March 31, 2015

To Scrivener and Back Again to Open Office

After the issues I’ve had lately with Windows 8 – screwy updates that obstruct work, antivirus issues, a bad scare after AVG locked some vital startup files – I’ve decided to go back to writing Hari Ragat in Open  Office.

I don’t have Scrivener installed in any of my other PCs, nor can I view Scrivener files in my tablet; Open Office RTFs thus maximize compatibility across platforms. Though perhaps I should use .doc or .docx so I can easily move through Google Docs as well.

After making the move, I realized something else: it was easier for me to work with Hari Ragat in discrete chunks, with chapters in separate files.

Back to work!

March 25, 2015

Remembering: The Coming of the Terrans


Life’s not fair. Why do the French get such awesome covers and illos for Leigh Brackett books?  Check out this one above from a French Brackett omnibus, and the one below by Philippe Druillet.

Illustration by Philippe Druillet

And this!!!!


Anyway, I’ve never hidden my love for Leigh Brackett’s pulp sci fi, particularly her visions of Mars and Venus and her growing anticolonial themes. I was specially drawn by the latter, being a Filipino, and because my first taste of Brackett’s work was the anthology The Coming of the Terrans. And I suddenly remembered that I’d never reviewed this book nor the stories in it. Gotta remedy that!


Sadly, this anthology is out of print, but some of the stories in it are available in other Brackett anthologies such as Sea Kings of Mars by Gollancz and the Ace Best of Leigh Brackett. The cover is in a psychedelic 70s style that faithfully captures the contents of the book.

Brackett is half the reason I have red sand between the ears (ERB being the other half). I was already totally hooked on Barsoom when I first encountered Brackett, but her vision of Mars – truly dying, truly decadent, glowering helplessly at the arrogant Terrans – really haunted me.

The book was first released in 1967, the height of the Vietnam War, when some Americans were starting to realize the Vietnamese had a real grievance behind their hostility. Asia and Africa had been in ferment since the late 1800s, and by the time these stories were written matters were fast reaching a head. All over the world, ancient peoples were confronting a brash young West they were tired of having around uninvited.

I think Brackett mined that a lot for her stories, resulting in a flavor that’s very different from her earlier pulp works such as Dragon Queen of Venus. Let’s dive into some of the stories to explore those themes.

Mars Minus Bisha
A mysterious Martian nomad child, Bisha, is abandoned in the arms of the Terran physician Fraser. Disdaining the warnings of the Martians that the child is cursed, Fraser keeps her safe from those who would slay her, only to find out there’s a terrible element of truth in Bisha’s ‘curse.’ The Martian condemnation of the child was based not on superstition, but a real memory of a race that, without others of their kind for company, unwittingly become psychic vampires.

The crux of the story is Fraser’s mistaken rejection of the Martian warnings, and a good swipe at the attitude of ‘White Man’s Burden.’ The high-handed Terran, despite all his good intentions, mistakes a considered lesson from history to be rank and ignorant superstition simply because the Martians are living a ‘primitive’ lifestyle.

The Road to Sinharat
Brackett revisits the coral-carved city of Sinharat, home of the ghoulish Rama civilization, in this second swipe at White Man’s Burden. (Brackett first uses Sinharat and the Ramas in Queen of the Martian Catacombs, an Eric John Stark stories, later re-released as The Secret of Sinharat; events from that are alluded to in Road to Sinharat).

In this story, Terran archaeologist Dr. Carey journeys to the lost, forbidden city of Sinharat, evading attempts by Terran police to arrest him all the while, to fetch ancient records that will prove a vital point of history. His purpose is to halt a Terran project to ‘rehabilitate’ Mars by drilling up and pumping out its existing water reserves, a project violently opposed by the Martians of the Drylands. Again, it turns out that the Martians knew better all along, for the records of the Ramas prove that something similar had been done before, only for Mars’ inexorable dessication to triumph in the end and leave the intended beneficiaries in worse straits than before.

Anticolonial themes seem blend here with anticipation of environmental concerns. Did Brackett anticipate later findings about the environmental impact of damming rivers and similar problems brought about by ‘progress?’ Perhaps she did. Or perhaps I’m seeing that because I read this in the 80s and 90s?

The Beast Jewel of Mars
This is a little less stridently anticolonial in sentiment, as the Terran hero is very much a victim of the Martians, but it’s still rife with themes of resistance and revenge against a colonial power. I like it though that the story also explores what it could be like for an ordinary Joe to get caught up in this volatile milieu.

Spaceship captain Burk Winters returns to Mars, ostensibly to purchase the ultimate forbidden pleasure of Shanga, an ancient Martian technology that causes mental and physiological regression to an earlier stage of evolution. The Martians gleefully and scornfully let him – but it turns out the ultimate Shanga den is a sadist’s zoo where hopelessly regressed Terran Shanga addicts are kept and tortured for the Martians’ pleasure. Shanga, it turns out, is a conspiracy by the ancient royal house of Valkis to make money and get revenge on the Terrans for trampling over Mars.

The villainess of the story puts it thus:

"Mars," said Fand quietly. "The world that could not even die in decency and honor, because the carrion birds came flying to pick its bones, and the greedy rats suck away the last of its blood and pride."

Sadistic and screwed up, but yeah, if you were a Martian you probably couldn’t help but sympathize with her a bit, no?

Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon
This story has a nicely Lovecraftian chill to it. Innocent Harvey Selden, a cultural specialist, comes to Mars and gets into an argument with old Mars hand Altman over the Cult of the Mad Moon. Selden dismisses the stories of the cult as mere superstition.

Altman and his Martian friend Firsa Mak drug Selden and smuggle him out to the forbidden city of Jekkara. There they disguise him as a Martian and join a procession into a cave, where the horrified Selden is made to watch a human sacrifice, and catches a tantalizing (but only to the reader!) glimpse of what the sacrifices are being fed to.

Altman then appeals to Selden; no Terran authority has ever listened to his warnings about the creature, perhaps Selden can make them listen. Because something like that is a threat to all Martians and Terrans alike.

Again, it’s as if Brackett really did see into the future. Yes, a lot of what’s going on in the world today is a legacy of the West’s unbridled expansion and exploitation over the rest of the world. But there are bigger and more inhuman threats that affect all, and we should work together to face them. Things like climate change, industrial pollution, and the other monstrosities created by our unconsidered addiction to ‘progress.’

March 21, 2015

Forget About the Gods! RPG Religion Design

When I was a kid, one of my favorite reads was Bullfinch’s Age of Fable. And when I got into D&D, I found the pantheons very familiar. There’s a god of this and a god of that, and sometimes the gods meddle for you and sometimes the gods meddle against you.

But the flavor … well, the flavor felt very very vanilla.

Same thing with my first attempts at world-building. Why? What was I missing? Why were my made-up religions not interesting?

I’m now thinking I got it wrong. I started, as I guess many other world-builders have done, by creating the mythology first. Which isn’t bad for a story, but not quite as useful for a game. It’s better to forget about the gods, and instead focus on what religion does to your world’s people.

Insight #1: Mythology is of limited use to your players. Stories of the gods and of the world’s origins are there to back up and serve as the skeleton of your world design, but unless they really matter in play your players won’t have much to do with them.

A good example here is the system for magic items in Earthdawn. To unlock an item’s powers, you must discover aspects of its legend and do certain things as dictated by that legend.

Another example is the Glorantha setting in its various incarnations, where ‘heroquesting,’ a rite/ordeal that strives to emulate/re-enact the deeds of the gods, is a major way of gaining magical gifts.

Insight #2: Religions must shape way of life. I looked back at the F&SF stories where the religion mattered, and found that the common thread in all of them was that the religions dictated certain aspects of life – beliefs, behaviors and attitudes – that affected the main characters.

I’m sure, if you’re a D&D old-timer, that you also remember when the gods never mattered to an adventuring party save when your cleric needed something or when a god opposed them. If you’ve ever been to Asia, though, you’ll know there’s far more to belief than that. And that there can be a whole lot of diversity in what people will believe, and what they’ll do for it.

Here’s a good place to insert oddities and story hooks into your world. What’s forbidden for religious reasons? What’s considered bad manners or bad luck for same? Think of something that your players would normally take for granted, such as cats being beloved pets, and twist that.

In China and Japan, you shouldn’t give gifts in sets of four because the number four is bad luck; the word for it sounds too much like the word for death.

In a Victorian-era game I ran set in Afghanistan, an Englishwoman PC in disguise was found out because she’d asked for lunch during Ramadan, a time when every Afghan was fasting during daytime.

Insight #3: Religion provides motivation. This extends far beyond kooky cults trying to awaken sleeping alien gods! Indeed, we need to get away from the trap of religion mattering only when it’s taken to extremes. Nope, if your character is part of a world, then that world’s religion should have a good reason to be part of your character’s motivations.

In my own Hari Ragat, for example, I underpinned the quest for glory with the concept of the afterlife and its accompanying practice of ancestor worship. Only by dying with great renown will you be assured of ascending to full Anito status, which assures a stream of offerings by your descendants that will sustain you in the afterlife.

Insight #4: Religion exists because people have needs and fears. Religious beliefs and practices are there to comfort, calm the people’s fears, and to reinforce a society’s values. Therefore a religion that developed within a particular setting should answer the concerns of the people there*.

Case in point: in the very volcanic islands of Hawaii, the volcano goddess Pele was of major importance. Same with the volcano goddess Lalahon, who was particularly associated with Mount Kanlaon on the island of Negros in my own country.

What creatures do the people fear? What natural forces? For example, there’s no lion god, nor any god with the aspect of a lion, in Hari Ragat: ain’t no lions in these islands! Crocodiles however have mythic significance, because they’re the big bad threat of nature present.

Again, the concept of the afterlife plays a very large part in this. What is the afterlife? What’s the desired state in the afterlife and how do you reach it? If I do something wrong, how do I make it right? Quite a few of the world’s grandest religious edifices were sponsored by penitents. For example, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka took it upon himself to spread Buddhism in penance for the carnage he caused in a war with the Kalinga kingdom.

Or, preparations for the afterlife can be seen as a means to perpetuate and project glory, as seen in the pyramids of the Pharaohs in Egypt. On the other end of the scale there are religions that treat the dead very simply because their belief in the afterlife is very different. Some Tibetan Buddhists expose corpses and even let them be consumed by scavengers, firm in the belief that with rebirth, the old body is best returned to the elements and the circle of life.

Insight #5: Design the rites of passage. Since I’ve been spouting about funerary practices already, let’s dive into another way to spice up your setting’s religion and make it feel more real: its rites of passage.

Most of the world’s religions celebrate at least four great life transitions: birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. What are the symbolisms associated with these? How are they observed? What are the associated superstitions? Why should they matter in a game? Because I want my games to immerse players in a living, breathing world – and that means a society, and unless it’s a society of immortal sterile asexual elves, there will be births, deaths and weddings. And because characters in the games I like are not nameless, rootless hobos, but heroes of their people who have a definite place in the world.

All these insights will be reflected in Hari Ragat, which I want to be as immersive and engaging a world as Tekumel or the Britain of King Arthur Pendragon.

*What if the people follow a religion that didn’t originate with themselves? This can be an interesting thread to follow too. The religion should still offer something that the people want, but it can also be disjointed in some ways from local needs. For example, what if a people were converted to a religion that does away with the ancient gods of the land, resulting in a far more exploitative attitude toward the wilderness? What happens to the environment?

March 18, 2015

Giant Boar Encounter, by Jerald Dorado

Baboy Damo final

Feast your eyes on this second piece by Jerald Dorado for Hari Ragat! Check out that all that wild detail – the boar’s fur, the warriors’ tats, the wood grain on the spearman’s shield.

If you asked me what the story of this was, I’d say it was either a surprise encounter or a hunt for some supernatural demon boar that’s been haunting the countryside. The warriors are armed for battle, not an ordinary hunt – and that boar is way too big to be natural!

March 16, 2015

Hari Ragat Art by Jerald Dorado

Woo hoo! Two new pieces just in from artist Jerald Dorado! They’re so good I’m going to put them out piecemeal, they each deserve a solo post :-)

Bakunawa and Child final

First up: Inang Bakunawa giving birth. Compare the size of the sperm whales Jerald included. These larval bakunawa are already very bad news …

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