Sunday, April 27, 2008

YOU NEED TO HEAR THIS: Delia Derbyshire - The original Doctor Who theme

Delia Derbyshire

Okay, so pretty much everybody's already heard this: the original Doctor Who theme from 1963. But, really, ain't it just goddamned amazing that anyone was able to produce a piece like this back then? Seriously, check it out, and try to imagine how it was possible.

Turns out, it was possible because the BBC Radiophonic Workshop hired an electronic music pioneer named Delia Derbyshire. The theme itself was composed by Ron Grainer--complete with unusual notations about "sweeps", "swoops", "wind clouds", and "wind bubbles"--but actually produced by Derbyshire. The final piece was all electronically-produced sounds, but this was the era before synthesizers, so she produced it all with electronic oscillators and other arcane gear, and assembled them all by physically splicing together bits of audio tape. Grainer was apparently so amazed and impressed with the result that he tried to get the BBC to Derbyshire credit--and royalties--as co-composer.

Anyway, she's also done a bunch of other cool, weird, atmospheric stuff, and you can download some of it at this site. It's very much worth checking out, especially "Dreams" and "Moogies Bloogies".

[video games] LittleBigPlanet

It is a goddamned crime that LittleBigPlanet is only coming out for the PlayStation 3. Seriously, why does God hate me so much?

Hey, folks.

Yeah, and this would be why I've been so slow on posting, lately: I've finally put together a custom template for this site. I can't stand just choosing a pre-created one from a list, and also, this one will let me post wider images without breaking the tables.

Wet Rails, cropped

I promise to restrain myself, though. 14% of Web users are still suffering through an 800x600 resolution, right?

Anyway, let me know if this new template starts breaking horribly for anybody. I'm trying out a couple slightly weird things, here, and I'm not too certain how they'll work for all browsers. (Although I did jump through hoops to make sure IE 5.5 would actually handle that dropshadow effect on the logo. Goddamned IE 5.5.)

I'm breaking a bunch of Web development rules by using tables for the layout instead of CSS-based positioning. I gave it a very serious try, but my CSS interacted with Blogger's CSS in some weird, bad ways. And, let's be honest: CSS layouts require a lot of dirty hacks and contortion acts in order to achieve results that would be incredibly simple and reliable for tables. I know CSS layouts are the right way to do things, though. So, maybe next time. For now, I just want something that works.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

LWaSH session 2: More character creation

Lost Worlds and Secret Histories

The Tuesday Night crew continued--but didn't quite complete--development of their Van Helsing Society operatives last night, and it was loads of fun.

The players finally got to do the "guest star" phases of character-building, meaning that they all picked names out of a hat and then had to figure out ways to work their characters into guest roles into each others' pulp novels. This lead to some weird and difficult chronology questions, and one character only got a single guest star in his book, since it took place too early in history for most of the group to logically participate in it (which, of course, lead to another book getting three guest stars instead of two).

I think if I had to do it all over again, I'd hack the standard SotC character generation so that Phase Three was the character's solo novel (and, probably, canonical first adventure), while Phases Four and Five are for team-up novels with only two stars each. I think that'd be a lot easier to manage.

Anyway, we didn't quite complete everybody's guest star roles, but we did manage to get a whole lot of skills-and-stunts stuff done. I'm hoping to help people finish up via email.

Highlights of the session include:
  • One player deciding that the aspect she got out of a guest-starring role was a competitive, anything-he-can-do-I-can-do-better relationship with the main character . . . which is the character's way of expressing a crush that's obvious to everyone but her

  • That same player deciding that her plane, "Blaze of Glory", is less a specific aircraft than a title and role that's bestowed upon any plane she flies . . . as long as the previous Blaze has been destroyed (That is so freaking brilliant!)

  • Much discussion--and even a drawing!--of Marko Kraljevic's arch enemy, a steam-powered war robot built by the Ottoman Empire called The Mechanical Turk

  • Lots of moments where people's various novel plots and the specialties of their guest stars clicked together perfectly

  • Cool decisions about where to get photos to illustrate the character sheets: Marko the Slavic folk hero is likely to be played by Rade Serbedzija, Arthur the gentleman thief will be David Tennant, and Abraham the cultist-fighting gunslinger will be Lance freaking Henriksen.

  • The Hitler character's "Unausprechlichen Namen" aspect, describing his state of metaphysical namelessness after his identity was stolen by the demon who went on to become der Fuhrer (people have trouble even remembering him, and could never possibly believe he's actually Adolf Hitler, even in the face of evidence)

  • Outside of the game, the near-unanimity of our Chinese orders, leading several of us to become General Tso's Army
So, all in all, a lot of good fun, and we're not even playing, yet. The hypothetical pulp novels this session produced are so cool I wish I could commission an artist to do a nice color piece for each, which I could then Photoshop into a set of book covers.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

[M&M] Martial artist character builds

So, pretty recently, I ran across a post by Rob Donoghue (one of the creators of my current favorite-game-in-the-whole-world, Spirit of the Century) where he laments the lack of good RPG systems for flavorful, diverse, and mechanically-deep martial arts action. And he mentioned that systems where "Martial Arts builds like superpowers" are lacking because they only offer "different color for mechanically identical characters".

And that seems kind of odd to me, since I've always figured that if I was gonna run something with a lot of martial arts focus, I would almost certainly use Mutants & Masterminds, because it would offer a tremendous amount of mechanical variation between fighting styles. So maybe Rob just meant "mechanically identical" in the sense that martial artists in most superhero games would just be built with the same subsystems as any mutant, vigilante, or sorcerer? That would make sense, although it's definitely not something that I'd call a drawback.

Anyway, the whole thing really makes me want to test out M&M's capabilities with martial arts character builds, just to see if I can actually do the stuff I think I can with it. I don't think I've really got time to properly get into such an experiment right now, but I can at least write up a few thoughts.

The way I'd like to start is by taking the classical five animal styles of kung fu and defining them very vaguely (and with little to no regard for their real life characteristics) in the mechanical terms of Mutants & Masterminds. Let's give it a try, shall we?

Tiger Style
  • decently high Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution

  • high-damage unarmed attacks based on Strike power (possibly lethal damage--Tiger Claw Fist!--and definitely with the Mighty feat)

  • low Attack bonus, plus a few ranks of Attack Focus: Melee and Attack Specialization for that Strike power (kung fu basasses shouldn't be any good with guns, after all)

  • maybe a rank (or even two) of the Rage feat, or--for a more super-power martial artist--the Boost power (applied to Strength, possibly Constitution)

  • Takedown Attack feat, so that tiger practitioners can tear through multiple enemies in their fury

  • Improved Block, Improved Sunder, and Weapon Break feats, because shattering weapons sounds thematically appropriate

Crane Style
  • high Dexterity

  • high-damage Strike power (non-lethal, maybe without the Mighty feat, and possibly even with a Limited: Humans Only flaw, because crane practitioners are striking at pressure points)

  • again, low Attack bonus, plus ranks of Attack Focus: Melee and Attack Specialization with Strike

  • a few ranks of the Improved Block, maybe some Improved Disarm and Weapon Bind feats (disarming dudes just seems right)

  • Improved Throw and Improved Trip feats (knocking dudes down also seems right)

  • Acrobatic Bluff and Redirect feats, and of course some ranks of the Acrobatics skill (crane practitioners make dudes hit their friends, but they do it through deceptive movement rather than guile)

Leopard Style
  • decent Strength, high Dexterity

  • low-damage Strike power (probably non-lethal damage, probably with the Mighty feat, and--here's something cool--with the Autofire extra, which should actually work quite nicely with melee attacks, especially ones with more accuracy than power)

  • low Attack bonus, plus ranks of Attack Focus: Melee and plenty ranks of Attack Specialization with Strike

  • Move-By Action feat and (maybe) a little bit of the Speed power, for hit-and-run goodness

  • Instant Up feat

  • the Stealth skill seems kind of appropriate

Snake Style
  • high Dexterity

  • high-damage Strike power (maybe lethal, maybe without the Mighty feat, and possibly with a Limited: Humans Only flaw, because the pressure point thing makes sense for snake practitioners, too)

  • low Attack bonus, plus ranks of Attack Focus: Melee and plenty ranks of Attack Specialization with Strike

  • Stunning Attack feat (combined with a powerful Strike, this should be pretty potent, and fits a "venom" theme)

  • maybe some ranks of the Defensive Roll and Evasion feats (snake practitioners might not be sturdy, but they're resilient because they're flexible)

  • Elusive Target feat, because snakes as wiggly and hard to aim at from a distance

  • Prone Fighting feat, because snakes are low to the ground

  • a rank or two of the Improved Initiative feat, because snakes strike quickly

  • maybe some ranks of the Escape Artist skill, possibly also Medicine, as it fits with the pressure points and venom themes

Dragon Style
  • high Strength and Constitution (because one of these these has to be the brick style), and also a decent Charisma

  • decent Strike power (lethal or non-lethal, most defintiely with the Mighty feat)

  • low Attack bonus, plus ranks of Attack Focus: Melee and plenty ranks of Attack Specialization with Strike

  • a few ranks of the Protection power (non-Impervious, maybe with the Limited: Physical Damage flaw

  • maybe a bit of the Immovable power, because nobody gets to push a dragon around

  • All-Out Attack feat (great resilience means dragon practitioners can throw caution to the wind, sometimes)

  • Improved Grab, Improved Grapple, and Improved Pin feats, since the brick ought to get the wrestling abilities

  • Fast Overrun and Improved Overrun feats (charging through crowds of enemies all impressively seems right for the dragon style)

  • several ranks of the Fearsome Presence feat, also the Distract, Fascinate, Fearless, and Startle feats, and finally some ranks of the Intimidate skill (scary and impressive seems to work with the dragon theme, to me)

There are a lot of other styles I can think of trying--like a monkey style, or drunken boxing, or something involving weapons--and of course things get extremely crazy (and awesome) if you start including blatantly superhuman wuxia-style abilities, which is something I'd also like to play around with a bit. I definitely think Mutants & Masterminds could handle a hell of a martial arts campaign, with characters that are completely distinctive in terms of both flavor and mechanics. And, damn, I'd really love to try it some time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

LWaSH session 1: Character creation

Lost Worlds and Secret Histories

Okay, the Tuesday Night crew got together last night for our first Lost Worlds and Secret Histories session. Six players showed up for this one instead of the four which I'd originally been expecting. I kind of worry about the difficulties inherent in getting a total of seven adults with jobs and lives together for a few hours every week, but the two new players are awesome folks, and I'm really excited about having them involved.

Anyway, since we only meet for very short sessions (and have a fairly dire pre-game chatting problem), we only managed to make it through the first three phases of character creation, but it was loads of fun, and the characters that they're creating are cool as all hell. I'll have to see if I have everybody's permission to actually talk about my players by name (and hopefully link to their websites, too), but I figure it's okay to discuss their character concepts. So get a load of this:

  • Scottish street urchin raised by nuns and trained by the Vatican as a thief to retrieve sacred or dangerous artifacts

  • Intrepid girl reporter, socialite, and gay divorcee; sort of a character from the pulp subgenre of "thrilling romance", and also very Brenda Starr

  • Religious, gun-toting, supernatural-evil-fighting cowboy; sort of a latter-day Solomon Kane with a little Charlton Heston thrown in

  • Immortal, superhumanly-strong Serbian folk hero Kraljevic Marko, a legend searching for a place in the modern world

  • Tomboyish, chainsmoking daredevil pilot with a plane called "Blaze of Glory" and a mysterious connection to a Native American thunderbird spirit

  • ADOLF FREAKING HITLER. The idea here being that this guy, the real Hitler, was supplanted by a demon who then went on to lead the Nazi party and Germany itself. So this ought to be interesting.
Can you see why I'm all excited? This is going to rock hard.

Anyway, we're setting this game in 1937 instead of Spirit of the Century's default of 1922 or thereabouts. Also, instead of the Century Club, the PCs are going to be members of the Van Helsing Society, a group dedicated thwarting supernatural evils. We'll figure out the details together as we go along.

Next Tuesday, we'll do the remaining phases of character generation, in which they'll all figure out how they guest-starred in each other's adventures--giving them all some amount of shared history--and then we'll get to the mechanical stuff, choosing skills and stunts. Skills should go pretty quickly, but I should probably put together some stunt suggestions to speed that part along.

When they're done with everything, I'll be able to give them all their custom character sheets. I've almost got the design done already, actually, but I wanna type in all their info for them instead of having them actually write it all down all over again.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

YOU NEED TO HEAR THIS: Saul Williams - Ohm

I've been seriously busy this weekend working on both a new design for this blog, and also a custom character sheet for the Spirit of the Century campaign I'm gonna be running. Oh, and I probably ought to do my freaking taxes, too, huh?

Anyway, here's some music you need to hear.

Saul WilliamsSaul Williams is a poetry / spoken word guy whose work achieves sublime, transcendent awesomeness when it's set to a hip-hop beat. I think he might have gotten some wider notice, kinda recently--I noticed that "Black Stacey", off his self-titled album, actually got a pretty serious video--but I first learned about him through his contribution to the first Lyricist Lounge compilation. And that's the song I want to share with you folks today: Saul Williams' "Ohm".

Saturday, April 12, 2008

[dream blog] Pleasure dome

Hagia Sophia mosqueI was in some kind of exotic, vaguely Middle Eastern (in a very Arabian Nights kind of way) paradise. Whatever it was, it was definitely artificial. Fake, even. It was a shared hallucination or a computer simulation or a magical construct. Very much Kubla Khan's "stately pleasure-dome".

They place was ruled or run by two superhuman beings, male and female. They might have been genies or gods or computer programs. They looked essentially human--beautiful, even--but were huge, maybe ten or twelve feet tall.

I had two companions with me, but they were vaguely defined and I can't remember much of them. One was a woman. The other might have been a rat. Possibly a raccoon.

The three of us were there to steal a palm-sized gem or shiny bauble from the genies. Apparently, if one had both this gem and something else (a secret word, maybe?), one would gain complete control over this false world. We didn't have the other component yet.

The three of us split up and ran all over the sublime garden, dodging the giant, enraged genies and their human-sized servants, all of us looking for a chance to snatch the gem.

Eventually, the rat got it. And it turned out that, even without the second component, the gem did give its holder some kind of power. The rat was able to stop time, or at least the movements of the artificial world and its inhabitants. The three of us were unaffected, and so were the two genies, but their servants froze immediately. I remember seeing my female companion punch out one of the immobile creatures, some kind of hapless-looking humanoid badger dressed in golden armor.

The rat took the gem out of the garden area, running into a wall through some drainage pipe or similar. It caused the gem to shrink down to pea size, and hid it underneath a stone in a tunnel behind the wall. Hopefully, it would be safe there, and we could come back later to pick it up when we had the second component. If we had both items, after all, there's no way the genies could stop us.

The album cover meme continues

I had to try making another album cover, because my first one really was pretty weak for a professional graphic designer.

Okay, this one ain't too special, either. I think it's pretty believable, though. Still doesn't look like an album I could ever imagine myself buying, though.

Anyway, thanks to micaela ivette for the photo. (God damn, I think I just posted a 16-year-old's midriff on my blog. I don't know if I'm comfortable with that, but dammit, I take what the random Flickr photo page gives me.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Spirit of the Century / In a Wicked Age hybrid abomination?

I am seriously intrigued by the general gameplay model of Vincent Baker's In a Wicked Age. The basic idea is that, each session, you play a self-contained story (which is decided upon right there at the table, based on some randomly-chosen elements) with a set of characters that are mostly non-recurring. That is, you get together, draw a bunch of playing cards and look at a table to see what kind of story elements they stand for (or just use an online generator), and then you all make simple characters to fill the rolls indicated or implied by the story elements. The characters are given reasons to oppose each other, and then set loose. Next session, you do it all again (with the possibility of maybe carrying a character over from an eariler session).

I think this sounds really cool. The story generating "oracles" out there are full of cool-as-hell adventure seeds, and I'd really love to collaborate with my crew to make sense and story out of them. Also, Ryan Stoughton's awesome ideas about big, themed, color-coded sets of oracle cards. Damn, that sounds like fun.

On the other hand, I don't actually have In a Wicked Age, and I'm kind of lukewarm on the mechanics. What's more, I am basically the Spirit of the Century's bitch right now. I've never been more excited about a set of game mechanics. So, naturally, I now want to combine IaWA's general play format with SotC's delicious Fate system.

The most obvious stumbling block here would be the fact that SotC's characters ain't nearly as quick and simple to build as IaWA's. I think I'd mitigate this by dropping the default power level down to "Good" rating, which would mean that each character would only get six aspects and six skills. Also, I'd use the stuntless rules hack to eliminate the time-consuming process of choosing stunts (frankly, ditching stunts and empowering aspects just sounds like a beautiful idea, anyway).

I'd also like to try removing the GM role from the equation. IaWA, somewhat oddly, actually does use a GM (at least by default; I kind of think that's just the training wheels setting), but Halfjack's zero sum Fate ideas could theoretically eliminate the need for a GM in my hack. I don't know how it'd actually run, though. It'd depend really strongly on how my group took to the whole collaborative play idea.

Anyway, this isn't the time to start dreaming up hybrid game systems. What I oughta be worrying about is designing a custom SotC character sheet for Lost Worlds and Secret Histories. Hope I can find time for that this weekend...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

[dream blog] The asylum

I was a patient in some kind of mental facility. But I never saw any other patients, and the people running the place seemed to be new to the security system. In order to invite me into the central control area to talk, they had to remotely open various gates while talking to me over the intercom, asking me each time if I saw any doors open.

Eventually, they determined that I was in "group F", which was the lowest security group. It wasn't really a patient risk designation, just the set of rooms which had easiest access to the control center. So I wouldn't get downgraded to group E if I, say, threatened suicide or refused take my meds.

In fact, they told me, group E was reserved for siblings. I marveled at the fact that there were enough mutually-damaged siblings around to fill a whole section of the facility. They told me that there were, but that was only two siblings.

Anyway, I walked into the control center to talk to the people in charge. They seemed like techies rather than doctors. And it turned out they wanted to ask me how one would go about "stealing" somebody else's LiveJournal post. I didn't think they meant copying, pasting, and claiming it as one's own.

Never found out precisely what they did mean, though.

The album cover meme

People seem to be doing this all over LiveJournal, but I couldn't really tell you where it started. I first heard about it from John Harper.

The deal (if you haven't already heard) is that you use random, Internet-provided elements to create a fake album cover. Specifically:

  1. The name of a random Wikipedia article is the name of the band.

  2. The last four words of the last quote on a page of random quotes is the name of the album.

  3. The third image on Flickr's "interesting photos from the last 7 days" page is the cover photo.

Now Photoshop the fuck out of that mess until it's believable.

Here's what I ended up with:

There is no way in hell that I wouldn't hate this band's music. This is fun meme, though, and I just might do it again.

Much thanks to denkedran for this photo. I think I got lucky, there.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Tuesday Night campaign chosen!

Lost Worlds and Secret Histories

Ohhh, awesomeness. Last night, my weekly gaming crew came to the end of our latest World of Darkness arc, and decided what they want to play now that my turn in the GM's chair is coming up again. They voted, there was a tie between Lost Worlds and Secret Histories (a Spirit of the Century campaign) and Professor Bennick's Class (which I'd run with either Dungeons & Dragons or True20). A coin was flipped, and LWaSH won!

Barring catastrophe, we'll be doing the famed SotC character generation next Tuesday, and--since I'm not using the Century Club of the game's default setting--figuring out what kind of group the characters will all be part of, or else how they'll know each other and why they would work together (because I ain't doing a "you all meet by chance" kind of deal). I'm not even going to come up with a plot until I know what kinds of people the PCs are (although, naturally, I've got a pile of ideas already).

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Customizable gaming tokens: Does this product exist?

paper tokensEven though I'm currently playing World of Darkness and Amber, and the next game I run will probably use either Spirit of the Century or Mutants & Masterminds, I do occasionally end up needing miniatures at the table. Because I am a cheap bastard, I don't own any real minis, but instead end up using a whole lot of folded pieces of paper weighted down by pennies. This kind of sucks, because it's extremely easy to mess up the whole board with a careless gesture.

virtual tokens in MapToolSo I found myself thinking of the character tokens that some online RPG applications (such as MapTool) use as virtual miniatures, and wondering if anybody out there was making a physical equivalent of those things. It'd be the simplest thing in the world, right? Each one would just be a couple of plastic disks--maybe with some metal bits for weight--that snap together to hold a piece of paper in place. You could print out character art stolen off of deviantART and, maybe even with a different front and back for each character to represent different states (alive and dead, for example), and get more utility out of a handful of cheap token rings than a whole bucket full of miniatures.

Hell, you could even use them to represent things other than characters positioned on a grid. Status effects come to mind, for example, for things like injuries and buff spells. They might also work to keep track of point pools, if you've got enough of them.

physical tokens from Z-Man GamesSo anyway, this seems too obvious not to exist, but the closest thing I could find were these things, which are cheap and metal, but don't seem to be especially customizable. And, apparently, they're no longer available anyway. They do make me think a bit more about how my own ideal tokens would be constructed, though. Maybe metal discs with a clear plastic cover that snaps in place over the inserted portrait would be the way to go. And the cover would have to be opaque at the edges, to hide the ragged edges where the portrait's been cut out.

This is too simple and obvious. This has to already exist, right?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Motley: Setting details

I don't know if this is the one we'll end up playing, but I felt like fleshing out the Motley campaign setting a bit, here. Not really going into campaign plot or system stuff, though, just the setting.


The campaign concept I'm calling "Motley" has one of the weirder settings out of the big campaign idea list. The basic idea behind the whole thing is to let the my group play weird gothic horror creatures and fight other gothic horror creatures, as well as to play up the idea of the wilderness the way humanity used to see it: as a vast darkness full of dangerous things, crowding in on the fragile lights of civilization. So, of course, I went with a pseudo-Eastern-European setting with a pre-20th-century tech level.

The country of Zerfaule (zair-FOWL) is a temperate, low-lying, land-locked nation of thick forests and the occasional swamp, bordered on almost all sides by mountains. Its government was, until recently, a weakly constitutional monarchy sharing power (unwillingly) with a cunning and semi-corrupt religious hierarchy. It's a largely rural nation, supported primarily by farming, along with some light hunting and logging. Technologically, most of the country is nearly medieval--with some of the more isolated farming communities still using crossbows--but its towns have gaslight and plumbing. Electric lights, crude radio telegraphy, and combustion engines are cutting-edge technologies that have only begun to develop. Zerfaule has very little trade or contact with other countries, but has had a bitter rivalry with neighboring Eisen for so long that the roots of their enmity have passed into myth.

Zerfaule's neighbor to the north-east, Eisen (EYE-zen) is a cooler, rockier nation, with slightly more advanced technology. Its mountains are rich in metal ore, and mining is its primary industry. While it's as landlocked as Zerfaule, it managed (until recently) to trade with the wide world through its neighbor, the small, coastal nation of Olin. Its government is an oligarchy that supplanted Eisen's monarchy through popular revolution, and then promptly became nearly as closed and repressive as the system it replaced.

The primary religion of both Zerfaule and Eisen (generally referred to simply as "The Church" in both nations) venerates a pantheon of virtuous and heroic human beings who are believed to have ascended to sainthood. These saints are humanity's connection to the vague, distant angels who created the world. There are some differences between the churches of the two countries: Most notably, Zerfaule's branch is ruled by the Supreme Hierophant--considered to be the voice of the saints in the mortal world--and does not recognize the newer saints claimed by Eiesen. Other than the two churches, countless tiny, illegal cults hide in isolated rural communities, worshipping demons and other things from the wilderness.

Dr. Morgolak
The history of the entire region was changed forever when an Eisener scientist named Staum Morgolak (STOWM MOR-go-lak) obtained copied of books thought lost hundreds of years ago in the destruction of the Great Library of Katatz (ka-TATS). With these, he rediscovered the forgotten art of alchemy, and improved upon it greatly through his own genius and the modern scientific method. Among other miracles, he invented a treatment to restore a semblance of life to the dead, and found that purpose-built creatures--surgically assembled from varied components--could be given not only life, but terrifying power. Morgolak's first successful creation--named Arku (AHR-koo), after the mythical first man--so impressed the Eisen government that they immediately employed him to create alchemically-animated soldiers for use against Zerfaule.

The elixir
Morgolak's greatest achievement is a thin, dark green, foul-smelling fluid which restores a kind of life--at least activity and utility--to dead tissue which is properly saturated and electrically stimulated. Human beings reanimated by this process retain fuzzy memories of their previous lives at best, and greatly diminished sensory faculties. If the process is applied improperly or the subject isn't sufficiently fresh, mental capacity and motor control are also impacted. However, the reanimated do possess great strength and resilience, as well as a near insensitivity to pain. They do not heal normally, but are easily repaired by a trained surgeon, and it's theorized that they will never age.

The poster children of Morgolak's new science are a motley breed, composed of cunningly-assembled human parts with a variety of animal and inorganic components as well. A typical patchwork soldier will have two or more mortal men's weight in human skin, bone, and organs, augmented with the muscles of bears or horses, the eyes of a wolf, and some amount of internal or external metal reinforcement. Some of its organs will be wholly artificial devices, particularly filters built to mitigate the problems of a metabolism sustained by Morgolak's alchemical elixir. Additional weapons or other war-worthy components might be added to the patchwork as required, and modifications after the initial animation are entirely possible.

Dr. Harko
Eisen's patchwork army quickly made it the unquestioned dominant power in the region, able to extort goods, political concessions, and even land from Zerfaule and Olin with very little actual violence. That all changed the day Dr. Morgolak's young protégé, Lupor Harko (LOO-por HAHR-ko), defected to Zerfaule. Exactly why he did it remains a secret, but he brought with him all of Morgolak's discoveries and his own brilliant mind as well. Zerfaule began a secret and frenzied military buildup, emptying its graves and slaughterhouses and prisons for raw materials. Harko's first batch of patchworks were imperfect things, but they were the first patchworks made with real war in mind, as well as the first made to fight other patchworks.

The War of Monsters
When Zerfaule finally struck back against Eisen, the greater power was caught entirely off guard. But it was far from enough to break Eisen's stranglehold on the region, and the War of the Monsters dragged on for six years. In that time, unspeakable numbers died on both sides. Great and terrifying new technological leaps were made, both in the fields of alchemy and mundane engineering. A new kind of inhuman soldier was deployed by both sides almost simultaneously: the homunculi, living creatures created from scratch through alchemy. Towards the end of the conflict, Dr. Morgolak disappeared while travelling (and is presumed dead), and the commander of Zerfaule's forces, General Orku Gorskovoi (OR-koo GOR-sko-voi), maneuvered himself into ever greater power while the aristocracy hid in their fortified mansions.

The newest creatures in the world, and alchemy's greatest achievement, the homunculi are a technology that has yet to come into its own, or even truly be formalized. Eisen and Zerfaule each developed a variety of ways to produce the creatures--including such bizarre methods as simmering vats of chemicals, man-shaped molds, huge eggs buried in the earth, and skeletons constructed out of tree roots--and the incredible variety of shapes and powers these creatures can take is still being explored. Essentially, however, a homunculus is a living creature--usually humanoid in form to one degree or another--created from a complicated bath of alchemical substances and some small amount of biological material, usually human blood. They be created with various chemical and physical abilities--some of them quite bizarre--and range in appearance from unspeakably hideous to weirdly beautiful to almost perfectly human. Their main disadvantage as weapons of war in comparison to patchwork soldiers is that they know nothing at all at birth, lacking even the hazy memories that allow a newly-animated patchwork to walk and speak.

The war's end
After six years, Zerfaule extracted a conditional surrender from Eisen. Both nations are at peace largely because they can no longer wage war, and Eisen is nominally the loser because of its dangerous position between Zerfaule and Olin. Effectively, however, both Zerfaule and Eisen are a shambles: their infrastructures are shattered, a whole generation of young soldiers is devastated, alchemical poisons blight the land, bandits and would-be warlords emerge to take advantage of the chaos, and the ancient, inhuman powers of the wilderness are closing in. Zerfaule's king and church hold power only in name, while General Gorskovoi wields the only real power left in the nation, and the old guard of Eisen's oligarchy have been executed or exiled.

The wilderness
The land beyond the towns and farms of both nations is a wild, dangerous place haunted by mysterious and unfriendly beings. Dense and tangled forests, stinking black swamps, mountains of forbidding stone--all places beyond civilization's reach teem with supernatural terrors that are, at best, resentful of the upstart race of Man.
  • Vampires — Any human corpse not properly sanctified (or mutilated) and exposed to the dark influence of the wild could potentially rise as a vampire. A newborn vampire is an animalistic thing, stinking and rotting, with no fangs or special abilities, and only the vaguest memories of human existence. Drawing on these, is makes its way to civilization, attacking on the first people it finds (frequently, of course, its memories lead it to its own family) and feeding on their blood and flesh. If it survives long enough, and feeds often enough, its decay reverses, it becomes frighteningly intelligent, and it gradually gains in supernatural power. Vampires burn in sunlight, but slowly. The quickest and surest way to kill one is to destroy the head or heart, or to separate the two through decapitation.

  • Werewolves — Rumored to be mortals who either sold themselves to a demon for power or were simply exposed to unhealthy amounts of moonlight out in the wilderness, werewolves do not precisely turn into wolves, but into vague approximations of the most powerful and dangerous beasts the people of the region know of. These forms naturally contain much of the wolf and the bear in them, although stranger things also show up. Bull-like horns and even vast, useless wings have been seen on some werewolves. They are strongest and wildest in direct moonlight, but otherwise are uncontrolled by the time of month or day. They are cursed creatures who can sometimes will themselves to become beasts, but almost never have any control of themselves when transformed, and inexorably go mad even in their human forms.

  • Fairies — Powerful, amoral spirits who create physical bodies for themselves from the stuff of the natural world. These bodies tend to be small as a matter of convenience, but can have any size or appearance. Fairies are capricious, immortal, genderless, self-centered, unstable, and possessed of terrifying powers of illusion and mental manipulation. They admire art, music, and fine clothing, but lack the intelligence and creativity to create anything of value for themselves, and so they steal from human beings and kidnap musicians and craftsmen. As they rely on the raw stuff of nature to grow new bodies for themselves, they bitterly resist human efforts to push back the wilderness. They do not reproduce naturally, and instead steal human children to instruct in the soul-bending powers of their kind.

  • Goblins — These are simply fairies who, for whatever unfathomable reason, have been exiled from their people and cut off from the source of their powers. Without these, the are merely physical creatures. Their bodies become twisted and corrupted, still endowed with great strength and the potential for immortal existence, but no ability to restore themselves. This experience or the limited existence that follows drives the ostracized fairy even madder than it previously was. Lacking any means to avenge themselves upon their own kind, they instead tend to inflict their bottomless rage upon humanity.

  • Demons — Demons are disembodied spirits, stranger, more solitary, and generally more powerful than fairies. They aren't necessarily malevolent--they don't need anything from mortals or from the wilderness that humanity threatens--but they are certainly amoral, unpredictable, and obscure in their motives. They might harm or even aid people on a whim or out of vanity. Many seek to be worshiped, to be given sacrifices, to have shrines built in their honor. What they demand of their cults and give in return depends on their tastes and moods. They are the greatest mysteries and powers of the wilderness, the most potentially dangerous, if the least actively threatening.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The big campaign idea list

My main RPG outlet these days is my Tuesday night game. Currently, we're doing a World of Darkness thing (old WoD, that is) where we playing mages who end up fighting vampires and stuff. We call this campaign Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Brigid is game master on that one (or "Storyteller", if you must). This is an awesome game, especially the latest story arc. But it's drawing to a close, and it's gonna be my turn to run a game next.

So what am I gonna run? The trouble is, I've got too many ideas.

Thinking about roleplaying games is seriously the main thing I use my brain for. There are few things I like more than coming up with (and sometimes even developing) vaguely sketched-out campaign settings and plots and gimmicks. I seriously cannot just use somebody else's campaign setting. And I've got a whole slew of game systems I want to try using with settings for which they were never intended.

So, while playing this arc of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I've been amassing the big campaign idea list. It is, as of this writing, a collection of twenty-nine campaign, storyline, and setting ideas that I would freaking love to run for my Tuesday Night crew. We've been discussing it, and it looks like people's interest is leaning towards these:
  • In the Belly of the Beast — kind of a Blame! riff

  • Lost Worlds and Secret Histories — 1930s pulp action with some paranormal stuff thrown in (Spirit of the Century for the win!)

  • Motley — a weird bit about a fictional quasi-Victorian country recovering from a devastating war fought with Frankenstein-style monsters and alchemical science (the players, of course, would get to be patchwork soldiers and military alchemists)

  • Night Tribes — about families who are hiding their semi-inhuman nature from the world

  • Professor Bennick's Class — a fantasy thing where the whole party would play student wizards on a field trip gone wrong

God, I can't wait. I don't care which one we go with. I just wanna settle on one so I can start planning.

Anyway, anybody who strolls by here, please feel free to check out the list and leave comments here. I've love to hear what people think.

[dream blog] Voodoo gum

It was early evening, with the unfamiliar city darkening around us, when we stopped at what appeared to be a hair salon. Two of us went in to ask for directions.

From the inside, it was clearly not a hair salon. Not anymore, anyway. There was no furniture of any sort inside, just shelves upon shelves of coin-operated candy machines. The cardboard advertisements behind the machines' glass fronts depicted things that looked like tikis or African idols, but rendered in garish, Saturday morning colors. And each one proclaimed the gum inside--it was all gum, not candy--to be named after one abstract concept or another. The price on every machine was 23 cents.

There was only one person working in there, a guy whose responsibilities seemed mostly about keeping the place clean and protecting the machines from theft and vandalism. He told us his mama made the gum, and that if we needed more after the shop closed or had any questions, we could call her up. I was surprised, because I'd have figured his mama--who I pictured as a fat, housebound voodoo lady--would be harder to get a hold of than him, not easier.

Anyway, I decided to buy some lilac-colored, M&M-shaped, candy-coated gum called Achievement. (Which is odd, because that's not really a word that's got a lot of resonance for me. It just makes be think of those idiotic motivational posters. Even at the time, I don't think I was particularly excited about it.) Pumping 23 cents into each machine was actually kind of hard, because instead of a slot, I had to put coins, one by one, into a metal frame with a hole in the side (like a square from a Connect Four game) and pull down a lever that lowered the whole frame into the machine. The coin fell out during this operation a couple times.

A couple stray pieces of Achievement fell out of the machine during this operation, and I tried them out before I finished with the coins. They tasted like Aspergum.

Maybe it was an effect of the Achievement active in my system, or the extra coins I ended up dropping into the machine, but when I finally pulled the lever for the last time, I received two plastic capsules full of gum instead of one. I think there was a rolled-up piece of paper inside each of them, too, presumably with information and usage instructions. Probably should have read that before I took some.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

[dream blog] Post-apocalyptic poaching in England

In England--and, presumably, much of the rest of the world--there'd been some kind of unnatural disaster. I think nuclear or chemical agents used in a war had poisoned much of the environment. This might've been a long time ago. People seemed pretty much okay, and society seemed safe and functional. But there was something wrong with the animals.

People from Yorkshire--and that general part of England, I guess the north--had started shooting animals from trains and harvesting their meat. I think they stole people's pets, too. I'm extremely fuzzy on why.

Maybe untainted meat was hard to come by in northern England, so people were poaching it from the south.

Maybe there was something wrong with people's pets in the north, and they needed to be fed raw flesh.

Maybe all the animals were poison and eating them was illegal, but a practice had started in Yorkshire where people consumed the dangerous meat for some kind of buzz.

I remember carrying two floppy, pink slices of meat, which looked very much like they'd just come from the supermarket, and not the hasty, amateurish butchery of some sheep or dog. I don't know who I was. I bought them upstairs to the attic of some gray, rural, English cottage, looking for a big Ziploc bag to put them in.

That's about all I've got.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

[comics] The Order: Is this a retcon?

Right, so is anybody else reading Marvel's "The Order" series? I've been looking around, but I can't find any real discussion of the book. So I'm wondering if anybody else noticed what I think I noticed.

I'm gonna skip explaining the background on this book. Interested parties can ask Wikipedia, as always. Suffice it to say that it's a superhero book, and it includes this dude they call Heavy.

When he first shows up, he looks like this:

Rockin the Stratos look.

Then, next issue, he gets shot in the face by some Cold-War-era supervillain. He goes "blurgle" and is thoroughly out of commission.

But he's back an issue later, apparently wearing a bacta tank on his head. So we--okay, I--assume this is part of his shot-in-the-face-by-a-Soviet-relic treatment plan. Naturally.

But he keeps running abound in a helmet full of blue fluid. For a whole mess of issues.

Finally, the most recent issue (the ninth of the series) explains Heavy's background in a flashback sequence (which is something this book does for a different character each issue, which is awesome, and would be worth talking more about if I didn't have a different topic, here). It turns out that he was actually horribly injured well before his superhero career started, and was confined to an iron lung. And the fluid inside his costume is apparently a fix for that pre-existing condition.

...So what the hell was he doing running around without his blue goo in the first and second issues?

So has this character's background been changed significantly just eight issues after he first appeared? I'd assume this was either a deliberate or accidental retcon by a new writer but, no, Matt Fraction's been writing the book the whole time. Hell, it's been pretty much the same story arc throughout all nine issues, even. There doesn't seem like room for retcon here, or time for a good writer (and Fraction is a good writer) to forget major details about a character.

Is there something here I'm just wildly misinterpreting? Was there a mask full of fluids in the first two issues that the inker and colorist just didn't pick up on? I don't get this.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Dungeons & Dragons & Decisions

So the world's oldest roleplaying game is at a major branching point in its evolution, these days. As anybody who's likely to be interested has already heard, the 4th edition of the game is coming out damned soon (June, apparently), and the whole fanbase has been in the expected uproar since it was announced (several months ago). We've received quite a lot of information about the new game, and it's been by turns tantalizing, discouraging, divisive, and intriguing.

All of this, of course, is completely expected. The game's been through a bunch of different revisions over the years (if we're being honest, it's really had a few more than four editions), and there'd been rumors of a new one on the way well before it was actually announced. But there's one thing that makes this revision qualitatively different from previous ones: the Open Gaming License.

While it's extremely uncertain whether the new Dungeons & Dragons will be released under the OGL, the important thing is that the previous edition, version 3.5, was. This means that people can (and surely will) continue to legally develop and distribute new material for the old version of the game, regardless of what the game's actual owners are up to. Furthermore, new games have been (again, legally) based on D&D's system, and will continue along their own lines of evolution after the release of D&D 4.0.

To me, this is a really interesting situation, and it presents me with pretty big decision: Which branch of D&D-derived fantasy gaming will I spend my limited RPG time on?

Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook v.4.0 cover
Dungeons & Dragons, 4th edition
From everything we've heard about 4e, it looks like an extremely fun, fast, and easy-to-run game with a strong focus on combat, but also some new and interesting systems for skill challenges and social conflicts. There are some places where I'd say the developers didn't really range far enough from past editions (for God's sake, they've still got armor decreasing the likelihood that you'll be hit, rather than how much you'll be hurt when you are), but I do think they've been pretty damned daring, and I'm sure it's a great game for what it's intended to do. Also, while it's still saddled with character classes, there's good reason to believe that they'll be pretty easy to hack into a more freeform system.

Thing is, I'm just slightly put off from 4e by the general ethic I'm seeing behind its development. To put it simply, it's clear the good folks at Wizards of the Coast set out to build a game rather than a simulation. I really don't want to get into the GNS Theory, here, so I'm just gonna say that there are a whole bunch of mechanics--even in the small amount of solid info that's been released so far--which just grate on my suspension of disbelief. Things like powers that let you project a divine forcefield on one character by hitting another character with your weapon. The idea is that combat is boring if you don't get to directly attack something every round, but even if that's actually true . . . damn, it's just kind of silly, isn't it?

So I dunno about D&D 4e.

Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook v.3.5 cover
Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd edition (and the d20 System in general)
You'll never hear me say that D&D 3e is a perfect game, but it is damned well serviceable. It brought me back to D&D--hell, back to RPGs in general, now that I think about it--after years away, and for every flaw I can find in the system, there are three or four brilliant fixes available on the Internet or in some third-party d20 product. And that's 3e's real strength right there: oceans upon oceans of mechanical options and additional content, much of it available for free (and much of the rest about to drop drastically in price when 4e comes out).

So I know that if I want to put in the time, I can do just about anything with D&D 3e. Also, thanks to the OGL, I'd be able to work on my homebrew projects in public without getting cease-and-desisted.

True20 cover
This is the big wildcard. True20 is a D&D derivative that's too radically different to still be a d20 game. It's flexible to the point of being genre neutral and very nearly classless. There are extremely few design decisions in the game that I disagree with, and that's an amazing accomplishment, because I am seriously never satisfied.

Its main drawback is a lack of supplemental material. There just aren't all that many True20 books out there, and the system is different enough (it doesn't even use hit points, for one thing, and the whole magic system is drastically different) that it wouldn't be easy to adapt d20 materials to it.

Vile and dangerous experiments in unholy hybridization
Of course, I've always (always) got the urge to just forget about the benefits of easily-usable supplemental materials and Frankenstein together my own system. There's a large part of me that just wants to take Dungeons & Dragons 3e, apply some 4e ideas and a generally True20-style ethic, throw in a dash of Spirit of the Century influence, and then try and convince my group to actually play the tottering monstrosity. Even now, as I sit here worrying that I'd never even manage to complete such a project, I know it's what I really want to do. There are just so many great ideas out there begging to be stolen!

...But, hell, there are such awesome things going on in the wide world of RPGs that aren't related to D&D that this whole question might be moot.