Posts Tagged ‘carcosa’

Tartary is Bollymecha part 2: the Mecha, or jury-rigged rules for rigged jury battles

October 1, 2013 3 comments

How many months since part 1?

Well, mecha combat seems imminent and unavoidable, so here are some rules for handling it. They are completely untested and will probably fold like a carnival float after Holi, but here goes:

Mechs have a pilot, and optionally one or more gunners and an engineer.

Piloting (and therefore moving) goes first, but after that all attacks and damage are simultaneous.

1. Pilots roll against each other to see who gets advantage each round. This is determined by:
The one with the higher result gets to do the thing they wanted to do and gets the difference between rolls as a bonus on the gunner’s roll (or rolls if there are multiple gunners). Example things pilots can do: ram (an attack, see below), dodge, run away, brawl, take cover, evade (apply your bonus as a penalty to the enemy’s shooting), change range.

2. Gunners shoot and reload their weapons. They can also GAMBLE but doing so exposes them to enemy fire without the benefit of armour or risks their weapon malfunctioning somehow. Damage depends in large part on how well you hit.

3. Engineers repair, jury-rig and salvage stuff on the fly. They may also GAMBLE to give the pilot a bonus on the next turn and make DESPERATE SAVES to mitigate mishaps this turn – though these must be extravagantly surprising – see under MISHAPS, below. Engineers sometimes go EVA to get stuff off the battlefield, set traps etc. They can also try to spy on or jam enemy communications, or use any other gadgets during combat that you can think of.

4. If you can think of it, you can try it. Just because I haven’t mentioned spellcasters, psychics, boarding parties, grapnels, human cannonballs, fifth columnists, weresquid or airbags doesn’t mean you can’t introduce them. If you surprise me you automatically surprise the enemy too.

Gambling is declaring a numerical bonus you want to apply to your roll. Anyone – pilots, gunners, engineers – can gamble. Everyone’s gamble gets added together to get the MISHAP target. If you roll under the target on the d10 then a MISHAP happens (roll on the MISHAP table).

You can simultaneously succeed in your roll and MISHAP at the same time – the order in which the two happen depends on how badly you rolled relative to your mishap chance. Other factors can also increase your mishap chance/gravity – damage, environmental factors… some of these will be obvious (skating on glass, pilot’s seat destroyed so he has to cling to the controls) some will be secret (eg. faults in your machine that you didn’t know about). And mishaps tend to damage your rig, breeding more mishaps.

Getting hit costs you +1 mishap the next turn per hit. Ramming costs you +3 next turn. Getting rammed costs you the margin of the rammer’s success in mishap penalty this turn.

When engineers gamble successfully, they reduce the overall mishap penalty by their margin of success. BUT if a mishap happens on an engineering roll then it happens personally to the engineer, and/or the place where the engineer is at the time (usually the engine room).

All hitting is simultaneous – its consequences come at the end of the current round.
To hit roll 9+. This is modified by the pilot’s margin of success + gunnery skill – range +/- any bonus given by the dancers and gambling.

There are 3:
i. close enough for fisticuffs n flamethrowers. This is too close for most ranged weapons (-1 to hit) but not for the sidearms of crew members.
ii. shooting range.
iii. long range. most weapons are at -3, a few are unmodified.
To change range you have to win a piloting contest, unless you both want to change range in which case it might be automatic or you might charge past each other. Mechs are like bulls. Which means I should have a surprise system but I don’t yet.

Damage = the amount you succeeded by on your roll + weapon damage bonus. When you inflict damage, roll for location (see PARTS, below). Damage is taken straight off armour. When armour is gone, then further damage to a part disables it and/or hurts the crew there.

Mechs also have a WEIGHT CLASS which = their damage bonus for melee attacks/ramming.
Ramming does double damage – triple if you actually have a ram fitted.
When ramming, if your margin of success + difference in weight class is 10+ you can knock the opponent over: -3 to all rolls, no movement until they get back up.
One point of vehicle damage/one vehicle HP = 1d10 HP for a person.

Mechs are made out of parts. Each part has armour points (HP). Armour shelters the part’s mechanisms and crew members: as long as there is armour on a part, the crew on that part are safe. Once the armour is gone, any hit will disable the part AND damage the crew there. Also any critical hit (margin of success = 10+) disables the part even if it still has armour and damages the crew unless they save vs CHA.

Each mech has a COCKPIT (where the pilot is),
a DRIVE (often where the engineer is, also the bit that makes it go), and other subsystems, such as
WEAPONS (manned by gunners, whether they’re guns, melee weapons or other) and a wide variety of

When you get hit, roll d10 for location.
Then each extra Part occupies another number on the die.
Any numbers left over are DRIVE.
If you want to call a shot to a specific part you add 3 to the target to hit, but if you hit it you add 3 damage (ie cancels out the damage penalty, since damage is success-based).

MECH AGILITY is baked into the mech design rules (TBD). Some designs come with more agility than others before you add weapons. In general bigger mechs have less agility but can carry more stuff. It’s just a flat +/- to piloting but also indicates relative top speed: a higher agility mech can reliably run away from a lower agility one after long range is reached.

Singers and dancers mostly set a BONUS RESOURCE before combat begins. OPTIONALLY (and probably not for the first combats which are already looking plenty complex enough) they could manipulate bonuses/penalties during combat by swinging the crowd on the narrative arc of the fight.

An example to make things even more confusing:

Shivaji and Mahmoud are mech fighting at shooting range. They are both pro pilots (skill = 5). Shivaji’s mech has 1 cannon and agility 2. But it also has a damaged foot (permanent +1 mishap). He gambles another +3 – so he has to roll 5+ (over 4) on his d10 to avoid a mishap altogether. Mahmoud intends to ram. That means closing to fisticuffs range AND a tricky maneuver – automatic +1 mishap. He gambles +6, so he has to roll 8 or above to avoid mishap.
Shivaji rolls 2 (dice) +5 (skill) +2 (agility) +3 (gambling) = 12.
Mahmoud rolls 6 (dice) +5 (skill) +0 (agility) +6 (gambling) = 17
so Mahmoud gets his wish – he rams Shivaji. If Mahmoud had any gunners then this turn they would shoot at +5 (his margin of success). But he doesn’t. The weight class of his mech is 3, so he does (5 (margin of victory) + 3) x2 (doubled for ramming) = 16 damage. He gets a 2 on hit location: weapon. That weapon had 12 armour: it is lost and the gunner will be killed at the end of the round (4 damage blew through = 4d10 damage to the gunner).

Shivaji lost the piloting contest so his doomed gunner gets no bonus, and range is fisticuffs so that’s a -1 penalty. The gunner has skill +3, -1 for range (movement goes first but ramming is an attack ie it does not affect this attack b/c everything is simultaneous). He gambles +3 and rolls an 8, for a modified 10 – he would’ve hit with a 9, so with a 10 his margin is 2. The gun is a small cannon: +3 damage, so that’s 5 damage in the…  rolls a 0=drive. The drive’s 30 armour is cut down to 25.

Both failed their mishap rolls and Shivaji’s gunner added an extra +3 to the failure. So, Shivaji failed by 5 but Mahmoud’s ram margin is added, so that’s failed by 10. Mahmoud failed his by 2. Both have engineers who can try to mitigate the mishaps with a straight grease monkey roll, target 9+, modified by gambling. If they succeed then the mishap number is reduced by the margin of success. Shivaji’s engineer gambles +5 and rolls a 5 +4 for skill = 14, so he avoids taking the mishap on himself and reduces it by 4 for a final result of 6 mishap, which means the other gunner is thrown off the rig! Mahmoud’s engineer rolls a 3, failing to mitigate his mishaps – Mahmoud’s agility is reduced by -1 until repaired.

Next round Shivaji starts with no gunner and +2 mishap (his usual +1, +1 from being hit). Mahmoud starts with +4 mishap (+3 from ramming, +1 from being shot). They might be well-advised to just spend a round recovering unless their engineers make some kind of desperate saves to right their rigs.

The Mishap Table

Every point by which you fail a mishap roll takes 1 from your speed. There are also more serious effects, as follows. “Repair” is a saving throw made by a grease monkey, which takes up the monkey’s action the next turn.

  1. Drivetrain damage – limit +2 to any mod thereafter until repaired
  2. Damage: agility reduced by 1 until repaired
  3.  Memorable damage, which is described: -1d6HP to vehicle. Player must invent some excuse for a save to halve the damage
  4. leaking! +1 mishap thereafter, and some vital resource (blood, food, fuel, transmission fluid) will be gone in 3 turns unless repaired. Fresh mishaps reopen the leak.
  5. Something is lost (prob. a weapon, optionally something else). Also, secret +1 mishap.
  6. Crash/man overboard.
  7. One character suffers Arduin crit. Secret +2 mishap and save every turn against vehicle coming apart (engineering rolls).
  8. Weapons fire randomly, 2 in 6 at own vehicle. Arduin crits for all characters and vehicle.
  9. Magazine explosion, or grease monkey turns rogue, starts murdering other occupants. High probability of PC death.
  10. Fuel explosion, or drivetrain turns rogue
  11. Meltdown. Vehicle destroyed.

Mech stats


CATERPILLAR: Agility 0. Size +1 (capacity +4 tons of gear)
Cockpit: 8, drive 24.

Cutter #5, driven by Jen the goat and Kyre the human

Cutter #5, originally driven by Jen the goat and Kyre the human

SMEROE Cutter #5: Agility 3. Size 0 (capacity +23 tons)
Cockpit 0. 6 non-drive legs: 3 each. Drive: 15
Cutters: +6 damage in fisticuffs


Giant Imperialist propaganda bell repurposed as armour for Cutter #5. Shhhh.

Dashoguz Mechs


BASHER: Agility -2, Size 3
Cockpit: 5 Hammer: 12 Drive: 20
Hammer: +5 damage in fisticuffs
Chisel flinger: +1 damage ranged. (cannot use both at once)


BORER: Agility -1, Size 2
Cockpit: 10 drill: 30 Drive: 20
Drill: +2 fisticuffs and the same again next round unless you beat it in piloting contest, penalty -2


CRUSHER: Agility 0, Size 6
Cockpit: 5, crusher 15, drive 15
On a successful ram, the pilot rolls a second contest to see if you are trapped in the crushing gear. If you are then your engineer has to save to sever the bit that’s being crushed in order to get free. The crusher does 6 damage every subsequent round but must roll over the Size of the mech it’s crushing each round to avoid being destroyed itself.

Visiting contenders


CATATHUMP: agility -2, size 5
Cockpit 20, thumper 30, drive 40
Can only move by recoil from its gun, therefore cannot give chase against a more agile mech.
Cannon: +5 ranged, one round reload. 3 marines with gold rifles for close defense


JHOOM BARABAR JHOOM agility +2, size 2
Cockpit 15, mine 10, gun1: 10, gun 2: 10, drive 26
If it rams by +4 over opponent’s roll it sticks its mine to them. Engineer save to disengage it before it goes off in 1d3 rounds.
Guns +1 each.


MARATHI SONIC agility 0, size 1
Cockpit 20, sonic weapon 20, drive 20
Sonic weapon attacks for +3 mishap but no physical damage. Ranged.
Unidentified Mechs lurking by the side of the Arena…










Spiritrap: a variant on Bilbil’s Ravenous Phylactery for Pokemon-type shenanigans

June 7, 2013 5 comments

A while ago I wrote a pokeball magic item for destabilizing your DnD game. Here’s a variant that affords different sorts of trouble, ideal for Tartary…

The spiritrap can take any form but it almost always appears as a colourful orb made in 2 or more pieces. When activated these pieces hinge or distend or something so the whole thing “opens” briefly – all too briefly – on one side and simultaneously “closes” on the opposite side.

The spiritrap can take in one creature – man or monster, living or undead, first level or 30th. In order to be vulnerable to the trap, the creature must have been subdued or somehow rendered unconscious or immobile OR it must have performed the action that activates the trap. It gets one save vs magic to avoid capture. Once captured it heals at normal rates and requires no sustenance while inside the trap. It can be kept in the trap indefinitely. It observes everything that’s going on around the trap but can take no action.

The only way to get a creature out of the trap is to activate it. There are 2 modes of activation:

1. simple, obvious button-push: this frees the creature but imprisons the person who activated it.

2. incantation + button push: exchanges what’s in the trap SPECIFICALLY for a creature that has already been trapped in it (only works if the creature is nearby, creature does not get a saving throw).

Even though this item is clearly highly coercive and extremely evil in nature, the stories surrounding it all tell of partnerships and friendships between the creatures thus trapped. The most popular stories concern a wizard who appeared to be a were-creature: using the trap he could swap places with a terrifying monster at will, and then equally suddenly revert to his mild-mannered wizard form. Evidently either the monster co-operated with its captor or it was under some other kind of charm or coercion, so that it willingly reimprisoned itself. It is a matter of considerable irritation to historians of magic that the monster’s side of such stories is seldom told.poke_ball_by_clairc_artstuff-d5hvq62

Look how happy he looks. Look how the creatures piled up in a ball have no real way to tell us how they feel.


so you eat a pokeball, so what’s the worst that could happen? Unimaginably bad. The second worst is that it opens inside you, splattering you everywhere and suffocating the pokemon.



It occurs to me that if you haven’t read the post or thought carefully about the consequences of getting caught in a Pokeball and released only to fight for your handler’s pleasure, the deep creepiness of the above sentiment might be lost on you.


After the straight-up pokeball, the reversible hat is one of the most popular forms for the spiritrap



And then there are the people who want to trap up to 10 creatures in their fingernails. OK I say people, there’s really only Scrap Princess in this category

I do not make these up. And no I don't think I'm at all misogynistic, it's just that I haven't found any pokeball jockstraps. Even though it's _obvious_ I mean _come on_

This one was not designed by a woman. Consider the discomfort of getting a sandshrew in there.


The whole issue of how you trap a goddamn god in a pokeball is never really adequately explored. Although in truth it’s no stranger than being able to catch a crowned dragonfish (which isn’t a dragon) in one.


Decidedly handy for catching them all. Possible downside: which one is the user in?

Men in Black 1: The Industrial Druid

April 22, 2013 3 comments

Roger’s Red Sword Wizard and –C’s Blue Mage set me thinking about what great monsters they would make. So here’s a series of monsters/classes all this week. #1: the Industrial Druid


…he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smear’d
With heraldry more dismal; head to foot
Now is he total gules; horridly trick’d
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and damned light
To their lord’s murder

The Industrial Druid is like those Wild Men of Europe, only all about the savage annihilating splendour of the machine. Where the common or garden Druid works to preserve balance and stuff, the Industrial Druid is a perpetrator of atrocities: it marks the land with its technological lusts. The Industrial versions of Druids’ leveling-up fights are full-scale wars, in which the dehumanizing of minions helps to power the Industrialist’s apotheosis.

Encountered as monsters, Industrial Druids have 4-9 Hit Dice (d6s), AC 1, and d12 followers (a mix of lower level disciples and wage-slaves). Their treasure consists of machines, parts and raw materials. There is a 10% chance of exotic metals, suitable for working into +1 swords by a master smith, and 20% chance of a “magic” item that replicates the effect of some spell (e.g. hypodermics that induce Sleep, tasers for Magic Missile) with 1d6 charges remaining.

As a PC class, Industrial Druids are mechanically identical to regular LL Druids (fighting as clerics, benefiting from +2 on saves vs fire and electricity), with the following exceptions:

1. They must wear metal armour and a full-face helm: being stripped of armour strips them of their powers, which are replenished after a full day encased in iron (shackles don’t count). They cannot sneak: at first level this is merely because of their armour, but at 3rd level and above they wheeze and clank at all times and at 5th level they leave oily footprints by which they may be tracked. They can only use complex mechanical or chemical weapons, such as crossbows, composite bows, guns and fire, or those weapons developed for domination: flails, whips and pizzles.

2. What sets the Industrial Druid apart from a mad scientist is its ability to elevate relatively simple siege engines and winches into self-aware agents of exploitation.
From 1st level all Industrial Druids can Command a machine once per day, for 1 round/level, during which they enter a Deep Thinking fugue state and can take no other actions. Machines so commanded tend toward murderous destruction: the Industrial Druid must save vs. WIS each round it requires the machine to conduct a non-violent act, to prevent the temporarily uplifted device from going off on a bloody rampage.
At 3rd level they may poison or purify water but only if paid to do so (at least 1gp/level).
At 5th level they may summon an environmentally-unfriendly mount.
At 7th level they may adopt a giant robot form for 1 round/level/day: twice human sized but weighing 4 tons, this form need not breathe, is resistant to fire and cold, has 20 STR and AC-1, and does 3d6 damage with its fists. While in Robot form the Industrial Druid’s HP are reset to maximum, but when the form’s time runs out any previous wounds take full effect again, adding to any damage taken while a Robot.
Beginning with 7th level, in order to level up an Industrial Druid must destroy another Industrial Druid of higher level and take their stuff.
At 8th level and each level thereafter the Industrial Druid attracts d6 followers – roll d20 -13 for each follower’s level. If the result is 0 or lower the follower is a 0-level wage-slave with no special abilities. Results of 1 or higher are Industrial Druids (50%), Grease Monkeys (20%), Chaos Monks (20%) or toadying Clerics (10%).
At 9th level the Industrial Druid must construct a fortress/lab/lair.
3. Most Druid spells work fine as is. Wherever a Druid spell affects animals or plants, reskin it to apply to machines and urban life – hence Machine Growth (5); Commune with City (5); Sparking Doom (7); Find Device (2) etc.
In place of Barkskin (2) use Iron Cage (+4 AC but not higher than AC 18. -2 move)
Call Lightning (3) requires some mechanism or power supply nearby – this includes machines summoned with Machine Companion. If the latter is used, the Companion takes damage equal to that dealt by the lightning bolt.
Charm Machine (2) can extend the Command Machine ability for up to a day at a time. One WIS save is required on casting the spell to avoid rampages for the whole day.

Additional spells:
Create Familiar (by Frankensteinian or Rotwangian means) (1) (allows creation of machine familiars),
Strict Timekeeping (2) (dictates everyone’s initiative for 1 round/level, costs everyone 1HP/round),
Worker’s Riot (3) provokes violent rage in d30 HD of humanoids (they get to save vs magic),
Charge Me Up (3) (steals 4d6 HP from characters nearby, starting with the weakest. PCs reduced to 0 are unconscious but do not require first aid),
Army of Drones (4) (possesses 1 level 0/1 character per level of the Industrial Druid, makes them work like zombies for 1 day/level, but if you don’t remember to command them to eat and rest then they die in CON-3 days),
Blight Land (5) prevents anything growing and putrefies water within a 1 mile radius.

Tartary is Bollymecha part 1: the Bolly, or Dance Rules for Techno-Tyrants

January 8, 2013 3 comments

Tartary is slums and pomo Orientalism and post-Soviet social commentary and Roadside Picnic getting-melted-by-your-treasure, and constant war and endless treachery and uncaring thaumatocrats and incomprehensible honour systems and tyrants replacing each other on the banks of the Oxus.


Yes, this
Yes, this

plus this.

Because every town worth a damn has at least one mecha fighting arena, and every kid goes through at least one summer where they dream of being a big star pilot like Prince Harbir of Amritsar or that magnificent bastard Nizam The Suzerain, Pit Boss of Komtor.

And what separates those great TV heroes and heels from the local toughs, duking it out in the local dive with their grease-powered MadMaxoskeletons?

Well, unimaginable riches, obviously. And mighty hordes of followers and the splendours of a kingdom behind them.

But all those things stem from KEEN DANCE MOVES.

For which, I humbly herewith present some rules, in the hopes of encouraging frugging, as well as the more usual fighting, for justice, glory and base gratification.


Because dance is ritual magic (it’s actually a whole magic system, but that’s another post). It’s the path to power and fortune. And it’s the one way to really, truly, definitively win disputes.

The basic coin of social power in Tartary is Reputation; it’s a measure of how important you are. And it’s a stat on your character sheet: REP. Incoming DnD flailsnailers get their level as their starting REP, because their greatest deeds are shown on Tartary’s ubiquitous TV networks – late night or prime-time, depending on how great they are.

REP can be increased by accomplishing mighty and important stuff and by beating folks in the arenas. You do not get REP – or respect or followers or groupies – by shanking your enemies quietly in the night. You get it by dominating and humiliating them in the public eye.

And you can attract that eye by invoking the ritual of Breaking into Song and Dance.

When you begin a dance you change the rules of conflict; a shouted challenge to a barroom fistfight can be brushed or laughed off, but a formal challenge by dance-off is serious business – it means the world is watching – and it must be met in kind. To refuse a dance-off is to admit defeat and agree to whatever settlement the victor demands. It’s not good for your reputation, but like losing a duel, it’s still within the bounds of honour.

But if you then protest, or go back on the deal, or try to get back what you legitimately lost by treachery, why then you lose ALL respect and REP – effectively setting you back to level 0 (if the TV catches you…).


1. The Challenge

When someone starts dancing a Challenge is issued and Stakes are set.

The challenger rolls a d6 to set a target for the challengee to beat. They can add mods to this roll by Staking resources and by bringing in situational modifiers.

anything you stake may be lost if you lose the dance-off.
The first thing that can be Staked is Reputation – every point of REP staked is a +1 on the roll
You can also stake your life for a further +1. If you lose that… well in theory the victor could then legally kill you without reprisals, but that’s frowned on. Instead you’re commonly bound to do some service for the victor – either a specific task or a year of limited slavery.

If you have supporters, they can also stake their lives and join you in your dance (they could stake their Reputations but Rep cannot be pooled – only the single highest Rep counts) for +1 each

Situational Modifiers:
Anything you can bring in to hype the dance can provide a mod. Creativity is rewarded and appreciated by audiences. Classic moves include:

involve the crowd: make a d10 roll + CHA + REP + applicable skills to get the audience dancing on your side (vs the audience’s current disposition to the challenger). This can add +1 on an ordinary success, +2 on an exceptional success or -1 on a botch. If nobody brought their own band, musicians might also be called out of a crowd for an extra +1

stage effects: if you have an engineer on your side they can provide lighting or stage props, a choreomancer can tighten up your choreography, a great singer or musician can solo in praise of your majestic vertu, panache or malandragem. In each case a successful skill roll can add +1 (and a botch is -1)

2. The Response

The person challenged can Raise the stakes, Concede (or Fold), or Accept the challenge (Call).

If they Raise then they must beat whatever the Challenger got on their d6+mods, which will probably mean that they also have to Stake stuff and try to win situational modifiers – essentially they have to out-do the previous dance, make fun of the opponent’s claims and demonstrate their superior badassery and flair. They can entice the audience and musicians away (beating the previous skill roll to do so) and whatever else they can think of. If they beat the challenger, then the challenge is passed back to the original challenger who must Raise, Concede or Accept.

Each time a challenge or raise is issued, demands can be added to the dispute.

If a Raise is unsuccessful or if the person being challenged Concedes then (a) the challenger wins the dispute and any demands issued (argument, daughter’s hand in marriage, deeds to the mine, leadership of the pirate gang, rocket parts, whatever); (b) the conceding party loses whatever they Staked and 1 point of REP.

If a challenge is Accepted (Called) then the dancing turns to ritual combat (probably involving Mecha, discussed in Part 2), but not on a level playing field:

(a) the Accepter’s opponent (ie the last person to Challenge or Raise) gets initiative in the first round

(b) they also get the margin of their challenge’s success as a modifier to use at some point during that combat, either to modify one roll or to split up over multiple rolls as they see fit.


OK, example: Hakim challenges Waled for leadership of the tribe. Hakim has REP 4 and 2 supporters: a grease monkey and a trumpeter. Hakim stakes his REP and life, for a total of +5, his supporters stake their lives too (+2), the grease monkey adds spotlights and the trumpeter provides honking accompaniment for +1 each, for a total mod of +9. Hakim rolls a 3 +9 for stakes and mods = 12.

If Waled were to Accept this challenge then Hakim would get a total of +12 to use in the ensuing combat, which could be +12 on a single roll or +5 on one roll and +7 on another or any split Hakim chose.

Instead Waled Raises. He has REP 2 and 3 friends – a singer, a judge/orator and a high-CHA pilot with a magnificent moustache.  He stakes his REP (+2) and all stake their lives (+4). Waled borrows an extraordinary hat to augment his performance (+1), the singer solos (+1), and both the orator and the pilot try to involve the crowd. This is a judgment call for the DM – can you involve the crowd more than once for multiple mods? After furious pleading the DM is persuaded by the players’ argument that oratory appeals to the crowd’s religious fervour while moustache-envy appeals to lower urges, and so both are allowed (+2). The total mod is +10, Waled rolls a 5 and beats Hakim by 3.

Hakim doubts he can win the crowd back so he Accepts the challenge, knowing that Waled will have +3 in mods (the margin of his Raise) to use as he wishes in the upcoming combat.


In accordance with anthropological theory, there is a moment in this exchange where power passes from challenger to responder: when a Raise is successfully executed, the Raiser gets a choice: they can force a fight or concession, or they can take the loftier path and call for peace and reconciliation.

If they choose not to fight then the status quo is restored and everyone stands down. The challenger may only challenge again if they can present a new and compelling reason to do so. This rule was enacted because of the death through exhaustion of one Garwan the Grandiloquent, a remarkable and highly popular showman-emir who was subjected to a campaign of continuous challenges for trade concessions over 13 days by representatives of the Consortium of New Julfa Coffee Shippers.

Well duh. You think getting your Bollymech to dance isn’t going to be worth some Situational Modifier (as well as being risky)?

Landscape description and Carcosa Wacky Races

December 5, 2012 1 comment

This is a response to Chris Kutalik’s latest post on the difficulties of wilderness description. Chris identifies a few guidelines for what to do/not to do, which really boils down to:

1. know the context/ecology of the place, not just the terrain type
2. play up the mood
3. short lists of details
4. keep it brief.

I’d add that it’s important to concentrate on what’s interactive. As a player I am always listening out for
(a) what’s going to kill me,
(b) what I can do in the environment to survive,
(c) how I might make a difference/explore/get into trouble.

You tell me the view from this mountaintop is majestic and I can see the Valley of the Elk spread out before me. I’m wondering how exposed I am to missile fire and/or freezing rain. If I feel safe enough I’ll try to draw a map for later.

Description is important, of course: it brings the game alive and helps to make memorable scenes. It lends meaning to the tedious business of rolling dice. In terms of interaction, it colours the players’ options and priorities and their sense of what behaviours are appropriate. It can give players a sense of urgency or creeping dread.

But consider how the dungeon is purpose-built for getting out of the way. It’s (by default) a shorthand background environment that allows the action to take center stage. If you make a point of bringing it into the foreground, it can still be reduced to a small set of signs which will affect tactical play (slippery floor, cover from rocks, sloping corridor suitable for rolling Indiana Jones boulders down).

If something is non-interactive (ie it doesn’t present me with choices to make) – even if it’s mechanically important but I don’t feel I can do anything about it – then I tune it out to concentrate on what I can do. If my PC falls in the North Sea I know the water is cold and I have a very limited time to act or I’ll die. But that means I’ll ask for something to grab onto or swim toward to get out of danger. As a player and as a PC I can’t afford to spend time living and feeling the experience of hypothermia: I need to try to puzzle out what I missed in the initial description that I could possibly use now.

So I try to make my wildernesses into fairly clear challenge environments you’d want to prepare for and that demand action, where equipment is important and damage or degradation of that equipment changes your options – deserts that limit your movement to the water you can carry, trails that get too rough for your horse,  snow you can lose the little ones in. My guides for description are Redmond o’Hanlon and Bruce Chatwin,* who spend quite a bit of time talking about the small annoyances of travel in a way that places you in the situation with them and can give players something to react to.

Carcosa Wacky Races was the first thing I ran after a 10+ year hiatus – a PbP, pvp deathrace across (to borrow Jeff Rients’ memorable phrase) an electroluminescent hellscape. Each turn I wanted to present a new environment. My rules were that every turn there should be something that could be used for tactical advantage against other players, something you could choose to explore, and some meaningful choice to make even if you stuck to the straight path and remembered you were racing. Thus:

Turn 2
After several flat miles the glass plain in front angles abruptly upward to a high ridge line. The contrast on the other side is shocking: a series of diminishing ridges stretches away ahead, and in between the glass looks like it’s been hammered repeatedly by some titanic force – giant jagged shards of glass and rock stick up at crazy angles, creating treacherous caves and deadfalls – it’s definitely rough terrain.

Cutting through it all, more or less on your path, there’s a channel or canyon that looks smooth from up on the ridge – but it’s also indistinct – there’s some kind of purple mist obscuring the ground in there.

Lurching somnambulent figures dot the landscape – they all seem to be naked women. And farther off some kind of emaciated lupine figures loping and sniffing among the wreckage of the land. And as you watch, a few miles off to the right you can see some weird red scalloped thing like a cloud or a rock formation suddenly rise up into the sky.


Turn 4: Watchtowers
[night has fallen, revealing that the plain of glass emits a green glow]
The canyon and the broken plain come to an abrupt end in a 200 foot cliff, overlooking a narrow rift valley. Overhanging the edge of the cliff there is a cascade of travertines with grooved, smooth depressions cut across them, zigzagging lazily down all the way to the valley floor.


And now you can see what made the canyon you’ve been racing down – a giant glassworm rears up from the valley, almost to your height, its white-hot interior visible through its open mouth and translucent sides.

That’s not the only source of illumination down there, though – to the left, raised a little off the valley floor, a pool of some black liquid is writhing and burning, throwing out oily clouds down the valley. A few vehicles are turned over around the pool’s edge and four more glassworms are roiling and crashing around it, stamping great holes in the ground, making the rhythmic thud, thud, thud you heard last turn. From your high vantage you can see another black pool behind a high stone barricade wall off to the right, with a few men atop it, apparently trying to hold the glassworms off with some kind of glowing sticks. Several trucks carrying fuel barrels have been left along the margin of the latter pool – it looks like the men were collecting the contents of the pool when the glassworms attacked.

On the far side of the pools rises an enormous shield wall with regularly-spaced watchtowers along it. Behind the wall of towers the ground continues to rise into craggy, dry mountains. And because the valley is lit up by the fires, you can see that its floor is covered entirely with stone and plaster cairns and domes.

Your destination lies across the valley and beyond the wall. You can crawl or bump down the travertines, taking care not to go too near the outer edge, and then either pick your way across the cairns on the valley floor or use a spindly rope suspension bridge maybe 30 feet above them. On the far side there are two visible means to climbing the shield wall – either via another molten glass channel which runs diagonally up the wall behind the glassworms, or up a steep slope of loose scree, punctuated by bits of broken watchtower, where a section of wall has collapsed. Going up the scree looks treacherous but, unlike the channel, it doesn’t take you right past the worms. If you want to get to the pool that’s being guarded by the men, there are short roads leading from the valley floor and from the bridge to a gate-tower in the barricade wall. The gate tower’s not at the battlefront with the worms, but it might be by the time you get there.

Those of you who raced down the canyon and breathed in the purple mist can see, close at hand, occasional red eye-shine from the women climbing single-mindedly up the travertines to stalk away across the valley. And here and there, just maybe, if it’s not a trick of the light, some green eye-shine too.

* Seriously go and read Chatwin right now. One of the best bits of news I have ever heard – goats are forbidden on board. In the air by seven o’clock. Seen from above the desert is alternately white and golden orange. Ancient dunes now sprouting with meagre vegetation.

Land the greenish ochre colour of a lion. Villages like mushrooms. Skeletal trees in the heat haze.
…Mosquitoes bit the hard parts of my fingers.

The Governor. Small moustache. Sad decadent eyes. Reclines instead of sits. White robes. Masseur. Chinese pills, French pills, Swiss pills, decongestants. His servants claim their wages are six months in arrears.

**On Chris’ G+ thread the author of Legacy of the Bieth mentioned ibn Battuta, reminding me that outside Tolkien travel tends to be to inhabited places, which allow for NPCs to tell you (in “pay attention here be tactical info” mode) about the dangers up ahead, in a voice that prepares you to watch out for the cleft in the rocks and the slippery, weed-lined causeways.

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On the proto-history of Mecha, or Golems for Genus

November 19, 2012 1 comment

Successive waves have washed back and forth over the line between sorcery and technology in Tartary. Right now the mood is decidedly technurgical – something unexplained may make the giant run, but its skeleton is almost certainly worked wood or metal, its eyes cameras or viewing screens. And inside there will be a pilot – tucked away, perhaps, like a baby bird in an egg, but altogether in command.

The lithomancer Epjabel demonstrates the proper use of the tripod


But things were not always thus. Some hints of how they might have been before can be seen in ancient statues, which show stunted, cat-like creatures perched atop strange bodies, steering them to terrible purpose

And then there are the writhing, tormented pits of Azoth under Dashoguz

Most such remnants are assumed once to have been clothed in metal plates, as they would be now. It is inconceivable that the world of power and subjugation should have been ruled by such soft-bodied things, no matter how strong their grip.

Still there are hints that the day of solid iron may be reaching its end. Rumours are circulating that strange, flowing forms have been seen issuing from the Archmage of Ashgabat’s cult-tower (that palace or tomb where the Great Bashi has sealed himself up these past fifty years).

And these fluid giants, the size of a fighting machine, appear to be thinking for themselves.

(BTW, some much better monster creation over here)

Ars Magica hack for Tartary (Chargen)

November 18, 2012 5 comments

So because I’m a lunatic I decided to try running Tartary in Ars Magica rather than the more obvious DnD route (also because I don’t want to deal with levels, at least for now). And then I hacked AM to look as much like DnD as possible.* Idiot.

Anyway: simplified Ars Magica chargen for Tartary.

1. roll characteristics,
2. choose a “class” – this is your major skill. Add 2 minor skills,
3. roll equipment.

Core Mechanic ie what you’re rolling against: 

D10 + relevant characteristic + situational modifiers against a target difficulty number. 1 is a botch (roll again – 1 confirms the botch, but there may be mods on that second roll depending on how risky the thing was you were doing). 0 is exploding – roll again, add to the previous result. (note this is the inverse of AM. Crazy huh?)

You can take “extra risk” and add +n to your die roll, but then you have to roll over n to avoid a botch.

AM has needlessly complex initiative and combat rolls. Here you just roll D10 + skill + sneaky roleplaying mods you fast talk me into, and try to get higher than the enemy. All combat is simultaneous except where there’s surprise.

Attributes (different from AM, sorry):
roll 1d6 -3 for each of these, yielding a range of -2 to +3. In order, natch.

Phy(sique = Str and Con combined), Dex, Int, Per(ception), Wis, Cha.

If you are not happy with your whole suite of rolls you can change the sign of all of them at once – all negatives become positives and vice versa. Attributes actually matter, so it might be worth it. Or just cheat completely: how would I know?

Hit Points

I do not use Ars Magica’s Body Levels. Instead there are hit points (which represent luck pure and simple and which recover after a night’s sleep) and a death and dismemberment table adapted from Trollsmyth, for when the hp run out.

To calculate HP: D6 + Wis + Phy + 4. Because wisdom is the art of doing what turned out to be the right thing after all (which sounds a lot like luck to me) and being big and beefy at least looks like it matters when you’re shrugging off minor damage.

If you take enough damage to reduce you to 0 hp, then roll on the The Death and Dismemberment Table (via Trollsmyth and Carjacked Seraphim). Roll 1d10 minus whatever negative hp you might be on.

1 confirmed by rerolling 1: Instant death (decapitated or other grievous wound).
1 but unconfirmed: Incapacitated/maimed. Die in 1d6 minutes unless medics beat difficulty target 9. Medics will be working on you for hours. Weak for 2d6 weeks, some lasting impairment.
2: Severed limb (DM’s choice or roll randomly) will die in 3d6 minutes unless tourniquet applied, cauterized etc. Then will die in 3d6 hours unless medics beat difficulty 6. Out for min. 1 hour.
3: lose something fragile – an eye, an ear, a finger, your memory/sense of self-identity. You’ll die in 3d10 hours unless medics beat difficulty 6. Beat 6 on d10+Wis or be stunned for rest of combat
4-5: broken bones, punctured lungs: roll over blow-through damage to stay conscious. You need medical aid or you will never be the same again. Also will die in d10 hours if you don’t stop the bleeding. With proper care you can recover completely. Meanwhile beat 6 on D10+Wis every time you try to do something strenuous or you’ll black out. And if you do, then beat 6 on d10+CHA or roll again on this table.
6: Knocked out and concussed. At -3 to do everything for 2d12 hours. Also you’re still on 0 hp. Beat 6 on D10 or you’ll black out. And if you do, then beat 6 on d10+Cha or roll again on this table.
7: Beat 6 on d10+Wis of be knocked out for d10 minutes.
8: Stunned and confused until someone snaps you out of it.
9: drop weapon, stunned for 1 round.
10: Adrenaline Surge. get back 1d3 HP. These go away again at the end of combat, at which point reroll. Another 10? permanently get +1 hp.

Abilities and Skills:

Everyone has 3 fields of ability: your class (a broad but ill-defined suite of skills, on which you get +6); your minor (a more limited skill area, like “bargain” or “athletics (ie run, jump, climb)” on which you get +4) and your hobby (same as minor but you only get +3).

If you want to specialise like crazy you can ditch your +4 minor and make ONE of your class’s core skills +7.
Everyone also gets Fight at +3 (unless they already have it at +6 because of their class, obviously. Sheesh.) – if you want you can trade this out for a different skill at +3 and be the one person around who can’t fight. Fight, by the way, covers all kinds of melee, brawling and dirty tricks bound up together.
Everyone can also at minimum ride a horse or camel well enough not to fall off on the trail, erect a tent, build a fire, climb easy rocky cliffs, walk quietly etc. without needing points in those things. BUT literacy, driving, repairing machines, swimming, medicine and shooting straight are not assumed.

Sample Classes (some extra class flavour here) – or suggest your own, natch.

Athletic/fighting classes – these guys all Fight, Shoot and Ride professionally (+5), but they have different societies, priorities and other skills.
Mamluk (Mamluk/pilot/ordnance officer) used to formal command systems, respectability and driving and field maintenance of heavy equipment, sapping etc.
Nomad (Turkmen horseclansman, pirate, steppe bandit, Mongol, barbarian) adds survival, tracking, animal handling and slaving contacts.
Green man (or Thark for the layman) unrivalled marksmen (automatically get +6 to shooting but no familiarity with bows), 4 arms allows multiple attacks, but almost universally outcast as rage-prone lunatics, stand out in a crowd, too big to usefully ride anything smaller than a thoat. May not have Wis above 0.

Sneaky, techie classes – in Tartary technology is always secret and academics need con-man skills, so there’s a large liaison between magic, tech and thief type skills.
Grease Monkey (hack-it-together mechanic, repairman and saboteur)
Scholar (or Apprentice Technomage/archaeologist – part Stalker, part Repo Man, and a large part knowledgable thief)
Merchant, Smuggler, Ambassador, Spy (same skillsets, reasons to keep moving on),

Charismatic classes – not clerics, but rabble-rousing talkers. Cha, obviously, but also Int, Dex, Phy can be important.
Lawgiver (respectable traveling Qadi or Mufti – eg ibn Battuta – more a Solomonic judge than a sheriff but both ideas are applicable)
Prophet, mystic or saint (shaggy-haired bushman or resplendently caparisoned spirit medium, the point is you have a strange hypnotic authority for some people)
Entertainer (be a bard if you like but you could be a veiled dancer, acrobat, or fakir)
Bollymecha Gladiator/Jockey (there are lots of ways you could’ve had a shot at the big time and fallen by the wayside. Now it’s comeback time. You have hands-on experience of surfing the dragon, but not necessarily any idea of what to do when it goes wrong. Somewhere you have a gaggle of die-hard fans. And sworn enemies. Note that to perform at the top you gotta be a triple threat – singing, dancing and whoopin’ ass in a giant fighting machine – but street brawling ain’t for stars)

NOTE: I am always interested in new classes that trade on Perception or Wisdom, or trades that favour less-traveled mixes of talents, like strong/wise or strong/charismatic: if you have an idea you’re excited about I’m unlikely to say no.

Sample minor skills. Where there’s a slash you get the combo: I just couldn’t think of an elegant name for it.

acrobatics/escapology (circus work, includes multi-person stunts)
athletics (parkour – climb, run, jump)
evaluate goods/bargain
etiquette/savoir faire
folk ken (applied psychology/empathy)
animal handling/whispering
direction sense (track, find your way in the dark etc)
radiation sense (aka detect magic)
concentration/iron will (useful for rocket surgeons, lookouts)
jimmy (pick locks, also fix machines with a kick or whisper)
read lips/gesture
weather sense
shoot – bow or guns or artillery
sleight of hand, 
law, beliefs
sail, drive, or fly vehicle

Experience and Character Advancement

is handed out at DM’s will and whim, but often comes down to 1xp per session of active participation, and sometimes an extra 1 if you do something awesome.

An xp is a skill point plain and simple. The cost to improve a skill by 1 point = the resulting bonus. SO to improve a skill of 3 to 4 costs 4 points. Then to improve that to 5 costs 5 points. In short, it’s a triangular number system.

Attributes can also be improved, but the cost is triple that for skills. So to improve DEXterity from 0 to 1 costs 3xp. From 1 to 2 costs 6xp, from 2 to 3 costs 9xp. It’s the same with negatives: -1 to 0 costs 3xp. -2 to -1 costs 6xp etc.

Equipment (reproduced from here)

First roll to see how desperate and starving you are – or talk me into agreeing to a specific social stratum via a really great character concept story.

Level of Destitution (d6)

1. naked and alone. You have exactly nothing. Save vs. INT or you’re also suffering from amnesia
2. where’d you get that? roll d6+14 twice on Table A and 1d12 on Table B
3. one good friend. You have the basic tool of your trade** plus 3d8 on Table A and 1d12 on Table B
4. practically minded. You have the basic tool of your trade** plus 4d12 on Table A and 1d6 on Table B
5. expert skip-dipper. You have the basic tool of your trade** plus 4d20 on Table A
6. Favoured urbanite with social contacts: roll 6d20 on table A, 2d12 on table B

** a melee weapon or a grease monkey’s spannerwrench or a grapnel/multitool or a primus stove and glassware or whatever.

Table A
1. crowbar
2. dagger
3. shield
4. food, drink and backpack
5. lamp and flasks of oil (3)
6. melee weapon
7. armour: leather or improvised equivalent
8. bow or crossbow with 10 arrows/bolts
9. handcart – doubles as a small raft
10. mirror
11. rope (50′)
12. grappling hook
13. pouch with 20 silver dirhams
14. musical instrument
15. hammer, chisel, pick + 8 iron spikes
16. writing box and seal
17. jezzail or blunderbuss + 10 shots
18. 10 radium shells for a jezzail/blunderbuss.
19. grease monkey’s spanner-wrench
20. 3 detonator charges, with timers

Table B
1 lucky medallion (re-roll 1 failed saving throw)
2 potion of healing (2d6 hp)
3 lockable iron-bound chest
4 guard animal (dog, calot or similar)
5 riding or pack animal (camel, pony, small thoat)
6 yurt or similar packable shelter
7 armor: chain or exotic
8 book – holy text or instruction manual or blueprints
9 map
10 loyal family retainer – a standard grog with a couple of charming quirks.
11 holy symbol or badge of office
12 radio

Also check out these name lists right here.

Sample Character: Armağan the Vagrant is a some time scholar and part-time bandit. Allegedly he has a prestigious apprenticeship waiting for him among the Seers of Otrar, but that’s conditional on him bringing something back from his “fieldwork” to form the focus of his research.
Phy -1, Dex 0, Int +2, Per +1, Wis -2, Cha 0. Scholar/archaeologist 5, smuggler 3, liar 2
Chemistry set and ancient mysterious instruction manual, crowbar (counts as club), lamp and oil. One flask of something he hopes is a potion of healing.

General statements about the setting:
Tartary has “technomagic” – a lot of stuff in Tartary obeys peculiar physical laws, functions unpredictably, is misunderstood and has some kind of superstitious traditions built around it.
Doing technomagic means building and using equipment or stuff in the environment. Nobody starts with magic on hand, it must be found through play – though scholars may recognise it when they see it and know where to learn more about it. There is most of all no equivalent to DnD’s one-spell-a-day magic user or cleric – there are guilds of scholars and mad archmages with plenty of mystique around them, but they mostly fight over physical resources. Even the great choreomancers, who clearly do honest-to-whizbang magic, work with physical tools.

All new characters are generated as “companions:” competent non-magic folk. Also, by default everyone can fight – but just being a fighter is boring, so folks are mostly distinguished by being able to do other things.

Common belief says there is an “overworld,” but that’s where consensus ends. Tartary has a hard time distinguishing between magic and engineering – it certainly does not draw any clear line between magic and religion. In place of clerics there are Those Who Hold The Law. There are various kinds of uncanny spirits, sprites and parasites, but whether they are undead or not is a philosophical matter: anyway nobody can turn them.

Tartary has no “home tech level” (like DnD’s home tech level is roughly 14th century but you might run across stuff that’s anachronistic/out of place), it’s the whole history of Turkestan, ancient to post-Soviet, simultaneously – flattened into a brick – plus “magic” and post-apocalyptic bits and Girl Genius and Arabian Nights shout-outs.
But real high-tech is rare: production quality is generally low – stuff is improvised, home-made. Bows are no more common than guns or slings or atlatls, but the guns are what you could cook up in the desert with simple tools: more like unreliable muskets than modern assault rifles. You use what you can. Technologies that have dependencies (like cars that need fuel and spare parts) are rarer and less reliable than those that don’t (like rocks and hide shelters). Real manufactured goods are the stuff of legend – and are to be found in dangerous, Roadside Picnic type zones.

Tartary also has no widespread cash economy – individual cities and some confederations exist that have common money, and the Armenian and Chinese trade networks have paper letters of credit that work something like cash (but must be certified), but most trade is barter and exchange rates for metals, rare stones, spices and other common cash equivalents are wildly variable.

Language is a mish-mash of Turkic/Uighur/Persian/Arabic/Pashto forming a pidgin “common” tongue – most people also have their “native” language spoken only by a small population in the local area, so kin/neighbours often have a kind of secret code among themselves. This effect is doubled for incoming flailsnailers, who are definitely gringos/farangs in a foreign land, but can communicate well enough to get by, when everyone wants to be understood.

Colour-coded Carcosans dropped in some years ago and have their own communities out in the wastes, but they’re a minority. If you play a Carcosan then you can speak Carcosan and bad common, you’ll be tolerated by most non-Carcosans, and you may be hunted by sorcerers or paint suppliers, but in recompense you get some natural radiation/magic resistance. Prejudice is so universal and works in so many directions that it’s hardly worth mentioning anti-Orange or -Teal* feeling. The exception, of course, is Bone men, who creep out the superstitious (ie most folks but not everyone) and Yellow men, whom the Mongols have decided are their natural enemies. Barsoomian Green Men are another matter altogether – they’re actively feared by many and the Turkmens, in particular, hate them. There are some places where Green Men are welcomed and they have powerful sponsors who use them as mercenaries, but on picaresque adventures they’re going to face general flak.

Tartary is supposed to be a flailsnails setting, but Ars Magica and Tartary don’t have levels. Weird, huh? BUT there is a  Reputation stat (REP) that records your fame and badassery on Tartary, useful in social combat and when asking for favours, recruiting redshirts etc. Tartary gets television from across the flailsnailoverse; when bringing a character from elsewhere, let me know about their greatest career highs and lows to date – there’s a fair chance someone out there has seen them on TV based on their fame.
Rep = your DnD level +/- a modifier based on your glorious pratfalls so far.

For more and confusing information, follow the Baikonur and Carcosa tags.

* changes from Ars Magica: no more “communication” – that’s up to you, player. Also no more Qikness (aka “initiative bonus”), Sta, pairing of stats. Pfeh. I like differentiating Int and Wis so there you are. Also allows me to give you common sense saves vs doing something stupid.

Also Virtues and Flaws are not included here. We may add these later but for session one don’t worry about it UNLESS there is something vital to your character concept.

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.