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trade goods by theft rating

September 25, 2012 7 comments

Somehow over the past 2 weeks I’ve missed a great series of posts by Telecanter about procedural/random trading games. Right at the beginning of that series he asked about lists of trade goods and what might make for a short memorable set of actually fun trade items (the first goal being to make trade an interesting part of the game, D&Trav style, and the second goal being to not have the players go “really? 3 weeks as pirates and all we have to show for it is millet?”). His list is a good length and evokes a fairly specific milieu, which is to say generic-DnD (or as I like to call it, 1630 Amsterdam).

But I thought: what makes trade goods fun? How would you rank and classify trade goods by their fun potential?

…how would you go about stealing them?

Small: requires a 2-man con, typically 5-30 minutes:
gold*; precious stones; ambergris, incense, exotic perfumes, nutmeg; foreign collectible ephemera; incriminating coins; letters; passports/permits for extraordinary behaviour; declarations of war, property, inheritance or price hikes; erotic statuary that embarrasses the local bishop-prince; homunculi or genie lamps; poisons, potions, medicines; keys; crystal balls, magic compasses, hypnotic pets; deep secrets of the universe; insignia of office.

Medium: 5-man con with a handcart or dray:
High-grade cognac, laudanum, rare concoctions; world-economy-changing seedlings; gunpowder; cinnamon; experimental small arms; enriched uranium; invasive species; quarantined pets; silver, amber, furnishings, mirrors, pearl-handled arquebuses, spice-boats, models of revolutionary fortifications/ships/catapults/oubliettes/hydraulics; experts, spies, witnesses; mermaids, circus freaks, incognito princelings; carpets, tapestries, silkworms, finely carved writing desks suspected of containing hidden drawers; clockwork automata, enigma machines; cultural signifiers of authority.

Large: you’ll need a crane:
Cannons; cacao trees; meteorites; rum, wine, champagne; coffee, tea; qat; experimental vehicles, engines, battlesuits; elephants, giraffes, prize bulls; cult statues; shrines containing the Truth of the World; silks; horses, pigs, alpacas, young dragons; devil-summoning pipe organs; durian; glue; masts, spars, anchors, vital ship parts, deck knees; roc eggs; fused-together crew members; Thark lances; disabled fliers, Montgolfier balloons, fighting kites, diving bells, MRI scanners; terracotta golems; sarcophagi.

XL. Just steal the goddamn ship:
Grain, pepper, coriander, sugar or anything else that’s just loaded loose in the hold; quicklime; coal, coke, anthracite, mercury, saltpetre, cinnabar; glazed temple bricks, carved marble capitals from the First Cathedral of Constantinople/Temple Mount/Parthenon, guardian statues; fishtanks, narwhals, hallucinatory groves for transplanting whole into imperial gardens; bitumen, lamp oil, kerosene, nitroglycerine, Greek Fire, Azoth, skrying pools; strategic relief maps; dimensional gates; ships.

Note: stases and totems containing gods and monsters may be found at all these scales.

* Gold may be “small” in historical settings but it’s probably at least “medium” in vanilla DnD and may be “large” in anime-inspired settings. Tartary, being tied to flailsnails, is much richer in gold than I’d like it to be. If anyone has any suggestions on what to do about that I’d love to hear them.

Dejah Thoris turns 100

February 1, 2012 4 comments

…well, she’s probably supposed to be at least 200, I think – reds live a long time and she was no teenager when John Carter first met her in 1865.

But it’s a hundred years since the first publication of Under the Moons of Mars (serialized from February to June, 1912 in All-Story). And what a hundred years it’s been.

I could wax poetic here but I won’t. I’m looking forward to the Barsoomian retro-clone that’s supposed to come out this year more than the movie, and in celebration I think I may run a game – maybe even a G+ game – later in the year that bridges Barsoom, Carcosa, Mongo, Jorune, Sulawesi and more than likely the Pliocene, along with whatever Flailsnailers bring. So here‘s the first of the campaign maps (click to enlarge a lot):

Barsoom Lowellian map, from ERBZine

…and here’s a monster/city, for your quatrefoil-print men to explore using their Yuggotech Gossamer Gliders (indispensable, fully disposable, completely non-refundable!):

…and here’s a reminder of the alien landscapes all around us:

Because with all this embarrassment of riches of flying islands and helium engines and sinking cities and dessicated Martian salt-pans, I might just spend half the campaign exploring the amphibious possibilities of tidal sand bars and estuaries (great for your Southeast Asian pirate nemeses, natch – or maybe for all those awesome new Slaad that Scrap Princess has just invented!).

Update: thanks to Matt Kish I can add William Timlin’s The Ship That Sailed To Mars to this list. There’s something distinctively wonderful about Edwardian scifi, that I would dearly love to capture, without it turning twee. I have no idea how.

Answering Jeff’s questions in a southeast Asian pirates game

October 2, 2011 2 comments

I’ve been futzing about with an idea for a southeast Asian pirates game for just years. In the simplest iteration, it is about 1610*, and you are either (1) bold English or Dutch adventurers trying to break the Portuguese spice monopoly, or (2) harrassed Moluccan natives trying to survive the incursions of English and Dutch adventurers. I could see either one working, with the question of motivation and sandbox play being harder for the natives.

So, given that I have fewer ideas for the natives right now, I think I should answer Jeff’s famous 20 questions for them and see where that takes me.

1. What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?
- I might not have a divide between clerics and magic users. Buddhism’s nice, but the Power is in nature spirits and ancestors. You go into a trance and can Do Stuff, but the exact effect of what you asked for may not be what you imagined. Also there are nature spirits everywhere and they can be quite interfering. And when people come up with new natures, those have spirits too, so the East India Companies probably have their own Spirits of Capitalism (or are developing them), ships have their own spirits, or try to co-opt pre-existing totems, wars and massacres have spirits. The Portuguese, of course, deployed their saints. You could worship any of these for questionable rewards.

2. Where can we go to buy standard equipment?
- you can get a lot of stuff from your village/tribe, for debt/favours, rather than money. If you have cash money take it to a big town like Malacca or Surabaya and be careful not to flash it around.

3. Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?
- no plate mail. If there are inhuman monsters, they don’t wear plate mail. But you could get stuff made out of iron by Portuguese renegadoes or Indian smiths or Formosan traditionalists. Find a big urban centre.

4. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?
- that’s a matter for wild rumours and speculation. Some say he lives on a lonely island, some say he’s the mafia boss on Hainan. Or Phaulkon the Farang who has hypnotized the king of Siam.

5. Who is the greatest warrior in the land?
- prince Nauri the Timawa. Either work for him or keep well away from him.

6. Who is the richest person in the land?
- some fat Chinese Hong in Malacca. But there are many kinds of riches and power.

7. Where can we go to get some magical healing?
- the medium woman who keeps a garden in the high palm groves/cliff cave/surrounded by her kin’s boats. But she’s not focused on binding up wounds, she’s much more focused on…
8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?
- yeah, the wise woman. Or, depending on the nature of your little problem, the transvestite priests.

9. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
- there’s the transvestite priests. A lot of magic is “wild talent,” though. Having a healthy list of enemies and controversies is par for the course for any self-respecting magician.

10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?
- wise woman? Priests? Alchemists are mostly Chinese, you may not want to trust them. It’s said that high up on Borneo there are hillmen who bind up the heavens. They should be able to do anything – and therefore probably don’t need anything from you. Otherwise there are always people in the ports willing to take your money and spin you a yarn.

11. Where can I hire mercenaries?
- your village. You can get the Bugis involved but they’re a mafia, and might turn into your biggest problem. Ditto the Mappilas of south India – pretty soon you’re fighting their wars rather than the other way around. Chinese mafia are worse. Depending on the problem you need help with, you might be able to call on far-flung kinfolk, or form a council of the tribes.

12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?
- yes, all the respectable courts on the mainland. That’s one reason you laugh at those clodhopping mainlander fools.

13. Which way to the nearest tavern?
- we have barrels of Arak right here. The beach is a good place for drunken revels. Or far inland where you can’t be seen. The Portuguese towns have Chinese towns on the sides, and between the two you can get a lot of wine, trouble and smuggling.

14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?
- the English, Dutch and Portuguese. The Chinese mafia. Individual pirate captains. Spirits that drive people to do terrible things. Whales. And most of all, the Timawa.

15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?
- always, everywhere. It’s seasonal. The hard thing is to interrupt the wars long enough to face novel threats.

16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?
- like cock fights? Men mostly don’t do that themselves, but the Chinese will bet on anything if you suggest it to them. Some tribes accept applications from men who prove themselves in battle, so you might not get a cash prize but you could get a boat, a wife, followers or allies.

17. Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?
- the Chinese have a ton, and some of them will even treat you as an equal. The red hairs (ferengi – Dutch and English) are always looking for spies (and man, everyone would despise you if they found out). Assassins are common, millennial cults can be quite respectable in some quarters… the main thing is to continue to show loyalty to your kin, tribe, prince and priests and ancestors. Right now, at least, nobody knows of a religious-type Evil Big Bad, and they’d probably take a tolerant stance toward it until it actually posed a physical threat. Like, for instance, everyone already suspects that the Sama are half Fishmen, and although they may not be willing to intermarry with them, they’ll happily trade with them for seaweed snacks.

18. What is there to eat around here?
- tripang, fish, shellfish, seaweed, bananas and other fruits, Arak, Chinese wine, tea, coffee, rice, stews.

19. Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?
- there are various magical artifacts of the ancestors (which are as likely to be spirit-coffins or shrines as they are to be krises or boats or talismans). Otherwise, most of the treasure is to be had by heist, rather than quest. The Chinese and Indian merchants, the Sultan of Aceh, hajj ships will all have lots of the shiny stuff, if you can take them on. There are rumours about the queen of the sea and her court, but how are you going to survive underwater? Do you even speak their language?

20. Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?
- Malacca. It’s called a Treasure Junk and it breathes fire and bristles with a hundred spear points.

…and for the European adventurers?

1. What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?
he’s a lay preacher, knows little about theology, but has lots of practice calling on God and/or the saints for mercy, better weather, navigational assistance or strength.

2. Where can we go to buy standard equipment?
The ship’s equipment chest. If that’s exhausted, Portuguese ports in India, the European quarter of Malacca, Macao. ‘course, they are your enemies, so it might take some footwork.

3. Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?
kill a Portuguese professional noble and teach your buddy how to maintain his new armor.

4. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?
Either the Great Moghul in Agra or the Great Khan of China. Try to avoid them.

5. Who is the greatest warrior in the land?
We are, of course.

6. Who is the richest person in the land?
See mightiest wizard. That might not be coincidental.

7. Where can we go to get some magical healing?
The locals around here have some devilry they work, but will they work it for you?

8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?
First try the lay preacher. Then maybe the books in the captain’s cabin. Last resort, those local shamans.

9. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
Sorry, no witches. The Priesthood, though, does say it trafficks in miracles. or that might just be a Prod rumour to stir up hatred against the Catholic.

10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?
The lay preacher? A Portuguese port town? Maybe one of the big Chinese towns – Macao, Amoy, Fukien. Occasionally head office will send a curious sage to catalogue the local wildlife and test out its properties on slaves and the sick. The factory at Ambon is a good bet.

11. Where can I hire mercenaries?
Any big town. Aceh, Colombo, Ayutthaya, Malacca, Edo, Amoy. Careful not to tread on the Company’s toes, though.

12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?
Ahahahaha. Well, sure: China. But then you’re mostly illegal in China.

13. Which way to the nearest tavern?
Brandy time is 8am, noon and 8pm. And if there’s something to celebrate. Also if someone’s sneaked some out of the stores. Apart from that, there’s always drinking in the Chinesetowns by the Factories.

14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?
Chinese pirates, the Portuguese, the Dutch/English, the Timawa, depending on who you ask.

15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?
You’re already fighting them, but it’s a sign of a good captain to discover a couple more that nobody knew about. Usually through looting.

16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?
You can challenge your shipmates, or people from other ships, or especially Portuguese grandees ashore, but it’s generally not arena-type fighting.

17. Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?
The Jesuits? Chinese mafias? The Timawa? You could go renegade and work for some non-Christians.

18. What is there to eat around here?
Pea soup with pork, salt cod, salted meats, cheese, brandy, French and Spanish wine, hard tack.

19. Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?
Legends abound, sure – fountains of youth, cures for syphilis, the treasures of the Mughals or Ming. But you’re here first and foremost to get the gold of the Moluccas – cloves, nutmeg, mace and pepper. Those will make you rich, if you can get back to Europe with them.

20. Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?
It’s called the Portuguese Trading Post Empire, and you’re sailing right through the middle of it. Capture a silver ship – or fleet – and you’ll be not only made for life, but a national hero such as people will sing about for centuries to come.

* not really, because I want Bugis pirates, so it’s kinda 1610 and kinda 1660 and kinda 1760 and all that. What I mean is, it’s right at the start of English and Dutch incursion to the East Indies, before they have towns established, in the early, piratical phase.

Pirates, privateers or psychopaths?

April 14, 2011 5 comments

So Eric Minton of The Mule Abides has been wondering what to do with players who slaughter their hirelings once the horses are loaded, and Cyclopeatron’s been worrying about how the sleep spell turns his players into sadists and murderers. In short, why do players act like psychopaths, and what should you do about it?

The comments show the obvious poles – do nothing, that’s the game on one side and punish them mechanically on the other, and a larger punishing camp who want the pain to be felt in the idiom of the game-world. Although so far the extent of that re hirelings seems to be have the free market sort it out (make reputation count, have hirelings sign on with other groups who sometimes bring a few back alive, reduce the quality/usefulness of the hirelings who stay with the group). The most popular solution seems to be to reduce the mechanical motivations for hireling slaughter (by decoupling xp from hireling wages) and to make sleep less useful.

I think the root of the problem lies elsewhere. St. Yossarian’s comment on Cyclopeatron avers:
your actions should always be defined in context, with the social mores of the world, region, and dungeon in which your gameplay is taking place

and then proposes a bunch of ways in which the world might act back against PC-perpetrated outrages against those mores:
Do the goblins refuse to surrender, knowing there’s a party of people around murdering defenseless goblins in their sleep?Do the goblins raise a huge party and slaughter the children of Pleasantshire in retribution for the slaughter inflicted on their hunting party?

That’s fine, if there’s a world out there with mores to act back, and if the players have some mental model of that world that expects consequences. But very often those worlds are woefully thin backdrops to the real action, which happens in a purpose-built, limited-consequences, racialized funhouse heterotopia, made specifically to support pyschopathic behaviors – what happens in the Tomb of Horrors stays in the Tomb of Horrors. In particular, very often PCs have no social role to play at all outside the dungeon. They are defined functionally, by the means they use to extract cash from monsters: fighting, stealing, fighting with magic or fighting/turning/healing. They may possibly belong to guilds. They may possibly get hit up for taxes and tolls. They may be given jobs to do by the local lord. But none of this gives them any more traction in the world than the Man With No Name or High Plains Drifter. They don’t expect to find romance or support dependents or receive gratitude from the populace even enjoy their famous carousing (which tends to wind up in fights. Ahem).

And that’s pretty much a definition of pyschopathy or sociopathy: the PCs don’t engage with the world or other people like they matter because they can’t see them mattering: it’s a problem of suspension of disbelief. The DM who is disturbed by torture or summary execution is probably working with Kantian ideas – bad acts are bad in themselves – modified by racial categories – killing goblins isn’t bad – which they take for granted because it’s their world. They know where they’ve drawn the lines between the people who matter and the ones who don’t. But the players are in a landscape that consists only of threats. Villages are cute scenery because they are low-threat areas, but they have little to do with the reward system of the game.

I propose a different, not very OS solution: get the players to define their social role and history. They aren’t fresh out of the character mills. They have mothers and maybe kids. And they aren’t PCs, nor even “adventurers:” nobody considered themselves an “adventurer” until the 19th century had made the East safe and pliable enough to support such a conceit. Are they bandits, pest control, defenders of the faith, knights errant or what? Mike Monaco reckons “pirates” is a good description for his players, and I think that’s probably true of most groups conceptually but it’s already a big step up socially from where most groups are today, because many pirates drew up constitutions to maintain peace and order among themselves, because they knew their categories between hunter and prey weren’t all that reliable and they planned, many of them, to retire some day and actually spend that loot.

Maybe more desirable than “pirate” (or bandit/gangsta/warlord) is “privateer.” History is not authoritative, but it does come up with good ideas, even for handling dungeoneering groups, hireling fees and murderous employers. A sailor on a Dutch privateer in 1600 could expect 2 months’ advance, one share of all loot (compared with the captain who could get 4-8 shares) and compensation in the event of being disabled or killed, paid to a named beneficiary. They also organized their own insurance cooperatives, to bail them out if they got ransomed by slavers. All this was handled by independent agents so everyone knew it was equitable. If you signed on you got a license to kill, pillage and spend, as long as you only did it to enemy forces. You weren’t generally required to keep prisoners alive but you could face legal consequences for abusing your own people, and those prisoners might be worth money or influence back in town. And you got benefits, both on the job and back home: privateering was a respectable business. It could even be heroically patriotic. It could lead to riches, good marriages and political power – a direct stake in the business and government of the city, region and state. And you could keep sailing and adventuring while you did it. Don’t fancy becoming a burgher with a little garden and a Calvinist governess for the kids? Malay and Bugis captains around the same period had similar career paths and social status while evoking more of a piratical or Beowulf vibe. Think it all sounds too modern? Warrior cultures the world over, from the Masai to Beowulf’s Geats to pre-Islamic Bedouin tied their fighting men to the communal hearth: you brought riches back from the unknown and you made them valuable by exchanging them back home for reputation. Through your mighty deeds you fed and protected the village, under your watch no poor child went hungry, and the men who went out with you did so to share in your success, not because you paid them a pittance like the semi-slaves of early modern merchant shipping, but because you were showing what heroism was.

Just imagine that.

I aim to pay my Joesky tax in the next post with a bunch of real-world solutions to the hireling hiring problem, and extra-disgusting ways in which people could get forced into dangerous, dirty jobs, all courtesy of the Dutch East India Company.

Wherever profit leads: proposals for 2 campaign frames

April 5, 2011 Leave a comment

James M asked: what sort of historical campaign would you like to run?

Ideally I’d like to do both of the following:

Non-fantasy historical: the first years of the East India Companies (1600-1620, with some liberties).
It’s got everything; seaborne adventures of discovery, evil employers, people turning native to warn the Japanese of the impending threat, island cults, Chinese pirates and mafia, and the original spices-that-must-flow. The PCs are officers on a ship negotiating, trading, and warring against the other companies. I can just see them enacting something like the Ambon (or Amboyna if you like) Massacre on their rivals but getting to seriously question (and maybe derail) the whole enterprise when confronted with the genocide in the Bandas. It’s like being pirates except you’re still members of society. In other words, an actual rationale for a D&D economy. This would be the history of proto-imperial rivalry as Giles Milton sees it: his popular histories turn up the heat to a rolling boil and are practically novelizations – highly recommended.

Semi-historical low-fantasy: I’d move the time frame up 50-80 years: the Companies are filling in the holes in their maps/networks.
This time the PCs are natives – I’d get the players to invent the details of their home island Korad style. They have a unique resource: they can contact and bargain with nature spirits for magical effects (and I’m thinking this would borrow from Pokemon but be reskinned like hoodoo*). The game opens with the first arrival of the Dutch or English, who want to use the spirits for their own imperial ends.

Anyone interested? Assuming you could spend a few months in France to play.

* did I really never post this? My version 2 of that Pokemon-trainer-hoodoo-man thing:
Servant of the Kami.

Kami (nature spirits) can be found in all environments – caves, forests, rivers, wells, glaciers, the sea, the sky, thunderstorms. They can also inhabit well-used objects like walking sticks or books or houses or temples.** The Servant of Kami can call and bond with Kami, keeping them in “pots” (talismans) like a hoodoo man. When released from their pots the Kami generate one spell-like effect – generally more or less predictably – related to their home environment. Offensive spells include lightning (from storms), winds, killer waves, darkness, rockslides. They can also ask the local environment for information. The Servant can keep the average of his CHA and level in Kami at any one time. To get the Kami back in their pot after each use he must save vs CHA + level – number of uses that arbitrary period (week? day? scene?). Kami also sometimes want the Servant to do stuff for them. Kami are jealous, prefer Servants who know their place, and dislike seeing objects being treated as mere slaves: Servants can never keep more possessions than they have Kami and should never accept aid from magicians or clerics if a Kami could help instead.

The only “spells” the Servant really knows are Bind and Speak With Kami. Everything else has to be gathered in play. Depending on how he treats them, the Servant may retain Kami as allies in their home locations after he releases them.

** This could lead to an interesting recursive tendency, where a shrine built to venerate a particular Kami gets its own Kami (of the temple), which would want venerating in its own right. Or which would show up when people ask the original Kami for stuff, and interpose a religious interpretation between the petitioner and the phenomenon supposedly being petitioned.

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