Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Truly the Greatest Hobbit Adaption

It's not the Jackson epic money-machine. 

And as much as I love the Rankin-Bass 1977 cartoon (I mean I still see elves to this day as sour-faced greyish plant monsters) it's usurped in the number one position by another, lesser-known foreign-made film:  The Fabulous Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit, a live-action version produced in the Soviet Union (no less) in 1985.

Thanks to an entirely faithful and accurate translated credits the understated brilliance and sublime performances of this adaption—Glimmer-Glam Gandalf (pictured above), pink-shirted dumpy Bilbo,  Pufnstuf dwarves, song-and-dance goblin dance routines by the Leningrad Ballet, Smaug puppets and more—can now be enjoyed by English-speaking audiences.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Weird is Rising, Thanks World Engine

Robert Parker, player of mountebank-turned-”god-king”Manzafrain the Mirthful in my G+ campaign, trotted out a spot-on analysis about the Hill Cantons back-end mechanics—what he nicely terms the “world engine”--in a post yesterday.

I've been reluctant to talk over much about the “Chaos Index” blog side as it's awfully close to home in revealing how I make the “whirly bits” (the moving parts that lie outside what the PCs do) whirl. But Robert has let the proverbial cat out of the bag (with my blessing) so a few more clarifications are in order.

Reading Robert's account (which is quite good overall) one might get the impression that I run a crazy, over-elaborated, mechanistic system on my off days at the table. Crazy, I will cop too but what's going on is probably less rigid then it seems.
An early prototype of the Chaos Index . Click to enlarge. 
First off the whole “track” concept (a mechanic grabbed from old wargames with political dimensions) is tied to the tension between human civilization/stability/corelands and the Weird/reality-bending in the campaign world (see here for the full tour of that who-ha). It's somewhat akin to the Law vs. Chaos tension we all know and love, but not quite: the Weird is not necessarily inimical to humanity, though it has a strong tendency to act that way. The whole she-bang has a definite geographical expression in the campaign, the stable corelands lose physical and metaphorical ground and the Weird rises and vice versa. 

The Index is just the ball park tracker for that struggle in the particular corner of the world the characters do their business in. A big emphasis on “ball park” because what's not happening—and this was a central feature of the World Pattern schemata from the old Douglas Bachmann article that inspired it—is that when you hit certain points a rigidly defined event happens. In that old Dragon article when the chaos marker (on a track) hits say one point a war breaks out or a plague happens. While that's evil DM fun for a while, it ties you in my opinion way too rigidly to the whole scheme.
Stop fucking with us...
What I do instead is tend to brainstorm likely events (and on occasion roll them on the old AD&D Oriental Adventures events charts) and ask myself “how probable is this to happen and if it does how intense will it be?” How far the track is on the stable or weird side influences the number of dice I throw Matrix game side when answering the question. If the Weird is riding high, for instance, the chance of some kind of large scale supernatural strangeness occurring goes up (the “argument” strength goes up in other words).

Keep in mind the system is also hardwired not to be a High Fantasy business. In a campaign that is still really mostly about murderhoboes bouncing around exploring a strange and dangerous, robbing it of its wealth and blowing it in a debauch, saving the world from Chaos typically only comes as a self-interested after thought. The G+ party just famously saved the besieged city of Kezmarok facing an imminent collapse, but only after pushing the Index up themselves session after session disturbing the slumber of necromantic kings transitioning to Kirbyesque space gods deep in the undercity.

The Index by itself moves spaces back to balance--when in-game events and triggers don't keep propelling it away. Which, of course, the players so often do with their mucking around in places best kept locked and forgotten (cue the maniacal laughter).

But where would be the fun if they didn't?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mastering Wilderness Description at the Table

Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you--beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.” 
- Ed Abbey

Mastering natural description is a real bear in tabletop rpgs. It's a damn tricky balancing act that charts a tight little channel between the Scylla of bland terseness (“you're in a forest”) and the Charybdis of eye-glazing purple prose description.

Gaming products rarely hit this sweet spot in their unrushed published forms, pulling it off at the table even more difficult. (Who says GMing isn't a hella demanding performing art?)

I've written before about how wilderness crawls seem to always be a little dullish compared to the real deal, one of the few areas in fantasy gaming that seems so. Months later—with a wilderness survival-escape mini-campaign in the offing--I still find myself ruefully still mulling how to get out from under that rock.

Part of the problem is that there is really little in the way of outside assistance to help a brother out.

How strange it is in a hobby where we are almost buried in the sheer amount and diversity of free and commercial products that we haven't really produced any great, go-to guides on mastering the theatrics of the game table. You can read hundreds of pages of mind-numbing minutiae about things like the culinary predilections of Subspecies 35 Elf, but almost nothing about how to do something that happens thousands of times a week in as many play groups: describe a wilderness area that “pops” without boring your players to tears.

So what's to be done?

The best answer I've come up with is starting to pay attention in my readings to the best passages of naturalists (the new tendency to want to substitute “nature writer” or “natural historian” leaves me cold)--or barring that the best descriptions of writers closer to home in speculative fiction. Read a few pages of the sad ruminations of Aldo Leopold or the caustic and anarchic Ed Abbey and you find pure gold: a vibrant and well-paced descriptive art.

Let me start showing and not telling.

Take the opening of The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, a horror tale made all the more melancholy and terrifying by the attention to the “mundanity” (yes, that is a word Open Office) of natural detail:
“After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes... 
In high flood this great acreage of sand, shingle-beds, and willow-grown islands is almost topped by the water, but in normal seasons the bushes bend and rustle in the free winds, showing their silver leaves to the sunshine in an ever-moving plain of bewildering beauty. These willows never attain to the dignity of trees; they have no rigid trunks; they remain humble bushes, with rounded tops and soft outline, swaying on slender stems that answer to the least pressure of the wind; supple as grasses, and so continually shifting that they somehow give the impression that the entire plain is moving and alive... 
Happy to slip beyond the control of the stern banks, the Danube here wanders about at will among the intricate network of channels intersecting the islands everywhere with broad avenues down which the waters pour with a shouting sound; making whirlpools, eddies, and foaming rapids; tearing at the sandy banks; carrying away masses of shore and willow-clumps; and forming new islands innumerably which shift daily in size and shape and possess at best an impermanent life, since the flood-time obliterates their very existence.”
Ok paragraph two is a bit excessive and smacking of things too poetical to be of use. But trim out half that and you have a description that evokes a great gaming wilderness scene in less than a minute of breath.

Obviously the answer here is “we should all become incredibly-talented writers”, but I do take away from this and other passages that there are elements worth trying to ape.

Here's a start—and I will add to this as my thinking out loud continues:
Pay Attention to the Whole Package. How does the whole area fit together in your mind's eye? If you think it's “just woods” you are likely to describe the trees and maybe the underbrush. But if it's a “high alpine basin choked with conifers and warmed by geysers” the details started clicking together an evocative unit.

Mood is Important. It's not just a swamp or some willows on an island: it's a twisting, moody, almost-sentient labyrinth of shifting channels with great beauty and the hint of something unknowable.

Short Laundry Lists Help. Trotting out a single line of small details can help color it all immensely with a veneer of how sweeping the diversity of the area is. Take this from Abbey's Down the River (and this is not his best): “We listen for the breathing of the Minotaur but find only cottonwoods glowing green and gold against the red rock, rabbitbrush with its mustard-yellow bloom, mule-ear sunflowers facing the sunlight...and curled horns of a desert bighorn ram, half-buried in the auburn sand.”

Brevity. This is the trickiest part take all of that above and try and distill it down to descriptions less than a minute—closer to half that really if possible. Take all those mental descriptors you are now mulling in your brain to sex up your wilderness area--and then cut that by half. When you are done cut it again, dropping all but the most essential of adjectives. (Note my impatient ellipses in the quotes above.)

This post is growing overlong and my list incomplete, any tricks of the trade you lean upon? What do you do to make your wilderness areas pop? What do your players say?  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Medievalist RPG Campaign Types

Medieval Hack has gone and got itself a new working name, Feudal Anarchy, a title ripped from recent academic debates that have buried the idea of a stable, dullish thing called “feudalism”. (We are lining up with the more gameable strain that emphasizes the chaotic mafia-like view of how things were likely run in the High Middle Ages).

Since those of us working on the game primarily play old school D&D-like campaigns, quite naturally the game has evolved in directions that support campaigns with some of those elements. Emphasis on the “some” since the design frame of the game has some departure points–fewer and more mythical powerful monsters, more limited site-based exploration, a greater emphasis on the PCs role and station in society etc.--from that style of play.

Which naturally leads us to be thinking a lot more intentionally about how we can get the high-player agency, dangerous, non-linear “sandboxy” elements while keeping the game's more focused flavor. And that means trying to wrap our heads around different kinds of campaigns for Feudal Anarchy--and how to support them in the rules.

Some examples:
Local Sandbox. The players are mostly assumed to have their adventures in a small, bounded sandbox say a barony, county, or other region generally walkable in a few days or a single week. The campaign dynamics revolve around a mix of news hooks, site-based exploration, and to a greater degree than some other fantasy games a web of personal relationships. This kind of sandbox thrives on small details and is thus generally smaller and more bounded geographically than most fantasy game campaigns. (To date both Ulfland and Evan's Cocanha playtest campaigns are examples of this kind of campaign).

The random fief/realm generator can spit out counties, earldoms, manors, towns, monasteries, megalith, weathered ruins, etc to help speed or guide the creation process. We have also developed a subsystem to quickly generate the broad brushstrokes of a big cast of NPCs--and their broader relationship web (who hates who, whose plotting against what, etc). We still need a system to generate period-appropriate events en masse.

The Roadshow. This is a sandbox mode where the players are wandering Europe. The game hardwires certain non-linear incentives (primarily in the Magic chapter) to getting to other places: gaining new knowledge of the “magical” powers of different saints at pilgrimage sites, shrines, cathedrals, etc; finding new demons and black magical knowledge; and hunting rare herbs and alchemical components. The characters are mostly footloose for various period-appropriate reasons (perhaps they are on pilgrimage, fleeing serfdom, or on a long circuitous trip to a distant city) with various adventures along the way.

Warband. Somewhat similar to above in that it assumes a high degree of roving (can in fact be combined like all these modes). In this case the PCs lead (or are part of larger NPC force) a free company, bandit band, or other warband. A more combat oriented game with copious usage of the mass battle, siege and other rules. We are developing a special set of rules to handle small battle combats without miniatures (and are more interactive and less abstract than the mass battle rules). Also special rules for resource management and retinues in general.

Marco Polo. More trading (perhaps with some exploration) focused campaign that combines elements of above. The players could have a home town/port that they have local adventures on but play is mostly focused on turning profits on a grand circuit. Simple long distance and commodity trade system and a mishaps table combined with some of the warband and roadshow mechanics will support this.

Off to the Crusade. Traveling to the Crusades in the Levant was a long, arduous journey often filled with much turmoil and chaos—i.e. great gaming material. Both the land route through Central Europe, the Balkans, Byzantine Empire, etc. and the sea route through the hotly contested Mediterranean (with ports of call along the way) present enormous adventuring opportunities.

This type of campaign could essentially be a mix of both the Road Show and Warband with the possibility of a final climatic phase using the Abstract Mass Battle Rules we have currently for the game. Deus Vult.

Of course like all categorizations of things that tend to be messy and evolve on their own (human that is) the different sandboxes here can overlap, vary in specific character or even be phases in a campaign's evolution as players' goals/desires change.

Thoughts, oh peanut gallery? Any suggestions for different categories or supporting mechanics? Things you'd like to see or just plain don't like in there?  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Do Sandbox Campaigns Evolve in Distinct Patterns?

Trying to get my blogging sea legs back again I seem to have stopped suffering from the “not having much sufficiently different to say” problem (a sclerotic affliction that seems to affect a rather large number of gaming blogs that age past three) to the more germane, if somewhat manic publishing quandary of having a spate of things I am so pumped about writing out that this thought train begets that thought train—and the danger of “option paralysis” starts to set in.

Writing out a rather detailed analysis this morning of how the Hill Cantons campaign evolved between its three major play groups (and 3.5 years) I was struck by how similar the overall arcs where between each of them. Though each (sub)campaign was/is very different in feel by dint of the wonderfully deviant and unique stamp each group of players brought to the table, all three groups--the Austin, San Antonio home, and Google Plus (which just celebrated its one year anniversary) parties--have seemed to fall into the the same broad brush strokes patterns when I put my mind to it.

Phase One: Buffet Period. Lots of roaming around the map, bouncing around, feeling out the walls of the sandbox metaphorically. Explorations are generally quick and limited, popping into one place for a session then another. A good deal of time is usually spent figuring out what to do especially in the beginning of a session. Generally a somewhat dangerous period for the PCs as they are low level and feeling out the “danger contours” of the sandbox.

Phase Two: Settling In. The group becomes more focused and goal oriented. Leadership or group decision dynamics start to settle in and become stable (though this can be unsettled when differences start to set in later). A home base “in town” is found and generally stuck to for a while. The group starts to build relationships with NPCs: patrons, useful contacts/sources, hired help, etc. Money and other resources are still pretty limited but growing and starting to allow for more choice.

Phase Three: Long Haul. Usually the group becomes fixated on some kind of long focused exploration arc, thoroughly exploring one site or “quest”. Fatalities start to ramp up again as the more dangerous areas of the big site/quest are reached. The party is slowly, but surely gaining power and resources. The home base may be upgraded and the hireling list starts to take on the appearance of a private army.

Phase Four: Rock to Rock. The long arc plays out and then the group starts bouncing around from sites or hooks again. Usually shorter bouts but with more focus on party-derived goals. The party will either stay in this pattern for a while, jump back into the previous phase (but never with the same intensity of purpose) or move on to the next.

Phase Five: Maturing Goals. Players start really digging into long-term goals of their own devising. Great long schemes come into being with some significant time spent out of session dealing with individual player's machinations. Some divisions may start arising as the players find themselves leaning in one direction or the other about where to put game time into. The characters are solidly mid-level now and PC death is rare. (Hireling/henchmen--who stay in a lower power rang--death though can skyrocket in the face of the ever-mounting dangers.)

I feel like there are more phases beyond this last settling phase. To be honest I just haven't gotten there yet with any of the three groups (and that reminds me that I want so desperately to get the home face-to-face group back playing in the next month), but I seem to remember back in the hoary day that Phase Five mature goals begin taking on long roots and the players become big name players who are increasingly as directive as the GM in where the campaign grows.

Now obviously these patterns could be totally specific to how I run a game and the kinds of players I like to roll with, but it does make me wonder if people who run similar campaigns over long periods of time are seeing patterns. Are they ballpark similar, wholly or partially divergent or what?

What dynamics have you seen develop at your table and do you feel that they have some kind of distinctness to them that you can generalize from?  

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Small Wars of Medieval Hack

Writing, designing and playtesting Medieval Hack has taken up an enormous block of my playing time. Though the blog has been neglected I'm not in the least perturbed, playing and building a game from the bottom up has been hella enjoyable.

We had a chance to play twice with a new set of skirmish and small battle rules I developed for the game. Because we want to support players living vicariously as petty warlords we are designing a number of systems that focus on the fortunes and dilemmas of running a smallish warband (among other rather sandbox mechanics).

We needed something versatile that can be played either with or without minis (especially given the large amount of play we do on the ether) and I'm happy to say they seem to work well to date.

Last night saw the first run in Evan's somewhat fantastical Languedoc, with our ruffian band of down and out knights. We have been trying—stupidly given its immense size and sheer lethality—to slay the monstrous fire-breathing bull of Onachus (mother of the equally dreaded Tarrasque).

After a near TPK earlier this week, we got serious—spending an entire winter building a ballista and convincing the Viscount to lend us a small army. Upshot is that with said small army we managed to whip it only losing a handful of men—one of the most satisfying victories of my playing career.

This morning I got a chance to run it with minis, simulating a revenge raid by the Fian Gosse banneret Sir Kavan. Using the recent chaos in the barony as something of a pretext, brash Sir Kavan (pictured in yellow) led his retinue and neighbor Sir Tristan (in the purple and white) into the neighboring barony to steal back “his” prize bull, Terce. Accompanied by Brother Kadfel, his band made its way to Sir Modoc's manorial village to repossess the bull.

But of course Sir Modoc gave battle, rushing forward with his many mounted sergeants, footmen and hirsute hillmen levy. (Each figure represents a squad of five and a simple system converts attack and defense values from the percentile, BRP-like rpg foundation.)

Long story short, Sir Kavan's men met the charge, did very well at first scoring hits and knocking a number of their numerically stronger enemy out of the fight (it takes two hits in the system) in the first three turns. But turn four and five turned south for Sir Kavan's host and both knight squads were knocked out. The attacks caused a cascade of panic through the warband with literally every single one of the survivors losing their nerve and breaking in the following two rounds.

While totally whipped,  the two knights were exceedingly lucky on the Out of the Fight charts for post-battle casualties, rolling high and coming out with only one fatality and a number of serious injuries. Despondently Sir Kavan and Tristan await their fate in the oubliette of the cruel Sir Modoc.

Whether that be torture, ransom, or rescue is yet to be seen...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Campaign Dials and Medieval Hack

Three in the A.M. thoughts continue to rule my head as we pound out playtests—and pages--of Medieval Hack. Many of the sleep-deprived thoughts seem to cluster around the broader game design questions. Long box-car thoughts like: “we chose a relatively narrow period/place/literary tone so we could focus a bit more on period feel and little details...but we love DIY gaming...so what is the range we think it can support conceptually before it becomes something else entirely?”

While I find myself feeling that sliders and other schemes are a bit mechanistic (and confining when a game starts growing organically in play), they do allow you to think about the broad parameters are of the game. What follows are some idle, “non-official” thoughts on some campaign dials.

Campaign Dials
Medieval Hack is designed to be flexible enough to incorporate a range of campaign types and settings while maintaining its coherence as a focused mostly historical, yet-fantastical and weird game. Gamemasters should think about what feels right to your play group and choose accordingly. (My own Ulfland playtest campaign is a nice even 2,2,2 in setting while Evan's Languedoc is a 2,1,3).

Fantasy Element Dial
1. Magic and the supernatural as open mystery. The existence of Magic and the supernatural is an open question. Does witchcraft exist or is it trickery? PCs are typically not allowed access to magical skills. Supernatural effects may exist but are shrouded in mystery.

2. The Medieval Mind is “right”. The world view of much of this period is assumed to be mostly accurate. Witches sometimes work “black magic”, sometimes just folkloric “low magic”. Prester John's kingdom and its strange monsters and stranger denizens likely does exist somewhere at the end of the earth. Still for the majority of people in Christendom these matters are mostly unknown and unencountered in daily life—and greatly feared. The game has mostly been designed and playtested to support this approach and while it can be readily played on the other settings, we feel this gives the broadest play experience of the game's vision.

3. Low Magic Fantasy. The setting is assumed to something more akin to what is called a “low magic” setting in a D&D or fantasty novel context. Magic practitioners, while still rare are not as feared and shunned, and have an open existence in civilized areas. Supernatural beings and goings on are more readily acknowledged and encountered. The game Ars Magica, the fantasy Earth of Runequest 3 and other games come to mind.

Setting Historicity Dial
1. Historical World, Realistic. The campaign setting is based in  historical Europe. Major settlements are actual historically-existing places. Small-scale settlements and areas (such as villages and manors)  may, however, be semi-or entirely fictional. Important personages are typically found in historical accounts. (Fantasy elements can still exist in this dial setting.)

2. Historical World, Fictional. The campaign setting is based in historical Europe but has regional areas that may be fictional. The fictional area could be an entire county-sized area such as Averoigne or a mythical set of islands such Jack Vance's Elder Isles. The rest of the world is more or less historical. Some important personages will be entirely fictional.

3. Fantasy World, Quasi-Historical. The setting world is entirely fictional, but the culture is a thinly-skinned Northwestern Europe of this period. Important historic parallels will exist such as a (mostly) universal monotheistic church.  The setting may even blend in thinly-skinned personages from real world history.

Player Restrictions Dial
1. Players restricted to certain roles. Character generation in MH will often produce a wide range of backgrounds and vocations for players. Some GMs may desire a more focused campaign with a specified range of characters. A GM for instance shooting for a more knight-based chivalric game may ask players to only roll characters under the Second Estate table or one seeking to have a bandit-like Robin Hood game could give a range of likely vocations such as bandit or forester as open options.

2. Broad but bounded. This is the default of character generation as written. Character types are drawn not as a statistical snapshot of life in that period, but as the classes and backgrounds more likely to lead to an adventuring life in the bounds of Northwestern Europe of that time (or its fictional mirror). Use of the Alternate Table can slant players to be more likely to members of the nobility while maintaining both the diversity and bounds of the game as intended.

3. Wide open. Players can either freely choose from character backgrounds or are allowed to play roles that may have been more difficult. Playing Islamic characters or Joan of Arc-like warrior women (not historic impossibilities  but rare) for example is allowed.   

Saturday, October 13, 2012

News of Ulfland

Campaign news for the Medieval Hack playtest.

Lord Bodwy's tragic woes continue, Sir Taran was foully murdered in an ambuscade on the new bridge fording Norde Creek. Some say that this is the work of brigands, cooler minds doubt that outlaws could work with such impunity in the middle of the day and on the old Roman road during fair time no less. Sir Gralon, his twin brother is offering a substantial bounty for the heads of the culprits and Taran's boon companions, Sir Menguy the Blueballed and Sir Jos the Fairbearded, are in a froth of wrath. Bodwy's banneret Kavan asserts that this is the work of Lord Govran and vows “war with mercy” on that foul baron.

The Hot Fair of Maure begins. The muddy streets of Maure are choked with fair goers from all over Ulfland and Lyonesse. The cloth-hall and pavilions are bustling with the shouts of the booth vendors.

A kaleidoscope of colors greet browsers of cloth bolts. Though mostly local wool dyed in rich vermillions, scarlets and greens, there are dye-stuffs and cotton from Flanders and silks from far Lucca. The rich smell of Cordovan leather mixes with the piney scent of resin. Locals oh and ah over the exotic goods, sugar from Syria and even rare spices like cinnamon (which is well known to come from the nesting material of a bird in dusty Arabia).

Two cowherds have gone missing from Lammon's Meadow. The pair, sons of prosperous villiens on the manor of *Sir Morvan*, were not known to be prone to flight and their fathers worry.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lyonesse Maps

Hopping around the ether today I found some wonderful maps of Vance's Lyonesse on French fan sits. (Apparently like Jerry Lewis, that trilogy plays well in Francophone countries having produced the one and only rpg in the setting and several quality fan sites.)

This beauty of a South Ulfland map, naturally, had me a-twitter. Interestingly it places Fian Gosse (the barony I'm using for the Medieval Hack mini-campaign) almost exactly where I did working from the Lyonesse novel map. Scale fits too. 
Click to enlarge.

And here's North Ulfland ruled by the good King Gax (Gygax reference?)

Here's a nice one placing the Elder Isles in their European context.

Vance lovers be sure to check out the rest of the maps and the site in general. Google Translate actually does some semi-passable work with the translations.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Ulfland Playtest Mini-Campaign

Yesterday I pulled back the current on my recent medievalist game project. I mentioned that I was running a mini-campaign that "ports elements of 13th century Brittany into the strife-torn South Ulfland setting dress of Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy." 

For spectators and those interested in getting into the playing pool for one of the Google Plus playtest slots (or face-to-face if you fancy a drive to San Antonio), here's the background run down and starting situation on my little barony. 

Ulfland Mini-Campaign Notes
The mini-campaign is centered on Fian Gosse, a petty barony on the marches that divide South and North Ulfland. The region is a somewhat remote and wild place of rugged, grassy hills punctuated by wood-choked vales, lush river-bottom meadows, heather-covered moorlands, weathered megaliths and ancient, time-worn ruins. Arable plots are small and divided by dense bocage (hedgerows often overgrowing a crude stone wall) and herds of lean, rangy cattle and wooly mountain sheep dominate the wider open pastures.

Local Male Names
Local Female Names

Medieval Nicknames (note such wonderful entries as “Catherine de' Medici Jezebel, the Barren Wife, the Black Queen, the Eclipsed Consort, the Italian Duchess Without a Duchy, the Maggot from Italy's Tomb, the Merchant's Daughter, the Monstrous Regiment of Women, the Mother of the Modern High-Heeled Shoe”)

Hoel, Lord Bodwy’s last remaining son was found a fortnight ago nailed to the old Roman watchtower two hundred paces from the boundary stones of Lord Govran’s demense. His corpse was so riddled with arrows that it was difficult to identify the teen heir. Lord Bodwy remains bedridden and despondent to this day. Sir Paol, Bodwy’s castellan, is looking for “rough men” to help revenge the honor of the baron.

The Hot Fair of Maure will begin next week. Already the village is packing in wine merchants, harlots, pedlars, vinters, thieves and other ne'er do wells.

Sir Gralon and Sir Taran, twin nephews of Bodwy’s currently serving in the court of King Gax in Xouges are said to be on the road to Fian Gosse. Their mutually-contested status as heirs to the barony surely is prompting their sudden sense of homesickness.

Sir Paol has offered a one Libra (240d) reward for the slaying of the dreaded Hound of Blacken Moor. A shepherd had his throat torn out near the moors just a night ago.

Sir Kavan, the more martial of Bodwy’s bannerets, is looking for the fleet of foot and stout of arm to help in a return of his prize bull from a local banneret. Interested parties should seek him at Three-Pines Hall.

Jakez the Woodward has been breathlessly spreading in the village a chilling tale of coming upon a black rock altar deep in the center of Kaugh Forest. The blood staining in it was hot and fresh to the touch and he could hear the howls of Hell itself when he lifted his hand. The tale grows in the telling.

NPCs of Note
Lord Bodwy, the petty baron. Bed-ridden and despondent since the deaths of his three sons

Sir Kavan “Rooster”. Strutting proud banneret of Bodwy’s.

Sir Ranulf “the Cuckolded” (weak chinned and fat) and his wife Ysabel of Konche, raven-haired beauty of an “amazon”. Bodwy’s other banneret.

Sir Paol, Bodwy's Castellan. Old lean and a bit myopic.

Sir Tristan, knight bachelor holding a small manor two miles NE of Maure Keep. Two household knights and mercenary leader are PCs.

Surrounding Baronies:
Lord Govran, sadistic fucker who holds the barony of Caroth to the northwest.

Lady Mebille of Gelsme. Stewarding the barony to the south for her son. Eerily depopulated fief with bramble-covered ruined villages and wood-choked fields. Dark rumors abound about the lady.

Four “Founder” Saints of Ulfland (each grants specific powers under our divine magic system):
St. Tudwal
St. Christopher the Lesser
St. Padarn
St. Kaourintin 

Click to Enlarge
Barony of Fian Gosse
920 Serfs (15 square miles of cultivated land)
110 Freemen (2 square miles)

Maure Keep
An old pink-granite Shell Keep with 25-foot walls. Seat of Lord Bodwy. Currently houses five knights (including the Castellan), 14 sergeants, and 47 footmen. The demense is also backed by the two fortified manors of Bodwy’s vassals, Sir Kavan and Sir Ranulf.

Large village of around 750 that holds a royal market charter (and is thus growing into a town). Three mills, a smithy, two weavers, a tannery and most recently Kernun’s Antler, an inn.

Three Pine Hall
Venerable oak-trunk manor house known for the three massive ancient pines in its courtyard thought to have once been used in the worship of a pagan god.

Abbey of St. Christopher the Lesser.
Premonstratensian abbey run by the Abbot Fransez the Fat, a venal and grasping man.

Village of 238.

Village of 258.

Sinister little hamlet of around 50 herdsmen near Bracken Moor.

Teach tac Teach
Mountain range, three closest peaks are called the Cloudcutters.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Hardcore Medievalist RPG of Our Own

Like most of my fool gaming projects, it started so casually. Restless on leave, I threw out on Google Plus the idle thought that I was suffering through a perverse, masochistic urge to play a hardcore medievalist rpg like first edition Chivalry & Sorcery or Harnmaster.

For some reason the resulting discussion just clicked something in my head and low and somewhere in there it morphed into “let's make a game.” I trotted out a wish list of design goals for a dream game:
1. Low-to-no magic rpg. Magic and fantasy elements are rare and wondrous or terrifying.
2. Set roughly from 1190-1250 in a Northwestern Europe, but can support low fantasy or semi-historical fictional settings that are similar.
3. BRP-like percentile game as a baseline but with simple mechanics that are custom fit for the period.
4. Game feel inspirations: real world history, Averoigne/Jurgen weirdness and a splash of Howard Pyle-like romanticism.
5. Indirect "magic" (saintly, alchemy, sorcery/summoning, and herbal) that is well-researched and fits into the workings of the medieval mind.
6. Folklore and legends are often "real". Prester John may well live at the edge of the world in a land filled with strange wonders. The black hound may indeed hunt the moors and Woodwoses in the deep dark recesses of the forest. Faith and folklore have real weight.
7. Background, institutions and social class matter, but opportunity through social chaos/adventuring.
8. Interesting, painless chargen (career based with clear easy choices).

A mad writing rush of two weeks opened up with heavy-lifting help from Evan from In Places Deep  and Mike from Sword+1 and other mensch in our DIY corner or the hobby. Forty manuscript pages later and “Medieval Hack” (a working title) was a-born.

A good many ideas I've been long harboring for character generation minigames were sharped and found a home, you can guide a character through a large range of childhood class backgrounds along a vocation path of almost 50 different realistic vocations (with lots of strange events and related character development along the way). Long-tinkered, beancounting-minimal domain-level rules are finding a place too.

While we have a lot more tightening up and thinking out to for our evolving-bottom game, the punchline is we already had enough in place to start the real fun: hot-housing in several play-test mini-campaigns on Google Plus hangouts.

Evan is running one such game in the Languedouc region in the late-12th century. I'm running two sessions a week now of a mini-campaign that ports elements of 13th century Brittany into the strife-torn South Ulfland setting dress of Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy (see here for the full campaign description).

If you are interested in the game—and more importantly want to drop in and swing a virtual sword in one of the playtests--drop me a line. Half the fun is building a game organically from the bottom up with the discerning and devious minds of our wee hobby.

Monday, September 24, 2012

News and Ephemera from Kezmarok

A round-up of things particular to the Hill Cantons campaign proper.

And now the news...
A bizarre riot of pugilism near the Gate of 900 Eyes last Sagday night has municipal issues in a state of almost concern. A bo stick-armed delegation from The Ring-Tailed Circle of Kezmarokies for Prosperity and Weal, a rumored front for Wellsprings of the Crowd, marched on the Municipal Palace yesterday demanding immediate suppression of the “fight cult.” The High-Marshal has stated that a round-up of the “usual suspects is already underway.”

Dromons and cogs pulling in from the waters of the Cantons are spreading word of a slow and massive accumulation of storm clouds in the seas of the northwest. The stormheads have been eerily piling up for weeks now, occasionally looking like they will burst though into a gigantic squall—only to dry up inexplicably. Some say that the supernatural storm-to-be is the Celestial Lady beating the Sun Lord with her silver chains again, others around the chaotic cult of Storm Child whisper of the birth of a “One Other”.

Steelpike the Younger, purveyor of secrets and climber of social ladders, has made a great show of wanting to sell a second map of “great and valuable material worth.” Interested parties should inquire at the great hostel of Finestra.

Another round of cryptic wall posters have been appearing throughout Kezmarok (penned in a different hand from last week's fight cult ones). The posters all bear the same lines:

The World Turtle Upended
If buttercups buzz'd after the wozzle bee
If cogs were on land, sun-domes on sea
If steppe-ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows
And pelegranes should be chased into holes by the mouse
If the mamas sold their babies
To the Silent God for an aparicity crown
If summer were spring
And the other way 'round
Then the world-turtle would be upside down!
The World of the Hill Cantons. Crappy Players' Map

The travails of academic life in Kezmarok. The Great Seminar of the HCLK bubbles over into vigorous dispute over the nature of Gematria (the proper assignment of numerological significance) in Therosh's 18th Examination of the Pericyclical Evolution of the Dome of the Heavens.

Kezmarok and the Southlands.
The Weird is marked in purple.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Historical Fiction for Fantasy Readers

I have a small laundry list of failings of the fantasy genre that drive me absolutely bonkers. Sitting right near the top of that list—right after the big-tickets like cardboard, Tolkein-rip-off—is that way too-common one of characters whose world view drip with the mundane and modern. Motivations and dialogue that are so jarringly familiar and pedestrian—minus great compensation in other areas—that they invariably yank me right out of that feeling of being somewhere else entirely (one of the great points of fantasy)

What I find it so deeply disappointing about that drek is that fair-to-good novels in another genre routinely succeed in shifting that feeling of being in a different world despite it's painstakingly real-world orientation: historical fiction.

It has passed into cliché, but it's worth repeating the old L.P. Hartley quote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And that's what I love, the same ability--like the best fantasy--to walk around in the shoes of characters that have values, perspectives and motivations mostly different from my own.

Skipping to the chase, here's a list of historical fiction that spans the pre-industrial era that I found particularly inspiring for me as a GM:

Knight in Anarchy by George Shipway
Brutal and vivid this short novel centers on the life of Humphrey Visdelou, a Anglo-Norman small fiefholder in the Anarchy (the 12th-century period of civil war that serves as the backdrop for Jeff Rients's famous Wessex campaign). 

It hovers close to the ground (though Humphrey becomes involved with many of the big-ticket events of the day) and is painstakingly researched with a character and period detail that surpasses the “alien test” for me.

Sadly out-of-print and difficult/expensive to find in the U.S. outside of libraries. (I lucked out and fished one of out the dollar bin of a used bookstore).

The Warlord and Saxon Chronicles, Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell
The novels of the insanely-prolific Cornwell, best known for his Napoleonic-era Sharpe books, are somewhat predictable in their choice of protagonist--invariably a rough, but honorable military man who bucks authority and religion (almost to the point of being an “Eternal Champion” of sorts). Nevertheless he writes some great adventure novels.

Worth checking out in particular are the Warlord books set in historical Arthurian Britain (with some agnostic, believable whiffs of druidic magic), the Saxon chronicles of 9th century England and the stand-alone, recent Agincourt novel.

The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault
Renault's attempt to reconcile a more historical Theseus with the assumptions of the Golden Bough. The first book goes through his sojourn in the Labyrinth palace of Minoan Crete, the second with the argonauts attempts to capture the “golden fleece.”

It's also worth picking up her other novels oriented around the Hellenic world.

Q  by Luther Blisset
Opening up with a bang in the heat and turmoil of the Peasant Wars and Reformation in the Holy Roman Empire, this sprawling “thinking persons' thriller” follows an obsessional Inquistor and his quarry, a radical Anabaptist, through several decades and cities in western 16th-century Europe. Interestingly Luther Blisset is a coded pseudonym for a (talented) collective of anonymous Italian writers. 

Gentleman of the Road by Michael Chabon
Pultizer-winner Chabon's excellent 10th century-adventurer tale of two Jewish swordsmen/scalawags traveling to the distant Central Asian land of the Khazars. Explicitly dedicated to Leiber's Lankhmar duo.

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali
Ultimately depressing but captivating, this novel tells the story of an Andalusian Muslim noble family immediately after the fall of Granada. Good balance to the heavy Christian-center of most medieval historical fiction. 

His novel about Saladin is also good if a bit drier.

The Walking Drum by Louis L'Amour
Yep you read that right Louis “the hoary old western novelist” L'Amour. He just so happened to also write a good, if not great early medieval adventure tale that takes a slave and pirate from the coast of the Frankish empire to the splendors of Caliphate Cordoba and points east.

Name of the Rose and Baudlino by Umberto Eco
You've likely heard of the first (or seen the movie with Sean Connery), Eco does a stand up job of bringing to life the details of real life and the social/intellectual trends of medieval Europe. 

Baudlino is nowhere as accessible and gripping as Name of the Rose, but worth picking up if you have an interest in Constantinople around the time of its capture in the Fourth Crusade.

Also worth checking out:
The Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett 

With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe by Henryk Sienkiewicz

I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

Whale Road by Robert Low

So how about you? Any lovely old favorite historical novels of interest to us fellow fantasy gamer

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Post-Apocalyptic D&D: Greyhawk vs. Wilderlands

...the Alliance constructed a fortress north of the base constructed to accommodate the large bodied elder scientists (later to be called the City State of the Invincible Overlord when nomadic barbarians settled amongst the ruins thousands of years later)...Completing the dismantling and demolishing of all tools and machines not worth transporting, the Alliance star cruiser filled up with the colonists going off-planet and the Markrabs began the Uttermost War by destroying the cruiser, all satellite probes, and the Alliance space station. The planet itself was spared devastation as neither side wished to disrupt or destroy the unique ecological cauldron of immense scientific interest.”
- Bob Bledsaw on the origins of the Wilderlands

Because I have lots of life activity with things better to do, I doggedly continue to plug away on matters that are silly, obsessional and fantastical. Still trying to wrap my brain about how demographics subtly shape the feel and tone of a campaign world I started to shift into comparative mode.

The easiest target was Judges Guild's old warhorse of a setting, the Wilderlands. Easy because unlike many other old published D&D settings, the Guild folks thought and published a good deal more (and more rigorously) about the in-game implications of all this. 

Sandwiched between the terse descriptions of hexes and settlements are these solid gold guidelines and sub-systems covering everything from population density to prospecting to semi-realistic cave systems. Helpfully a lot of that work has continued to recently (see here and here).

(Really the compilation of such little nuggets found in the Ready Ref sheets are one of the best—if worst presented—examples ever produced in classic D&D of how you can pull all the game elements together into an interesting “domain game”--but that's a matter for another post).

So let's do some number crunching. Again I'm going to focus on one area for my analysis, in this case I'm picking on Map 1, the area that covers the much-famed City State (and the most-densely inhabited place in that great stretch of wilderness.)

Trying to figure out what the square mileage of that map is a bit of a headache—with the smaller 5-mile hexes and poster-size you get a whopping 1768 hexes. I toss out all the full ocean hexes (244) and count partial water and small islands as half. That gives 1519 land hexes at 32,866.35 square miles (which incidentally makes it the size of Austria or Maine). Now because I am lazy I use a much more liberal count and count the total land areas (remember I only counted clear hexes in Veluna, a count that included the smallish wilderness areas inside its borders would decrease the population density even further by roughly 10 percent.)

Skipping to the chase (so as not to induce eye glazing):
City State area: 8.56 people/square mile, 281,667 total population.
Veluna (Folio): 4.89 people/square mile, 267,000 total population.
Veluna (3.5 ed): 12.24 people/square mile, 668,000 total population.
British Isles (circa 1300): 40 people/square mile.
France (circa 1300): 100 people/square mile.

Punchline is that the City State area is twice as densely settled as the old Veluna and not even that far off from the tripling revision of 3.5 edition (which I more and more think is likely closer to the original authorial intent).

Wilderlands though in my twisted, little mind owns up to the implications of being such a howlingly wild, post-apocalyptic place in a more explicit manner. The fallout from the Uttermost War and following calamities that happened to the former space colony of Ghenrek IV feel so much deeper and more cataclysmic when you eyeball those many maps and see the little pockets of civilizations. 

The explicit variation of technology levels from the neolithic up to late Renaissance-seeming technologies reinforces this feeling. And with the smaller scale (six times smaller than the Darlene maps remember) how fragile civilization feels all the more obvious as you see how much bigger and closer in those large swaths of forest are.

In the Wilderlands there are no overarching large-scale polities with boundaries pushed up against each other. It's a place where an overgrown city-state (nay THE city-state) lead by a Lord Humungus-sounding “overlord” is one of the most organized bastions of civilization existent.

So what does that do to our view of the World of Greyhawk?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Postscript on Greyhawk's “Howling Emptiness”

Yesterday's post set off a rather longish discussion and thought train—oh we are a nerdy crew. A few more points before I let go of this.

Greyhawk's nations are big suckas. In comparison to other lands in this part of Oerik, Veluna is a small-to-mid-sized land with its 44,544 square miles (and that's only counting the presumably-cultivated clear hexes). Compared to small-to-midsized European nations though it's pretty large even with that reduced count. Ireland is almost half that size at 27,135 square miles for instance.

There's very little actual farmland. Here's an interesting backward calculation. My conservative estimate (based on disputable medieval crop yields) for the amount of land you'd need under cultivation to support populations is about 1 sq mile per 180.

So just to support the population existing for Veluna you'd only need 1,488.33 square miles of that 54000+ square miles. That would be only a little over two out of those 70 clear hexes (assuming it was all clumped together) for sustainability and maybe twice that if it was growing a lot of surplus.

The 1983 boxed set gazetteer (I was only using the folio as a source yesterday) says that's the majority of the population is clustered around the capital city and the large urban areas and around the middle of the country, so again I'm conjuring up mental pictures of a pretty desolate countryside with rare palisaded villages and fortified manors surrounded by light woods and wasteland for the most part when you get outside those denser belts.

The rural to urban populations are pretty close to actual historical precedents. Having picked up one of my books from a Penguin series on English medieval history I was about to write the opposite. That book had a long list of towns over 2,000 in population (Greyhawk's maps only cover towns over 1,500). A whopping 42 in fact which made Veluna with its measly three seem incredibly rural in comparison.

But then I looked at Britain's population at that time and it stood around 5 million—which is neatly 20 times the population of Veluna (again wow that's how tiny and far-flung these countries are). Allowing for that twenty-fold difference the number of towns seem totally on.

There is a huge population jump from first edition's Greyhawk to 3.5's. I'm not the first to point this out but later editions increased the Flanaess nations populations from 200-800 percent. I would have never known if I hadn't seen the numbers on Wiki (tangentially it's funny that Wiki has the 3.5 stats down as “facts”) but Veluna is given in 668,000 as compared to the folio's 250,000.

The big shift—and I would be curious to hear more about the reasoning behind it—points out how such a seemingly uninteresting thing like demographics can subtly influence the tone and feeling of a setting. Later Veluna is a place more akin to the relatively more stable and prosperous medieval Britain than the razor's edge I was presenting yesterday.

I suppose that's my point with all this. Honestly I could care less about what's canonical or not, that's a pointless and silly thing to get worked up about. But I am interested in what the implications of fantasy world building, what changes when you alter this “fact” or that “dynamic” and how it all stacks up to the only thing we really have for empirical comparison: the history (however spotty and inaccurate) of our own world.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Howling Emptiness of the World of Greyhawk

Humankind is fragmented into isolationist realms, indifferent nations, evil lands, and states striving for good...Nomads, bandits, and barbarians raid southwards every spring and summer. Humanoid enclaves are strongly established and scattered throughout the continent, and wicked insanity rules in the Great Kingdom.”
- World of Greyhawk (folio)

It's often been said that the Grande Dame of D&D published settings, the World of Greyhawk, was a world of “howling emptiness.”

The much-repeated statement refers to the scale of the hex map, at 30 miles a hex containing a whopping 779.42 square miles that's a zoomed-out perspective that doesn't show much there there. But if you are one of those eminently nerdy and obsessive types that give a hoot about the demographics of an imaginary land, that howling emptiness may be more than just a map abstraction.

If you actually sit down take all the distances and stated populations at face value and start crunching numbers, your immediate impression will be that the lands of Flanaess aren't just stable, if embattled faux medieval nations, but far more like the edge-of-oblivion points of light societies of a post-apocalyptic world.

(Oh how, I have been holding off publishing this post in a futile attempt to hold the lie of maintaining some level of the hipness of my twenties and thirties)

Let's take a closer look. I picked out of the one of the more well-known lands as a test case, the Archclericy of Veluna. Looking at the folio-edition gazetteer it is said to have a total population of 250,000 humans, 10,000 elves, and 7,000 gnomes for a total of 267,000.

Figuring out exactly what constitutes the land area of the domain is a bit tricky, there are no printed boundaries. I make a few assumptions like only counting “clear” hexes as farmland and pretty much stick to the rivers as boundary markers. I count out 70 hexes or 54,544 square miles. Comparing that to the total population I come out with 4.89 humans and demihumans per square mile.


That's one amazingly sparsely-inhabited land. How sparse? Well let's take some historical comparisons from 13th century Europe: France had 100 people per square mile, Germany and Italy had 90 people per square mile, and one of the most howling empty places of that time the British Isles weighs in with 40 people per square mile. (I believe that Russia of that time which was a land of great stretches of wild forest and wetlands punctuated with islands of urban concentration was around 20 but I am too lazy to hunt for it right now).

In other words, even the wildest places of Europe at the time are orders of magnitude more settled and prosperous than Veluna. Those wide light green clearings on the Darlene map turn out not to be dull vast tracts of farmland peopled by plump, happy yeoman, but barely held little bastions.

It's hard not to conjure up images of isolated little hamlets clustered around a grim watchtower or small castle with miles of wasteland and bramble-grown lost settlements filling the miles between. Even inside these “settled” lands armed-to-the-teeth patrols are making the rounds and a monster or two is not an uncommon daily nuisance.

Again I understand this exercise is a bit silly. I highly doubt that Gygax and others sat down and figured out how the population numbers lined up density wise with the map. But when the introduction paints such a vivid picture of an exceedingly tough and contested place there must have been a rough sense that they wanted to portray a world on the razor's edge demographically.