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Toward a Tartary one-shot

October 17, 2012 3 comments

These guys:

send you to

to find this guy

but when you get there it’s all

and there’s this guy

who gives you some

which turns everything

and then your ride home is all

unless you can figure out the

to reactivate the

and then

before the

get to the

and achieve

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Against the Steady State Universe

October 12, 2012 2 comments

A comment on G+ reminded me of a little bugbear I have with almost all RPG settings:

they tend to have in-built resistance to change. Whether it’s “points of light” or Battletech’s unending, entropic war or even Traveller’s Star Trek – like trawl through multiple tech levels, actual innovation that changes the world is avoided. In fact I strongly suspect that one of the reasons for the perennial popularity of more-or-less medieval settings is that the “medieval” state is (popularly) perceived to be one of stability and stagnation.

Why do we love that so much?

Maybe there’s an elective affinity here with adventure yarns – a static background helps the hero’s dynamism really stand out. The Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or square-jawed Earthling sportsman on Mongo gets to inject his specialness into the passive fantasy world and get validation from it in playtime. The active protagonist’s works can then be isolated and recognized. Or maybe it’s the value that a dynamic community of players gets out of reliably being in sync – we can play DnD or Firefly without much preparation because we’re all on the same page on all important issues right from the start. It’s pretty clear how that’s an advantage for commercial considerations – splatbooks and the like.

Maybe it’s that a static world requires the least metagame knowledge, of the course on which things might change if they were going to change. Lots of video games use some variant on the invention tree to model technological change through the course of play time (an idea which probably traces its origins back equally to Trav’s tech levels (with their logical progression of this before that) and some kind of evolutionary schema), but these things are lame in a tabletop RPG because they short-circuit tactical infinity. And maybe it’s part of the social contract of participating in a world that doesn’t have cellphones – that the players agree not to use their own knowledge to invent them because they accept that the world won’t accommodate them (but if the world might change, then…).

But. If we take history as our guide, then the eras that offer the greatest opportunities to Conan it up from zero to hero are the ones where old systems are being disrupted, where instead of just bobbing along in the tide of human events you can steer a little. Aren’t those potentially the most rewarding campaigns? Ones where you don’t have to stop at becoming king of a province, but might actually change the whole political process and be responsible for saving the serfs from serfdom (or for plunging them into damnation)? Hollywood superheroes tend to be devoted to rescuing the status quo from change but a game doesn’t have to follow suit, right?

So here’s a little metagame knowledge about Tartary (a dangerous thing, for sure), in response to +Stephan Hillenbrand’s critique of primitive post-apocalism in general, to act perhaps as a spur to players’ ambitions. First the critique:

“LosTech” is something I tend to find a rather boring excuse for a stagnating setting. I don’t think people would be in the dark about how a diesel engine works for more than a few months when they have a running example of one lying in front of them, waiting to be dissected.
Also, at least some of the people who understand how trains work should survive any apocalypse. It’s not rocket science, really.

In Tartary there are several obstacles to reforming the world, none of them insurmountable but all of them significant.

First, people are constantly at war. They don’t share information. The size/population of individual cities is limited, so there are limits to the technological work any one of them can do. So a unifier could abruptly change the situation, and something like early 20th century technology could be widely available in short order.

But there are a few other wrinkles to deal with, which actively mess with the effort to settle on a stable scientific paradigm on which disruptive technologies could be based:

1 the physical rules of the universe seem to be a moving target – sometimes visibly as the Weird blows through. Basic devices work reliably, but the more a technology becomes a “black box” the less reliable it becomes. The corollary to this is,

2 “magic” (that is, ways of manipulating the world that are not susceptible to ready explanation) offers a shortcut but one that’s unpredictable, dangerous and encourages secrecy. In practice nobody can resist it because the potential payoff in the short term is wonderful, but it always screws everything up long term, to the extent that

3 it sometimes seems like there’s somebody “up there” keeping things from developing too far, messing with experimental results, putting their thumb on the scale, adding gremlins to devices that get too successful. The really reliable magitech tends to be found rather than made or adapted. Periodically somebody will observe that technologies that render people passive (eg television receivers) tend to be more reliable than those that allow you to actively shape the world (eg recording cameras), but this contention has been made by so many paranoid, power-grubbing mountebanks (with or without funny accents) that nobody serious pays it any mind.

4 there are powerful vested interests who are known to be actively working against large infrastructure projects. There’s no visible Emperor Ming keeping all the princes at each other’s throats but there are nomad hordes and sorcerers and trade networks who profit from the status quo – essentially the buggy whip manufacturers guild has a very good school of  assassins in the back.

Which is all to say that the right enterprising gang of revolutionaries could turn this setting on its head. If they could successfully identify and neutralize the players who are working to keep it… the way up it is now.

The only trainspotting post I will ever write. Probably.

October 9, 2012 1 comment

Looking at the trailer for the latest film in which Johnny Depp’s makeup upstages the titular character, I realise that what I really want to watch is a movie all about disruptive technologies. Or even just about the disruption caused by the train (sorry Johnny and whoever, I don’t care so much about your horse-on-horse action. That opening voiceover totally sold me that you were men of the past, packing six-shooters in an emergent age of machine guns).

It’s debatable how important the railroad was in “winning the West” (though it did supercharge historical change from the cowboys and indians horse-wars to the steel-driving men and mechanized warfare that ushered in the Interstate Highway system), but it’s really not debatable how important it was in Russia’s parallel annexation of Turkestan – rails rolled right over the Turkomans, Uighurs, Tatars and Kirghiz.

So of course, rival railway plans are big news in Tartary’s Tournament of Shadows (movie link!). And following Old Bloody Eyes‘ dictum that “to astonish is to triumph” (shock and awe, 1880 edition), style is just as important as substance. You want your trains to look strong, sleek, inevitable.*

For instance, the Bullet On Steel Shafts (photographs intercepted en route from Far Nihon) causes a lot more buzz around the Khanates’ walled gardens than the prosaic “high speed transportation link” that the Rumis are pushing (as if they could ever marshall the infrastructure).

Still, the project that’s getting most of the hype – that’s been praised by the Seers of Otrar themselves as “distressingly intimidating,” is the Azeri Koblobr:

Its bluff, flat front and nearly-blind pilot’s gallery suggest heavy armouring, possibly the presence of a ram,

but the feature that’s caused the most consternation is the long, narrow slit that runs right down the front of the machine, which appears to conceal some further purpose. Hints of Overworlder collusion in the train’s design has lead to a riot of speculation.

Not actually a Downfall parody

Needless to say, a dozen Khans and Viziers would pay handsomely for a copy of the plans…

* see, there’s a reason why the USSR put its railway museum in Tashkent, lynchpin and starting point of the Turk-sib railway, which allowed troops to be sent at speed anywhere in Russia’s conquered territories turned “friendly Soviet republics.”

The sorcerer Bakchkan

October 3, 2012 1 comment

Bakchkan stalks Tartary, often in disguise, always causing trouble. He may appear as an Emir or vizier, a visiting merchant loaded with Cathay silks, an angel or a genie or a corner fruit seller (and very, very rarely as a beggar).

Like The Doctor or Gandalf he’s a player of the long game, maneuvering in a dance that began in untold ages past. His actions therefore frequently appear mysterious or nonsensical. Why does he elevate a loser on the street to the royal court? Why does he lift up one prince and cast down another? He is evidently among the very few classical magicians of Tartary, so why does he so rarely use those lightning-throwing powers to get what he wants more directly?

In particular, ask the stage-manager-sorcerers who work the mecharena circuit of Baluchistan, 

why does he insist on making a great show of “dropping the ball” and letting the people see behind the illusory-magical curtain? It’s like he wants to sabotage the trade or something.

For all his inscrutability, Bakchkan has a soft spot for neerdowell adventurers and rarely upsets their schemes – unless there’s some deeper plot afoot (so if he mucks up the PCs’ action it’s a fair bet that something’s going on they don’t know about yet… and watching the sorcerer might be a key to finding out about it). As a patron, he tends to offer the moon at the price of the world. And he’s always gone before the fallout hits.

One thing about Bakchkan, at least, is not a mystery – once an enterprising your engineer snatched brief notoriety by stealing The Big B’s aftershave and demonstrating that it had an uncanny effect on all around him – like a mass charm spell, it caused everyone who smelled it to misrecognize the wearer as a friend, a patron, a master or a king.

It was while the young engineer was exploiting its effects to be seen as a lover that the scent abruptly wore off, leading to the engineer’s execution and a thorough reshuffling of the palace staff in the Qaghanate of Herat.

You Know Me (5th level MU spell, available as a potion)

The caster or imbiber can convince all around them that they are a friend, a lover, a trusted confidant or any other role they choose. All who can see the caster or are within smelling range of the imbiber must save vs spells or misrecognize the caster/imbiber as the persona they have adopted. The caster/imbiber must act out their chosen persona in words, manner and gestures, but may otherwise do whatever they wish. Most often the effect is used to infiltrate palaces or sneak past guard trolls but it is known that Bakchkan once spent an entire month living in the harem of the Sultan of Bishkek as one of the Sultan’s most senior and favoured wives – a role in which he was accepted by the Sultan, the guards and, more surprisingly, the previous senior wife.

The effect does not work on machines or optical devices: a photograph would show the caster clearly, although it would not dispel the illusion that clings to the caster’s person – it would merely show that somebody was around that could not be seen normally.

By the way, if you’ve been wondering what all Jason Kielbasa’s recent dance-off posts have to do with my mecha/carcosa wacky races setting, well (a) you haven’t been paying attention and (b) this.

And if you’d really like that done to death, here.