Monday, March 29, 2010

Quite Distracted By: Consumption (and Super-Heroes)

I have been pretty much knocked out the picture for a while now.  I don't actually have consumption, but I did give up my dental practice and move West to become a professional gambler and sometime gun-fighter.

Okay: not really.  But I have had this bronchial thing for weeks now and was too stubborn to go to the doctor because I kept saying that I was feeling better.  But I gave up and went in and am now zonked out on prescription-strength cough syrup and anti-biotics.  In between hacking fits, I've been thinking a lot about super-hero gaming which I intend to post about once I'm mentally competent.

So do try to cary on a bit longer without me.  Oh, and let's all avoid being nasty to each other and having valuable members of our community shut down or get slaged off and whatever.  Even though I've been sick, I'm saddened to see the Old Guy Blog gone and I've seen some unpleasant things said here and there about other bloggers and their players.  Seriously, do we need to resort to that?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

As Long As I'm Posting My Maps...

Having posted my draft map for the Kahira Region the other day, it dawned on me that some imaginary person might enjoy the map I made for the home base in my Onderland Campaign.  It's not perfect (what is?), but I'm pretty please with it in general:

Quite Distracted By: Engines & Empires (Again!)

Yes, yes: I was already quite distracted by this game some while ago.  I'm even more distracted right now.  This game is fermenting in my mind as I look once again at E&E while reading Ben Baugh's fantastic Kerberos Club (a wonderful book for Wild Talents, a game I will never, ever play), various products from Adamant's Imperial Age line, and the old For Faerie, Queen, and Country (a flawed but inspiring book for The Amazing Engine, a game even less likely to be played than Wild Talents).  Here's what's stewing in my brain-pan:

A D&D game set in the mid-19 century.  For a few decades now, the old rationalist philosophies have been badly damaged as the gates to Faerie, previously obscure, have opened up.  Quietly at first, but then more and more openly, the creatures of legend have appeared again in the world.  Some were hiding here all the time, while others have just remembered we existed and decided to come over and visit.  Both the Seelie and Unseelie Courts have ambassadors to the Court of St. James even as a horrid Redcap stalks the streets of Whitechapel preying on prostitutes.  The Universities dusted off the old grimoires and now offer instruction in theurgy, while occult groups now enjoy success in their attempts at practical magic.  A new breed of adventurers has begun to spring up: folk who hunt down vampires terrorizing remote villages, folk who delve into the sewers to find the source of the giant, man-eating rats therein, folk who even tread the borders of Faerie itself for knowledge and profit.

Although I think you could get a lot of mileage out of "London as both Dungeon+Wilderness", the particular setting in my mind right now is the frontiers of Imperial India, probably the border country around the Hindu Kush.  The idea is that you could play a game using most if not all the usual bits from D&D: the PC's are a motley, multi-racial bunch of adventurers who turn up in some remote village to explore the wilds, fight monsters, and recover treasure. Maybe the Goblin Raiders are being stirred up by Tsarist agents.  Maybe the great dragon slain by Indra is stirring again.  Maybe a faerie palace has appeared in the remote mountain palaces, filled with gold and gems and treasures, which might turn to straw when you come back, but hey, you never know.

I have this image of playing the Butler to some other PC, something like Peter Wimsey's man, Bunter.  "Pardon me, sir, but there appears to be a somewhat gelatinous cube graudually making it way towards us.  And, if I'm not mistaken, that would be the remains of Major Lawrence being slowly digested inside the brute.  May I suggest that Doctor Blackwood attempt his monster-holding charm while I prepare the flaming oil?"
Unsurprising to my loyal, hypothetical readers, I'm already thinking about how to tinker with the game.  I am an inveterate and occasionally obsessive tinkerer with systems and I don't try to fight it anymore.  By and large, I'd want to focus the game on the human Classes.  At some, point I mentioned to John Higgins (the authour) that I felt he'd made a slight misstep with the Boxer class being out of touch with the Victorian idea of pugilism; the E&E Boxer is basically the D&D Monk.  But now that I look at it again, I think it would darn easy to reskin the Boxer to a Pugilist by just changing the Qi Powers to some thing like Animal Vitality (a good, pseudo-scientific idea of the times).

Magic is, as usual, the thing that lurks foremost in my mind, in this case being entwined with thoughts about the Fae.  As a starting point, I would use the Elf class as the basis for the Light or Seelie Elves and the Fay as the Dark or Unseelie Elves.  It's pretty clear to me that this is what the game is suggesting anyway, as Elves have an inner light that repulses the dead while the Fay have an innate personal glamour that always them to change their appearance.  In E&E as written, Elves are basically the human Scholar class with a few racial goodies; Scholars are E&E's version of the Cleric class (with both the Cleric and Druid spells from Labyrinth Lord).  Elves as Clerics?  Yep and I think it works out pretty neatly with both types tied to Light and Life.
One of the big differences between E&E and it's source-game, Labyrinth Lord, is that all spells must be found and learned., Scholars don't automatically receive them from on high.  Instead, they have to be, you know, scholarly, and research their theurgic magics.  This feels utterly correct to me and sets up a clearer dichotomy of Black and White Magicians.  But, and here's where I'm going with this, I don't think that dichotomy works as well for Elves, who might well be Fallen Angels anyway to take one theological explanation for faeries.

The release of Advanced Edition Companion (AEC) opens up a nice alternative: Elves get the AEC Druid spells, a far more comprehensive body of magics than the LL version, which would thus show similarities and differences with the Scholars spells.  And unlike Scholars, Elves don't learn spells--they just develop them as abilities.  Is that over-powering?  I don't think so because with this change most Scholarly magic items are no longer usable by Elves.

On a similar track, the Fay from E&E are basically the human Magician (i.e. Magic-User) class with their racial perks, notably the glamour power I mentioned before.  That shows that the fay are oriented toward illusion and the AEC comes though again: give the Dark Elves the Illusionist list.  Again, it crosses over with the Magicians (quite a lot), bit is still distinct.

A possibility now occurs to me: in the stories, many naughty faerie get caught out by having inhuman features, such as a tail or cloven hooves.  It so happens that Adamant's Imperial Age: Faeries has a neat little table of Unseelie Traits that I think I could plunder.  I'm not so sure on the method yet, since as written, these are used in a kind of point-buy thing for racial Levels and similar stuff and nonsense.  Still, I think an Unseelie fae might begin with one cosmetic Traits and then gain more significant ones as he levels up.

Moving on to other non-humans: Centaurs and Bird-Men are right out.  Just not in genre.  But I could see using Fauns and Halflings as kinds of minor Faerie.

Oh, and I hope needless to say: Tinker Gnomes have never, will never exist.  Period.  Mad Science! is purely the purview of humanity, even if it's sudden appearance has something to do with the resurgence of Faerie.

Before I leave the subject of Faerie, I have one other consideration: what are Faeries doing in India?  Yeah, this is a touchy one as all that wonderful Victorian faery-lore is from Western Europe and not South-east Asia.  A number of responses occur to me, but I want to keep it simple and remember that I am playing toward the stereotypical, British stories rather than doing Anthropology or Comparative Religions.  In that regard, I am fortunate in having the always cool Rakshasas available: nasty, shape-changing, illusion-making spirits anyone?  I'm going with the idea that Faeries are alien creatures who have to be interpreted by the human cultures that encounter them.  The Indian Rakshasas are the European Dokalvar and Unseelie Elves.  And the Light Elves?  Um...I'm sure I'll think of something.

Yes: I should be working on Under the Dying Sun instead of thinking about something else.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Places Under the Dying Sun: The Black Ziggurat (and How to Get There)

[in response to the wonderful idea brought forward by Blair over at Planet Algol and with all respect to Clark Ashton Smith]

If you wander the the Grand Souk of Hajal, you may find the stall of a blind Desert Man, so ancient that his coppery skin has tarnished to dull brown.  The Blind Man will, for a certain sum, sell you a map made by application of human blood upon human skin, which he calls the Map of Jayendra, although it is hard to tell if that worthy made the map or if the map is made of him.  Either way, this document purportedly shows a path through the Red Desert, far to the south of Hajal and the Plains of Kahira.  Treading this path, one may avoid the worst scourges of that locale, says the Blind Man, until, after seven noons of walking, one comes upon an eternally-howling sandstorm.  In the heart of that immortal storm, lies the Black Ziggurat.

On the other hand, if you bypassed the tawdry trappings of the Blind Man, you might turn into the Avenue of Idol-Makers, where virtually any divinity can be made to order.  The Avenue is a noisy place, filled with the hellish heat of innumerable fires as pieces of scrap metal are melted down for use in the fashioning of gods.  Thus, the constant scurry of scavengers and looters, toting a broken knife blade or an antique door handle stolen from some decrepit part of the city, add to the confusion that naturally surrounds any place dedicated to theogenesis.  If one's timing is good, one may then bump into the down-at-heels scholar, Kanti Karna, once a high official in the court of the Tyrant, but now reduced to the selling of scrap to birth deities after falling from favour.  With proper persuasion and sufficient inhumation of the fumes of the ajat, Kanti Karna may allow one to see his personal copy of the Scrolls of Hamayoun (or the selections which he has, at any rate).  In the thirteenth scroll, one could then find a very learned discourse upon what that savant generally called "The Atramentous Pyramid of Zoghah Chanbil", but which he once refers to as "The Black Ziggurat".  In this discourse, Hamayoun states with exactitude that the Black Ziggurat lies upon the shores of the Lost Sea (although, of course, the Sea wasn't lost in Hamayoun's time), exactly opposite the mighty city of Thanjivar, some distance to the north of Hajal (which, of course, did not exist at that time).

Should one ignore the theological mysteries of the Avenue of Idol-Makers and choose, instead, to leave the Grand Souk by way of the Eupotamic Bridge, one might find one's purse lifted by the hirsute form of a club-footed, one-legged Wild Man from the Tharian Hills to the Northwest.  This larcenous individual, an escaped slave by all accounts, is surprisingly dextrous for all his natural faults.  Should one be able to restrain the Quasi-Man, some knowledge of his homeland may be extracted by threats of bodily harm coupled with bibinous blandishments.  He may then reveal the common gossip among the hill-men, that beneath the stinking waters of Devil Lake, a cyclopean ruin stands, the Black Ziggurat.

Foregoing further hypotheses, it seems that there is broad agreement across the lands under the Dying Sun as to the existence of a mighty structure, a sombre pyramid of unknown and seemingly unknwable provenance.  Yet the impression of the dedicated scholar and/or looter, is that the Black Ziggurat is both everywhere and nowhere.  Wherever one travels, it is a myth, a rumour, a dark legend and just beyond the next hill.  But none can verify any claim to have ever found it.  It is called the Tomb of God and the Gate of Death and the Obsidian Crown of the World; to it are attribute divers power and portents; and it is both ancient and newly-made.  Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Black Ziggurat is an Ideal, onmipresent through the cosmos, even upon other worlds.  Of course, the Arch-Necromancer and Tyrant of Hajal officially discourages talk of other worlds--worlds perhaps not dying beneath an angry, terminal star--with measures unsuited to scholarly discourse.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

This Kind of Map or That?

So, here's the in-progress version of the map of the Hajal region (the sample setting for Dying Sun) which I posted a while back:

This one I did with Illustrator.  I was, however, just reminded of the excellent Hexographer program, which has added some good stuff since last I played with it.  A few minutes of fooling around gave me this equivalent map:

I think I prefer mine, but I'm a bit unsure.  So, dedicated masses, what do you think?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Magic of Onderland

The bad thing about having multiple irons in the fire is, obviously, that one can get quite distracted and accomplish nothing.  The nice thing about having multiple irons in the fire is that when one needs a break from one project, one can turn to another, rather than, say, watch the E! Channel.  That's what I'm doing now. I have mentioned, in passing, my Onderland Campaign.  Unlike Dying Sun, this a much more traditional fantasy setting, heavily flavoured by Anglo-Saxon England during the Heptarchy.  It's got Elves and Dwarves and Dungeons and Keeps on the Borderland and whatnot.  I think the Anglo-Saxon background adds a lot to all of those common gaming elements, giving a nice grounding to those typical elements such as the fallen empire (the Rome equivalent), religious institutions (the Roman Church equivalent), and where those weird monsters come from (Faerie).

When I set up the campaign, it was my first try at running Spellcraft & Swordplay and wisdom would dictate that I try running the game as written.  So I didn't do that.  I immediately set about house-ruling the thing.  I respect M. Maliszewski's idea of running RAW and then evolving during play, although, as he has noted in re the Raise the Dead spell, that approach has it's drawbacks as well.  But I don't roll that way.  I'm a tinkerer from the get-go.  So, I made some house-rules and ran with them.

That, however, doesn't stop me from continuing to tinker as we play.  My herculean efforts at devising a Weapons vs. Armour Class chart that I liked, though devised for Dying Sun, inevitably leaked into Onderland.  That causes one minor ret-con (the barbaric Tatwulf exchanged his morningstar for a mace), but was otherwise seamless.  Soon thereafter, I introduced another change, this one unconnected to Dying Sun, and I haven't seen how that will play out yet.  But I'm awfully fond of the idea, so I put it in place and we'll see how it goes.

The idea was to redefine magic in Onderland.  I've never been terribly crazy about the traditional Magic-user/Clerical divide (if you think that phrase ought to have been "Arcane/Divine" divide, then you are too young to read this blog. No, no, I kid.)  It's fine.  I don't hate it.  But I don't really like it.  It just feels a bit off to me.  Coupled with my motto of "Kill the Cleric, Keep the Thief", I felt the need to do something new.  That urge was fueled by some discussions around the Net about automatic casting vs. casting rolls and then flavoured by my personal history as a recovering medievalist.

Conceptual divisions of magic are nothing new.  In fact, the real world probably gives us too many divisions for game use.  But one I like is the later medieval distinction between Natural and Demonic Magic, as expounded by philosophers such as Albertus Magnus, the Universal Doctor.  Natural Magic is so-called because it utilizes the occult properties of the world.  It’s on par with magnetism, to choose an good medieval example. Wondrous, but natural (i.e. Lawful).  Demonic Magic is the opposite: it relies upon summoning forces from the Underworld to enact their unnatural powers upon the world (i.e. Chaotic).  This doesn’t make it evil per se; there were many apologists for demonic magic in middle ages who claimed that they were following the example of Christ in using divine power to order demons and that it was actually a punishment for demons to be forced to do good things.  Also, as in the middle ages, Demonic Magic is based upon grimoires and ritual and therefore the only real people able to practice are the literate i.e. priests (the sub-culture of clerical necromancers is a fascinating topic with which I shan’t bore you at the moment).

That’s the fluff. Here’s the mechanical effects:

1. The Priest and Wizard spell lists get rearranged.  Natural Magic largely equates to Priestly magic, such as healing, detection, and abjurations. Those spells that appear on both lists (such as Light) are only Natural magic in this ordering.  The Demonic list is thus pruned a bit, leaving it the offensive and creepy spells--Sleep, Magic Missile, Arcane Eye, etc.

2. Wizards may use spells of either type.  They can, in principle, cast any spell in the game. Champions (Cleric analogs) are restricted to Natural Magic as a gift from the Powers.

3. Natural Magic spells are called virtues.  They are cast using the usual D&D system--no casting roll. They automatically work, as befits their Lawful nature, but the caster also always forgets them. OK--“memorizing” and “forgetting” aren’t really the right terms here, but you know that.

4. Demonic magic uses the Spellcraft & Swordplay system--the casting roll, the chance of success or failure, the chance of retaining or losing the spell.  The randomness befits the Chaotic nature of the practice.  If you read my little article in Fight On! No. 6, I’m using that idea here: memorizing the spell is actually performing the ritual summoning and binding of the demonic power. Casting is the unleashing of that demon.  If you succeed, the demon remains bound to you. If you fail, he is released and scarpers back to Hell.  If you roll snake-eyes, something weird and unpleasant happens.  Doug Easterly’s excellent Savage Swords of Athanor has a nifty little Chaotic Effects table that I might play around with.

One nifty little thing that this scheme opens up: I could actually see having a Witch in this system.   I've traditionally opposed the Witch idea in Ye Auld Game, probably because every iterations just seems more effort than it's worth.  New spell lists; new ways to cast spells, and so on and so on.  Leave me cold.  But with this system, I see a very simple way to do a Witch.  And by Witch, I don't mean an evil wizard, or a Wise Woman, or some sort of Margaret Murray devotee of the Horned God.   I mean the medieval conception of an apostate who gives dulia or latria to the Dark Powers in exchange for occult powers. And it's now easy to do: the Witches of Onderland are granted Demonic Magic spells only by their Underworld Masters.  They cannot learn new spells from grimoires.

That also gives me a flip-side option: the Miraculous Hermit (or Monk or whatever).  The Miraculous Hermit is just a normal guy--not a divine Champion; not a mace-wielding arse-kicker--who is granted the ability to use Natural Magic.

So that's what I'm doing in my off-time right now.  I'll conclude with the spell lists as I have them right now:

Natural Magic Level One
1. Cure Light Wounds
2. Detect Evil
3. Detect Magic
4. Disrupt Undead
5. Light
6. Locate Animal or Plant
7. Predict Weather
8. Protection from Evil
9. Purify Food & Water
10. Read Languages

Demonic Magic Level One
1. Charm Person
2. Deathwatch
3. Hex (Bane)
4. Faerie Fire
5. Hold Portal
6. Inflict Light Wounds
7. Elf-Shot (Magic Missile)
8. Sleep
9. Will-o-Wisp (Dancing Lights)

Natural Magic Level Two
1. Animal Summoning 1
2. Bless
3. Continual Flame
4. Create Water
5. Detect Invisible
6. Find Traps
7. Hold Person
8. Lesser Restoration
9. Locate Object
10. Remove Paralysis
11. Speak with Animals

Demonic Magic Level Two
1. Desecrate
2. ESP
3. Hand-Fire (Produce Fire)
4. Heat Metal
5. Invisibility
6. Knock
7. Levitate
8. Phantasmal Image
9. Wizard Lock
10. Cloak (Obscurement)
11. Warp Wood

Natural Magic Level Three
1. Animal Summoning 2
2. Cure Disease
3. Dispel Magic
4. Hold Animal
5. Neutralize Poison
6. Protection from Evil, 10’ Radius
7. Protection from Fire
8. Protection from Normal Missiles
9. Remove Blindness/Deafness
10. Remove Curse
11. Water Breathing

Demonic Magic Level Three
1. Call Lightning
2. Cause Fear
3. Clairaudience
4. Clairvoyance
5. Contagion
6. Fire Ball
7. Fly
8. Haste
9. Infravision
10. Invisibility, 10’ Radius
11. Lightning Bolt
12. Plant Growth
13. Pyrotechnics
14. Slow
15. Speak with Dead
16. Staves to Snakes
17. Unholy Blight

Natural Magic Level Four
1. Animal Summoning 3
2. Binding Oath*
3. Cure Serious Wounds
4. Daylight
5. Death Ward
6. Dimensional Anchor
7. Hold Undead
8. Plant Door
9. Protection from Lightning
10. Restoration
11. Speak with Plants

Demonic Magic Level Four
1. Arcane Eye
2. Black Tentacles
3. Confusion
4. Control Temperature, 10’ Radius
5. Cone of Cold
6. Charm Monster
7. Dimension Door
8. Enervation
9. Forest Legion
10. Hallucinatory Terrain
11. Inflict Critical Wounds
12. Insect Plague
13. Phantasmal Killer
14. Polymorph Others
15. Polymorph Self
16. Produce Fire
17. Vampiric Touch
18. Wall of Fire
19. Wall of Ice

Natural Magic Level Five
1. Animal Summoning 4
2. Anti-Animal Shell
3. Commune
4. Create Food
5. Dismissal
6. Dispel Evil
7. Heal
8. Hold Monster
9. Planar Binding

Demonic Magic Level Five
1. Animal Growth
2. Animate Dead
3. Blight
4. Cloudkill
5. Conjure Elemental
6. Contact Underworld (Contact Higher Plane)
7. Control Winds
8. Feeblemind
9. Finger of Death
10. Firestorm
11. Geas
12. Harm
13. Insect Plague
14. Possession (Magic Jar)
15. Pass-Wall
16. Telekinesis
17. Teleport
18. Transmute Rock to Mud
19. Wall of Iron
20. Wall of Stone

Natural Magic Level Six
1. Anti-Magic Shell
2. Lower Water
3. Move Earth
4. Part Water
5. Final Rest (Undead to Death)

Demonic Magic Level Six
1. Anti-Life Shell
2. Blasphemy
3. Circle of Death
4. Control Weather
5. Create Undead
6. Disintegrate
7. Enchant Item
8. Freezing Sphere
9. Invisible Stalker
10. Projected Image
11. Reincarnate
12. Slay Living
13. Stone to Flesh