Sunday, July 31, 2011

Why the Barker-Tékumel Collection is Worth Paying Attention To

What a reader should take away from M.A.R. Barker's Tékumel collection “going public” is how big--both in real, physical terms and in terms of preserving the historical record around the setting and the early days of role-playing games--this collection is.

But don't take my word for it, have a taste of what lies in the over 500 cubic feet of material busily being scanned, restored, and archived in a climate-controlled storage bay in Minnesota. Here's just a partial inventory of what Jeff Berry describes as “maybe five percent of what's there in the manuscript and document boxes”:
  •  Empire of the Petal Throne
    playtest manuscript
    Barker-Seal interview transcript
  • Bey Su gazetteer
  • Calligraphy document in Tsolyani
  • 5 pieces of art from Chris Huddle (1 original)
  • Article: “Confessions of a Fantasy Gamer”
  • 40 pieces of Craig Smith art (39 originals)
  • 17 Pieces of David C. Sutherland art (16 originals)
  • Dlash Map (on vinyl)
  • Emperor Bob Guy's "All Purpose Magic System"
  • Empire of the Petal Throne mimeo version notes-errata
  • Giovanna Fregni Art for the Tékumel Bestiary (all copies)
  • 8 pages of art from Hank Wolf
  • 9 photos of Jim Roach's Temple of Sarku
  • Karin Missum message/poem to Deq Dimani (a humorous piece)
  • 13 pieces of art from Kathy Marschall (11 originals and 2 hand-colored copies)
  • 2 pieces of Ken Fletcher Art (no originals)
  • Labyrinths of Eternal Peril by Jonathon Moseley
  • Legions of the Petal Throne 25mm Package
  • Letter to Dave Sutherland from Barker
  • Full-color map of some island (owned in part by Rereshqala)
  • 1 map of an unknown city
  • Mitlanyal (1996, Stability only)
  • 7 pages of art from Nancy Niles (and Barker's correspondence about it)
  • 3 Twin City newspaper articles from the '70s and '80s about Tékumel
  • Hand-written note from Karin Missum
  • 2 pages of art from Peter Quinlin (both originals)
  • 26 pages of ink art by Barker (all originals--mostly from Miniature for Tékumel)
  • 47 pages of pencil sketches by Barker (all originals)
  • 12 pages of other ink art by Barker (11 originals, mostly from the Original EPT including the script and translations on the backs, and 2 hand-colored copies)
  • 2 pieces of poetry by a young Phil Barker
  • Photo of Barker at the Institute of Islamic Studies (front & back with key)
  • Photo of a calligraphy document
  • Political notes on the various princes and princesses
  • 14 pages of art from Robert Smith (and Barker's correspondence about it)
  • Swords & Glory Section 15 with Barker's notes
  • Temple of Qon information
  • Temple of Vimuhla article manuscript
  • 22 pages of art from unknown artists (including a full color Pachi Lei and Grey Ssu)
  • 9 photos of William Spear's miniatures (along with the captions on the back)
It's important to remember that the primary task, according to Victor Raymond of the Tékumel Foundation, in the immediate future is to preserve and make sense of the documents and artifacts. Although the Foundation is wary of over-promising in the short-term, fans of the setting and EPT are expected to see a nice range of previously-unpublished products coming down the pike (and also expect to see some follow-up here at the HC).

Fan-girl teasing out of the way, I thought readers would find parts of the recent talk I had with Jeff of interest too in helping readers parse what's going on.

Hill Cantons: What's the backstory here? How did this massive private collection end up in the hands of the Foundation?

Jeff Berry: I think this story actually starts some years ago, at Dave Arneson's funeral. A lot of us “old hands” were there, and we had the chance to talk to Dave's family about his career and influence in the game industry and the way he himself played.

What struck me was that his daughter, Malia, didn't have much information on any of this; one of the things that she'd done was put all of Dave's photos up on poster boards for people to see and be able to tell the family what they were. I was able to tell the about the ones that Dave had taken at game conventions, as I was in a few of them, and Bob Alberti was able to tell her all about the ones Dave had taken with Prof. Barker.

One thing led to another, and we got to talking about what the Aethervox Gamers were doing to catalog and index our collection of Tékumel materials, and that we were probably going to have to incorporate as some sort of non-profit in order to be able to do mundane things like get insurance for the collection.

This got a lot of thinking going, and there have been a lot of conversations since then between the Tékumel Foundation and the Aethervoxes on matters of mutual interest; let's be honest, there's not that many Minnesota 317a corporations devoted to Tékumel out there, and it just seemed to make sense to keep in touch and compare notes.

While we do very different things, both groups share a love of Prof. Barker's astonishing creation. The primary purpose of the Tékumel Foundation is to preserve and maintain Phil's literary legacy, and the Aethervoxes to continue to run game sessions set in his world. Both groups are the heirs to large collections of artifacts and documents, so there's a natural tendency to stay in contact.

As time passed after the funeral, it became apparent that very little--if anything--had survived of either Dave Arneson's or Gary Gygax's collections of early game material. Sure, there was a lot of “stuff” that they had collected as gamers over the years, but very little of the “DNA” of their game writing and thinking has been preserved. Neither family seems to have found much in the way of original materials or documents, and I think all of us thought that this was a great loss both to the larger gaming community and to our understanding of how the modern game hobby came to be.

The Tékumel Foundation began to think very hard about how best to preserve the Professor's legacy, and some “contingency planning” was begun. The Foundation, at Phil and Ambereen's direction, started the ball rolling to get all of the legal paperwork needed to enable the Foundation as a corporate entity to manage the Professor's interests and collections.

HC: One of the things I find fascinating is the paper trail linking the Professor—through the tightly-knit speculative fiction fandom of the 50s and 60s--with some of the leading lights of Sci Fi and Swords & Sorcery literature. You mentioned the correspondence with Lin Carter and Jack Vance. What has been seen in the collection so far and what do you expect to find in there?

JB: I had hoped that Phil's early fanzines had survived; we had exhibited them at the local F/SF con in the middle 1980s, and I was hoping that they hadn't gotten tossed out in a house cleaning or something. 

They are all there, as well as the program books from the 1950 World Con; lots of photos or fandom at that time, as well as many fanzines from people like Lin Carter.

I'm hoping that the Dying Earth maps that Phil did for Jack Vance are in there as well, as I mentioned. I also found a copy of Amazing Stories from 1927, and I'm sure we'll find a lot more; many of Phil's own “lost” works are there in manuscript, and as we inventory it all I expect we'll find some real gems. 

There are original art works from fandom in the 1940s and 1950s, and all of this collection will help us set Phil's work on Tékumel into the larger context.

HC: The parts of the collection reaching back before the 1970s sound particularly exciting. You mentioned the rules for that early domain-play game Barker was playing in the 1950s. What's in there that could possibly broaden our understanding of that history?

JB: The Codex Westfali is basically a campaign game for players who are running their own fiefdoms or mini-states. It's very much like what Diplomacy later became, or the campaigns of Tony Bath and Don Featherstone.

This is from the early 1950's, while Phil and his friends were grad students, and may predate all of the well-known examples. There's all sorts of stuff like this from the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as very complete sets of rules from the early game companies.

This is why we're in what I call the “consolidation” phase, and why we're going through the boxes to see what else is lurking in there.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Temple of Vimúhla Back In the Day

Yesterday, readers would have noticed a couple of pictures of a 25mm-scaled model of the Temple of Vimuhla thrown in the mix of M.A.R. Barker's collection. Model and diorama lover that I am it drew—even in it's slightly time-and mouse-worn state-- a little happy dance from me having only seen very grainy pictures of it previously.

According to Dragon magazine #4, it represents “a replica of the inner core portion of the Temple of Katalal. It was begun by the 13th Seal Emperor in 1223 A.S.”

The four-foot long, four-foot wide replica was originally constructed by Barker and three players in his Empire of the Petal Throne game for GenCon IX back in 1976. It's construction reportedly took over 1,000 man-hours and had working doors, secret passages, pitfalls, painted murals, accurate (if archaic) Classical Tsolyani inscriptions, and more.

The following photos come courtesy of Jeff Berry, the HC's “Man In Tekumel” and one of the people involved with the preservation effort. They come from slides taken in 1987 before the model was displayed at a Twin Cities convention. (The very last photo is a scan from the Dragon article.)

According to Jeff: “What I'm hoping that we'll be able to do is finally shoot pics of the entire model, and then combine them into a virtual tour of the place from the viewpoint of a 25mm tall visitor. Janet had created a web site for my long-departed model railway where one clicked on the plan of the thing to see photos, and one thought she had was to use Ken Fletcher's excellent guides to the Temple as a template for this.”

Click to enlarge each photo. 

Look for some follow-up information here on the Barker collection later today. Now you will excuse me as I run out and grab me a stack of foamboard from Home Despot.  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Breaking News from Tékumel

Visitors from the Outer Planes have been whispering in my ear recently about a mother lode of Tékumel material about to pass into the public eye.

And sweet slithern' Sarku, here is the official announcement. Early this morning I received the following press release from Victor Raymond of the Tekumel Foundation. A heap of kudos are owed to the Professor for this move, a quantum leap forward for the effort to preserve this vital piece of our hobby.

I will have some extended commentary later this day coming your way about the materials and significance of this find. For now enjoy the breaking news and a few of the photos of the many, many artifacts in the collection.

From the PR:
The Tékumel Foundation is proud to announce that on Saturday, June 11th, 2011 Professor Barker's  Tékumel materials and wargaming supplies were moved from his home to secure, climate-controlled storage. This project was long and carefully planned and carried out with the blessing and encouragement of Professor Barker and his wife Ambereen and the assistance of dedicated volunteers, some of whom flew in from out of state.

The Tékumel Foundation is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Professor M.A.R. Barker and building an archive of Tékumel memorabilia and documents. Foundation members assisted by Lady Anka’a and various Tékumel fans cataloged, photographed, carefully boxed and transported these materials to a secure climate-controlled storage area in less than 10 hours. Items secured include Professor Barker’s globe of Tékumel, the scale model Temple of Vimúhla first displayed at GenCon IX in 1976, private maps, papers and other interesting and diverse items including unpublished material – exactly how much or what is still to be determined.

There is still much work to be done. Paper items need to be digitally scanned to secure storage; items may need to be repaired and/or restored. Items not directly connected to Tékumel must be organized, including wargaming materials, fanzines of the 1950’s, and games that at various times had been sent to Professor Barker for review. Fortunately, the Tékumel Foundation has people with the necessary skills to assist with this enormous project. It is hoped Professor Barker’s papers will yield new material for Tékumel, and we are optimistic that there is “good new stuff” to be published.  

Hex map of the never publicly-released Southern Continent.

Globe of the Eastern half of the known part of the planet.

The Western half

The aforementioned Temple of Vimuhla model from Gen Con.

More of that

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Expanded Ship List for Classic D&D

A more complete list--more, more, more ships--with an explanation of ship types, characteristics, military functions, usefulness in exploration, and related maritime rules will appear in Hill Cantons: Borderlands. In the meantime, here's a freebie for your home campaign.

Note also that is a draft version drawn from multiple—and often conflicting—sources. Actual mileage may vary.


Small Galley*
River Barge*
Great Cog
Melnibonean Battle Barge*
* Vessel capable of being rowed.

Cost = Median price in thousands of gold pieces of an average tonnage ship of this class.

Tonnage = Average size of a ship of this class. Vessels can range up to 30% smaller or larger. Each ton smaller reduces the cost by 25 gp, each ton larger increases it by 25 gp. Cargo space and hull points are reduced or increased proportionately by percentage.

Cargo = Dedicated cargo room weighed by thousands of pounds.

Length = Average length in feet of the ship from stern to bowspirit.

HP = Hull Points, the ability of the vessel to hold up to damage before sinking. Up to two hull points can be added (superior, seasoned lumber and other fittings) at a cost of 1,000 gp per hp.

Speed = Average hourly sailing or rowing speed under normal conditions.

Crew = Minimum number of crew. All vessels over 50 tons must have a captain. All seafaring vessels must have a navigator.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Playtesting Crucible

One of the original goals of the Domain Game wasn't just to design the game  in a vacuum from the bottom-up concept-wise, but to build it up through actual play.

Looking back at two of my greatest inspirations for the project, Tony Bath's Hyboria and Dave Arneson's Blackmoor, you see long-running campaigns that evolved through the twists and turns of where play was leading them. Not just adjustments or house rules, but iterations of the written rules themselves followed in the wake of what was happening on and off the table between the players and the free-form rulings of the referee.

When we started the first PbP playtest I tried to put my money where my proverbial mouth was and hold back on presenting many of the rules concepts a priori. Instead I wanted to see where play went and evolve the sub-systems out of that.

Occasionally, I would simply use whatever system I had thought I had might use perhaps with a tweak or two, the hunting and gathering rules changed very little, for instance, from what I had imagined. But more often than not I would either scrap the intended ones or shape entirely new ones that I would never have imagined being necessary: guidelines covering a nomad's band's migration or what difference between hard and soft wood would make for lumber.

It was exciting, stimulating, and just felt right. And it was a hell of a lot of work.

The resulting sourcebook, Hill Cantons: Borderlands, is way beyond that open-ended phase now, but as we get closer to print I am starting to look around for the next round of beta playtesting.

Noting that Dangerous Brian and a few others have been kicking around introducing domain play into their homes games, I would like to make the following pitches:

Beta-Test in Your Home Campaign. If you are interested in experimenting with the “plug-and-play” subsystems of the Borderlands I would love to recruit your game table to the cause of the beta-test. You don't have to use the entire system, in fact, I am interested in seeing what pieces you do adopt and how well (or not) they fit into your existing campaign.

Beta-testers ideally will be using any older pre-3rd edition D&D set of rules or a comparable first or second wave retro-clone.

If you are interested, I will make available by mid-August both the draft of the sourcebook and a select collection of supporting material intended for future publications.

Play in A South Texas Mini-Campaign. At the end of August I am going to start up a new once-a-month campaign in the San Antonio area to play second fiddle to the ongoing Hill Cantons campaign. I am imaging that the game will feature 2-3 regular players (one entirely new to role-playing games) but allow any number of drop-ins with a playable supporting cast of NPCs.

The game will begin play at 5th level and use both the first and second layers of the Borderlands rules. Players will essentially be playing a high-end political game close to the same setting. Events in either game may inform what happens in the other.

If you are interested in either beta-test, drop me a line at kutalik at gmail dot com.

(BTW there a number of interesting cross-conversations going on various nooks of the ether on ACKS, Borderlands, and the promise of second-wave retro-clones. One stop to check out is here on the Mule Abides.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Borderlands: Table of Contents

I have been blathering a good deal lately about this piece or that piece that will be coming out with the Hill Cantons: Borderlands sourcebook as of late, but realized I haven't done a general overview of where the draft version was at in a good, long while.

The recent spate of writing has me feeling a little cocksure about having the draft out by my first deadline (ominously I picked the same day that the United States may become a junk-bond trader of a country). Barring that by the end of the first week. A lot of the pieces have clicked into place and I now have at least some writing in every planned section which is a fine feeling.

Keeping with the open game design process we've been running with for the past seven months, I'm slapping up the draft table of contents as a PDF download here.

Note the sub-headers and section orders are highly likely to change--and you may see an addition or two in there--but overall this bad boy is heading down to the finish line.

Feel free to ask any questions if anything looks particularly tantalizing or mystifying. 

Experience with Chivalry & Sorcery?

Of the roleplaying games I have had a long-time love/hate relationship with, Chivalry & Sorcery is perhaps one of the strongest such beasts. I can't recall how many times I have pawed through the second edition sourcebooks—and later the first and second edition rulebooks (thanks again, Brad)--alternating between wonder and puzzlement.

The striving for a high degree of historical feudal verisimilitude with a deep level of detailed subsystems covering everything from handling the annual grain harvest to peasant jacqueries to the caloric intake of various foods (heck even an entire section devoted to how food is cooked and its in-game effects) has had a powerful pull on me.

Just as equally the pure fiddliness of its rules systems and identity confusion have just as powerfully repelled me. (How do the fantasy tropes work in a clearly European medieval society with a Christian Pope no less?)

Sadly I haven't had any personal play experience to sift it all out. I know for a short time in the late 70s and early 80s riding D&D's fad tidal wave that it was reportedly selling thousands of copies a year. Clearly it must have clicked with a number of play groups across the country, yet I have run into so little, lasting discussion of it.

So brethren, any experiences with playing this game in any of its iterations? Was it a positive, negative, or mixed experience? Why? How much by the book play did you use?

And of course, ever popular with me, how much of the domain play rules sections did you use? Ever run a manor? Use some of the magnificently flawed sourcebook material such as the mass combat rules or mercantile systems?

Inquiring minds want to know.

[Editor's Note: a follow-up post on Crushing Skulls can be found here.]

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fifteen Minutes of Fame for Dwarf Fortress

Its a slow, lazy Sunday morning in the HC. The ritual of coffee, bagels, and the Sunday New York Times is one that has only been broken by stretches overseas or deep in the wilderness.

Pawing through the magazine section today, I was pleasantly surprised to see a full feature spread, nine pages no less, devoted to that obsessively granular computer strategy game, Dwarf Fortress—a game that commentators on the Borderlands/Domain Game project have noted many times here.

On the surface of it seems like the NYT couldn't have found a more unlikely game to highlight, with the archaic ASCII rogue-like graphic interface and bewilderingly complex domain-play. But you do get the half-baked brilliance behind it—and its appeal to the kind of gamers who love this kind of play-- by reading the piece.

You can find the NYT piece here. And if you are really feeling like you have an extra 20-40 hours a week to dump into a dark hole, you can also download the game for free here.

The article also reminded me that I wanted to return this week on the blogging to talking through the dilemma for tabletop domain-play. What areas can the pen and paper format do better? Can we develop computer-driven tools that will mesh and enhance our tabletop game play? What areas should we just simply cede the field to computer games?

Big questions, ones that I believe broke the backs of the domain-level games of the last two decades.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Where the Borderlands Meet the Conqueror King

For those looking to see an expansion of domain-level play options, this may be great summer. Both Hill Cantons: Borderlands (née The Domain Game) and the Adventurer Conqueror King System  will highly likely see the light of print day—and hopefully will set off the kind of homebrewing and kitbashing around that arena we all love in the DIY corner of our hobby.

Earlier this week, I mentioned briefly that I was in talks with the ACKS design team. Although I believe that most people interested in this kind of campaign play would cherry-pick pieces of either systems and spindle, fold, mutilate them into their home games, there was still some concerns on my part that we would overly-duplicate efforts.

After all both games had a bottom-up, granular design, a layered approach to the power arc of player characters, and posited themselves as trying to make good on the “Arnesonian” promise of the very early days of this great game.

Having read the recent draft of ACKS, I can say that while we started in similar places that each project has some interesting—and divergent—answers to the same questions. In fact, I feel that in a number of areas they complement each other with different strengths and thus expand the cherry-picking options greatly.

Skipping to the punchline here, ACKS provides an open-gaming license of its own by which a product can be labeled as a “compatible product”. Borderlands will become such a beast.

What does this mean in practical terms?

It doesn't mean that Borderlands will dramatically move much in it's main goals and execution. You will still see a modular collection of sub-systems to maximize the plug-and-play aspect of the sourcebook. The three layers of domain-level play I have been talking about: the mid-level campaign play, the early name-level play of wilderness clearing; and the high-level play of kingdom-ruling will still all be there.

It will mean, though, some adaption to play to the strengths of both publications. In particular it means you will see a heavier emphasis in HCB on the first and second layers of play—and the accompanying more free-form “narrativist” play style alternative. Expect to see meatier social advancement charts/play suggestions, more options for characters 4th-11th level, an expansion of the epic campaign season concept, more fledgling settlement-subsistence work, and more.

Because the unified economic system inside ACKS is a really inspired piece of work you will also see a little less emphasis on the third layer and a general referring back to ACKS for certain pieces. Likely there will be more little changes here and there when we pass around the completed Borderlands manuscript in a couple weeks.

Lastly, before I sign out I wanted to make it clear that I haven't budged from my personal, non-commercial goals for this project. Though there is obviously a lot of talk about “licensing compatibility” and a “product identity” for HCB, I remain committed to this being a not-for-profit venture.

I intend on having the money move through the Pulp Fantasy Society, a non-profit organization. Additionally, I will strive to keep prices down on the consumer end while making sure that “profits” cover current and future production costs.

It's all about love of the (domain) game here at the Hill Cantons. Now back to work on some fun non-related posts (like a mechant-adventurer player class inspired by a recent Hari Ragat blog post.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Domain Game is Dead, Long Live...

...Borderlands. That's our winner, folks. As is my fellow Texan, Patrick W, for the winning suggestion.

Subtitle is either The Domain Game, Game of Domains, or Porky's variation Hill Cantons: Borderlands. The full title will be settled before this evening (announced in comments on this post). Last minute lobbying, of course, will be entertained.

Yes, yes I know there's a first-person shooter game, a Runequest adventure pack, a non-fictional book on a ritual slaying of one of my UT classmates, and a certain isolated fortification on the edge of Chaos all bearing variations of that title. 

But I was swayed by the simple, evocative punch of the title, it hit some visceral level for me. It didn't hurt that the first two non-gaming people I called over to see the list immediately pointed at it.

For the record, I did in fact roll a d10 half-jokingly when I sat down to do my deliberations. Inexplicably and hilariously, it came up with a “1” for Barons & Bugbears on my first two rolls. So I am thwarting both the vox populi and the fates themselves with this choice. Sorry Wampus Jim.

By This Axe I Rule and Domains of Lordly Might were my closest other choices. I am highly inclined to use them as titles in supplementary materials, if their creators are amenable.

Later today I will be making an announcement about where the game is headed now that we have a title. Big things are in the works. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Voting Ended, The Finalists Take the Stage

Thanks to everyone who voted in the Domain Game naming contest. 

In many ways the entire project has felt like experimental cycles of community feedback followed by play followed by individual creation—and then back again--so it feels highly appropriate to have the name be determined this way.

With no further ado here is the top 10 finalist list in order of most votes received (though finalists 2-5 all tied for second place):
  1. Barons & Bugbears
  2. Strongholds & Stratagems
  3. By This Axe I Rule
  4. Hill Cantons
  5. Domains of Lordly Might
  6. Borderlands
  7. By Divine Right
  8. Power Play
  9. Serfs and Turf
  10. Playing for Keeps
I am a bit stunned by the appearance of B&B as the top vote-getter. There is a deep irony in that pick as it basically has been my Austin friend Jim's facetious, ball-busting term for the project since January. But one never gets to choose the nicknames one gets stuck with, right?

Now with the field narrowed and that head-scratching aside finished, I retire into the smoky backroom--d10 in hand--to make the final decision on which of the 10 this project will get saddled with.

Get Out the Vote

A quick reminder to cast your vote here for the new name of the Domain Game. Deadline for voting is 8 pm Central U.S. time today (-5 GMT to the rest of you).

Also no less than four people have emailed me to tell me that Blogger won't let them add comments. If you can't add comments--and what gives with Blogger these days?--shoot me an email at kutalik at gmail dot com and I will count your vote in the final tally.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cast Your Vote for the Domain Game

Tomorrow I will be officially (well as much as this blog can muster official) unveiling the winner of the Domain Game name contest.

I was pleased as punch with the recent stabs at participatory game design here at the HC, so I am going to throw the gates open to you, the unwashed masses, again.

Here's your chance to cast a consultative vote in the contest:
  1. Look through the long, long list below of name nominees (sorry nominations are now closed).
  2. Pick up to three names of your choice in the comments section. You are only allowed to vote for  one of your own nominees.
  3. Feel free to motivate a particular choice (you don't have to).
  4. At 8 pm CST tomorrow I will count up the votes—and choose one from the top ten most popular picks. Winner to be announced later that night.
Domains of Lordly Might
By Divine Right
Wizards and Warlords
Warlords and Warlocks
Barons and Bugbears
Dominions Of Mayhem And Iniquitous Nepotism
The End Game
Playing for Keeps
Serfs and Turf
Domains and Dragons
Below Wild Skies
Wild Skies
It Shall be Ours!
Sceptre and Orb
Orders & Borders
Explore & Expand
Explorations & Expansions
Oats & Moats
Striking Out
Liege Lord
Feudalism: The RPG
Feudal Lord
Rule By Might
Do My Bidding
Yes My Regent
Heavy Lies The Crown
By This Axe I rule
Yes Your Grace
It's Good To Be The King
The Throne
Throne of Might
A Lord's Wishes
Your Wish Is My Command
Off With His Head
Lords & Peasants
Dreams of Empire
Strongholds & Stratagems
Tower, Temple and Keep
Lord and Master
Outrageous Fortunes
After the Dungeon
Name Level the RPG
Oath of Fealty
Lairs & Legacies
Game of Princes
Seasons of Glory
Hill Cantons
Cantons & Confederacy
Land Lord
Power Play: Leadership and Machinations for Fantasy Role Playing Games.
Liege Lord
Sword & Crown
Domains of Adventure
Legacies of Power
Lordly Realms
By Might and by Right
Right of Birth
Eminent Domains
Immanent Domains
Manifest Destinies
Power Play
Aggrandizer!: playing for power in FRPGs

Monday, July 18, 2011

Avast Ye, We Have Winners

The coal black sea waits for me, me, me
The coal black sea waits forever
The waves hit the shore
Crying more, more, more
But the coal black sea waits forever
--Lou Reed, Ashes to Ashes

It's not uncommon to hear a polite lie attached to most contests: “it was so very hard to judge, because each of the contestants were so good...blah, blah, blah.”

In the case of the recent nautical challenge, it just happens to be true.

There weren't a huge amount of entries, but quality trumped quantity and I would be proud to use all of them in my own home campaign. In fact, they were so good that I found myself pondering--not for the first time--a whole other tangential, but provocative question: can “crowdsourcing” overtake professional game designers in range, quality, and depth of imagination in this decade?

But that is a post for later, let's have my lovely assistant bring out the envelopes in the meanwhile.

A drum roll please...

Best Weird Ship:
Trey with Moon’s Rake
“Of course, the Selenites are long dead and the lunar oceans they once sailed are dust, but ghosts of these mariners sail forth on the moonlight, down to the seas of Earth. The ghost seamen and their vessel appear only as shadows to the naked eye, but in the moonlight reflected on the water they appear as they were in life--delicate-limbed, large-eyed beings (at once reminiscent of elves and insects) in the Moon’s Rake--a vessel like a sleek catamaran as big as a sloop-of-war with eccentricities of design as fanciful as any royal pleasure barge. Sometimes they come to trade, exchanging strange tear-shaped emeralds (which fade to naught with the coming dawn) for trinkets that strike their fancy. Other times they engage in piracy. Their silvery cutlasses draw no blood but cause pain and opium-nightmares.”

Best Setting: Porky, The former Scree.
“Dread Scree, Grizzlipool, the Bearstrand - all are names for what was once a small Scraper outpost on the west-facing slopes of Stopover, a large mountainous landmass lying deep in temperate waters. The slopes are well watered and an evergreen forest runs down through mists from the high tops, undulating over rocky foothills to the water's edge, dark and silent. The streams were once alive with fish, but now trickle silted and stagnant, while the shrouded glades fester, devoid of birdsong and calls.

The town itself is located on overgrown rock debris in the shelter of a former glacial valley, overlooking a natural harbour sheltered by cliffs. Its ancient drystone dwellings stand alongside timber lodges of varying age and design, the rot and creepers suggesting generations of occupation, perhaps by more peoples than just the Scrapers; for the Scrapers follow the flocks and their guano and seem not to stay long in any one place. The square, boardwalks and quays are empty, tumbledown in appearance.

The visitors who put ashore here are most often those desperate for shelter or water, or men and creatures with something to hide - or those who have never heard the stories; they are perhaps drawn by the odd-hued smoke rising from the boulders at the feet of the northern cliffs. Many believe they will find a small trading post, market for wares and a warm bed. Others understand what the smoke represents and seek this knowingly...”

[More here]

Best Critter:
Jeremy Duncan, Spawn of Yash-Kunag the Many-Toothed
“Every year, the port town of Galbaruc holds the Feast of the Great Culling, and the town's population swells to over four times its normal size. Innkeepers, hoteliers, and any citizen with so much as a spare broom closet raise their rates to an astonishing degree, but seasoned travelers have learned by now not to haggle, grateful for even the most modest accommodation for the 12 days of the Feast. Galbaruc looks out on the Bay of Maidens, and it is in these waters that Yash-Kunag the Many-Toothed makes her annual trek to birth her young. This enormous, immeasurably ancient sea-creature, whose massive form has never been reliably set down, is worshiped as a goddess by the inhabitants of much of the surrounding coasts.

She is seen as the living embodiment of the sea, in all its bounty, danger, and pitilessness. Local artisans most commonly depict her as a humanoid female, with generously- proportioned hips, pendulous breasts over which hang garlands of seaweed and coral, with a skirt made from the lashed-together bodies of dead men, and topped with a monstrous shark's head.

In all, she will birth many thousands of young over the next ten days, though a tiny fraction of that number survive to adulthood. The larger, faster, and stronger spawn will devour their brothers and sisters in a frenzy of hunger. Others will be picked off, in turn, by other sea creatures, which are always at hand in the waters surrounding the bay to pounce on any godling foolish enough to stray out into the greater depths...] 

[More here]

Truly great stuff. All copyrights are, of course, held by the entrant.

All contestants should drop me a line at kutalik at gmail dot com to talk prizes (a choice of books).  

Friday, July 15, 2011


I am a weak man.

I could be spending this hour trying desperately to counter centuries of a land-locked genetic heritage by bolstering my paltry knowledge of how one tacks with the wind in a catarman--and instead I am inside scratching my head at the unfamiliar layout of a Mexican keyboard. Ah well...this afternoon I will be learning the hard way.

Thanks to all who left entries for the two contests. The nautical one seems to be drumming up some wonderful entries to date. A few interesting related posts have appeared on other people´s blogs make sure to check them out here and here.

On deadlines, the dropdead deadline for the nautical contest is tomorrow at 21:00 Central U.S. time (the same down here in Mexico). Message to the collective braintrust out there: send more ideas!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Contest Begun, A Contest Extended

You can blame Porky for this.

His comment on my second round of nautical queries (yes, we like it naughty here, Kent)  earlier appealed to my democratic side (read “lazy”): “Re: ship design I'd suggest floating mortars, gondolas mounted on the backs of sea monsters, rotting hulks and paddle wheels, and maybe balloons or caravans of the air on flying creatures. You know, another way to go with this would be setting us a challenge as with the game naming. We can fill up the comments with all kinds of ideas and you can sift out the good stuff.”

Fair enough, my porcine friend.

Here's this week contest:
  1. Name and describe one fantastic nautical vessel. The weirder and more wonderful the better.
  2. Name and describe an exotic port of call or locale.
  3. Name and describe a maritime culture/or race.
You can enter in any or all of the categories. Winners to be announced this coming weekend—provided my deserted island refuge is rigged out with a source to the ether. Bonus points for statting out an entry for classic D&D editions.

Prizes to be announced then, but most likely your choice of an appropriate nautically-themed book from my ever-expanding collection.

But wait you say, what about that Domain Game naming contest?

By executive fiat, I have decided to postpone the results until Wednesday July 20th. If you want to get your own entry—and make your mark on the project—mosey over to this post and make an entry.  

More Thoughts and Queries on Nautical Campaigns

Heading back today to a place dominated by the caress of the sea has me thinking again about future campaign plans for shipboard action. The closer it gets to boarding that plane, the more my daydreams seem to be taking over.

(And yes, HC players, you may be facing a related choice in the hunt for a certain seven-parted artifact crafted by the Wind Dukes of Aaqa.)

The last round of suggestions from you readers was extremely helpful in drumming up some good sources. Sifting through the pieces I want to introduce helped me figure out the themes I wanted—and didn't want—included in the campaign extension.

Any further help on pinpointing gaming and historical sources that relate to my wish list are appreciated in advance again.

What's Out:
Age of Sail Anachronism. I know some of you are going to throw back how much that D&D is a gobbly-gook mess of technologies and cultures. It's undeniably true to an extent, but I would still contend there is a very large heaping portion of implied setting that is roughly Northern Europe from about 1300-1490 (Late Middle Ages to Early Renaissance which has enough rapid change in there to be a mess).
Thus an anachronism I find deeply unsatisfying is the near-constant use in D&D-oriented products of ships from fairly late in the Age of Sail (late 16th-19th century).

Ship plans and illustrations in adventures or settings invariably featured galleons, barques, even 18th century sloops and frigates and rare to never cogs, knarrs, dromons, caravels, and carracks. (Which is strange because many of the actual rules, the first ed. DMG in particular, do get it mostly right).

I want ships that are as cumbersome, crude, and fragile as at least those of the implied era of D&D. I want the danger of straying too far from the comfort environs of a coastline or familiar sea lane to be real and present dangers.

Accurate Charts. Nautical charts have a long history in the real world, and were frequently much more accurate than their mostly symbolic land map counterparts. Still there were large scale inaccuracies and fantastic embellishments in the real world maps, ever a lover of fog of war and incomplete knowledge I want the same for the campaign.

Perfect Navigation. We have rules to model getting lost on land, but sea-based travel outside of certain dangers is boringly reliable (pardon my unintentional pun). Sure we have scads of rules for random storms, encounters, ship-to-ship combat, and wind strength even, but nothing for a simple notion like being blown off-course or having to tack away far from an intended vector to catch wind.

Which is odd if you come to think of it because those curve-balls are such a heavy staple of sea-based adventure tales from the Odyssey to today. The mysterious island found after weathering a squall; the pulling into an exotic port on a distant shore; etc.: all those tropes are crying out for a sub-system, besides deus ex machina, that makes it happen.

What's In:
Ships of the Weird. Glaring anachronism is out, but so is a direct mapping to the Late Middle Ages. I definitely want a higher degree of verisimilitude (dare I utter that nasty word, simulation?) with the game mechanics, but I want some healthy doses of the strange and fantastical.

In particular I want to have room for a bizarre array of vessels floating my seas alongside the more familiar medieval-era ships: great golden domed, onion-turreted barges; mammoth nine-masted treasure junks; xebecs manned by djinns and the like..

Each Mile Sailed Brings You Farther From the Known. I want each place they let the anchor down to be something very different from what they encounter back home on land—and I want that something to gets stranger the further they stray from known shores. Each port to have a distinct flavor, each land to contain more of the inexplicable.

I also want an array of less-typical locales: underwater domes, floating islands, and all the rest of the works.

There's more but I'm running out of time in today's daydreams. Maybe more come Mexico way...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Various and Sundry

Back to a semblance of normalcy here (or at least as much as I can muster most days). Instead of inflicting on you a slew of mini-posts I am consolidating them into one package.

Google Plus. Do any of you remember this old sketch by the iconoclastic stand-up comedian Bill Hicks about how watching COPS was like picking at a bad tooth? It hurts, but you just have to do it. I am the same way about social networking sites apparently.

I noticed on signing up on the much-hyped Google Plus that the company has been doing some thinking for me (I know creepy). It not only ported all my Blogger and Picasa images to my profile, but it seems to heavy favor me befriending old school gamers (well that and old bosses and older girlfriends).

I now understand why Scottsz mentioned yesterday in his comments that he thought that before a decade is out that this kind of technology will render the anonymous, faceless blog a thing of the past. With the hyper-transparent bundling of all this like Google is doing here it seems like a trend that will do that very thing. Not sure though if that's an entirely positive trend, but it is here nonetheless.

Interestingly, I have also already noticed that friends from said circles are already exploring using the bells and whistles to run rpg sessions. Another brave new world.

Holiday in the Sun. Thursday I am again throwing off the shackles of everyday life and hoofing it to a five-day cheap holiday in other people's misery. Blessedly this means that Internet access will be spotty at best—and posting here even spottier.

Dances with Dragons. In my entire span of life as a voracious reader I have never waited for the release of a book with much anticipation. My reading habits are typically way to divergent and based on my obsession of the day to fall into that game. 

But this one has been a long-awaited exception--and a general exception for my snobbishness about fantasy novels written after the mid-1970s. Extremely fortuitous that the release dovetails nicely with the above-mentioned break.

By the way, I read the first chapter this morning—and it starts with a delightfully creepy bang Beyond the Wall. Fits very nicely with the Chill Northern Wind setting Jack laid out in his Flavors of Fear booklet yesterday.

South Texas Mini-Con Update. We know have five fairly certain sessions lined up for the all-day event August 20th in New Braunfels. I am pleased that it looks like we will have a nice mix of rpg and mini action to entertain our guests. 

Read more about that here and here.  

Monday, July 11, 2011

Flavors of Fear Freebie

Jack Shear has released an excellent 44-page rundown on 13 horror-inflected "weird fantasy" campaign settings. The booklet is designed for LotFP but it is generic enough that it will likely work in most classic fantasy rpgs.

Particularly interesting is how much emphasis he places on neglected setting elements like mood, common foes, overarching themes, literary/cinematic inspirations, and matching soundtracks even.

Download it for free here.


I do not have a bad opinion of doubt. I think doubt has been a factor in the movement of history. I have grown to appreciate doubt more and more and, at the same time, to distrust those companeros who only offer certainty. They seem too much like the wooden men which the Popol Vuh in Mayan mythology describes as one of the mistakes the gods made when they attempted to create man and didn't know how to construct him and finally they made him out of corn and he came out alright. But one of those attempts consisted of creating him out of wood.

The wooden man was just like a man except that no blood ran through his veins; he had no spirit or courage and didn't speak a word. I believe he had nothing to say because he had no courage and therefore was never discouraged. The proof that one has courage lies in the fact that one can be discouraged. 

And the proof that one can arrive at certainties that are truly capable of transforming reality lies in the ability to entertain fertile doubts before arriving at certainty; doubts that buzz around in one's head, one's conscience, one's heart, in the imagination, like tenacious flies. We need neither fear doubt nor discouragement: they are the proof that our endeavors are human. 
--Eduardo Galeano

Warning: wool gathering ahead, if you want more of the game-oriented post, hop back over to yesterday's contest or wait around for the next post—after I have exorcised a few inner demons.

This started as a reply to Limpey's well-written comment here about why he felt like he needed to pull the plug on Aldeboran. A comment he sadly deleted a few moments ago. I then noticed that Alexis today has had some grappling with the “why continue” question (though of an entirely different flavor) and I gave into the urge to lay down the other posts I have been working on for a few more minutes.

I understand too well the cost/benefit dilemma around closing up shop. I understand because I have those moments where the doubts buzz like flies too. Where the volume on the self-talk gets so loud that its hard to hear anything else. Where the perennial, check-in question “why blog?” on an occasion becomes less of an affirmation.

I have to admit that I have had at least a few deeply questioning moments in the last three months too--mostly on the days when real-life goals and activity just seem to large to warrant this blog sideline. Where the ledger book just seems too lopsided in the red for something ostensibly a leisure activity.

Where the simple, direct, immediate pay-off of running my tabletop game, seems much more the point of it all then the thinking, dreaming, and writing about such activity. (And yes, yesterday, the 2nd anniversary of the San Antonio HC campaign did indeed rock.)

Taking issue with my over-emphasis on escapism in our gaming the other day, DH Boggs said here that, “escapism, while a very real feature/attraction of fictional worlds, is not the only, and perhaps not even the major compulsion. Fictional worlds are dreams, and like dreams, they allow us to recycle our thoughts, push our boundaries, 'practice' our ideas, and reach toward experiences we hope will round us, grow us, satisfy us. and entertain us all at once.”

Though I didn't say as much at the time, it was well put and pointed to why the thinking and dreaming are worthy of pushing through the doubts and discouragement. Our dreams can be worth struggling through and for. 

Worth pushing aside the detractors both external—and closer to home. Worth spending months pounding keys or plugging away at a personal project; or worth just reaching out and finding like-minded people to sit around a table and roll funny dice with.  

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Name that Domain Game Contest

What's in a name?

Timeshadows reminded me the other day that I still have revealed the actual title of the Domain Game. While I have had several likely candidates in mind since the beginning of the year, the real truth is that I am just not convinced I have a winner.

Here's your chance to help the project—and have your name up in lights.

Over the next three days, I will be opening the floor for any nominations for what you think the project should be called. We are looking for something punchy or evocative—something that captures the nature of the project. Preferably without an awkward acronym.

The results will be voted on by a quorum of Domain Game players, people close to the project, and myself. A winner will be announced here on Wednesday.

So what do you get if you win? Besides my undying thanks, formal credit and a free copy of both the final paper and PDF copies of the first sourcebook.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Don't Give Up the Ship

[Editor's Note: If you don't get the subtext here, count yourself among the lucky. And apologies in advance if you came here looking for old school Nappy ship rules.]

The free exchange of ideas is often a contact sport.

There can be heated debates, some even quite vitriolic, in the the pursuit of that exchange. But at the end of the day it presumes--or used to presume in past mediums--some kind of baseline accountability. It used to presume in most cases that something in print had a face and a name attached.

I have no problem with tough, principled discussion, debate, and satire. I guarantee that most people pay lip service to that principle, if not the practice.

The anonymity and virtual distance factors, though, in recent old school blogosphere cases thumb their nose at that accountability. It has dialed back the quality of conversation for everyone--and even reduced the value of satire and taking the piss out of people. And now we are seeing it becoming true out and out bullying, hectoring people until they quit.

Looking at how the temperature went up in the last two weeks, I can understand why people look at the cost and benefit analysis of running a blog on a friggin' leisure activity and say: “it's not worth it. I am out.” But please don't delete your blog. Take a break, stop posting forever if the mojo doesn't come back. Just don't surrender.

As I see we have a few options as a loose community of sorts on this:
1. Grow a thick skin. Prepare for the fact that your ideas, your character will be picked apart.

2. Take legal action. U.S. libel laws lean pretty heavily in favor of those who publish. (I can attest to this having been on the defendant side in a past day job, wrongly of course). A plaintiff must prove actual malice, that the person maligned is not a "public figure", and that it did tangible harm. A tough legal standard, but previous case law around anonymous blogging does mean that identities may have to be disclosed.

3. Close ranks. Being crystal clear (that phrase again, Whisk) that we promote a culture of solidarity, that if you don't sign your name and present your face that you forfeit the right to throw bombs in our blogs and forums. Most importantly, it means that we show our public support for those who are being bullied (not just made fun of, or criticized in a relatively principled way). An injury to one is an injury to all. 

Frankly, I am not a big fan of options one or two.

I certainly plan on trying to practice the first myself. An honest person has to say that telling people to grow a thick skin--or to be wary of their online acquaintances is an insufficient answer. It can also be a surrender.

There may be better answers than three, I leave the best answers for better minds around the “meta”. I am not a big fan of bandwagons or echo chambers and I certainly chafe sometimes at the idea of presumed community standards. I hate even feeling like I need to have written this preachy bit of editorializing.

But sometimes I feel like you have to get out of your comfort zone, you have to stand together against something poisonous. You have to act.