pool. To attempt this feat, the character must have his weapon hand free and you must announce your intent to catch and throw back as your action. The most daring heroes often try to segue from the Dance of Defiance to this stunt.

Barehanded Kill
If your character began a round fighting barehanded and kills his opponent without recourse to any weapon, add +3 Ancestral Favor to the pool. This is assuming the opponent was a worthy foe, though — the Threat rating must be at least equal to your fighting Role.

November 2, 2015

Hari Ragat Update: Magic System Overhaul

I’m now in the final (I hope) rewrite stages of Hari Ragat, after overhauling character creation and the magic system. The ideas are flowing again, and I finally have the time and energy to write them!

Good news for those who want to play Baylan or Katalunan (shaman) characters, there are now a lot more options available for you. Specifically, I’ve detailed the Curse mechanics to be a lot more atmospheric and closer to the feel of Philippine folklore, and giving you ways to use it even at a moment’s notice.

One of the points where Marc and I were going round and round was the ability of shamans to contribute to combat. While I still refuse to budge on what I call ‘point n zap’ magic, I did recognize his concern as valid. Players will look for ways to solve combat problems with magic if that’s what their characters are about.

Magic options in combat now include:

  • Raising Ancestral Favor by chanting and dancing just behind the front lines – the most traditional option, and the safest; besides, every PC relies heavily on Ancestral Favor the way the game is built;
  • Calling upon environmental spirits to ‘attack’ the foe with powerful environmental effects such as storm, flood, earthquake or landslide, and the like;
  • Calling upon spirits to distract or hamper the foe;
  • Casting Sumpa curses, which make ‘accidents’ happen;
  • Casting Usog curses, which overwhelm a targeted foe with your own spirit’s aura;
  • Switching bodies with a powerful Totemic Twin creature, such as a crocodile, so you can fight in that form;

Each of these approaches comes with its own risks and rewards, and depending on how you built your character some may be easier for you than the others.

I’ve booked a playtest session on January 31 next year – alas, I’ll not be in Manila again any earlier – tentatively to be held at a game club in Makati. I can’t wait to have my players try these new things out!

P.S. I’m back to using Scrivener! I tried to continue using Open Office, but Hari Ragat has gotten so big that I just can’t keep it organized properly without a working outline view editor. Fortunately, Scrivener had exactly what I needed. Yay for Scrivener! I’ll just worry about my exporting and final formatting problems later.

October 14, 2015

Hari Ragat Inspiration: Battle of Bubat


The Perang Bubat, or the Battle/Massacre at Bubat Square in Trowulan, Sumatra is a tragic tale of honor against ruthless ambition that I want to share as reference for making Hari Ragat campaigns.

This historical event happened in the 14th century, during the height of power of the Madjapahit Empire under the king Hayam Wuruk and his wily prime minister Gajah Mada. Here’s what happened in brief:

Under Gajah Mada, who had sworn an oath never to eat spiced food again until he had conquered all Nusantara (the Indonesian archipelago), the armies of Madjapahit had subdued all nearby kingdoms save Sunda Galuh. This was not because Sunda Galuh was that powerful or hard to reach – in fact it was very close – but because the Sunda Galuh royal family was closely related to the Madjapahit king. Gajah Mada simply would never get permission to campaign against Sunda Galuh as Hayam Wuruk would never commission war against these relations as his ancestor Raden Wijaya was a grandson of a Sundanese king.

But Aragorn-like, Hayam Wuruk was said to have fallen in love with the princess Dyah Pita Loka Citraresmi, daughter of Lingga Buana the current king of Sunda. A marriage was arranged, and Rajah Lingga duly arrived in Trowulan, the Madjapahit capital, with his daughter and an honor guard. They encamped at Bubat Square while awaiting the wedding ceremony.

But Gajah Mada had devised a plan to start war with Sunda Galuh by using Lingga Buan’s own sense of honor against him. Without Hayam Wuruk’s knowledge, Gajah Mada received the Sundanese and demanded that Lingga Buana make submission to Hayam Wuruk as a vassal, and hand over his daughter not as a wife, but as a hostage-concubine for the royal harem.

Of course this could not be borne. Lingga Buana refused, Gajah Mada insisted, and weapons were drawn. The Madjapahit army was thrown against the small Sundanese honor guard, who died to a man with their king. As the battle raged, Princess Pita Loka and her ladies in waiting all stabbed themselves dead. There were no survivors in the Sundanese party.

In the aftermath, Sundanese relations with Madjapahit turned icy despite Hayam Wuruk sending an embassy to apologize. Gajah Mada was discredited, and soon after was forced by the king to retire. The disgrace shook the fragile web of relationships that held this sea empire together, and thereafter Madjapahit would begin to decline. 

October 13, 2015

Recovered and Restored!


Hallelujah! After nearly two whole months of being sick, I’ve finally shaken off that blasted bug with the medicine that seems to work best for me – the sea.

Wifey and I have just returned from scouting out the beach city of Mati in Davao Oriental for our tour business, and yes, looks like there’s definitely potential there. That is, if sun, white sand, blue waters and wildlife are your thing.

Sunrise at Dahican Beach, Mati

Dahican Beach, Mati on a calm day. The waves here reach Hawaii-like strength and height later in the year. 

A dugong, spotted just 20 meters offshore. Sorry for the picture quality, the water was rather turbid at the time

The corals of Pujada Bay, Mati

The corals of Pujada Bay, Mati

I’m restored now, so back to writing …

October 11, 2015

Review: Terminal World


I was browsing through the neighborhood second-hand bookstore when this paperback all but called my name. I’d never read Alastair Reynolds before but airships on the cover will always intrigue me, and on cracking open the first page, the first several paragraphs had me hooked.

Terminal World is a most interesting blend of genres and tropes, with a quirky multi-zoned world of varying tech levels and unstable reality reminiscent of Jack Chalker’s Well World, a Damnation Alley/Mad Max-ish odyssey through a post-apocalyptic wilderness complete with drug-crazed marauders, a steampunk-ish rogue fleet of airships, all tied together with the breathless pace and mazy twists of a hardboiled spy thriller. One cute touch for a medieval geek like me is Reynold’s method of naming his characters for this one – most of them are named for swords, parts of swords, or armor. There’s Quillon (handguard), Tulwar, Curtana, Ricasso, Spatha … names that just roll off the tongue for this virtual sword collector.

The book follows the journey of Quillon, a post-human involved in world takeover conspiracy that he has turned against, as he escapes the weird city of Spearpoint with the original conspirators’ agents at his heels. Driving this conspiracy, and in fact the great concern of the world in general, is the increasingly unstable condition of reality. There is something in Spearpoint that is causing the ‘zones’ to shift, and not only does this play hob with technology, it also affects life directly to the point that drugs must be taken to survive zonal transitions.

Though his cover in Spearpoint is as a forensic pathologist, Quillon’s true expertise is treating this zonal transition syndrome. It’s a viewpoint that gives him a unique perspective and motivation for the story. It’s what drives Quillon to be the vector for addressing the world’s Big Issue, and yes, it ends with a real bang.

I did not put down Terminal World from the moment I bought it to the time I finished it a couple of days later save for meals, sleep, and a couple of shoots.

September 30, 2015

New Indo-Persian Items for M&B

Been sick, on and off, for the past several weeks. Bored but in no mood to write, I turned my hand to 3d modeling again to see if I could finally make some of my pet frustrations – proper Indo-Persian items for Mount and Blade.

all-shields choose-your-weapon-yar everythign indian_mail mb1 mb16 mb28 mb30 mb35 mb40 mb46 mb66

August 19, 2015

Sinbad the Horse Wrangler


Sinbad has always been one of my favorite fictional characters. Lately my reading of Indian medieval history in between jobs led me to an interesting idea about Sinbad: Sinbad as a horse trader, or even thief.

In the first voyage of Sinbad, the young merchant-adventurer is marooned when the island they land on turns out to be the back of a sleeping whale that dives when a fire is lit upon it. Sinbad washes onto a strange shore, where he happens upon a strange sight. A groom is tending a fine-looking mare, and tells him to wait with him for the seahorse stallions to come ashore and mate with the mare.

They succeed in seeing the mare through the mating, then drive the seahorse off before it can drag the mare into the sea. Afterward Sinbad learns the trade, helps the king make a saddle, and so gains royal favor.

Now, here’s the interesting historical tie: India was a great market for Arabian horses in the Middle Ages and even up to early modern times. And one of the great rackets of the day was to steal horses from the caravans wending their way up from the ports along the Gujarat and Malabar coasts to the interior.

Moreover, Hindu rajahs were anxious to crossbreed the Arabians with their own horses to improve their stock, while of course the Arab merchants would’ve frowned upon any use of their merchandise as studs until they’d been paid.

The fascinating ploy in which Sinbad took part may actually have been a distorted retelling of a horsey heist of some sort. The ‘seahorses’ referred to the Arab horse traders and their merchandise. A mare in heat could be used to lure stallions out of a paddock, either to steal them outright or more subtly, to steal their genes. ‘Driving off the seahorses’ afterward meant preventing the Arab merchants from recovering their horses, or from apprehending the guilty mare and her attendants.

August 14, 2015

Elephants at War: India to Southeast Asia

Esala_Perahera festival at Kandy, Sri Lanka

Looks like I’m celebrating World Elephant Day a bit late, but got reminded about it thanks to Davide Mana at Karavansara. To commemorate it, let me post about a topic that should be of interest to gamers and lovers of period fantasy: the use and misuse of elephants in war, specifically in Asia.

Amber Fort: where an elephant almost got me ...

The most unforgettable experience I ever had with elephants was when I followed one carrying my mother and sister up the road to Amber Fort in Jaipur, on foot and with camera in hand. Unfortunately, the beast had just finished a digestion cycle …. I will never follow an elephant from close behind ever again. I have to say though that I did resume following that elephant, because it was nicely tricked out in cloth drapings that made it look like a medieval Rajput war elephant.

From an animal lovers’ standpoint, any use of elephants (or horses for that matter) in war is a misuse.  But used they were, for we humans are savage beasts, and we have a bad habit of taking up any weapon that comes to hand whatever the consequences. And the majestic elephant, with its size and strength, was definitely seen as a weapon in ancient times.

Asia from India east to Indochina was the heart of elephant warfare. Here the creatures were at their most plentiful, and the Asian elephant has always been considered easier to tame than the African. And since elephants were also used for labor, specially in construction and logging, there was also a ready pool of experienced elephant handlers available to train and crew the war beasts.

Elephant Tactics
So how were elephants used in Asia? The techniques used for war elephants in ancient times were taken from India, so Eastern and Western usages were very similar. They were used as line-breakers in battle, as command platforms, and as missile platforms, carrying archers and javelineers, and later, arquebusiers and even light artillery. However, there are also some interesting distinctions.


On Elephant Stampedes
There’s a commonly-repeated trope that war elephants are unreliable, more dangerous to one’s own side than to the enemy. While elephants do have a tendency to run amok, I  believe this view of them is skewed by the Western experience. If they were really that bad, they wouldn’t have continued in use for so long would they? I hypothesize instead that this trope had several causes:

First, elephants used in the Mediterranean area were often African or Atlas elephants, which were less tractable than the Asian.

Second, the elephants were raised only for war, and very likely with rushed training. They may not have been as used to people and clamor as elephants kept longer and perhaps used for work when not at war, as would’ve been the case in India and eastward.

And third, there were never enough of them to make a consistent  positive impact in battle west of India.

Trained elephants were always scarce west of the Indian subcontinent, relative to the lands east. Western generals who did use elephants – Hannibal, the Successors of Alexander, the Romans – never had them in the numbers a wealthy rajah of the east would.

A reliance on Indian mahouts would have aggravated the problem, because there would also have been a shortage of experienced trainers.

War Elephants in India
Curiously, it seems the idea for the howdah, the protected ‘tower’ mounted on war elephants’ backs, did not come from India. (Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great).

Ancient Indian warriors sitting tandem on elephant

Ancient Indians instead mounted the elephant using a harness of ropes strung high up the elephant’s sides, so the riders on the back could tuck their legs beneath it. The idea for the howdah may have been Greek, perhaps from Alexander’s successors.

Elephant with state howdah

The howdah, plus increased use of barding for the elephant, must’ve increased the war elephant’s effectiveness to a frightening degree. The fighting crew were now better protected, had a more stable platform on which they could easily turn to face any direction, and more men could be carried in a howdah than sitting tandem bareback.

Elephant armor detail, India 17th or 18th century

Indian kings would use war elephants in mass charges to break the enemy line, or use them as mobile fortresses around which to rally resistance when at bay. Royalty and commanders would often ride elephants, which gave them a much higher vantage point from which to direct the battle, and more protection than being on a horse. Of course, this also made them more visible as targets, a fact taken advantage of by the horse-archer Turkic armies that later invaded India from the north.

Castle gate reinforced against elephants

Spiked castle doors, Mehrangarh Fort, India

Elephants were used as living siege engines up to late medieval times. The elephants’ natural behavior of using their foreheads to push down trees was adapted to breaking down gates. This led to many castle gates being built with spiked doors, examples of which can still be found across India specially Rajasthan. This gave me the idea of featuring elephant battering rams in my story The Black Titan of Gaikand, in Swords of the Four Winds.

One of the Indian war elephant’s worst vulnerabilities was the location of its mahout. Mahouts sat on the elephant’s neck, in front of the howdah and without any protection. There was an ancient code of chivalry that forbade targetting charioteers and mahouts – combat was supposed to be purely between warriors – but this was surely ignored more often than not.

Tusk blades

The Mughals, who were among the first to introduce guns to India (rockets may have existed earlier) introduced an innovation of their own to elephant warfare by mounting swivel guns on elephants. These cannon were known as Jingal, Gajal or Gajnal. Elephants were also used to draw heavier artillery pieces; guns were even rated as to whether they were ox-drawn or elephant-drawn, the latter of course being bigger and more powerful.

Mughal-made Jingal swivel guns, to be mounted on camel- or elephant-back

At their height, Indian war elephants would be clad in plate-and-mail armor, often with heavy chanfrons (head pieces). Tusks might be tipped with sharp iron cones or blades, and sometimes a blade was also attached to the trunk.

Anti-Elephant Tactics in India
Commanders in India, specially of the invading Turkic and Mughal forces, often had to resort to tricks to defeat the war elephant-heavy armies of the rajahs.

Fireworks, including rockets, were used to frighten horses and elephants both.

Timur (Tamerlane) screened his cavalry charge in one battle with camels carrying burning straw tied to their backs. The fire and smoke distracted the opponent’s elephants, allowing his cavalry to win the day.

The Mughals would use oversized caltrops to spike the elephants’ sensitive feet, and artillery firing langrel shot – iron bars and spikes – which acted like spinning buzzsaw blades.

Rana Pratap (right) attacks Rajah Man Singh

Some Indian cavalry mounts were specially trained for fighting against elephant-mounted opponents. They were trained to ramp up, placing their forehooves on an elephant’s flank or behind. The rider, thus elevated, was in a better position to shoot or lance the elephant’s riders. In the Battle of Haldighati, Rana Pratap of Mewar attacked the enemy commander, Rajah Man Singh of Amber, in exactly this manner.


You may have noted the elephant-trunk chanfron on the head of Rana Pratap’s horse. Supposedly this was made with the idea that it would make elephants think the horse was a baby elephant, and so desist from harming it. On the other hand, the elephant being a symbol of royal power may have been enough reason for this design – elephants are quite intelligent and would likely have seen through the deception!

Just as in tank warfare, though, the best anti-elephant measure was considered to be another elephant. The non-elephant using armies that invaded India would end up adopting it. The Mughals also managed to recruit Rajput allies, and these allied kings often commanded Mughal armies from elephant back, at the head of their own elephant-riding contingents.

War Elephants in Southeast Asia
War elephants appear very frequently in ancient Southeast Asian art, from Burma on India’s borders all the way to Vietnam. Even the Southern Han of China used war elephants for a while.

Southeast Asian war elephants with back-mounted mahouts; the ride at the neck is a fighter

As in India, elite fighters and commanders rode in howdahs, shooting arrows and throwing spears. A naginata-like polearm consisting of a long saber blade on a long shaft was common to elephant riders, who used it against their counterparts on other elephants or to slash at the heads of cavalry and infantry who tried to attack their mounts.

The Southeast Asian method of controlling the war elephant was more complex but perhaps better for the mahouts than the Indian. Where the Indian mahout sits on the elephant’s neck, Southeast Asian mahouts were often described as sitting behind the howdah, controlling the elephant with a long pole.

A signaller could also be posted to the howdah, standing behind the commander; he would be responsible for signalling to the mahout, who of course couldn’t see where they were going, and perhaps to the army at large as well.

Elephant at Surin Elephant Festival, Thailand; note the foot guards stationed at the elephant's legs

Just as tanks in close or urban terrain are vulnerable to infantry, so elephants could be vulnerable in jungle. One tradition often represented in Siamese, Burmese and Cambodian art is the posting of ‘elephant guards,’ at least four men stationed at the elephant’s legs.

These walked beside the elephant and engaged any infantry or cavalry that tried to attack to elephant. This posting would’ve required agility and nerve – you’d have to be quick to dodge between stamping elephant legs in a melee, and nervy enough to do it!

Elephants would continue to be used in war into the 20th century, with the British army using them to  transport artillery and supplies in the Burmese hill country up to World War II. Modern gunpowder weapons, however, had ended the battlefield reign of the armored main battle line war elephant.

[None of the photos used in this post are mine. Credit belongs to their creators, however I was unable to find attributions.]

June 9, 2015

S&S Worldbuilding: Staying Away from Species

There’s a thin and easily crossable line between what I feel is true swords and sorcery, and what starts shading into high fantasy. This is specially true with the creatures one decides to place in an S&S setting.

As I’ve started writing a new S&S story – perhaps the start of a new series – I find that I’ve painted myself into an even tighter corner by choosing a historically based setting. It’s an interesting challenging, getting a good S&S feel out of that corner, so I gave myself some guidelines for it. The main one, as my post’s title suggests, is to stay away from making species out of my monsters.


Well, consider the standard D&D foes: every kind of foe is typically a species. Orcs. Goblins. The different kinds of dragons and giants. Beholders. Etc. etc. etc.

Now I personally hold that the more an S&S story or game feels like a typical D&D adventure, the farther it is from what I consider as the core flavor of swords and sorcery, which is a grittier, lower-key form of fantasy.

Moreover, establishing a monster’s identity explicitly as an existing species takes away a vital chunk of its mystique. It becomes an accepted part of your world. But part of the appeal of the best sword and sorcery monsters is the feeling that they shouldn’t be there.

Consider some of Robert E. Howard’s best monsters. In The Devil in Iron, the monster is an iron eidolon animated by a formless creature from beyond the abyss. It is one of a kind, and by existing it breaks all the known rules of nature to the minds of those who encounter it. In Worms of the Earth, the baddies are a lost race of humans who have mutated into something monstrous. In Beyond the Black River, Conan is horrified to face a saber-toothed tiger, because he knows the species is extinct.

So to sum up, I can use the following filters in creating my monsters:

  • Solitary unique beings from somewhere else
  • Mutated versions of known creatures
  • Artificially augmented versions of known creatures, e.g. apes trained to use weapons
  • Creatures that should’ve been extinct, e.g. dinosaurs or early hominids
  • Creatures that shouldn’t be alive, i.e. undead
  • It could exist in the world, but is unknown and unknowable by normal means, e.g. a deep-sea monster, or a lost-world inhabitant

A word about the undead, though. Since D&D/high fantasy has coopted the trope, how can a sword and sorcery undead be differentiated? I think I can play more with the sheer unnaturalness of the state of un-life.

It should be a temporary thing, held in unnatural tension vs. the natural tendency to die and rot away, by unnatural forces. It should have impact on the world of the living as a palpable taint; quite simply, you can’t have ghouls and zombies in green forest glades, but they can exist in areas of devastation or desolation.

June 2, 2015

Heroes of the Falling Star Preview


Fatherhood does interesting things to gamers. Some fathers are left to answer the dreaded question, ‘Dad, what’s a murderhobo?’ My friend Jay Anyong of Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer is proudly Tsinoy, and in thinking of how he was going up to bring his new son the Tsinoy way, came up with a great gaming solution.

The result is Heroes of the Falling Star. This writeup is based on the latest preview copy Jay furnished me. I often use Jay as a sounding board for development on Hari Ragat, so now it’s my turn to give feedback. :-)

In HOTFS, you play heroes in a fantasy Chinese-inspired world who are tasked with missions to help the needy by the goddess of mercy. To aid you, the goddess has granted you a special magic item that arrives on a shooting star – thus the title.

There are quite a few cool features in this game. First of all is the game’s clear vision of what it wants to do – to teach the virtues of kindness, loyalty, courage, respect and honesty – via magical adventures and trials of character that a kid can understand.

This is supported by a very rules-lite system that focuses only the essentials. Your character sheet can fit on a 3x5 inch index card with lots of room to spare. Here’s a sample I created in two minutes:

Stone Ox
Loyal Hero

I am Really Strong (+2), Sort of Friendly (+1), and Not So Smart (0)*

*Yes, I’m channeling Number Ten Ox from Bridge of Birds.

My kung fu is Lifting, Pushing and Holding.

Rolls are made with a single six-sided die, with a bonus if your stronger traits are applicable. Stone Ox for example would get +2 to feats of strength. If your Kung Fu applies, you get to reroll your die once if you fail a related roll. Simple!

Kung Fu
Jay’s gone back to the Chinese etymology of the term kung fu for this game, which is basically a generic for any deep discipline, not just martial arts. This fits very well with HOTFS branding as a non-violent or deprecated-violence game. Your kung fu in HOTFS can be cooking, painting, even pathfinding or animal taming. I like this way that the game encourages kids’ creativity. (Of course, you could also go the Ranma way and treat everything as a martial art!)

Falling Star Treasures
At the start of every adventure, the Lady of Love and Mercy gives the heroes their mission and, like a Buddhist version of James Bond’s Q, gives them wondrous magic items to help them out.

Again, the mechanic of these treasures points up the game’s nonviolent and ingenuity-encouraging stance, because these treasures are almost never weapons. Instead, they each have one wondrous property that never fails to work. They’re meant to be used as tools to help get through an adventure, but shouldn’t be powerful enough to solve the adventure by themselves.

This is also works as a challenge to the game master, who will have to make sure that the treasures he hands out cannot be used as obvious solutions to the core mission. For example, the Immortal Uncle’s Robes allows its wearer to assume any guise desired. I really like the absence of an artillery function in HOTFS’ magic system, as for me this makes magic feel much more wondrous.

One question yet to be addressed is what happens to your Falling Star Treasure after each adventure. Do you get to keep it, and get a new one, or do you keep it as your permanent gimmick, or is it replaced with a new one every adventure?

Harmony Bonus
I’ve never made a secret of my preference for mechanics that drive the desired style of play, and this is one of those. It came about during a discussion with Jay on chat, where we came up with the idea of encouraging players to find win-win solutions.

The ability to compromise is a key social skill, so it’s great that this game helps to teach it. When a conflict is resolved in such a way that even the heroes’ opponents end up happy (or at least satisfied), the heroes get an extra Star (XP) each.

Every ten Stars won gets you a Constellation thematically commemorating your feats. From then on, you get +2 for any rolls involving the theme of your Constellation.

I don’t have kids. I’m still one at heart in some ways though, so when I say I like this game, I’m saying it resonates with my inner kid. Aside from my designer’s appreciation for the craft of this game, there’s an earnest innocence to Heroes of the Falling Star that just makes this jaded old coot want to play.

May 5, 2015

Sundaland: the Real Lemuria?

Sundaland: click to view large

Another tidbit for folks wanting to design a Southeast Asian-inspired setting: Sundaland, SEA's real 'lost continent.' Before the end of the last glacial age, when sea levels were much lower, Peninsular Malaysia, most of what is now Indonesia, and even some of the Philippine Islands like Palawan were connected to the continent of Asia as one landmass geologists now call Sundaland.

Sundaland is the reason why these islands have continental Asian flora and fauna such as deer, tigers, rhinos, elephants, and water buffalo, while Australia and New Zealand don't. Anthropologists speculate that the ancestors of Australia's Aborigines made their way to Oz via the coasts of Sundaland, marching or canoeing until Australia was only a short canoe hop of open sea away.

When the glaciation ended and the seas rose, Sundaland was inundated leaving only the highest points as islands. The larger mammals died out on most islands, which is why the Philippines' biggest wild mammals are wild boar and deer; tiger fossils were found on Palawan dating back to c. 15,000 years ago, but eventually there wasn't enough big prey to support them.

As for Man, scientists are still wrangling over whether the Austronesians who populate Maritime Southeast Asia came from Sundaland, from the north by sea through Taiwan, or diffused from the Malay Peninsula by sea.

Now we get to the interesting part: Could there have been one or more civilizations on Sundaland? According to most histories, Mankind didn't even know farming yet, and the only domesticated animal we had was the dog.

But new finds are pushing the boundaries of history ever farther back, and many advances like agriculture and larger permanent settlements seem to have occurred much earlier than scholars first thought. 

Still, the idea of an advanced civilization that early is unlikely. But of course that's what we gamers want! So yeah, for our purposes there was a Lemuria.

Building Lemuria
Let's assume that the inundation of Sundaland was pretty gradual. Marine biology findings seem to bear this out.

I got to attend a lecture by underwater photographer Lynn Funkhouser, who showed slides from a recent biodiversity study comparing numbers of species in Australia, Hawaii, and the SEA Coral Triangle (I live smack dab inside that Triangle, whee!).

The Coral Triangle had the most species by a huge margin, and Funkhouser said the scientists now believed this was because slowly Sundaland had isolated marine life into many lagoons until sea levels rose high enough for them to get out and mix.

So Lemuria could've existed as a peninsula of Asia, but like the northern Mediterranean it would've had a very 'squiggly' coastline with lots of bays, gulfs and lagoons isolated from the sea or even fully landlocked. Sinking was pretty slow, noticeable over several generations -- maybe it did so in periodic floods, aided by quakes and volcanic eruptions, instead of a constant slow sea level rise.

Plenty of time for a civilization to develop. If you go for a more 'realistic' feel this civilization could be similar to Mycenean Greece, broken up into rough city-states with seafaring economies. If you like a more gonzo feel, speculate away -- you can always explain the sea as having hidden everything interesting. 

After all, it's Lemuria's coastal plains and valleys that now make up the floor of the Coral Triangle, so every place mankind would've settled is now underwater and well-covered up.

The idea of Sundaland = Lemuria gets really interesting for me when I consider that the Lemurians could've been Austronesian, or the ancestors of the Austronesians. That gives me a reason to mash together Malay and Polynesian elements, and if I knew more about the early history of the Malagasy I could include that too.

Big stone temples like the ones in Ponape. Scowling gigantic eidolons like those of Easter Island. Epic sea battles on catamaran dreadnaughts. And spirits more powerful than anything After the Flood!

May 4, 2015

Seasons of Play


Since I want the seasons to play a part in the game, I've created a table for the GM to use in determing the starting season for a campaign or adventure. Serendipitously I came up with six seasons by splitting the traditional division of two seasons -- wet and dry -- by the state of the winds and the expected events and activities across most of the islands. With six seasons, you can determine your start by rolling a six-sided die.

Storm Winds:
The southwest monsoon (Habagat) is blowing. Typhoons are drawn from the east and swept north-northwest by the monsoon wind.

Mostly rainy, with strong chance of typhoons. Hot and humid.

Travel and other outdoor activities mostly curtailed. Raiders from the south or west active, but cautious of storms. Emergency repairs to the ricefields after a heavy storm.
Harvest Winds:
The southwest monsoon gives way to the northeast monsoon (Amihan), bringing drier, cooler weather.

The rains finally stop, and the weather cools.

Rice harvest, accompanied by sacrifices, festivities, and often marriages. It’s considered lucky to marry in this season. Raiders from locales that grow little rice, or were badly hit by storms, may attack and try to steal some of the harvest.
Trade Winds:
The Amihan winds gain in strength, bringing with them traders from the northern lands beyond the Janggalan Isles.

The coolest time of the year. Occasional rains, but mostly dry and sunny, with cool winds. It gets positively cold in the highlands.

Foreign traders call at the largest ports. Vijadesan traders begin sailing out a week or so after, bringing imported goods south and west. Raiders set out to attack southern or western targets.
Spring Winds:
The height and end of the Amihan monsoon.

Dry, initially cool but quickly growing warmer every week.

Voyaging to the west and south picks up. Height of the deer rut season, and migratory birds from the north are fattest  at this time, just before they set out for their nesting territories; much hunting is done now.
Summer Winds:
The Amihan gives way to the Habagat sometime during summer. At the midpoint of the season there may be little or no wind at all for days.

Very hot, and increasingly humid. Thunderstorms in the afternoon or evening grow more frequent toward summer’s end, heralding the start of the rainy season.

Traders who have gone south prepare to return as soon as the monsoons turn. Early summer is considered excellent time for voyaging.

Farmers prepare the rice fields for planting.  Rice is planted as close to the start of the rainy season as the farmers can, but with enough days to grow sturdy enough to take the heavy rainfall.

With good weather and clear waters, this is also the height of pearl diving season in areas that have pearl beds.
Rain Winds:
The Habagat picks up strength, bringing heavy rains.

Increasingly rainy. Often it rains all day for several days at a time. Hot and humid when the sun is out, cool and humid when it’s been raining.

Traders and raiders from the south make their way north or east. Farmers and their families are busied guarding the crop against wild animals, specially deer and wild boar who relish the young rice shoots.


Season Rules

Now that we’ve a table of the seasons, we can set up rules for using them in play.

Determining Starting Season
Roll a six-sided die and refer to the table. 1 means Storm season, 6 means Rain.

Sea Travel
Any voyages in the direction of the prevailing monsoon gains +1-2 Advantage dice. Voyages against the direction of the  monson gets you 1-2 Disadvantage dice (that is, they are rolled by your ‘opponent,’ the GM). The later in the season you go, the stronger the effect of the current monsoon.

Land Travel
You take 1-2 Disadvantage dice whenever travelling overland in heavy rain. This will of course occur more often during Rain and Storm seasons.

If caught by a typhoon at sea, you and your crew must ‘fight’ the typhoon to survive. The pilot rolls to save the ship; everyone else rolls to stay aboard and uninjured. Typhoons are typically Threat 4-6, Resistance 3-6.

Every time a pilot loses a roll vs. a typhoon, the ship takes Hull damage equal to the typhoon’s Victory Points, unless the pilot Pushes the roll.

Every Victory Point scored by the pilot vs. the typhoon on the other hand means he’s made progress toward safety. When the typhoon’s Resistance has been expended, the vessel is out of the storm.

Overland travel during a typhoon is simply impossible – driving rains, powerful winds, and flooding make progress in the trackless wilds too difficult and dangerous. If the PCs insist, let them roll vs. the typhoon as with a typhoon at sea. Each loss vs. the typhoon indicates some exhausting or  injuring accident has occurred to that PC.

Additional GM Tips

As a GM, you can use the seasons to flavor the game even more. What are the people doing? What are they eating? What are they looking forward to or dreading?

Rice is most plentiful right after the harvest, of course. But most of the Janggalan Isles can’t grow a lot of rice, which prefers low, wet or irrigated ground. Most Vijadesans will have no more rice by summer’s end, or earlier if they were profligate with it, and will be eating mostly yams and taro instead.

Game meat is most plentiful during the Spring hunting season, when the hunters are bringing back venison, wild pork, or gamefowl, specially migratory ducks, almost every day. After this, fresh game meat will be more of an occasional treat.

Though meat animals like chicken, hogs, and buffalo breed all year in the Janggalans, Vijadesans will usually consume domesticated animals only after a sacrifice. Since sacrifices peak at Harvest season, this is also when you can expect meat on the table most often.

Trading and Raiding
The big question here is, will the PCs’ hometown be on the sending or receiving end? Is their hometown prepared to receive the enemy’s visits? Are they sharing your island with anyone who might team up with a raiding fleet from elsewhere?

May 2, 2015

Hunting on the High Seas

Raiding karakoa by Wylz Gutierrez

Maritime adventure is a core component of Hari Ragat, and the tropical island setting offers a lot of interesting adventure opportunities. A lot of these have to do with sea raiding and other piratey activities. Some cast the heroes as the defenders, some as the attackers righting some wrong, and getting some fame and profit on the side. Here are some ideas for your tropical Vikings:

Pack Hunting
Vijadesans sometimes go raiding in single vessels, but more commonly they operate in fleets of half a dozen or more craft. The largest craft belongs to, or is commanded by, the highest-ranked warrior on the expedition, and serves as both flagship and mothership to the smaller craft, carrying extra supplies and water for them, and in case of a fight at sea, serving as the fleet's heavy hitter. Fleets may disperse for small-scale operations such as kidnapping and attacking small merchant craft, or operate as one unit against settlements or large enemy vessels or convoys.

Vijadesan rulers often sally out with their followers and sometimes with the addition of mercenaries to raid their declared enemies. Corsairs are distinguished from outright pirates by their 'correct' behavior: they only attack enemy settlements and shipping, they allow all their captives the right to ransom themselves free, and they keep any captives that could not do so, instead of selling them in foreign lands.

Certain chiefs are considered outlaws for breaking the Vijadesan conventions of warfare, and these are the true pirates. They attack anyone, without provocation and often engage in slave trading. Very wealthy captives may be ransomed, but a beautiful woman or boy may be retained even if they can offer ransom because the pirates hope to make more from their sale on the slave blocks in foreign lands.

Seasonal Raids
Whether pirate or corsair, Vijadesan sea raiders strike according to the season. When the northeast monsoon blows, they hunt west and south of their home ports, and when the winds turn, they may hunt to the north and east. Occasionally a bold or crafty raider will chance raiding on a contrary wind for surprise or a faster getaway, but this is risky specially in storm season. Entire raiding fleets have been lost and the fates of kingdoms and dynasties changed when a raiding fleet got caught in a bad storm.

Dawn Landings
Pirates and corsairs will usually attack settlements in the dark before dawn. Advance parties may land in small boats farther up or down the coast, hoping to eliminate any sentinels, who are usually conspicuous atop their watchtowers. At a prearranged time or signal, the rest of the raiders will descend, beaching their vessels en masse to pour into the hopefully unaware town.

Land Approaches
Sometimes raiders will land well away from their target settlement, specially if they have local help, and march through hills and jungle to come at the target from the landward side. A land approach may offer concealment all the way to the very edge of the settlement, and works specially well if the raiders have allies on the same island who will provide guides or even join in the attack.

Kidnapping on the Tidal Flats
Pirates will often take captives however they can, and one favorite tactic is to sail close to shore in smaller boats at low tide, when the fisherfolk come out comb the tidal flats for shellfish. The raiders will disguise themselves as fishermen, often positioning their craft between the sun and the beach to make it harder to identify them. When they spot an unwary victim, they rapidly row in, grapple their victims into their boats, then row away. 

Hunting at Sea
Raiding settlements is almost always more profitable than nabbing vessels at sea -- there is more loot, and if the raiders have enough force, a more certain target. On the other hand, shore raids require a lot of fighters to be successful, and if the tables are turned on the raiders they could lose everything. Attacking enemy ships is thus a secondary activity to shore raids, generally practiced by smaller outlaw bands, or against a known, specific target.

For example, a raider may lie in wait for a specific merchantman they know will have to pass a certain route, or for a bridal ship carrying some wealthy noble bride and her husband with her dowry and gifts, or for a groom's ship on the way to a wedding to take the bridal gifts on board.

Narrows and Shallows
The favorite hunting grounds for raiders are the narrows between close-lying islands, and shallow waters near rocky outcrops or mangrove swamps that give easy concealment to their vessels. An entire fleet can hide in a mangrove swamp, specially before the full light of morning, shooting out when prey is sighted like a pack of wolves bursting out of a cave lair.

There are places in the islands known for their narrow or shallow waters and a prevalence of light, fitful winds where an enemy vessel might be slowed or becalmed, and thus be vulnerable to attack. Raiders will frequent these during the seasons when calms are likely to occur.

Games of Deception
Raiders may employ many schemes to get their prey by surprise. Sometimes they will pose as traders. Sometimes an advance party will land pretending to be traders, perhaps even offering loot from a recent raid as their 'goods,' and ask to guest with the local chief; in the middle of the night they will murder the chief, fire his house, and with that as a signal, bring the other raiders down on the confused community.

Sometimes raiders in traders' guise will approach other vessels offering things for sale, or inviting the other vessel to land and trade. If the victim follows the raiders' wishes, they will quickly have armed men drawing weapons on board, or be surrounded and cut off from escape while on shore.

Sometimes pirates pretend to be their own victims, hailing a passing vessel for help from the hulk of their last victim, while the rest of their fleet lies in hiding. When the target comes in to offer aid, the disguised pirates attack and raise the signal for the rest of their fleet to converge on the prey.

Wrecking and Wreck Diving
Outlaws and some greedier chiefs will often try to plunder any vessels that run aground on their domains. Sometimes the wreckers will take only the goods, as 'payment' for rescuing the crew and passengers, and sometimes they will also try to capture these for ransom or the slave blocks, or simply kill them all because the dead tell no tales.

Many vessels also sink in Janggalan waters during storms, and the Vijadesans consider it fair for anyone to help themselves to these -- if they can! Large vessels from Wu Long and other wealthy foreign lands are carefully watched when a storm is brewing or expected, so that its course can be tracked. If it sinks, locals will have a pretty good idea where to start looking, and will send out their most skilled divers as soon as the weather calms.

There are also famous wrecks that have never been found, and certain wrecks considered sacred for some reason by the locals, who prevent all others from trying to salvage from them.

May 1, 2015

The Winds of War

An Iranun joanga, a galley with outriggers

Sea raiding is the primary kind of warfare practiced in the Hari Ragat setting, which ties war squarely to the cycle of monsoons.

I’m basing this pattern on my research sources, specially W.H. Scott’s Barangay and James Warren’s Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, Maritime Raiding and the Birth of Ethnicity. Warren quotes his sources, noting that the Iranun and Balangingi raiders would sail to Palawan and wait for the southwest monsoon to bear them north up the Philippine archipelago, while at the time of the northeast monsoon their activities would focus on the Malay and  Indonesian islands, and as far as Indochina, to the west and southwest.

Map of the Janggalan Isles

In the Janggalan Isles, everybody guards against raids and goes raiding when they can and have cause. The winds dictate targets and strategy. Raiders generally prefer to have the winds with them on approaching the target, to speed their approach and hinder interception at sea.

Sometimes, though, raiders will also sail with the wind against them going out, to have the winds with them on the escape if pursuit is expected.

If the approach to target is made with the prevailing monsoon winds, chances are escape will be made via a roundabout route, both to tack against the wind, and to throw off pursuit.

April 13, 2015

Ruins and Relics for Hari Ragat

Gratuitous picture of Khmer ruins, Cambodia

If there’s one FRPG trope that Hari Ragat will always be short of, it’s dungeons. They are, quite simply, few and far between in this setting. Partly that’s because the focus is on living communities and wilderness adventures, and partly because dungeons simply don’t appear in my source materials.

Indeed, some classic ‘delving’ tropes are inverted in Hari Ragat:

Manunggul burial jar, used to contain bones

Tombs and Grave Goods
Exploring ancient, underground stone tombs to plunder them of their treasures is standard fare in many FRPGs. Not in Hari Ragat. This form of burial isn’t practiced in the milieu, as grave sites are much simpler, and moreover the heroes are cast this time as the protectors of the tombs.

Grave robbing is a very serious offense against the ancestors, and allowing it to happen brings down the wrath of the ancestors on your folk. The heroic thing to do, therefore, is to keep those pesky grave robbers out. Specially if are enemy sorcerers, planning to steal the remains for necromantic purposes.

The biggest inversion of all is the way treasure is treated. In a typical FRPG, you steal shiny stuff from the dead, to finance your living; in Hari Ragat, you take treasure from the living in large part to give to the dead! Ancestor worship is a big thing in this milieu, with your ruler, relatives and even followers expecting appropriate gifts of treasure from you to accompany them to their graves when they go. Failure to do so results in disrepute in the society of the living, and disfavor from the powerful dead, which will impact your character’s fortunes.

Nasuli Spring in Bukidnon, an example of what would've been a sacred site

Again, there are no big stone temples in this setting. The sacred sites are found in the wilderness, because the people of the setting are animists who worship nature spirits. Once again, the heroes are cast not as plunderers of these sacred sites – an attitude I’ve always felt represented colonialist ethics – but as protectors, and occasionally as victims of the dangerous magic present in those sacred sites.

On the other hand, I love pulp fantasy and the old Hollywood adventures, such as Harryhausen’s Sinbad series, not to throw in some old school standards:

Lost Cities
Yup, there are lost cities in Hari Ragat. Not many, but they’re there, overgrown by jungle. Who built them? And why are they on islands the Vijadesans (your character’s race) believe they’re the first people on?

Another possibility for exploration is an abandoned Vijadesan settlement, deserted after it was destroyed or its inhabitants scared off by volcanic eruption, evil omens or hauntings, war, or the like. There will be little trace left of the buildings that were once here, as they were all of wood, bamboo and thatch, but here and there you may find markers of human presence: log pilings that once held up splendid torogan or astana palaces, pieces of finely carved wood, a grave marker of carved hardwood or even an entire buried ship, all overgrown by jungle.

There may be no extensive stone tunnel dungeons in Hari Ragat, but caves are very definitely part of this setting. Southeast Asia has quite a few big caves that we can use as models.

Batu Cave, Malaysia

There’s Batu Cave in Malaysia, which houses a huge Hindu temple complex; Han Son Doong Cave in Vietnam, now considered the world’s largest cave; the Underground River at Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Lagbasan Cave in Sultan Kudarat, whose innermost chambers were once used as tombs by the native Manobos; the mummy-filled caves of Sagada; and more.

Common characteristics of these tropical caves are the presence of water, sometimes entire lakes or underground rivers of it; lairing snakes galore; and a sacred status, regarding them as either the homes of Diwatas or other supernatural beings, or fitting burial sites for the most revered ancestors.

Special touches could include: albino crocodiles found only inside this cave; thousand-year old serpents capable of human speech and possessed of powerful magic; treasures hidden away for a fated hero to find; shapeshifting giants or dragons; ‘lost tribes’ who’ve sheltered in the cave for generations; or even an entire pirate lair hidden in a sea grotto.

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