Saturday, February 28, 2009


Since I've done info dumps a couple of times this week, I'm going to try to be brief on the next few posts. I've got a couple of writing things I'm working-- one for Gene and another I'm trying to pad into shape in my head. Then I have to get caught up on emails for Libri Vidicos. In any case I'll try to be more focused here for a few days.

Books I've Read Recently That I've Enjoyed

The New Weird (Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, ed)
This is an anthology of stories and excerpts drawing from various authors who echo a particular movement in fantasy and sci-fi-- with China Mieville, Steph Swainston, and M. John Harrison noted as often echoing the themes. There's an excellent introduction where the editors try to set out some of the ideas and a decent bibliography at the end.

The stories themselves are generally pretty good-- strangely, while they do cite and include Moorcock as an influence, the selection they choose is fairly prosaic. I'm also a little surprised William S. Burroughs isn't mentioned more strongly as an forerunner. There's a round-robin story at the end that includes an entry by my sister, Cat Rambo, so that's a plus. There's also a brief piece from a discussion on what might define The New Weird, from a thread begun by Harrison. I liked the book and was surprised how much of the stuff I'd already read or owned (Jay Lake, Thomas Ligotti, Jeffrey Ford).

In the debate about literary genres and names, there's mention of the backlash against the label of Cyberpunk and how that spun out of control into third-tier aping crap. Having lived through the time when that stuff first arrived on the scene (William Gibson, George Alec Effinger, Bruce Sterling) the vitriol bothered me. But they are right that so many of the interesting ideas of that period got watered down and mass-marketed. That also made me realize what I didn't like about S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods. It has great images and some interesting stuff, but it feels more like someone borrowing the weird and using it in the most conventional and salable way-- beyond the fact that the story just breaks down over time into a literal deus ex machina without irony.

The Rest is Noise (Alex Ross)
Ross has produced the definitive overview of Classical Music in the 20th Century. I don't think there can be any doubt of that. Without adhering slavishly to a chronological order for his explanation and analysis he still manages to put the pieces together comprehensibly (in all senses of that word). He shows how various composers interacted on a personal and compositional level. He ties together the political and intellectual movements of the times and demonstrates their impact on music. In that sense it is a wonderful look at how this past century rolled out from a different perspective.

I'm a big fan of cultural history-- or of histories that take an unusual approach. I've always been fascinated by historiography and intellectual history. There's something I want to write some day about battling Cliomancers with disparate takes on what history means, writing and rewiring the stories of the past. I also love 20th Century Classical music-- up to a point. Ross's has made me re-interested in some composers that I wrote off as too distant and too strange (Carter and Ligetti for example). If you like more modern classical music it is worth a read.

Too Cool to Be Forgotten (Alex Robinson)
Gene sent me this. I had seen it mentioned on a number of comic book blogs, but I hadn't picked up much about the story. I assumed it feel into the category of Autobiographical graphic novels, something I've never been that interested in. While it obviously does draw on some autobiography, the framing device for the book is great and makes everything fresh.

It also helps that the period and setting he's dealing with, high school in the mid 80's corresponds exactly to my experience. Not in the sense that I was in the same kind of group-- being mostly pure geeky, keeping to myself, and playing rpgs with people several years older than me. But he does present a version of the times that rings true. The reveal and change that happens late in the book works and works well. And I'll admit I cried, but then again I'm an easy mark for sentimentality.

Weapons of the Gods Companion
Yes, it is an rpg book, but it is also a very weird beast. The original core book for Weapons of the Gods is a set of rules that has consistently defeated me. I've gone back several times to reread it and only now do I think I have a grasp of the core mechanics. It is a Wuxia fantasy game, based in an established setting that I think few people have actually read. That's another strangeness-- I have a hard time telling how much is draw from that and how much is them weaving new things. It has ideas about building a character's destiny at the start of the game and a host of 'mechanics' that seem more story spinning than actual playable stuff. I had the same reaction to the rpg Nobilis which was authored by one of the writers for WotG, R. Sean Borgstrom. That book's one I regret losing in the fire.

In any case, the Companion follows up from the original book and adds some new mechanics. There are rules for developing new martial arts and artifact weapons. These sections are fairly prosaic, but if one were to run a Wuxia game they'd be great resources. There's also a complete city setting presented with the kind of detail that I love. Few mechanics combined with a rich sense of setting and dynamite ideas for entry points for the characters-- and not just entry points, but how to have the PCs actually matter in the course of the game. It is the best and most useful to me presentation of a city setting since the Kaiin Player's Guide for the Dying Earth rpg. I should stop me and say why I love the Kaiin book. That volume is completely written for the players. There is no GM supplement for the city. Instead, it presents ideas and discussion about the various parts of the city and then gives plot hooks. These hooks are ones for the players to develop and present to the GM-- the idea being that they can, on the fly, build themselves into the city. It is brilliant.

Back to the WoTG Companion-- rules for something called the Great Game take up the bulk of the volume. They present a comprehensive but loose set of structures for how to manage grand scale events and ideas in the game. Do you want to take control of a province and bring war to your neighbors? Do you want political control of a city? Do you want to spread your martial arts philosophy across the land? It has unique approach to handling that and integrating those things into the flow of a standard campaign. It might not be used by every GM, but I think the ideas there are useful for every GM.

Buffy: Season 8
I mentioned before that I'd been reading these, generously lent by H. I read the first three volumes. The first one, Long Way Home, is written by Whedon mostly. I enjoy his TV work, but I didn't care for his take on Astonishing X-Men which felt like an overly slavish love-letter to the early Claremont era of X-Men. There's something of that in the first volume-- and I initially classified it as fan-fiction. But eventually it grew on me. He jumps off from the logic of the end of the series and just keeps moving forward. I like the plot arc he's begun to set up here. It does have some real entry barriers for new readers-- if you don't know the Buffy Mythos well, you're going to be lost. It took me several reads to put together exactly what was going on and who got killed at a couple of crucial places. There's also a lot...a lot...packed into these first stories which threw me off a little, given how much decompressed story-telling has become the norm in comics now. Also, the art, while good, doesn't really make a serious attempt to look like the characters from the show which threw me a little.

Brian K. Vaughn penned the second volume, No Future for You. He wrote Y the Last Man and I generally like his handling of female characters. However the appearance of my least favorite Buffy character, Faith, hampered my enjoyment of this. We also get Giles once again being pushed out which annoys me. Still it does have great action, doesn't confuse like the first book, and manages to bring everything together with the metaplot.

The third volume Wolves at the Gate, has Drew Goddard listed as scripter. I'm not familiar with his other work, but Amazon shows him exclusively working on Buffy stuff. We have a little more of the problem with compressed storytelling here, but this time it works better. It also has a good deal more of the humor that I like from Whedon shows. Dracula returns and his portrayal made me laugh at several points. The final battle is great, several characters show up and have excellent moments, and everything hangs together. My only objection would be that it does suffer from a Women in Refrigerators moment pretty badly. But given how well it handles other feminist issues, I'm inclined to give it a pass.

Overall I'm really enjoying this comic book extension of the Buffy-verse.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Campaign Sketches: Masks of the Empire

As another example of game and background prep, I thought I'd show some of the work I'd started that I never followed up on. In the list of potential campaigns I posted a while back I mentioned the basic idea for the Masks of the Empire campaign. I have some good ideas and images in my head, but I still haven't gotten everything together in my mind about about to approach the campaign. I did do some listing of ideas, along with some fleshing out of a few of them. If I were going to do this campaign, I would probably try to fill in an item or two each day and add at least one to spread out my prep work. Anyway, you might find some of this interesting:


Accountants of the Seconds
Advenus (Mask Order)
Anargulh dan'Tural: the Keeper of Orders (God)
Arabies (Place)
Arinam the Balancer (God)

Architects (Mask Order)
Prosperal aka Architects are one of the seven orders of Masks of the Empire, founded by Idomantu the Nail. Their assigned role is gathering and building in the broadest sense. Most outsiders perceive them as leaders, but this is not necessarily the case. They plan and present for the approval of others. Lacking another person to approve, the Prosperal will make decisions and proceed, but they are generally trained to seek out at least one approval. This doesn’t mean that they operate by consensus, far from it, but instead that responsibilities are shared.

Of all of the orders of the Masks, they are the most attuned and focus on creation over stasis and destruction. If something permanent can be established—a relationship, a marker, a treaty, a building, they will work towards that end. This can put them at odds with the Advenus who would often rather clear the situation and begin again fresh when confronted with difficulties. Prosperal often have unusual habits, sometimes rivaling those of the Vidicali. They like to leave permanent marks on things, whether it be rearranging a set of stones or carving in a tree. They also often carry with them small tools or trinkets they fiddle with—stones for stacking, cat’s cradles, ropes for knotting, and so on.

Prosperal are trained in one of three paths to begin—Math, Architecture, or Gamesmanship. From there they learn other trades and crafts. In this way they serve as support members for a Masks group. On their own, Prosperal are trained to make themselves indispensable and to use that ability as leverage to gain in a situation.

As with all orders, the Prosperal possess several unique powers tied to their masks. The basic power of the Prosperal is the ability to make someone remember their words. This can range from instructions to advice to parables. Once a Prosperal has decided that someone will not forget, they cannot without the intervention of outside magics. While this might seem a slight power, their ability to insert themselves as a permanent conscience has been useful more than once. The second power, as with other orders, is learned after time and harmonizing with one's mask. At this level the Prosperal, having defined a situation, group, or object in their mind, can locate the “keystone” of that thing. It may be the person who has the ears of others, it may be the weak point in a device, it may be the flaw in an argument. The Mask must still be able to comprehend the suggestion given by their mask.

Bevanarin Fires-Unburning (God)

Bloodless (Mask Order)
The Rhocent are one of the seven orders of the Masks of the Empire, having been founded by Sentavis the Sweeper at the dawn of the Empire. Commonly they are referred to as the Bloodless, a reference to their talents with unarmed combat as well as conflict resolution. Originally, the Rhocent served the role of the providers for the masks—they handled clean up, minor tasks, paperwork, equipping and armory. Their central philosophy was to always be prepared—even for the most esoteric situations.

Over the years, the Rhocent often found themselves relegated to the background in missions. Their skills were needed, but often taken for granted. They prepared others and themselves but often found themselves waiting for their talents to be truly used. A senior Rhocent called Grace’s Wrath decided that his order needed an additional purpose and, after consultation with Sentavis, sought out knowledge the Masks did not possess. These were the early days, when the Empire was first encountering the Temples and battling against Monks and those who had harnessed their Chi powers. Grace’s Wrath undertook to study and learn these ways—learning and adapting the First Trinity of Forms. He brought these back to his order and trained a number of followers who in turn developed the rest of the Thirty-three Imperial Forms. Only once they had perfected their arts, and just after the Founding Year, they revealed their skills to the other orders of Masks.

At first their fellows showed skepticism, however after multiple demonstrations illustrating their skills, the Rhocent were given a new role—as teachers of combat, as martial artists, and as those who can resolve situations without loss of life. From those initial teachings of unarmed combat, various other styles arose—tied to various weapons, combined with the arts of debate and so on. The Rhocent only use weapons in defensive forms—for attacks they use their own body. They still retain their devotion to preparedness—and in a group when something is needed, most turn to the Rhocent. Not needing a weapon is considered the high form of preparedness for them.

As with all orders, the Rhocent possess several unique powers tied to their masks. The basic power of the Rhocent is one of lucky scavenging. They invoke a gaes when hunting for something—increasing the likelihood of finding it (or something comparable). They will stumble on a needle when they need one, find the right kind of cloth in a market, come across just the right kind of tool. Once a Rhocent has decided that someone will not forget, they cannot without the intervention of outside magics. The second power, as with other orders, is learned after time and harmonizing with one's mask. At this level, a Rhocent can make things fit. Gear which would not fit into a pack for reasons of shape, size or weight will miraculously manage themselves. They can pull things forth from baggage long beyond the time that others can. They also can simply reach into a bag or other holding device and find exactly the thing they wanted that they’d packed earlier. Others trying to get things forth from a Rhocent packed case may have to break the case open to actually get at things.

Cardea (Mask Order)
One of the seven orders of the Masks of the Empire, also known as the Undone. Daysar the Steward founded and oversees this order. Outsiders often perceive the Cardea as the catch-all order among the seven. Where each of the other orders has an obvious purpose and a role, the Cardea seem lack one. In fact, the Cardea fulfill an important role both as solitary agents and within a group-- they are the ones who carry things out. If there is a sacrifice to be made or a risk to be taken, it is the Cardea who will do this. Of course this does not mean that skills and abilities are not taken into consideration in making such decisions, but all other things being equal, the Cardea will carry out.

The Cardea are also those who taken upon themselves the burden of more unorthodox and problematic missions. For example, it may be necessary for the Masks to undertake missions of assassination, defamation, or of generally questionable morality. In other cases where it has been necessary for someone to serve as a scapegoat or to shoulder a burden of responsibility it is the Cardea who take this up.

Consequently, the training of the Cardea is left up to the individual masks more so than in the other orders. Usually they chooses roles and paths that complement their previous experiences. Those chosen for the Cardea are often older or have strange reasons for having joined the Masks. It is well known that the Cardea have the highest mortality rate among the orders and the largest percentage of lost masks at any one time.

As with all orders, the Cardea possess several unique powers tied to their masks. The basic power of the Cardea is the ability to ignore fatigue, the exhaustion of heat, the energy sap of cold and so on. While they still will eventually suffer the actual effects of these circumstances, they can continue through them without losing focus. The second power, as with other orders, is learned after time and harmonizing with one's mask, allows the Cardea to ignore the effects of more severe wounds and damage for a time.

Century of Law (Event)
Coils (Mask Order)
Cutters of the Gods (Rumor)
Daysar the Steward (God)
Dryeneri Hands of Darkness (God)
Dust-Cloud Brotherhood (Group)
Earmarked Sevens (Group)
Eastwind Blights (Event)
Emperor of the Hours

The Empire prides itself on a form of enlightened integration—one which brings together all citizen under the rules of the Codex of Moments. Not that all persons within the Empire are citizens—that process and who gets to bear that title varies from place to place. A good rule of thumb is that the closer one is to the heart of the Empire, the higher the percentage of persons who possess that title. Initially when a region joins with the Empire, before it becomes a registered Territ, advance agents work in the area for some time. They map the area, uncover the dynamic, evaluate resources, and try to chart the family and clan dynamics. They can also hand out the title of Citizen to those persons who work well with them, giving them and advantage when the Territ is formally established. This can be a double-edged sword, especially in places where hostility to the Empire exists. If a person is made a Citizen, then all relatives within one degree may be called citizens as well. Eventually a Territ will be established, a Dulcet Crystal Interval Gate built, and a Governor put into place. He is given a certain number if licenses to hand out to establish Citizenship—after that there is a long evolving process that adds more citizens over time. Citizenship has many benefits, not least of which are the right to vote in councils, the right to hold an office, and the right to use the Interval Gates to travel.

With the great distances of the Empire, despite the Interval Gates bringing many points together, there exist many competing interests in the Territs. Often they are surprisingly organized, perhaps owing something to the influence of the Empire itself. These factions can be broken into three major types—Temples, Brotherhoods & Societies, and Clans. The Temples exist because of the Imperial Permit allowing the establishment of facilities to retain native religions and philosophies within the Territs. These Temples gain a certain degree of autonomy and right to practice, but at the same time the Empire makes sure it can keep tabs on them. No more than two formally established Temples are permitted within a Territ. While the concept is admirable, in practice it has led to the creation of several powerful groups. Some are based around obscure philosophies, such as Towards Never's Light, which practices a difficult ascetic nihilism that has proven troublesome to some Governors. Some are Martial Temples teaching styles and ways outside the Thirty-three Imperial Forms. Usually these are smaller temples, further placed out so as to avoid close scrutiny, but some are larger. The Singing Night Delegates, for example, have taken to spreading their message out and gathering political power. Although some among their trainees are clearly revolutionaries, unlike the Forsworn Rift Temple, the Singing Night Delegates have not yet brought Imperial wrath down upon themselves. The last kind of Temple is actually devoted to a religious faith, in a few cases actually reflecting the practices of the locals but in many cases devoted to one or more of the gods outside of the Imperial Trinity Pantheon. These can include Primal Gods, Gods of the One and the Dual, or even powerful forces or beings from the Mythic Age. The Yellow-Minded Brothers, for example follow a strange being of uncertain lineage which seems to be the equivalent of a homeless beggar spirit.

Brotherhoods & Societies include organizations, conspiracies and gathers which may reach in influence across Territs. In some places, they take the form of Guilds, in others they resemble criminal gangs, and in others they may simply be revolutionary groups. One of the best known is the Hammering Constant's Scholars Society who have taken to rewriting histories in the various Territs of the Horizon and Ring Territs. While their activities may seem innocuous, they have managed to stir up troubles in several areas by making drastic changes to the written records. The Killing Purple Band is a brotherhood of assassins known and feared in the east, while the Lost Fortune's Cause Brotherhood seems to be draw from those who possess notable Grey Shian blood.

The Clans hold little sway within the Dial Territs, where nobles and the representatives of the Empire have the most influence. The further out one goes, the stronger the reach of these hereditary groups. In part this stems from one of the punishment techniques of the Empire, Familial Exile. Where a line or house has acted against the interests of the Empire, the instigators are punished. Sometimes rather than root out troublemakers in the rest of the family or grant wholesale clemency, a family is sent to one of the Horizon Territs. Some of the Clans date from the time when the Ring Territs were the furthest extent. In these cases these Clans have become defacto nobility in these areas-- often with old ambitions intact. That several Clans have manage to return themselves in the heart of the Empire makes them doubly ambitious. Some, however, retain old grudges and often act subtly against the local Governors or force their will upon them. Some Clans, notably the Earmarked Sevens, have been exiled more than once for repeated offenses.

Fallen (People)
Fearsome Pact (Group)

Fists of the Empire
The order of the military for the Empire-- these are the leaders, strategists and planners for military operations. Each fist bears a unique gauntlet inscribed with a singular aspect that represents the self of the bearer. The exact number of Fists varies from time to time, but estimates suggest there are about 3,000 at any one time. Each gauntlet shares several key powers, including a superb sense of the combat dispositions, as well as some talents unique to each one. When a gauntlet is destroyed, the bearer dies and vice versa. Usually killing the bearer is significantly easier than destroying the artifact however. When a gauntlet is destroyed, it apparently allows for the forges in the capitol to make a new one, imbued with some of that essence. Though the exact nature remains unclear, it is said that this pool of energy is the limiting factor in the number of gauntlets existing at any one time.

Gemashol the Hand (God)
Gethiglor Thicket of Swords (God)

Gods (general)
There was a father to the Gods, a Primal set of deities, three in number who through their magics worked and created the three who followed. One was singular, a Lord among Gods who created and granted power to those demi-gods below him (the One); one was a pair who looked forward and back and associated with the abstractions of the world—demi-gods and servants who were more ideas than personifications (the Dualities); and finally there were the hundred gods, who had a cyclical changing rulership over their lands (the Hundreds).

Those three new pantheons turned and destroyed the Primal Gods, binding one to the Earth, one to the Air and one to the Sun. They were chained away, caught in cycles they couldn’t escape. Then the pantheons battled one another. While there were those who remained animistic, giving honor and acknowledgment to the smaller spirits and places, most found a place within the grand spheres. The battle continued, and eventually the Hundreds and their followers retreated to the east. Within and at the fringe of the Empire there remain a few who worship one or another of the renegades from the Hundreds, but in general memory and thought of them faded.

This left the One and the Dualities. The Dualities had numbers and subtle arts, but they also had divisions inherent in themselves that weakened their ability to press the issue. They were their own synthesis and antithesis. The One lacked numbers but had unity of purpose and thought. As so the worship of these gods spread and took over the old god places. Variants and focuses formed, with certain worship being more acknowledged in one place than another.

Then came the Trinity of Pantheons: the Gods of the Tempest, the Gods of the Zenith and the Gods of the wake. They were new and came into being through revelation. Some said they were echoes of the chained primal Gods, but who can say if that is true. Was is known is that more than any of the other gods they made themselves known, they walked the lands, and they carved the Empire out from the heart of the World. In the Century of Law they battled against both the followers of the old pantheons and the gods of those pantheons themselves, driving them to the margins.

Gods of the Empire
As opposed to the gods at the margins, the Gods of the Empire interact with the populace on a regular basis. Though it varies from God to God, they can and do walk around within the limits of the Empire.

Gods of the Tempest
One of the three sets of Gods of the Empire, the Gods of the Tempest hold sway over the middle powers balancing the forces of the Gods of the Zenith and the Gods of the Wake. The Gods of the Tempest serve as the patrons for the Masks of the Empire. The Masks themselves carry out a variety of duties, primarily in the field often reflecting the aspects of the Gods of the Tempest. While all the Gods of the Empire appear and walk the Empire from time to time, the Gods of the Tempest are seen most rarely-- preferring omen and subtlety in their intercessions.

Verebok the Voice (Diplomacy)
Arinam the Balancer (Judgment and Adjudication)
Gemashol the Hand (Espionage)
Mazonos the Guide (Surveying)
Idomantu the Nail (Building)
Daysar the Steward (Maintenance)
Sentavis the Sweeper (Enforcement)

Gods of the Wake
The Gods of the Wake oversee matters of force for the empire.

Bevanarin Fires-Unburning
Dryeneri Hands of Darkness
Gethiglor Thicket of Swords
Idris Not-Named
Morvastyn Cord that Cuts
Rhonwens Hailing-Thunder
Siorswan the Dawn Must Wait

Gods of the Zenith
The Gods of the Zenith oversee the heart of the Empire-- the Emperor of the Hours, the Senate of the Minutes, and the Accountants of the Seconds. These branches all combine administration with the organization of worship and priestly duties.

Anargulh dan'Tural: the Keeper of Orders
Nurzhan dan'Aysal: the Provider of Moments
Sevda dan'Serik: the Binder of Hearts
Zhivkarak dan'Hails: the Timer of Winters
Reparash dan'Vera: the Caller of Duties
Iykilli dan'Ragice: the Scripter of Limits
Vatalka dan'Oman: the Speaker of Triumphs

Green (People)
Hastened Thought (Person)
Heartswan (Thing)
Idomantu the Nail (God)
Idris Not-Named (God)
Inherentors (Mask Order)

Interval Gates
Perhaps the single most important invention keeping the Empire running on a smooth course is the Dulcet Crystal Interval Gate. Through it, officials, citizens, and merchants can travel over vast distances in a matter of moments. For governors and military officials control and maintenance of these gates represents a central concern.

Drawn from the inspiration of the Gods, Emperor Numasias the noted inventor created the first Interval Gate in the middle period of the Empire—not long after the Years of Sunrise. Once scholars understood the basic principles, they established the first Gates within the Dial Territs. This project took many years and required great skill to get the alignment correct and to discover how to best protect the Gates from outside forces. Once the innermost system had been established, the agents of the Empire began to extend their reach further and further out. Today Gates can be found in the most distant lands of the Horizon Territs.

The gates function by drawing on the natural forces of the earth and the harmonic ties of the elements. They require elaborate sympathies be established in order to function. In practice, this means that twelve main branches radiate out from the capitol, roughly corresponding to the hours. Any particular gate ties to one of the branches, and to move from one to another requires travel to a junction where the lines move perpendicular to the main branches. While it is possible to move to the central hub and then further from there, the Empire reserves that traffic for the most important figures to reduce risk and overflow.

Any gate can transport someone to another gate on that branch, distance is irrelevant. Weight and size have a greater impact however. A lesser gate can transport perhaps ten men with gear, while a greater gate can move two or three times that. The larger the material transported, the longer the time for the gate to recharge—taxed fully and on a strong sympathetic line, a gate might take two minutes to recharge. For weaker and further out lines, it might take upwards of an hour. Gates require an operator to activate them, something that requires some skill. At one time, the Empire held the secrets of this process closely, but over time, it has spread out and those with the inclination and resources can learn the procedure.

A gate has four major parts: the base, the frame, the pallet and the crystal. The frame is made up of four arching sleeves of metal, aligned to the hours. Connected to the base, they meet at the top, creating a metal sphere. The pallet is a round bottomed metal stand within the gate. Since the gates transport all things within a gate, the pallets have to be of standard size—given that they exchange position with other gates during transport. Over time, the wear of foot traffic and the clipping of the inconstant field effect means that the pallet must be replaced.

The most important portion of the gate is the crystal, which resonates and creates the transport effect. Each one must be carefully synchronized and lined up with the best point of sympathy in an area. This can create grave problems at times. For instance, the gate at Hardaru is nearly two hundred feet off the ground. A great structure, built with special materials so as to not interfere with the signal had to be constructed. Enormous stairs lead down off from that gate. The crystal is placed into the Void at the center of the gate, removing it from human sight and touch. Once placed, any movement of it will destroy the crystal—a dangerous thing to do if the harmonics have built up within it.

Setting up a gate requires specialized survey using devices held closely by the Empire. Forerunners in the furthest lands look for new possible points to set up gates, but must be careful. Aside from the destruction of a gate and the time needed to recharge one, there is no way to seal a gate. Since they generally must be built without too much material surrounding them, an enclosure is impractical.

Generally citizens are permitted to use the gates, but must obtain a statement of permission. The gates are not used for commerce transport—but merchants often arrange to travel by them to make deals in distant lands. After that they fall back to the common system of the Grand Imperial Riverways and the roads.

Invisible Chain (Rumor)
Iykilli dan'Ragice: the Scripter of Limits (God)
Jakaziel's Writ (Thing)
Journeyman Lost (Place)
Kalesbent (Place)
Killing Purple Band (Group)
Lymeslight (Place)
Lost Fortune's Cause (Group)

Masks of the Empire
The Agents of the Hours (Called Masks, but Agents here for ease of difference between the Masks themselves and the persons)

Each agent possesses a mask. In the beginning 777 of them existed within the Empire. Each mask possesses an enchantment protecting it from harm and a mythic geas that bends destiny itself, causing them to eventually return to the Empire. This magic has several properties. First, if several of masks become gathered in the same place, the magical effect intensifies. So if a current bearer comes near a lost mask, they tend to find the mask. This means killing agents and gathering their masks in one place is a bad idea. Usually, on a battlefield with agents, at least some of the masks will make it out. Second, the power of the masks seems to be tied to the registry of those active—as that number grows smaller, the power the enchantment increases.

Of course, there have been cases of masks being destroyed, but the effort and power required is significant. So far in the history of the Empire, twenty-three are known to have been destroyed and another Eleven have been lost for so long that they may as well have been destroyed.

Each mask has a history, recorded in the ledgers of the Empire. Persons who bear a mask learn the stories associated with that mask. Each mask also has a name—which could be descriptive, the name of the first bearer or perhaps even more obscure. Those stories allow entry by the bearer into the Mythic to enact those stories and gain power or cause an effect.

The Gods created the masks with the birth of the Empire. As with the other two major orders of the Empire (The Bearers of the Empire and the Fists of the Empire) the will and action of the gods has been intimately tied with the operations of the masks. There has been one occasion when a mask was actually replaced by one of the Gods. Each of the seven orders also is associated with one of the Seven Gods of the Tempest. There are three sets of Gods—Gods of the Tempest, Gods of the Zenith, and Gods of the Wake. The Gods themselves are the ones who revealed themselves in the Century of Law and helped to forge the principles that would guide the Empire. They pushed back the other Pantheons, sending them to the margins, where the old ways still remain.

It happens that most Agents of the Hours apply for a place in the training or else are chosen from among the most promising. Eventually they find themselves a place in one of the seven orders. When the time comes, they are permitted to select a mask from those that remain in the possession of the order. When a new agent is selected is a matter of divination—the Lords of that order have final say—choosing the person and the time for that selection. It is known that whatever the process of selection, there is a relative parity between the groups. This can be unbalanced if, for example, an order loses a number of agents—while they will be able to assign new masks faster, they cannot wholesale give them out to make up their numbers. Often what happens is that a mask will be returned, find its way home—sometimes in the possession of a new owner.

This happens rarely, perhaps once every few generations. Masks are given through ritual, but there have been times when people have found them and the mask somehow binds itself to the finder.

Orders of the Masks
There are seven orders among the agents, each with 111 masks. As each order has a role, they also have certain obligations. An agent does not have to visibly wear their mask all of the time, but there are certain times when they must. There is a suggestion that each order is allied to a combination of the factors of Creation, Destruction and Balance.

Verebok the Voice (Diplomacy)
Arinam the Balancer (Judgment and Adjudication)
Gemashol the Hand (Espionage)
Mazonos the Guide (Surveying)
Idomantu the Nail (Building)
Daysar the Steward (Maintenance)
Sentavis the Sweeper (Enforcement)

Illvanial aka Sifters (searchers and finders)-- Mazonos the Guide
Rhocent aka Bloodless (unarmed fighters)-- Sentavis the Sweeper
Cardea aka Undone (those who carry out)-- Daysar the Steward
Prosperal aka Architects (builders and managers)-- Idomantu the Nail
Numitas aka Coils (judges and deciders)-- Arinam the Balancer
Vidicali aka Inherentors (esoterics and mystics)--Verebok the Voice
Advenus aka Quiets (spies and defenders)-- Gemashol the Hand

Properties of the Masks
Masks, once bound and placed on the bearer, become transparent to the owner. There is a slight sensation of the mask upon the face, but little else. Many agents forget that they have them on—until they go to sleep or attempt to eat. Agents can also will the Mask to vanish, so that it appears that they are not wearing it—however when an agent enters into the task bound to the mask, it will reappear, regardless of the bearer’s wish. While vanished, those with the sight can still slightly perceive the mask—there is one exception, the masks of the Advenus cannot be seen or detected when willed into vanishing.

Duties of the Masks
The Masks of the Empire are those who carry out specialized tasks-- those requiring unusual talents, independent decision making, and creativity. The often serve as ambassadors, judges, sheriffs, scouts and problem solvers. In this role, they have come to earn a certain respect and reputation both within and outside the boundaries of the Empire. They are often among the first to enter into an area which may be annexed-- usually to demonstrate the fairness and power of the Empire, but also to pacify those elements which might later cause trouble. Agents are often requested by places who have had problems-- like strange creatures, lawlessness, or natural disasters. They represent and bring the will of the Empire as well as providing a beacon of hope and honor to the weak.

Mazonos the Guide (God)
Morvastyn Cord that Cuts (God)
Numitas (Mask Order)
Nurzhan dan'Aysal (God)
Opal Reign Storms (Event)
Prosperal (Mask Order)
Quarrels of the Night (Event)
Reparash dan'Vera (God)
Rhocent (Mask Order)
Rhonwens Hailing-Thunder (God)
Sentavis the Sweeper (God)
Senate of the Minutes
Sevda dan'Serik (God)

Sifters (Mask Order)
One of the seven orders of Masks of the Empire, also known as Sifters. This divine order was founded by Mazonos the Guide. The Illvanial are those who find, in all senses of the term. They range from master huntsmen to delvers into the psyche, from puzzlers to auditors. The central philosophy of this order is that all things leave traces of their passing-- nothing exists without touching another thing. In this sense they draw from the tradition of the Fallen who believe that all things are marked by signs and omens.

Illvanial find themselves in the difficult position of being among the most requested of the Mask orders-- their expertise can been useful in many situations. Consequently, they are often among the youngest of the Masks in a group since the most experienced will be sent out on their own to handle hunts, rescues and investigations. On the other hand, some in positions of power have a degree of fear concerning this order. Should they have secrets they wish to keep hidden then they may go out of their way to avoid Masks of this order. This has resulted in problems in the past, with the unannounced arrival of an Illvanial causing someone to kill themselves or else send persons to kill the Mask for fear that their mission involves them.

The Illvanial have a hard time leaving tasks unfinished. Usually they have to see them through to the end. If not, they have a tugging sense of guilt for some time. Once a Sifter has been set to a search they will usually not rest until they have made some progress. They are particularly talented in reconstructing things, in surveying things and eliminating the unimportant, and in stumbling on unexpected clues and pointers.

As with all orders, the Illvanial possess several unique powers tied to their masks. The basic power of the Illvanial is to see-- regardless of the environment. So smoke, darkness, storms and such only reduce their effective visual distance rather than eliminating it. Since the vision comes from the mask itself there have been cases where a bearer has been physically and permanently blinded, but remains able to see. The second power, as with other orders, is learned after time and harmonizing with one's mask. I allows the Illvanial to place a mark upon a person of thing. They can then know the rough distance and direction of that thing by concentrating on it. Alternately they can use up the mark to see for some time from the mark's location. Skilled Illvanial are said to be able to actually move their sense around using this.

Siorswan the Dawn Must Wait (God)

A measure of the land overseen by a governor. Depending on the distance from the heart of the Empire, the definition of a Territ can be based of history, geographic features, or an even mathematical division—with the latter occurring closer to the capitol. Territs are traditionally divided into three groups—the Dial Territs, which are the major heartlands of the Empire and include large parts of the lands of the Fallen and the Green; the Ring Territs, which are further out and represent the lands which joined the Empire in the Years of Sunrise such as the Arabies, the Ninety-Nine Kingdoms, the Bewilderness, etc; and the Horizon Territs. These are the lands, principalities, kingdoms and unassuming tracts at the farthest reaches. This last set of Territs includes many places who pledged themselves to the Empire in return for maintenance of local customs and access to markets. In some cases they represent military conquests when forces outside the Empire have tried to strike at it. The rule of reprisal for the Empire is to take any fight to the heartlands of the enemy—a policy which has resulted in slow continual expansion. The Horizon Territs include the Shacklelands, the Dusk Tower, and most recently what is commonly called the Breech, a set of breaks in the World Wall.

Auditors and Accountants survey the Territs on a rotating basis—the closer to the heart of the Empire, the more frequent the visits. In the outskirts, it might be thirty-some years between the arrival of auditors. There exists a certain flexibility of border and demarcation the further one goes out as well. Governors have a great deal of leeway in decisions, provided they abide by the basic Codex of Moments, the sets of basic rights and laws. Basic here may be a misnomer in that the rues can often be quite complex. Given the breadth of the Empire, it is unsurprising that governors vary in their actual influence. In some places, popular temples may hold sway, and in others the Brotherhoods or criminal gangs may hold sway. A governor can appeal for assistance up his chain of command to his Governor of Days (usually overseeing twelve Territs), but at a cost of money, influence and reputation.

Torcs of the Empire
One the three divine orders of the Empire, it differs from the Fists and Masks of the Empire in possessing three internal divisions. Like the others, the Torcs possess singular items representing their rank and role, in this case a band around the neck. The design of the torcs among the three divisions is uniform, unlike the variety of designs found elsewhere. The three divisions of the Torcs are the Emperor of the Hours, the Senate of the Minutes, and the Accountants of the Seconds.

The Accountants of the Seconds are the senior functionaries, operatives and agents who are tied to the maintenance and management of the affairs of the empire. Those who work in the civil service in the most general sense are eligible to become an Accountant of the Seconds. The exact circumstance of the
choice varies-- a particularly bright and able worker may find himself selected after only a few months while a veteran of service may find himself selected only days before retirement. At any one time, there are several thousand Accountants scattered across the Empire. Accountants are deferred to by their lessers and usually have authority within their area of expertise, but must bow to the other two orders (and of course to the Senate) unless they can bring a case and summon a host of Accountants, often a difficult procedure unless the Accountant has prepared ahead of time.

The torcs of the Accountants of Seconds are closed and cannot be taken off once placed. While somewhat resilient to harm, these torcs can be broken, requiring the Accountant to return to the capital to present themselves for assessment. Breaking the torc of an Accountant is considered a crime against the Empire. These torcs possess three important properties-- first, they carry a sigil which is used to mark messages and to denote authority for reports entering the grand bureaucracy of the Empire. Second, it allows an Accountant to communicate privately at a distance with a Senator (or the Emperor) if they are called upon to do so. The Accountant cannot initiate this communication. Lastly, an Accountant can, with a verbal command, create a recording of an interaction. The duration of this recording depends on if it is purely auditory or includes visual information. An Accountant can only keep one recording in his torc at a time, but any recordings made are apparently also stored in the capital.

The Senate of the Hours is comprised of those who struggle to manage and make consistent the laws and structure of the Empire. The Senate is made up of three divisions of seventy-seven members-- the Left, Middle, and Right Houses. The Left Senate is made up of those, chosen on their 35th birthday, who apparently represent the best of the Empire. This can include any citizen of the Empire whom the gods believe can aid in the running of affairs. The Middle Senate draws from the noble houses of the Empire and has hereditary positions. There have been changes within the empire which have required adjustments to the membership here, often leading to great strife. The Right Senate is also chosen, but chosen by the whole of the Senate itself, making it a place for patronage and acknowledgment of the importance of certain groups and factions. Though it happens rarely, the Gods of the Zenith possess the right to veto any choice made to fill a seat here. All Senatorial seats are held until death or the age of 77.

The Torcs of Senators are open, allowing them to remove them as needed. Only the bearer of the Emperor can remove a Torc. Stronger than those possessed by the Accountants of the Seconds, these Torcs can still be broken. Several have been in times of turmoil and strife requiring the intervention of the Gods to reforge them through the agency of the Emperor. A Senator's Torc allows him to communicate at a distance with other Senators, with Accountants and, should he permit it, the Emperor himself. The Torcs serve as markers for votes and, as with the Accountants, can record information in the surrounding area. Additionally, the Torcs apparently grant the bearer enhanced memory allowing them to juggle names, faces, facts and figures with ease. While the Torcs of the Accountants are coppery, those of Senators appear Silver.

The Emperor of the Hours has dual roles, both to carry out the wishes of the Senate and to move the Senate to decisions and actions. At times this has created tensions, but in recent years the two divisions have worked together for the greater prosperity of the Empire. The Emperor bears the master Torc, borne upon his brow rather than around his neck. It is of solid white, representing the purity of his role. Other members of the Emperor's house who are eligible for the line of succession bear similar Torcs around their necks, but of black. Should the Emperor fall or resign the throne, the next Emperor will be known when his (or her) Torc turns white. There have been three changes of lineage for the throne over the course of the Empire, in one case, wholly removing the Imperial line from the original family. The present line has been stable for nearly two centuries. The powers possessed by the Black and White Torcs have never been fully cataloged, or at least not publicly.

Toward Never's Light (Group)
Turnlock Gates (Place)
Ul-Tasking (Thing)

Undone (Mask Order)
One of the seven orders of the Masks of the Empire, also known as the Undone. Daysar the Steward founded and oversees this order. Outsiders often perceive the Cardea as the catch-all order among the seven. Where each of the other orders has an obvious purpose and a role, the Cardea seem lack one. In fact, the Cardea fulfill an important role both as solitary agents and within a group-- they are the ones who carry things out. If there is a sacrifice to be made or a risk to be taken, it is the Cardea who will do this. Of course this does not mean that skills and abilities are not taken into consideration in making such decisions, but all other things being equal, the Cardea will carry out.

The Cardea are also those who taken upon themselves the burden of more unorthodox and problematic missions. For example, it may be necessary for the Masks to undertake missions of assassination, defamation, or of generally questionable morality. In other cases where it has been necessary for someone to serve as a scapegoat or to shoulder a burden of responsibility it is the Cardea who take this up.

Consequently, the training of the Cardea is left up to the individual masks more so than in the other orders. Usually they chooses roles and paths that complement their previous experiences. Those chosen for the Cardea are often older or have strange reasons for having joined the Masks. It is well known that the Cardea have the highest mortality rate among the orders and the largest percentage of lost masks at any one time.

As with all orders, the Cardea possess several unique powers tied to their masks. The basic power of the Cardea is the ability to ignore fatigue, the exhaustion of heat, the energy sap of cold and so on. While they still will eventually suffer the actual effects of these circumstances, they can continue through them without losing focus. The second power, as with other orders, is learned after time and harmonizing with one's mask, allows the Cardea to ignore the effects of more severe wounds and damage for a time.

Vatalka dan'Oman (God)
Verebok the Voice (God)
Vidicali (Mask Order)
Winter's Love Campaigns (Event)
Wrath of the Sunken (Group)
Yearning Rift (Place)
Yellow-Minded Brothers (Group)
Zhivkarak dan'Hails (God)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Campaign Sketches: Artifact

A recycling day, in that I'm dredging up some old material to have people look at. Back in 2000 I thought that I might try to put together a PBEM campaign. I did a lot of the leg work and heavy lifting of prep but I never managed to get it off the ground. If you're interested, here's a link to the pdf:

Artifact pdf

There's some stuff there I might eventually steal to use elsewhere. The document is long (about 16 pages), but here's the opening:

I. Preface
The time is the future, several hundred years. Terran Space is divided among several factions, and it seems clear that a crisis is immanent. Alien races growl at the gates, waiting for an opportunity to seize developed worlds. In the midst of these times, a signal is received and leaked. The signal, likely from a lost colony explorer ship indicates the discovery of a new system, one containing at least one habitable, resource rich world and the strong possibility of intact Proto-Alien cultural relics and technology. The system is, however, anomalous. Caught between various gravatic bodies, conventional FTL travel might require decades or even centuries. A Jump Gate exists, but one with a delicate window of opportunity, opening once every several hundred years. That window will open soon, and only for a brief time.

The only choice for your faction is the dispatch of a colony ship, in the hope that they can take control of this new world. There may be competition and there will most certainly be isolation. Colonists sent on this mission cannot expect any contact with the rest of Human Space for several centuries. It is a long-term gamble and one that has required your faction to move as rapidly as possible in the limited time available to put together a mission. You have been chosen. The world has been named Artifact.

Basic Premise
Players will be members of a colony traveling from their particular faction to settle on a strange alien planet. The isolation of the planet makes this a long-term operation (spanning generations). Through a particular plot device (details to be revealed later) characters will be “frozen” and “unfrozen” at various points in the development of the colony. While the basic play will be typical PBEM (the exchange and development of a story between the players and the GM) there are a couple of differences.

First, the grand time arc means that players may not be “awake” at the same time. If another player is “awake” in the same time period, I will alert you and you may communicate with them. The game will be broken into episodes. At the end of each particular episode, you will be encourage to submit a narrative log, telling of you adventures so far.

These will be posted on the Artifact website (I’ll pass out the address soon). You should only read logs of characters in the past; if the time date on a log is ahead of you, avoid reading it.

The game is a story, so as players you do a great deal of shaping of the direction. It is what we call a “Schroedinger” game, that is, until you explore it, it isn’t set. So carve out your imaginative realm as you see fit here. Suggest things, explore options, develop interactions, etc.

Three Rules

· First, if you want something changed or if you’re unhappy with the direction of things, say so. Give feedback and we’ll try to steer the story back the direction you’d like. If you get stuck or have to take a break, say so as well. There’s no time pressure here; people can generally play at their own pace.

· Second, we will establish a gentleperson’s agreement not to comment on spelling, typing, grammar and mechanics. I am a poor typist, especially when typing quickly. The document you are about to read is a first draft…I haven’t taken the time to proof it, so I hope you will excuse that.

· Third, no emotes.

Once this document is in everyone’s hands (which should be 8-17-00) I’ll give a little over a week for people to fire off questions. I’d like requests for factions by 8-25-00, so that we can get characters finalized after that.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Quick Board Game Notes and Lyceum Aegis Session Summary

Quick Board-game Notes

On Saturday we tried a three player game of To Court the King. It is a small game-- one of the Yahtzee model games. I have the Alhambra Dice Game which also uses the same mechanic. Essentially you have a pool of dice and over the course of several rolls try to assemble sets. Alhambra works on simple matching sets on the dice. It then complicates that with an interesting scoring and placement mechanism. It also adds wild-card bonus abilities and multiple scoring rounds that have cumulative competition. It special dice for the game with different buildings on each side of the dice. We really enjoy the game, but it has a couple of problems. The game has some fairly strategic choices and newbie players often don't see those. That can lead to a runaway game. It also takes a little longer than your usual dice game.

On the other hand, To Court the King uses the standard d6 and is really like Yahtzee on steroids. You're trying to put together sets, straights, pairs and so on. On each turn you spend what you roll to pick up a character card. Each card has a different cost (two pairs, total value greater than 30, full house) and provides a different ability on your turn (add extra dice of a particular number, move pips between dice, rerolls). You can only have one of any role and each one can only be used once per turn. The end goal is to get seven of a kind, which allows the activation of a final round where players battle for the best end roll.

We generally liked the game-- it has a lot of bits and rules to be a true filler game. Our set had a couple of misprints (a couple of card backs and, strangely, one of the dice which had two 3's and no 2). It does take some getting used to the mechanics because it focuses on language independent icons for mechanics...and they aren't immediately clear. It also took some getting used to the idea of Active Dice versus Set-Aside dice, and that you can keep rolling so long as at least one die gets set aside. We also screwed up passing the starting player piece which made for some weirdness at the end. Overall we liked it, but it is one of those games that will play substantially better on the second attempt.

On Friday we played a six-player game of Arkham Horror. I've talked about this game before and I'm pleased it stands up to repeated plays. I'd added in the short-box expansion for Curse of the Dark Pharaoh. On BGG some suggested taking out some of the original cards so that the flavor of this set comes through, but I left the decks relatively intact. I might try that on a later run. As it was, we did manage to have some of the new cards come up and they were interesting. I don't think this set makes the game any more difficult, in fact, I suspect it makes it a little easier. The expansion cards are marked so that you can remove them easily enough.

Even with six players and half of them new to the game, it went pretty fast. That many players means both that you spawn more monsters than normal and that there's a real risk the Terror Track will get away from you. We didn't have that happen-- in part because I'd misremembered a house rule as a standard rule. When you shut a gate, you remove all those monsters with identical icons on the board. I'd also assumed that you removed any monsters in the same location as the gate, which isn't the case. We had Azathoth as the GOO, which works for an introductory game. I think he's actually one of the easiest to play against. You have a large Doom Track to work with and the specter of just plain losing if it gets too high to motivate people. Between Elder Signs and solid teamwork, we managed to win by shutting all the gates with his track no more than half-way filled.

Will and Shari generously gifted me with the Kingsport expansion, which is one of the big box ones. I suspect I'll have the next couple of plays just use the CotDP expansion, but I'll bring over the new characters, new GOO and new monsters from that set. Eventually I'll mix everything together. Of course the real question now is how to handle storage and separation. I like Arkham Horror and will definitely play it again-- there's a great deal of fun to be had with the interaction and self story-telling...and I think that's the real draw of the game.

Finally last night I had the chance to play Heads of State, the new big box game from Z-Man. First, I should say it is $70-- which is insane. As Mark pointed out, for that kind of money you expect all of the chrome and bits of a Fantasy Flight or Days of Wonder game-- Starcraft, Arkham Horror or Pirate's Cove. This game doesn't have that-- it has bits, but those bits have real problems.

Oddly it has almost the exact opposite problem of the last Z-Man game I tried, Wasabi. There we had a brilliantly produced game with gorgeous pieces, clever graphic design, and high-quality materials. However the game itself had some real problems that would take major house rules to straighten out. Heads of State, on the other hand, has a decent game buried under really poor graphic and production decisions.

1) The components, while intended to be of high quality to match the price point, simply aren't. The cardboard chits are flimsy, the reference sheets of thinner stock, and the cards themselves feel light.

2) The game's art is ugly. I'd read some complaints about this on BGG and put it down to the usual griping. However, man, it is really ugly. They use photo-shopped real people for the character cards combined with garish colors where you don't need them for visibility and muted colors where you would. The art is bad enough that it gets in the way of the game.

3) The game duplicate colors in different mechanisms. This feels like a basic concept easily avoided in design. If you have different colors to represent the players (as is the norm) then those colors shouldn't be used as a major separation point within another set of mechanics in the game. In this game the same set of player colors is also used to represent the countries and the scoring markers. That leads to confusion.

4) You have scoring tokens and a scoring track which duplicate one another. That bothered me, especially since you don't have scoring tokens for everything, but when you get a token you're supposed to advance your marker on the track. I did discover at the end they were necessary to cross check scores since we found it easy to mess up that scoring. So six of one...

5) One of the most important factors is being able to see who has what on the board. However the markers designed for this purpose actually obscure this. They should easily show two things: what rank a noble is and who owns it. You can't really tell that at a glance. That ought to be crucial to the game. It really bothers me that other considerations screwed up something so vital to real play.

6) One of the selling points are the nice wood markers. However, they're completely unnecessary. The same task could have been handled with cardboard tokens or cards. In fact, they're kind of awkward and feel like a cheap sop to try to justify the cost of the game. You also have to put stickers on them, which ruins any elegance that might have come from having simple, iconic shapes.

This could easily have been a $40 game. Play-wise, I could see us enjoying it in a less eye-burning version. We ended up with a close game. But once the actual look of the game starts to interfere with play, that's where I get bothered.

Quick Role-Playing Notes

My niece Kali came over this weekend and we had another brief session of the Lyceum Aegis game. I introduced the new arrival character at breakfast-- with a reminder to Kali that she'd had a vision of him destroying the world. I also tried to reinforce Mr. Friday's personality and that this had come out of sequence. The NPC Sarah talked with Sherri about calling dibs on various boys-- that also gave me the chance to make explicit my parallel of two of the NPC boys with Kyo and Yuki from Fruits Basket.

I introduced Ms. Wednesday, who seemed more solid and real-world centered than the other instructors. For her lecture she talked about Microeconomics. That gave me the chance as a GM to spin off on a riff about Supply, Demand, Elasticity and so on. My main point, however, was an extended discussion about the idea of Opportunity Costs-- the concept that making a choice has consequences in terms of other choices closed off. I think that's one of the key concepts of Microecon and also has a nice application to the idea of a “reality war” and the existence of multiple worlds. Sherri followed that up by taunting NPC Sarah with the idea of the opportunity costs of calling dibs on one boy over another.

I gave them free time after dinner, with the idea that the instructors kind of expected them to explore the house a little, though they wouldn't say that. The PCs decided, however, to explore outside-- looking around the grounds. They found some strange flashlights and began-- after debating whether to hit the old Sanitarium-Schoolhouse or the Greenhouse. They settled on the latter, but realized quickly they were being followed.

I should note at this point that I knew there was a groundskeeper or at least a person patrolling the grounds. I also had in the back of my head Gene's odd description of the strange account fellow watching people in their sleep. I hadn't really solidified anything, but I improvised with the aim of actually getting some weirdness on the table. I realized I had two directions I could go: either the school maintaining the facade of being normal or else tearing that away rather quickly. Going with the former would have meant more time devoted to covering up and hiding things. If this were a regular game, with more narrative space to work in, I might have gone that route. But since I knew we'd have shorter sessions on an irregular basis, I thought it best to plunge right into things.

So the groundskeeper, who of course snuck up on them, became a Caliban-like character. They spoke with him, noting (through Sherri's sewing-skill observation) that the inner lining of his coat was composed of chains. He answered their questions-- but avoided those which might have had him directing the girls to anywhere on campus. He made it clear that while he'd be glad to talk to them he didn't want to get pinned for perhaps putting them in the line of danger. He did refer to the school as the Watchtower of the East and mentioned very deliberately the war going on, but left those points at that. So I managed to get across so more of the background flavor, and perhaps the more sinister purposes of the school without giving too much away. He vanished after talking to them, confirming his otherworldly strangeness. I should note I decided to call him Hawthorne-- a good single name with several resonances.

The girls headed on to the Greenhouse under cover of darkness. Drawing closer, they realized it was much larger than they'd first thought. They entered into the visible classic long-house and saw that the woods behind obscured the rest of the building. Everything in this first section had been damaged by time, but through a door at the end they found the center-dome of the building which appeared completely intact. They realized the whole thing had a cross-shape, with four wings and the center-dome. That had living plants, not overgrown and yet not tended. From an obscured grove in the center they could hear water. They checked the other three wings, finding nothing except in the last. There they could see that the building seemed to terminate in a dark cave entrance. They opted not to go down there.

Instead they explored the grove in the center. There they found a pool with a strange fountain of water bubbling within it. They could see coins of various shapes and sizes at the bottom of the pool. They also noted a carefully place ring of stones surrounding it. While they argued about throwing a coin in, they heard a slam. They hid and then listened, now picking up the sounds of enormous breathing and footfalls. The grass at the entrance to the grove they hid in rustled, and they heard a gravelly voice:

“Little Pigs, Let Me In...”

They continued to hide and remain silent, and eventually the sound died down. However, they could tell that whatever it was still sat outside. Kali voted for waiting until morning, but Sherri decided to throw a coin in-- and wish for the Huntsman to come. This seemed to have no effect immediately, but then she felt a sudden impulse, paired with a flaring of her persona, to throw in her flashlight. That, of course, made a big splash, alerting The Wolf outside. However a figure coalesced in the fountain, carrying Sherri's flashlight in one hand, and an axe in the other. It asked which they'd dropped in. They said the axe and Kali grabbed it up. Apparently The Wolf could tell they were thusly armed and, after making some threats for the future, he withdrew. However then the foliage rattled again and Kali swung at the new intruder-- burying the axe in Hawthorne's shoulder. He expressed irritation at having been called and pulled the axe out-- driving them out ahead of him and sending them quietly back to the house. And that's where we stopped.

Last thing-- my sister had an interview with the author Dan Simmons published on The OnionAV Club-- I'm just now reading his new book.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Retooling Action Cards

Today's entry is kind of a system brainstorming document. I've been using the Action Cards system for a number of years. I first ran it for a mini-series game for one of Rob's HCI games. I then modified it and used it for the long-running City of Ocean campaign. When I started the Libri Vidicos game I decided to go back through and formalize the rules pretty thoroughly. More recently I adapted Changeling: The Lost to use to system, implementing some basic system changes as well as the new rules and mechanics to deal with the particular needs of the campaign.

Right now I'm working on a version to use with the next Sunday Campaign, which will be high fantasy set on the Third Continent. Previously I've used Rolemaster in all four campaigns set there. I'm never going back to RM, but it does set some expectations about power level and such. I thought about using a modified version of Storyteller, but I don't think that would do exactly what I want. My other choice, Gurps has a number of problems: a really wonky magic system and difficulty scaling to higher power levels. Plus you have the question of whether to work in 3rd or 4th edition now. I've decided to go with card based for a couple of reasons: first, it is something I made up so people aren't obliged to buy anything; second, it is flexible and narrative driven; and third, I'm curious if I can make it work for this kind of game.

So one of my goals (and one of the reasons I did those entries on combat from a GM and player perspective) is that I want a little more crunch and detail from the combat system for Action Cards. Or rather, for this kind of campaign, I want that crunch. So I've been thinking about some approaches that add things without making it too heavy or breaking what's good about the original version. So below are some of my thoughts. If you've played in one of the Action Cards game you might find this interesting. You can see versions of the rules here for LV and here for Changeling. Otherwise feel free to skip all of this.

The biggest change I'm imagining for this version will be that players have two decks: one for standard actions and one for combat actions. The Action Deck includes results for Physical, Knowledge, and Social. I'm debating about adding a Will stat in there as well-- it could cover magic casting and such. If that's going to be important, it might be worth it. EDIT: I think this will actually be a Mind, Presence, or Wisdom category-- covering Willpower, Magic Casting and Perception. that moves Spot checks out of the knowledge category which is a good thing. The Action Deck would have eighteen cards, as follows:

Action Deck
12 Standard Resolution Cards
-6 Fixed
-6 Open
2 Self-Done Cards
1 Failure
1 Success
1 Unintended Consequences
1 Deadlock (specified)

The Combat Deck would have three results sets: Attack, Defense, and Damage. Attack and Defense would follow the standard progression (Catastrophic, Bad, Just Missed, OK, Good and Sacre Bleu!). Damage would be a set of fixed results across the 12 basic cards. Damage results would be as follows: Weak (1), Fair (2), Decent (3), Good (4), Solid (5), Resounding (6). Since they're fixed, damage results themselves couldn't be bought up, but edges for damage with a particular type of weapon could be taken. The other results would have damage numbers associated with them as well. For the Combat deck, that you would need a starting 50% ratio for failures in Attack and Defense. These could in part be bought up-- I might reduce the number of fixed cards.

A smaller combat deck means everyone would reshuffle at the end of each combat round.

Combat Deck
12 Standard Resolution Cards
-6 Fixed
-6 Open
2 Self-Done Cards
Gain Advantage
Lose Ground

For modeling action choices, I would use a modification of the Gurps system. On your action you'd get a substantial half-move, plus free actions (like talking, perception checks, drawing a weapon), plus a normal action (like an attack, casting a spell, or more movement)

Action Choices and Basic Maneuvers would include:
*Move (so a full move as a character's action)
*Long Action (multiple rounds required)
*Combat Maneuver (like disarm, called shots and so on)
*All-Out Defense (either a bump or repulls for defense?)
*All-Out Attack-- which sacrifices a defense pull for one of the following options
-Two attacks at -1
-One attack at +2
-One attack at +1 Damage

Essentially, attacks happen as follows-- player declares an attack. He makes a pull from his combat deck to see if he succeeds. Defender makes a pull as well to see if he evades the attack. This is a contest, so the defender must beat the attacker's pull value. I might include a mechanic for weapon parries and shield blocks (used once per round) allowing Defender to win in a tie. If the attacker wins, the character makes a damage pull. That value is calculated by the GM against the damage table.

There are two tables for damage calculation--
The first compares the damage type versus the armor. This gives a damage class, listed as A, B, C, etc. Weapons are broken up by damage type (crushing, slashing, piercing, energy, etc) and if they are light, medium or heavy weapons. This is crossed against the armor, again broken up by type (cloth, leather, chain, scale, plate, etc) and if they are light, medium or heavy.

The damage pull, modified by any bonuses from the cards, from the weapon, or the target's armor, should yield a number. Cross this with the damage class to see the wounds actually inflicted.

Armor (Leather, Chain, Plate, Cloth===Light, Medium, Heavy)
checked against
Damage Type (Pierce, Cut, Crush, Magic===Light, Medium, Heavy)
yields a Damage Class

Damage Class (A, B, C...)
checked against
Damage Pull
yields wounds delivered.

Need to figure out range of wounds and easy to manage wound penalties.

Only the GM will be doing any kind of look-up here.

Armor defined by type, weight and other bonuses. Heavier armor gives penalties to Defense pulls. Magic armor might negate some wounds or act as heavier armor with lighter weight.

Weapons defined by damage type, weight and other bonuses. Weapons might give a Parry bonus, an attack bonus, a damage bonus, and so on.

Other Combat Mechanics to work out:
-Critical Hits: maybe I should have a separate deck for this-- could combine with hit location (i.e. draw two cards, one for location and one for effect).
-Called Shots: two pulls-- one at a modest penalty to see if you hit and a second to see if you hit the intended location (difficulty threshold varies based on what you're trying to hit).
-Disarming: should be easy to work in
-Grapples: as disarm, relatively easy to mechanic out.
-Combat Status Effects: Bleeding, Unbalancing, Knockdown, etc for color.

Keywords on the Combat Deck will be fairly narrowly defined:
(Weapon) attack, (Weapon) parry, (Weapon) parry, feint, multiple opponents, free dodge, hit location, initiative and so on. I need to figure out the balance of costs here to make this work-- but there shouldn't be a difference in cost between keywords on these and the standard resolution cards. That would make things complicated, the question is: balancing the keywords available, versus the cost of raising a thingy.

Charlie Stross has an interesting commentary on multi-book series and the difficulties involved with them. I think there are some parallels with the problems inherent in running a lengthy (let's say multi-year) campaign.

The Art of Being Late

Monday, February 23, 2009



I just hit Level 40.

Now if they hadn't nerfed the Liberal Arts Character Class in the latest recession patch I'd be set.

Interesting post from rpg designer Robin Laws in light of my earlier discussion about combat mechanics:

I don't watch the Oscars, but I did see Hugh Jackman's opening number which was hilarious, especially since he ends his ten-minute montage song-n-dance with the line "....I'M WOLVERINE!!!"

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Gene tagged me back on the Sixth Image meme that H tagged me for. This time I went to my Older Documents folder which has a My Documents from an older computer I used to use. Ironically, this is the image that came up:

That's a picture of my character Kilroy as done by Gene many, many years ago.

In the same folder I found several images Gene did for me back in the late 80's for the Saviors game:

Darkcat, one of the WW2 heroes who survived to the modern day setting of the game.


Wardove, another WW2 hero (actually killed by a PC during the war).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Twenty Authors (Part Two)

Twenty Authors (Part Two of Three of an Incidental Series)

Milorad Pavic
I put most authors on this list because they wrote multiple things which affected me. In the case of Pavic, I've only managed to get through one book. I've tried a couple of others-- Last Love on Constantinople and Landscape Painted with Tea, but neither of them grabbed me. The one that continually bores into my subconscious is The Dictionary of the Khazars.

It should be pretty obvious that I like the idea of meta-fiction-- though some of it I find a little too precious and self-aware. The best stuff has a device and plays it through straight. Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler for example could easily end up being goofy. But he manages the trick of having a continuing narrative built from the pieces of disparate texts. In the end it is a kind of love story, a really classic tale built from very modern techniques and awareness.

The Dictionary of the Khazars has many stories running through it. It is literally, a dictionary or rather an encyclopedia of entries, broken into sources from three different faiths, that is supposed to be about a lost people. Somehow it manages to blend magic, love, dream-catching, deep history, murder mysteries, folklore, present affairs, and ten thousand other things together. I go back and reread it every couple of years. It is a book of wonders that you can enter into at any point. I'd love it if I could convey a fraction of that mad and tangled dream across to players in one of my games.

(The Dictionary of the Khazars)

Philip K. Dick
When we first started hearing about Blade Runner, the Griffon Bookstore was in its second location. We'd hang out there on the weekend, and occasionally go down the street to the Hallmark store to look at comics and sci-fi magazines. I remember reading an issue of Fangoria...or some other movie magazine that had shots of the film. It looked so different from anything else we'd seen in sci-fi and the title, “Blade Runner”...what the hell did that mean? Again, it just sounded cool.

Not all that long after I first heard about the movie, we were in an Osco Pharmacy when I saw they had a novelization of Blade Runner. I'd read some of the Alan Dean Foster adaptations like Krull, Outland and Alien...though I may be getting my timeline mixed up here. Anyway, I bought the book and went home to read it. It was, of course, not a novelization, but in fact the original Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I read it and loved it-- though I didn't get everything. It had such a weird and different approach to sci-fi-- like a strange domestic tragedy against the background of slightly dystopian world.

Of course then I saw the movie. And while I loved the movie, I was also disappointed. So much of what I'd enjoyed about the book had vanished. I remember trying to explain to my parents what the differences were, but I don't think they got it. Over the next couple of years I started picking up whatever PK Dick books I could find. DAW had a lot of them: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Maze of Death, Ubik and so on, but many of them were out of print or truly obscure. This could have been just after Dick passed away and so I imagine many of the rights were up in the air. Eventually they started to put together the collected short stories and reprint most of his stuff but it took some time.

How can I put this...reading his works in early high school was an absolute mindf*ck. His heroes are more often slightly worn-down everymen who usually lose, the plots vary from enigmatic to just plain absent, a bizarre sense of drug culture and perception permeates everything, and in nearly every book reality isn't what it seems. I'd say I love about half the books I've read of his...and mostly because despite the often lame writing I feel deep affection for the schlub characters. There are sci-fi plots and elements, but most of the time they're about people just trying to deal with the strangeness and madness of the world around them.

(We Can Build You, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said)

Clark Ashton Smith
I went through my Lovecraft phase pretty early. When I was in grade school they had these wonderfully awful editions of the Lovecraft books with matching dark covers and a single twisted visage on each one. I remember my sister telling me not to read them. I'd seen the weird treatment of the Lovercaft Mythos in the first Deities and Demigods for TSR (before they got sued to remove them). Then Chaosium came out with the Call of Cthulhu rpg which my sister brought a copy of home. Eventually I snuck one of the books from a friend and read it and got absolutely terrified. I remembered confessing I'd read it to my bewildered Mom and Dad one Sunday morning. Their reaction told me that I was probably a little oversensitive, and despite what Cat had said it likely wasn't illegal for someone my age to be reading them.

Eventually I figured out that there were the Lovecraft stories and then there was everything else: Howard, Dereleth, deCamp and all the others. Some bastardized, some borrowed and others just kind of fell in the same circles. That's how I found Manley Wade Wellman, when they tried to tie his Silver John stories in with that. I also came across Clark Ashton Smith, but only a little. Eventually I'd realized that I'd seen something of Smith's earlier-- in another bastardized version. One of the earliest AD&D modules was Castle Amber-- a very strange thing that seemed more Edgar Alan Poe than anything. It turned out they had stolen a great deal from Smith for this.

Over time I managed to track down and read a bunch of his weird tales. They owe more to Lord Dunsany than anything else. They're strange and fantastic tales, more mythic and poetic than anything else. They don't have quite the overwriting that HPL does and his use of language actually carries something across rather than obscuring. I love these stories and go back to reread them again whenever fantasy fiction starts to seem drab and boring to me.

(Zothique, Xiccarph)

Harlan Ellison
I can't remember exactly what I read first of Harlan Ellison's stuff. When I was in high school they did a reprint run of his collections. I read through a bunch of the short story collections-- Deathbird Stories, Shatterday, and so on and enjoyed them. Then I mixed up in all of that I picked up a copy of The Glass Teat. That wasn't fiction but instead a strange set of essay and review about television. Now mind you, most of the stuff he was talking about was at least a decade before my time or else just barely in my awareness. But I remember it being the first time I actually understood about a writer's voice in non-fiction. I hunted down all the other essay collections I could find by him and read those. The fiction stuff I could take or leave. I have mixed feelings about him as an author-- he's built a really contradictory persona. But boy can he write. Reading his stuff makes me acutely aware of that power.

(Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, Strange Wine)

Ray Bradbury
I'll admit to being a scardey-cat when I was a kid. I still am-- I love horror stuff, but it does get under my skin and stay in my head. I have a very high ability to suspend my disbelief. Movies with really striking visuals like The Ring, Blair Witch and The Grudge freak me out-- and yes, after seeing each of those movies I couldn't get to sleep for several nights. I know some people found them goofy or unaffecting, but man...

So I have a very distinct memory of receiving a collection of ray Bradbury stories at someone else's birthday party when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I think it was a doorprize. Eventually I sat down to read it. There's a story in there where a guy begins to think that his own skeleton is out to get him.

Sounds stupid, right. But it absolutely freaked me out. It would be another couple of years before I'd go back to read Bradbury. By that time we'd had that awful Martian Chronicles mini-series and Stephen King had mentioned Something Wicked This Way Comes as a great horror novel in Danse Macabre. I went back and started to pull together whatever Bradbury I could find. This time I loved it-- some of it still spooked me, but so much of it was rich, poetic and wonderful that I couldn't get enough. I remember one night sitting on a swing down at the park by our house and reading a Medicine for Melancholy...and just absolutely enjoying myself. I was reading Bradbury during some of those nights I recall going with my dad onto campus. He was working late in the office and we'd have the big empty hallways to ourselves.

Bradbury's just right for those kinds of strange, and maybe a little sad, memories.

(The October Country, Long After Midnight)

Alan Moore
The first thing I ever read by Alan Moore was a stack of British comics called Warrior my sister brought home. They had the first Marvelman stories in them. It'd be another several years before Eclipse comics would reprint them in the US as Miracleman. The whole revelation that he wasn't really a superhero-- and that image of the government trying to kill him and his pals with an atomic bomb-- that stuck with me.

A few years later I wandered into one of the on-again, off-again comic books stores that we used to have in South Bend. It was a few blocks away from my house and I went there rarely. It lay a little outside the range of places my mom would have approved of me going out to unaccompanied. But I was a latchkey kid so I had a good deal of time to myself. This would have been middle-school, 1983, I think. Anyway, they had a quarter or dime bin of comics I rummaged through. In there I found two series that I had started to read over at a friend's house, but hadn't gotten far with: Arion, Lord of Atlantis and Swamp Thing. The former was cool because it was fantasy, the latter because I'd read some reprints of the old Berni Wrightson stuff. I bought up as much of it as I could and went home.

The Swamp Thing issues started somewhere before the double-digits. Those issues weren't bad. I remember the Beast of the Apocalypse showed up in there somewhere, and an issue about a demonic child molester. Lah-lah-lah...then I got to "The Anatomy Lesson". As I recall it wasn't the first issue Moore did-- I think that was the one before where he cleared the decks of the various characters and plots that had been hanging around. But this issue...listen, if you haven't read Moore's run on Swamp Thing, you really have to. It is amazing how he managed to change the status quo and make it seem logical, how he didn't make you feel like it was a reboot, how he managed to keep contact with the DC Universe while absolutely changing the rules. People talk about Watchmen being the comic that brought about a change in superhero comics, but I'd say his run on Swamp Thing-- that updated the cosmology of DC and introduced John Constantine and did a hundred other things amazingly have to imagine it in the context of things-- nothing else like this was going on. Nothing. We hadn't seen Sandman yet, there was no Vertigo line, the X-Men still only had one title...a whole different world. Moore made me appreciate that horror could be done in comics, pointed me to a new generation of horror writers (Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker), and gave me the first comic that I actively went out searching for every single month.

And then he also wrote a whole bunch of other mind-blowing stuff later. Some I like better than others, but I've found something enjoyable in everything he's written. And usually something that changes the way I think about things.

(Top Ten, Supreme...too many things to choose from here...)

Stanislaw Lem
There's a real theme here for me of reading some wildly odd writers at a young age and that sticking with me long after. In grade school one of my friends was reading Tales of Prix the Pilot. I ended up reading Lem's The Cyberiad...which was very different from the Dr. Who novels I'd been reading at the time. If I recall correctly, it is about dueling scientists, battles with math and a kind of surreal (and European) of what speculative fiction meant. Again, it was one of those books that changed what I thought sci-fi was. Years later I'd start to read more of Lem's work-- seeing how it fit into the tradition of Kafka and Orwell. His stuff is what I'd like to call “idea” fiction rather than being about conventional characters and plot. I love them for that completely different approach to what this genre can do. A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of reviews for non-existent have to love that.

(The Investigation, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub)