Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Preparation and the Origins of "The Game"

It's been far too long since I posted, and I have little excuse beyond a lack of coherent and useful thoughts, or maybe it's just a lack of belief that I have anything useful and original to say to you guys. I think maybe I need to set that attitude aside and just have some thoughts about gaming, period. I'll try harder.

Anyway, it's time to dust off the keyboard and put down a few words about something I read today.

My good friend +Adam Muszkiewicz, over at Dispatches from Kickassistan has written a thing about dynamic game preparation and aesthetics. Making a slight dig at +Donn Stroud, he said:
 I know there are DMs out there who do all this prep -- like, insane amounts of prep, right +Donn Stroud? -- and who seem to enjoy this sort of shit more than actually gaming. That's cool, whatever, write your novel. It won't help you at the table. And the table is where the game is, nowhere else. 
When he posted the blog, he also observed that it might be bullshit. It is, of a kind. He's also voiced similar thoughts to me, and in a recent Drink, Spin, Run podcast, with guest +Harley Stroh. Here's why this is bullshit.

I am one of those people, like Donn, who is somewhat fixated on preparation. I like to know the places I'm talking about at the table, as a GM. I like to have an idea who the factions are that inhabit these places. I like to know about some of the specific people who live in these places, and how they look, act, and think. I like to have some sense of how these places, things, and people might interact with the characters who encounter them. I like to know how the world in which the game takes place actually functions. I think this is something that Adam can appreciate. What he fails to recognize is that my method (extensive prep) leads to the same outcome as his method (intensive prep), and is necessary, not because I'm trying to write my long-awaited novel, but because that's how my brain works. The landscape for the game requires that my mind be engaged in some very specific ways, otherwise the inspiration must be drawn from elsewhere, and I simply don't have the depth of particular kinds of experience (in gaming, especially) that he does.

Where Adam and I differ is in terms of methodology, but even then I don't think we're so far apart. Adam preps, too, but it is possible that he doesn't recognize what he's doing as preparation, because it doesn't resemble what I do; and the level of detail I put into the sort of prep that I do may seem like more than it is, for someone who doesn't approach it this way. Let me give you an example.

Lately, when I have the time and inclination, I've been drawing a map of the city of Magyaru. The Magyaru in my mind has seven levels, rising from the sea and up the side of a great mountain. So far, I've mapped approximately on third of the lowest level, called Harbortown. There are roads and neighborhoods and buildings. I've probably drawn a couple hundred buildings. I plan to map the rest of it, as well, in time. Here's the thing. I'm doing this a prep for gaming, but not in the sense that I know what's in every building, or the name of every street, or even that I have specific ideas about how "The Game" is going to unfold; rather, it is preparation of my mind to be fertile in responding to what my players do at the table. I know a few of the people in this place (significant NPCs), the sorts of things they do, and what currently concerns them. I also have some ideas about the organization of the city into districts, and (to a very limited extent) neighborhoods. I also have some ideas about what's happening on larger scales, cultural and social.

For example, the design of the city means that there are open sewers on every level below the highest. They drain from east to west, into the river that marks the city's western boundary. Such a feature as an open sewer is, to put it bluntly, a shitty thing to have in your neighborhood. So, the neighborhoods along the length of such features are, necessarily, the worst of their kind, at least for the district. In the higher, more desirable districts, it's better than in the lower ones. In fact, the richest of the residents of Magyaru might have ways to abate the stench from the open sewers on their levels (e.g., hordes of slaves dumping quick lime into the canals). Not an ideal situation, but certainly better than those bastards down in Harbortown. This is a simple matter of political economy, but knowing this fact provides the city itself with a logic. It establishes it's flavor, its aesthetic. Here's a few ideas that spring from knowing this.

  • There are striking class differences in this city.
  • The very lay of the land underlines and accentuates these differences.
  • Those with more can use their money and influence to abate some of the worst things about the places where they live.
  • People obsess about those differences, so they (particularly the most prosperous) pay close attention to social comparisons with their nearest peers. This causes resentment and jealousy among them, and provides one of the many ways they mark (in a social sense) their place in their society.

Sure, these are pretty easy things to know about any city, in general, but by prepping in the way that I do, I know why and how they are that way, in particular, for this city. For me, as a GM, it makes my understanding of the city coherent in a way that not having that prep in place could not. As a result, I could, right now, this very instant, take a group of players and start playing a game. Based on who they are, and what their abilities are, I can present them with a range of options (adventure hooks), and away they go. Sure, I might have some idea about what is "supposed to happen," but it really doesn't matter if that thing happens. I know enough about this place and its people and institutions that I can "wing it." They players can introduce things into the picture through their actions and questions. If, for example, I need a merchant or a tavern, something like that, I can make one up or I can simply ask, "What's the tavern called? Who runs it? What kind of place is it?" Then, it becomes canon. I get to use it in other games.

So, it's not so much that I'm writing my novel, as Adam said (and I don't really think that was more than a playful jab at Donn, mind you), but that I'm working in my chosen profession. I was trained first as a sociologist, and then as a rhetorician. What unites my work in these fields is my interest in cultural production, change, and the like. So, on a micro level, I am interested in the lived experiences of specific human beings and how various aesthetics, social orders, relationships, etc., are made meaningful by and/or to them. Largely, this is about social orders and the semiological systems that accompany them. On a macro level, I am concerned with political economy, writ large, and how that political economy interacts with various sociocultural phenomena in particular social spaces. That is, I'm interested in how the Big Picture affects specific elements of the Little Picture.

I don't talk about that stuff at the table. More likely, if one of the players has a question about where they might find the notorious pirate queen, Red Varza, I would point them in the direction of The Groin, a district in Harbortown. It's called that because it lies between two large avenues (The Avenue of the Emperors and the Avenue of the Merchants), and these divide Harbortown. The Groin is a free-for-all kind of place serving both the Imperial presence in West Harbortown and the commercial-industrial presence in East Harbortown, and lies between the "legs" of the avenues (hence, the name). In addition, because of all of the trade entering Magyaru's harbor, from distant Ur-Hadad and places beyond, there is a strong maritime, transient population of merchant sailors, Imperial crews, smugglers, pirates, and so forth. This makes it a dynamic place, and (often) a violent and dangerous one. This means that there are those in the district who work very hard to establish and maintain criminal and commercial enterprises, to build, control, and destroy those enterprises, just to make a simple living, and so forth: a host of competing interests. However, those interests are knowable and have a logic to them, because I know the lay of the land, some things about its people and its visitors, and so forth. My growing map of Harbortown makes that possible for me to do, on the fly, because it's just Stuff That I Know about that place. That thinking is partly My Story, but more largely my understanding about such places, and how they ought to be, in a more flexible, logical sense.

I have similar thought processes with regard to factions in the city, and external relations with outlying districts and the natives peoples of this land. I write a lot of this stuff on index cards, color-coded by function (NPCs, places, factions, etc.), and (eventually) put them in Scrivener. The players, of course, in the guise of their characters, affect those people and factions, in ways small and large. I often incorporate, for example, new NPCs and places, and generally locate them where they seem "logically" to belong. Many of these new elements come out of game play. I write them down, they get put into the files, and they become "real" in some sense. These specifics don't, however, tend to change what is generally true of Magyaru, in the sense that shit doesn't change for most people, but can change very radically for very particular people, sometimes, with a little luck (good or bad). The world, as it is, continues to be very much how it is. Also, and this is where I think I must disagree with Adam, it's not because I already know The Story. This is not a novel. It is a real place where the game takes place. What happens at the table is important. It has consequences. It does not, however, change what the place is about or what kind of place it is. Maybe later, those consequences will become longterm facts of the place, but that's not resolved in the short term.

For example, I have  group of PCs hunting for Red Varza (notorious pirate queen) who is rumored to have pirated a missing treasure ship, which had been bound for Ur-Hadad before it went missing. Red Varza is an NPC who I came up with for a specific purpose: I needed pirates, so I named one. That one eventually because a woman, because why not. She became embroiled in this plot (with some local criminals AND a second group of PCs) to pirate the ship. The Imperial treasure ship was significant because some PCs had magicked a standing stone into gold, and the (22 tons of) gold was appropriated by the Imperials to be sent back to Ur-Hadad. These PCs wanted to get "their" gold back (Dammit!). Also, in the background, the native peoples are outraged by the desecration of their sacred henge, and have begun burning colonial villages; colonial troops have been sent to suppress them. Those last couple of True Things are because of specific actions of some PCs in my game world, and arose as a result of the logical (and unintended) consequences of their actions. But those outcomes are based on the way I prep the world. In my mind, it's a real place (Yes, I know it's not really real.), with real people. They have motivations, too, just as real as those of the PCs. The place where they live has a culture and a social order. Nobody gets to escape that, but they often try to. Occasionally some may rise or fall, but the Way of Things doesn't change.

The place I've described has been used for (at this point) six different groups of players, face to face, on G+ hangouts, at conventions, and even in the classroom. Every single thing that happened in those games, if it affected The World in some significant way, made it's way into my campaign. Each group's actions have the possibility of affecting the world, and other groups who play there. An example: The ongoing hunt for Red Varza is (put bluntly) one group of PCs hunting another group of PCs. It's entirely possible they might kill each other at some point. I can't write that shit, but I can prepare for it.

A final note: I think Adam preps just as diligently as I do. He may not recognize it as such. But when I hear him talk about Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, or Jack Kirby, or first edition Warhammer Fantasy, or that game I've never played, or that comic book I've never heard of, or any of the many, many wonderful things he discusses on a regular basis (and brings to his gaming tables), what I hear is him saying is, "This is how I prepare for my game." He doesn't go in naked. He's be preparing and training for this for decades. He remembers all this stuff, and he can pull it out as needed. He's a genius in this regard; I am trying to learn some of those chops. I don't have that experience. I've only been back in gaming since 2006, after being absent from it since about 1983. I do have other experience, though, and that experience drives my methods for game prep.

What's different between his method and mine has to do with inclination and training. I am inclined toward a systematic approach, because I need that to think things through. I also tend to forget the things that don't make sense in the system, or that don't get included in it, so I have to have a way to include them. I also am trained to think about societies and cultures as systems, and to have theories about how they function. I've read extensively in social and cultural theory, media studies, etc., and I include what I've learned in my game world. I've done a lot of writing, too, from technical writing to fiction and poetry. That's also a part of my "prep." What I don't do, though, is think of this as My Story, with the PCs simply along for the ride. I've tried that, and the games are terrible when I do so. I don't have fun, and the players don't have fun. Taking the next step, though, to establish My World, provides a much different experience, and one (I think) very similar to what Adam is going for.

Bottom line: In game prep, I think we're going to the same place. I just take a different path to get there.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Just a short post about a random thought I had after class, yesterday. Pardon the ramble. I'm trying to understand something, here.

As I peruse my Google+ feed, I am struck, quite often, by how differently the people in my circles pursue gaming than how I do. Part of what I find remarkable is that there are a lot of games that just don't grab my interests in the ways they seem to interest others. For some folks, it seems like the best part of gaming is having a deep and complex character, and a system that allows for exploration of that character's identity, relationships other PCs and NPCs, and the like. Some players like to have a lot of narrative control, and enjoy games that allow shared responsibility for how the game narrative unfolds. They really dig working with (not against) the referee, or having no referee at all. Some people enjoy things like LARPing. Some dig card-based deck-building games. Some are boardgame fanatics. The list goes on. Sometimes it's differences in mechanics and sometimes in setting. Sometimes it's about the rewards they get, and how they are received. In short, there are a lot of people who really have a great time with things that I don't really find particularly interesting. That is their Awesome.

There was a time when I might have thought of those differences as reasons to hate or mock those people, or to despise those games and the people who play them. I'm long past that point in my life. I'm glad that people enjoy their games, and I'm happy they've found friends and companions to join them on their journey in life. I watch them from a distance, with abstracted joy for their happiness, but no real connection to it. I revel (intellectually) in the fact of its existence, but care little for the substance, and remain disengaged from their lives and pursuits. I have my own things, and I like them, because they are my Awesome. The existence of these differences, though, causes me to question why I like what I do.

Even with people I game with and am close to, this is a thing. I care little, anymore, for much of the Warhammer ethos. It bores me. I could list a bunch of things I don't really care about, but the only real reason I have for not digging it is that it doesn't have the Awesome, anymore, that speaks to my inner being. Likewise, I am weary of weirdness for the sake of weirdness. I understand that it's easy to get bored for the same old tropes and stories, and to want to push the envelope into new territory. I get that. Nonetheless, it seems more reactionary than revolutionary when the result seems more a commentary on standard fantasy tropes than a departure from them. I'm sure others could look at what I like, and suggest why they don't like it. That's cool. That's right.

Me? I'm pretty boring, I think. My approach to gaming is probably pretty unremarkable, because I'm not bored with old mechanics (though I like to play with new variations on them). I don't mind the old GM-driven RPGs, and am not particularly interested in a lot of the things that newer styles of games pursue. FATE, for example, seems like too much work. I don't care for it, though I understand how others could like it, and I appreciate how it does what it does. I saw someone trashing on steampunk the other day, and I could see where he was coming from, but I hate the idea of doing that instead of, for example, simply driving on by without honking if you don't like it. Nobody cares what you hate, and particularly the people who like that thing. It just seems like picking a fight with some kid you don't know, just to be a dick. I'm not interested in being like that, not anymore.

Here's where I think I may depart from some people. I like the grand scope, the epic tale. I like to see what the same-old-same-old looks like if you take it seriously. Not grimly. Not weirdly. Seriously. I don't mind standard fantasy, but I'd like it to be more... real. More human. I want conflict. I want characters and peoples with motivations that are complex and contradictory. I want war. I want death. I want to kill things and take their stuff, but I also want hope, and life, and to build things worth having. I want every adventure to have an impact on the world, however small. I want my characters to be invested in things, not simply viewing them with ironic detachment, or treating them as disposable. My vision of the Awesome is beautiful and flawed, always in the process of becoming, always breaking and falling into ruin. Death in this world is permanent, and irrevocable, but the world itself goes on and on, and life persists. There is always hope for tomorrow to be better, even if it probably won't be.

How I'd like to get there, though, is not to have my character figured out from the start. I want to be surprised. I want events to define my character. This is true, also, of my world, as GM. I want the divine randomness of the dice to drive those events. At the same time, I'd like to have a world that, even if I don't know everything about it, has a human(ish) logic. The NPCs and factions have their reasons, and pursue their own interests, even if they seem irrational from the outside. Shit happens as a result of those NPCs and factions bumping up against each other (and the PCs). I like (as a GM) to see the ripples of cause and effect spreading out from what (if static) would be really elegant and simple statements of places, and statuses, and motivations (e.g., standard tropes and narratives). But they are not static. The cause and effect becomes chaos and new orders, and the PCs find themselves trying to impose their feeble wills on things they cannot control, though sometimes they are able, for a while, to find a place of peace and security, and to feel a sense of accomplishment. More than anything, I want to play in a game where what happens, matters. Here's the difference though: It matters because that's how things ended up, where they are now, temporarily, and just not how it all was conceived from the start.

Example: In a class I teach, we are using a fantasy/colonial simulation as the basis of an advanced public speaking course. The students are colonial leaders split into three factions, and have recently been approached by a tribe who wishes their alliance against a hated foe. They investigated the situation. Yesterday, as I stepped to the lectern, I needed a story. So I told them this, making it up as I went.

The tribe to the south lives in an area of foothills and mountains. Though they farm, they are mainly herders. Recent droughts have made them desperate, and their numbers are dwindling (but still formidable). They have a priest-king, and worship death. There is a lot of iconography featuring ravens. They put their dead on exposure platforms, because they believe that otherwise they would become skin-walkers. They believe that the purpose of life is a glorious death, and part of their worship is in killing and conquering. They wish to annihilate utterly their foes to the north. They also believe the colonists are prophesied to make that possible, and desire an alliance to make war on their enemies to the north. [Note: the colony lies between the southern and northern tribe]

The tribe to the north are farmers and fishers. They worship the sun. Their society is peaceful and fecund. They engage in human sacrifice. The sacrifices are chosen through an elaborate set of activities including games, merit calculations, quotas, and other things. The colonists find them all but indecipherable and utterly alien. They believe that their task is to preserve the natural cycle, and that the tribe to the south (which they associate with the sun's foe, the moon) is part of that cycle. They recognize that the rain is sent by the witchcraft of the moon-tribe to blot out the sun. However, the rain also allows for the sun to bring new life to the land, so it is both necessary and desirable that their enemies be allowed to persist. They will only fight a defensive war, and will not ally to take on the southern tribe.

Caught in the middle, the colonists have the choice either to pick a tribe, or to stay out of the conflict. Any choice they make will have consequences, and those will have further consequences. I have no idea what will happen, but I will be sure that  the consequences remain consistent with the beliefs and motivations of those involves. New facets of each tribe will emerge in the unfolding of the story, usually logically but sometimes in ways that create new tensions.

I have no idea what will happen next. The class factions will have a series of debates and then they will vote to pursue some course of action. I don't care who wins. I don't care who loses. The world will go on. The choices they make, the choices I make, and the choices ordained by their choices, and the dice, and they all will combine to tell us what happens.

Note: The outcome will also influence what happens in my Lacuna Locurae campaign setting, which is maybe 100 years in the future of the classroom-based scenario/simulation.

My love of this dynamic of randomness and order, and waiting to see what happens next, is why I don't think I could ever abandon the use of dice in gaming. It's also why I LOVE the DCC funnel conception (rather than the more recent "character-concept" or "character-build" conception) of character generation. I don't want special characters. I want special stories and special worlds to help me find characters worth knowing. This is part of the reason I'm so fascinated with +Adam Muszkiewicz's recent brushes with emergent character generation+Doug Kovacs also does this to some extent. It's also why I think I've grown away from setting that assume happy (or grim) endings as inevitable, and that good and evil (or law and chaos) are somehow mutually exclusive, or easy to differentiate. It's also why I don't feel fettered by resort to standard fantasy (or sci-fi, or horror, or... whatever) tropes and situations. They are only starting points, and they are Made to Be Broken.

Poison Idea--Made to Be Broken

What I like in my games is not what everyone else wants, and I'm cool with that (as if it matters what I think about somebody else's fun). I just want it to be Awesome. Individual results may vary. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Lacuna Locurae: The Taking of the Imperial Treasure Ship Hellbent

As I mentioned in my last post, my on-campus group has been playing in my Lacuna Locurae setting, and had recently become embroiled in a plot to pirate an Imperial treasure ship (the Hellbent).

At the time this session opened, the party had managed to infiltrate the crew, and was simply waiting to cast off. Their plans to take the ship were something like the following.

Wait until the ship had passed the Outer Islands, where Red Tarza and her band of cut-throats would be lying in wait.

Poison the crew

Kill everyone else who was still moving.

Wait for a prize crew to meet them.

Sail with the ship to where the gold and silver could be off-loaded


The main part of the plan involved the party's thief, who had infiltrated as a cook's mate, to slip a powerful poison into the grog provided to the crew each evening. After taking their dram of "medicine" the poison would put the crew into a coma state, making it simple to slit their throats and steal their groats, so to speak. In practice, the plan worked out pretty well. Much of the crew was taken out, along with almost all of the Imperial marine contingent. They were left to face 4 marines, 16 crew members, the captain of the ship, Brother Jelal (2nd level cleric of Luz) and his two acolytes, and Lugaro (3rd level wizard).

At this point, since several players have had to step away from the game and two more have since joined it, the party consisted of a 2nd level thief, a 2nd level cleric, a 1st level thief, as 1st level cleric, a 2nd level warrior, a 2nd level wizard, and 4 zero-level characters (played by our newest player).

Things started off very well, the thieves got very sneaky indeed and then got extremely stabby on top of that. Backstabbing successfully removed several of the regular crew, including the Cook. Then the battle royal broke out topside. 3 marines manned watch stations in the rigging, and 12 sailors were also on deck, the captain was in his cabin. Below, the four zeroes faced four of the sailors and the wizard. I won't do a play-by-play, but here are some highlights.

One of the thieves aced the Captain very quickly.

The imperial marine on deck also went down.

Things were going very well for them up until one of the acolytes Charmed the party's 2nd level cleric, who then cast Word of Command on the 2nd level warrior. Then, the opposing cleric, Brother Jelal cast Holy Sanctuary with a result of 18, making it extremely difficult to attack him.

Then, the party's rolling started going to Hell. The wizard and the 1st level cleric were killed. The wizard was revived but immediately taken out again.

Eventually, they took out the main enemy cleric, but his acolytes proved very tough, and the sniping of the marines also took its toll. Much Luck was burned. By time the enemies on the deck had been accounted for, only the warrior and the 2nd level cleric were still alive. The cleric called for the marines to surrender, but then rolled a 1 on the Personality check, and only enraged them. The wounded party members didn't want to climb up to the marines, so they decided to go below deck to hide, and make them come down to fight.

In the meantime, the four zeroes had attacked the four sailors working below. The fight started off well enough, but then zeroes started to fall. They also woke the grumpy wizard, who was attempting to sleep in his cabin. He bellowed for them to "Stop that infernal racket!" Instead, Rachel (the player who was running the zeroes) began to cry out for help, as if the sailors were assaulting the winsome lasses who were her characters. The wizard bought the ruse, and began killing the sailors to protect her characters' collective virtue. After the last sailor went down, the the three remaining (though wounded) zeroes rushed over to thank him for his assistance, and promptly assaulted him, without any support (3rd level wizard with 16 hp and a +2 ring of protection). Another zero died, but with a bit of Luck burned, and a bit of help from the 2nd level thief, who had gone below to avoid sniper fire from the marines, they finally dispatched the wizard. To be sure, they were aided by my horrible, horrible spell check rolls. Honestly, I don't know how they avoided a TPK.

At that point, we'd gone 45 minutes over our allotted time, so I called it until next week. The remaining characters are all wounded severely, and the remaining cleric's disapproval range is 1-5. They still need to Recover the Body for their fallen comrades, but with the amount of Luck everyone burned, they likely are Dead-Dead, barring a miracle. They also will need to face the remaining marines.

At this point, there still could be a TPK in the offing, but only three foes remain. Should the cleric manage to actually heal some of them, they should be okay. Now, where are those pirates?

Friday, February 27, 2015

I can't complain

So, Johnson, you're supposed to be maintaining this blog, right? What happened?

Short answer is: Work. Man, I've been busy lately. Trying to finish a book proposal (with a bit of writer's block to work through), regular teaching, some committee and admin work, that sort of thing. All in all, I'm doing some pretty cool things. I can't complain about that.

Here's the latest thing I got involved in. Can you spot me?

Someone thought I should be on this search committee. How could I say no?

It's been a while since my last play update from the Lacuna Locurae campaign, and I'll be taking care of that now, if only briefly. A lot has happened.

The students in my face-to-face group returned to the colony's main port (Magyaru) carrying 300 pounds of gold purloined from a transmuted standing stone. They left approximately 11 tons more of it behind. This fact was discovered shortly thereafter by an Imperial patrol. It had come to their attention because the local tribes whose sacred site had been defiled started getting pissed off and fighty. It's funny how a weird bit of mercurial magic can cause ripple effects, isn't it? I anticipate that a war may be brewing. Further, the gold being brought in from the hinterlands has had the effect of inflating the local economy somewhat, but the larger effects will be felt in the Empire itself, and will take a long while to manifest (as the Spanish discovered during their colonial period). This assumes that the gold actually reaches the Empire, which is not as certain as it could be. I'll explain in a moment.

In the meantime, the PCs have made contact with a faction of the local underworld. They think it's The Thieves' Guild, but my guy feeling tells me that the situation is far, far more complicated, and the power structure of the city more complex. They've made an alliance, and chosen a side. This may later have repercussions, once I determine what other powers might also be at play. They changed their gold for silver coin, and (of course) paid extravagantly for the service. Still, each PC was left with something like 5,500 sp. Several of them pooled resources to buy a piece of property. They propose to build an inn in the Low City, and call it the Red Lily. It's being constructed, and will be done in a few months. They will, however, need some more money.

Their underworld contact, Molo Kratz, mentioned offhandedly that the Empire's "black ship" would be arriving soon, to transport the many tons of fine gold back to Ur-Hadad. As I hoped they might, the players saw this as a great opportunity to sate their avarice, and began to hatch a plan.
It also became quite clear that they PCs would need help to pull this off. Molo Kratz provided some logistical help and advice (for a percentage of the take). He, of course, had been playing these fish, and knew he'd get his cut from the very start. The PCs are pretty green, and don't really understand how dangerous these people are. Later, one of the PCs, a thief, got a bit big for her britches and, while conversing with Molo, got from me one of the creepiest monologues I've ever delievered as a Judge. He let the PC know that the partnership was for HIS convenience, not theirs; that they were potentially partners, and not partners in fact, and still being tested; and that he could easily remove them from the board, should they disrespect him. Very menacing.

So, the plan is something like this. Wait for the Black Ship to arrive. Take out some of the sailors from the ship. Get on the rolls at the Seaman's Guild, and replace them. Being low-level jamokes, they couldn't do it without aid, and sought the help of Mr. Kratz and his associates. They also sought the help a wizard, one Amor Ba-Gish, a creepy little fucker whose "help" can only be bought for future obligations, not gold. They will owe him a favor, later. To ensure they don't take the ship, he has poisoned them with a toxin that will liquify their innards in exactly 10 days, if they don't return to him for the antidote. He provides them with arcane means to (a) slow time and (b) to make dense fog and (c) to Sleep a ship's crew.

Long story short, the Molo Kratz's guys demonstrated frightening efficiency in taking out the 12 sailors. The PCs managed to pass for competent replacements. Red Tarza, a notorious pirate, was asked to help out. She agreed, for a suitable cut. This negotiation was through Kratz. They also noticed that the Imperial legation included someone who appeared to maybe be a wizard. Hmm... perhaps this is going to be a bit more complicated than they thought... Also, the ship has a contingent of Imperial Marines. I really, really, hope that Sleep concoction the brought aboard is effective. It would be a shame if lots of their potential foes make saving throws, wouldn't it?

Next session: The Heist. If they pull it off, they'll be stupidly rich. They also will contribute to a ridiculously inflated local economy, become high-value criminals hunted by the Empire's thief catchers, be drawn into the machinations of Molo Kratz and Red Tarza, and owe a favor to a particularly nasty wizard. What could go wrong?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Rejoice! Zappadan has come!

Greetings to all of you fellow freaks, on this most glorious day of Zappadan. The world is safe once more to Freak Out! Happy birthday, Frank!

How do we celebrate? With my favorite album: Overnite Sensation!

Friday, December 12, 2014

I've Got Your Dervish, Right Here

Well, I went and did it. Here is the Dervish class for Dungeon Crawl Classics. I've take from a variety of sources, for inspiration, including the Ranger class from Crawl! #6, the Thune Dervish from the I-series of modules (thanks, +Jon Hershberger!), but mostly I was trying to figure out what kind of skillset an implacable hunter of men might have, particularly if that hunter was on a holy mission or quest.

 This would be an interesting class to play, but its applicability is somewhat narrow. It would not, for example, fit in well with your gang of murder-hobo tomb raiders. It would, in fact, have to kill them for defiling holy ground. That said, I think that having a whole crew of these guys hunting a powerful necromancer would be a hell of a fun romp.

Give it a look and let me know what you think.

The Dervish
A Player Character Class
Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

The Dervish is, at heart, a warrior; but it shares some aspects of the ranger and paladin classes, and even a bit with the monk class, for it is a, most importantly, a holy warrior. The dervish is on a quest for perfection of self, through addition of those traits that are praiseworthy, and purging of those that are corrupt. They believe that all gods are but aspects of a unified godhead, and that through study, diligent practice of bodily disciplines, and asceticism, they may attain unity with the godhead in life. It is of no small consequence that such an attainment leads to extremely long life (for a human), and perhaps, it is said by the greatest dervish master, Larkun Ba'Davi, immortality. However, dervishes are best known to outsiders as implacable holy assassins, men and women who track and bring to justice any who transgress against the godhead, in any of its worldly aspects. Those who defile a holy site, destroy a holy artifact, or loot a tomb on hallowed ground (no matter what weird cult might consider it "holy") should be careful to remain anonymous, lest a dervish band undertake a geas to bring the miscreants to account for their blasphemies.

Hit Die: A dervish gains 1d10 hit points at each level

Alignment: Dervishes are of Neutral alignment in their dealings with those outside their orders, but that's only in matters of religion. They have a very strict code of ethics regarding the sanctity of religion, worship practices, and things and places considered holy, by whatever religion they are considered to be so. Should anyone desecrate, destroy, or otherwise defile something holy (including any burial places), a dervish from the order will swear an oath to bring that person to account. In that sense they are Lawful.

Weapon Training: Dervishes may use any melee weapon, but specialize in the weapon of their particular order. Swords are most common, but some orders use axes, spears, polearms, or even whips or nets. They may use a Deed Die when using this designated weapon, but not when using any other. However, they shun missile weapons, as ranged weapons separate the dervish from the visceral experience of divine justice. Dervishes may wear any armor.

Holy Rite: Each dervish order (there are many) has a particular Holy Rite sacred to its physical disciplines. Some engage in self-flagellataion, some in martial practice with holy weapons, some dance their sacred dances, and some seek the Divine through musical performance. Any player who decides on the dervish class must designate such a physical discipline has his or her Holy Rite.

Lay on Hands: A dervish may Lay on Hands as a cleric, once per day, per level. If the attempt fails, the dervish may not use this power again until he or she conducts a Holy Rite for an hour. Successful attempts will always be applied as if the target is the same alignment as the dervish. However, a dervish also may do so for him- or herself at will, but must take an hour's time to perform his or her Holy Rite (see above). Doing so allows the dervish to heal 1d6 damage per level, or restore 1 point of ability damage per level.

Thieving Skills: The dervish may choose two Thieving Skills from the following list: Sneak Silently, Hide in Shadows, Climb Sheer Surfaces, Pick Lock, Find Trap, Read Languages, Handle Poison, and Cast Spell from Scroll. When attempting these skills, the dervish character applies his or her Deed Die to the roll.

Tracking: A dervish is adept at tracking, and may add the Deed Die to any roll to track a target of divine retribution. Such tracking may involve a physical search for tracks and traces of passage (Intelligence mod applies), but it also might involve inquiries among those who might have seen or encountered what the dervish seeks (Personality mod applies). Tracking doesn't just apply to attempts to track down a defiler of something holy, but to any attempt to seek out a place or thing.

Survival: Dervishes are adept at determining location, finding shelter, starting a fire, and seeking out food and water, even the most desolate and inhospitable climes. They may add their Deed Die to any attempt to do so.

Asceticism: A dervish cares little for material possessions, and what possessions they retain are of a utilitarian nature, usually their holy weapon, some useful equipment, and simple foodstuffs. They do not retain wealth beyond what is required for sustenance, at a meager level, and give away any surplus wealth to those in need (e.g., the poor, an impoverished temple or shrine, a library or repository of knowledge, etc.). A dervish who covets wealth will have his or her Luck reduced by 1 per day until he or she is able to dispose of the treasure in question, and may not simply give it to another party member.

Languages: Dervishes are found in every land, and are renowned travelers. As such, they are able to learn 1d3 additional language per level, beyond those granted by their Intelligence.

Table D-1: Dervish

Deed Die
Crit Die/Table
Action Dice

Dervishes do not use titles, though each is a student to someone who is his or her master. He or she will call that person by the title "master."

Also, in furtherance of my own, personal holy mission, I give you another Zappadan miracle: This fantastic guitar work from that dervish of American music, Frank Zappa.

This is what my dervish character would look like.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I Need a Dervish Class

Riffing off of yesterday's post, here's a passage from a book I'm currently reading for my research on the Ottomans:
It was among the dervishes that the babas, scantily clad in animal pelts, with their shaven heads and fondness for loud music, were welcomed with the fewest reservations. (p. 23)
Sounds like punks and metalheads (those who all liked speed and thrash metal, at least) back in the day.

Makes me think I need to create a dervish class for DCC. The baba class might follow, but I think that the Savage class I wrote for last year's Secret Santicore (Vol. 1, I think) would fit that particular bill. Heck, it might do the job for both of these, but I think the dervish would be a bit more like a specialized paladin/sage type.


Faroqui, S. (2007). Subjects of the sultan: Culture and daily life in the Ottoman empire. London: I. B. Tauris.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Lacuna Locurae: What is this fantasy/colonial thing?

Lately, I've been reading a lot of historical sources to  inspire my thinking about the Lacuna Locurae setting, the island of Magyaru (on which one finds the Imperial port city of the same name). Now, loosely speaking, the Empire is an extension of the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign, but there's a slippage in both style and chronology. Though we're dealing with sort of an "eternal now" approach, with characters from that setting moving back and forth between the campaigns, the "real" time frame is a few hundred years in the future. In European historical terms, we've moved from the medieval times to Renaissance/early-modern times. This is more an issue of technology, context, and tone than it is anything approaching historical accuracy. I'm not aiming to recreate European history, here, but to select elements of various colonial histories that I find interesting and useful for running a game. For this purpose, I've selected several broad models:

  • England
  • Spain
  • France
  • Rome
  • Ottoman Turkey
Again, the goal is not to make them historically accurate, but to cash in on the things that made those colonial powers, and the issues they faced, interesting. Some examples:

The three-headed monster that colonized the Americas (England, France, and Spain) provided some interesting fodder for the setting.
  • Conquest is about seeking riches. In the main, the Spanish were after gold and precious metals, but then established plantations for sugar, indigo, and other things. The French engaged in the fur trade for the same purpose. The English, by and large, cultivated tobacco as their main commodity, but had other commodities (sugar, etc.) in the Carribean.
  • There is a religious, missionary component. The Spanish and French were especially fervent in this regard, but religion was a strong part of the justification for colonization and conquest by all of the European powers. The Temple of Luz the Purifier has played a large part in financing and establishing this colony. They aim to preserve their influence here. Religion at the ground level also is burdened with the common people's folk superstitions and prejudices. Witches and wizards beware.
  • Relations with the native peoples are always a factor, and very complicated. In the real history, diseases brought by European powers to the Americas wiped out about 90% of the native indigenous populations. The idea that these areas consisted of howling wilderness was not true, at least until disease took its toll. In some cases, particularly with the French in the north, the colonists needed the indigenous peoples just as much as those peoples wanted the guns and tools provided by the colonial powers. There was some degree of mutual cooperation. However, they also played different groups of indigenous people off against each other; this dynamic sometimes was employed by the native peoples as well. The Spanish model was very different. Their nobility sought to get rich, establish repute, and aggrandize itself through conquest (and the acquisition of precious metals). They were often brutal and ruthless. Later, their missionaries moderated (to a limited extent) these practices, but not often and not enough. By that time, diseases had taken their toll. The English were, in a word, arrogant. They expected the natives to roll over for them, and the fact that they didn't was proof that conquest was necessary.
  • The lower classes had opportunities in the New World they didn't have in Europe. An English indentured servant, for example, could hope to receive an acreage in the colonies, to become a landowner. Land ownership policies in England (esp. "enclosure") had been eating away at this prerogative for many years. This was also reflected in the military, especially the navy.
  • Piracy became an issue (as is the use of privateers). The on-again/off-again wars between these powers provided a surplus of able-bodied seamen, and they gained experience with taking and plundering ships. When the wars were over, many employed those very particular skillsets for other purposes (i.e., piracy). The colonial powers all spent time stealing from each other, just as they stole from the New World's native peoples.
  • There's a level of lawlessness due to the tenuous control of the center over the periphery (though this varies over time, and due to circumstances). The competence, honesty, and loyalty of colonial governors, viceroys, etc., was not always assured, and this made life in the colonies somewhat chaotic in terms of how government got conducted. Further, there often were differences between "official" policies, especially toward other governments' colonies and the native peoples, and what those on the scene actually did. Later, this would result in rebellion over local control, taxation, etc.
  • The interests of the Church, the nobility, the Crown, the merchant classes and the commoners often run at odds with each other. This creates a great deal of internal tension. While the colonial Governor is, ostensibly in charge, power must be shared in order for the colony to thrive. How that sharing occurs is a matter of constant dispute, with the potential for violent disagreement simmering below a polite and respectful surface.
These are just a few of the Western European elements that I find useful as context for Magayru. Rome also provides great fodder.

My model of the native peoples of Magyaru springs more from Pictish/Gaelic roots than from the indigenous American peoples. In part this is because I'm fascinated by the Roman experience in Britain, as well as the interactions between the Vikings and the Britons. I'm also interested in "flipping" the usual visual imagery of colonialism. The "savage" native peoples in this setting are pale-skinned ("They look like demons!"), and the Imperials are more like Mediterranean Romans and Ottoman Turks. In my mind, Ur-Hadad of the Metal Gods universe is more closely associated with Turkey and Eastern Europe than with Tolkien's more Western/Northern European aesthetic. Mostly, this is cosmetic, I'll admit. However, I think it proves more jarring to may players who associate colonialism with an American model rather than a Roman model. I think the combination of the two is interesting and useful in fantasy/colonial role-play. Also, the "colonists" are from warm and sunny climes, and Magyaru is a cold, dark, and gloomy land, mountainous and covered in great forests, crisscrossed by rivers, and filled with ancient standing stones, barrows, and ruins. It is a far grimmer place.

Finally, there is my weird idea of Turkey/Hungary. To be clear, it is in this area that a diverge from history the most. I like the idea of a powerful ruler, a cultured and educated, cosmopolitan empire. A certain level of decadence combined with a sense of cultural superiority. In this sense, my Empire owe as much to Robert Howard's Hyperboria as it does to whatever historical sources I might be reading. It also owes much to Adam Muszkiewicz and my interpretations of Ur-Hadad as an idea (perhaps more than a place). Also, in the background, there is the history of the World that Went Before, which includes all manner of fantasy races and tropes, sorcery, and so forth. So, it's not Turkey and it's not Eastern Europe, but it does filtch heavily from aesthetic and other elements that might be found there.

Add on top of these things, and the Howardian influence, the presence of Poe, Hawthorne, and Lovecraft, and you get a sense of where I'm trying to take this. I'm really enjoying playing in this sandbox, and seeing how the players interact with it and add to it. I think of this as an open world, and do my best to make sure the people who play in it are able to influence it.

Also, for our Zappadan offering, I offer this 1973 concert in Stockholm. Dig the grooviness of 1970s Sweden. Glorious!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Zappadan Mea Culpa

See, this is why religion is so difficult. You keep faith with FZ by making sure to listen to music with guitars; you listen to difficult music, music you can't quite dance to; you embrace the absurdities of life with a sense of amusement and wonder; and you try to maintain conceptual continuity through all the vicissitudes of life. You try really hard, but sometimes you fail to keep the faith. Forgive me Frank. What? You're too busy pissing in Jerry Falwell's face to worry about the little shit? Okay, then. Thanks, man, you're a mensch. So how about a little tune? How about a whole concert?

Mothers of Invention, live at the Fillmore East (November 13, 1970)

Happy Zappadan, people. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

I am not worthy

I suck

The first day of Zappadan was two day ago. Fuck.

You motherfuckers will pay tomorrow.