Posts Tagged ‘Viziers’

Men in Black 2: Priests of Ming

April 22, 2013 Leave a comment

While their sardonic cardinal gets all the best lines, the whole Priesthood of Ming shares a sense of humour perhaps best appreciated from a safe place very far away. Priests of Ming are the hands and eyes of the Emperor’s divine will. They’re also utterly alien creatures, which have learned to conceal their true natures by mimicking the shapes of men – or of a hundred other objects. Outside the public gaze they set down their golden masks and rubber eyes and relax into puddles of black glup. When they return from their missions they merge with the Ur-pool and share their individual experiences in a communion only dreamed of by other creatures, to emerge again on demand with strength, memories and skills drawn from the collective pool.

At least that’s the idea. Recently a growing number of “budlets” have been postponing their reintegration, perhaps under the influence of the mighty Klytus, perhaps corrupted by the collective’s long but uneasy partnership with The Ming.

As monsters the Priests are commanders of Ming’s soldiers (reskinned orcs), palace guards (reskinned kobolds) and secret police (assassins, levels 1-4). They are also highly mobile and dextrous mimics, their hit dice (but no other stats) dependent on their size. Man-sized Priests usually have 4HD (ie 4d4). Natural AC is 8, but Priests often go armoured – partly because it makes maintaining form easier. They may have spells, psionics or divine magics, but they uniformly have poor grip: they cannot use bows apart from crossbows. Melee weapons must be adapted to their bodies, with wide, non-slip handles. On the other hand they can attack without artificial weapons, stabbing with spikes for 1d6, constricting with ropey tentacles for 1d3 per round (break with a str vs str contest), or smothering/choking by intruding into the airways of their victims (dex vs dex contest to avoid, 1d4 damage and save vs CON of lose consciousness each round, -1 per round of intrusion. Damage increases by 1 die size each round of continuous occupation). Other attacks are left to the ingenuity of the DM.

As PCs, Priests develop their powers slowly. In order to level up a Priest must rejoin the Collective, which rewards their successes (xp) with skills. Priests fight and save as thieves, but level up on the Magic User table.  They have access to the unarmed attacks detailed above. They get D4 hit dice and may use any weapons and armour, provided it is adapted for their use (fitted with non-slip grips, padding under chain or ring mail). They conduct electricity cheerfully and are immune to electrical attacks. On the downside they can also be deformed against their will by electromagnetic fields.
Although most Priests leave the Collective with 3-4 cubic feet of glup body, they may elect to be anywhere from half to double that volume without any change in game mechanics.

Beginning at 1st level, Priests can transform at will between their “native” blob of glup form and one other form per level, which is selected while the Priest is leveling up in the Collective. The Priest’s glup form is highly deformable but cannot squeeze through gaps narrower than 6 inches (size of a CD), -1”/level (so at 1st level that’s 5″).* If human-sized it occupied 3-4 cubic feet. The glup form can move 1’/round/level on a flat surface, but it may roll, slide or flow faster down inclined surfaces. In glup form a Priest takes half damage from falling. Other forms can move at the speed you’d expect for the thing being mimicked, although winged forms cannot fly.
Maintaining form is exhausting: Priests must rest for 13 hours a day – 1 hour/level or lose 1HP for each hour of rest missed.
At 3rd level Priests can act as one other character class of 2 levels lower, casting spells, picking locks etc (may change class on leveling up). This class is chosen while the Priest is in the Collective and may be changed each time the Priest rejoins the Collective (ie at each level up). Priests can also get skills off whatever weird-ass table you found on someone’s blog, such as Zak Smith’s Alternative Classes.
At 5th level Priests may divide themselves into 2 or more parts, which may act independently. When they do so they divide their attributes and stats among the parts as they wish, but each part must have at least 1 in everything.
At 7th level a Priest may improvise novel forms that are not on their transformation list. Doing so requires a save vs magic – if the save is failed the novel form fails and cannot be attempted again until the next level. On a natural 20 the priest forgets one of their usual forms until the next level-up. 7th level Priests can also demand up to 8x the usual volume of glup for their bodies (ie 32 cubic feet**). If they have over 16 cubic feet of glup, hit points are doubled.
A 9th level Priest attracts 1d12 Priest followers or wannabes. It may Collectivize with other Priests to create a giant-sized creature with the sum of all Hit Dice and damage capabilities, reflected either as multiple attacks or a single attack with the total damage potential of all the Priests in the Collective.

In order to have authority over Ming’s forces, a Priest must have a golden Mask of Office. Ming’s forces are surprisingly ill-informed and have no idea of what lurks behind those masks, so merely doing your mimic trick may scare them but won’t command loyalty.

* we may conclude from Klytus’ complete liquefaction in the City of the Hawkmen that he was at least 5th level. He of course escaped death at the hands of Voltan and the Imperial Navy by dribbling into the bilges of the city and then hailing fellow priests aboard War-rocket Ajax from a dangling aerial, Luke Skywalker style.
** what would you do with so much glup? Maintaining multiple person-sized forms is one obvious and popular option, being impressively huge is another (a Priest could pose as a Hutt or an unusually corpulent Thark). There are rumours of some Priests posing as entire buildings, with hollow interior spaces and working doors.

Back to the bad old 6-mile hex

April 8, 2013 4 comments

So the topic of the enormous howling waste of the 6 mile hex has come up again. Here Steamtunnel remarks that all of Bethsoft’s Oblivion fits in a 4 mile square. Commenters note that verisimilitude for computer games is different from what you’d expect in an RPG.

Anyway, it is true: settlements and incident are distributed very unevenly across the land. Monsters and Manuals made this point cogently with some one-mile rectangles around Britain.

Behold Brielle. I know I’ve mentioned it before but that’s because it’s such a great little DnD one-horse town, with room for a blacksmith and a chemist’s and a mill and not much else. We can see from the still-standing 17th century fortifications exactly how big the place was 400 years ago. It’s about a third of a mile long by a fifth of a mile wide. It could probably support itself on… 2 square miles of good farmland? (that would provide 640 people with 2 acres each, which J. P. Sommerville thinks is reasonable and right now I’m too lazy to disagree). So it occupies one small corner of a 6 mile hex.

Leiden’s a more respectable candidate for a “hex of city.” That jagged square of canal-moat gives you an idea (though the boundaries of the city are less certain in fact, since successful towns always break their enceintes). At the time of its great ditch digging, Leiden was a successful linen-weaving town and trade hub, big enough to support some organized crime and intrigue with nearby cities – an ideal place for a major expedition to set off from. It’s about a mile on its long axis by 2/3 of a mile across. Not very different from burgeoning powerhouse Amsterdam in 1600, which would grow to about 4 times that area by virtue of becoming NW Europe’s major entrepot in the first era of global trade.

And between the two, if we were to lay a 6 mile hex grid down, what would we find in the roughly 5 hexes that separate them, during the 17th century (for which we actually have good maps, even if they do show west as up)?

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 11.45.38 AM

On a fairly straight line, representing a reasonable route of travel, 11 noteworthy communities (let’s call them Brielle-sized, more or less) including the regionally important city of Delft. And within convenient reach, two cities of comparable size with Leiden but greater importance: the shipping center of Rotterdam and The Hague, seat of power for the entire Dutch Republic.

My choice of the Dutch Republic is not accidental for this experiment, since it was one of the most densely populated territories in Europe at the time under consideration – it’s a good upper limit for your pseudowhatever.

Now check out the fortified palace district of the Khiva, in Khorasan (Islamdom’s Northeast Frontier province in the 10th century). You can make out the jagged line of the wall fairly clearly there: it’s a more or less N-S rectangle, about the same size as Brielle but with a totally different population profile since it represents the ruling class’s bolthole, surrounded by the unprotected city of the lower classes.

Alas we don’t have any particularly good idea of how big the whole of Khiva was in the 10th century, nor how much (far from good) farmland was required to support it. But check out the density of settlements around it. The much smaller town of Qoshkopir is about 2 hexes away (10 miles), the comparably-large Urgench rejoices in its control of the Oxus river trade route about 3 hexes away. But once you’re out of that oasis and you’ve said farewell to the meagre orchards of Hazorasp, you’re in for a 33 hex journey through friendless desert to Bukhara (more like 36 of you follow the river) or 42 hexes to the Abode of the Mad Archmage at Ashgabad. Or, for that matter, 40 hexes to Merv. Here you have to use your imagination a bit more, since the city is buried under desert scrub. But take my word for it – well over 6 square miles of dense, Ankh-Morporkian/Vornheimian urban life, with a wall around it and a separate fortified ruling quarter within (and another within that), home to (maybe) more than a million people – one of the 12th century’s premier destinations, graced by the astronomer and sometime poet Omar Khayyam, seat of the (latter, diminished) Great Seljuk sultans – it’s truly a hex full of city. On its own oasis, with a whole lot of desert around it in every direction.

What’s my point? Maybe that the 6 mile hex encourages a certain uniformity that’s not very naturalistic – or, rather, that the real world is not always very obliging in providing regular encounters. But also I think the size of hexes isn’t really important in itself: it’s really what that size implies about the world that I find interesting. Hexes tend to represent one unit of interesting stuff, for which it’s worth dropping out of fast-forward travel mode. As such they represent the degree of compression of the narrative (and the overall dangerousness of the region, since hexes also represent repetitive risk of random encounters). In the garden of the Netherlands perhaps a village is hardly worth mentioning – you could trip over a dozen on a day’s hard march. In the open steppe/desert of Khorasan, however, a string of hexes represents a logistical challenge. And one lonely watchtower is worth a playable detour.

I guess I’m saying make your hexes the size you want dramatically. And if you don’t have much to say about a certain tract of country… well, hexes are useful for tracking all sorts of stuff: gun ranges, use of supplies, visibility. I don’t advocate ditching a uniform scale to speed up desert or sea travel. But how about this: when you roll for random encounters, the number you get is the number of hexes until you have to roll again (minus one, so if you roll a 1 it’s an encounter right here). Then the density of encounters can be represented by the size of the die you roll: d4 along the river, d6 across country, d10 across the desert, d20 across the sea.

ETA: oh yeah, some other stuff I wrote about 6 mile hexes: how far you can see across the Greek Islands, and a correction to that post, which shows you can actually see pretty much the whole of the Minoan saltbox from a couple of places.

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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.”

trade goods by theft rating

September 25, 2012 4 comments

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

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

…how would you go about stealing them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 questions for Tartary, my Carcosesque Bollymecha, Wacky Racing and Ancient-tech-tomb-raiding setting

June 22, 2012 4 comments

Following some inspiring posts about weird post-apocalyptic and sciency-fantasy settings, I figured I should try to explain my Tartary setting (again!), this time using Jeff’s famous 20 questions.

…I would do it with pictures, like Robert Parker’s brilliant post (first link) but my poor google-fu on coming up with illustrations for the setting has almost convinced me that I need to start making pictures myself again. >grimace<

Here’s the thing: there’s plenty of gonzo to go around in the setting, but I like the overall feel to be fairly down-to-earth and down-at-heel. So while you may journey to the ghostlands and be chased through fields of porcelain masks by this:

much of the time you’re going to be dealing with places like this:

In fact if I had to sum up the landscape of the setting in one photo it would probably be:

…the fortress on the hill protects the vizierate of Ulm, but not most of the people of the city, who cling to its shell. Out beyond the irrigation zone, where the hungry desert waits, there are hundreds of little experimental shrines – attempts at the gods alone know what, and now the abode of bandits, ghouls and worse.

So. Tartary has some places which are more prosaic and some that are deep in the Weird, kinda like Chris Kutalik’s Hill Cantons and Weirdlands but less formal – the weirder places are where the background psychic radiation is higher. The more mundane or “stable” lands are an amalgam of all the historical periods of Central Asia pancaked flat into one present time. This Tartary is a place of isolated, warring city-states separated by wide deserts and steppes. In the weirder places, lost technologies of the distant future-past might still be working. Incursions from Outside are easier (that’s how the Carcosans and Tharks got in), stuff is more like a Cthulhuvian Moebius bad trip.

[This map is awesome and scaleable and has historical flavour, but the Google Maps of Tartary is altogether more usable, I find]

Empires flare and sputter across this landscape as one city gains a fleeting advantage over the others. When the cities aren’t fighting with armies, they engage in contests for prestige, the most famous of which are the gladiatorial fights between gigantic metal and wood constructs, powered by parts pulled out of the weirdlands and held together by the strange alchemy of grease-monkeying. The pilots of these enormous juggernauts enjoy the status of Bollywood film stars – and must be capable performers for the ever-present, invisible Tartary TV cameras.

The physics between the two realities is not exactly compatible – the weirdlands could almost be considered regio within Tartary, but they’re (more or less) reliably reachable from the stable lands, and there’s imperfect translation of artifacts between the weird and the stable. Weirds can appear and disappear in the middle of the stable regions, they can follow powerful artifacts, or be called into existence by mighty acts of juju. There are many explanations for what the weird might be – a thinning of some veil between worlds, or cancerous tumors in reality, or knots tied up in space-time  by irresponsible jerks mucking around with powers they don’t understand. The important thing is, sometimes stuff you find in the weird can be brought back into the stable. Sometimes weird powerful artifacts can be reproduced in the stable zones, leading to sparks of industrial magical revolution. And fortunes can be made and gunpowder empires can spread… and then one day it stops working, or the batteries run out, or you can’t get the necessary molybdenum any more. So the whole of Toxic Tartary is in a technological, magical, political and treasure-hunting ferment. The constructs are all one-off trial-and-error inventions, only partly understood by their architects and mostly resistant to mass-reproduction. And the whole society is flailsnails-ready: no matter how strange your PC is, the locals will treat them with wary respect or fear – but they’ll be willing to treat with them, because who knows, you might represent the new normal for the next 5 years.

These answers to +Jeff Rients “Twenty Campaign Questions” apply principally to the “stable” lands: the weirds are too diverse to be addressed this way. They’re also influenced by +kirin robinson‘s recent 20 answers for his incredible ukiyo-e by way of Larry Niven setting, which are extremely awesome and can be found right here (thanks kirin!).

What is the deal with my cleric’s religion? You can worship any old thing, and it might give you powers or not, but the closest TT has to a cleric class is the Carcosesque sorcerer/cult leader, and that leader will probably have to explain their whole deal to any followers because religion is totally balkanized. Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Manichaeism and Christianity, and a host of other religions, all exist in the setting, but in so many heterodox forms that it’s up to you, the player, to own your own version and tell people your own restrictions. Any PC can invest 1hp in a faith, and if they do there’s a small chance each day of them getting a spell power, for some time period.

Where can we go to buy standard equipment? There are money economies in the major cities – eg Bokhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kashgar, Herat. Between those, smaller towns and settlements that cluster around the weirdzones might have caravanserais with traders that take cash. Elsewhere, it’s a barter, gift and social obligation economy. So make friends, be generous, distribute your treasure locally, and build up social networks, and you’ll be able to get equipment as needed. Or join the Muslims or Magians and cultivate a reputation for upright behavior and wisdom, and then co-religionists will probably help you out.

Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended? one of the cities that has trade with the weird – Otrar, Khiva, Ashgabat – or one of the grease monkey settlements deep in the weird, say around Dashoguz or Ulaanbator, but then it’s likely to come with extras you may or may not want.

Who is the mightiest wizard in the land? there’s half a dozen wizard wars running right now to resolve that. The Mad Archmage of Ashgabat gets a wide berth from the others. Of course the wizards of old must’ve been unbelievable, judging by the damage they caused, and there might be remnants of them still kicking around. But you know, the Mongols have been too quiet for too long, and when they get moving…

Who is the greatest warrior in the land? That easy! Prince Khairun, Sword of the Prophet, Lord of Amritsar. He’s also the most handsome, and has the most dashing moustache. His Golden Dome has crushed all competitors in the arenas – even the Titanium Elephant of the Sultan of Aceh, terror of the Sea Kingdoms. His exploits are told far and wide by the traveling theaters.

Who is the richest person in the land? They say the Armenians of New Julfa can buy and sell kingdoms, and the Hongs of Amoy could buy the Armenians. But none of them can buy loyalty, like the Mongols have for their Khans, or the Mamluks for their Black Banner leaders.

Where can we go to get some magical healing? Magic doesn’t heal, it exchanges one misfortune for another. Still, if you’re under a curse there are wise women and fakirs and cunning men all over the place. In Bokhara they have a market full of them.

Where can we get cures for the following: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath? Most of this sounds like magical healing. Look, if you’re really desperate, ask around at the Magian fire temple, the seers guild, or the Armenian trade-house, but if you get told to try the burned lands to the north, you should ask elsewhere: I’m afraid you’re more likely to come back with those things than to get them healed there.

Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells? Every city has them, but they tend to be close-knit and cultish, and they’ll certainly want you to work for your knowledge. The surest path to magic power is through the guilds that work for the city sultans and princes (and quite a few cities are ruled by great wizards), but there are always rumors of deeper magics out in the wilderness and if folk wisdom is true and magic really comes from demons and djinn, then no doubt there are bunches of magicians hanging around the gas craters and ice caves where the demons gather. If you’re an MU without a guild or a demon then you probably got your powers through some alarming encounter in the weirdlands, in which case I can understand your previous two questions.

Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC? The cities are dripping with them. The trick is to separate the witch-doctors and charlatans from the real men-of-wisdom. All the famous ones are in the employ of the sultans and big merchants, of course. But there are plenty of not-so-famous ones, keen to make an impression or ready to trade knowledge for ingredients/tools. And then there are the guys out in the high towers in the desert, but they’re usually way out there because they’re up to something the sultans wouldn’t tolerate in town…

Where can I hire mercenaries? How much trouble do you want? Gangs of ruffians can be found outside most cities’ walls. For warbands, people go to the Mongols in the plains or the Pashto in the mountains around Herat and Kashgar, or if they’re desperate, the Green Men of the burned lands. If you can negotiate terms with a whole army, there are the Mamluk states, the Karpans of Amritsar and the Janissaries of he Great Turk – they all keep large bodies of professional warriors who need regular exercise to stop them getting ideas against their crowns.

Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law? Every city has its own laws, but they don’t extend very far beyond the walls.

Which way to the nearest tavern? One in every caravanserai and several in each town, or at least every town near something dangerous. Or if the town is dry, then there will be Qat chewing galleries or bath-houses or pleasure palaces. Or if the town is dry and run by a mad archmage who hates dancing and sensual pleasures, then you’ll either have to pick up rumors about underground speakeasies at the market, or hang out at the mosque and conduct your business in the arcades there.

What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I’ll become famous? There’s all sorts of stuff in the weirdlands, but if you bring it back to town you might not get the kind of fame you’re looking for. There have been outbreaks of snake-kings in the temple quarter of Bokhara, and the Great Caravanserai outside Tashkent has been unusable for years because of an infestation, so if you could clear that up you’d get lionized, for sure. If you’re after a quick raid, Green man and Turcoman heads are always worth a good bounty in the cities.

Are there any wars brewing I could go fight? Always. The Turcomans wage seasonal war on the cities in the west, the Mongols in the east. The Qaghan of Kashgar has delivered a mortal insult to the Prince of Amritsar, so there will be trouble there, probably in the neighborhood of Herat, where they’re fighting the goblinmen of Mustagh. Every city is constantly developing its own doomsday weapon against its neighbors, and the countryside is littered with princeling heirs to the thrones of Amir Timur and the Great Mongol, who have no more than a horse and a sword today, but dream of world conquest tomorrow. Even the leaders of peace cults rely on high walls and sharp spears to keep the murderers out. War is the dominant mode of life.

How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes? Now you’re asking! They’re everywhere, at every level of society, from the insect- and cock-fights of the street kids, to the riding fights of the Turcoman horseclans, to the armored untouchables’ pit-fights that the town shopkeepers gamble on, to the colosseum races organized by the guilds and bandit princes, hoping to break into the big time. And at the top of the heap, fighting for kings’ ransoms, the great, glittering, walking temples and titanium elephants and stone-shelled razorwyrms of the Fighting Princes.

Prince Khairal of Jaisalmer’s Thronecrusher Stonethrower, in dormant state prior to battle.

Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight? Well YEAH, name something & it’s in. Mafias, cults and deposed princes’ cabals or royal pretenders are par for the course, and every vizier plots against his prince or spies on his rivals, so there are shadowy organizations and men in black aplenty. But there are also rumors of sects devoted to expanding or eliminating the weirds, One Church hashishim, agents from Cathay gathering intelligence for a general invasion, icewitches of the north and Secret Masters, who run the history of Tartary and manipulate its brushfire wars for their own mysterious ends.

What is there to eat around here? Delicate banquets of spiced quail and golden bags of fragrant tender lamb with iced sherbets, or foul-smelling foull in raw clay bowls, depending on what end of the social spectrum you’re on, or how far you are into the Kukeldash mountains. There’s also glass fungus and lotus powders from the weirdlands, if you’re feeling like living dangerously or bored with your current number of limbs.

Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for? supposedly the world used to be a garden filled with nature spirits, but they all got trapped in stones or ivory spheres or something. The city of Irem sank below the sands – allegedly they had an unrivaled menagerie of constructs, which might yet work if you dug them out. Or there’s whatever flattened Merv – the stories about that are pretty wild, nobody can agree on exactly what it was, but if you could find it and it worked then you could do some serious damage to the political status quo. Or if you like to dream big, there’s the farishtas of the overworld. They must have some really cool stuff. But that would be like taking on the gods.

Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure? You want giant monsters, it’s the weirdlands for you. Whether they’ll have treasure is another matter. You want a sure path to treasure, knock over a guild or a merchant caravan – but be warned, the enmity of the guild will likely be worse even than the giant monsters they probably have for protection.

Telecanter wrote an unbeatable one-line campaign pitch. I stir in Central Asia

February 14, 2012 7 comments

So Telecanter wrote this typically inspiring post, the final line of which is undiluted adventurous expectancy:

A city of ancient magic users so corrupted that mages only visit it through constructs and familiars.  Constructs battles constructs for glowing relics.

Oh sure, you say: sounds like ASE or Encounter Critical! or even the fabled city of Carcosa itself, rippling uncertainly out there past the blasted plain McKinney gave us to wallow in. With a dash of Battletech.

I say it’s all of these and more (notably, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace*), mixed up and plopped down on one enormous hex map. I say I may finally have found my very own dungeoneering rabbit-hole right here, my League of Extraordinary inter-genre gates. And alas I only have 30 minutes to write it up today. But I’m going to, because (a) I promise to return to this topic, so this will be the umbrella post (tag: Baikonur) and (b) I’ll be too busy to post at all for the next 2 weeks, so I want to leave you with something evocative and links-rich rather than something ranty or scattershot.

I’ve said before that I don’t want to run a game in pseudo-medieval Europe. Don’t get me wrong, I like it there, but you guys have it covered. No, my go-to place for Anomalous Shenanigans and Excitement is Khorasan and Mawarannahr, known to its current divested imperialist overlords and satraps as “Central Asia.” Partly because it has an immensely rich and mostly ignored (in English) history of its own, partly because it has suffered apocalypses and post-apocalypses the like of which we prefer not to dream about even in our fantasies, but mostly because as a benighted western Orientalist I can imagine really wild things happening there (like Lovecraft placing Leng in Tibet – where it gets a flavour he couldn’t have written into it himself).

And pancaking its whole history into one unbaked brick gives us a fertile ground for an actually coherent, flailsnailulous genre-hopping campaign world. Because the cities of pre-modern CA – like Samarkand, Khiva, Kashgar – are Arabian Nights points of light: walled citadels in the desert, fed by hanging gardens and watered from hundreds of miles away by underground networks of pipes. Mutually suspicious, they each struggle to develop their own technologies hidden from the others. And the landscape is pretty much the Platonic ideal of wilderness, whether you want it to stand in for the Western’s Painted Desert, for icy tundra or for the steppes (which it mostly isn’t, actually). It is, after all, where the prototypical barbarians came from. But mostly because in that landscape there is a multitude of weird anti-oases, from constantly burning gas craters to dried up seas and stranded ships to… exactly those things Encounter Critical is on about. Peasants scavenging rocket boosters to sell their ultratech alloys – because the boosters were dropped right on their goat pastures and nobody else seems to want to go near them.

Which brings me to Telecanter’s one-liner. A city so corrupted that the mages will no longer go there in person, but send constructs. And, of course, hapless and desperate adventurers. Because at the blank heart of this blank space on the map we find Baikonur (hedged about, natch, by false Baikonurs…)

Which may or may not be so bad in reality, but in our fantasy Central Asia it takes on shades of Pynchon‘s hallucinatory vision of Peenemunde – maybe even becomes part of an unholy trinity, together with Pripyat and Berzengi, Empty Palace of the Mad Archmage. These are the hot sites – the ones still too toxic to have been picked clean. To get to them you have to pass through their outlands – their Leng plateaux and mutagenic caves, where you can pick up some dinosaur-riding sherpas who know the way to the edge of the glass plain, unless you can hitch a ride on the villaintrain or swipe a patrol vehicle.

Of course, even the long-dead cold sites might still be hot – and have pickings – underground. Which brings me at last to Merv. From 1050 to 1150 (ahem Wessex) Merv was one of the brightest centres of the enormous and technologically vibrant Seljukid Empire, ruled by a series of double acts featuring Conan-type Barbarian Kings “assisted” by ingenious, obsequious Persian Viziers. Until it was utterly destroyed by the Mongols in 1220. After that it became pretty much exactly Beedo’s Black City – a massive ruin with a little living settlement clinging to its side – a megacity megadungeon collapsing into the scrub. Later interpreters have scavenged it for those things their ancient books and scrolls have told them about – things which may themselves turn out to be rather hallucinatory** –  but they haven’t known what to do with the buildings that they can’t classify. Which is most of them, and definitely all the craziest, most fun ones:


Check out especially recent digitization work on the Greater Kyz Kala (translation: “big fort-like thing we still don’t know what it is”) and the ice house (for keeping ice, for your refreshing sherbets, obviously, for when it’s 110 degrees F outside).

Finally, in case you were bored by that whole thing, here: fighting pirates with airships. For reals. And for the Cthulhu-minded, I see the Russians have just drilled into an underground lake in Antarctica in hopes of finding a “truly alien” environment. Countdown to Shoggoth starting… NOW.

* check out this gallery of localisation covers for the novel. I like how everyone conforms to their stereotypes: America predictably goes with the image of the car turned horse carriage, the French are doing something vaguely sexy that I don’t remember in the book, and Russia goes typographic (I mean, really, with this material?) but it’s the Serbian edition that wins.

**mmmyeah, ask me about that another time…

Real historical adventurers: Prince Rupert of the Rhine

June 10, 2011 Leave a comment

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

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

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

So was he a hero?

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

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

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

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

In lieu of a Joesky payment, Prince Rupert offers you this:

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

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

Cughell’s cupiditous ciosc

April 7, 2011 1 comment

In the Friday mosque at Firuzabad they tell of a bold, ingenious and prolific thief, who would set himself up in front of another merchant’s stall in the market and sell their goods, magicked up for him by an enchanted shop-front he plastered over his victim’s. The wares he sold would crumble to dust or melt into smoke hours after their purchase – when the gulled buyers returned to confront the thief he would inevitably be gone or, so wilder rumours claim, might be seen folding his trick shop-front up into a little wooden case, before running off into the tangled crowd. Those repeatedly tricked added details to the story: the shop-front was only paper thin but it looked just like the closed shop it covered over – some claimed they had even been allowed into back rooms for tea, or to examine rare and valuable items. It could be recognised by the dove that always cooed from a cage at the front. And the wares always closely resembled those of the real, closed shops that the thief had obscured, so that many distinguished old hajjis have been banned from the market for fighting with shopkeepers that they insist have swindled them. Stories from other cities and markets differ in small details: one centres on the thief’s distinctive turban, another on his parrot, a third on the curious lightness of the bogus goods. Some storytellers purport to be the thief’s erstwhile friends – they say the thief was himself a respectable, upstanding man but that after he acquired the shop-front his mind turned to greed and trickery. In Firuzabad the thief has now not been heard of in a month. There is a rumour that the vizier has him imprisoned, and has confiscated his remarkable kiosk.

the bond between a bishop and his chorbishop

April 4, 2011 Leave a comment

is a sacred one, of the utmost trust for, as chorbishop Veltinari famously observed, how else would the business of the church ever get done? Since it falls to the chorbishop to do all the lower church tasks of the bishopric – actually dealing with petitioners, keeping lead on the roofs and gold in the pockets and so on such that the bishop can be free to deal with his fellow bishops (generally by poison), the chorbishop is indispensible to his bishop and, although custom may demand that the bishop humiliate his second in command in public, he tends to be very well rewarded in private. It is for this reason, and not the scurrilous one so often bruited about by the laity, that the chess piece depicts the bishop and his undermiter back to back, a solid unit against the treacherous world.

This does not mean, of course, that the chorbishop refrains from his own politicking – far from it. Indeed, he tends to be if anything even more cutthroat and ruthless against his fellow chorbishops than his superior in the Electoral Palace, and is frequently too taken up with such diversions to launch a joint attack with his master against another see. How else, mused Veltinari, would chorbishops ever be prepared for a full bishopric? But the machinations of chorbishops and bishops rarely move in the same constellations for, no matter how intricately laid the calumny or ingenious the trap, no bishop could ever fall to a chorbishop’s hand. Neither would a bishop dirty his hands with a chorbishop’s undoing. By an ancient accord understood intimately in the gutter press, blows fit to unseat men of such power could only come from their peers. And so the chorbishop’s place in the important Business of the Realm was canonically restricted, as it was in his official duties, to stage-managing the bishop’s coups, supporting his train, and ensuring that the pratfalls and spike pits came always to rest just under those places where the enemy would deign to slip.