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.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

RPPR's New World Campaign Primer

Ross Payton and the folks over at Role Playing Public Radio launched a new 4e campaign not long ago featuring the exploration of a New World. It has a lot of features in common with my Javarta setting, including a variety of human and nonhuman tribes (including ogres), animistic lesser gods, and a network of ruins from a fallen civilization (most New World settings would, I imagine). In any case, I'm interested to see how they approach things. One major difference is that the characters are in on the first wave of colonization, while Javarta has been around a few centuries.

The RPPR crew has wrapped up their setting in a nifty and free pdf, which can be downloaded here. I may follow up with a more detailed review; for now it's a new discovery. You can also follow along in their adventures via podcast.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Free City Design Supplement Updated

I gave a shout-out to Ravells' A Guide to the Creation and Depiction of Fantasy Cities - Part I a few weeks ago. Good news, he's expanded and fancified it. Check it out here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dungeon Map Design

Enworld member Melan posted an interesting essay analyzing dungeon layouts in a variety of classic dungeons a while ago. He discusses adventure flow for each one and plots them out in simplified tree diagrams. A good read if you're a dungeon designer.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Javartan Mixed Nuts

I haven't posted much about my nascent colonial campaign recently because I've hit that stage where most of what I'm developing can't be seen by my players… yet (plus I've been pretty busy lately). Still, here's a grab-bag of entries to give you an idea of how things are going. 

The Timoran Merkingdom
An undersea nation of lithe, almond-eyed mermaids claim the Timoran Sea, a kelp-choked stretch of water between the Koatung Straits and Cape Lucknow, as their own.

The mermaids (there are only mermaids, no mermen) believe themselves to be superior to land dwellers. They trade with humans and ogres alike at certain designated islands at the edge of their waters, but are very aggressive at protecting their territory.

The ogres respect their desire for privacy, but humans (especially merchants and pirates) have a history of attempting to intrude in their domain. This, in spite of the tendency of the kelp to foul rudders and becalm vessels.

Such intrusions has slacked off in recent decades, since humans intruding in mermaid waters uninvited began to disappear without a trace, their ships found months later, empty and deserted, some distance away. The mermaids themselves offer no explanation for what befalls the crews, but firmly remind the inquirer of their isolationist policy.

The Kwaichow Wall
The great Kwaichow Wall, also known as the ‘Door of the West’ and ‘Barbarian’s Gate’, straddles the entirety of the Kwaichow Peninsula. On the east side of the wall lies the outer boundaries of the Eastern Empire. On the west side lie the lands of the lowly barbarian. By writ of the holy emperors, no outsider may cross into the Empire without express permission of the emperor or his duly appointed representatives.

According to legend, it was built by the Celestial Court, but no one really knows who build it or why. It has certainly been around as far back as known recorded history goes.

The wall, fashioned from seamless grey-blue stone of unknown type, is some 50 feet tall, and inclines from either side from a 20-foot base to a razor-thin edge on the top. It has two interesting features: it cannot be scaled by any known agent human or inhuman, and it has no opening of any kind.

It does, nevertheless, have a gate. An emperor long ago set his men to digging under the wall, and now each side features an elaborate gatehouse with a broad tunnel that runs some 15 feet beneath the wall. Only three centuries ago, when the Eastern Empire began to discover signs of a world beyond its traditional sphere of knowledge, it built ramps, towers, and walkways on the eastern side of the wall, enabling defenders to man its ramparts.

Being caught within 2,000 feet of the wall on the western side carries an instant death penalty unless the encroacher can produce proof that he bears the emperor’s permission to trespass on Imperial soil. For most Imperial merchants and travelers, this is a standard traveling document issued by the government before they pass through the gate on the east side. Humans and ogres are, by definition, outsiders, and will be executed on the spot if they do not bear a travel visa. Even having a visa merely stays a death sentence by a few hours in most cases, since most are forged—the government issues very few such documents for foreigners in any given year.

Sung Chen “The Bountiful Rain”
Sung Chen hails from the mainland of the Eastern Empire. He was once a captain in the service of a regional governor, but was outlawed when he helped a musician and her family escape the clutches of a corrupt official. He now wanders the islands stealing from wealthy merchants on the road, drinking himself into a stupor, singing to the moon, and brawling. When sober he is an astounding swordsmen, and even when inebriated can hold off most comers. Indeed, he remains at large chiefly because those charged with his arrest fear to draw near, and because his sword Jade Dragon strikes hands from wrists and arrows out of the air with equal alacrity.

Sung occasionally remembers himself when presented with injustice, and in such times intervenes to correct some perceived wrong. He is known by his nickname “The Bountiful Rain” due to his famed generosity to peasants and the downtrodden.

The Dead Cat Gang
Mister Edward Hobbs and his bully boys Robbie Doyle and the hulking Krieger brothers ruled the Narrows, a maze of stilted alleys flanking the Eastside Docks in Barclave. Caught in a crackdown on the waterfront criminal syndicates, the survivors of the Dead Cat Gang were packed on the convict ship Amanda Gale and promptly forgotten by their erstwhile associates and enemies alike.

The Sunken Temple of Sanputra Swamp
Long ago it was a thriving place of worship and knowledge, but the dark waters rose and the dead inside their burial cisterns began to stir. There are treasures here, to be sure, but it isn't wise to venture into its dank halls, not at all, unless one is either a second Sung Chen or under the protection of a minor kami. And few kami of a mind to offer protection to lowly mortals approve of stealing and looting…

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Hammer of the Prophets (A Bajoran Cruiser)

It's not all fantasy around here. In honor of the Star Trek relaunch, here's a ship I created for Last Unicorn's Star Trek Bajoran sourcebook. It never got published because LUG lost the license between the time I turned in the work and the print date. I may put all of the material I wrote for this sourcebook and the unpublished Klingon Sourcebook out on the web eventually, just as S. John Ross has.

Hammer of the Prophets
Class and Type: Refurbished Cardassian Kavlar-class Cruiser
Commissioning Date: Unknown
Hull Characteristics
Size: 7 (650 meters long, 30 decks)
Resistance: 3
Structural Points: 140
Operations Characteristics
Crew/Passengers: 490/1,960
[7 power/round]
Computers: 3
[3 power/round]
Transporters: 3 personnel, 4 cargo, 4 emergency
[5 power/round]
Tractor Beams: 1 ad, 1 fd, 1 fv
[2/rating used]
Propulsion and Power Characteristics
Warp System: 4.0/7.0/7.8 (6 hours)
[2/warp factor]
Impulse System: .5 c/.75 c
[5/7 power/round]
Power: 155
Sensor Systems
Long-Range Sensors: +1/14 lightyears
[6 power/round]
Lateral Sensors: +1/1 lightyear
[4 power/round]
Navigational Sensors: +2
[5 power/round]
Sensors Skill: 4
Weapons Systems
Spiral-Wave Disruptor:
Range: 10/30,000/100,000/300,000
Arc: All (720 degrees)
Accuracy: 4/5/7/10
Damage: 12
Power: [12]
Disruptor Wave Cannon:
Range: 10/30,000/100,000/300,000
Arc: Full aft (540 degrees)
Accuracy: 4/5/7/10
Damage: 16
Power: [16]
Type II Photon Torpedoes
Number: 300
Launchers: 1 ad, 1 fv
Spread: 8
Arc: Forward or aft, but are self-guided
Range: 15/300,000/1,000,000/3,500,000
Accuracy: 4/5/7/10
Damage: 20
Power: [5]
Weapons Skill: 5
Defensive Systems
Cardassian Deflector Field
Protection: 44/60
Power: [42]

Description and Notes
The Kavlar-class Cruiser was once a workhorse of the Cardassian fleet. It is still commonly encountered in the heart of the Cardassian Union, but is not usually seen on the front lines, having been supplanted by more powerful ships built in the aftermath of the Cardassian-Dominion alliance.

The Guran’tal was thought lost by the Cardassians during a skirmish with a Bajoran resistance group during the final days of the Occupation. In reality, its self-destruct system failed, and it was captured intact. Amazed by their incredible luck, the Bajorans killed all of the Cardassian survivors and smuggled the vessel to their base in an isolated and uninhabited star system.

There it remained for several years, as first the cell members and later Bajoran Militia engineers worked to forge it into a weapon to use against their oppressors. They rushed to get it into service before the end of the Cardassian/Dominion conflict, but were unsuccessful.

A few months after hostilities ended, the renamed and completely refurbished Hammer of the Prophets warped out of the secluded system on its shake-down cruise. It remains a secret weapon hidden from both the Cardassians and the Federation. The Hammer of the Prophets Campaign

The Hammer of the Prophets is an excellent platform for a Bajoran campaign set in the post-Deep Space 9 era. It is capable of taking on a wide variety of missions, and can hold its own against hostile forces.

Life aboard the Hammer is hard. Accommodations are spartan, and shore leave nearly non-existent. The crew itself is made up of Bajorans who dwell in the black shadows of secrecy at all times. “Hammers” are members of a small, tight-knit and silent fraternity—even service records do not record their duties aboard the ship that once served their enemies.

Here are a couple missions the Hammer might undertake:
  • A strange anomaly has been detected in space a couple of lightyears from Bajor. The Hammer is dispatched to investigate. The anomaly might be a simple astrological curiosity, a temporal rift in the time-space continuum, or the manifestation of an alien presence.
  • A long-dormant resistance cell has started to pirate trade ships to fund its war against the Cardassian Union, which labors to rebuild its shattered economy. Embarrassed, the Bajoran Navy orders the Hammer to take out the cell’s two starships; because the Hammer doesn’t officially exist, Bajor hopes to rid itself of the cell without enraging hardliners
  • A dramatic turning-point in a Hammer campaign would center around the first action in which the Hammer’s existence is revealed—the military and political fallout which follows might lead to all sorts of interesting adventures. An interesing possiblity is that the government promises to return the ship to the Cardassians: if the captain refuses to obey, what do the characters do?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Make Your Players Beg You For Cursed Items

As we work through the various types of cursed items in our Curses series of articles, our focus is on providing possible histories and contexts for such items that make their existence in your campaign possible. How’s this for a challenge: Make up a legend for a cursed item so compelling your players will be clamoring to own it. 

Can it be done? Let’s give it a whirl…
The Dragon’s Eye 
The wicked dirk, known as the Dragon’s Eye due to the orb atop its hilt, was once the most feared sight among the influential elements of Rhire and surrounding kingdoms. It was always discovered in the same place—buried in the heart of a diplomat, noble, or high priest. And always, it vanished almost immediately, no one knew how or where.
Naturally, precautions were taken to thwart the mysterious assassin who stalked the rich and famous. Both the high and the low were searched for weapons before being admitted into manse or carriage, and enchantments alike prevented anyone smuggling in magic items without an alert going forth to the master of the property.
But the death count mounted, and still the Dragon’s Eye taunted those charged with security from the corpses of it victims.
This item—it may not be a dagger—has appeared in every edition of DnD since the dawn of the game. Its powers are consistent with what is described above in several editions. Can you guess what it is?

Market it right, and you too can have your players demanding to own a simple -1 cursed sword (dagger).

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 5: Terrible Blessings

The cursed items we have discussed thus far are not entirely irredeemable. Quirky items present some drawback to using an otherwise useful item, while dark gifts seek to exert a hold on the users while imparting some advantage. Flawed items are messed up, but they weren’t meant to be.

Terrible blessings have no such excuses—they are meant to betray and destroy. To accept such a malefic boon means the end of your life as you have known it, whether you know it or not.

We enter at last the realm of the true cursed item, and it is well-trod ground indeed. It’s becoming a refrain, but it’s worth restating: cursed items always have a story behind them. And in this installment, many of those stories originate in Hollywood.

Do you remember what you were doing when you first witnessed a cursed item being created by a powerful mage? Playing D&D? Reading The Fellowship of the Ring? Naw, before that. Unless you grew up in Tibet, I know exactly what you were doing: watching Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:
“One taste of the poisoned apple, and the victim’s eyes will close forever in the Sleeping Death…”
These are the first words of the Sleeping Death spell as cast by the evil queen, and the deadly apple that resulted is a terrible blessing if there ever was one.

Snow White presents another fairy tale meme we might appropriate for terrible blessings—that the agent of doom is presented as a gift by someone thought to be a friend. In this case, the queen in her disguise as a harmless market woman presents the poisoned apple to Snow White as a wishing apple that will bring the consumer her heart’s desire (last year’s Enchanted used a similar trick with a magic well). Keep this meme in mind when concocting a suitable tragic origin story for a terribly blessed item you intend to unleash on the characters.

The story of "Snow White" is a widespread tale with many cultural variations, and the curses don't end with apples. “Myrsinathe”, the Greek version, features a poisoned ring that inflicts a living death. Then there’s “Giriococcola ”, the Italian version:
"But the sisters and the astrologer weren't about to give up! Here came the woman with an embroidered gown for sale, the most beautiful gown you ever saw. Giricoccola was so charmed with it that she had to try it on, and the minute she did, she became a statue."
Don’t neglect petrification as a curse effect. Because it doesn’t appear in the SRD rules set, your players may not be looking for it.

While we’re on the topic of fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty introduces an interesting variation: the curse that would be much worse but for the intervention of a friendly agent who provides partial relief. Recall that the evil fairy’s curse was that Sleeping Beauty would die when she pricked her finger on a spinning wheel. One of the friendly fairies modifies the sentence of death into one of, well, sleeping death. She also thoughtfully places everyone in the castle under the same curse and protects the castle with an impenetrable hedge it until the curse could be lifted.

We can apply a similar concept in our fantasy campaigns. Consider the possibilities of a cursed crown forged by an evil regent who does not relish relinquishing authority when the young crown prince comes of age. While the crown is supposed to slay the lad outright during the coronation, the court wizard has just enough time during the ceremony to evoke a limited wish that changes the nature of the curse. Perhaps, in keeping with the above examples, it causes the prince to fall into a deep sleep until the curse can be undone. Alternatively, it polymorphs him into a shape that enables him to escape the immediate danger, or one that negates his claim to the throne (a child, orc, pixie, whatever)—neatly preserving his life while removing the threat to the regent. In any case, the crown might still be around, its modified curse intact, for characters to dig up in their adventures and try on.

As suggested above, the terrible blessing often takes the form of a gift that conforms to the target’s interests. This isn't to be wondered at: one’s guard is down when being presented a charming present by a trusted figure. Witness the fate of the Sultan of Basra in the Thief of Bagdad, a foolish ruler with a passion for magic puppets. When the traitorous Jaffar offers him the Silver Maid, a marvelous mechanical girl, the sultan is transported with joy. He is soon thereafter transported to paradise when his new magical toy plunges a stiletto into his neck.
The venerable Necklace of Strangulation seems a likely candidate for a terrible gift. Was it a key element in an assassination attempt against a wary merchant lord? The present of a jealous queen to her husband’s lover? The heirloom of a legendary dynasty of spymasters, passed down from father to son as a precious tool of the trade?

The old bait and switch is another popular terrible blessing, as Donovan discovers when he drinks from the false Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He didn’t get eternal life as promised, that’s for sure.

Let’s cook up a bait and switch backstory for a common cursed item. Perhaps the ambitious younger brother of the king commissions his mage to fashion a duplicate of the king’s heirloom bracers, and the unsuspecting liege rides out to battle wearing what we might know as bracers of defenselessness or gauntlets of fumbling. A switch back to the proper items when the king’s fallen body returns to the castle and the regicide is chalked up to a bad moment in battle. Meanwhile, what becomes of the cursed items? Two hundred years later they might be discovered in a forgotten chest by the younger brother’s descendant, worn into the Dark Doom Wars, and wind up in a night hag’s hoard awaiting the arrival of our heroes.

Thus far, our examples have centered on rulers and various relatives, but terrible blessings don’t have to be political. There is a more base reason for creating terrible blessings: protection. While there are many ways to protect, say, a manse, temple, or royal tomb, this special form of protection beguiles the intruder or attacker before striking.

Imagine a fine painting of a ship tossed in a stormy sea hanging in a wealthy merchant’s study. Thieves breaking in to ransack the place are drawn by its artistry and gleaming gold frame. If they touch it, they are drawn into the painting and trapped there. (Yes, I steal from C.S. Lewis, and with pride.)

How about a collection of five enchanted daggers of incredible design that teleport themselves and their thieving bearers into the locked basement of a warehouse owned by the daggers’ rightful owner a few hours or days after they are stolen. That might make for an interesting turn if the daggers are discovered by the characters centuries later and a thousand miles away from the basement—which is buried under lava rock!

Or… ever seen the splatter flick Hostel? Say you have this ring of decadent nobles who get their kicks torturing arrogant adventurers, or making them fight one another. So, same daggers, same basement in the same warehouse, only the daggers are out there as bait, waiting for the right greedy fool to come along and grab ’em. That could be the start of an interesting adventure.

What about those scarabs of death ? Great tomb guardians. I think we’ve all seen The Mummy and know what a couple dozen of those buggers can do. And I can imagine a dragon placing one or two rings or helms of contrariness in choice spots on her hoard as her last revenge against foes who kill her and explore her piles of treasure. It's really hard to split an immensely valuable haul peaceably when folks are busy being violently contrary!

Well, we’ve barely scratched the surface, but this is getting rather long, so let’s wind it up here and brace for next week, when we meet crusading lances, macabre masks, and singing harps. That is to say, Dedicated Weapons. The problem with some of them is that they have wills of their own…
Gelia’s Tears
Gelia’s Tears is an extremely valuable necklace fashioned from high-grade silver and large diamonds. It was originally the heirloom of the ruling House Leomonde, by tradition passed down from the crown mother to the king’s new wife on the wedding day.

It was last received with joy by Princess Gelia, who came from a southern kingdom known for its cypress forests, ziggurats, and blood magic to cement an alliance with King Meda of Leomonde. Queen Gelia wore it happily for several years, until the dark whispers began—she had yet to produce an heir.

As more years passed, the whispers grew louder. The queen, who loved her husband, refused to take a lover, which might have resolved the issue. At last, when the talk turned to replacing Medas with a rival brother who had a ready heir, the king reluctantly ordered his wife sealed alive in her quarters until death took her.

It took her two weeks to die, and long did she cry and curse her faithless husband and whatever broodmare might have the misfortune to join with him. When the servants unsealed her apartments, they found her sprawled on the floor at the center of a great circle of mystical symbols written in blood. She was wearing only her necklace.

The king took a new wife, and when the necklace was placed on her neck on her wedding day she asked if anyone else could hear the faint strains of a lullaby. None could. She bled to death a few weeks later.

Necklace or no necklace, no Leomonde male or female ever produced an heir again. The family ceased to exist a few short decades later.

As for Gelia’s Tears, it claimed a few more victims before being cast aside in fear. Before it vanished from history, it reappeared one last time, when a certain skilled jeweler was pressed by his noble sponsor to remove the previous stones. It is said that upon removing the first stone, the jeweler heard his wife’s wail. Their two babies lay dead in their crib…
Gelia’s Tears. This cursed necklace has lost some of its potency since its creation, but is still destined to break the heart of any man or woman who wears it. When first worn, the faint strains of a lullaby from the victim's own childhood can be heard as the curse takes effect. The necklace can be removed and put on as desired and no further harm will come to the wearer. But the damage is done—the cursed individual is forever barren or impotent. Only a limited wish or remove curse spell can restore him or her to health.