Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Mr. Scott of World of Thool has pushed my king o' awesome button with his monkey character class. Dude, they are so going into the Javarta campaign. The monkey character has been an icon of Asian fantasy since  Journey to the West was written eons ago, and there are plenty of natural slots for such a race in my world.

And since I'm designing a monk class that can fight in the monkey style (also tied to Charisma like Scott's critter)... In fact, here's a description of the monkey fighting style (a work in progress):
The Monkey style is centered on the ability to move swiftly lightly, and unpredictably. An apparent lack of technique annoys the followers of other schools, but annoying opponents is a key component of the Monkey school. As is the ability to use a variety of found objects—sewing needles, ink brushes, musical instruments, and playing cards—as weapons with unfailing accuracy.
It will be a lot more fun to pull off with actual monkeys, eh? Plus, "monkeys" is fun to say. Almost as fun as "pants". Almost.

A Pocketful of Whimsy

Another little collection of websites I enjoy visiting, many of which have RPG utility:
  • Shorpy. A huge collection of high-res photos from the 20th century, many from the earlier decades. Because the images are so high-res, you can really zoom in and get a real sense of the world the photographer was capturing. An excellent resource for Call of Cthulhu players and Keepers.
  • This is the Hand Drawn Map Association. The title says it all, really. Takes me back to the many maps I created in my younger years, with pencil, Ultraflair, watercolors and colored pencils. It was a big day when blue highlighters were introduced: At last, a coloration technique for water that didn't obscure labels or wrinkle the paper!
  • The Map Realm. This guy goes one up on everyone else: he creates an imaginary island nation, and proceeds to design elaborate contemporary road maps for every inch.
  • Lines and Colors. Lovers of art, both beautiful and fantastical, go here. Try Eyvind Earle on for size (one of his paintings graces this post).
  • Grandma's Graphics. Unique clipart from vintage storybooks. Some good ideas in here.
  • Set Decorators Society of America . Ever wonder who populates all of those sets in movies? No? Well, want to see what 24's Cloe keeps in her drawers?  The society has a full color magazine filled with articles on the subject, available as free pdf downloads. I know, you're still stuck on Cloe's drawers, aren't you?
  • Disturbing Auctions . One of the hidden gems of teh internets. Revel in the strangeness of your fellow human beings! See the pregnant keychains, killer clowns, and hairy purses people attempted to sell on eBay! Disturbing Auctions has not been updated for some time, sadly.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Many Uses of Moon Rock

I mentioned that the campaign setting I'm developing, which I've decided to call the Javarta Campaign after its principal colony port, is drawn from two sources. The New World is drawn from notes I assembled in writing a Masterbook chapter. The Old World is drawn from a setting created for a different project.

We've already touched on the back history of the shadow mages and a great battle of antiquity. Now a bit more on the planet's moon and the changes they have wrought on the world.
Scholars may have their own word for the world you live on, but to you and everyone you know, it's called “the world” or “Earth.” Besides the usual run of continents, seas and ice caps, it has two interesting features: the moon that occasionally visits, and the moon that is no longer a moon.

The former, known in the West as Lumos or the War Moon, spends most of its career ranging through the sky as a pea-sized dot that glows amber like a dim ember. Every 200 years or so, in the space of two years it grows larger and larger until it fills the sky, and then presently passes back into the great void. Its next visit is due in seven years. It is called the War Moon because its arrival is attended by earthquakes, great tidal maelstroms and other calamities.

Such as the children of the second moon, Gola. Sages who have studied ancient tablets say that Gola was once Earth's greater moon. Long ago, when men yet hunted the gilaphants and were hunted in turn by dragons in the untamed savannah, long before written record, Gola was shattered into billions of pieces. According to legend, it was a titanic battle between God's Celestials and the evil jinn summoned by the Sûrian shadowmages that led to Gola's ruin. Others theorize that it was collision with a rogue celestial body that destroyed the moon. Every religion has an account of the moon's sundering, and most conflict.

Gola's remains encircle the globe in a great ring. Alternatively known as Golan's Tears or Golan's Stair, it arcs from horizon to horizon as a silvery thread, glowing brightly at night and dimly in the day. When Golan shattered, the sky went dark and for hundreds of years debris rained down on the Earth. The long years of Golan stone showers wrought great destruction, but also planted the seeds of new growth—within the craters created by fallen moon explorers found deposits of red ore.

When refined, this ore becomes a strong reddish metal, the only metal on Earth that can be enchanted. That made it valuable as the base material for fine armor and weaponry.
I know I'm going to go with at least that much in my campaign. That Golan metal is the only metal on Earth that can be enchanted places an interesting constraint on the creation of many magic weapons. That the ring does not pass over the Eastern Empire means that Golan metal is much rarer there, and its people have probably developed substitutes (he said obliquely, mindful of his players in his audience).

That said, Golan ore does have other uses. I'm just not entirely sure I'm going to add this particular element to the Javarta campaign:
When left in its natural state and exposed to a low-power electrical current—and for some time after—Golan ore floats, and is capable of lifting many times its weight. It is lift rock, as the red ore is now known, that gives airships their power of flight—as long as a ship’s steam generator continues to generate a current. When the current dies, the rock very slowly loses its lift.

Obviously, lift rock is a great strategic resource, and great cities and fortresses are erected around meteor craters to protect it. Roving air fleets may only be maintained by the most powerful nations capable of seizing or protecting its precious cache of lift rock. Most of the land-based deposits have been exhausted, though new sources sometimes come to light.

New discoveries lead to rock rushes; if the territory is in dispute or in a vulnerable region, a war between kingdoms over the mining rights is likely. Indeed, the 30 Years War began with the discovery of a Golan meteor in an area of the Nordjelds claimed by both Gaelia and Brussia.

Some closed societies are rumored to obtain lift rock from mines worked in secret to avoid the attentions of the greater powers. The Sergassio Freeholders almost certainly have an unrecorded source of lift rock to power their dragonships. The Kirkwall Highlanders and the Sûrian caliphates also been rumored to have their own caches, but because they do not boast large airship fleets, it is difficult to assess their supply.
At this point, I'm not speculating too hard on what all this mooning about does to the tides! Maybe later.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

What Would King Arthur Do?

When D&D3e introduced challenge ratings, it was to help DMs balance encounters to provide PCs a robust encounter that would neither under- nor overwhelm them. It was a good design idea, but ultimately, many PCs found themselves wandering through a Goldilocks land where the average encounter was neither too easy nor too difficult, but juuust right.

Does that sound like the Fellowship in Moria facing the Balrog? One of the hallmarks of old school gaming—particularly in wilderness adventures, but also in the dungeon environment—is the knowledge that some foes are beyond you.

The DM has a responsibility to create a fun and challenging environment for the PCs. Usually this means presenting them with adversaries they can overcome if they bring all of their resources and wits to bear (though success may not always come through combat).

But if you're playing old school, don't rush into every encounter confident that the DM has stacked the deck to give you a fair chance. If there's a T-Rex in the next valley, are you really up to tangling with it after those five orcs nearly had their way with you? Probably not, but nothing's going to stop you if you have a mind to try. Perhaps you have a brilliant plan to overcome your weakness—if you do succeed in felling the beast, fortune and glory are rightfully yours. But don't rush in all wussy and 2nd level hoping that some mitigating factor—namely the magic of game balance—has rendered it weak enough for you to kick its butt in a straight-up fight. Remember that lawyer in Jurassic Park?

In the old school tradition, sometimes overcoming foes means circumventing them. Or, in the immortal words of King Arthur...

This post was inspired by a Trollsmyth post in which Trollsmyth says much the same thing, only better. It's well worth checking out.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Under the Shadowdark

The lads at Penny Arcade profile a dungeon old school style. (Potty mouth warning.)

Game Store Exotica

In 1982, game products weren't exactly easy to find in Harford County, Maryland. I had three basic outlets:

  • The toystore down by the mall, where a number of TSR modules were desultorily stuffed into a cardboard box next to the Empire Strikes Back action figures; there was also a fair selection of Avalon Hill games on the back row next to the bicycles.
  • The Walden Bookstore at the mall, which had a somewhat larger selection of modules in the sci-fi section shuffled randomly among the Starlog books and ElfQuest graphic novels.
  • The Little Professor Bookstore across the street at the lesser, open air mall, which had a few battered copies of 0eD&D booklets that never sold, and was the only store in town to carry Dragon magazine.
Bottom line, my gaming universe was pretty much limited to TSR's product and the occasional Wizard's War and Squad Leader box.

Except on that rare occasion when some family outing chanced to take us to the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore—and the What's Your Game store. In its heyday, this store was a curious blend of upscale traditional games—deluxe Chess, Othello, and Backgammon sets made of wood, brass, and marble—and grungy RPG supplements and the odd Cerebus comic.

This was my chance to embrace the exotic games I saw only in the ads of Dragon, and I gotta say I relished the prospect with the delight Ralphie Parker reserved for his official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle. There they were, arrayed in their wire frame comic book rack: the Thieves Guild supplements, the Encyclopedia Harnicas, the Call of Cthulhu and Traveller modules—and the rows and rows of garish Judges Guild books.

I always blew my allowance on these trips, carefully poring over my options to determine which two or three items I would favor with my limited purse. In one trip I took home the Thieves Guild Special #1 Prince of Thieves, the Book of Treasure Maps II, and the GenCon IX Dungeon. A swag pile like that earned bragging rights amongst my school mates for a few weeks at least, and then there was the pleasure of thumbing through their pages again and again, imagining the possibilities and fitting bits into the homebrew campaign ceaselessly percolating in my mind. (Such is the inner life of the proto-game designer).

In retrospect, some of these game products were great, and some, to put it kindly, were not. This all came to mind as I began assembling and reviewing game products that might support the upcoming campaign. I'll be reviewing some of them in the coming weeks, beginning with Corsairs of Tallibar by Judges Guild. A towering icon of gaming history or early 80s RPG pulp? Stay tuned for my verdict...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Gallant Fraternity

I mentioned Outlaws of the Marsh last week. It's a three volume collection of stories based on folk tales and historical accounts that detail the adventures of a large band of Chinese criminals, disgraced officials, and banished monks who gather into a mighty tribe of bandits operating out of a swamp fortress. Along with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and A Dream of Red Mansions, it's one of the top four works of Chinese literature—and by-the-by a great source for campaign and adventure ideas. Really jam-packed. 

One of the captivating aspects of the work is that its heroes and villains are of the adventuring class—mighty warriors, wandering clerics, wily merchants, crafty sages, and bold thieves all going about their business in the mountain passes, teaming cities, and broad, silty rivers of the Middle Kingdom. All in all, it features 787 detailed characters, more than any other novel in the world.

And no matter how honorable or infamous, all men (and some women) of action are members of the "gallant fraternity". Reputation, skill at arms, and panache seem to count more in the moral reckoning of the stories than considerations of morality, loyalty, or obeying the law. How else to explain how otherwise upright defenders of the weak can greet with every sign of pleasure a husband and wife pair of innkeepers who make dumplings from the flesh of their weaker guests? Rep trumps all.

I am applying this concept of the gallant fraternity to the campaign: all adventurers—the good, the bad, and the ugly—are viewed by the native populace in equal measures of awe, distrust, and respect. Sort of how one might imagine in the West a peasant greeting a warrior who is all at once a knight, gypsy, and known cattle thief. The more powerful characters will make a name for themselves, so I suspect I'll be introducing a Reputation mechanic to track reactions to NPCs and the PCs as they advance.

If you have Dragon #54, check out "The Righteous Robbers of Liang Shan P'o" on page 16 for write-ups and AD&D stats for some of the most prominent members of the band ("righteous robbers" is another translation of "gallant fraternity"). And if you're casting about for a new reading project, consider reading the novel for yourself. Pearl Buck published an early translation called All Men are Brothers in the 1920s, but the link above offers a more recent and complete version. DMs, there are enough adventure ideas in these pages to keep a campaign rolling for years, and your players won't have seen the movie beforehand.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kingdoms of the Old World

Though the action of the campaign is likely to center on the colonies for a long while, PCs need to come from somewhere. Thus I have cribbed from the story bible of a writing project I am working on to present players some homeland options. Nothing too detailed, but enough, perhaps, to provide some background hooks and context for the factions that may be at work in the New World.

Brussia is a sprawling empire that covers much of the mainland east of the Gaelian Islands. It consists of a number of smaller kingdoms and frontier protectorates which have been assimilated into the dominant Brussian empire over several centuries of aggressive military and economic expansion. The core of the empire is Brussia proper, a mountainous land of deep mountain lakes, forboding forests of fir and black oak, and fertile valleys well-suited for grain crops. The Bern River runs through central Brussia, linking its landlocked towns with the coastal cities.

Brussians are a no-nonsense and law-abiding folk who place great stock in reliability, submission to authority, and attention to detail. Ironically, they are also as a people quite proud and aggressive, and prone to turning on their rulers if not provided constant enemies beyond Brussia’s borders upon which to focus their ire. As a result, Brussia has a long history of attacking its neighbors.

The Periphery Kingdoms
Countering the might of Brussia are a number of smaller neighboring kingdoms. Many of these are little more than fortified city states, but a few span hundreds of miles or several islands. When unified, they pose a significant threat to Brussia’s exposed flanks, but separately only Gaelia, the most powerful of the Periphery Kingdoms, can hope to stand against the might of Brussia’s war rockets and countless soldiers.

Gaelia is a large mountainous island with a rocky coast and a daunting but breathtakingly beautiful interior. Rendered unusually mild due to its exposure to a warm ocean stream striking its western shores, Gaelia is a green lush land dominated by limestone karst towers and ravines, thick tangles of kudzu, various palm plants, and oak and cyprus trees festooned with spanish moss.

Many streams in the interior bubble through gorges and gullies, but few remain above for long, instead gathering in mossy pools before draining back underground. Only as they near the coast do they re-emerge for good, gathering into narrow and fast-moving rivers. Two prominent rivers in Gaelia—the Wheys and the Timberwil, wend their way through the karst towers, linking the lakes and swamps into a single network.

Because communities were quite isolated in the centuries before flight, all Gaelians have a streak of independence and self-reliance. Few of its kings have commanded anything like the raw power of a Brussian kaiser. Until quite recently in its history, in fact, Gaelia was a confederation of citystates and petty kingdoms. To this day, ancient noble families enjoy a certain independence from their liege in the day-to-day affairs of their baronies.

Most of Gaelia’s settlements are along the coasts. The mountainous interior, dominated by the Kirkwall mountain range, is claimed by the clans that once dominated the fertile southern plains. They were driven into less hospitable regions by waves of Braveau raiders and settlers superior in arms and number. Even now, generations later, they have little love for the lowlanders or laws of the king.

The lawless Kirkwall Marches have long been infamous for their highway robbers, sheep thieves, and bordertown raiders, Most of the infamous thieves and adventurers of dubious quality in Gaelian tales are of the Kirkwall clans.

Though they prefer their own culture to that of the dominant Gaelians, they are not backward men, and are quick to adopt new weapons of offense and defense.

The great number of underground streams, eating away at the limestone over the centuries, have impacted the terrain. There are many natural cave networks in the highlands. Several of these have collapsed in broad depressions and flooded, forming broad stretches of swampland.

Iona is a small island off the coast of Gaelia. Sheltered by the Bay of Barclave and outlying islands, it has long served as home to the Gaelian Senshi order. For centuries, the convent was supported by a small village, whose people fish and herd sheep over the island’s rocky interior flatlands.

During the 30 Years War the convent was sacked by Brussian invaders and fortified as a forward base. The convent was rebuilt after the war, but little remains of its wondrous gardens, inspiring stained glass windows or ancient library. The village has not been restored, and the Senshi sisters subside largely on their own efforts and occasional shipments from the mainland.The convent is in decline, but this is largely due to a lack of support from the Gaelian Crown and the collapse of the order’s homeland in Braveau. A recent delegation of Senshi brothers from Sergassio have taken residence at Iona to shore up its flagging economy.

Braveau is a mild land of gently rolling hills and river valleys. To the north and west, the land begins to swell into hillocks and swales that are the precursors of the Vetican Alps. It is known for its fine wines, clockworks, and flower trade.

Braveau was cursed with three generations of inept but well-guarded kings, the last of whom surrendered his army unblooded to Brussia early in the 30 Years War, though his people were eager to fight. He tragically fell down the stairs of the palace soon after, and though rumored to be on the mend, died a few days later in his sleep.

Braveau’s new figurehead ruler, King Alfones, is not popular among the people, and as Brussia tightens its grip, the nobles who remain in power fear open revolt. Two of the King’s forests have burned in recent years.

Vetica is a small land of towering mountains and deep valleys. Its hardy people produce very fine cheeses, leather goods, and wool. They are also excellent miners and breeders—Vetica's powerful and fearless steeds are in high demand among the nobility of neighboring kingdoms.

Because its mountain passes close early each year, Vetica has not yet been absorbed by Brussia. Its robust army may also have something to do with it as well. One of Vetica’s most famous exports are its mercenaries.

The Vetican Alps are the traditional home of the Selvic Gnomes, and they are a common sight in its fellowships and towns. The Senshi Order is headquartered in Vetica. Its retreats are hidden in mountain fasts far from Brussian eyes.

Sergassian League
The Sergassian League is a confederation of trading houses located on a series of island chains in the Sergassio Sea. Caperbaum, Benita, and other port towns were long haven for pirates, drawn to the area due to deep and protected harbors, the ruins of ancient Sûrian ziggurats to build upon, and proximity to shipping lanes.

Grown wealthy due to their successful raiding, the pirate clans gradually transitioned into the more lawful pursuit of trade. They have not yet shaken the black mark of their past deeds, however, and their trade lords are only begrudgingly accepted in polite society.

League towns are colorful settlements of white adobe, blue roofs, and citrus groves. Built on the foundations of ancient Sûr cities, some buildings extend down into underground vaults and galleries craved out of the coral and volcanic bedrock. Not all of the vaults described in surviving scrolls have been found, and it’s said that brass temples dedicated to the malefic jinn still lie beneath the humming markets, filled with cursed gold, the talking Golan metal heads the shadowmages used to communicate with their masters, and fell guardians. The Fellstaff clerical order keeps watch on these ruins and studies its history and artifacts.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Two Diverting Cartography Links

I love maps. It started with Tolkien and Lewis, and all ran downhill from there. I'll talk more about 'em later, but for the moment, check out Making Maps: DIY Cartography if you like mapmaking. Two posts I found especially interesting:
I actually went out and bought the journal the second post came from. Good stuff!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

To Sûr With Love

Some authors love writing their own ancient lore. Top of the class is Tolkien (and really, who can top him?), but authors as varied as H.P. Lovecraft, Frank Herbert, and George Lucas have also used the device to good effect. It can be an entertaining way of introducing exposition. It can also be self-indulgent!

On that note, a little purple campaign prose to kick off our discussion of the Old World:
Long ago, in an age lost to history, a great and proud people known to legend as the Sûr ruled a large island kingdom located in the Sea of Rune. In ambition and drive they had no equal, and working in secret, opened a way between the world of Men and the world of the Celestials, and certain servants of the Celestial Esshua broke the Veil and took physical form, and the Sorcerers who knelt trembling before them named them jinn.

The jinn taught men how to fashion and build mighty works. They showed them how to bring Golan ore to Earth from Gola, the Iron Moon, and how to use it to construct wondrous enchanted devices and flying ships which could sail far and wide over the lands and seas.

Meanwhile, corrupted by their pride and power and the temptations of earthly flesh, the jinn yielded to terrible appetites growing within them, surpassing in cruelty even their master Esshua, who knew not all that they did in secret. Thousands disappeared into the temple mazes beneath their towering brass ziggurats, never to be seen again.

The Holy One, not willing to forsake the Sûrs nor abandon them utterly to the devices of Esshua, sent them a prophet named Aelias. Travelling to Sûr, Aelias preached a return to the hand of God, and foretold a great doom for Sûr should its people continue in their sinful ways. A few listened and followed him, but the jinn and their servants laughed at his words and plotted to kill him. He was slain in the city square by shadow mage assassins. With his dying breath, he cursed the Sûr and said that a time was coming when none would be safe from the devilry of their own works.

After that, the arrogance of Esshua’s people knew no bounds. Alghûl, the lord of the jinn, resolved to destroy all other peoples utterly. He encouraged the people of Sûr to look abroad and regard with envy the resources—metals, coal, oil and timber—of neighboring tribes which lay unexploited and free for the taking. The jinn whispered that the other tribes had become lax and irresponsible custodians of the lands and resources the Holy One and His Celestials had given them.

The Sûr in their pride believed, and taking to the skies in their airships, fell upon their neighbors, taking what they would, and destroying the rest. Kingdoms and city states alike fell before the might of their armies and wizardry, and the peoples of the Celestials were scattered.

The Celestials, led by Maeus, implored Esshua to reign in his people, but he was beyond reason. He cast the envoys of Maeus from his domain, and sealed himself within it. God saw that Esshua was lost to His Light, and declared that ever after would Esshua remain in the exile he had chosen for himself, together with his Avatar followers.

But Esshua’s jinn still roamed the earth corrupting men, and now the restraint Esshua had placed upon them was removed, so that the jinn and the Sorcerors of Sûr worked ever more abominable evils. God gave leave to his faithful Celestials to restrain the jinn as they would, but would permit neither them nor their Avatars to cross over the Veil to confront the jinn directly. The Celestials therefore chose from their respective peoples seven champions, one for each nation of men, and through dreams and visions moved them to action. The leader of the seven was Refindi, the chosen of Maeus, and his fellows were Gathiel, Ortello, Icena, Furioso, Gael, and Fingus.

Thus began a titanic struggle between tribes of men and the Celestials that changed the face of the world and rocked the very heavens. The jinn themselves went to war, slaying all before them with terrible curses and leading the Sûr legions by foot when their airships would not avail them, while the shadow mages stepped out of the dark to slay without warning, and disappear as quickly as they came. Oft was Refindi and his warhorse Balemane seen at the head of his army, smiting man and jinn alike with his terrible sword, and of the beautiful Icena, the champion of the Swan Maiden, men say she wielded a mighty silver bow that sang like a harp as she fired, and every shaft sped home to its target…
Dah de dah de dah... Nothing terribly original there, but it's a useful framing tool. Aside from being great fun, writing bits of ancient lore like this helps me sort out ideas and provide hooks for campaign concepts.

Based on the above, there are at least five major artifacts I could write up right now, and tell you who used them, where they were lost, and some of the things you could do with them if you found them. I could tell you that because jinn hated the light their worshippers and slaves built temples and even cities for them underground. I could tell you that the Golan moon was shattered in a mighty cataclysm that dramatically altered the world in ways that directly impact the campaign. Need you ask if shadow mages and their dread servants yet lurk in the shadows? And of course, a basic theology is working its way out.

For me at least, it's a lot more fun to discover these aspects of my world as I crank out the purple prose than generate them out of whole cloth. Of course, I didn't invent all of the above in one go—the theological approach hinted at took some time to develop. But having internalized some ideas, I sat down and starting slinging sentences together, and discovered things I hadn't known ahead of time. Did you know that magic armor, swords and the like can only be fashioned from Golan ore? Me neither! It came to me as I wrote this essay.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The East Indies D&D Company

Welcome to Sakabutra, Gaelia’s colonial beachhead in the southern hemisphere. The castles, cathedrals and creature comforts of your homeland are half a world—and two months hard sailing—away. Here, the seaside forts of Sakabutra are surrounded by troubled seas, deep jungles, rival great powers and restless natives—some of which are even human.
That's the campaign opening. The catch is that the PCs haven't arrived of their own free will. They're convicts cast into this new colony to work off the cost of their passage and then make their way as best they can.

The New World
I am avoiding some creative heavy lifting by borrowing from two different worlds I developed a while ago, one for the New World and the other for the Old. I developed many of the elements that will go into the Colonies as a sample world-creating exercise in a chapter I wrote for the Masterbook Companion.

Remember that brainstorm list? I used it to rough in my sample world:
  • A fantasy world in a South Seas colonial setting. The stereotypical European fantasy nations may exist, but they are far away. Here, the seaside forts of the westerners are surrounded by troubled seas, deep jungles, wild port towns, and restless natives (few of them human). The main business of the day is keeping the trade routes from the tropical spice fields and diamond mines to the western nations clear of pirates and the privateer craft of enemy nations. Magic will definitely put the locals on a more equal footing on the colonizers than were their historical counterparts in southeast Asia.
  • Fighting sail stories: elements from the worlds of Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower, with a bit of Harry Flashman mixed in for good measure. I’ve always enjoyed the works of Patrick O’Brian, C.F. Forester, and George MacDonald Fraser, and have been wanting to do a fantasy take on their worlds for awhile. Instead of cannon and grapeshot, how about sorcerers schooled in the arts of naval warfare?
  • A civilized ogre king attempting to bring his backward barbaric nation into the “modern” world as projected by the Western colonizers. I picture a nonhuman version of King Mongkut (the 19th-century king of Siam immortalized in Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I), or the various Tokugawa and Meiji-era daimyo of Japan. This fellow is cultured, urbane, well-educated, and desperate to modernize his nation fast enough to keep westerners from invading and colonizing his kingdom. Our ogre king will be an important figure in the local balance of power.
  • I’m already seeing an Earth convention I want to turn on its head (in this case literally), just for a change of pace. Let’s turn the globe upside down, and put the pseudo-European powers in the far south rather than the far north. Let the backward colonies lie to the north for a change. If this little departure from the European model serves to remind the players not to make assumptions about the campaign environment, it serves my purposes.
  • Oh, what the heck. Let’s give the colonists a bit of an Aztec flavor just for fun. Let’s not be too conventional and boring, here!
  • Giant swans. Geez, talk about avoiding convention! On the face of it, giant swans sound silly. At least I hope they do; I’m counting on the players thinking so, anyway, until the massacre begins. I was reading a book on children’s book illustrators, and saw a fanciful painting by Kay Nielson featuring several fierce roc-sized swans swooping down to devour a party of panicked Persians. Despite their common image as peaceful tranquil animals gliding along on glassy lakes, swans can be fierce birds. Normal swans eat tiny fish, but what might huge swans eat? People, maybe? Pelicans might work better than swans in a sea setting.
  • Mermaids. I’ve always liked mermaids, and they certainly fit the genre. I’d like to do something a little different with them, though. I don’t know exactly what yet.
  • Pirates. Of course. They may have their own war mages. Even the local human and nonhuman outrigger navies might have powerful shaman aboard.
  • Elements from southeast Asian cultures and myth, and maybe a bit lifted from Persian culture. Things like giant turtles, bird gods, and so on. Then again, the colonists might have a bit of this themselves, depending on how closely I decide to stick with the Aztec idea.
  • Bamboo glades, bright green and misty. I picture a verdant and peaceful forest of bright green bamboo stalks, gently tonking and clacking against one another in the breeze. This is a little atmospheric element I’d like to work in somewhere (not all of your elements need to be major).
  • The presence of a pseudo-Chinese empire, which has a complex culture and Byzantine political structure, with endless ranks of skilled bureaucrats, diplomats, and governors. The assignment to the campaign area is seen by the government officials and merchants of this nation as an exile. Perhaps they are out of favor at Court.
That's my original list from 1996. Not everything on it will make it into my 2009 campaign. (I wouldn't post actual spoilers here, guys!) For example, the Aztec flavor is out, as are the swans, and I have a fairly good idea of what the mermaids are up to. I've also read Outlaws of the Marsh since then, which gives me some ideas...Next time, some tidbits on the New World, and a bit later after that, some thoughts on how these ideas are gelling.

Monday, March 16, 2009


I greatly enjoyed watching Coraline a few weeks ago, and will probably see it again this week in 3D—Pleasure Island at Disney has put it back in the 3D theater.

One thing I couldn't decide on first viewing was whether the plot better represents a far more subtle tweak at C.S. Lewis' Narnia series than Pullman ever managed, or a brilliant illustration of the true nature of sin.

Option A: Into the Closet
So there's this girl who moves into a strange big house in the country. Cut off from her normal routine and friends, on a rainy day she begins to explore her surroundings and discovers this mundane door, beyond which is a magical land filled with wonders. This realm is peopled by talking animals, strange beasts, and a generous but unsafe Ruler who offers the girl ultimate fulfillment, if only she will first surrender her will to the Ruler. 

Ah, but not all is as it seems, and the girl discovers that living under the authority of the Ruler is a soul-crushing experience, and even as she finds herself a prisoner, she sees all the gossamer castles and promises melting into dank and sticky webs suitable only for trapping the unwary. Only by relying on her own resources and a mystic bauble can  the girl win freedom for herself and the other the Ruler has ensnared.

This interpretation is not very flattering to Lewis (or his Muse), it must be agreed.

Option B: Into the Stable
"In where?" asked Edmund.
"Why, you bone-head, in here of course," said Diggle. "In this pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable."
"Are you blind?" said Tirian.
"Ain't we all blind in the dark?" said Diggle.
In this reading, the girl discovers that what began as an exciting exploration of an easy life of indulgences beyond the moral boundaries set by her parents makes a subtle transition into a dark and miserable prison where every wonder—from the magical garden to the moon itself—proves to be but a deflated counterfeit of the Real Thing. Worse, the accommodating servant is now a terrible Mistress who intends to suck her prey's soul dry. 

The terrible truth about sin is that while it promises freedom, pleasure and getting what you will—an existence bereft of God's companionship, it only delivers on the last. I think Lewis through his stable dwarfs illustrates this concept well enough.

I really don't know if Coraline bears the weight of either of these interpretations (I rather prefer the second), but it's fun to speculate. I look forward to trying it out again, this time in 3D.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Brainstorm List

Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter of North by Northwest, relates that the original outline as presented by Alfred Hitchcock consisted of a series of unrelated bullets. I can't find the book containing the list right now, but it had items like this in it:
  • Man is chastised for falling asleep in a UN session—but he's actually dead.
  • A showdown at Mount Rushmore.
  • A dramatic chase scene in the middle of an empty field.
And so on. It was basically Hitchcock's list of things he'd like to see in a movie. Lehman's task was to take these disparate bits and make a compelling story out of them. He worked a miracle, and the rest is history.

I love this right-brain approach to world building, and always start the creative process with a brainstorm list—things that interest me and that I'd like to capture in a campaign setting. The brainstorm list is a way of tapping into all of these great ideas burbling around in my head, and getting them down on paper where I can deal with them. These ideas—features, characters, scenes, genre elements, themes, and so on—will serve as the building blocks of my campaign. Once I have them down, I can sort through them and pick out the ideas that really work well together.

The key in creating a brainstorm list is to keep moving. Don’t analyze what you are writing, don’t stop and try to develop the ideas too much at this stage; just get it all down, one point after the other. Begin with the ideas you definitely want to include in your campaign, and then move on to less crucial but interesting ideas. Get wild, get crazy. Don’t hold back.

The items on the list need not link together in a coherent fashion to begin with—indeed, the unusual juxtapositions of unrelated ideas can spark a great idea you haven’t thought of. One of the most entertaining aspects of this method is establishing the links between the various ideas—just like Lehman did.

You may be surprised at some of the ideas that pop out. This method, like the word-association parlor game, tends to engage your subconscious, and can produce some very interesting ideas and concepts that you haven’t consciously been thinking about. It makes sense, really, since you are, just a little, stepping into a part of your brain which usually waits until you are asleep to manifest itself in the form of dreams. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when you really get into it, some fairly weird but very cool ideas can bubble up to the surface.

I'll write about my campaign brainstorm list in a bit, but here's a fun list to play with in the meantime:
  • Flash Gordon-type space opera action adventure.
  • Old West town near Mexican border. Very rough, and filled with bandits and hired guns.
  • Story arc including abduction of a princess by an evil samurai warrior as seen in the Japanese movie The Hidden Fortress.
  • Abbot and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. The tall straight man and his dumpy, comedy-relief pal. Can we use these archetypes for main supporting characters?
  • Souped-up hot rods. Cool custom-modified racing cars. Auto racing.
  • The Blue Max. World War I air combat over the trenches of France.
  • A Merlin/Gandalf figure who wields mysterious powers.
  • The works of Joseph Campbell.
This list, which is far from complete, is probably beginning to look a bit familiar. These are some of the elements George Lucas blended into Star Wars: A New Hope (though he did not necessarily use these specific sources as his inspiration, they work for our example). You can see that Lucas did not limit himself to science fiction elements in forging his story. He stepped outside the genre to borrow aspects and archetypes from other genres and non-fictional sources which interested him, from Japanese historical films and auto racing, to spaghetti westerns and the academic writings of Joseph Campbell. The brainstorm list is a great way to break out of genre conventions and find something new.

No School Like Ye Olde School

As a designer, I've always been more interested in creating places and situations than crunch. Let me sketch out a planet, a city, or a temple in a smoking volcano and I'm golden. I love lean, seat-of-the-pants game systems—skeletons I can hang my creations on and bring to life. You know, systems like Basic D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Feng Shui, Teenagers from Outer Space, and WEG's d6 system. I like to keep my homework to a minimum.

What I don't particularly care for are the fussy systems replete with min/maxing, stacking, two hour combats, and artifacts that require formulas to create. GURPs, d20, and 4eD&D, I'm lookin' at you. Now, there are plenty of folks who love crunch-tastic gaming, and I'm not knocking it. It just isn't for me.

Meeple in Minutes
When I'm selecting a game system to GM or write for, one rule of thumb I go by is determining how long it takes to generate a level boss. If I can throw a bad dude together in a five minute game break or assemble an entire rogues gallery for a 20,000 word adventure in an hour or so, it's a go. If it takes hours of prep time and a calculator…not so much.

I took on a number of d20 freelance gigs in its early days. They were all great projects with leads and co-writers I enjoyed working with. I even cranked out the crunch on demand. But what soured me on d20 was the time it took to create a cast of NPCs. I'm talking hours. I couldn't help but contrast that with my experience in creating rosters for Star Wars d6 projects, which took a fraction of the time.

That 70s System
So when I began poking about for a suitably svelte system for my nascent campaign, I found that something remarkable had happened in the past year: the return of the original D&D system. It seems that the number of gamers who desired to get back to old school gaming, with its emphasis on the player interacting with the game environment rather than the character doing so, had reached a critical mass. And rather than digging out their own game books, they had used the d20 Open Gaming license to reverse engineer the d20 system into something resembling the original D&D game system. MicroLite 74Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game (and OSRIC if you want to emulate AD&D) are all solid options for recreating old school gaming. Developing the system anew enabled designers to post their creations without worrying about stepping on WotC's legal toes. 

And boy, have they. You can opt for either a free pdf, or, by the miracle of on-demand publishing, buy soft- and hardcover rulebooks at cost. All of these systems are supported by small but active fanbases that are producing high-quality blog content, magazines, more magazines, game products, and most recently, communal megadungeons.

More on these intriguing developments in the future. Suffice it to say that my next campaign is going back to the 70s.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The First Ink Blot

Greetings, and welcome to Tales of the Ink Knight. In these pages I'll be covering classic fantasy RPGing, boardgames, campaign and game design, with the occasional foray into random realms ranging from prop collecting to military hardware.

Intros can be tedious, so it's best that I get mine out of the way while no one is reading. Like most children of the 70s, I got into gaming with Sorry, Monopoly, and the usual fare. Since my father was and is a dedicated boardgamer, I also got a taste of Acquire and Risk.

I got into RPGs in '79 with the Holmes D&D boxed set, and after playing a variety of RPGs and boardgames through college, began writing for GDW's Challenge magazine and WEG's Star Wars Adventure Journal. This last association lead to a three-year gig as an editor and game designer on WEG's Star Wars line—one that gave me a chance to work with some remarkably creative people and play in George's sandbox.

I moved to Wizard Entertainment to edit InQuest Gamer magazine with another gang of talented folks (who collectively owned the largest number of action figures anyone not in a Chinese plastics factory is likely to see in one place). That Doomtown card above features fellow editor Jeff Hannes to the left and yours truly on the right. We don't know which of us is Whiskey Nick, but the sentiment is certainly apropos given the current economical climate!

I headed back to Florida in the early aughts to embrace a second career in the defense industry.

I'll talk a bit about my current game interests and design goals in my next post. In the meantime, if you'd like to get a taste for my work, check out the Lerenil supplement I created (with able support from Sophia Tribad, Jeremy Baker, Juha Makkonen, and Ilkka Leskelä) for the Hârn setting. It's got no stats, so it's ready for whatever system you'd like to use. Here's a sample map from the seaman's hostel:

Thanks again for dropping by, and hope to see you again soon.