Monday, December 12, 2016

Roll For Initiative

It's official! I'm still alive!

There've been a lot of things going on in the life and times of yours truly since the last update, and I'm sorry for stopping the regular updates. Life had to come before the blog, and I'm sorry for going dark. I promise it wasn't deliberate.

Let's get to blog time!

So, anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of R. Talsorian Games' Interlock system - specifically games such as Cyberpunk 2020Mekton Zeta, and the like. The basis of the Fuzion system is Interlock, and it's a good, solid, simple-mechanic system that many other, later-to-the-game systems (*cough cough* D20/OGL *cough cough*) emulate or outright imitate. It's a Stat+Skill+Die Roll VS. Difficulty/Opposing Roll system, and it's very solid.

But, as with all systems, it does have its flaws. One of the most frequently brought up issues is that the Reflexes statistic can be a little... fiddly.

Many people see as problematic the fact that Reflexes controls not only a character's Attack and Defense values (as it is added to ranged/melee combat, as well as melee defense and dodge rolls), but it also adds to Initiative values. In Cyberpunk, it's combined with the Combat Sense special ability (for any Role that has that ability) to make even higher Initiative numbers.

Basically, if you have a high Reflexes, you go first.

If you have a high Reflexes and a Reflex Booster cyberware implant, you go really go first.

If you have a high Reflexes and a Reflex Booster cyberware implant and Combat Sense, son, let me tell you how many ways you are going to go first.

Of course, those scenarios specifically apply to Cyberpunk, but Reflexes rears its ugly head in other games in the ruleset, as well.

So how do we fix it?

Well, the answer is: We don't.

Reflexes in and of itself isn't broken. Argue all you want, but it's not. "Split it in to Dexterity and Reflexes!" many cry. "They're two different things!"

Well, yes, they are. But, and here's the important part: splitting the stat up only complicates matters. The key to good game design is to keep things simple, but not so simple that they become ineffective.

We don't fix Reflexes.

We fix the combat system. Specifically, we fix Initiative.

So, in Interlock, you get two actions a turn at no penalty. Period. End of.

Additional actions can be taken at a -3 penalty, cumulative, per action.

You take actions on your Initiative, which, as we've talked about, is REF + 1D10 + Combat Sense. The higher the better.

(Funny side note, in the playtest for Cyberpunk in Japan, the Japanese playtesters figured out that instead of shooting, it was more economical to take something like 10 extra actions and just huck grenades at their targets - the grenade deviation rules meant that over half the grenades would still encompass the target in their blast radii, resulting in certain kills every time.)

 So, how do we "fix" this? How do we keep people from dumping everything in to their Reflexes stat, pumping up their Cyberware boosts, and taking Combat Sense every time? You end up with a ton of Solos (or other Combat Sense enabled Roles), and everyone moves fast, and everything gets torn up in a hail of bullets.

So let's decouple Initiative from Reflexes. Not entirely, mind you. Physical reaction time is a part of how fast you (or your character) does things in a time of crisis. Combat is certainly a time of crisis.

Here's my suggested solution. I've been running a lot of theoretical scenarios with this method - and I'm using it in my Cyberpunk 2XXX: The Metro from here out - so I'll of course check in with updates if it all goes pear-shaped. But I don't think it will. So, let's get to it:

We first remove Reflexes as the sole proprietor of the character's Initiative value. We replace it with the average of Intelligence, Reflexes, and Cool. That's one Mental attribute (Intelligence), one Physical attribute (Reflexes), and one Social attribute (Cool). Initiative therefore becomes a measure of how well you react to a situation: Intelligence as a measure of how well your mind reacts, Reflexes for how well your body reacts, and Cool for a measure of how well you maintain your composure (enabling you to actually act in the situation in the first place).

This number is your set Initiative value. Combat Sense? No longer applies to Initiative. It still adds to the skills it normally affects (Awareness/Notice, etc.), but it no longer makes you faster in combat, because it shouldn't. Help you avoid surprises? Yes. Absolutely. Help you shake a tail in the dirty streets of Night City? You bet. But crank your reaction time up beyond belief? Nope.

So let's talk about what that Set Initiative does.

Your Initiative is now a set number - when combat starts, you're acting on that number. Ties go to the person with the highest Intelligence, then Reflexes, then Cool. Combatants who have three matches are considered to act simultaneously, with Player Characters declaring actions first. Resolution is still considered to be happening at the same time, but the PC's have a chance to declare first. It works out.

"But Jim," you say. "What do Reflex Boosters do in this solution?"

I'm glad you asked, random reader. The answer is simple: Reflex Boosters remove additional action penalties.

So let's say you have a +2 REF booster. You take your first two actions (let's say you move your full MA and then you pull off a 3-round burst at your nearest bad guy). You also want to take a second burst at another nearby goon. Normally this would be a -3 penalty, but with that +2 REF booster, your penalty is only -1. Reflexes is a measure of your physical reactions, your alacrity - hand/eye coordination - and a Reflex Booster should reflect that. Reducing or removing penalties is a reasonable compromise for removing Reflexes as the primary motivator for Initiative.

And yes, this does mean that someone with a +3 REF booster could effectively take a penalty-free third action every turn, but those things are expensive, kids. (Note: In The Metro, the cost for each level of REF boost is progressively more expensive than the last, which is a departure from the 1-2k EB in Cyberpunk, but that's a topic for later)

So basically, you end up with REF adding to attack rolls (sure), some defense rolls (remember that ranged combat in Cyberpunk is done against DC's, not contested rolls), and lots of skills - but not Initiative.

Reflexes no longer triple-dipping in to Initiative, is no longer the instant game-winner when coupled with Combat Sense, and Initiative itself is now a value that's determined by three aspects of the character, not just one.

Now, obviously, there are going to be people who min-max in to those three stats to get the upper hand, but that's going to happen in most games. And with three attributes controlling Initiative, now, they'll have to spend more points during character creation to become ridiculously combat effective.

It's not perfect. But it's worth trying out.

I'm planning on giving it a good, thorough testing. So far, it looks like it's going to work out.

Do let me know if you try this solution in your games. Or, leave comments with your solution, if you have one!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

So I've Just Been To See Mad Max: Fury Road

For you who follow this blog, apologies for not updating it for so long.

Work and life have been insane.

However, if you don't mind some spoilers (properly tagged, of course), I've got a review of Mad Max: Fury Road over at my Tumblr blog.

Check it out if you like!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

World Building 101: The Best Things In Life Are Free

This week, we're back on the general world-building tip, looking at that most beloved (and simultaneously reviled) invention of civilization: Money!

Now, in modern society, where nearly everything is run by the Capitalist Free Market principle, and the Modified Keynesian Economic Model pretty much runs the way the world-wide economies succeed or fail, money is something that we really can't get away from. In most (I'd hazard to say "all," but I know that's not actually true) Fantasy RPG's, money is the way the game runs. The economic model of most games is thus:

Step One: Characters spend their initial funds on equipment and gear.
Step Two: Characters head out to adventure.
Step Three: Characters get into fights with the Bad Guys (tm).
Step Four: Characters loot the bodies of the Bad Guys (tm).
Step Five: Characters return to town and visit the various merchants and craftsmen.
Step Six: Characters spend their loot on new equipment and gear.
Step Seven: Repeat From Step Two.

And that's pretty much it. In nearly every Fantasy RPG ever run, this is how it works. You adventure, you get loot, you spend your hard-won fortune on new gear, you adventure and get more loot. It doesn't matter if your goal is to Save The Princess or Topple The Evil Empire, this is how the economy of game world will generally work. And for the most part, this is fine.

But (and like I've said before, there's always a "but") what about how the rest of the world runs? Your characters may be swimming in Gold Pieces (more on that later) but what about the rest of the world?

What happens to the hamlet that the characters come from, after they come back to town with a cart full of treasure and proceed to commission the Finest Craftswork of the local smiths? Does it grow? Does that money go places? And how does it do so? Let's say the characters come back to town with a cart full of the armor, weapons, and wealth of the local Goblin tribe. Call it about two thousand gold pieces in total wealth value. The Goblin Chief had a suit of Half Plate Armor, which is the biggest and burliest piece of loot, but the rest of the Goblins had sufficient weapons, loose coins, and stolen goods (they'd gotten very good at raiding the local villages) that if you were to use the values given in the most popular variant of the longest running Fantasy RPG, you'd be easily able to come to that two thousand GP value from a single Goblin tribe. Now, two thousand gold pieces is a lot of weight. Fifty of them weigh one pound. Five hundred? That's ten pounds. Two thousand gold pieces? That's forty pounds of weight. Even if you distribute it evenly throughout the party, that's a lot of bulk and hassle. If the characters get their coins converted to jewelry and gems in order to move it about more easily (after all, all those bags full of money are going to be bloody heavy), where does the Jeweler even get the equivalent goods necessary to make the exchange? In most games, the "Perpetual Middle Ages" timeline would preclude the amount of common, easy long-distance travel necessary for the Jeweler to be able to afford even half that much wealth. After all, it wasn't until just few scant centuries ago (roughly the 1600's) that the bulk of the common folk in the world were able to easily move (or even conceive of moving) more than a handful of miles away from their birthplace. In the rough-and-tumble, Monsters-Behind-Every-Tree climate of the typical Perpetual Middle Ages Fantasy RPG? That jeweler is taking his life in his hands if he's going to try and go more than ten miles away from home. And if the jeweler can convert that much money readily, what the heck is the town relying on first level adventurers for in the first place?

 Most games gloss over this sort of thing, or provide rules for what kind of goods, services, and economies a settlement of Sizes A, B, C, or D might be able to provide. And this is fine. In fact, it's very, very helpful. The characters come back with two thousand GP worth of loot and want to either get rid of it, convert it, or modify it for their own use? Awesome! Too bad they can't do any of that in a hamlet of two hundred people! They'll have to go down the road a few days to the next largest town, perhaps even further, to figure out where they can get all that money handled. And while they're on the road, making their way onward to adventure, they'll have to handle bandits, more Goblins, and a few other, unknown dangers. In so doing, they'll acquire more loot, which of course will have to be handled in the next town, and the cycle starts all over.

So again, we come back to the question of "what happens to the towns this money gets offloaded in"? Where does that money go? What happens to it?

One of the craziest moments in any of my games occurred when I answered this question for my players. Over the course of several months of game time, they started using a particular town as their base of operations. They would venture further and further afield, and each time they'd go out, it would take them longer and longer to return. But even though they might hit up larger and better equipped towns on their way "home," they'd always return to the sleepy little fishing town on the banks of two rivers. Imagine their surprise when they came back from one of these trips to find the roads in to town had been smoothed and graded, with clear signs of engineering  at the edges - runoff channels had clearly been cut along the last two miles of road before reaching the town proper, and the road itself had been covered over in layers of sand and gravel. The main gate into the town had gone from a simple wooden fence to a stone-and-timber edifice, and the town's single central well had been replaced with an elaborate pump and fountain system. As well, the population had blossomed, seemingly overnight (in reality it had been nearly three months), to include additional merchants and services. Almost too late, they learned that the beginnings of a shady, not-so-nice underground had taken root: one that did not want to let these adventurers go about burdened by all that heavy, heavy gold.

The lesson here for the players, which they quickly took to lamenting, was that as their characters continued to pour money into this small village, the one they had taken to because it was "quiet and peaceful and away from all that adventuring hassle," that the village itself was starting to reflect the actions of the characters. The characters were directly responsible for the expansion of the town: their money built of the economy of the town, enabling the city elders to call in engineers from up the river to fix the roads, tear down and reinforce the town walls, as well as get proper sanitation, clean water, and more in place for their citizens. Moreover, as word got out that this place was the home base of the adventurers quickly becoming the darlings of the region, other fortune seekers, warriors with something to prove, and shadowy "legitimate businessmen" began to move to the town. As the town grew, so too did the very artifacts of civilization that the characters were trying to eschew by living in the village: crime, graft, corruption, and more.

In essence, the characters had become the villains of this part of their story. The players had no idea how this happened, until I took time out of the game to explain that it was the inevitable outcome of all the money they'd been pouring in to the place. Where did they think it had gone? What sorts of things did they really expect a poor fishing town to do with the mountain of money that the characters had put into the town? After all the math was said and done, it came up that the characters had dropped nearly a million GP into this town over the course of a year and a half. "What is a sleepy little fishing town supposed to do with that much gold?" I asked them. "Use it as bait?" For the first time since the game started, the characters, and I like to think the players as well, really understood that their actions were changing the world they lived in.

If I had to give you a succinct wrap-up for the first part of this week's essay, it would be that while you don't, as a GM, have to keep tabs on everything your player characters are spending, or where, you should remember that the economy of the game world does not revolve around them, or at least it shouldn't. Nor should your game world remain stagnant and unchanging. By playing with the dynamism of the economy of the world, you can treat yourself and your players to some fun stories. Your game world's money can and should move around. It should go from the hands of these humble fishermen in this sleepy river town into the hands of the merchants and engineers of the larger towns of the area, and then from there into the pockets of laborers and craftsmen. From those pockets, back into the hands of barkeeps and harbormasters, who provide meals and docking slips for the men and materiel that will be used to build the town up. Maybe one of those coins is defaced in a particular way that one of the characters will remember, ten months from now, when - as she's rifling through the pockets of a particularly foolish Goblin - it comes back into her possession. What a puzzle! How did this coin, which she specifically remembers giving to the innkeeper's son back in Sleepy Fishing Town, end up a hundred miles away and in the hands of yet another Goblin? What happened to him? Is he all right? Or did he simply give it to a carpenter in return for building all new tables for the inn?

Play with where the money comes from and where it goes, in your game. Give it a shot. It's fun.

Now, up a bit, I mentioned that I'd get to the idea of your characters "swimming in Gold Pieces," and that's just what I intend to do. No, this isn't going to be some half-thought-out rant about how you should "keep your PC's poor!" in order to prevent them from essentially buying their victories with specialized items or armies of mercenaries or the like. Far from it. If your players can figure out a way to come up with enough money to topple an empire, more power to them. I'm not here to tell you how to run your game, but I am here to tell you that you might want to consider dropping the Universal Gold Piece Standard and move yourself on to local currencies.

The Gold Piece, as used in the World's Most Popular Fantasy RPG and its progeny, is intended as a sort of catch-all currency. A nummus mundi, if you will. It's designed as the single coin of the many realms, and its value is set as a matter of course so that you can purchase anything you want from any merchant that sells it, and know what it's going to cost you. A Gold Piece in Waterdeep will have exactly as much purchasing power as a Gold Piece in Shadowdale as a Gold Piece in Calimport. Just as with the Standard Adventure/Loot Economy present in most Fantasy RPG's, there's really nothing wrong with this. It lessens book keeping, and it speeds up game play a lot. It's also pretty boring and takes away a fair bit of uncertainty when it comes to the question of "Can my character afford that?" comes up among the players.

The simple fact of the matter is that there is not, and has never been, a common coin that all nations of any world - real or fictional - will ever accept with a guaranteed 1:1 exchange rate and a smiling face. While the willful suspension of disbelief has to come in to play for the Gold Piece to work (something easy enough to do in games with things like Gods That Work and Real Magic), I want to espouse to you this one simple truth:

Different types of currency from different regions of your game world will add depth to and increase the immersion level of your game.

Consider the following:

Your characters are out hunting down Goblins. They come across an unlucky band of the greenskins, and they put them to the sword. In the backpack of one of the dead creatures, they find a pouch of coins: a handful of copper bits and a silver mark - all common coins from the characters' homeland, all minted within the last ten years - and a gold coin they've never seen before. The coin is half the size of the local gold coins - surely a forgery! But looking closer at it, it seems to be real, it's just... not any kind of coin they've seen before. Where does it come from? Who is the strange, hawk-nosed king pressed into its face? Why does the back bear a rampant bull instead of a swan? What does it mean?

Now, replay that using standard terms. In the backpack of one of the dead creatures, they find a dozen copper pieces, a silver piece, and a gold piece that doesn't look right. It's half the size of a normal gold piece and has an unusual face on one side, with a bull on the other. What does it mean?

Either of those options works in game, but as you can plainly see, the first - where the coins have their own names, their own histories, and their own "character," if you will - provides a good deal more impetus for description and investigation. I've personally used both of those methods, with the same group of players. In the first case, the Designated Note Taker wrote down "unusually small gold coin, possibly from another country?" In the second case, the DNT simply wrote "small gold coin." Now, perhaps that's got nothing to do with the differences in description, but I like to think it doesn't.

When you give each coin a name, value, and history unique to the region it comes from, you easily add a layer of depth to your game that it didn't have before. More, when you then consider the concept that perhaps not every region will be happy sustaining the 1:1 exchange rate so common to Fantasy Economies, you can easily set up yet another layer of depth. Perhaps it's true that within Waterdeep, you can always find someone willing to take coins from not-so-friendly nations and convert them at their face value, that might not be true in Suzail, where you'll be lucky to get half your value for that Thayan gold. If you wanted to buy goods with Red Wizard blood money, you should have gone back to Eltabbar!

Consider also that in many nations right here on Earth, some forms of currencies are created to be, or become, so extremely specialized as to only be useful in certain situations. The Guinea, for instance, despite starting as a standard coin of the realm has evolved to the point where it is a somewhat abstract currency almost exclusively used in livestock auctions and purchases. Imagine the surprise on your characters (and players!) faces when they open the treasure chest of the Goblin King and find that it's half full of coins that can only be used for purchasing land within their home kingdom. What do they do now? I suppose the Paladin always did want to be a horse rancher, right?

Now, as always, none of these suggestions or topics are things that I'm suggesting that you run out and do right away. I do think they're worth considering, however, especially as most of the GM's I speak to about such things often tell me that they want "something simple and easy" that they can do to increase the depth and immersion in their games. All of them are amazing word smiths and are quite handy at generating great plots and stories, but they're always looking for that "one little thing" that they can do to turn the dial up a notch. Something as simple as changing up the names of coins and how they're traded, as well as remembering that all that money has to go somewhere when the characters are done with it, can be that "one little thing," if you let it.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

World Building 101: Wake The Dead

If the proliferation (some might say "cosmic inflation") of comic books, novels, television shows, and movies about the Zombie Apocalypse are any indication, the undead are back in fashion as antagonists in storytelling. Whether they're an unstoppable force of nature, or an unrelenting creeping doom, the fact of the matter is that zombies, ghouls, ghosts, vampires, and their not-alive-but-not-dead ilk are making it big in the worlds of fiction and gaming.

So, with that in mind, let's talk about what it means to have the Undead in a Fantasy RPG world, and ask a few questions about how they interact with your game world in general.

As with all of my essays, I'll be tying this in to Loris as we progress. I want you to see how I approached the Undead (or, in the parlance of the world, the Unquiet Dead), how the people of the game world react to them, and what steps they take when confronted with these dark and unholy creatures.

So What Are The Undead?

This is the first question that you, as a GM, should be asking yourself before you involve the Undead in your games. What are they? Where do they come from? What drives them? What gives them their power, and what can take it away? In the real world, the background on the myths and legends surrounding the Undead are a multitude. Whether they're based in attempts to explain the unknown mysteries surrounding Human decomposition (for instance, traditional Eastern European myths about Vampires), or created as embellishments and expansions on rumors and deep-dark-forest legends ("There's a ghost in those woods that will flay your skin and drink your blood if you go near her grave!"), they're all built around one major factor: Fear.

Fear is the driving force behind the myth of the Undead in the real world, and let's face it, running into someone who is supposed to be dead but is now shambling along the street looking for some tasty motor cortex to nosh on? That's going to be pretty frightening. Be honest, now. If your dead friend Bob rose from the grave and was standing on your doorstep trying to get at your frontal lobes, you wouldn't behave like this:

"How've you been, Bob? Oh, hunting for the flesh of the living to sate your ceaseless desires and fuel your unholy return to the world of the living? Well isn't that just dandy!"

No, you'd behave thusly:

"Bob? Bob, you're dead! I know Sally and I got married just a few weeks after you died, but you that had nothing to do with it! Bob, what are you... Bob, stop! Bob, that's my skulll! AGGGGH!"

See the big difference there? Presented with the rotting corpse of someone who is supposed to be dead, fear sets in. Perhaps the viewer attempts to rationalize the fear: Bob is dead, so this must not be Bob. Perhaps the viewer attempts to negate the fear: This can't be happening, because the dead don't get up and walk around. Or maybe even they attempt to fight the fear: Holy crap, Bob has returned from the dead, where is my machete?

So the first thing you should do, as a GM who is working up the presence of Undead in their game world, is figure out what the Undead represent. Do they represent Fear with a Capital F? Are they the embodiment of unfinished business? Are they minor demons, inhabiting the bodies of the dead in an effort to cause a whole bunch of mayhem and pave the way for a bigger, badder demon? Is there a reason for them to get up and move around? Do they represent anything, or are they simply something that happens?

I've found that it's essential, if you want to keep with the rule of "you can get away with anything so long as it's consistent," to tie the Undead into the mythology and overall cosmology of the game world. In many game worlds, the Undead are an anathema to life: where there is life, they bring death. They aren't simply dead; they are a representation of unnatural, unavoidable death itself. In others, they are the manifestation of a dark presence within the cosmology: an "anti-life" if you will, that seeks to supplant the world of the living. In still others, they are merely tools to be used by those with aspirations of power. It's easy to say "I want zombies and ghouls and wraiths and vampires in my game world" and sprinkle them liberally throughout your game world, populating dungeons and towers and graveyards. It's quick, it's easy, and it's fun. But (and there's always a but), if you're building a long-running, persistent, evolving game world, you'll find that your players may eventually grow tired of the Undead Ant Hive Of The Week. If you take a few minutes to figure out why they're in those places, though – what purpose they serve (if any) in the game world – you can build yourself a much deeper, more involved level of storytelling, one that might even garner you a few plots for your players to run around in, if you're lucky.

Before moving to the next part of the topic, though, let's talk a bit about what the Undead do in Loris.

Known as the Unquiet Dead, the undead in Loris have been viewed for centuries as something that happens when someone has unfinished business to take care of. When someone dies, they travel down the Last River and are brought before Shakur The Restbringer, who then weighs the deeds and debts they've achieved in their life, and sends them on their way to the afterlife they've earned. Returning from the dead is practically unheard of, and is not something Shakur lets happen lightly. The reason they're known as the Unquiet Dead stems from the fact that they are not going peacefully to their final rest, but are instead clamoring about in a state of not-quite-life, from which their spirits are said to "call out for justice denied." Generally speaking, then, if Bob the Miller claws his way out of his grave and starts wandering the streets of town late at night, shouting out the name of his best friend, then it stands to reason that Bob has some debts to settle before the night is over. Likewise, when a spirit haunts a place, there's a darned good reason. Before the Great War, large groups of the Unquiet were unheard of. They simply did not happen. With the coming of the War, however, and the depredations of the Kolanthans, this has changed – and not for the better.

What Motivates The Undead, And What Do We Do About It?

This whole thing, however, begs the question of why the Undead are getting up and walking around. To understand what the Undead are in your game world, you need to know what is making them move about. And more to the point, what do the people of the world do about it?

So what sort of things happen in a Fantasy RPG when the dead get up and walk around? Well, the typical trope is that if they're not somehow self-motivated (vengeance spirits, vampires, magic users who defy death, and the like) someone or something is making them do it. Usually, if all the corpses in a graveyard get up and wander about, there's going to be a Necromancer (or evil priest, or demon, or whatever turns you on) pulling the strings. The idea here is that the dead are buried and off to their final fate, their bodies are in the ground, and they are supposedly at peace. And this is true and this is all well and good right up until someone with an axe to grind – that Necromancer, or Evil Priest, or Demon we were just talking about – moves in to the area and starts stirring up conflict (if they have a big enough cauldron, literally!). This is usually the point at which the Heroes come along, find out that the townsfolk are troubled by the fact that their ancestors are getting up and wandering the town at night demanding tribute for The Dark One, and set about righting this wrong.

This is a tremendously popular story plot, and it is used quite frequently. I've used it myself in games past.

There's really no problem with this if you're playing in a game world in which this sort of thing doesn't happen all the time. Because hey, if it happened all the time, then the townsfolk of this ever-growing and persistent game world you're building would figure out that this happens all the time and maybe they should do something about it, right?

So if it does happen all the time, then why don't they do something about it? Why, if the people of a typical fantasy game world know that if you bury your dead in a graveyard, eventually some shmuck with an evil spell is going to come along and raise them up and cause trouble, don't they do something about that? Why is cremation not the standard practice for any and all cultures in game worlds where the risen dead are so frequently unleashed upon the hapless townfolk? If there's a tradition of bad guys running around and raising the dead, or of the Undead beasts recruiting the recently dead to their own ranks, why even give them the ability to do this in the first place?

In other words: Why don't the villagers ever wise up and start denying the undead their raw materials?

There are bound to be any number of reasons why the various cultures of any given game world don't do this. Perhaps there's a cultural taboo about burning the dead. Perhaps legends say that if you don't bury the dead whole and inviolate, their spirit can't naturally leave the body. Perhaps the God Of Death only takes the spirit once the body has been buried beneath the dirt from which life first sprang. Whatever the reasons may be, just remember to make them consistent with the rest of your game world, and to provide a believable reason as to why, in the face of an increasing number of ways for the dead to rise up, the people of the world don't twig to the idea that maybe, just maybe, they should do something about this trend.

My personal favorite for the "why don't they just burn all the bodies?" question is this:

It could never happen here.

If you consider that truly awful villains of the type that could actually summon/create/conscript an army of the undead are few and far between, then you could easily get away with the idea that the reason the good people of your game world don't have a standing, culturally-mandated tradition of making a Zero Undeath Tolerance Zone out of their graveyards is because those things simply "don't happen" in "places like this." They happen in other places. To other people. Zarak The One Eyed Sorcerer Of Doom? He would never show his face here, because this place simply isn't important enough (or, alternately, is too important/too well guarded/too well known).

Perhaps the people of Sleepy Sheep Herding Town 5B heard, years ago, about the invasion of Zarak's forces upon the River City Of Great Renown, and said to themselves "Wow, it sure is a good thing we're so small and out of the way. Zarak and his rotting minions would never come here. Those poor people of River City Of Great Renown, now to keep Zarak from coming back, they burn all their dead right away! No more funerals, no more graveyards to leave flowers at, just ashes and urns!" Now, time has passed and Zarak is once again seeking to create an army – and so of course his first stop is somewhere small and out of the way. Somewhere they still bury their dead. Somewhere like... Sleepy Sheep Herding Town 5B.

So how does this work in Loris? How does this whole Unquiet Dead thing factor in to the daily lives of the people of the world that spins under sleeping suns? Why don't they burn their dead, or otherwise deprive the Undead of their raw materials?

Well, as mentioned above, if one of the Unquiet rises up and starts making themselves known, it's for a darned good reason. More often than not, the people who inhabit the area that the Unquiet is haunting will try to figure out what happened to cause this phenomena, and work with a Restbringer (or your average band of wandering heroes and their dog) to put it to rights. Historically and culturally speaking, this is how it's done. The concept of the physical form as the vessel for the spirit is a strong one in the Church Of The Nine, but once the spirit has left the body, that's supposed to be it for that shell. The body is buried, given back to the earth from which life grows, and that (barring any unfinished business) is supposed to be that. Excepting places in which The Howling and The Lower Dark touch The Waking World, by and large graveyards and burial grounds are safe, sacred places that the dead are interred. Families can come to visit (or not) and bear their sentiment with them, and there are tombs, mausoleums, and the like to be found in these places, as one might expect. While the precise layouts, methods, and mannerisms of the burial sites vary from culture to culture, by and large the people of Loris all generally bury their dead in orderly, respectful ways.

So, for most people, especially those within the Church Of The Nine, it is absolutely inconceivable that they would ever see one, let alone hundreds, of the Unquiet in their life time. The Restbringer's methods and unerring judgement in sending the spirits of the departed to their just rewards almost certainly preclude someone returning without good reason. Consider, then, that in the last few decades of the Great War between the Allied Nations and the Kolanthan Imperium, the Kolanthans have turned to doing the unthinkable: they have been salvaging the bodies of the dead from both sides of the conflict, and through dark and unknowable ritual, returning those corpses to the field of battle to fight against (or alongside) their former comrades. Whether the fallen are Kolanthan, Angarnian, Vetrian, it doesn't matter: whatever bodies (or parts of bodies) the Kolanthans can get their hands on after a battle is finished, they reanimate and send back into the war. More and more Allied Nations soldiers are coming home from the war lines with tales of their dead comrades advancing relentlessly upon their positions. Swords, arrows, bullets – none of these things would stop them, instead merely serving to slow their inexorable, unnerving advance. The powers of The Nine, channeled through their Priests, seem to be the only thing that truly stops these abominations, and then, only when coupled with fire do these Unquiet truly stop.

Now, standing orders for every Allied detachment are to burn any of the fallen who cannot be recovered and brought back behind friendly lines at the end of a battle. Though understood to be necessary, this is a terrible cultural blow to the Allied Nations and the Church Of The Nine. A series of sacred understandings and truths about the nature of the body and its ties to the spirit has been shaken by the actions of the Kolanthans, and already tales drift homeward of entire swaths of terrain at the war line that are now haunted by whole platoons of Unquiet spirits and phantoms. Whether these phantasms are seeking revenge for the desecration of their bodies by the Kolanthans, or seeking to fight the war all over again, is unknown. Only time will tell if the battlefield cremations will do anything to put these angry spirits to rest.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Under Sleeping Suns: City Building - Bryndlemyhre

Sorry for the absence the last few weeks. Life has been life, as it is wont to do, and thus, a good many things had to be sacrificed to keep my day job and the rest of my world balanced.

This week, I had thought about talking about the reasons behind why there are so few Caucasians in Loris (hint: it has to do with regional diversity, migratory history, and the fact that unlike most FRPG worlds, the Gods didn't plop their chosen people down on a region-by-region basis), or perhaps do some talking about the effects of colonization and religious hegemony in a fantasy world... but both of those essays were trending further and further into the realm of personal politics. And frankly, that's not why I'm here.

So, instead, you get a bit of a look into the sorts of things I put into my creation - specifically, this week: City Building.

It's a fun fact that Rome is the first city to reach over a million people (which it officially reached in 133 BCE). I mention this because at the time, the materials and methods used in engineering and construction were absolutely primitive by our standards today. However, this did not stop the Romans from building multi-story buildings or coming to the realization that high-density housing was the way to go. In fact, there were civil ordinances in urban Rome that forbade the housing of livestock and large animals above a certain floor in such residences. It's not a joke when I say that "too many cows falling off of balconies" was a real hazard for a time in the eyes of Roman citizens.

Consider, then, that when you're building a city in a Fantasy RPG, that if the Romans could get a city to a million people using what Mr. Spock would refer to as "stone knives and bear skins," then a civilization such as one might find on Loris - a civilization that has access to centuries of refined knowledge, magic, and the powers of Gods That Work - should be able to put one of these together with fairly reasonable ease. There's no reason for cities to be restricted to the numbers given in rulebooks or kept to a few thousand souls because that's what the dice say. If you want a city with three million people, enormous looming towers filled with Wizards, and a series of canals that put Venice to shame? Do it! As long as it's believable within the context of your world, you're golden.

Consider, also, the needs of building a community in a world where there really are monsters under the bed and creatures that could swoop in around you at night and carry you off to where you'll never be seen again. Communities in a world where there are real monsters are going to be developed differently than communities in the real world. Homes will be built closer together, possibly even built one upon the others, forming rings or squares with an internal courtyard inside which livestock and children can be kept safe. Baffles, reinforced walls, and covered areas will be commonplace, to protect against the craftier and stronger creatures that might seek to simply work their way through a weak point in the buildings. For a time, rather than building out, homes would be built up, so as to provide more space for living and give a wider view of the area around the home, without spreading out so far from the central safe point of the community home.

When I started building the cities and towns of Loris, I kept all of these things in mind. Here in the real world, nearly all of our early communities are built on a plan that works pretty well: Find a good, level area with lots of drainage, clear the land, and kill anything that tries to drive you off of it. Keep repeating this until the area is secure and enough of your friends, family, and countrymen are established to keep it under your control. In an RPG world where there really are flying monsters and magical beasts, however, these tactics won't work. It was something that bothered me greatly: Why do none of these towns and cities in all of these fantasy games not have any defense against things that fly? Why not build watch towers into your homes? Why don't they have a "circle the wagons" style of construction as their default? Certainly, against normal, mundane foes - wolves, bears, particularly angry neighbors and rival villagers - the normal, mundane methods will work. But what about the winged beasts that live in the evil woods to the north? What about demonic serpent beasts with ten legs that breathe lightning?

This line of thought, and yet more inspiration from Catal Huyuk (I just keep bringing that place up, don't I?) led me to the concept of the Wall Towns in Loris. These are essentially what I've described, above: community homes, constructed in such a way as to provide universal access for each family to the central courtyard, with only a few ways in and a few ways out. In times of danger, the entirety of the exterior can be blocked off and obstructed, preventing any foul creatures or invaders from getting in. Higher levels provide locations for archers and other ranged combatants to attack ground-based attackers (and pour water out over any burning areas). The defense is not complete, and it is not perfect (nothing is), but against the hazards of a world in which magic and monsters are real, it is a more effective defense than having to run a mile down the road to warn the village of the danger. Built upward for several tiers before being built outward, they gradually mature into a myriad of passages, hallways, open-plan areas and overhead walkways. Eventually forming the stable, defensible basis for a larger city, the Wall Towns of Loris are an integral part of civilization's growth and establishment on the face of the world. They are where the cultural idioms of each of the various cities and communities spring from. Every major city has at least one Wall Town, usually at the heart of a district or borough, usually a source of great cultural and historic pride. Breaking down Wall Towns is something that many officials are often loathe to do, as so much history and local identity is tied up in them.

When building cities in your world, remember that the character of the world should be reflected in your creation. If you think the early settlers of a particular region can get away with not looking up at the scaly dangers that periodically fly over head? Go for it. If you want them to have learned that building underground keeps them safer, then that's what they do. In other words: The dangers and natural hazards of the game world should determine how the various cultures build their communities. Beyond that, there's little more I can tell you. Except this: give your cities their own flavor. Every city has a different spirit, a different "soul," if you will. Each city moves to its own beat. No two cities, even within the same country and sharing the same overall national culture, will ever be the same.

To illustrate this, I thought I'd provide an example of a major city in Angarn to go along with this essay. This is Bryndlemyhre, a major port city that inhabits a stretch of the north-most Blue Coast of Angarn. Or, as my players have referred to it: Bryndlemyhre - City of Danger! (Actually they use "Death" more than they use "Danger." I honestly don't know why...)

And, yes, I do in fact write up each city's entry in my world book as though it is a travelogue. Wacky, I know.


The Discriminating Traveler's Guide To Bryndlemyhre

Bryndlemyrhe, at one point known as Fort Bryn, at times called The Grey Moor, The Mire, Bryndle’s Moor, or simply “The Bryn” by the occupants of the region, is a city of some four hundred thirty thousand people. Nestled on the Blue Coast, it serves as the major trade port between Cymrik and Angarn, with fully half of The Great Nation’s trade with their neighbor coming through its ports and docks throughout the course of the year. Additionally, numerous Vetrian ports send their wares through Bryndlemyrhe for sale to the rest of Angarn. Despite its usually inclement weather and the fact that it is bordered by famously inhospitable swampland, Bryndlemyrhe maintains a cosmopolitan attitude that makes it a favored spot for foreign dignitaries, merchants, and artists.

Originally founded as a port serving The King’s Navy following the founding of Lendar, Fort Bryn was erected at the mouth of the River Myrhe in AY 3. General Reinhardt Bryn, King Argo The First’s Commander Of The Western Ride, was given the task of establishing both a military and economic presence within the region. Commissioning a force of some four thousand laborers and soldiers, General Bryn marked out a region twice the normal size for the limits of his domain – an act that irritated some but appeased most, as the area surrounding the Myrhe had long been devoid of any sort of governance, law, or military strength. Creatures both feral and Fel frequented the area, and more than one community had long since been lost to their predations.

Using his mandate as Commander Of The Western Ride, General Bryn conscripted every villager, able-bodied or not, and moved them to the land that would come to house his Fort and the Port it would protect. Although there was some resistance from the Wall-Town community of Myrhe Ford at first, the ‘towners could not refuse the fact that the infusion of new blood made them stronger than they had ever been. Within five years, the complete grounds and fortifications of Fort Bryn had been completed, and the surrounding countryside had been unified under the banner of the General. Completing his task well ahead of schedule, the General was awarded the Governorship over Myrhe Ford, Fort Bryn, and territory extending one week’s full ride from the mouth of the River Myrhe – almost twice that granted to other Governors. At some point in the short handful of years following this declaration, Myrhe Ford transformed from a relatively sleepy collection of fishers, farmers, and garrisoned troops into a bustling port, changing its name to Bryndlemyhre for reasons that have never been entirely clear. For every story claiming the name is tied to that of the River Myrhe and General Bryn, there is another claiming something entirely different.

In AY 25, Governor-General Bryn’s health failed him utterly, sending him to the care of the Restbringers in a matter of days. Although many suspected foul play, the true culprit of his demise would never be known. Terror gripped the area but a few days after the burial of Governor-General
Bryn, when an event now called the Night Of Smoke took place. Following evening prayers on the day of the Spring Equinox, a thick, cloying smoke swept out of Lake Avel, some thirty miles to the south of Fort Bryn. Seemingly devouring all in its path, it settled about the Fort like some manner of living creature, bringing death and misery with its ephemeral touch. Historic accounts of the event clearly recall that the mist both burned and froze everything it touched. What few survivors of the Fort that made it to the rapidly growing port city just a few miles away told tales of watching their friends turn to ice or burn to death from within. By morning, the wetlands surrounding Lake Avel had twisted, grown dark, and spread north along the coast until they were within a bowshot of the walls of Bryndlemyrhe. Fort Bryn had all but vanished into the swamps that now threatened to cut the growing city off from the rest of the Great Nation. Succeeded by his son Derek as Governor, General Bryn’s legacy would be one of a kind, but firm, ruler. His son acquitted his charge dutifully, and served as Governor for Bryndlemyrhe for twenty years. Sadly, the line of Bryn would be lost in AY 57, when Derek’s son Marcus would die childless and without a set heir. For the first time in half a century, the people of Bryndlemyrhe sent a petition to Lendar requesting that a Governor be appointed to their lands. The titles and holdings of the Bryn family were given over to the people of Bryndlemyrhe, and not the Church, breaking the usual tradition, but keeping the original Governor-General’s will inviolate.

Since the demise of the Bryn line, the port of Bryndlemyrhe has played host to a number of Governors, their families, and their legacies. Notable leaders of the city have included the Great Nation’s only Ulehu Governor, Sacha Whitefall (also known as “The Poet’s Friend,” for his contributions to the arts), as well as Lord Byron Farthington (acclaimed for negotiating the trade routes with Cymrik that still bring the city its wealth), the nationally infamous Duke Ernst La Calle, and Lady Elizabeta Wrynn, arguably the most popular, famous, and longest-serving female Governor of any city within the Great Nation of Angarn. As with all such locales, blood stains and dark-dealings soil Bryndlemyrhe’s history, as well – The Traitorous Lord Harold Harman, son of the once prominent and influential Harman Shipping House, hailed from Bryndlemyrhe and was executed in AY 120 for Treason. Other ne’er-do-well’s include the entire Weston family, stripped of their lands and titles for Conspiracy To Overthrow in AY 89, and the House Of The Twisted Serpent, a guild of thieves, assassins, and back-alley thugs that were driven out (although some say “underground” instead) of the city in AY 110 by the combined efforts of the King’s Army and the Church of Moran.

Visitors to Bryndlemyrhe should take note of the fierce pride the people of this bustling metropolis take in their city. Surrounded on the South and East by the Avel Swamps, and to the West by the Cymrian Sea, Bryndlemyrhe is almost an island unto itself within the Great Nation of Angarn. Bringing most of their livelihood through commerce, the people of the city are welcoming to strangers, travelers, and explorers, but are quick to retract their hospitality if they find themselves or their city to be on the receiving end of a disparaging remark. Although the sky may be grey above the Moors, to a native of The Bryn, it will certainly be clear tomorrow. Although the rain may pour in sheets from above, the water makes the flowers grow. The waves may break fiercely upon the shore and send the fishing fleet scurrying to the shore, but the wind blows fresh air into the lungs of everyone in the city.

A discerning traveler should also note that Bryndlemyrhe is an incredibly peril-fraught destination for the uninitiated. Duels are common on the streets, and it is all too easy to walk by the wrong tavern at the wrong time, only to find oneself carried up in a good-natured brawl turned messy. As well, the port is frequented by travelers from our three Allied Nations, and thus is commonly the spawning ground for a simple misunderstanding that suddenly threatens to become an international incident. 

Unfortunately, good reader, I your narrator cannot guarantee your safety within the walls of Bryndlemyrhe, no matter how polite or gentile you might adapt yourself to be, for there is a larger danger looming literally just outside the walls of The Bryn – the Avel Swamp.

When The Cleansing was completed, those many decades ago, and the Feral, Fey, and Fel creatures of the lands were declared all but extinct, it was to places like the Avel Swamp that they fled. Originally a small stretch of marsh at the northern end of Lake Avel, the Swamp had long been used by parents to frighten particularly frustrating children, but there were no reputable deaths, disappearances, or other ill-fortunes to be ascribed to the place. What dangers it held were natural – quicksand, bogs, and the occasional pack of boars, wolves, or an angry bear. Following the Night of Smoke, incidents and encounters with creatures long unseen in the wilds of Angarn became nearly commonplace along the outskirts of Bryndlemyrhe. Ghoulish, malformed abominations, the Unquiet Dead, and more are said to wander the swamps, alongside other, lesser-known (but no less dangerous) creatures. Those seeking fame and adventure within The Moor should ensure they are well prepared for whatever they may encounter. Those who are not are surely doomed.

Sights In The City

Bryndlemyhre is a city like any other: It has its sights and sounds and places of more interest to some than to others. What drives its intrigue, however, is not the mundanities of every day city life, but those special locales that serve not only as fodder for the imaginations of the inquisitive, but as fuel for the fires of investigation that smolder within the yearning hearts of such discriminating travelers as you who hold this guide in your hands. Allow me then, as your humble narrator, to provide you some information that might prove of value to your endeavors.

The Moor
In some places little more than a scant hundred feet from the city walls, the Avel Swamps stretch prominently to the south of Bryndlemyrhe, reaching to the horizon and well beyond. The source of much of the city’s dark reputation, The Moor has long been a haven for the Feral and Fel creatures
of the Blue Coast. Indeed, for every natural creature, such as a wolf, it is surmised that there is a Fel beast to balance it out. Reports of the Unquiet Dead are regularly made, as are other, more menacing horrors. The King’s Army regularly patrols the closest few miles of terrain between the city walls and the deeper Swamps, and frequently dispatches patrols to burn down patches of The Moor in an attempt to fight back the encroachment of the bogs, mires, and bracken that threatens to one day overrun the city. For now, a rough equilibrium has been reached, and The Moor has apparently been beaten back to a recognizable border.

The Shipyards
Bryndlemyrhe is home to not one or two, but four fully operational and renowned shipyards. Stretching along the northern side of the bay, and sheltered from the winter storms within a sturdy spur of land, the shipyards make good use of the abundant and fertile forests north of the city, as well as the brisk trade in hardwoods coming in from Cymrik. Largest of the yards, The Mornington Slips works under exclusive contract with the Royal Navy of Angarn, and is capable of producing two Frigates every three months. The remaining three yards (The Yale, Downing, and Broken Reef yards, respectively) are frequently commissioned by merchant navies from other cities (such as Atton or Masquel) to provide them with sturdy, fast vessels. The Shipwrights of Bryndlemyrhe are known for the quality, durability, and effective construction of their work.

The People’s Promenade
Formerly the mansion and holdings of Governor-General Bryn, the Promenade was willed to the people and city of Bryndlemyrhe upon the death of the last of the Bryn line. Originally granted to the people in Governor-General Bryn’s will, the land was given over to the stewardship of the Bryn line while they continued to live in the city. With the end of the Bryn line, the buildings, gardens, and domains of the Bryn Estate became property of the city, with their care and upkeep paid for by the taxes of the citizens. The mansion has long since been torn down, replaced by an open arcade ringed by an olive grove. The various remaining outbuildings are now used as public houses, meeting halls, and craftsmen’s stalls.

Fort Bryn
Although long ago sunk beneath the Avel Swamp, Fort Bryn remains a periodic destination for treasure seekers, historians, and those few who seek to unravel the mysteries of its destruction all those decades ago. Rumors abound of the cause of its demise, the nature of the treasures buried within the now flooded halls, and the secrets of whatever strange forces guard its shattered remains. The fort, originally cut from the living earth of the highest hill in the area, was made in a three-tiered plan. The tiers, each describing roughly one third of the hills height, were reserved and dictated by the functional needs of the Fort itself. Sadly, only the simplest portion of the Fort is now barely visible from the topmost floors of the King’s Citadel of Bryndlemyhre. The first tier, once housing the common, daily-needs buildings and functions of the Fort, is commonly reputed to be nearly completely submerged, with the second tier not far behind. Were Fort Bryn still standing, it would be a scant handful of miles south of the current easternmost extent of Bryndlemyrhe’s city walls. Travelers who wish to form excursions to the Fort are advised to so in the spring and summer months, so as to take full advantage of the longer days provided by the grace of our fair suns. 

The Forge
The Forge is a subject for a great deal of scholarly debate. A Caer of unusual design, its construction predates the Exodus from Harak-Ur by at least several centuries. Unlike every other known Caer in the lands of the Allied Nations, The Forge is not laid out in a series of circles, but rather in a squat, short series of slabs resembling nothing less than a simple smith’s forge. Gaining its name from this shape, The Forge covers an area of some several hundred square feet, and is built into a large, broad mound that effectively triples its overall size. The mound contains what would appear to be a burial chamber, but no evidence of it’s use as such has ever been found. The stone is bare, the chamber empty, and the obvious lack of a sealing stone leads many to believe that the true natures of The Forge and its unknown builders have yet to be gleaned. The year before this guide was commissioned, a new stone – previously thought to be merely an artifact of the terrain, was discovered some fifty feet from the entrance of The Forge. Standing as tall as a fully grown Haran male, the stone apparently had toppled at some point in the past, and been covered by the dust and soil of passing years. Now restored to its proper standing position, “The Anvil,” as it is called, is clearly a part of The Forge. Crafted from Blue Stone found only in Cymrik and parts of Vetris, The Anvil is a broad, flat, well-worn stone that shows clear signs of long-term weathering. Some scholars believe it to be older than The Forge itself. For now, its presence only adds to the mystery of the place.

Citadel Of The King’s Army
It should come as no surprise to any familiar with this city that its Citadel would not be placed at the city gates, but rather is found looming over the southern walls, where troops can be released out into the moors and swamps to defend the city against any of the Fel creatures that may rise up from its depths. Originally built to the seven stories mandated by Royal Decree, the Bryndlemyrhe Citadel has since been expanded to a whopping ten stories in height. With this additional height, the watchmen on the Citadel towers can see even further into the Avel, and (hopefully) help the city’s defenders gain a greater advantage. The Citadel can field a full thousand infantry, a hundred mounted troops, two hundred archers, sixty riflemen, and an almost unheard of ten Kings Mages in its defense.

Bryn’s Tower
Bryn’s Tower stands at the proper and recognized entrance to the city, where the main road branches off from the King’s Road, the highway connecting all the major cities of Angarn. Actually two identical, squat towers, Bryn’s Tower serves as a city gate and customs point for all land travel into and out of the city. Standing four stories tall, these broad, round edifices serve as the base of Bryndlemyrhe’s Constabulary for the entire eastern half of the city. Connected at the second and fourth floors by broad, covered walkways, the towers serve as barracks, offices, and short-term prisons as necessary. Rumors persist that the towers are connected to the central Guardhouses
of the middle-city by a series of tunnels, but there is little evidence to support this claim.

The Guardhouse
Bryndlemyrhe, being a major trade port, has its share of crime. As such, it also has its share of law enforcement, and this is housed within The Guardhouse. Actually a large, sprawling collection of structures located nearby the Temple Of The Nine, The Guardhouse contains the various barracks, jails, and courtrooms of the Bryndlemyrhe public works. A Discriminating Traveler would do well to understand that while the Constabulary has a rather lax view of what exactly constitutes an arresting offence, they are quite capable of enforcing the Law, and will do so without hesitation. While they will forgive a good many minor indiscretions (such as public brawling, drunkenness, or other such disturbances,) and do so in a good-natured manner, they are quick to arrest those who actively break the law. Thieves, smugglers, and other criminals (none of which, your narrator is certain, are amongst those who have purchased this Guide) would do well to keep their dealings below the table and off the streets if they wish to continue to ply their trade. A swift and fair trial is guaranteed within the walls of Bryndlemyrhe (unlike, perhaps, Miriund, where the internecine politics can delay such things for weeks), and the various Barristers and Judges are known for their prowess in the courtroom. It should be noted that the Constabulary of Bryndlemyrhe are notoriously honest, and will not take kindly to anything that brings their service and dedication to their duty into question. Bribery is a criminal offense, and thus should be considered heftily before being attempted.

The Sewers
As your narrator, good traveler, I must inform you that not all of those items that denote Bryndlemyrhe as a unique point upon your map are above ground. I of course make this reference in the literal and figurative sense of the term when I refer to the sewers of this bustling metropolis. While not nearly as extensive as those in Lendar, or even Atton, the Bryndlemyrhe sewers are at once a marvel of engineering and a haven for both criminal pursuits and what creatures and denizens of the Avel that manage to make their way through the multitude of defenders the city has to offer. In recent years, these incursions have become so frequent that the Constabulary has considered offering amnesty (or at least a bounty) to any rogues or criminals that bring them proof of the demise of these creatures. Portions of the sewers are built over fallen, centuries-lost buildings and streets, leading to the no-doubt rightly held belief that certain unsavory elements use them as staging areas for clandestine activities. Discriminating Travelers would do well to afford the sewers of Bryndlemyhre a wide berth, lest those charged with enforcing the law make untoward and undue assumptions.

The Orchards
Not all of the sights and interesting locations of Bryndlemyhre are frought with peril or of dubious legality. In point of fact, a goodly portion of the territory of this beleaguered city is verdant, green, and well tended by deeply loving hands. North of the city proper stretch miles upon miles of hardwood forests, the wood from which is cultivated and used in the construction of a good many of the ships that find their way out of the city’s construction yards. As well, thousands of acres of farmland are watched over by a myriad of families, many of whom can trace their roots back to the founding of the city (or so they claim). From these farms, both small and large, come a great variety of the apples, pears, and cherries that make their way into the common dishes of the city. It is no small boast when Bryndlemyhre lays claim to the crispest apples on the Blue Coast, or when locals warn newcomers that perhaps the winner of this year’s cider competition might be a bit too strong for their unaccustomed tastes.

The House Of Fosters
Of special interest within the Promenade is the House Of Fosters, the largest orphanage and day school on the Blue Coast. Actually five identical buildings, each four stories tall of cut stone, hard wood beams, and slate roofs, the House Of Fosters was established in the fourth decade of the Great War by then Governor of the city, Lord Byron Farthington, himself made an orphan by the war. Governor Farthington, in signing the charter of the House Of Fosters, is said to have remarked that it was only his family’s money that kept him from sharing the fate most of those orphaned by the war faced, and so he sought to put an end to that with the construction of the first building of the House. Many of the children of fallen soldiers who find themselves without parents are brought here by the Church, where their education, upbringing, and well-being can be seen to by the staff.

The Ring
Also making its home within The Promenade is the enormous gaming pitch lovingly referred to by the locals as “The Ring.” Here, as many as three games of Barriers can be played at once. In fact, this is done twice each year during the Sun Festivals, at which time the entire city (or so it seems) turns up to enjoy the competition.

People Of The City

Counting only Nationals, Bryndlemyrhe is home to the third largest population in all of Angarn. Including the merchants, travelers, and foreign workers frequenting the city, her population rises significantly. For the purposes of this guide, however, we will focus primarily on those citizens of our Great Nation. It is certainly worth noting, good reader, that those with prejudices against the Ulehu or Haran that live alongside us in our daily lives might do well to avoid Bryndlemyrhe, as nearly a fifth of her population is made up of our smaller cousins. Your humble narrator makes no stance in either direction, but merely serves to point this out to the Discriminating Traveler.

The populace of the city, as of AY 230, is composed of exactly four hundred thirty seven thousand, eight hundred eighty nine souls who count themselves as native-born residents. Of those, some eighty-one percent (or 354,690) are Human. The remaining nineteen percent (or 83,199) are made up of our Small Cousins. Of these, some forty five thousand seven hundred sixty (45,760) are Ulehu, while the remainder (a total of 37,439) are Haran.

As this guide was commissioned to coincide with the Census of AY 230, it should be noted that the persons of interest mentioned herein may in fact have moved on from the city of Bryndlemyhre, or may have died, been promoted, or otherwise differ from their descriptions. Bear in mind that the persons described here are mentioned in broadest strokes, only, as none would consent to pointed interviews with your humble narrator. 

Guard Captain Brannen Rourke
Guard Captain Brannen Rourke is well known throughout the city as a fixture within his organization. Edging close to sixty, Guard Captain Rourke is likened to an aging warhorse who, though past his prime, still commands respect and admiration from all who cast their gaze upon him. A towering man, Guard Captain Rourke has the gaze of a seasoned veteran, and commands respect from his Constabulary not through the forceful leverage of his imposing frame, but rather because of his knowledge of exactly when and where such leverage is necessary. Rourke is no stranger to violence and the use of force to ensure the peace, as evidenced by the numerous scars on his arms and chest, but prefers to lead the various men and women under his command through quiet example. Fierce when pushed to it, Rourke nonetheless administers law and order through a close knit relationship with the various communities of the city. Likened by many to a sleeping bear, Rourke has many times over earned the admiration of the people he serves through his unflagging dedication to ordering his Constabulary to unlimber arms only as the utmost last resort.

Knight Commander Marion D’Etagne
Knight Commander Marion D’Etagne, who hails from Atton, far to the south of Bryndlemyhre, took up her position after the unfortunate (but by all accounts natural) death of the previous Knight Commander, Darren “The Eagle” Walker. Initially resisted by her troops within the King’s Citadel due to her relative inexperience, Knight Commander D’Etagne has since earned the respect of her troops through perseverance and hard work. Stories told by those who know of her trials within her position indicate that she wisely chose to first gain the trust of the various Sergeants-At-Arms within the Citadel, and from there, the troops they held at their posts. As she is directly responsible for the defense of the city, both against the creatures within the Avel and any potential Kolanthan threats, this maneuver on her part proved early on that Knight Commander D’Etagne was the right choice for the job. Knight Commander D’Etagne possesses what some might refer to as an “earthy beauty,” in that she is a woman whose grace and demeanor combine with her intelligence and spirit to paint her as more strikingly beautiful than she might otherwise be found. Indeed, it is this force of personality that led to early, unfounded rumors of dalliances with Guard Captain Rourke. These were quickly put to rest shortly after the Knight Commander’s arrival, as her husband and three children arrived in Bryndlemyhre from Atton a scant two months after D’etagne’s posting.

Keeper Geraint Of Moran

Keeper Geraint Of Moran holds the position of First Keeper Of The Temple Of The Nine within Bryndlemyhre. A few years younger than Guard Captain Rourke, Keeper Geraint is an old friend to the foremost of the city’s guardsmen, and after the affairs of the day are complete, the two can often be found in one of the many pubs and brew-houses on the Promenade, retelling tales of hard-fought victories on the fields of the Great War. Much like Guard Captain Rourke, Keeper Geraint cuts an imposing figure, if not nearly as tall of one. His hair, still black and lustrous despite his age, is kept cropped short in the manner of a foot soldier, and the broad mustache and chops he grows on his face harken back to a style popular nearly forty years ago. His most visible war wound, the loss of his left eye, is displayed in the form of a black velvet patch, upon which is embroidered the Eye Of Moran. Keeper Geraint, unlike nearly all of his Order, has never married, and has no children. Although this is clearly cause for some clucking by the more orthodox members of the House Of The Nine, it is evident that the High House in Lendar has nothing official to say on the matter.

Master Horace “The Hawk” Begn
Horace Begn, known as “The Hawk” for his shrewd business acumen and attention to detail, is the most powerful and influential Haran on the Blue Coast. Like most Haran, The Hawk is broad of face and shoulder, making him seem much taller than his actual height might otherwise dictate. Unlike most Haran, The Hawk sports a head of copper colored hair, and his eyes sparkle blue. These distinctive characteristics, along with his reputation, make him instantly recognizable throughout the city. Making his base of operations out of Bryndlemyhre, he owns fully one third of the docks, slips, and warehouses in the city. Possessing a strength of character rarely seen in the heads of merchant houses, The Hawk makes his code known to any who would come to work for him: He runs an honest business, and expects those who work for him to do so as well. He pays well for integrity, and rewards those who keep to his code and live up to his expectations. Many stories are told of those who have betrayed the trust of The Hawk and found themselves jobless and unable to find new work within the city, as even though the other merchant endeavors within the city may not cleave to The Hawk’s exacting standards, they know that if he has cast someone out for being dishonest, it was with good cause. Thus, it is safe to assume that only those with high moral fiber rise to the top ranks of The Hawk’s organization.

“The Crown”
The last person of note we shall discuss, oh reader, is that of the enigmatic entity known only as “The Crown.” Hesitantly, my associate and I must state clearly that what investigations and inquiries we made into the nature of this mysterious entity would indicate that, indeed, The Crown of Bryndlemyhre is in fact the same as that we mention in our guide to the fair, if rotten, city of Atton. As was our duty, we did make this fact known to the authorities of Bryndlemyrhe, and via dispatch, to those of Lendar. We confess that we did this only after fleeing the city by the Moors to a location of certain safety. Much like The Crown’s operation in Atton, gathering any information other than rumor and heresay proved difficult, at best. More than once, my associate and I – who made it known that we were merely gathering information for such a guide as this you hold in your hands – were given clear indications that our lines of investigation would lead to danger to ourselves and our families, were they to continue. Thus, we as purveyors of these guides must insist that any actions you undertake, gentle reader, be tempered by self preservation and common sense. The Crown has deep roots in the areas of organized crime, smuggling, and war profiteering in Bryndlemyrhe, just as in Atton. It is a boon that the legal authorities of Bryndlemyhre are so ethical and morally upright, or The Crown’s influence would almost certainly be more widespread. Be thankful, also, that The Crown’s organization is composed of patriots, good reader, and thus you may be assured that it does not deal with the Kolanthans and their Inquisition.

We know this to be true, for it was, shall we say, rather aggressively made clear to us on the same night we fled the city by the Moors for safer climes.

Friday, February 28, 2014

I feel like I should say something...

In the December 29th 2013 essay, Liber Deus, I wrote a pretty glowing review and recommendation of an old AD&D 2nd Edition book, The Complete Priest's Handbook by Mr. Aaron Allston. I suggested the book to anyone who really wants to breathe life into their fictional religions - be it for a game, a novel, a comic, you name it. I spoke about how inspiring the book was for me, and for others, and how it brought depth and character to a series of books that until that time had been more about increasing power levels than about increasing creativity and imagination. I suggested it as a useful - practically invaluable - tool for anyone who wanted to really get into the nuts and bolts of their world/faith building exercises. I stand by that suggestion. The book is simply great, written by an amazing and prolific writer.

I found out late last night that Mr. Allston died of heart failure while speaking at a convention in Missouri.

I never personally knew Mr. Allston, but I know several people who were lucky enough to have. Universally, the words they spoke about him were kind and brave. When they talked about him, it was to describe him as a good and decent person. Of the people I know who knew him (and there are a few), not one of them ever spoke a single ill word. I would have liked to have met him, and thanked him for Galatea In 2-D and Doc Sidhe and his oh-so-many contributions to the Star Wars genome.

I won't get the chance to do that in person, now, so I think instead I will do it here.

Mr. Allston. Thank you.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

World Building 101: Let's Talk About Sex, Baby

No, today's essay is not going to be about how to handle sexual situations through dice-rolling mechanics or scene descriptions. The rather raunchy Book Of Erotic Fantasy already did that, and even though I am a credited artist in the much more tame and factually/historically-based Naughty And Dice, I'm not talking about that one, either.

Although if you asked me which one I would recommend? Naughty and Dice, all the way, and not just because I have art in the book. N&D handles the topics of taboos, gender politics, and the history of sexual equality in various societies for the bulk of its text, while BOEF is mostly a treatise on which Alignments have which kinks. I'm not even kidding.

Okay, so, here's the thing:

Sex and the politics surrounding it are two of the most heavily influential factors in the development of a society. After "Where does the food come from?" and "Where do we sleep?", "Who is having sex with whom?" is the most prominent developmental factor in any society, real or imaginary. As a world-building GM, you need to understand this, dear reader. Who has what rights in society, how those rights are enforced, who is seen as "equal" and who is seen as "other" all have a tie, somewhere, to the sexual (and gender) politics of the society.

Let's take an example of the Doro, from Loris, or more specifically, the matrilocal society of the Apache, on which the Doro are heavily based. Here's a handy Wikipedia link for your reference. Go ahead and read it. I'll wait right here, it's cool.

Okay, so, you got all that? Let's take a look at part of that:

All Apachean men practiced varying degrees of "avoidance" of his wife's close relatives, a practice often most strictly observed by distance between mother-in-law and son-in-law. The degree of avoidance differed in different Apachean groups. The most elaborate system was among the Chiricahua, where men had to use indirect polite speech toward and were not allowed to be within visual sight of the wife's female relatives, whom he had to avoid. His female Chiricahua relatives through marriage also avoided him.

For those of us from any kind of "typical" Western society, this is almost completely unfathomable. Not simply because (let's face it) most of Western society is Patriarchal in its organization, but because ostensibly, we come from an egalitarian culture where everyone is equal regardless of their gender. Now, I won't get into any arguments about whether or not that presumption on our part is true, because that would require the entirety of Tumblr to debate (and surprise! We'd all lose, regardless of whatever side we took), but I will point this out:

Gender politics like those of the Apache are almost universally avoided in fantasy RPG's.

In most fantasy RPG's and game worlds, society is almost uniformly displayed as being perfectly and inexplicably egalitarian, where even though men run the show politically, there are still tons of powerful women around doing their thing. Adventuring, running countries from behind the scenes, conjuring up demons to beat up the neighbors, you name it. But did you notice something, just now? I said "even though men run the show politically..."

Not very equal if that's the case, is it?

Well, there are also those games where they have vast, immense, Matriarchal societies, like the Drow of the Underdark...

Oh. No. Wait. The Drow, with their Matriarchal society and their mercantile clans and their constant internecine bickering are portrayed as evil. And yeah, worshiping a soul-eating Spider Demon is pretty evil, but the Drow are almost literally the only fantasy RPG society in which women control the way things run, and they are universally the bad guys. (And no, I don't care about your dual-wielding Ranger, thanks.)

Throughout the typical fantasy RPG world, even though there are tons of female adventurers, politicians, powerful magicians, you-name-it, the fact of the matter is that the gender politics of the world conform to a Powerful Male Leader model. Sure, you might have your exceptions (a few of the Lords Of Waterdeep are women, to call back to The Forgotten Realms, again), but by and large the concept of a society that focuses on the type of gender politics that we see in a matrilocal society such as the Doro and their real-world references is almost completely foreign. Because of this "otherness" of such a culture, they are almost always painted as the bad guy - they go against the "norm" and because of that, they are portrayed as the antithesis of the "acceptable" culture. The leading women are portrayed as domineering, overbearing, "men are all weak and wicked" types, a-la the hardline Amazons in just about any Wonder Woman comic. I love Wonder Woman, but the portrayal of a Matriarchal society as being anti-male as a matter of rote is simply not borne out by the evidence of historical cultures that practiced that model.

Now, again, I don't want to get in to the why of this sort of thing. That's a discussion for a different time and in a different venue. Suffice it to say that you can have a Matriarchal or Matrilineal culture without the necessity for the subjugation of the male portion of the society. (Don't believe me? Judaism is Matrilineal. Go look it up.) The purpose of the essay today is to discuss how gender politics influences society, and how you can incorporate such things into your game world as you're building it – and also to help you get the idea that you can incorporate cultures into your game world that are otherwise foreign and unusual to a "normal" societal method of thought. Let's go back to the Apache (and by default, the Doro) for a moment, and talk about how their leaders were chosen.

From Wikipedia, again:

Several extended families worked together as a "local group", which carried out certain ceremonies, and economic and military activities. Political control was mostly present at the local group level. Local groups were headed by a chief, a male who had considerable influence over others in the group due to his effectiveness and reputation. The chief was the closest societal role to a leader in Apachean cultures.

The office was not hereditary, and the position was often filled by members of different extended families. The chief's leadership was only as strong as he was evaluated to be—no group member was ever obliged to follow the chief. The Western Apache criteria for evaluating a good chief included: industriousness, generosity, impartiality, forbearance, conscientiousness, and eloquence in language.

Got that? Gender politics within the Apache people were based around relational proximity to the eldest women within the group, and the leader of the local groups was a man chosen by virtue of his overall effectiveness and reputation. The two are clearly intertwined, but at no point does the one prevent the other. The husband of the eldest and most favored daughter of the most powerful grandmother might be passed over for election as the chief because he is lazy and does not comport himself properly. By contrast, the husband of the youngest, least known daughter of least powerful grandmother might surprise everyone because he is strong, fast, clever, and kind. Is it a perfect example of gender egalitarianism? No, but then, nowhere in human society is there a historic example of such things.

Still, though, as you can see from just a few short paragraphs, the real world gives us an example (and there are many, many more) of a culture in which sex and gender politics influence the society differently than the typical Western viewpoint.

The Doro were also heavily influenced by the Mongols and their culture, as well, and although I have purposely tossed the vast bulk of the societal and sexual politics of the Mongols, potential world-builders might want to read up on an overview of Mongol kinship and family life, especially their views on children born of concubinage (something that is also completely foreign to most fantasy RPG settings).

What does any of this have to do with sex, though? Well, everything, really. Who is sleeping with whom is a direct influence on the gender politics of a society. The gender politics of a society determines what, if anything, is "men's work" vs "women's work" and what the implications of those two types of work will be. The societal views on things such as manners of appropriate dress, speech, and music can and will be influenced by their views on sex and sexuality. History shows us that a society that places an extreme importance on female virginity, but not one on male virginity, will have a very conflicted view of a woman's worth outside the bed chamber and an overly proportional value on the sexual prowess of the man. Almost universally, this leads to the increasing use of force to control the female population and keep them "proper." Contrariwise, a society in which the sexual agency of both men and women are guaranteed by tradition, law, or religion will tend to place a higher importance on the freedoms of both sexes as a whole, leading to a more open and politically progressive society. Not always, mind you, but often enough for me to cite this with some confidence.

Religion also plays a very strong part in all of this. It's important to remember, though, that oftentimes religion and society are completely at odds with one another, and that most of the time, society wins. There are hadiths and verses within the Quran that very clearly cite that Islamic women are to be treated with respect and consideration, as well as being given rights to education and employment, but nearly all aspects of traditional Arabic culture go against this. Similarly, in Judaism, the entirety of a families lineage and hereditary standing is traced through the mother's line, but all religious matters are handled by men. I make no judgement in this essay on either of these things, I mention them only from the observational and academic viewpoint. Religion can have a tremendous impact on the sexual agency of men and women, which in turn influences gender politics.

Putting all of this together in Loris, then, I had to consider what sort of gender politics I would enact in the various cultures of the world. I've already spoken on the Doro. Some of the other decisions I enacted include:

* The Vetrur are modeled on a very Norse view point of gender politics. "Men's Work" and "Women's Work" is clearly delineated and by and large kept to, but unlike the ancient Norse, there are methods and manners by which those boundaries can be crossed without shame or dishonor. Due to the harsh environment of their homelands, Vetrur society is a meritocracy, for the most part, with men and women both holding power over their families and within their clans. Sexual agency between the two genders is guaranteed equal, with strict rules on when and where and how contact can be made, along with extremely harsh repercussions for breaking the line of consent. As well, violence between genders is almost universally forbidden, with a series of cultural taboos and strictures guiding the few places such violence can be legally carried out. A duel under the full gaze of the entire village is a betting event, while an angry fist across a jaw can get the offender stripped naked and thrown into the winter night (almost certainly a death sentence).

* In Angarn and Cymrik, women have long been second class citizens, culturally. Although Angarn has in recent centuries shifted away from this tradition (due in no small part to the influence of the Church Of The Nine), there are still certain expectations and a great deal of condescension levied against most women in the land who seek to break out and make their own path. It is safe to say that the closer one gets to a major city, the fewer these are, but they are still present within the culture. Both the religion and the law of Angarn and Cymrik say that women are to be given each and every right and protection of a man, but discrimination still exists. While Angarn prides itself on the fact that a full quarter of its navy is composed of women, for instance, those ships are crewed entirely by women, and of those ships, less than half have a female in the Captaincy. Cymrik has more female fusiliers and artillerists than any of its allies, but less than a tenth of its infantry is made up of women. The urge to "protect the girls" runs high in the armed forces of both of these nations, and it shows.

* In the Cualish Free States, women are very rarely the public face of political power. Behind the scenes, however, they are probably the most adept and influential members of any City State's leadership. "Sex and Money and Death are three sides of one coin," they say, and this is reflected in the proliferation of not only well-established, well-respected houses of prostitution, but also the very present reality of many of those same houses being training grounds for assassins and professional killers. "He died in bed," when said in the Free States, more often than not means the subject of discussion was the target of a successful assassination. Moreso than any of the Allied Nations, the women of the Free States have near-total freedom of their own path in life. They have the longest history of land ownership, property management, and monetary influence of all the women within the "Big Four," combined. Despite this, there are still prejudices and societal restrictions on women within the walls of many of the City States, although more and more of their leaders are dying in bed, so this may change, soon.

* Perhaps paradoxically, it is the Kolanthans, with their rigid and unforgiving society, that have achieved actual, total, gender equality. As dictated by the High Inquisitor of Kolas – and thus by Kolas himself – it is an affront to the One True God that any Human, male or female, be kept from their full potential under the eyes of Kolas. Kolas sees everything, everywhere, as he is the God Of Knowledge And Truth, and so to attempt to prevent a Sacred Daughter from achieving her full potential (whatever that potential might be) is a mortal sin. Given the choice of being tied to a pole and left to rot in the summer sun or encouraging your daughter to pick that sword back up and get back out there and unleash hell on the neighborhood boys, which would you choose? The armed forces of the Kolanthan Inquisition are fully fifty percent female, and their columns, battalions, and armadas are just as likely to be led by a woman as they are a man.

Of course, adventurers can and will buck the examples presented here. That's why they're adventurers, after all. But as you go forward in determining how your game world handles such things – whether it's as simple as saying "all societies are equal, regardless of what they're based on," or diving into a more complex, multi-faceted approach as I've done with Loris – it's important to remember that the three driving factors of any culture are food, shelter, and sex. Those who control or command such things are usually the ones with the power, and those with the power are usually the ones who decide how the future is shaped. With a little research on history, and a little adaptation on your part, you can come up with some awesome concepts to fit into your game world.

If you've got any of your own to share, please throw them into the comments section. I and the reader base here would love to see them!