Tuesday, June 28, 2011

House of the Axe, The Particulars

I am not a bitter man.

Do I forget in lesser moments the inner grace of stoicism, yes. Do I drink too much, laugh too loud, sure.

For a man who cheats the House of its due learns there is much to clinging to our brief span in the light of the world. And even the short stab of memory of death of comrades becomes a near-forgotten half-stitched wound with the march of time and distance as a new life as a lord in a far land.

Yet, come each thaw, when back home the year-king's broken bones are sewn into the grain fields and the black lottery begins anew, my thoughts and fears run silent and deep back to the youth entering those sealed gates.

My anger and exhortations to all the divine forms from exile likely will mean little to them, but seethe and pray I do all the same...

Last week I threw down the gauntlet for a two-team run for glory—or at the least fear-choked survival—in the cyclopean ruined pile haunted by the Bull-Beneath; this week the details are gelling in my sun-soaked brain.

We now have enough critical mass to run both the Sunday and Wednesday games—possibly even a third or follow-up game if there is enough interest. We still have a couple seats open in each session, so if you want in to go drop me at kutalik at gmail dot com.

We will be using a house-ruled version of Labyrinth Lord to run the game (if you feel compelled to see what house rules in particular you can download the Hill Cantons Compendium in the section on the upper right.)

Character Generation
If you given a solid yes, or even a more tepid maybe, go ahead and roll up one starting character and one back-up character (yeah, yeah I changed my mind) and shoot a character sheet back to me.

You can find the variant guidelines for zero-level characters here. All characters must be human. 

Note that rolls are 3d6 straight down the line though rolls through my background system will give you a few extra dice depending on your station. Please record the details of your background as they will help me in assigning your character one of the unique secrets each of the characters will harbor.

Roll for starting equipment, gifts from your family and friends you are allowed to pack in, as per “normal” in the guidelines. Extra gifts may be assigned at game time.

Cantrips and Orisions
Characters with INT 13 or higheer can start with one cantrip (zero-level Magic-User spell) OR with WIS 13 or higher start with one orison (zero-level Cleric spell). Only one such type of spell can be chosen. Either type of spell can be cast while wearing armor.

Players have the option of using the relevant BFRPG supplement—or homebrewing a spell of appropriate power (dependent, of course, on my approval or amendment).

I mentioned that there would be prizes for those emerge victory in hand out of the Underworld. Beyond the heaping of in-game kudos, I am still mulling giveaways material and a off the wall. Stay tuned for that. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Speaking of the Off-Season

I am not just writing about the off-season, dear readers, I'm living it. Today marks the first day of taking off a week for points more exotic.

Based on past experience you may see either an uptick in posting, or a full-scale playing hooky here in the Hill Cantons. La.

Off-Season Player Activities

One of the greatest advantages of throwing open your design process to all you DIY rapscallions out there is that your feedback without fail tends to fire off the sagging neurons in my brain and goad me into delving deeper and deeper into the subject on hand. 

Sadly for my ever-stretching personal deadlines, one of the greatest disadvantages is that your feedback fires off my imagination and goads me to delve...

Looking at many of your comments from this week, it became increasingly apparent that I would have to start getting into the nitty gritty of off-season activities in “Pendragon D&D”--really I need a better working title at this point--before getting much farther in detailing the other methods.

Some rough guidelines for running the 6-10 month period that characters aren't actively adventuring:

Cultural Limitations. Very few societies in well thought out campaign settings will allow a character free reign in all activities. Depending on the political, economic, cultural, and religious contours of the character's home area, some activities will be limited or banned altogether. It's important for the GM to think about these limitations and convey them to the player before she plans her off-season activity.

In many cases hurdles can be overcome with the right application of “juice”, bribes, political favors, and/or other influences (weighted CHA checks).

A high medieval European-like setting, for instance, is likely to have a rigid guild structure that forbids a character from being taught a craft or profession. The character may have to grease a few palms of guild master to get a dispensation to be taught—or seek and find an errant journeyman willing to break the heavy hand of the guild.

Compensation. Each activity reaps benefits:

Gold. Money produced per activity.

Experience Points. Modest exp awards per activity.

In Kind” Compensation. Goods produced in an activity: magic items, weapons, hides, furs, food, etc.

Social Benefits. Advancement in a political, religious, cultural, professional hierarchy. Children, relationships, etc.

Skills. All labor is divided into four categories based on training in a trade: unskilled, semi-skilled, craft and expert. These four areas correspond to the Hirelings list found here.

Time requirements for activities. Here's the carrot that some of you mentioned. A character can engage in a range of activities in the months of the off-season, but each has a time requirement.

Many tasks can be completed indirectly by hiring or compelling free or unfree labor. No experience points are awarded from the secondary activity, but the character is allowed to forgo the time requirement (did I really need to spell that out?). Wage and/or upkeep costs apply.

Training in new areas will give a character a rudimentary working knowledge of the subject—speaking a new language at a grade-school level or being able to work metal crudely, for example. Further applications of training will progressively hone the skill level at the discretion of the GM. (Keeping with the core spirit of D&D interpretation of skills are wholly non-mechanical and rulings-based.)

Brief (1 month)
Swords & Sorcery-style Debauch/Carouse/Paint Town Red
Bribe/Use Influence
Work/Practice Trade
Run a Business
Join Guild, Order, or Other Association
Conduct Religious Acts (Penance, Absolution, Sacrifice etc)
Travel, Civilized Lands
Craft Potion, Scroll
Build a Structure (varies)
Commission Expedition
Buy/Sell Stolen Goods or Other Illegal Activity

Seasonal (3 months)
Courtship (includes trying to have children)
Read and Write Native Language
Learn a Semi-Skilled Trade
Train with Weapons
Embark on Pilgrimage, Short
Conduct Spell Research
Conduct Scholarly Research
Craft Minor Magic Item
Class-Appropriate Training(thieving, tracking, kung-fu, etc.)
Train an Animal
Use Ritual Magic

Quarterly (4 months)
Learn to Speak Easy Foreign Language
Learn to Read and Write Easy Foreign Language
Create a Work of Art (statue, epic poem, piece of music, etc)
Lead a Caravan, Civilized Area
Captain a Merchant Craft

Half-Year (6 months)
Learn a Craft 
Farm, Short Harvest Crop
Embark on Pilgrimage, Long
Learn to Speak Difficult Foreign Language
Read and Write Difficult Foreign Language

Long (9 months)
Switch Class
Farm, Long Harvest Crop
Found Settlement

Double-Season (18 months)
Learn an Expert Trade

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Pendragon D&D: the Matrix Method

Today I trot out the first (and most bare bones) of four methods I am working on to help judges navigate the off-season in the “Pendragon D&D” section of the Domain Game. Note that all four are very rough at this point, almost more like a thinking out loud. 

Any input as always is greatly appreciated.

Method One: The Matrix Method
Have each player put together--at the end of the last adventure season session or in-between--a short narrative about what their character has been up to during the off-season. This can be accomplished either in a written pre-session format or in a round-robin oral manner as you go around the table calling on players--alternately this could be done in individual one-on-one sessions.

(In my own experience, handing out writing assignments will produce highly uneven results: some players will jump at the chance, others will roll eyes and bellyache, and some will just vote with their feet.)
Whatever format you decide on you should keep the same framing questions:

What are your character's goals for the season? Wealth? Fame? Experience? Knowledge?

What's he going to do to accomplish these goals? Packed up the elf henchman and visited the oracle? Captained a merchant vessel? Hired on with that crank of an alchemist in town?

Now on your end you match the logic of this argument to your own “counter-argument”.

How did the players preparations stack up against the dangers of your campaign world? What did she accurately take in to account or not? What is the endeavor going to cost the player, financially or other cost? Given the stated goals, how dangerous of an endeavor is the player embarking on?

With these questions in mind the GM makes an arbitrary call about the relative soundness of the plan. Detail, anticipation, and forethought are hallmarks of a stronger argument. Using the simple Engle Matrix chart below the GM finds the category that fits closest to this call. Now think about the dangers move the category up and down if you think that the danger warrants

Strength Of Argument
Dice Score To Be Successful
Very Strong Argument
6, 5, 4, 3, 2
Strong Argument
6, 5, 4, 3
Average Argument
6, 5, 4
Weak Argument
6, 5
Very Weak Argument
Stupid Argument
No Roll

If the roll is successful grant the player their goal. If the roll is two higher than the minimum grant them some extra boon. Make sure to account for any costs in the final reckoning.

Example: Umma the Undying says that this off-season she will turn “corsair” along the coast of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes with loot, loot, loot as her stated goal. She doesn't have money for a galley of her own, so she cooks up an elaborate plan to hire a crowd of rowdies and commander a vessel in the creepy seaside village of Ennsmuth.

The plan seems to account for a number of reasonable dangers (Strong Argument) but fails to account for the singular danger of Ennsmouth being a town infested with demons from the deep (move the Argument down to an Average one).

Umma rolls a “5” a success. The GM thinks up some appropriate loot for her level and risk and she leaves the off-season richer and refreshed. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The House of the Axe: A Challenge

Your pulse is pounding, your knuckles seem bleached as you thrust your fist into the urn. There is a moment of quiet tension as your fingers linger over the smooth curves of the pebbles inside. 

You hesitate as your hand draws over one--then, unsure, another. A breathless mantra echoes through your head, “please, please, dear sweet Mother, please.”

The long, stern face of the Archon nods impatiently for you to get on with it. Slowly you withdraw your hand and uncurl the digits.


You cycle through a flurry of emotions.

Shock. You are now one of the Thirty. Grief. Your young life is likely to come to a short, sharp close as a sacrifice to the Bull-Beneath-the-Earth. Wild hope. Once a generation a handful of the chosen climb their way out of the House of the Axe battered, but alive. Resolute. I will fight, I will live to see the survivor's prize of lands and a hall in the new world beyond the obelisk.

It's game time, friends and comrades. Skype playtest game time that is.

I am looking for two teams of up to five players to play in at least one 3-4 hour Skype session. First team will likely roll on Saturday July 9, exact time TBA. Second team's lots come up on Wednesday July 13. (I already have one volunteer for the 9th and another for the 13th.)

The particulars:
  1. Players will roll up one zero-level character, a lot-chosen sacrifice to the Bull God destined to enter the House of the Axe. Starting characters will be generated using the variant system cobbled together here a few weeks back.

  2. If—or more likely—when a player's starting character dies they are allowed to play one of the pre-generated others of the Thirty. After that they are out of the game.

  3. Each character will be allowed to bring only what gifts from family and friends that they can carry on their back (gifts randomly determined by the GM).

  4. Each character also carries one secret, a piece of knowledge or identity wholly unique. Some may help the character, others the team as a whole—a few may bring great power to their holder and doom to others.

  5. Unlike in other role-playing games, there will be winners. The team that escapes with the most alive, gathers the most riches, and/or grabs the most glory will be hailed as the victor. One player from each team will be determined to be the “best in show” based on how well they face their skein. Prizes to be awarded, kudos to be heaped.

  6. All interested survivors will be invited to participate in a short series of Skype playtests (lucky you) in Autumn based on the later exploits of their characters in the Domain Game.

Who will take up the challenge?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Attribute Checks: The Simple Route

“Senior moments” seem to be coming harder and faster for me after turning around that four decade mark. I failed to mention in yesterday's post kicking off the Pendragon D&D thread (the follow-up sections are being worked on tonight) that I had adapted the stress saving throw from AD&D house rules used by the Lord of Green Dragons, Rob Kuntz.

A couple weeks back I had played a less-than-heroic role in the Saturday evening session judged by Kuntz at the North Texas RPG rumpus. One of the more interesting things I noticed from playing with the man was his frequent use of attribute checks.

Depending on the situation he would call for a throw of 3d6, 4d6, or 5d6 against a particular attribute—the dice being added for the relative difficulty of the task at hand. Exceeding the number meant failure. I wasn't entirely sure, but beating a roll handily or failing it badly seemed to have consequences.

Here a 3d6 against would be thrown against CHA for attempting to cajole some information from a hooded servant, there a 4d6 would be thrown against DEX to avoid dropping into an invisible pit of certain death. 

INT checks of various proportions were frequently used to see if he would feed us metagamey knowledge (a sudden perception of a weakness in a trap, the direction that the air currents were taking a cloud of sulfurous gas, etc)

Not rocket science, nothing earth-shattering, but a far simpler and more elegant solution than the constant addition and subtraction of modifiers on a d20 roll or the matching of various challenge systems. 

Consider it borrowed, oh Lord.  

Monday, June 20, 2011

“Pendragon D&D”: Starting Points

Just got back from flying through 60 pages of manuscript of the Domain Game, and boy are my arms tired. Badum-ching.

Seriously though, it's a bit of a roller coaster doing this kind of project: an exuberant high when you are pounding the keyboard and making progress, side-splitting agony when you get bogged down. 

[Me finishing whiny screed and pontification on the high lonesome of writing.]

One byproduct of my recent burst of activity is going a bit farther in fleshing out the bits around “Pendragon D&D”, my shorthand for custom-fitting to classic D&D one specific—yet significant—element from Pendragon RPG: the long-haul timescale that punctuates annual adventures with longer off-table down seasons.

The “why” for this was kicked around here a few months back. As a reminder here was what I sad back then for its possible relevance to the Domain Game project:
A simple innovation [Pendragon's campaign phase] but one that added several layers of depth. Players could realistically play not only a character but a characters' children and grandchildren. The managing of realms—almost inherently a long-term project needing months if not years of “off-stage” time to be interesting—becomes an easier fit. The real sweep of history, more of a thing of years, decades, and centuries even, becomes something tangible in gameplay.
Sounds easy enough, right? Here's a peek at how I have started to over-complicate and badger this simple notion to death.

Part I: The Campaign Season
Like modern combat, adventuring is a physically, mentally, and psychically exhausting profession. Surrounded by near-constant danger, the body is flooded with stress hormones over and over again. The persistent tension, the hyper-vigilance, the physical toil of exertion and combat add up over the weeks. Even the most durable of grizzled veterans find themselves only able to sustain that kind of activity over a few months without starting to feel serious wear and tear.

Long periods of rest can relieve this pressure, allowing the would-be adventurer space to recoup and enter the fray anew.

In game terms, this is modeled by having each campaign year be divided into a “campaign season” of 2-4 months--or 1-2 multi-session “adventures”--and an “off-season” composed of all the time between each active adventure period.

Depending on the setting, the former season should be a contiguous, travel-friendly season, the warm summer and late spring months, for instance, in a cooler, temperate campaign setting or the dry season in a monsoon-drenched tropical one.

Because Pendragon D&D rests on a quicker pace, time moves quicker between table sessions. Where as older editions of D&D typically recommend that one game day elapses for each real day away from the game, this campaign style works better with three game days equaling one real day away. GM's can and should modify this baseline ratio as the need to contract and telescope action arises at the table.

The players can also elect to campaign over the four month limit, but will increasingly be susceptible to campaign fatigue and stress. At the beginning of each game-time week a check will be made against the character's WIS or CON (player's choice).

In the first month past the campaign season limit, the player rolls 3d6 against the attribute score in his weekly checks. If the score exceeds the attribute the character loses a one point of a randomly-chosen attribute (1d6 in order). For each month past the campaign season limit, 1d6 is added to the check, on the second month 4d6 are rolled, 5d6 on the third, and so on down the line.

A rest period of six, back-to-back months is required to restore lost attribute points.

In the next two parts I will take up four experimental methods to play out the off-season: two narrative and two mini-game methods.

Thoughts? Can you see this working in part or in whole? What would you change, spindle, mutilate, or fold?  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fathers and Sons...and Brothers

Pop psychology is crammed with homilies to the importance of father-child bonding. More often than not it's a steady stream of rather obvious truths--with the occasional fuzzy-edged myth thrown in for sentimental good measure. Stress is placed on role modeling of the serious and heavy sort; games when they do get a mention are invariably of the ball-throwing, tousle-the-hair stereotypical sort.

From reading those paeans, you would never know that modeling play, especially imaginative play, is of vital developmental importance not just for the child, but for the adult that follows. (Take my word for it, there is a flotilla of other pop psychology pieces to bolster that assertion.)

It must be a theme that resonates on a deep level with me, looking back on my own writing here the more personal posts invariably dwell on my father or his father--and how the things I learned from them manifest themselves in my own love for this Game (you know the one).

It will be a long time before I get a chance to truly introduce the Game to my own brood (hypothetical and not), but yesterday I did get a swipe at corrupting the young impressionable minds of my nephews, William the eldest in particular.

The older one, now five, has always clearly had a head for...well...living in his head. On a muddy morning last Fall he started in his first soccer game. He spent the entirety of that game utterly disinterested in what was happening on the field, spending most of it staring off at the great, gray buttress of clouds slowly accumulating to the North. He wasn't bored, there was an elaborate story about the giants who float on their cloud castles with lightening axes to match his hour-long daydream.

My brother, as keen to push sports on his kids as much as we were pushed, took it in good stride. Grinning as he related the story to me he said, “I think the games he's going to excel at are likely going to be of the role-playing persuasion.” (There was no need to remind him that he played D&D and the raft of other RPGs in nearly every session that GMed back in ye old day.)

Nine times out of ten these days William will track me down at whatever family function we are attending, and just as invariably by the end of it he will be begging me to play one of the sub-par rogue-like games I have added to my so-called smart-phone to blissfully tune out when standing in a grocery checkout line or the like. Yesterday, I flat out refused, “no, let's do something better.”

Leading him with great solemnity into the study, with a showman's flourish I slowly slid open my projects drawer. There was almost a breathless rush of “whooooaa” from him and the eyes lit up as wide as saucers.

I walked him through the paces, the broadest strokes of what the Game was all about. He seemed to grasp the outline of it all almost intuitively. Noticing the ranks of lead men now arrayed in battle lines inside narrow valleys walled by Victorian adventure novels on my desk, his brother was instantly clamoring to get in. The resulting action was only vaguely like a fantasy RPG in formal tones, but wholly like it in the sheer wonder and exuberance of your first taste of it.

There was a fire-casting Ral Parthan sorcerer next to the gleaming silver-metal mail of an aquiline prince with a small crowd of Andalusian and Saxon hirelings in tow. There was a menacing caveman giant, ghost minotaur, and mad mullah to best.

It was quick, dirty and all over the map—literally with 20-siders a-flyin'--and immensely fun for me as much as them. They were shouting and talking about their feats in first-person terms and for a moment I saw my own brother and I sitting there 30 years ago talking up a blue streak about orcs slain and treasured gained.

The hook was set.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

South Texas Mini-Con August 20: Save the Date

Plans are firming up for the South Texas Mini-Con, a one-day classic rpg and miniatures all-day event organized by the rapscallion players and scurrilous gamemaster of the Hill Cantons. If you are interested in attending—or running a game—please drop me a line at kutalik at gmail dot com.

Here's the updated information:

When: Note the change (this is now firm), Saturday, August 20, 2011. Starting likely at 10:00 am and finishing when they kick us out.

The Mini-Con site (more or less)
Where: This is also now firm. The New Braunfels Convention Center break-out room. See here for more info on the site.

Who: 20-30 participants. If we are looking like we will hit over 30, we may rent a second room and open up more sessions.

What: One-day gaming event with morning and afternoon sessions. We will likely run 3-4 games in each session depending on interest levels. To date, we have three very likely sessions: a starship mini game (Desert Scribe), an AD&D first edition session (Brad/Skullcrusher), and an Empire of the Petal Throne adventure (yours truly).

Several maybe sessions include a possible Chainmail minis battle (playing out action in the on-going Domain Game) or Humanspace Empires game (me again). We also have a few special surprise sessions in store for participants.

Registration is free, but any and all contributions will be greatly appreciated.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Urutsk Rising Part II

We take up where we left from yesterday with our interview with Kyrinn Eis. 

Hill Cantons: Alongside your world, the gaming components seem to have evolved in stages too. By the looks of what you brought to NTRPG Con it looks like you are making a big qualitative jump with the game. Where's that at?

Kyrinn Eis: I have to stay more than one step ahead of the competition. In the years since I started working on Urutsk: World of Mystery, I found my focus change from trying to target the OSR, to making a product I was truly happy with. At each stage along the way, when I was a bit doubtful or aimless, an older, more seasoned gamer would come along (Rob Kuntz and then Jeff Berry) and encourage me to stick to my vision –not selling out for a quick buck and the temporary interest of a fickle crowd.

Careful readers of my blog, from the beginning, will see little hints of my planning a boxed set of rules, of non-D&Desque rules methodologies, and of my lack of complacency regarding everything from aesthetics to rules mechanisms. I love system-work, but I also have a strong artistic side, and the two have married happily with my own nostalgia and homages to bring the world I have inhabited for most of my life to this world, for others to explore with me.

HC: One of the things that made him very happy was to see that you are taking up a number of themes—domain-level, solo, and multi-level play--that I've been trying to explore myself either on the blog or in the Domain Game. Tell us what we can look forward to in your game.

KE: The boxed set's premise is that explorers, businesses, entrepreneurs, slavers, convicts on the run, and religious refugees travel from the Vrun Continent to start operations/new life on the Marnharnnan Continent. This was done to help ground readers in the setting, providing researchable topics (Early European Colonisation of the Americas) to tether them in their exploration of Vrun-ness as well as the varied terrains of the Sunken Continent.

Players can decide if this is to be a one-off competition game of several colonies (somewhat akin to, but not actually as monotone and finite as the Euro-games: Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, or Puerto Rico), a competitive campaign game, or a co-operative campaign game where Players control PCs in the same or allied communities. As exploration is necessary to find the resources needed to maintain the colony/group, new challenges are uncovered or roused from their slumber to plague the Vrun attempt to claim the virgin continent.

Secondly, the game had to be friendly towards solo gamers, and to that end, the Control Sheets and system work not to define what can be done, but to establish the foundation of what has been done in certain instances in other times and places.

This means that as a solo game, the amount of work one puts into it determines the value of play one experiences, and that the solo gamer has to live with the sense of going too easy one themselves, or taking a sense of pride in surviving more challenging play.

Solo gaming when scored against an un-moving target is essentially masturbation: Roll x to get y. But, if the scaling of the challenge is set to synch +n with the detail and involvement the Player puts forth, there is no need to speak of re-play value – instead, conversations will be of Continued-Play-Value.

HC: You have some tactical combat rules to work with this too, right?

KE: Vanguard, the soon to be released skirmish warfare and tactical RPG rules set, is designed to dovetail with the “basic combat” of the boxed set, and both are the immediate sibling of the Vrun Players' Module–the Vrun Sourcebook where why you are the way you are is explained in detail – it really ought to be thought of as a comprehensive line of interconnected parts, each of which is useful on its own merits (the VPM, for instance, may be just what grognards voicing their desire for a sourcebook that they can then stat as they see fir for their preferred system).

The complex, then, of Vanguard plus the boxed set plus the VPM and subsequent titles yields a deeply textured and detailed world setting in one period of its history, allowing for decades of play, invention, and re-combination I have only previously seen in various versions of EPT/Tekumel or Glorantha (although Skyrealms of Jorune, and perhaps Blue Planet had it in them if they had been taken in those directions).

As I have kept this setting going through every major time period in its history, I know others are capable of doing so-in the same way Tekumel and Glorantha players have been able to–to a degree of full immersion limited only by their imaginations (see the Aethervox Gamer's Tekumel costumes, let alone their collection of scale-props and thousands of vividly painted miniatures if you don't think gaming fandom can exist to Star Trek or Star Wars levels of intensity).

Do I want you and everyone else who plays an RPG every once in a while to come to Urutsk? Absolutely!

Will everyone want to make it their go-to game and setting? You'll only know for certain if you want to do so by giving it an honest try. It isn't D&D.

As Steve Winter told me at the 2010 NTRPG Con, “It isn't Gamma World”, and by extension, it isn't Mutant Future or X-Plorers, either. Nor should folks think that it is my version of Tekumel– Shr.d-forbid!–it is simply, Urutsk.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Urutsk Rising: An Interview with Kyrinn Eis

One of the highlights of the recent NTRPG soiree for me was finally getting a chance to play in Kyrinn Eis's world setting, Urutsk. Like a number of people, my glimpses of this richly, detailed “science fantasy” (really it defies a straight genre label) world and matching game systems have been limited to reading her blog, The Grand Tapestry.

Her Urutsk projects seems to be building up to the next stage of launching out into the public sphere. When I met up with her she was lugging around a prototype copy of the boxed set complete with Peter Mullen-drawn cover, full-color world map, Euro game components (for the domain-level play), and a satisfyingly granular set of multi-level rules to go with.

Kyrinn graciously granted me a chance to get some of her and the project's backstory, of which I will be running parts of in two sections as an interview.

Hill Cantons: The immediate thing one notices about your project is the dense layers of worldbuilding richness. Curveball question time: how would you describe your world setting to a newcomer in three sentences or less?

Kyrinn Eis: From my blog: “Multiple catastrophes temper survivors into flinty men and women who distrust others, and struggle to survive ancient horrors, faltering reality and decaying time, with glory.

Although there are elements of the fantastical and sci-fi missing from the 25 words above, the heart of Urutsk is one of human struggle in the face of a cosmos that suggests a grand design, but with an apparently mute creator at the wheel; where animals, people, and forces of nature oppose civilisation and decency, but where humanity is often its own worst enemy.

The parts that are most outwardly alien in the setting arise from my mixed ancestry and exposure to ancient things as well as other cultures (European and Ottoman, Gentile and Jewish, and Moslem, Hebrew, Occult and Secular, etc.). Within each of those are interesting stories, crests, inventions, mysteries.

For instance, it looks as if my maternal grandfather's [German] line was derived from a Crusader's henchman, who may have received land in Albania. On my paternal grandmother's [Turkish] side, in then Ottoman Albania, my Jewish ancestor named Yakov. Another Ottoman ancestor was clockmaker to Sultan, and I have been told that I am related to Rumi the Dervish.

HC: In comments here on HC you described your worldbuilding process as not completely “top down” despite its vast store of details. You said that Urutsk built up organically over many years of play. When did you start and what did the world look like back then? How has it changed over time?

Kyrinn Eis: At age twelve I was given Moldvay Basic [D&D] by my older sister after she found it too rules-intensive and micro-managerial for her tastes. Within two-weeks, after a few boring sessions run by a more experienced player, I was GMing. Not just GMing, mind you, but tinkering with the game. Adding in the Monster Manual and Fiend Folio were the least of it: chainsaws, multi-armed snake-men, laser guns and the like.

By the time I got my hands on Gamma World, however, I largely put Basic D&D to bed. I was drawn into that game instead by the media I was exposed to: all the Planet of the Apes stuff (including the cartoon), Star Trek, Space: 1999, ARK II, and Damnation Alley.

Shaped by these influences, I had by 13 the foundation of what would later be recognised as Urutsk, although the name wouldn't come into existence for roughly another decade.

Around '85 (15-16 or so), I was turned on to Tunnels & Trolls 5th edition by a frienemy and that forever altered my gaming palate. I had previously favored Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system over the D&Ds, etc., and had written a lot on a world then known as The World of Larid Zeeth, using a mash-up of AD&D, Runequest/Stormbringer, and T&T5.

It was during this time I wrote a Sci-Fi version of T&T for Ken, using polyhedrals and lots of new psionic powers, like “Blood From a Stone” and “Leaping Lizards”.

HC: That sounds promising, but what the heck is that?

KE: Oh, um. Blood From a Stone allowed one to sacrifice hitpoints to squeeze water from a stone, and Leaping Lizards was a weird little spell that allowed the recipient 3x normal leaping and bounding--although what “normal” entailed was never addressed.

The title was...[mumbles]...

HC: What's that?

KE: [loud sigh]… Lasers & Lightspeed. Yeah, I know...

I had the first space proto-Urutsk game set upon the Ralinsgard space station, at the LeGrange point between the planet and the moon. Their job was to await scout-seeder ship pilots who were hundreds of years overdue to return to the star system in question. The folks had limited supplies, cannibalism was part of the punishment for certain wastrel crimes, and they used sodium bicarbonate as a flavoring instead of salt.

That somehow tied into the planet below, which had suffered a battery of catastrophes (nukes, pollution, weird chemical releases causing mutations–all that '70's stuff), and was largely devoid of folks, but filled with giant plants and weird critters (some were alien).

A trip to New Orleans resulted in Chrysalis City (I was listening to a lot of Jethro Tull back then, and they were on Chrysalis Records), which later morphed into Kryssan City. 

Kryssan City was the hub of the post-apocalypse supers game I was running, first with Heroes Unlimited, and later, with yet another homebrew.

HC: These were heroes, right?

KE: Reluctant heroes. Mutant-stigma is great in Vrun society, more so than in the Marvelverse in general. One NPC, what would now be Tshuk, was Completely Invulnerable. One time, they had to use him as an tank shell by flying him speedy-like into an APC. Tshuk was a computer programmer.

One character, though, Cynthia ABC, was one of my anti-hero types, and her powers were Possession and a few other mental powers that travelled with her when she spirit-wandered, possessing enemy guards and killing their compatriots. Team mates did not like her, let alone trust her, and the PCs were non-plussed, too.

She became Kynkrea Ays, one of my most gamed, written about, and illustrated characters– featured in my first book, Dawner of the First Light. That'll stir somethin' somethin'.

By now, I was deeply into Bill Willingham's The Elementals, having left behind the X-Men as my favorite comic. Along with Elementals I was reading Grendel, Mage, GrimJack, Whisper, John Sable, MARS, Dynamo Joe, Puma Blues, some b&w zombie title (zombies were my fear and fascination), as well as re-viewing the old DC John Carter Warlord of Mars, and the most wonderful Marvel Killraven titles of my sister's day.

Somewhere along the way, the combination of Gamma World, The Morrow Project, Twilight 2000 and all of the prior media resulted in my talking about corporate security forces deploying out of Jeep Cherokees (irony that I would go into High Risk Armed Security decades later) and keeping youth gangs under control so the geriatric rulers could try and figure out where to go that would be safer/more pleasant than the abandoned and economically crushed urban sprawl of their defeated nation.

The adult population from 15-45, male and female, had been decimated in the decade-long, unpopular, Vietnam-like foreign war, fighting Communist cyborgs. The final straw was when the vets returned, and an unknown agency delivered the coup de grace to the Western Alliance nations via biochem cruise missiles with differing payloads designed to induce madness, dis-figuration, and the collapse of the national identity (above and beyond crippling the means of recovery). Of the Western Alliance, only the Western Isles Concordance was spared (a miss offshore).

This, despite the lack of the name, was Urutsk.

Monday, June 13, 2011

We Believe In Nothing

Your praiseworthy sense of personal dignity has given way,” remarked Bazarov phlegmatically, while Arkady was hot all over, and his eyes were flashing. “Our argument has gone too far; it's better to cut it short, I think. I shall be quite ready to agree with you,” he added, getting up, “when you bring forward a single institution in our present mode of life, in family or in social life, which does not call for complete and unqualified destruction.”

A little Turgenev for you, in case you cared a fig about were the Hill Cantons lined up in the flavor-of-the-month club's recent mini-culture-war (thanks, Scott). You know the groan-producing one with all the subject headers beating on the chest about heroes/anti-heroes, social contracts, nihilism and the like lining up against the other section of the club's acronym- and hype-heavy games (DCC RPG and LotFP WRP: Grindhouse). Those posts.  

Ugh, please go back to arguing about shields, so we nihilists can go back to subverting society--one roleplaying game at a time. Where's Hrü’ü when I need his inscrutable rear?

Smelled Like Victory

Saturday evening I wrapped up a long campaign. There were flawed heroes, there was struggling against the odds. There was a long fight hard won.

That sweet, sweet smell of victory.

No, it wasn't some phase of the Domain Game, nor were there any funny dice involved. But there was some kingmaking involved and even some roleplaying on my part as I tried on the role of politico.

When we sat down to play our Hill Cantons game Sunday, it was hard not to linger on thoughts about “winning and losing” in roleplaying games. (After action report here by Desert Scribe, I continue to be too self-conscious and/or lazy to do session reports anymore.)

From early on we have been told that unlike most traditional games there really aren't any winners or losers in these games. There is a great deal of truth there, it was one of the liberating and, dare I say genius, elements of D&D from the get go. But there is a bit of obfuscation in there too.

Competition either directly or indirectly supported by game mechanics never truly disappeared, it just became papered over and muted.

Winning and losing, those concepts so near and dear to competition (imparted to us by a couple centuries of indoctrination), never truly disappeared either. They just became part of a more subtle dance.

Sure you could play it straight--some still do. Many of us have been on the receiving end of the Killer DM stereotype. It's the worst kind of game imaginable; on par with playing Chess against an opponent whose pieces play by any rule—or none—of their choosing. It's an invitation for an evening filled with eye-rolling and hair-pulling. Despite it having the outward form, it's no real competition at all.

The best form is the dance between the mock adversity of a GM and his players. Yes he can be tough as nails, throwing everything and the proverbial sink at the players in the course of the session. 

He can be sneering even, taunting and taking seeming delight in their misery. He becomes, as someone whose username I now forget (T. Foster?) called a comic opera villain, twirling his oiled mustache.

The “foiled again” curses are an act. You are secretly rooting for the players. You want them to feel like they had to beat you, to overcome you as a player. To rise—or fall—to the occasion. Like a great competitive game it creates a real, visceral dramatic tension.

Will we make it through this battle and grab the swag? Will our vorpal blades go snicker-snack? Or do we die here paralyzed and consumed by the Jabberwocky?

I love this dance, it creates almost more than anything else at the table that elusive emergent story. It has created an oral tradition amongst lovers of the game. Think about your own experiences, think of your own proud stories of great victories—or laughingly amusing ones of a character's passing or colossal screw-up.

Do you tell those stories in a distant third-person?

No, my gut says you tell them with lots of “I” statements, they are real. They have weight in the telling. You won or lost and had a story to tell by doing so.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

War Stories

“Out in front of Schofield Barracks, there was a drainage ditch about yea wide,” my grand dad pauses the slow Texas-inflected cadence of his story to run a finger from his elbow to the tip of his finger.

“Barely wide enough to fit the whole platoon, and we were about from here to the kitchen wall over there far when the Jap planes started swoopin' in.” He points about 30 feet to the avocado-painted wall in their snug little post-war bungalow.

“But with the...” bam, bam, bam, he's rapping his knuckles on the solid oakwood surface of the table, “...of them bullets a-flyin' in rows as straight as a cornfield you find a way to be there and fit as quick as the dickens.”

I have heard this story about Pearl Harbor so many times that I can recount it myself verbatim (still can obviously decades later), but I was riveted each time he told it. It wasn't so much the vicarious titillation of the subject--the pants-crapping chaos and fear of combat that I grew up with and in--but the sheer art and love of story of the man that kept me each time.

Like a lot of working folks of his generation, my grandfather was not an educated man. In fact the realities of life on a hardscrabble farm in the Czech belt of Central Texas during the Depression meant that he would never make it to high school even—let alone drop out of it.

The family farm, that stood on a rocky crop in a great C-shaped plot around the arc of a lazy creek, was a cycle of misery. So miserable that one day my coward of a great-grandfather just left for town one day—and never came back. From early on it was a soldier's life for him. 

Grand dad wasn't a stupid man though. His collar may have been blue and his neck a deep shade of red, but he was an autodidact hungry to learn about the vast range of things you encounter in a good, full life. He enjoyed books, but more loved—and mastered—the oral tradition of storytelling.

He didn't just ramble through a story, there was always a definite beginning, middle, and end. There was rising action and dramatic tension. There was color to each and every character in his story.

And there was this wonderful habit of using the environment of the place you were in to give a physical immediacy to the scene he was describing. He wouldn't say “the bull was red in color”, he would point to what I was wearing and say “it was as red as the shirt you have on”. He wouldn't say “the catfish was big”, he would ball up his fist and say, “it was as thick as my fist is round.” You had no problem at all seeing it in your mind's eye.

The relevance here?

It's no great mystery that part of the art of being a good GM is the art of mastering oral storytelling. We tend to not emphasize this fact as a correction to the excess of the so-called narrativist games, but it doesn't make it less patently obvious.

When I really feel in the zone as a GM, I find myself calling on the tradition of grandfather. Those tricks don't just become the tricks of an entertainer, but a way for me to picture it in my own head—and the clearer that picture is the easier time I have conveying “the reality” of the situation at the table.

When I jab my index finger at the dining room wall and say “that giant serpent is now from where you sit to the wall there from you” or I say “the rune-inscribed club is about as thick as my arm” I am calling on something I have learned from only one person in my life—but a tradition that probably has been with the family for centuries.

Importantly it doesn't just improve my skills as a GM when I can call on it, it touches on why this game is more than just a game at times. The game gives me a platform to keep in touch with the spirit of the man and the oral traditions of the men and women that came before him. In this post-millennium life where the vast majority of our communication is heavily mediated, it is one of the few avenues I have left to use that tradition.