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Real maps are the best maps

June 21, 2011 5 comments

…well sometimes. And this is one of those times.

If you’re writing RPG stuff then obviously you need to know about Strange Maps. If you’re looking for a map for your fantasy world you could do a lot worse than just grabbing Kerguelen,* AKA “the Desolation Islands” (enough maps here for a whole Sea of Os’r, BTW).

Fichier:Kerguelen topographic blank map.svg

The real archipelago (with names, if you like) has a total land area of 2,786 square miles, but thanks to the fractal magic of coastlines you could make it stand in for any size you like. I particularly love the crazy folding thing going on in the north and centre, with all those fjords and mountains: a military disaster waiting to happen. Not sure what to populate it with? Strange Maps has some suggestions:

“The feral cats are rarely seen, except for those who live at the base and are almost domesticated. Most cats are really wild animals, more so than the rabbits (which are everywhere, and do much damage to the ground) or even the elephant seals laying on the streets. Kerguelen cabbage is a protected species and we are forbidden to eat it… although of course, every year people do try to prepare some. It is said to have a terrible taste!”
…and Kergolus… an animal of indeterminate species, although his furriness and quadripedality seem to suggest an affinity with… badgers, stoats and ferrets [and wolverines, natch. Ed]. But his peculiar shape was of course suggested by the outline of Grande Terre – so we could say that Kergolus is a native species, unlike all the cats, rabbits, sheep and reindeer introduced by man.

The real place is desolate but strangely beautiful, and would fit a Cthulhuvian game well. It inspired some nice early modern explorer/periplum art. The only way on or off the island is via the Marion Dufresne, a freighter out of Réunion, 3,490 km (2,169 mi) away. That’s ten days’ sailing, if the seas aren’t too rough. So it could be your perfect isolated research station horror setting (its scientist population varies from 70 in winter to 110 in summer), or Lost type island, where the PCs wreck during a yacht race gone awry. The evolution of ways to map and visualise the place lends it a nicely hallucinatory quality, like you can’t quite see what’s there.

For my needs I probably wouldn’t have it be uninhabited, though: scaling it up, I could put a whole Middle Earth or Tekumel or Korad in there, with cities and civilisations trickling down all sides of snowcapped Mount Meru and nomads raiding across the eastern plains. Maybe, in true Victorian explorer fantasy style, it’s secretly inhabited with a fauna that’s so Other we wind up calling them spirits, like Prospero’s island.

But those other little sneezes of volcanic rock off the mainland? Those are totally cartoon desert islands.

Update: This city occupies part of the ricebowl cup down in the southwest corner.

* not to be confused with this Kerguelen, which looks perfectly nice, too, but doesn’t quite have the same RPG pull, sorry.

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Real dungeons are the best dungeons

June 16, 2011 3 comments

Zenobia is a straight-up archaeology blog, but occasionally it seems to be working the RPG aisle.

no sooner had Alexander Severus — and his mother, Julia Mamaea — been murdered by mutinous soldiers far away in upper Germany… than a freedman named Aurelius Felicissimus began to build an elaborate and ambitious tomb for himself (235-240 CE) in Rome.  

evocative plan and elevation

The richly decorated tomb consists of three rooms, two of them underground, which were used for burials… the space was intended for use by a select group of religious ‘brothers’, seemingly some kind of alternative cult community.  Scholars have never been able to decide on the identity of this group.  Were they Gnostics, Pythagorian Gnostics, heretical Christians, or even a pagan syncretic burial club? 

This describing a real 3rd century Roman tomb that contains religious symbolism from all over – a pagan buffet that includes Jesus and Orpheus and who knows what else interacting in mysterious pictures on the wall that defy interpretation. And then there’s the obligatory horse-fish devouring a small human figure while a naked man looks on, lying relaxed in a bower, a lamp at his side.

So I see inspirational material for dungeon mapping, weird murals and scenes full of symbols you have to interpret, but can’t unless you figure out what cult they apply to. Campaign seed!

Real historical adventurers: Prince Rupert of the Rhine

June 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Alongside all the buzz over DCC beta there’s been a load of irritable hand-waving about that old, old chestnut, epic vs. picaresque heroes (or heroes vs. anti-heroes, if you like. Or consciously roleplaying villains. Nothing as interesting as gothic hero-villains, IMHO, which might or might not be impossible at the D&D table).

So by coincidence I just ran across Prince Rupert of the Rhine (while looking up brass for a comment on dragons at blood of Prokopius), and it seems like he’s pretty much a poster boy for the emergent-story, earned-heroism shtick that was flavour of the month last time this came around. Sure, he started out as a prince, albeit in Germany, where they weren’t thin on the ground in the early 17th century, but his early career is as picaresque as you could ask for, fighting the Spanish with the Dutch, then the HRE with the English, then the Roundheads with the Cavaliers, then the Spanish again but alongside the French, and then turning pirate.

…well, privateer. In the Caribbean, no less. And then he turned legit, made name level and got appointed to command the Royal Navy, dabbled in alchemy, helped set up the Invisible College and the Royal Society, invented weapons (including almost but not quite the Gatling gun), and acted as first Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

So was he a hero?

Of course not, he was an actual historical person: the term hero is for those reassuring fantasies we feed children who haven’t yet figured out or been given a license to make their own moral judgments about things.

But he was definitely interesting enough for my game. And if there were a player character in an RPG who followed the same career, they would not have had to act like an asshole to do what he did. They would, in fact, have had to guard their personal reputation – for reliability, for probity, for good judgment – extremely carefully, in order to wind up with the kinds of appointments and privileges he earned himself. He had friends and enemies, and he made a career out of surviving through some of the most difficult and tangled conflicts European history can offer. And as far as I can tell he didn’t need to see himself as the protagonist of a work of fiction, bound to stereotypes of action.

So what’s my point? I guess that, if you’re wondering whether you’re the hero, your game has already lost some verisimilitude – in some regard the challenges and choices you face aren’t enough without some grander, more metaphysical context, where you get to believe yourself pre-justified. Maybe it’s that, whether you consider yourself a hero or a villain or whatever, you’ve already turned away from imagining the actual consequences of your actions.

And that, for me at least, is not where the action is.

In lieu of a Joesky payment, Prince Rupert offers you this:
File:Templeofrosycross.png

I don’t quite know what it is, but I like it. I’m wondering what a little actual research time might turn up.

Oh, also? Lou Zocchi’s patent for a braking system for d100s. As Kramer said of Frank Costanza, “He’s so prolific!” I would guess having a load of gravel inside your die would make it roll funny, and therefore defeat one of Mr. Zocchi’s other great life purposes, but maybe he has that covered somehow.

To haters of D&D’s ridiculous big gold pieces

June 6, 2011 6 comments

So pretty much everyone who’s serious and historicist about D&D has weighed in by now about (a) why D&D should follow a silver standard, and (b) why the coins in D&D are absurdly big. And in general I agree – prices for stuff in D&D seem pretty crazy, given that you only get 10gp to the lb.*

But here‘s a horde of 11th century Chinese coins (mostly copper, some silver), and they’re.. about 22 to the lb. And there’s 4 tons of them, enough to justify that train of pack mules parked at the dungeon entrance. And these Ptolemaic commemorative coins are about 16 to the lb. So I started to wonder.

It turns out that in 1613 some 1,000-mohur gold coins were struck in India for Jahangir, at a weight just shy of 24lbs each, and a diameter a little over 8 inches. This being part of a tradition of giant gold coin minting, that also produced 2.25 and 4.5 lb (100 and 200 tola) coins from the Delhi mint, comparable with the 9.25 lb, 1,000 mithqal coins** found at the Abbasid court.

And then we get to the contemporary scene, and of course things just get silly. 230lbs? A camel could carry 4. I’m guessing both the Canadians and the Chinese are preparing for some kind of Ragnarok event, where they have to pay weregild to the Frost Giants.

Still, I can’t shake that image of Asas, Babur’s court jester, dancing about in glee,  looking like Flavor Flav or Chacrinha, barely able to hold up his giant gold medallion. And I like the idea of a treasure so inappropriately sized, so inconvenient, that the party seriously considers just leaving it in the dungeon they’ve recently unpeopled planning to come back later, either with saws and chisels or with a train of elephants or, quite possibly, with a land deed and bricks and mortar, deciding to build their new home around it. And now I’m thinking about a Return of the Once and Future King type story, where refugees from your ancient fantasy land start to appear in the modern day, and they insist on being paid in Australian nuggets, not trusting fiddly little Krugerrands.

Like I said, serious posting resumes in September.

* But then, the vanilla D&D setting is pretty crazy all over – I figure it’s somewhere on the rough Atlantis/El Dorado border before the fall, and children really do play with gold coins in the streets. Or maybe since the doors to the Dungeon Dimensions opened and every monster has gold teeth attached, D&D just occupies a brief period of efflorescence between the strait, narrow and muddy path of pseudo-medieval virtue and the gilded halls of hell where the damned poop diamonds for all eternity.

** alas unattested in the metal today, and therefore mythical. Yeah, yeah.