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best thing I’ve read this week

August 27, 2012 Leave a comment

What is the point of me linking Zak’s blog, since you all read it anyway (right?)?

Because hidden away in a review of weird fiction is the best advice I’ve read since “don’t bother with art that’s trying to look like art”:

I just have to put the best of what I have to offer and nothing else out there by itself and see what kind of story it is. And if the story needs more that more will have to be written with the same energy of invention as the new idea was.

ie have confidence in the ideas that excite you and don’t bother writing anything that doesn’t excite you. Don’t think you have to depend on tired old formulas for structure, just present the ideas you think are new and exciting and nothing else, because that’s what I’m looking for as a reader anyway. I don’t want your fantasy heartbreaker, just the bit that breaks your heart.

It’s so easy to fall into this: thinking you have to dress your ideas up in conventional forms.Thank you, Zak.

I need to remember it with my history work as well as any fiction or RPG stuff I write.

You know who’s really good at this? Cory Doctorow. I think he makes his short stories short enough that they don’t feel incomplete. And Borges, natch.

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The Grand Prizes from Carcosa Wacky Races

August 8, 2012 5 comments

…are still partly secret, but they have now been (mostly) collected. The race is over, the angel has died and collapsed into the crater it made in the ground, Chixi’lu got melted into glass, and out of the 15 vehicles that set out, there remain:

Eribotes’ steam machine, now shucked out of its turtle shell and reduced to a trike, suitable for 2 persons;
Haakon’s shellcasing, now willingly powered by Lord Chancellor the Pelgrane (at least until he can get properly healed up, they you all better watch out – Pelgranes harbour grudges for a long time);
Hon’dar-soo’s two sea bulls;
and Poison and Keek’s flying baby altar, now augmented with a big gas-burning propeller on top.

Joan’s sharkbowl just isn’t the same without Earl’s soulburner providing motive power. That said, it’s still as dangerous as ever, due to the presence of Count Charodon, the vampire hemoshark, who even now is tenderly trying a fin on the ground, to see if he can walk.

That’s it. Everything else is dead and/or broken.

Until Oogah the caveman, who ever since his tussle with a Hound of Tindalos has been riding this race on borrowed vehicles and with one hit point, surfaces in the river, at the helm of a spaceship-sub-possible-angel-escape-pod.

…why is space navigated using submarines in Tartary? How would surface dwellers like you know that?

Art credit goes to Robert Simons, whose Nautilus I totally stole. I hope he doesn’t mind. Check out his portfolio site – lots of awesome stuff I would be ripping off wholesale if I were to do a Moby Dick/stop the pigeon sequel…

although if you look askance at it just right it looks either like this:

deck plans:

or like this:

Damn you, Monte Cooke – how did you get that art out of my brain?

August 8, 2012 2 comments

Monte Cooke’s kickoff into Moebius-inspired Science Fantasy strikes just the right visual notes for me – even if the support text makes me crawn*: Humanity lives amid the remnants of eight great civilizations that have risen and fallen on Earth. NO! Instead: there is crazy inexplicable shit out there! Is anybody in charge at all!?! Go find out!

Which is kind of my way of saying I don’t know if I want to be in on the playtest phase of this or if I’d rather stay aloof, clutching my own distressingly similar setting, which will look derivative of this starting in about 2 minutes.

Damn you, Cooke!

Back to the proper subject of this blog: Dystopian Pokeverses. At last I can show you some suitably dystopian versions of old favourite Pokemon, courtesy of Gavin Mackey. That’s pretty much what I was thinking all along – thanks Gavin. More than these, which are also lovable but not miserable enough. And I’m really delighted by the sheer commitment in the fan movie Pokemon Apocalypse, but it’s not exactly where I was going either.

And while I’m doing a lazy linkdump post, do you know about Skylanders? That’s… not it either, but it’s kind of a place where my current aesthetic could go. I do like the mix of Cthulhiana, DnD cliches, Lego Adventures game design and Pokemon-type creature features. I call it Poke-Xena for a new generation. Which reminds me: apparently there are some Flash Gordon novels I should seek out, if my current Barsoom jones doesn’t abate soon.

Because I’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 25 years, DnD-wise, I had no idea that Githyanki had become a thing (I did have an idea about dark elves, because you can’t avoid them, but still, the name Drizzt meant nothing to me).

Anyway, shorn of the reams of lore they have no doubt accumulated, this is pretty much what I think about the astrally traveling jerks. And this beats anything else I have to say about them: They build their fortresses on the petrified bodies of dead gods. Like this here. Or here, which is also ridiculously cool. Or maybe there, for a change. See, if you keep mixing things up, eventually you can even put your dungeon underground and it looks cool all over again.

In case you’re currently under a rock, Geoffrey McKinney is publishing bare-bones old school modules with fanzine type production values. And Ian Johnson is doing the same for his wonderfully demented hell-crawl, The Bleaklands. The latter in particular is totally half-baked and fizzing with ideas.

My review of Eldritch Skies: don’t bother. I could say why in more detail, but fundamentally, what I wanted was balls-out Cthulhoid spacefaring where mead is your stardrive as well as your visual futurist, in about 32 pages of mind-altering illustrations. I didn’t want a wordy fantasy heartbreaker in 400 pages.

Finally, where are the hex sheet of yore? Here – print your own (thanks +Cole Long). Also crazy polar projection things and stuff.

The rest is pentagon tesselation.

Yellow Belts of Choison

August 8, 2012 Leave a comment

The Yellow Belts of Choison are belts of command.

When picked up they immediately coil around their bearer like snakes. The belts can be worn on a limb or around the head as a turban. They fit snugly but do not constrict, and they can be uncoiled easily but they won’t fall off by accident. They also have some limited telepathic power: when you put one on you know what it does without asking.

There are two distinct kinds – they look identical but have different powers.

The first allows the wearer to command one creature of no more than half their current hit dice/level. The command is a form of domination – the creature isn’t charmed as in Charm Monster, it doesn’t consider you its friend, but it is forced to act as though it were. Creatures thus controlled chafe under the wearer’s domination – so they’re likely to react negatively to the wearer as soon as they get their autonomy back. The effect, while the control holds, works much like Charm Monster in its restrictions: the monster cannot be commanded to commit suicide etc. Whether a creature can be commanded to attack its mates is up to the individual DM – that might break the control just as it might break charm. The creature gets a save vs spells at the moment the command is initiated, with the difference between levels/hit dice as a penalty on the roll.

The second allows the wearer to command one creature, but that creature must have a higher level/number of hit dice than the wearer. The wearer must concentrate and can take no other actions while commanding the creature. Initiating the command requires the wearer to win a contested roll, pitching the best of their Int, Wis or Cha against the creature’s Wis, or in the case of creatures without Wis, against a target of 11 on D20. This roll is modified by the wearer’s Int, Wis or Cha bonus, and the difference in level/hit dice between wearer and target, which is always applied as a penalty. Commanding a creature is fatiguing: every turn (or round if in combat) the wearer must save vs Wis or lose concentration, in which case the command is broken (other methods of breaking concentration also apply).

Both belts require an intelligent sacrifice to bond them to the wearer and make their powers usable.
Both belts can also be used to divert one creature away from the wearer and toward someone else, with no saving throw: that creature will not notice the wearer as long as they take no positive action against it (like trying to hit or command it) – instead the creature will do whatever it was thinking of doing with the target the wearer designates. When it’s finished doing that, though, it might notice the wearer again. Using this power of the belts unbonds them, so that another sacrifice must be performed to make them usable again.

…alas, the powers to walk through fire, fly through smoke and melt people like butter died with Chixi’lu. His den must be out there somewhere, though. And his spell books.

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What you see inside the farishta

August 6, 2012 1 comment

This is addressed only to Oogah, Poison and Moon Boy, who crossed the finish line first. The rest of you are currently fighting Chixi’lu the Melter.

Map of the inside of the farishta

The metal seed-pod in the next door chamber

what you see if you gaze deeply into the pool

An essay on monsters in response to Noisms’ essay on war

August 2, 2012 3 comments

Dammit, sometimes Noisms writes posts that would require a huge essay for me to respond to them properly. And, y’know, actual thinking. His latest kinda demands a moral response, but I try to avoid boring you guys with my idiosyncratic and probably indefensible moral outlook. So I’m not going to get into how “evil” is not an analytical category but an expression of reaction “in the eye of the beholder.” Or how JB’s comment on the original post shows the gulf of difference in interpretations that even the horrors of war can elicit.

Instead I’m just going to write about why I find monsters useful (even though I use a lot of “human” opponents in my games). for brevity I’ve  condensed my ideas into bullet points. They look like statements of dogma but please assume lots of hedging about with “it seems to me that” and “my personal philosophical position is” and “here’s a dodgy contention…”. Also they’re pretentious, but that’s what you get when you provoke thoughts.

What are monsters for?

1. Yes, nothing is worse than humans. Except some other bits of nature, which are also horrific if only we stop to think about them. Being real, people contain all the awfulness we can all collectively imagine, while monsters as individual acts of imagination can at best/worst hope to express some portion of that awfulness.

2. But monsters are still useful because they’re selectively awful. Art is always an act of selection/deletion. The universe acts and means everything all at once, it’s great and terrible and petty and boring and we don’t know what to do with it. But art can tease out some subset of the whole experience so we can have a guided reaction to it – go in one direction rather than being pulled in all directions and going nowhere. As works of art monsters can mean something rather than everything/nothing more narrowly and purely than people can.

3. So monsters are somehow illustrative or evocative – metaphors for aspects of people or situations or events. They express reaction to those events (fear, horror, caution), not the events themselves. That doesn’t mean they have to be didactic or translatable into some manifesto of meaning: goblins can just be goblins, but as goblins they’re also a tight little knot of associations and sensations. Like wine tasting – yes you can pull your sensation of wine apart and identify the soil and climatic conditions and notes of fruit and wood and so on, but you also have a glass of something that tastes of wine.

4. Monsters offer some freedom of association for each player’s imagination, and therefore room for creativity. Games, like books, offer incomplete descriptions, which allows each player to fill in their own details, horrors and meanings. Those meanings might be a kind of payoff for each player, but also the individual act of finding meanings, of knotting up those associations that the game stirs up, is a kind of payoff itself.

5. They are capable of being neutral tokens in a game of risks and challenges, and such tokens are necessary to allow the more abstract elements of the game to flourish. The chess pawn represents a troop or column or platoon or something of infantry, but more importantly in the context of the chess game it represents a specific set of moves: when the pawn is taken it’s not useful to the game to see those men injured – the human cost of war – because in its primary reality as a token, the loss of a pawn is really an opportunity cost in a set of possible moves between players. Blood on the board would detract from the intent of the game, which is primarily architectural. RPGs are hybrids, less pure in intent than chess, but they can contain chess-like elements, which are helped by a certain level of abstraction.

Sometimes people say “you can kill monsters and it’s OK because they’re evil.” This falls into a trap (in thinking, it’s not just that it opens an opportunity for argumentative people) because it conflates 2 things: (a) the abstract token cited above and (b) an idea of necessary or justified violence based on moral judgment (which is a whole other can of worms I am not gonna get into thanks you probably don’t really want to know my inadequate and untested civilian’s ideas about that). Rather, I would prefer to say “here is a game where killing monsters is part of the activity. That may raise some tricky questions if you stop to think about it, but it also allows us a space to put up some easily-understood challenges, of the kind which allow players to express their problem-solving creativity.” Or something similar but less wordy.

6. Maybe monsters are necessary to the figure of the hero, who expresses hope and faith in our ability to “win” – to succeed in the face of difficulties. We often think in terms of exchanges, and very often these are zero-sum exchanges: costs for things won or produced or found.* In this way of thinking, if there are winners there must be losers. So a conspicuous winner must leave a trail of losers/victims in their wake. Monsters are a way of identifying those who should lose.The necessary and correct enemies or obstacles for the hero to overcome, to enact their function as a hero.

As an ideational category monsters are a useful and dangerous tool: propaganda deploys monsters to represent the enemies of the state, which most often means depersonalizing people to permit violence against them. But the monster is also a useful way of imagining, say, cancer or pollution as a problem which it will take intelligent action to overcome. When we call scientists heroes or award them medals (as though they were coming home in triumph from military campaigns or from the potlach-war of Olympic contests), we are figuring their achievements into the hero/monster idiom.

Sky man (for Lab Lord)

August 1, 2012 3 comments

Sky men are a proud and high-spirited people: they will not bear ill-usage. They are fond of adventures, emigration, and capable of undertaking the most dangerous enterprises.

They are divided into two castes: the shunned and ridiculed ground-walkers and the “true” sky men – those who have “come of age” and can walk on clouds, making their homes on shifting, drifting, fluffy continents.

The primitive and frequently squalid appearance of ground-walkers gives sky men a poor reputation among the rulers of the land, who are therefore disinclined to credit rumours of a high civilization above the clouds, or of solid sky man fortresses high in the stratosphere. Sky men are known to ride on (infest, perhaps) Timor Tom, however, and have been known to settle on other prominent flyers for a time. Garuda is said to have befriended the sky men and deigned to carry them willingly. There are even legends that Garuda taught the sky men how to live in the heavens.

Humans see the skin of sky men as always being the exact colour of the sky, making them extremely hard to spot in their usual environment. Birds and some lizards, however, which have 4 colour-sensitive cones in their eyes in place of humans’ 3, have no trouble seeing them. Under favourable conditions a sky man may gain up to +3 on all stealth tasks among humans from their near-invisibility.

All character classes have been found among sky men of one caste or another. In sky man society entertainers and memorizers of epic poems enjoy the highest status, alongside those leaders who prove their prowess by great deeds of thievery or piracy enacted against non sky men: the profession of thief is a perfectly acceptable choice for a young sky man setting out in the world. Mere warriors are seen as wasting their talents if they do not practice some other skill or rise to positions of leadership. Priests, diviners, spirit mediums and druids are viewed with suspicion but sky men tolerate them as occasionally highly useful.  Sky man children are taught to fear wizards and their ilk, and there is no tradition of scholarly magic among them. Those who learn wizardry elsewhere are considered good marriage partners, however.

3d6 for stats. Because the mix of abilities and limitations pretty much balances out, Sky Men progress in their professions at the same rate as humans/baseline characters.
Sky men share the following special features:
1. Cannot wear armour. Really – they’re allergic to confinement, especially in any kind of metal harness – will lose 1hp per hour, or 1hp per four hours in leather armour.
2. But get natural AC 5 when naked and able to take advantage of sky-camouflage. AC 8 at other times, due to tough hide.
3. being almost invisible gives up to +3 to surprise under appropriate circumstances.
4. At 3rd level, get the ability to cloudwalk – not fly but walk and/or jump up into clouds and live up there like it’s another landscape. Cloudwalkers can carry their normal encumbrance load into the sky (as human). They also get hours of precognitive weather sense equal to their level (precog will wake them from sleep, trances etc). If the clouds thin/drop, they’ll drop out of them: crit fails on precog or jump are bad news. The ability to cloudwalk marks a sky man as a leader and imposes restrictions of honour: to maintain their sytatus cloudwalkers must take an oath of piracy: never to acquire anything in trade but only to steal it from groundwalkers
5. with a run up, they can long-jump their Dex + level in feet, or half that straight up.

(Originally inspired by Ken Hite’s Ingredients for Pyramid’s first Iron Ref competition – these being “a chair upholstered in an unusual or frightening material; an injury to the eye;” and some other thing I can’t remember. Sky Men are of course the secret masters of the Bugis of Sulawesi, those “ancestors” who first descended from the sky and told the Bugis to take to ships, thereby causing innumerable headaches for Dutch, British and French colonial shipping firms in the 18th and 19th centuries)

Rumours has it that Sky Men…

– worship the sky and are unable to cover their heads or sleep indoors
– generate local weather when angry or sad
– exude a smell delicious to wild animals and monsters
– may only use piercing weapons in honor of their thunderbolt gods
– can only drink rain water, not groundwater
– find vegetables, roots and tubers poisonous
– suffer claustrophobia or malaise when under a roof
– cannot pass beneath archways
– are poisoned by stagnant air