Saturday, 29 May 2010

the boar society

Some warriors take inspiration from the natural world.  The boar has always been an obvious choice for it's brutality, determination and territoriality.  Hunters and warriors have always had a common ancestry for the taking of life is common to both.  Yet there is more to life than violence, the joy of the feast lets even a grim hunter smile.  Eladrin with their cultural affinity for hunting and spears will form a boar society if the hunting is good and certain human knights with a love of hunting will do the same. Those who join this order favour the longspear often used to slay the boar in hunts and celebrate by feasting afterwards.  The society welcomes anyone who meets it criteria and includes fighters, paladins, rangers, warlords, avengers and barbarians as well as others in their ranks.

Boar society feasts are often lavish and may turn rowdy despite the bonds shared by some battle swine who live and hunt together.  Over time, ambition grows - what self-respecting warrior wishes to be known as battle swine all their days?  The skills learned in hunting are turned in time to battle and recognition of this fact means the provision of a boar-helm and leadership of three battle swine in war.  As fame grows, a boar-helm whose skill with the long spear is such they can drive weaker foes before them are awarded a fearsome mask with steel tusks.  This token is finely decorated and lends the warrior a fearsome aspect worthy of a warrior who has faced down boars and warriors equally.

Battle Swine
Requisites: Longspear proficiency, help kill a boar using melee weapons, 
To become a battle swine, one must participate in the death of a boar with melee weapons and be anointed with it's blood by a boar-helm.
Benefits: When charging with a longspear, a battle swine gets an extra +1 to hit. 
Duties:  Once each lunar cycle they must provide a feast for three society members of any rank.  This feast must be of 5gp value minimum per guest.   Failure to provide the feast means they lose the benefits of being battle swine until they help to kill another boar.

Requisites: Powerful Charge feat, slay a boar with their longspear.
To become a boar-helm, the battle swine must slay a boar with their longspear and be witnessed by three battle swine.  A helm is made for them using the tusks of the boar (some primitive societies provide leather helmets with strips of boar ivory woven into patterns while more civilised societies provide metal helms with a boar looking forward).
Benefits: When wearing their boar-helm, they gain a +1 bonus to their Armour Class and Fortitude. 
Duties: Three times in a lunar year, lead three or more prospective battle swine in a boar hunt with the intent to make them battle swine.  Once a lunar year, lead three battle swine to victory in battle.

Steel Tusked
Requisites: Spear Push feat, Intimidate skill, slay six enemies in one day of battle and have this witnessed by two or more society members.
Among the boar-helmed are those whose ferocity in battle is notable.  These mighty warriors earn a fearsome face mask with steel tusks.  These masks are prized by boar society members and their enemies alike.
Benefits: When wearing the mask, gain +2 to Intimidate checks and a +1 bonus to their Fortitude.
Duties: Once a lunar year to lead three boar-helms (and their attendant battle swine) to victory in battle.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

ebon zikkuract - the western stair

As your divine majesty commanded, your warriors accompanied the twin scholars Dinad and Oscad of Lur to the western stair of the zikkuract.  At first I suspected that I was there to mediate between them when they would fall to arguing.   We descended the stair into night, the ziggurat reflecting the light of a pink moon under strange stars.  The causeway upon which it rests is a dark honeycomb of basalt, leading towards a shore without lights.  The sea was restless and a warm wind blew on our faces.  The lodestone that Dinad brought pointed towards the ziggurat on which we stood.  We found evidence of a tribute left at the foot of the ziggurat, a crudely fashioned idol of green-grey stone.  Oscur noted that it was best left there when one of the soldiers moved to take it.  We measured the ziggurat, identical in size to yours at Algolia.  You have already heard why Dinad believes this to be so.  Uninterrupted by monsters we continued to a shore of basalt, pumice and black sand.  The land smelled fertile, the air was warm and akin to western Algolia after storm season.

We moved away from the cliffs further inland.  The land is strange, we have not seen evidence of Ankil or his solar disk in our expedition.  Yet blue-leaved plants with fleshy leaves and blue-white fruit grow in the black soil.  Oscur left fruit and seeds with the hierophants.  A soldier dared one and found it sweet, the hierophants decreed he must fast under their watchful eyes until he is cleansed of this world.  Later we found a larger version of the idol we found at the ziggurat - then life!  A herdsman, a giant with one eye in the centre of his forehead, armed with a spear of sharp black stone herding goats.  Dinad noticed the goats - they had two dull eyes and a third one, blazing red in the centre of their brow.  We know the laws about such yet Oscur argued the goats were unlikely agents of the Hateful.  Just then the goatherd saw us and spoke - in halting Inburan!  Then I realised why your divine majesty commanded me to join this expedition.

The goatherd's name was Agak and he knew not of the Hateful.  Dinad and Oscur knew some Inburan and they questioned him at length yet Agak would only respond to me.  He feared they would un-name him - a superstition among some Inburan tribes.  Yet the cyclopean giant before me was no Inburan. I pointed at the spear and asked who had made it.  To my amazement, he repled "I did."  Yet there was no guile.  I asked if we could return to where he lived and he nodded, turning the goats about and leading us to a crude hut and fence.  We rested and ate sparingly of goat's cheese and he worked on a piece of the black stone, chipping sharp-edged fragments that he used as blades when he found a suitable one.  Agak revealed there were others of his race but he lived far from them to 'walk in smoke'.  Agak also feared the sea, saying it had 'demons' who took his people away, never to be seen again.  Oscur said to us that he was a holy man and that as twins, he and Dinad were perhaps an omen.  Knowing the Inburan tribes, Oscur was probably right.

I asked about the idol and Agak called it 'The Destroyer'.  Agak offered to show us where it slept but Oscur asked about walking in smoke.  Agak grew evasive with me until I offered him a bronze knife.  Then he grew excited and agreed.  By inhaling the fumes from a certain plant, he could show us places.  Dinad immediately grew angry, fearing the lotus-doom yet I agreed to it as did Sargad, the warrior who ate the fruit.  Agak filled a clay pot with burning herbs and we inhaled.  Then we saw our bodies beneath us and Agak appeared very different - a warrior painted in shadows.   He pointed west and we flew over the causeway, then down into the sea. We saw strange sites, a drowned city and great fish-beasts.  Were these the demons Agak spoke of?  Eventually we came to a massive cave, blocked by a boulder as tall as the great stele of Lur.  Then I saw the demons and I knew fear -  the sea kings of ancient Dagak swam these waters.  Squat and pot-bellied, cold-eyed with their gills flapping at their throats, they had enchanted one of Agak's people and led him to the cave as a sacrifice.  With a sharp bone blade they offered his blood and it billowed like smoke in the deeps.  Then I saw the boulder move - a little but what flowed from the gap was unholy.  One of the Dagaki swam up to it and it turned his scales black as night.  Agak told us we had to go.  When we returned both Dinad and Oscad agreed we had to return now - the omens were too important not to tell you.

The hierophant's discovery offers the potential of colonisation.   Agak and his people would come to serve you well and your ancestors drove off the ancient sea kings.  The presence of the 'Destroyer' is something for a great hero or the hierophants to seal.  I have heard certain stories and know that I do not have either the magic or the courage for that task.  Our journey through the sea revealed much life and even if the goats are tainted by the Hateful, your subjects will tame this world to your greater glory.  Both Dinad and Oscad have petitioned your divine majesty to return and I would do the same by your will.

Monday, 24 May 2010

campaign branding: pragmatics and you

Getting to understood can be a challenge when communicating.  This can be used to advantage in games as useful fluff to define a different culture (hat tip to Werewolf) and to encourage interaction and immersion. Everyone has experienced cognitive dissonance when the words aren't what's meant or when they've had a different persuasive effect to their intent or even the intent and the words. Communication and knowledge can be split into two streams.
  • Information - The words and their arrangement.
  • Context - The intent defined by relationship between the speaker/author and audience.
Most people get the first right yet the second is governed by a number of factors that can provide insight and inspiration and that may trip up the unwary.

Pragmatics is a field of linguistics dealing with how meaning is imparted in communication and where words may have a different intent or outcome depending on factors like context, emotion or intent, the relationship between speaker and audience, measure what isn't said (implicature) and what the message unintentionally reveals.

There are three elements to any communication.
  • What is said, it's delivery and ostensible meaning (locutionary effect) which may govern
  • The intent of the communication (illocutionary effect) which may express emotion ("Wow!"), request a course of action ("Your attention, please."), state a commitment ("I pledge my allegiance..."), state intent ("I pronounce you husband and wife") or understanding of reality ("I'm pregnant.")
  • The actual effect (perlocutionary effect) which measures the psychological impact and outcome of the communication ("Would you like a cup of tea?") may reveal the speaker as a tea addict or merely willing to share a refreshing beverage.
In some cases, different rules of grammar (use of tu and vous in French) and words (honorifics in Japanese), statements to perform a function ("This meeting is adjourned."), the message aesthetics (poetry, slogan), and the purpose (to facilitate interaction e.g. "Nice weather...") can all impart different meanings. 

All this variation can be distilled into simple rules for particular cultures and races.  A culture that reveres magic use honorifics based on the ability to wield spells.  A feudal culture insists on different patterns of speech in court to those on the battlefield.  An industrious culture may view small talk as frivolous or even disruptive.  Using these tools may lead to different, enjoyable interaction and provoke thought among your audience.

    Sunday, 23 May 2010

    default activities - beer!

    The tradition of adventurers hanging out at a local inn, tavern or other place of alcoholic consumption is a fine and noble one.  Heroes like Conan, Elric, Prince Diarmuid, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser have all been patrons at one point or another and there have been luminaries behind the bar as well - Mike Callahan, Rick Schumann and Jack Fedogan to name but three.

    This continued into RPGs via Dragon, the seminal Runequest setting Griffin Mountain, various parts of the Forgotten Realms and Tales from the Floating Vagabond.  Inns made it into text-based multi-user dungeons (MUDs) and bar-hopping is well-documented in World of Warcraft and other MMOs.  The local inn has sometimes been over-used in getting a party together - though settings like Dragonlance and Ravenloft have often taken advantage of such venues to great effect.  Socialisation, loosening of inhibitions, tall tales and outright mayhem may make for great adventures.

    Want to join in on the fun?  Those who love random generators will enjoy Inkscape Ideas.  Alternatives include Wizards of the Coast and RPG Ideas and there is no shortage of blogs who provide examples of inns and taverns for games.  Also, if you fancy contributing to a brewing and gaming site, take a look at Fantasy Brewmasters.

    (dedicated to Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt)

    Saturday, 22 May 2010

    inns & taverns - the widow's cherry

    In a very different quarter of town to The Wooden Sword where horses are not permitted is The Widow's Cherry, an affluent three-storey townhouse of solid stone, wood trellis and black canvas awnings.  Patrons enter via an arch guarded by an old, gnarled soldier and a brindled dog of uncertain ancestry that warms his feet and whines at soft-hearted passers-by.  Beyond, wide steps ascend to a square courtyard with a cherry tree and stone benches on three sides.  Those entering the courtyard are usually seen by patrons and accosted by slaves with amphorae of wine before getting inside the building.  The soldier and dog once served the owner in happier days, now keeping beggars and ne'er-do-wells out for leftovers and cups of wasted wine brought by the widow's slaves.  

    Inside, the plaster on the walls is decorated in tasteful murals of hunts for exotic animals and women playing musical instruments.  The townhouse has three spacious rooms set up as dining rooms attended by slaves who will charge two silver coins to serve patrons food and drink for the day.  Some slaves handle drunken and rowdy patrons expertly, whether by a winning smile or a firm hand.  Most here prefer to use language rather than violence.  Typical patrons are wealthy, successful merchants, ascending politicians and their hangers-on jostle cheek by jowl.  This establishment trades on reputation and quiet, discreet bodyguards.  The manager, Castelus, is a former army captain, greying and ruggedly handsome.  He runs a smooth operation here and is discreet.  The brains and charm of the outfit is the owner, Atria, whose cherry tree the tavern is named for.  The dignified widow of a merchant, she has opened her house to keep her mind active.  While this has lost her friends among the patricians, she has earned much respect from the merchants and politicians and their coin means she can always buy new friends if she needs to.

    Available drinks include red wine, white wine and a sweet cherry liquor called 'cherry kiss' that one slave will carry on their back and walk around the Widow's Cherry, offering sips from a wooden goblet.  This last is particularly potent if mixed with wine.  Slaves and servants can also buy fermented goat's milk but this is often served with parsley to prevent the sour breath that follows such a drink.  Food is served in profusion, smoked pork and salted beef are served alongside fruits, sweetmeats and honey-glazed bread.  The food is served on low-lying tables and slaves wait on the diners attentively, assisting those lacking self-control to get to where they need to go.  Most patrons are usually well-behaved though at least one every three days manages to take too much food or drink to the amusement of other patrons.  There is no accommodation to be had, even those unconscious on the benches or under the tree are gently but firmly deposited outside under the vigilant eye of the beggar and his dog.

    The upper storeys of the Widow's Cherry are off-limits and used by the owner, the manager and the slaves.  Patrons are discouraged from entering the private quarters and the owner has guards capable of discouraging a typical rowdy soldier.  Beneath the dining areas and accessible by a door guarded by a soldier is a tiled communal bathing area capable of seating twenty.  Here well-groomed and barely-clad slaves of both sexes serve watered wine and burn scented oils for those patrons who discuss matters they would prefer to keep private.  While moral guardians decry this 'depraved, secret senate' those who attend these meetings scoff at the 'inadequacy' of those critics.  Atria herself says those who visit the bathing room have nothing to hide and often leave cleaner than when they enter.  Slaves are given strict instruction not to solicit - those who do and are caught or worse, found to be with child as a result are paid for their silence and sent out of the city with a warning not to return.

    Monday, 17 May 2010

    dead sexy

    Society celebrates festivals of passion (May Day, Lei Day, Rusalka Week) and remembrance (Lemuria, Pentecost, Zartusht-no-diso).  Where cultures revere pale beauty as a symbol of power (no tilling fields for you!) and a connection between the realms of love and death is found.  Add to this the horror spawned by taboos around dead bodies and you've got some pretty potent gaming material.  How will characters deal with undead with motivations other than dietary ones?
    1. Be My Persephone - An undead known in life for their lusts abducts someone to enact them on.  Can the characters rescue the victim before a fate worse than death claims them?
    2. One last kiss? - The handsome prince has gained an obsessed admirer who dies unrequited.  Three nights later, the prince learns for some, death is no barrier to their passion and seeks outside help.
    3. The Morning After - Someone wakes up undead with no idea how they became that way after a night of passion. They need to find out how this happened.  Can the characters solve the mystery?
    This post was brought to you in conjunction with Zombie Awareness Month.

    Thursday, 13 May 2010

    ebon zikkuract - the southern stair

    Divine majesty, I must report the loss of the party who explored the southern stair of the miraculous zikkuract of Algolia.  Strange omens and incursions following Maldut of Uthuta's expedition made it necessary for guards to be posted at the keystone.  The hierophants are interpreting the omens yet I bring them to you as Nirhad of Salkuta bade me before the jungle claimed him.  The southern stair is strange to behold, you will know that the hierophants descend and return as normal.  Yet when the expedition left, they were seen walking as slowly as mourners of fallen Ningesh, their speech slurred as if drunk yet none of that expedition would dare. The jungle of the green sun has inspired curiosity among the guards, the jewel-bright insects that enter the zikkuract command a heavy price despite hierophant decree to kill and bring their bodies for study.  I know one guard who has sought to capture rather than destroy and I suspect sorcery behind his treachery.

    Before he was claimed by the jungle, Nirhad gave me this tile, saying the wisdom hidden under the green sun  tempts even hierophants to treason. I do not understand the glyphs but they change when my eyes look away then return.  There are mysteries I do not understand. The two guards reported to me before the howling fever sent them to the Underworld.  Both loyal Sarti, may her courage be rewarded and strong Naku spoke of a portal to Khadu in the jungle whose vines lashed and tried to draw blood. They said the ziggurat was covered in vines whose blooms turned in their direction.  Nirhad's incantation to Ankil parted the vines on the stairs and they followed a path revealed by moving creepers. The over-grown ruins were made of bones and a peculiar pale stone with grey and red veins.  Sarti told me of the beast cults beyond Ekkad and the howling fever.  Nirhad was greatly troubled by this, the former inhabitants may have sacrificed to the beast cults and Khadu.  To serve both would be like being torn apart by horses.

    Yet the jungle was jealous.  Naku said how he slew a vicious scalebeast that spat at Nirhad and it's venom began to grow on his flesh, turning him feverish and green.  The expedition sought shelter in the ruins and here Nirhad found a library kept dry by crystals in a pot that made the air bitter.  Stacked on shelves about the room were a number of tiles carved with glyphs.  Their sole guardian was the dusty husk of a man with the skull of a beast sat as if studying the tile you have before you.  When Sarti touched the tile, the beast-corpse rose up and breathed dust upon her and Naku.  Both of them slew the monster and on Nirhad's orders fled the ruin as Naku began to howl.  They returned, the creepers moving to trip and lash at them.  The guards saw them rising up the steps, seeming to take forever.  I went with them to the healers and gathered what I could before the howling fever choked them.

    After sometime, Nirhad came to the ziggurat, his body beginning to wither like rotten fruit and green like the creepers around him.  Ankil's invocation kept him safe but the creepers began to move like waves and I saw them twist into a likeness of a Zari giant, a great bloom where the head would be and sinewy limbs of vines.  Nirhad told me the others were dead from the jungle and that the library had lore from the beast cults and Khadu.  He spoke of nature corrupted and as his eyes mouldered, told me to present the tile to your divine majesty saying no hierophant should see it.  His last act was to bind my oath to that and though the hierophant tortured me, I have fulfilled my oath.  The giant came up the steps and as Nirhad gave me the tile, it reached out and grasped him, unaffected by the strange langour that had affected Nirhad's expedition.  Though I chopped at the sinews with my axe, the giant plant rent Nirhad in two then moved like a wave back down the steps, into the jungle, ignoring my efforts.  Though the insects from this world are highly sought after by healers and sorcerors, this world is a great peril.  The plants and venomous beasts attack explorers over blasphemous secrets tainted by howling fever.  I am yours to command or to punish divine majesty, for the world of the green sun un-makes me.  I would prefer to die cleanly in your regard than feed Khadu's spawn!

    Tuesday, 11 May 2010

    against the enemy of the good

    Perfectionism is a tricky thing.
    On one hand there is the drive to improve, to excel at what you do.  On the other often disproportionate effort and time expended.
    Lots of people mention the 10,000 hours to become an expert posited in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.  Let's face it, 2 and 1/2 hours per week for eighty-three years and 4 months (assuming you spend 4 weeks a years not gaming) may be a bit too long for some of us to get it right.
    There are those who game more or longer.  The figures scale though quantity is not always synonymous with quality.

    Accept and embrace imperfection.  The refinement process may be laden with mistakes (a proven way to learn) and missed opportunities.  Plan instead on success and leave passive-aggressive critiques to those who never get game invites but whose war stories rattle on how poor a game was ten years ago.  A word to those types: learn from the mistakes and move on - everyone else has.  Things may also have changed a bit since your last experience.

    There are strategies to help minimise the impact.  They've been mentioned before elsewhere in various places but the core ideas are essentially sound and have been proven to work.
    1. Know what success is.  Running a game can be like planning a party or as simple as getting a few friends round for beer, pretzels and a laugh.  Different games have different requirements, it is worth thinking of what you're out to achieve.  High Art may be unmanageable on your budget and environment.  Work with what you have and use tools to get where the good stuff is.
    2. Use the 80/20 rule.  Pareto's principle of 20% effort yielding 80% results can be used to great effect.  Remember no plan survives contact with the players so 100% preparation is counter-productive, particularly as there are variables you won't know until they happen.   Accept it, re-route or smooth over speed bumps and focus on the 80% at each pass.  According to Zeno, two passes means you've done 96% of the work needed.  
    3. Get things lined up.  Your players need a reason for their characters to be there, a challenge to beat and some perceived or actual recognition or reward for their efforts.  It is worth thinking of how to provide those things and how to bolster obvious weak points say an army of minions for your evil wizard for example.  Your players will make it clear if there is a shortfall in one of those things - accept the feedback with good humour.
    4. Compartmentalise.  A house without walls is a gazebo (see rule 1), a wall without bricks is a windbreak.  Cut up the preparation into discrete tasks.  Once you have done something, stop otherwise you fall prey to Parkinson's law.  Look at how it fits together and if it works, keep unless you have better to hand.  If you have the luxury of time think about how to improve those compartments.  They're called modules for a reason.
    5. Stand on the shoulders of giants.  Creativity is hiding your sources; while sites like TV Tropes and Arcana Wiki can show the strings holding your dragon up, there are plenty of sources and places to inspire you - from the One Page Dungeon Codex to resources in recession-proof gaming posts.  And this is before opening a magazine or sourcebook.
    6. Only create what you need.  This may vary by approach, the backstory may feed other elements.  Put yourself in a player's chair and ask "What do I need to know to engage with this?"  Then provide it - if pressed for time, free writing may be a poor choice.  Listening to your players is the smart way to discover what you need to focus on and plays to the awful realisation that your players may want different things than you do.
    7. Re-cycle your mistakes.  That lame villain you canned for your fantasy game may make a great supervillain with tweaking.  Slush files are good to keep for future reference.  Most people can use automated search to find something appropriate.  Combined with point 4, you can create a ready-made game in less time than you think - maybe even 60 minutes.
    What are your strategies to fight perfection when preparing a game?

      Saturday, 8 May 2010

      inns & taverns - the iron pot

      In the sleepy village of Applebrook, the Iron Pot is one of two taverns. It serves the south road next to the famous orchards for which Applebrook takes it's name. The inn is L-shaped, made of whitewashed stone with a thickly thatched roof with a chimney for smoke at the corner of the L and has two storeys. The sign shows an iron tankard filled with ale. A hedged field behind the inn holds five apple trees planted like the five pips of a die where horses may shelter and are fed hay by the stablehand who also guards the apple trees from small boys with the help of a cudgel and a mongrel dog.

      The interior is split into two wings, each with it's own bar. The north wing serves Applebrook locals as an inn, seating up to 20 people in comfort and is usually full. Inside is rustic, white stone walls supported by thick beams of oak carved with horses and apples. The locals are insular around strangers and bar staff will suggest they try the eastern wing if things get inhospitable for a visitor. The eastern wing is more refined and airy, here the beams are hung with horse brasses and blue clay cameos and the landlord personally serves.

      The Iron Pot is known for it's drinking tankards of black iron (called pots by locals and the landlord) that can survive nearly anything. Each tankard is individually numbered by the landlord, Jarcol who bought them from a merchant before he and his wife Nessa took on the tavern. Jarcol looks fierce, beetling black brows and bushy beard earned him the nickname 'Black Bear' in addition to his talents as a horse trader. His voice is rustic yet melodious emerging from his beard. His rawboned hands often catch things thrown at him by his wife Nessa, whose mane of red ringlets with white streaks and piercing, rusty knife of a voice warn miscreants to keep clear of the sharpest wit in town.

      To drink there is nut-brown humming-ale, potent and more-ish as well as three distinct ciders, Green Dell (tart, light and refreshing), Red Dancer (sweet, strong and sharp) and Brown Bush (a hazy, dark golden cider, acrid tasting and twice as strong as the humming-ale) as well as an an apple liquor. To eat Nessa will serve roasted chicken, eggs and blood pudding, pork with spiced apple chutney and a thick 'traveller's broth' with never-the-same-twice ingredients. All food is prepared well and tastes delicious.

      It is in accommodation that the Iron Pot excels, located on the top floor above the landlord's own rooms. A common room that sleeps six in comfort and three individual rooms, well-appointed lie on the top floor. The mattresses are down and the sheets and scented with lav.ender and crushed camomile. The room nearest the chimney at the intersection of the L has a surprise however. If a lone traveller of some means stays, Jarcol will put them in this room after plying them with cider. Then as they sleep, he will move into the room underneath them, light the black cauldron and wait until the water boils and then release the pin holding the bed up. The bed is constructed as a trapdoor, causing the sleeper to tumble into the cauldron of boiling water, often while asleep. Jarcol will usually brain whoever falls in for good measure if the shock doesn't kill them outright.

      The next day, Nessa will visit the rooms with a capacious wicker basket and clean each room in turn. Any goods left by missing travellers are concealed and taken downstairs for disposal to passing merchants. Any horses are sold on by Jarcol at horse markets of his acquaintance where buyers are less concerned with provenance and more with quality. This arrangement has suited both Jarcol and Nessa well, nobody is yet the wiser since their victims are usually solitary travellers or merchants without people to miss or mourn them.
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