Friday, September 30, 2011

Art Inspirations: Slavic Folk Art of the Weird

As I gear up to start layout for Hill Cantons:Borderlands, my thinking is again hovering around art direction. If you remember way back when in February I was dead set on the sourcebook having a very distinct look from most gaming art--one that reflected the aesthetic inspirations driving the admittedly quirky vision in my mind's eye.

Thanks to my lovely old folklorist friend back in Slovakia I have been running through in the past few days another great streaming font of art inspirations, modern Russian painters that make my Bilibin-loving heart go thumpety thump.

First up on the new short list of inspirational sources is the work of Vsevolod Ivanov, not to be confused with the late, great Soviet writer/journalist of the same name. Ivanov was born in 1950 in Belmorsk in Russian Karelia and was relegated to only exhibiting work in amateur exhibitions during the Soviet era. These days his work is fairly well known in the well...fairly unknown circles of Slavic neo-paganism.

Just take a gander at some of his paintings of the last decade. They exhibit an almost Gloranthan vibe at times that I just love. Make sure to click on the pictures to get the full effect. 

Dark Alv and Bright Alv (2004)
Orders for the Hyperborean Fleet (2006)
In the Town of Slovenske (2004)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Happy Rosh Hashanah

Shana Tova. Perfunctory duty discharged at Temple Beth-El here, a New Year's shout out to all y'all.

And with the mighty Hill Cantons clan finally—after a decade of struggle--besting the King of Dragon Pass long game—damn you David Dunham—regular posting will begin again a new here with a post on the Deep Weird in the sandbox, updates on the Borderlands supplement, and more.

Now go rock that shofar.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Asinine Adventure Contest Winners

Time to dish out economy-sized servings of kudos for the Asinine Adventure Contest. I have been a little tardy in posting the winners, as usual I will spare you the excuse laundry list.

Culling through the surprisingly large number of entries—I was expecting somewhere in the 6-9 range and got 21--was no real work at all, a side-splitting clever bit of creation that enjoyed a bit. People seemed to have a good time keeping their tongue firmly in their cheek and coming up with clever little détournements. Bravo to all for the work.

As usual too it was difficult settling on those who deserve a place in the sun for participating. But here we go...

Second-place goes to a three-way tie:
In Search of the Fane of the Forgotten Mage by Fabian (a sweet one-page island crawl with some Eastern inflections. Bonus point for gorrilla golem.)

In Search of the City of the Serpent Queen by Porky (Who wins beau coup points for the pithy subtitle “Across the Great Verdant Cavern to the Ouroboral Lair, Coiled Pocket Universe of Woe.” He manages to crowd in a healthy number of oblique jokes into a half-page, fortunately he also provided me with a peek at the backstory too for full appreciation.)

Against the Hawk Giant by Rev. Rosey (in which I work around my prejudices and recognize despite lite 4E-isms a nice little adventure package. Kudos for being a good sport and running with a tough set from the gods of chance.)

First-place winner:
Tomb of the Forgotten Toad-People (from the Planet of the Nameless Grimoire by Netherwerks. Upending the Gospels, the first shall be first. That wonderful team of Midwestern surrealists fired off an entry mere hours after posting the contest, and it just works—and rocks—all round. They even managed to work in another strange randomly-generated seeming non-sequitur, “the useful chalk scores the idiom”, into their design. Bully.

Conveniently they have a blog entry for their adventure that you can see here

If the winners are amenable, I may put the winning entries together as a pdf download here later today or tomorrow.  

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Musical Interlude

Until today, I had no idea that there was actual film footage to match this treasured Nimoy classic. The backstory found here on The Great Monolithic Infosource is amusing, including this little piece of ephemera:

Fans of Nimoy were intrigued by the fact...that Nimoy had read Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and been exceedingly impressed by it. From approximately 1968 to 1973, several Nimoy and Star Trek fanzine writers and editors...discussed the idea of a live-action The Lord of the Rings film, with Nimoy playing Aragorn, and there was a brief letter-writing campaign.

Thank the various deities of your choice for small miracles. In the meantime, enjoy the birthdays of the vertically-challenged.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fritz Leiber on Making a World Up as You Go Along

I found the following beauty of a quote in a beauty of an article that famed pulp fantasist Fritz Leiber wrote for the first issue of Dragon magazine. Just on the heels of a narrated head-scratching discussion between Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser about our world's wargaming, he launches into what he knows--and doesn't know--about his world setting:
It must always be remembered that I know no more of Nehwon than I have put into my stories [original emphasis]. There are no secret volumes of history, geography, etc., written before the tales themselves were spun. I rely wholly on what Fafhrd and the Mouser have told me, testing them against each other, and sifting out exaggerations and lies when I must. And while my conferences with the Twain have been rewarding, they also have been fewer than I’d wish. I have handled no little books of Ningauble or scrolls or Srith.

For the lands east of the Sea of Monsters, much can, be discovered from the stories written since the map was drawn...The Shadowland, abode of Death and said to contain what some call Nehwon’s death pole, lies east of the Sea of Monsters. Beyond it, still farther east, is the strange land of Eevamarensee, where mankind and domestic animal-kind are alike hairless, but whether this betokens an advanced civilization or decadence only, I know not.
...In "Trapped in the Sea of Stars” the Twain seek to sail to the southern continent(s) and encountering the Great Equatorial Current fail in their attempt, but appear to make some astonishing discoveries about the astronomy of Lankhmar. 
...In [The Frost Monstreme] we learn of Rime Isle, a large northern island in the Outer Sea, inhabited by men who appear to be of Fafhrd’s breed at least as to size and situated due west of the Claws and due north of Simorgya (for which see “The Sunken Land” in Swords Against Death).

Punchline: from the time he first wrote about these two characters in the pulp magazine Unknown way back in 1939 until his last published story in the setting, The Knight and Knave of Swords, in 1988, he was making up the details of the world as the two explored it (an illusion of course, but it feels close). If this article is to be believed Nehwon was thus a bottom-up worldbuilding operation.

Personally I have been tugged back and forth between top-down and bottom-up world-building, wildly swinging between an appreciation of the highpoints of the two—something mirrored in the diametrically polar campaign worlds of mine, the eponymous HC (radically bottom-up) and the Domain Game's Nowhere (at least in physical geography and ancient history terms top-down). 

At the end of the day, like many others in this corner of the hobby (at least those articulating them in forum and blog posts), no matter I love a setting that has Big Unanswered Questions: large gray areas on the map, unsketched histories,proper names facades—mostly unknown to the creator herself.

For sure those familiar with Leiber's stories in that setting can positively feel the exuberance of discovery that shines out of that incompleteness. Reading through them it's like being in a session of the best of extemporizing GMs, strange new facets pop up at every turn. The reader is exploring Leiber's world as it develops piecemeal. 

Apropos to the broader point, but too awesome for me to not quote as a post-script, Leiber's article ends with the two swordsmen pimping Nehwon's mega-dungeons to the D&D audience:
As I regretfully parted from the Twain (somewhere in the caverns of Ningauble, of course, for they’re the only place I know of where Nehwon and other worlds link — see “Adept’s Gambit” in Swords in the Mist) Fafhrd remarked, “Don’t forget Stardock when you write for these wargamers—a whole vast Dungeon inside Nehwon’s mighiest mountain, with routes both on the mountain and inside it.”

“Better yet Quarmall, and not half as chilly,” the Mouser in eagerly. “A vasty [sic] underground world of many levels, a nation in the mines! There’s a Dungeon would send wargamers ape!”

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Yet Another Asinine Adventure Contest

It's probably no surprise to long-time readers that I am inordinately fond of contests, challenges, and blood sports in general. Sneer with your comic-opera oily mustache at “crowd-sourcing” all you want, but you can't cover up the fact that real energy and creativity can be generated in the process. Curses, the masses, in fact, are not asses.

So here's to another round, this one not surprisingly springing from my tongue-in-cheek efforts yesterday to produce a cliché-driven module name generator.

Goal: Design an adventure for an older edition D&D or mash-up equivalent using said name generator.

Rules: You must use the first result from your roll on the chart—alternately contestants can use this scurrilous rip-off chart. May the Furies hound with their blood-curdling screeches and barbed whips those who roll again or fudge the results to fit their preconceived notions of creative agenda.

The one-page dungeon design template can be used (found here courtesy of our friend who rode away into the sunset on his hawg) , but is not required. Adventures can be of any length, though brevity is close to godliness.

Bonus Points: Clever inversion, subversion, and/or glorification of favored D&D trope or cliché.

Deadline: Saturday, September 24, high noon Central U.S. Time.

First Prize Award: $10 credit on Lulu.

Entries should be emailed to me at kutalik at the gmail dot com.

The much feared Mountain of the Demon Dog.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Old School Module Name Generator

Taking note of Mythmere's observation about the sudden appearance of a wave of redundant sounding published adventures, I was inspired to offer this modest contribution to help speed up the OSR production process.

Naming Convention Chart
All names should be preceded by a random or chosen series of two capital letters and a number in sequence, such as “OG1”.

Roll d10
1 “Search for the” + [Place Chart] “of” + [Adjective Chart] +[Being Chart]
2 “In Search of” + [Place Chart] “of” + [Animal Chart] + [Being Chart]
3 “Journey to” + [Place Chart] “of” + [Adjective Chart] +[Being Chart]
4 “Journey to” + [Place Chart] “of” + [Animal Chart] + [Being Chart]
5 “Against the” + [Adjective Chart] +[Being Chart]
6 “Against the” + [Animal Chart] + [Being Chart]
7-8[Place Chart] “ of the” + [Adjective Chart] +[Being Chart]
9-10 [Place Chart] “ of the” + [Animal Chart] +[Being Chart]

Adjective List
Roll d12
1 Deep
2 Dark
3 Ice
4 Fire
5 Unknown or Forgotten
6 Lost
7 Eldritch or Elder
8 Mad or Insane
9 Stone
10 Skull or Bone
11 Sinister
12 Color of your Choice

Place Chart
Roll d12
1 Hall or
2 Tower or Castle
3 Tomb
4 Temple
5 Fane
6 Valley
7 City
8 Undercity
9 Island or Isle
10 Mountain
11 Hill
12 Maze

Being Chart
Roll d12
1 Master
2 Lord
3 Queen
4 Princess
5 King
6 Dragon
7 Mage
8 Demon
9 Giant
10 Vampire
11 God
12 [Animal Chart]-Men or -People

Animal Chart
Roll d10
1 Frog
2 Toad
3 Snake or Serpent
4 Bat
5 Hawk
6 Dog
7 Spider
8 Wolf
9 Bull
10 Wombat

Friday, September 16, 2011

When Blogging Art Mirrors Google+ Life

This is too damn funny not to drop a link too. (And it saves me from having to finish my own post on intra-party violence, so a two-fer really for a lazy Friday.)

Boogie over here to read Zak's account of the player-brother on player-brother violence —and ensuing Google+ back-and-forth—that I mentioned in yesterday's account of the finale of the Tuesday Night group's somewhat pyrrhic victory in the Jakallan underworld.

One passing thing I have noticed over the past week is that my open question about whether Google+ could be a serious contender with blogs and forums is by and large proving to be true in my book—at least for certain kinds of quick lateral communications. 

Certain kinds of direct discussion questions can generate comments quicker and thicker than I have seen in other venues, though depth still lags a bit behind those other outlets (but not always).

It will be interesting to see if the trend holds up over the long haul.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Blood and Tinkering Under the City Half as Old as the World

The last session of the Jakalla underworld Tuesday Night group was a hoot of a finale.

A garbled case of Tekumelyani “telephone” between Zak S's forked-tongue medium and dead members of the previous ill-fated party boiled over with two players suddenly throwing it down and reaching for their nasty barbed blades. In a flash of a die roll, one killed the other in a mighty chop.

To be sure, there was an in-game context: to get beyond a sealed door they had to commit to a blood sacrifice on the nearby altar of one of Sarku's major aspects, Ku'un the Corpse Lord. And the game rolled on all the same; successfully even with the party (finally) managing a short ten minutes later to pry the steel chime macguffin out of the cold, dead fingers of their predecessors and return to the blisteringly hot sunlight above.

Hopefully you will soon be able to check out the sordid details of that session and others on the upcoming blog clearinghouse of session reports, campaign news, and adventure hooks that co-ref Jeremy Duncan and I are working (more on that later).

Switching gears, much as I love the rules of Empire of the Petal Throne I can't seem to leave well enough alone. I've been trying to think through some house rules that may help smooth over some of the rough edges of our explorations—and, well, my own tastes too.

Experience Points
Experience points for opponents killed are equally shared between surviving characters (not by the character who landed the killing blow as EPT states) at the end of each session no matter the ending point. Characters may only advance in level between sessions however.

Characters will not suffer experience point penalties at higher levels as stated in the rules.

Priests and Magic Users may use any weapon deemed “noble” to their religion by the referee. A battle axe for a priest of Chegárra, for instance, would be wholly appropriate. However due to their lack of combat training, Priests can only inflict 1d6 damage and Magic Users 1d4 damage maximum with any particular weapon.

Warriors may use any weapons. They receive a +1 to hit with any weapon they have a professional skill in.

Character Inheritance
Since starting characters in the campaign are assumed to be high-caste refugees from the same island-nation of the South, Ma'arb, it is entirely possible, nay probable, that replacement PCs would be relatives of the deceased.

Further given the tight, honor-laden proscriptions of that distant land, surviving party members are duty-bound to provide a “fair inheritance” to the new character. What constitutes “fair” is entirely up to the survivors of the previous adventurers, though an amount lower than 30 kaitars times the level of the deceased character is considered to be ill-omened.

Swords & Glory Equipment List
The high crunch of EPT's successor did have some highly useful things including a nice long expanded list of equipment and other things to spend your hard-earned kaitars. I am thinking of adopting this—minus the annoying variable costs and fitted to the lower price range of EPT—for use in the campaign.

Certainly not wed to the above variants—they don't (yet) constitute “Jakalla Sub-Protocol Azure”—but I am interested in hearing what Petal Throne grogs and the players/refs of our little shared pocket universe think. Do these seem workable? What else should we fiddle with, if anything? And for the sake of conversation, what quirky variants have others used in their own EPT campaigns? 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hot off the Vanity Press

The Hill Cantons Compendium print version, complete with slick-as-a-politician full-color Bilibin front and back (pictured above) cover, is up and ready for those who prefer dead plant matter copies. Find it here

I basically priced the booklet just above production cost and Lulu's blood money—and even slapped on a 10 percent discount that will last until the red moon rises late Friday night. You can get an even deeper discount, 15 percent off, on any Lulu products if you use the following code: AWESOME305. Any extra funds left over will be donated to the Pulp Fantasy Society. 

One useful thing I learned is that if you put something up for sale on Lulu, you currently get a free “proof copy” for your own use (minus shipping). In other words, even if you don't care a fig about selling or publishing, you can get a free color-cover slick copy of any home campaign or other material you want just by slapping it up there—lots of DIY possibility there for the milking.

Shilling and tip-off finished, now a few niceties and back to finishing the day's real post.

As a shared world the Hill Cantons is as much about the players as it is the GM. As such they deserve a shout out and thank you—not of course in that “I want to thank all the little people” kind of way—but out of real gratitude for contributing, debunking, and playing through the lunacy found in the booklet and at my dining room table over the past two and a half years.

Thanks to the San Antonio crew for their determined exploration of the mysteries of the HC: Desert “The Professor” Scribe, Monica “Frontline Umma” Brad Skullcrusher “The Indeterminate One nee Cugel”, the Special Knitter Friend “Barbarella”, and Dave “Whatever the Hell the Druid's Name is.”

Thanks also to my friends in Siggy's Tomb Raiders: Scott “The Ringleader”, Brent “The OG Montebank”, Dan “the Scaled One Down Under”, and Bill “the Elf-hant Man”.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hill Cantons Compendium, Extended Dance Mix

Whine and ye shall receive.

After my last round of public wool gathering about how blog content seems to float away into the ether—and my general preference for dead plant matter media—Kenneth the Often Slain (in the Austin iteration of the Hill Cantons), did me a highly generous turn. Taking a number of non-Domain Game related posts he spliced the related content with the Hill Cantons Compendium, my previously-released compilation of quirky home-campaign variants, into one 30-page package.

Getting beyond the first page of HC setting fluff and house rules there is a truckload of other stuff that may be of value for other tinkering souls playing Classic D&D/Labyrinth Lord-style games including such things various and sundry as:
  • Five variant Classic D&D/LL-compatible classes: the Mountebank, Feral Dwarf, Lankmarian White Wizard, Half-Ogre, and Black “Halflings”.

  • A variant experience point system, character death, magical research and retainer/follower system.

  • Variant rules for Charisma, reputation, and simple attribute checks.

  • That previously much harped-on character background mini-game with quick random equipment charts.

  • Simple expanded options for killing and being killed.

  • New weapons and armor and some simple variant rules.

  • Zero-level character generation and play rules.
In keeping with my usual personal disdain for things commercial, you can find it for free here on Lulu.

(The at-cost print version is available here.)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Low Dishonest Decade

It's hard to finish the gaming post I had prepared today (perhaps later when the clouds have past). Hard not to stray back to that profound moment of shock and sadness ten years to this day, a thought obviously shared by others on my blog roll.

Jolted by a half-heard phrase on the radio, I remember that afternoon pulling down a dog-eared copy of W.H. Auden's poetry and flipping to that famous elegy on the opening day of the catastrophe of his own generation--a poem he was said to have hated till the end of his life and never wanted to see published again.

Rereading it today, I was struck how nothing that day, or since, put it together as well the welter of conflicting emotions.

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Jakalla Protocols

Though we had some scheduling problems this week, Empire of the Petal Throne gaming continues apace in the Google+ pocket universe. If the sessions go off today, the two groups being referred by yours truly and Jeremy Duncan will be joined by two more refereed groups --doubling the gaming bang for your kaitar.

We have had a lot of chatter both there and elsewhere about having open world play where characters float between sessions and campaigns freely. It has already worked in practice with the two EPT groups as I pointed out here last week.

This week Jeremy and I met and hashed out some loose guidelines for such open world play, an agreement we tongue-in-cheek are calling the “Jakalla Protocols”.

The Protocols
1. That we attempt a loose coordination of a shared world experience between EPT sessions running in Google Plus. The shared published setting and similar start premises (barbarians from the Southern Continent living in the Tower of the Red Dome in Jakalla) lend themselves well to this coordination.

2. The size of the city and its underworld (plus close-by adventure sites) allow enough space for each referee to carve out particular adventure areas of their own. Each referee has full reign to develop and run these areas.

3. Players from each group are free to travel between sessions to adventure in each participating referee's sites and scenarios. Players are also free to take their characters on adventures through nexus points to other Google+ worlds (but not to bring back iron, steel, or magical items). Because of the particular limitations of Tekumel as a setting, characters from other settings are not likely to be allowed to “immigrate”.

4. That time between sessions runs on a one real day = one game day basis for the sake of congruity--and sanity. Most adventure sessions must thus end at a stopping point where characters can move to the next session freely--or at the least handwave this passage of space-time.

5. Character deaths, experience point awards, treasure/equipment acquisitions, events etc. happen chronologically in real time order. Thus if Matt's priest falls to his death in Jeremy's site between expeditions in Chris's underworld he is dead at the beginning of Chris's next session. Players are responsible for alerting refs to any changes to their characters that occurred in other ref's sessions.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Meanwhile Back at the Ludus

It's Friday and time to recount tales of blood, gore, and hard-won glory in the sands of my solo Red Sand Blue Sky campaign.

Thanks to the speed demons at Noble Knight, I received yesterday with great excitement the package containing the five metal gladiators (seen training above under the stern direction of their lanista). They guys are some real monsters, standing more like 30-32mm than the 28mms I was expecting.

Gone now are the weaselly, thin plastic figures with their whining demands for epoxy--as are the stand-in 28mm early-medieval Normans and Moor/Andalusians. Though the latter at least got a run with some of the campaign's early matches that graced my writing desk as seen below.
Not quite the right aesthetic. 
Again proving my point about my general ineptitude and impatience--the two reinforce each other really--with gluing things, I managed to super-glue one of the hex bases to my office desk (note screwdriver and nail polish remover to the rescue). How's that for self-fulfilling prophesy?
Cheerleaders for the grizzled lanista Kutalikus Cacophonus will be pleased to note that his shiny new ludus has been kicking gluteus maximus on the frontier circuit of Britannia. At the first day of events he entered gladiators in three of five matches—winning each and all.

In match one, Decundus took on Jana, a decidly terribly-trained Thraex (in Thracian style armament, sav 2, str 2, spd 2) in his debut. Needless to say a very quick bout. Decundus accidentally killed Jana—battles on the frontier circuit aren't automatically to the death-- with a second jab to the lower belly in the fifth round of the match. He earns a mere two fame points because the odds (based on the sum of the three attributes) favor him.

Net prize of 100 aureii, an extra 20 made from Kutalikus' safe bet .

Match two pitted Sertius vs. Mora a strong, but slow Hoplomachus (spear-and-armor dude, sav 3, str 4, spd 2). This match was longer and closer eventually being called on a “technicality” for Sertius after Mora falls over from exhaustion (a character is considered “spent” if they use up all their bonus dice pool).

Sertius is severally wounded in the upper left leg by the mighty blow that poops Mora out. The doctors say he'll have to sit out the next two months worth of matches. Despite his nasty bleeder, Sertius is highly pleased, Mora was favored heavily meaning that he earns a whopping 18 fame for the win. He spends 12 fame training his savvy and strength up to three.

His lanista kicks himself for not putting down some faith and money on Sertius, but grins at the 100 aureii nonetheless.

In the next two weeks I plan on pushing up the ambition level on the project a couple more notches expanding and painting a larger posse of gladiators and fanged beasts (I am in dire need of the net-man retarii or two)--perhaps even taking out the foam cutter and slicing up some foam board in a scratch-built arena.

Any suggestions on who does nice ranges of appropriate 28mm scale figures? I have been looking at Wargames Foundry's, but anyone else do quality sculpts?

Back to the Arena

Let's take back up where we left off in riffing on what might go into a gladiator mini-game set in Tekumel's Hirilakte arenas.

Jeff Berry, who can't seem to make a comment here without getting my attention, added some colorful details on what a day at the Hirilakte arena would look like in the original campaign:
“You are indeed correct that the various areas of the audience are treated to a variety of bouts that take place in front of them. This gives the stage managers' time to set up the central 'spine' with the special layout for the wizards' duels, which are billed as special attractions. The gladiator bouts can be run as simple fights or as tournaments, with frantic betting on how long a favorite warrior or team will last. There's also light entertainment, such as jugglers and tightrope walkers, and the betting on these acts can get just as intense.”
Adventure Hooks. Since this is primarily an RPG blog we should have an eye for hooks for Hirilakte action as a hook generator.

The most obvious route is the all-important missions chart, which provides the barbarian PCs stuck in the sealed zone of the Foreigners Quarter opportunities to interact with the broader Tsolyani society.

Being approached by a patron to become a champion in the ring is one of the 11 available missions that the rulebook lays out to get refs up and running with scenario ideas.

The matching sub-table that gives different identities for the patron from local officials to merchants to foreigners creates enough subtlety that each may have an entirely different motivation—and a different scenario in the baking.

It's not a stretch to riff other hooks out of play activity. Players get into hot water with a major gaffe, a common occurrence in the byzantine system of mores and etiquette of Tsolyani society? Why not have them enslaved--rather than merely impaled—and forced to win back their freedom by dint of becoming popular and wealthy in the arena. And there there is always the possibility of a duel (see below).

Higher-levels yield even more options. According to the rules, “Citizens of the Empire (beings of 6th or
higher level) may hire and sponsor their own fighters.” Given the chances for all kinds of intrigues around symbolic warfare (see back to Champion Warfare) this opens up all kinds of in-game possibilities.

Long and the short of it we will definitely want to provide guidelines for how mini-game activity can feed back into an ongoing EPT campaign: rules for handling PC activity as champions; generating relevant adventure hooks; etc.

We will also want guidelines to help higher-level PCs with the purchase, training, equipping, and advancement of their sponsored gladiator. And why not some suggestions on how to handle opposing owners whether they be individuals, clans, temples, factions or the like?

Duels. Like champion warfare the arenas also serve another function as an internal safety valve by providing a big-ticket venue for duels between citizens. Such duels are “common” according to the text—a fairly normal outcome of negative reaction rolls.

We will need some guidelines for affairs of honor (as opposed to the arranged gladiator matches).

Equal Footing and Honor. Unlike the Romans more Tsolyani spectactors seem to put more emphasis on ritual, honor and an equal fight than purely bloodlust entertainment. The rules state explicitly that “opponents are evenly matched” in level ability or equivalent hit dice ability if it a non-human or animal. Other sources (I cheat a little here) also state that the weapons and armor should be similar or equal.

According to EPT:
...Gladiatorial battles are under the strict control of the Charukel, the hereditary clan of major domos of the arenas, and fouls or unfair advantages are swiftly and permanently punished, to the great delight of the crowds. All battles are to the death, although an occasional round of fisticuffs is accepted as light relief, and the loser's dead or unconscious body is auctioned off by the winner to the former's relatives or friends . It is considered good manners to permit the loser's kin to have the body in return for a small fee, and crowds have been known to stone an over-greedy winner.”

I would imagine that this rules out “dirty tricks” like kicking sand in an opponent's eyes, a common tactic in Roman times. Our game should reflect this set of values in generating or matching opponents—and in meting out punishment for transgressors.

Betting. Betting on just about anything that happens in a Hirilakte arena is a reoccurring theme. In fact it's one of the few features that get explicit mechanical treatment in the rules. (Note that the rules explicitly state that players do not get experience points for kaitars won in bets at the arena—though they do win experience points for leaving behind a trail of broken bodies.)

Mostly I'd use these straight from the book with some extension to cover events other than one-on-one combat bets. I would also throw in some modifiers or a sub-table based on some of the factors we have been discussing here.

What Else? On the big-ticket list is an elegant, but crunchier set of combat and sorcery rules to give more tactical options to the otherwise quick and abstract OD&D-based rules. Something that will model tactical maneuvers, types of attacks/parries, and the fireworks of offensive/defensive magic in a way that doesn't go too far afield yet yields a more satisfying tactical mini-game.

I love also to see any number of other campaign guidelines like the different levels of arenas from the backwater towns to the main attractions in the major cities.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Moving on Up: Social Advancement in the Borderlands

It's been a while since I've peeled back the veil on what's happening with the Hill Cantons: Borderlands sourcebook, in the main because I have (finally) learned my lesson about keeping my trap shut and my fingers flying.

A ton of work has been going on nonetheless. A merry band of beta-testers has been kicking the Seven Hells out of my poor, overworked draft in the playtest arena and the draft is finally settling into fighting shape as the necessary rewrites, clarifications, and elaborations follow in the wake.

One area that has been majorly revamped then revamped again is Chapter 8, the chapter that handles how player characters rise through the ranks of institutions in their home campaign.
Why so much revision? Simple: they hated it.

Not the idea, to a man (and woman), they loved that. They liked the general concept of providing mechanisms and guidelines to give players “entry-level positions” to the supposed endgame at low and mid-levels. They even liked a number of the core concepts about how to implement them.

But they hated my execution—oh, the vanity of our most beloved half-baked notions—which mostly was a series of large-scale mini-game much like the ones found in those classic old warhorses of this kind of game: En Garde, Heroes, and Flashing Blades. In a nutshell each particular institution had a high level of detail and unique mechanics for it's own peculiar advancements, perks, obligations, etc.

Players objections basically boiled down to a. it was too chart-heavy and distracted too much from the traditional core mechanics and play areas of classic D&D; b. that it defined too much of the detail for how institutions worked in people's campaigns (ok this was more mine, an old pet peeve, but it seemed close to some of their own objections) ; and c. most damningly that it felt too much like work and life in the real world. Egads.

So I swung to a different pole and with great, shuddering reluctance cut the lion share of all those many pages down in a sub-system that:
  • provides a more simple and universal system tied closer to traditional D&D concepts.
  • instead of mandating and pre-shaping institutions for GMs, it provides 12 sample templates for them to riff off (one such is at the end of this post). Guidelines, suggestions, and a campaign question check list are provided in the rest of the chapter's text to help their templates to their own unique needs.
  • drops much of the stick in favor of the carrot by removing the rather onerous system of PC obligations (off-season service time, tithes, etc). Thanks to Tavis in particular for pushing me to let this go.

Backstory finished, here is the draft product (with some explanatory paragraphs and examples stripped out, ask away if it is unclear). As always I am an eager beaver for thoughts, feedback, constructive criticism.

Would you use such a system? What would you change or add?

Note while a beta-test draft the following text is copy protected. Any misuse of said text will be promptly followed by the parachuting of a crack team of ninja-suited, wavy-sword-wielding lawyers into your home domicile.

[Excerpt from Chapter 8: Rising Through the Ranks]

Rank and Title
Each institution's hierarchy is divided into progressively influential ranks.

On the surface, ranks are much like the old stand-by of character level—each rank conveys a title, some of which are similar to matching level titles. They are however a power-rating system independent, though influenced by, a character's level.

Unlike levels, characters are not limited to starting at the first rank in a hierarchy and working their way up sequentially—they may attempt to enter an institution's ranks at any point. Note that if the Charisma variant rules [a cleaned up version of this here]are being used that fourth level can automatically enter certain ranks as shown below.

Each rank has a target number--which varies by the type of the institution--that a player must roll over in order to advance. Players can try twice a year, but may only advance once in that year.

The number of dice used is determined by class level and modified by Charisma, inducements, prior-held ranks, and success in actual, in-game sessions.

Levels 1-3 1d6
Levels 4-7 2d6
Levels 8-11 3d6
Levels 12-15 4d6
Levels 16+ 5d6

3-6 -1
7-12 0
13-15 +1
16-17 +2
18 +3

Ranks 1-3, Per 500 gp (or equivalent magic item) +1
Ranks 4-6, Per 1,000 gp (or equivalent magic item) +1
Ranks 7+, Per 2,000 gp (or equivalent magic item) +1

Prior Held Rank (must be in same institution):
Rank 1-3 +1
Rank 4-6 +2
Rank 7+ +3

In-Game Successes
Major Publicly-Recognized Success +1
Minor Success that Benefits Institution +1
Major Success that Benefits Institution +2
Minor Success in Mission Assigned by Institution +2
Major Success in Mission Assigned by Institution +3

Rank has its privileges and characters receive progressively more as they rise.

Note on all charts that characters are entitled and obligated to the perks of all lower ranks—with the exception of political positions (character can only be head of one institution at a time).

Example Template:
The Temple of Law Clergy
Rank Title Target Perks
1 Acolyte 2 Room and board
2 Adept 4 Free access to minor healing magic once a month
3 Priest 7 Head of rural parish, 50 gp income/month
4* Vicar 9 Head of small temple, 150 gp income/month, Free access to clerical spells up to 2nd level/month
5 Curate 12 Head of medium temple, 300 gp income/month
6 Bishop 15 Head of medium temple, 300 gp income/month, Free access to clerical spells up to 4nd level/month
7 Lama 19 Head of large temple, 300 gp income/month, Free access to clerical spells up to 5th level/month
8 Patriarch 23 Stronghold, Collect Domain Taxes
9 High Priest 27 Automatic Ruler Rank of 9

* If CHA rules are being used, fourth level character with CHA 15 and over are entitled to an automatic position here. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Can Google+ Overtake Blogs and Forum?

I had a random thought/observation as I did my morning social media rounds. A number of people in my gaming circles, in the main not the “usual suspects”, are consistently drumming up interesting, thought-provoking stream updates (think Facebook status update or Twitter tweet).

The discussions are frankly at time rating a few notches higher on dynamo-meter (at least in quantity terms) than similar discussions on blogs or forums I follow, some racking upwards of 90 comments in a few hours time.

It makes me wonder about the overall arc of this new outlet: does it have the potential to overtake our old media as the go-to-source for our corner of the hobby? Will it just become another stream or is it all just a flash in the pan?

I can think of several features that undercut the utility of the platform, but Hell for discussion's sake I will take the side of “yes, it just may well become a significant part of our media toolbox.”

My personal observation is that at least three things feeding this trend:
1. The boom of online game sessions in the medium—which in turn seems to be building up new sets of stronger, more direct relationships based on real activity.

2. The lack of anonymity which not surprisingly cuts down on the temptation to engage in the seemingly-consequence free behavior we all know and love from the last decade of the Internet.

3. The sense that people you know from gaming have more to them than just gaming.

What's the case for? What's the case against?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Gladiators on Tekumel

It was bound to happen. A few days into playing my Roman Gladiator solo campaign, I found my thoughts—and game-designing urges—wandering over to the Five Empires of Tekumel. Victor Raymond's comment yesterday was the tipping point.

For the uninitiated, gladiatorial spectacle is as much a part of Tsolyani (the setting's default starting country) everyday life as it was for the Romans. In the Empire of the Petal Throne cities sport massive Hirilakte arenas.

The importance of Hirilakte arenas in gaming Tekumel is underscored with a big, fat black marker in the EPT rulebook—where it gets an entire section (Sec. 800) and some scattered related rules--and following canonical material.

But while it gets emphasis and some supporting detail info on what goes in in the arena still has some large unpainted corners—and the obvious tantalizing mini-game that could be spun out of it. 

Barker teases us by pointing to a long out-of-print, now nearly-impossible to find set of English gladiator mini rules and to his marginally easier to find, but hella expensive War of Wizards board game. Flashing Blades-designer Mark Pettigrew also took a stab at this bitd (now found in the Pettigrew Selections), but it's one of the few sub-systems that he put together that I don't like over much.

Which, of course, adds up to awesome for tinkering souls like us that want to make Tekumels of our own. Bumping its way now up to the top of the post-Borderlands project list is now a Hirilakte gladiator mini-game built open-game design right here on the blog.

Not one for delayed gratification let's get a jump on it in the here and now.

First, let's start with what we know about things gladiatorial on that hot, isolated planet before we dive into what kind of game we want. Keeping with the spirit of Victor's “drive it out of the EPT box” approach I am going to contain this to the rulebook itself and mostly ignore the other material that followed. (Which is fairly easy as it gets the most extensive treatment in EPT proper, perhaps a comment on the unfortunate move away from “gamey” Tekumel in later years.)

So whadda we know?

Arena Size. When I said earlier that the arenas were massive, I wasn't exaggerating for dramatic effect. On the Jakalla city map included in the box set, the arena takes up a whopping five hexes (750 feet) lengthwise by three hexes (150 feet) wide. By comparison the famous Colosseum of Rome, which could seat 50,000, extends 615 feet. So we are talking very large affairs capable of seating over 50,000 in the major cities.

The immense size and extended oblong shape of the arenas seem too awkward in providing sight lines for spectators especially for small one-on-one matches. An "educated" guess is that perhaps the larger one such as Jakalla's would be sub-divided for multiple, simultaneous matches.

Our rules will have to make sense of the size, shape, and possible sub-division of these arenas for its ground scale.

Champion Warfare. We know from EPT that the arenas aren't just blood-lust entertainment, they also play a social function as both ritualized warfare between nations. War in the Five Empires is portrayed as highly-static and conservative affair that invariably ends in stalemate. (A notion smashed on the rocks by the highly-decisive and volatile wars advanced by canon in later years—something akin to the shenanigans of Greyhawk's late-canon Götterdämmerung—but I digress.)

According to EPT: 
“Open warfare has thus been replaced to a great extent by 'champion warfare,' a phenomenon which suits the need for ritual, display, and social stratification of the nations of Tekumel. At designated cities throughout the four major empires, therefore, champions come to do battle and win (or lose) not only great sums of money for their patrons, but also great glory for themselves and the groups they represent.
The four great empires each put up their own official champions, and lesser patrons--nobles, temples, clans, and other groups--spend their fortunes to procure, train, and present their own gladiators. Opponents come from neighboring lands to take up these challenges and win glory for their homelands.”
Further we know from the intro that:
“Every major city has an arena, and safe passage is guaranteed for these ritual warriors. Battles are normally to the death, although fist-fighting can be arranged as a side event. Wizards and priests also come to fight magical duels.”
Ever have that real-world fantasy that wars would be decided by putting a few aggro members of each nation into the ring? Well here's your chance to make it so (at least as much as you can in fantasy gaming.)

Make a note for rules for ritualized warfare in the game. Also make side notes that we should include rules and guidelines for unarmed combat, magical duels, and patronage.

So far plenty to mull on. I will extend our analysis and working notes for Hirilakte in Part II either later today or tomorrow.

Monday, September 5, 2011

We Who are About to Die...

Political duty discharged, I can now concentrate on an exercise in self-indulgence: news about the solo gladiator campaign I am running (for myself, natch).

My first few “sessions” have been enormous fun, recalling some of my better winter Detroit days spent in my cozy basement playing the schizoid as I switched army sides. It certainly beat the hell out of shoveling snow.

As I reminder I am running Red Sand Blue Sky, a nifty set of mano et mano Roman Gladiator rules from Two Hour Wargames which specializes in a range of mini skirmish rules that blend in RPG elements. Significantly, their rules also have nice elegant and easily workable rules for running non-player forces which makes them invaluable for solo or same-side efforts. (I should also add that their honcho, Ed, is a stand-up guy who has fond memories of white box OD&D.)

For figures I seem to be flying through the options. My first bout I tested with the full-color paper counters and paper arena that come with the rules, though was quickly unsatisfied and switched to stop-gap medieval-era 28mm minis while I waited on packages to arrive from afar.

My original intention was to run them with some very nicely sculpted (and dirt cheap)1/72 scale plastic figures from Pegasus. When the box arrived I was again happy with the sculpting, but groaned silently a bit as I opened up the box and saw all the multiple detached parts in needing of glue.
From the Pegasus set. Nice midgets.
For the record, when it comes to miniatures projects nothing turns me off quicker than the need to apply some epoxy. Something about having to sit there for minutes over and over again, with all that squiggly crap a-fixing itself to the pads of fingers just drives me bonkers.

So off to find another alternative. Fortunately I found a good short-cut with the Ludus Gladiatorus sets. These sets features five pre-painted 28mm Roman gladiators with their own mini-game and some icon-faced d6s. While I typically—like most mini grogs—look down my aquiline nose at pre-painted I am in the mood to jump right in now with a minimum of fuss.

RSBS has several starting options for solo gaming: playing as a single gladiator, a school of gladiators, or as the owner of said school. I want the full range of experience with the extended campaign rules so I opt for the last.

Month One
Kutalikus Cacophonus, an almost-famous Dacian gladiator freed by the Emperor in 153 AD has returned to seek the roar of the crowds and the smell of fresh blood—at least on the more lucrative and less dangerous end of the arena. No longer slave he is now lanista (trainer-owner) of a new ludus (gladiator school) in Corinium Dobunnorum, a rough-and-tumble town in the dreary, rain-besotted frontier province of Britannia.

Kutalikus' goal here, besides becoming stinking rich, is to ultimately move the school up from the backwater sideshow through the various tiers (RSBS has four each having a minimum cash level in aurei to get to) up to the “Big Show”: the Coliseum in Rome.

While wealthy he has a way to go with his 5,000 aurei at start.

Lacking grist for his fighting mill, his first action in month one (campaign turns are monthly) is to trot over to the local slave market to size up some likely targets. Looking over the flotsam and jetsom of those on the receiving of the Empire's might, he finds four broad-backed candidates and begins bidding on them.

First up on the block is Terius from K's homeland of Dacia. Though he is pretty average (savvy 2, strength 2, speed 2—all the baseline scores), out of tearful sentimentality he starts bidding and picks him up at a reasonable 9 aurei.

Next up is Maximus from Hispania, despite his cinematically-grandiose name another mediocre but passable acquisition. Maximus goes for a bit more at 15, K. decides what the Pluto and buys him too—as he does for yet another Mr. Average, Draco from Germania at 12.

Murmillo helmet
Finally though he eyes up a real catch, a Bluto, a local boy and former criminal sold into bondage. Bluto is tougher and faster (savvy 2, strength 4, speed 3) but the bidding war gets a bit pricey all the way up to 30. Caught up in auction fever, he gets bought anyway.

The wily Dacian puts his new no-so-willing recruits through the tough pacing of his school. He's only satisfied with one, Bluto, enough to put him through the paces of the upcoming day of games. Bluto gets trained up in the kit and fighting style of the Hoplomachus, an armor, shield and spear carrying style.

In order to beef up my ludus with some real muscle—and field a full complement at the next round of games (each day of events has 1d6+4 matches in it), he makes the rounds to see what gladiators others lanistas may trying to off load. He is satisfied with four decent looking types:

Decundus, trained as a Murmillo, dude with sword and baroque fish-helmet (savvy 2, str 3, spd 4).

Sertius, trained as a Secutor, a “chaser” with sword, ornate helmet, and large shield (savvy 2, str 2, spd 3, Brawler special trait).

Secius, also a Secutor (sav 3, str 3, spd 2, Frenzy trait).

Secimus, trained as a Thraex, “Thracian” with a Griffin-helmet, small shield and sica (long wicked dagger) (sav 3, str 2, spd 2, Brawler).

Kutalikus buys gear for them and puts them through the paces preparing for next month's games.