Monday, February 22, 2010

Mapping Javarta

In fits and starts the Javarta campaign lumbers into motion once more... This weekend I began the process of transforming thumbnail sketches and mental notes into a map of the campaign area.

I used an outstanding Photoshop tutorial created by Tear over at the Cartographer's Guild to guide my mapmaking. My goal was to capture the look and feel of southeast Asia, and create a setting consisting of numerous archipelagos and imposing interior highlands the PCs can romp around in (and get romped on in). The map isn't finished; vegetation, rivers and labels await.

This detail shows less than 10% of the map, and represents, in terms of real-world analog, a compressed combination of the lower Cambodia/Thailand peninsula, and the Indonesian islands. (Scale is 50 miles per hex.) Speaking of hexes, the hexgrid came from a website that designed the grid to my specs, and generated a pdf complete with alpha channel so I could dump it into Photoshop with no muss or fuss. I love the internets!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Media finds D&D angle to campus killer Amy Bishop story

It's been a while since we've had a really good "stone cold killer loves to get some D&D" story run in the media. Last big splash I recall were some early- to mid-90s stories on wayward Goths who embraced White Wolf products with gusto.

Next up in the queue is Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama instructor who allegedly gunned down three professors when denied tenure, and may committed murder before. According to the Boston Herald:
Accused campus killer Amy Bishop was a devotee of Dungeons & Dragons - just like Michael “Mucko” McDermott, the lone gunman behind the devastating workplace killings at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield in 2000.
Bishop, now a University of Alabama professor, and her husband James Anderson met and fell in love in a Dungeons & Dragons club while biology students at Northeastern University in the early 1980s, and were heavily into the fantasy role-playing board game, a source told the Herald.
The article, written by Laurel Sweet, goes on to state that "the popular fantasy role-playing game has a long history of controversy, with objections raised to its demonic and violent elements. Some experts have cited the D&D backgrounds of people who were later involved in violent crimes, while others say it just a game." Personally, I'd like to see thoughtful commentary in murder stories on a variety of other pastimes enjoyed by the suspects... you know, like football (any flavor), bowling, or pachinko.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Lifer rolls a one, fumbles D&D gaming forever

Sing Sing was fun, fun, fun, 'till the screws took his dungeon away. Favorite part? AP's definition of D&D:
"Dungeons & Dragons players create fictional characters and carry out their adventures, often working together as a group, with the help of complicated rules."
Damn those complicated rules!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 6: Dedicated Weapons

It's been a spell! But there's a slight chill arriving on the evening breeze, and the time has come to discuss curses once more. To review past entries in this series, click here.

This time we tackle the subject of Dedicated Weapons, (often intelligent) magic items created to fulfill a specific mission or to combat a specific foe. This is a broad subject, so we'll discuss loyal retainers and crusaders this time, and traps and haunted possessions next time.

Part 1
It's a dark time for Evenwald. The stony mountains surrounding the valley kingdom have shrieked with the fury of the trolls all winter, and everyone knows that as soon as the snows melt they will fall upon the humans as they did a hundred years ago. Only Berglancer, the ancient sword of the Evenwald kings, offers any hope for the isolated folk, for no troll can behold the baleful glare of its blade and live.

So Berglancer, the legendary blade of the Evenwalds, totally rocks, right? If you’re a lord or paladin of the king’s line, no troll can defeat you while you’re wielding it. But what if you’re a troll who finds it by looting an Evenwald tomb? What happens if you decide to unsheathe it and take on some humans? Or, to shift to a PC-centric point of view, imagine an intelligent sword forged by the drow to detect and slay the hated humans of the sun-lit lands. How would she feel about being discovered and claimed by one of the despised humans?

To the point: What happens when you try to use an item that has an agenda, either sentient or by its nature, that conflicts with your own? Perhaps it is merely loyal to a previous owner or master and wishes to be rescued. Maybe it’s on a mission and attempts to force your aide against your will. Worse yet, maybe it was created to destroy you or someone, anyone of your race, alignment, or allegiance.

Loyal Retainers
And the giant sat down, and his wife brought up a whole sheep for his dinner. When he had eaten it all up, he said, "Now bring me my harp, and I will have a little music while you take your walk."
The giantess obeyed, and returned with a beautiful harp. The framework was all sparkling with diamonds and rubies, and the strings were all of gold.
"This is one of the nicest things I took from the knight," said the giant. "I am very fond of music, and my harp is a faithful servant." So he drew the harp towards him, and said, "Play!"
And the harp played a very soft, sad air. "Play something merrier!" said the giant. And the harp played a merry tune.
"Now play me a lullaby," roared the giant, and the harp played a sweet lullaby, to the sound of which its master fell asleep.
Then Jack stole softly into the giant's room and seized the harp and ran away with it; but as he jumped over the threshold the harp called out, "Master! Master!"

Loyal retainers are enchanted items that owe allegiance to someone the characters are at odds with. This is certainly the case with the golden harp from “Jack and the Beanstalk”. It works actively to prevent its theft.

Not all loyal retainers are as outwardly proactive. Sauron’s Ring, a more extreme loyal retainer, is seemingly passive and inert. However, it is, you might say, tricksy. It too desires to be reunited with its creator, but it does so subtly, by tempting, corrupting, and consuming its bearer—slowly if he lacks ambition, more speedily if he craves power. Its use is addictive, and the bearer finds it increasingly difficult to cast it aside or even stop using it—even knowing it will destroy his soul. One might debate to what extent the Ring possesses self-awareness, but that’s beside the point. It knows enough to slip off fingers when it’s ready to move on, when to inspire dark temptations, and when to slip on fingers when doing so brings it closer to discovery by Mordor’s allies. Now, that’s a dedicated item with a curse!

The sky’s the limit on wondrous loyal retainers. Let your imagination run wild. A household the characters are breaking into might contain a pair of self-lighting candlesticks that scream if removed from the dining room by strange hands, for example. Or a lamia’s prized magic mirror might reveal false information to those who steal it to enable its mistress to recover it (perhaps it chooses not to reveal that the characters are being pursued even when asked).

Crusaders and Avengers
“Strike him down. By the blessed Shutra, you must do it.”
“Shut up.”
“If you do not slay him, he will continue mocking nature with his unnatural life, long after your bones are dust. Even now, he defiles the earth with his footsteps and his accursed shadow. He and his kind must be cut from the earth’s womb for what they did to the servants of the most beneficent Kaudra, blessing be upon his get.”
“That was a thousand years ago; who cares?”
“Then let us speak of the present. You and I did most of the work in bringing down that medusa, and yet the wondrous dagger it guarded was claimed by one who did not even sully himself with close and honorable combat. Why divide what is rightfully yours with one who will live forever? Is immortality not reward enough?”
“You cannot trust the elf, my friend. He wants the fruits of your labor, and he is clever enough to get them with you none the wiser. Thank Shutra I am here to look after you and teach you the wisdom of the Holy Order…”

What’s not to like a +1 scimitar (+2 vs. elves)? I mean, even if you don’t whack elves with it, it’s still got a lot going for it. Its only real drawback is that, when it isn’t attempting to convert its wielder to the unpalatable religion of its maker, it’s explaining why the elf in the party and every other elf in the realm needs to die a painful and immediate death. If the sword has a low intelligence it can be played for laughs. If it has a high Egoism rating and can dominate its bearer… well, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

As we noted in the opening, intelligent magical items created to serve as weapons against certain races, civilizations, or classes are likely prone to hating that which they are created to destroy. One might encourage his wielder to continue his crusade, while another is content to serve her original masters by concealing her true allegiance and using her gifts to lead her wielder to his doom (or to her masters, if they still exist). Still another might convey some disadvantage to those who refuse to seek out its enemies (and we’ve covered lots of disadvantages in past installments).

Some items might be perfectly stable most of the time, only revealing a personality defect in certain situations. For example, a weapon made by some traditional enemy of the PCs (racial or species enemies like goblins or drow, not personal enemies) that falls into their hands may feign loyalty unless put into a situation where through treachery, it might return to its true masters.

Even unintelligent weapons might be a threat in certain situations. Imagine a +1 axe that puts its user in a berserk fighting trance when facing its hated treant foe.

If the item is intelligent, it might be a while before you realize that it's working against you. The prospects of betrayal by a resource you rely on in times of peril puts the dedicated weapon (or other sort of magic item) well into the danger zone of our continuum of cursed items.

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which we touch on trojan horse magic items and magical traps (nice puzzle box!).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Yet Another Pocket of Whimsy

Five more eclectic links to wile away the Sunday hours.

The Walled Cities: Keeping Out The Joneses: A collection of ancient walled cities that are still inhabited. A great leaping off point for additional research and photos if you'd like to develop your own.
Wilderlands: Imperial Town of Tell Qa: A ready-to-play imperial town designed and approved for use with Castles & Crusade. On sale for $1.98 for… not much longer!
The Nostromo Restoration Project: Remember that great, greeblie-festooned spaceship from Alien? Well, the model got left out in the rain for a decade or two, and now a dedicated team of model builders is restoring it inch-by-inch. Follow along on Youtube as they go, and watch interviews with the original builders. A diverting hour or so if you, like me, love the old school space opera starship designs.
The Dirdy Birdy: I'd guess this is about how quite a few courtships don't happen...
A Survey of Fake Asian Harry Potter Novels: These aren't just illegal translations of real novels; they're fanfic passed off as the real thing! (Plus a non-scary look at a Japanese HP dojinshi, or fan manga; and yes, there are plenty of scary ones out there.)

Things have slowed down a bit with the summer months here at Tales of the Ink Knight, but more anon!

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Gods of Javarta

I had some time this weekend to develop some thoughts on the gods of the East this weekend. I haven't fleshed out a pantheon yet; I'll probably thumbnail something soon and then see how it develops over time. The komikai are my name for Japan's yōkai . I may go with the real-world spelling in the end, but for now am shying away from using real-world words like kami.

The Gods of Javarta
The gods worshipped in Javarta are largely the same beings worshipped in the Eastern Empire under different names. There are of course some regional variations based on local tradition. These beings are not, strictly speaking, themselves gods, any more than the celestials of the West are. They are rather members of the Celestial Court, created beings of great power who serve and worship the Great Celestial Emperor. However, in the mind of the simple peasant, such theological distinctions are rarely observed, and Sorako, Lady of the Tempest, and Bentaro, the Lord of Luck, are prayed to and worshipped as much as the Celestial Emperor.

Few gods have their own temples. Rather, several gods central to local life are represented by great statues (size indicating relative importance), placed either in a great central hall or in dedicated rooms. Rumiko, the goddess of the arts and comedy, is highly regarded in temples placed near urban entertainment districts and houses of learning, while she is eclipsed by Lady Sorako in fishing communities—or anywhere else, for that matter.

Members of the Celestial Court are organized and ranked in a complex bureaucratic order which is reflected in the human civilization of the Eastern Empire. It is said that one banquet attended by the entire court took a thousands years to begin, as all present worked out the proper seating arrangements.

The Komikai
Minor spirits known as the komikai are everywhere—in the forests, in the lakes and springs, under bridges, on roads, in rice fields. The komikai are not worshipped, but feared and respected. It is supposed that a truly great komikai can ascend to the Celestial Court; many of the mountain and great river gods are just such beings.

The komikai vary in power. Some might appear to be relatively weak with respect to humans while others are nigh as powerful as members of the Celestial Court. Some, like the fury-driven Well Girl of Mount Oshima, are unique. Others, such as the funa-yurei (ship-ghouls), while thankfully rare, have common appearances, powers, and habits.

At tempting as it might be to characterize all komikai as monstrous beings bent on evil, they are more ambiguous than this. Many are dangerous, some merely mischievous, and a few benevolent; all are forces of nature best avoided when possible and placated when not.

Traveling into the wilds ignorant of the methods of placating these beings can be perilous—just try to cross a rope bridge without paying homage to its spirit—and knowledgeable guides are crucial to any expedition setting out into the wilds. Unfortunately, many of the wilder types can’t be appeased by ceremony or incense; the only recourse available to travelers facing a hostile komikai is to stand and fight or run for their lives.

The komikami do not, as a rule, often show themselves in settlements dominated by Westerners—at least not in their natural forms. It is likely that komikai with the power to shapeshift walk among the colonials. Indeed, one cannot mention the name of Lady Anne Harcroft in Javarta without hearing the curses of those deceived into accepting a three-tailed kitsune into high society. The wily fox-woman delighted in using seduction to sow discord in the colony—seven died in duels or at the hands of their spouses before she was unmasked and beheaded.

Humans and other mortals living in lands occupied by the komikai have learned to placate their spiritual neighbors by showing respect. The most physical manifestation of this custom are the thousands of totems and idols carved into living bamboo or tall poles driven into the ground—pretty much wherever mortals live or travel. These idols are, according to the nature of the komikai depicted, kindly, grotesque, terrifying or benign in mien and depiction.

Another sign of respect are the festivals and superstitions that have grown up around local komikai. These vary from place to place, as one moves from lands dominates from one cluster of komikai to those claimed by another.

Design Notes
The komikai offer an opportunity to feature monsters and present challenges to the characters without placing the local ecology under undue stresses of implausibility. Most of them aren't monsters like orcs or giant spiders, but spiritual beings manifested on the material plane. It's a distinction with a difference. It means, for example, that I can introduce a Japanese unicorn to the game without making room for an entire species of them. Rinse and repeat…

I've flagged a few inside jokes I tossed in for my amusement. I'd likely kill them for a professional publication, but I'll let them stay for now, since this this is a hobby effort. Heck, an adventure featuring a D&D version of Sadako would be pretty cool to run.