Archive for January, 2009

Broodier Version

2009 Jan 20

Now with more atmosphere.

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Nine Suns Cover Sketch

2009 Jan 20

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Murderland Reviews: Pies 11-12

2009 Jan 19

Finally. I’m just going to keep posting these as I get the reviews finished, instead of waiting until I have a whole batch typed up from my notes.

11. Mike Sugarbaker – Moving to Murderland

Premise: Players take on the roles of three people whose otherwise peaceful lives have been interrupted by acts of violence, by to varying degrees. Play takes the form of three conversations the trio has, perhaps in a bar. By moving icehouse pieces around on a chessboard (including changing the way in which they are pointing), the players negotiate the conversation, asserting things and contradicting previous assertions.

Thoughts: Presumably, part of Mike’s intent here is for the players to, over time, tie their characters various experiences together and express a variety of different things about the affect of violence on the lives or everyday people. All in all, I think this overall setup is great, including manipulating board game tokens as a way of negotiating the conversation and providing some interesting structure. However, I have a hard time getting really excited about the way the token-moving rules are implemented. While having the characters initially defined by where their pieces are placed is pretty sweet, the ranges given to the various sizes of icehouse pieces are not very intuitive, taking unfamiliar (to me) shapes that are much more complex than just a set range of squares or the moves of a chess piece. Also, while it might be neat to see how all the different movement rules interact on the board, it’s also not clear to me that the various movements will lead naturally or interestingly towards the act-ending condition (pieces being a certain distance from their starting point). Also, the negotiation itself is a bit weak, I think, or at least could be spiced up a bit. Currently, you can 1) assert that something has happened, 2) assert how someone feels, or 3) contradict an assertion. Those are a bit generic, unrelated to the overall premise of violence and dealing with its arrival. If you could assert your suspicion, your anger, or that someone had been hurt, that might help the elements connect more. So while the premise is great, I think the movement rules could be more intuitive and have a stronger sense of purpose.

Conclusion: Warm.

12. Tomas HV Mørkrid – Raven: Claw and Beak

Premise: Players take turns describing problems that they have faced in the past while the other players play family, friends, antagonists and the like who are trying to influence the players’ actions. Players are encouraged to resolve the problems in ways that are much more destructive and violent than what they would actually do in real life and, if a player chooses violence, they stab their teddybear in one of the limbs or (eventually) torso. The narrative portion ends when all bears have been destroyed, though there is some space for closing rituals that offer some closure for the bears.

Thoughts: In my mind, this combines three different design concepts. First is an orientation towards intense emotional experiences (with or without catharsis) as a primary motivator for play, common in the Nordic larp and jeep traditions but prevalent elsewhere as well. The second is a tendency I’ve often seen in Ben Lehman’s recent design work (Bliss Stage, Land of 1000 Kings), which is to incorporate elements of players real lives into play as a way of creating instant emotional engagement. I imagine this happens in other play traditions as well. Finally, like Mist-Robed Gate, it ups the social tension (in the form of fear and anxiety) between the players by introducing a dangerous object (a knife) into the play environment. Honestly, none of these are concepts that speak to my personal play priorities, which makes it difficult for me to judge the success of the design. When I play Mist-Robed Gate, for example, I intentionally choose to use a symbolic knife rather than something that is actually dangerous. Additionally, I feel like I don’t have a lot of pent-up violent rage to direct at those who have held my life back, so the cathartic effect of destroying one of my teddybears would not be worth the loss of the sentimental object or the regret I would feel for having willingly participated in its destruction. In general, I find this game somewhat interesting as a piece of cognitive art or a Fluxus-style event score, but I can’t imagine myself actually playing / performing it. However, I don’t view it as some kind of alien artifact or “not roleplaying.” I honestly find the directness and clichéd symbology (i.e. knifing teddybears) to be a rather brutal and somewhat crude attempt at addressing issues that may be much more complicated. If there were people who wanted to deal with their pent-up rage through roleplaying, I don’t think this would be a very helpful or safe (both physically and emotionally) way to handle it. So, all in all, a worthwhile topic to explore, but there are probably much better ways to structure an experience that explores this territory, ones that focus more on creating a worthwhile experience for their participants, rather than appearing more focused on defying social norms about cherished childhood objects.

Conclusion: Warm.

Nine Falling Suns & Nine Dragon Sons

2009 Jan 16

What happens when a sun falls?

And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter. (Rev 8:10-11, KJB).

Sounds like a massive natural disaster to me, devastating an entire region of the kingdom. I should probably reference Bruce R. Cordell’s When the Sky Falls, even though I can’t quote anything directly from it, due to the current GSL restrictions, but it is definitely inspirational in several regards.

Also, I need to do something really different with dragonborn and tieflings (especially; I need to do something with almost all the player races), considering the way I want to portray dragons and demons. Right now I’m pondering dragonborn being based on the “nine offspring of the dragon” (qilin, pixiu, taotie, etc.) and basically embodying the will of the earth (compatible but not entirely the same as the will of heaven). However, over time, associating with mortals — who do not normally intuitively understand the will of earth and heaven — causes their racial traits to shift from being more-or-less dragonborn to being more-or-less tieflings. Physically, their transformation could resemble how people lose their feathers and beaks as they grow older. Perhaps they gradually lose their scales and horns, looking more and more human and less like dragons. Maybe they trade one of their dragonborn traits for a tiefling trait each time they gain a level? Something like that. Of course, I probably can’t call them dragonborn if they’re mechanically different from WOTC’s dragonborn, because of the GSL, but that shouldn’t be a problem. The dragon children should probably have some sort of fae step-like teleport power, to indicate them disappearing into the natural world (probably not usable in urban areas, but I’m not sure how urban you can get in the post-neolithic, early bronze age).

I also want to figure out a way to make the “X-origin” traits really important. If humans in this setting are all part-crow, to varying degrees, there’s probably interesting stuff to be done there. Likewise with dragonborn. I’m thinking about having the human / half-elf / elf / eladrin range of racial traits all describe the “standard” part-crow people that compose the setting, with a few other new crow-oriented racial traits thrown in. Building a character, involves a bit of mix-and-match from that pool of traits, based on how crow-like they are and such. Some traits may be reserved for nobles or royal family members. Not sure.

Blog Revamp

2009 Jan 16

I just switched themes for this blog, to freshen things up a bit, and hacked the CSS into something that I’m really digging. Everything feels so much more organized. As part of the revamp, my increasingly regular “Top Five” posts have now become a list that sits in the sidebar, since it was mostly a note to myself in any case. I’m almost done with Mortal Coil Revised layout, so I’ve taken it off the list and consider my top priority to be Murderland reviews. Yay for my New Year’s resolution to finish things!

Dragon Creation

2009 Jan 14

Inspired by town creation from Dogs in the Vineyard, the nature of monsters in Zelda, the Shinto influences in Miyazaki movies, the colossi from Shadow of the Colossus, and a short game Shreyas once wrote called “In Darkness He Is Waiting.”

The natural world operates in accord with the will of heaven. They are not exactly the same thing, theologically speaking, but mirror each other in a complementary fashion. Therefore, if something is at sixes and sevens (or, as they say in Chinese, a real ‘chaotic seven-eight mess’), if the dragons are acting up and causing disastrous calamities, such troubles necessarily have a mortal origin. The player characters are called upon to combat the symptoms of disasters — floods, fires, famines, eruptions of ghosts and monsters — but appeasing the wrath of the dragons ultimately involves determining how mortals are angering the natural world and/or spirit world.

Consequently, in this campaign setting, dragons are not monsters to be slain (though there will doubtlessly be hosts of other monsters that need stabbing). Dragons are effectively big, moving, dangerous puzzles to be found, explored, endured, and unraveled, if you are lucky. If you’re unlucky, they just eat you.

How to Perturb the Dragons

Here’s a table of mortal behaviors and their consequences in the earthly and spiritual realms. The GM uses this table, plus the NPCs that you’ve collaboratively created, to create disasters or other strange events that the PCs are sent to investigate.

MORTAL EARTHLY SPIRITUAL
improper hearts weather animals
improper behaviors storms ghosts
improper family relations crop failure monsters
improper village relations destruction dragonborn
improper conduct of a region disasters dragons
improper rule of a kingdom omens suns die

Your characters’ job, as agents of the Mulberry Throne, is ultimately to prevent the Ten Suns from falling from the sky, which means you have to stop problems from developing to that point. Of course, the difficulty is that many problems don’t become evident until the dragons awake and natural disasters begin occurring.

Shang Fantasy Oracle

2009 Jan 14

A first attempt, based on Simon Carryer’s generation method, which also inspired Hard Boiled Cultures (currently #2 on RPGnow!).

NOTE: Edited a bit.

Social Hierarchies

Every character of any importance — PC or NPC — is going to be in some sort of tension with the expected social hierarchies, including the king himself and members of the royal family. While Confucianism and its emphasis on the “five relationships” is still several hundred years off, there is already an emphasis on ritual and propriety when it comes to social relationships. However, the overlapping nature of the various hierarchies makes is easy to adhere to most of them but nearly impossible to adhere to all of them at the same time. For example, if a character is a female shaman, she would be considered to have less authority than a man, but more authority than any non-shaman. Woohoo, social tension! The hierarchical social expectations that characters struggle with include:

• heaven (a.k.a. the natural order of all things) before earthly concerns,
• ancestors before the living,
• old before young,
• men before women,
• royalty before nobles (adopted royalty),
• nobles before the common people,
• masters before their servants;
• creditors before debtors;
• guests before hosts;
• shamans before non-shamans,
• warriors before non-warriors, and
• people before animals and non-people (including crow-people and eunuchs).

Using the Oracle

Draw 3-5 playing cards from a deck with the jokers removed for each PC or major NPC character you want in your game. I suggest starting with twice as many major characters as you have players, creating character concepts through the oracle process before players pick which characters they want to play. Use the cards drawn to brainstorm character concepts in the following fashion:

♥ Hearts: The character embodies this norm.
♠ Spades: The character twists this norm.
♦ Diamonds: The character has been changed by this norm.
♣ Clubs: The character has broken with this norm.

The Oracle Entries

2. Some of our ancestors are crows, consequently, we all share crow-like features and traits. Children are generally born with feathers and, sometimes, beaks, but these generally fall off as they grow to become youth.

3. Those that are too crow-like to function in society are driven away, up into the mountains or towards the sea.

4. Nobles — including all officials and military officers — must be of royal blood or ritually adopted into the royal family.

5. The only non-nobles allowed to touch or share objects handled by the royal family are eunuchs and virgin handmaidens. These special servants, because their sexual nature has been suppressed, grow more crow-like as they age, becoming more irritable and hoarding shiny objects.

6. Divination is the highest shamanic art, both seeing the future and seeing the true connections between heaven, earth, and mortal-kind. The sacred script, the only form of true writing that exists, is restricted to the diviners who serve the royal household and the royal family members who are required to participate in divination.

7. We all honor and seek aid from heaven, the Lord on High, the Consummate God-King (our shared, semi-divine ancestor), his consort the Crow-Mother, their children the Ten Suns, a variety of local agricultural, weather, and reproductive spirits, and our own familial ancestors. The royal family, of course, pays respect to the royal ancestors.

8. The royal family demonstrates heaven’s approval and the righteousness of their rule by predicting and competently handling natural disasters and other calamities that befall the people.

9. There is no slavery in the kingdom, though some obligations take a long time to fulfill.

10. Jade and tortoise shells are sacred materials important to political and spiritual authority. All jade belongs to the royal family. It can be loaned to specific nobles or noble houses, but never to non-nobles. Tortoise shells, if they are to be useful in divination, cannot be touched by non-noble hands.

J. Neighboring kingdoms accept the dominance of the Mulberry Throne and regularly send envoys bearing tribute.

Q. Grave robbers, horse thieves, and those who selfishly betray their lords are plagued by ghosts and despised by heaven and earth.

K. Dragons are the irritable and dangerous lords of the natural world. They do not easily tolerate mortal blundering but — as the embodiments of heaven’s will — cannot be killed, merely appeased. Everyone fears the dragons — and the common people regularly make offerings to them — but no one actively seeks their involvement in mortal affairs.

Some of Our Ancestors Are Crows

2009 Jan 14

Some notes on primordial Chinese sovereigns. All of this is directly from the historical record.

The Shang/Yin people honored the God-King Jun as their primordial ancestor. We know this from oracle bones that mention his name.

Jun descended from heaven to rule the people, marrying Xihe and fathering the 10 Golden Crows — three-legged birds that are, in fact, suns, taking turns traveling across the sky each day. Xihe and the suns live in the land of Fusang (often associated with Japan) in the Eastern Sea. We know this from the Classic of Mountains and Seas, the oldest collections of Chinese myths still in existence.

The Shang kings traced their mortal ancestry back to a chieftain named Yi Lu. We know this from oracle bones in which the sovereigns called upon their ancestors.

Yi Lu’s wife, Jiandi, swallowed a crow’s egg and became pregnant with Xie, whose descendants included the Shang royal line. Again, this part is from the Classic of Mountains and Seas.

Some scholars now believe that the Shang/Yin mythology gradually lost prominence during the rise of the Western Zhou and the diversity of the Warring States period. Instead, later mythologies focus on the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors narratives not on the mythological rulers that the Shang honored as their ancestors.

Top Five: 2009 Jan 13

2009 Jan 13

1. finish Mortal Coil Revised layout (current at 103 pages with about half that to go)
2. Murderland reviews (a.k.a. more pie)
3. record first podcast of The Envelope
4. create cultural oracle for Shang Dynasty-inspired 4E game/product
5. create cityscape and spikeball court for Super Spikeball (Agon hack)

HBC is Live

2009 Jan 12

My first attempt at subverting D&D — really, mostly Fred’s work, but he can blame me — is now available in a variety of convenient places. The more successful and/or appreciated it is, the more likely we are to do more things like it. If you do pick it up, definitely let us know what you think and how we might improve future products.