Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Back to School

Well, today is the first day of the new school year. It feels like things are looking up! My schedule is pretty good, I have an interview for a new job next week, and I got the Hellfrost gig! I just need to sign the contract and mail it to TAG, but after that I'll be working on the Hellfrost conversion project officially. I'm so excited about working for Triple Ace Games; I've admired their stuff for a long while now, and working for Wiggy Williams is going to be a real treat.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, August 19, 2010


There's a rumor going around that Triple Ace Games is looking for a freelancer to convert their awesome Hellfrost setting to Paizo's Pathfinder RPG. Well, not so much a rumor as it is that Wiggy Williams, TAG's head dude, posted about it on the Paizo forums. I applied for the job, and Wiggy says that they'll be doing their determinations over the weekend. Wish me luck!

Strands of Fate

While I normally talk about Savage Worlds on this blog, I'm sure by this point that my readers (*cricket, cricket*) are aware that I play and enjoy lots of other games. Pathfinder is a dear friend of mine, as is World of Darkness (in both Classic and New Coke flavors). Over the years, though, there's one game that I have tried several times and receive a weird sort of frission from playing, in that I badly want to like it, but something always seems off to me.

That game is FATE.

The bastard daughter of FUDGE, FATE is a generic system with a free license that has most recently been used by Evil Hat Productions to power their award-winning Spirit of the Century and the much-anticipated Dresden Files RPG (based off Jim Butcher's excellent novels), as well as by Cubicle 7 Entertainment to power Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre. All of these games have been internet darlings, but I've just never been able to "get" them. Maybe something in my old, grognarded-up brain has trouble grasping the design principles of the system, but I've always seen them as "hand-wavey," or "metagamey." Even though I love the hell out of certain indie games (like Evil Hat's brilliant Don't Rest Your Head), I always have trouble grasping FATE.

Part of it is the nature of the beast. FATE's most current iteration (3rd Edition, for those keeping track) has never had its own corebook. All of the existing games for it are fairly devoted to their own idiom. Dresden is a modern-magic detective game; Spirit is a roaring '20s pulp game; and so on. Anglerre has options for running either heroic fantasy or grim-and-gritty fantasy, but ultimately it's still geared toward a fantasy game. With this in mind, I started to wonder if the real problem with me getting into FATE was that I could never face the rules on their own ground, so to speak; they always had baggage, always had little elements of legacy code that didn't mean much of anything to me. I had been telling myself for a while that I would reinvest my energy into FATE when someone finally got around to putting out a truly generic corebook for it.

Well, somebody finally did. Void Star Games, under the auspices of lead designer Mike McConnell, has set out to strip out all the old legacy code from the various iterations of FATE and put together a truly generic core rulebook for the system. With my long-standing desire to like FATE, and my lack of solid exposure to the current rules system (I've played a few short demos of various FATE things, but it never stuck), I thought that this would be the perfect time to try and get into the game.

Fortunately for me, Void Star decided to run a beta playtest for the corebook, called Strands of Fate, and I was able to jump in. I'm currently browsing through the opening of the beta release, and I have to say that the book is attractive if nothing else. If they put anywhere near as much craftsmanship into the final product as they did into the beta, then I'm very much looking forward to seeing it. I'm not that deep into the rules yet, but from what little I've seen, one of my biggest concerns about FATE is no more: "the ladder."

Whenever I demoed FATE before, I would get told about target numbers, but also that each target number had its own adjective descriptor, like "Good," "Average," and so on. I never could understand why it was necessary to use those adjectives, which didn't actually carry any sort of standard numerical weight, other than dedication to older editions. Really, it reminded me a lot of the old Marvel FASERIP system, which operated on similar (equally confusing) principles. Now, just a short way into the book, I can see that the ladder of adjectives is no more; everything is dealt with by target number alone. That's a huge relief to me as a potential player and GM, and it clears up a lot of confusion.

I hope to do more reading on Strands of Fate over the weekend and keep up the review work, and do some actual playtesting in the next week or so. Keep an eye out to hear more!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Western Baronies: Ecology

The climate, terrain, and environment of Marikuhl is as varied as its inhabitants, ranging the gamut from chill and frozen northlands to steamy tropical jungles to enormous mountains and everything in between. The original settlers from the Old World landed on the coast and simply made their way inward, creating “bands” of habitation from north to south along the continent. A few later colonies followed the rivers to more inland areas, creating habitation further into the continent than the originals had managed to reach.

Toward the northern end of the continent lay the mountain ranges that shelter Marikuhl from the Asatru barbarians. While the northmen sometimes come across the peaks, they prefer the open seas, so imperial territory officially extends right up to the slopes themselves. In the south, imperial dominance runs to the gulf and adjacent plains that connect to Teotihuacal. Technically, Marikuhlian lands traverse the Galatean continent from east to west, but everything west of the great Corundum Mountains is baronial territory and dealt with in its own section.

In the north, the area surrounding the Greyshield Mountains is rocky, interspersed with thick coniferous forests. This area is cold most of the year, and snow falls for over half of it. The region is not quite tundra, but it approaches taiga at its worst. This area is home to animals of enormous size, gigantic versions of more common beasts such as wolves, elk, eagles, and even badgers. Such dire animals are noted for their ill tempers and territoriality. The northern provinces are also home to several related humanoid races possessing shaggy fur and foul dispositions. Collectively known by their Ko’Manna name of saskatch, they are noted for devouring human flesh and being a constant threat to exploration.

As one travels south along the coast, the area quickly becomes warmer and wetter, due to the influence of the mild ocean winds. During the autumn, these coastal regions are often flooded or swamped by huge storms, but the weather is calm during the rest of the year. These areas are home to heavily lumbered deciduous forests, and much of the central coastal region is tamed. A few strange beasts remain in the forests, preying on lumberjacks and other woods folk, but this area—close to the imperial capital of Vasting—is one of the safest in the country.

Further south from this are the sandy coasts of southern Marikuhl, and inland from those lay balmy wetlands and hot swamps. These regions remain extremely dangerous to outsiders, home to any number of venomous snakes, giant insects, water-dwelling humanoids, huge reptiles, and—supposedly—degenerate cannibals living in the depths of the swamps. From the early days of exploration, a great many people died in despair in these areas, giving rise to groups of abominable undead, men and women who died in such anger and pain that their corpses rose from the muck to destroy the living.

Inward from the coastal provinces is a small range of mountains called the Ironweals, home to much of the mining industry in the empire. At one time, this area was the sole supplier of corundum to the empire, but as the mines have dug deeper, the mineral has become more rare. Underground beasts and strange humanoids have forced the empire to permanently garrison much of its standing army nearby to protect its mineral interests, and the miners themselves have had to become proficient warriors to avoid death at the hands of hideous monstrosities. The surface region is home to mixed coniferous and deciduous forests, as well a large number of lakes, rivers, and springs. Goblins and goblinkin are particularly common in the Ironweals.

Past the Ironweal Mountains, the land becomes more level, finally flattening out into broad, vast plains, interspersed by rocky plateaus and mesas, occasionally broken by wide chasms. This area is home to all manner of big cats, such as lions and leopards, as well as huge birds and stranger beasts. A few unusual humanoids dwell in this region as well, but most of them are far more shy than the eastern ones and avoid contact with humanity whenever possible.

In the far south of the plains region, just before reaching the sea once more, the land abruptly rises and falls in a series of ridges. This area is heavily forested, creating a large jungle region that eventually ends at the southern inlet of the Atlantean Ocean. To the west, the region drops off into tropical plains and grasslands, eventually giving way to the lands of the Teotihuacal. The Marikuhlian jungles are full of arboreal life, such as apes and tree cats, as well as a large population of reptilian humanoids, such as lizardfolk and kobolds.

When the first settlers colonized Galatea, they found an untamed wilderness, full of possibilities and dangers. The Ko’Manna had learned to live alongside nature, taking only enough to survive and moving on when the land needed time to recover. They understood the dangers of the local flora and fauna—and of Galatea’s other inhabitants. While the Ko’Manna were the only native humans, a great many other intelligent races lived in Galatea, and still do in many places.

Though the Ovidian settlers have long since become the Marikuhlian peoples, though they have lived on Galatea for seven centuries, they are still ignorant of many of the land’s greatest mysteries. The Ovidian way was to build large, crowded cities, and the original settlers followed suit. Safety in numbers was the keyword of early settlement, and even today, most Marikuhlians live in or near large cities. While Galatea’s resources have been greatly strained and deeply damaged by the number of people living there, huge tracts of untouched wilderness remain between the Marikuhlian cities, places where people fear to travel.

The Ko’Manna were justified in their fear and respect for the natural world—the Galatean ecology is a dangerous one to the uninformed or the arrogant. When the Marikuhlians unified and expanded, the threats did not go away, they merely consolidated at the edges of civilization. Even now, there remain vast regions within a few hours’ ride of a major city that no living human can claim to have seen. Every day the Marikuhlians extend their conquest of nature a little further, but nature is hardly giving up without a fight.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Western Baronies: Religion


The religious institutions of Marikuhl are starkly divided between two disparate and seemingly incompatible faiths that nonetheless continue to coexist. Most common Marikuhlians worship the old gods of the state religion, called Ma’at (“balance”), who form an intricate mythology of related deities and interrelated worship. Many noble Marikuhlians at least pay lip service to Ma’at, though their true allegiance frequently lies with the other half of Marikuhlian faith: demon worship.

Officially, Ma’at condemns the practice of demon worship, viewing it as corruptive and damning. However, the leaders of the faith have long since come to the practical realization that opposing demon worship among the nobility is likely to affect only the amount of donations they receive each year, and not change anything about the practice itself. Quite simply put, while Ma’at offers spiritual salvation, inner peace, and a lasting legacy of faith, demons can offer actual power.

The number of demons in existence is unknown, though some arcane scholars believe that a new demon is formed from every ill feeling, each cruel action, and any unpleasant happenstance. If they are correct, then the number is essentially countless. Most Marikuhlians understand that demons exist in a spiritual limbo, able to perceive the mortal world but unable to interfere in it unless invited in by a mortal. They are barred from action unless given leave—though “leave” can often be given unintentionally by the ill informed.

Demons hunger to enter the world of men and can offer much in the way of incentive. Once they establish a foothold, their power grows greatly, even to the point of offering mystical prowess, unholy luck, or fiendish cleverness to their supplicants. What they gain in exchange for these favors is unsavory in the best of times, and can range from simple material goods to favors to the sacrifice of men, women, or children. Some look upon the successes of their fellows, however, and decide that such prices are worth paying. While demons can twist the spirit of their contracts, they must honor them to the letter, and so long as all debts are paid in full, many feel, no harm can come to a bargainer.

These two competing ideologies counterpoint the deep social divide in Marikuhlian society, with the common folk just trying to lead lives of prosperity and normalcy while the nobility constantly plays power games with those lives. A few commoners turn to demon worship in an attempt to escape the drudgery of their lives, just as quite a few nobles avoid demon worship and still genuinely revere the gods of Ma’at, but generally speaking these trends hold true.

There are many dozens of gods worshipped in the Ma’at faith, but the following six are the most often prayed to and have the most temples built in their honor.
Wey-At, god of justice and law. The head of the Ma’at pantheon, Wey-At is sometimes known as “the Just King,” representing the role of nobility as both rulers and servants of the people. Wey-At is typically depicted as a broad-shouldered man with a heavy mustache, one hand on a sheathed sword.
Virgil, god of peace. Wey-At’s brother, this god is usually shown to be silent in myth and legend, and statues in his honor typically depict him as a younger, softer version of Wey-At, wearing the robes of a scholar rather than the armor of a warrior.
Ira-Aten, god of hunters and woodsmen. Ira-Aten was once far more popular in Marikuhl, befitting its status as a frontier nation, but his forest temples are less visited now than they once were. This deity is usually shown as a tall, wiry man with long hair, carrying a hunting bow and surrounded by foliage and animals.
Marya, the bountiful mother. The patron of agriculture, motherhood, childbirth, and the womanly mysteries, Marya is usually shown as a beautiful middle-aged woman wearing a hair-covering shawl and a long blue dress. As mother of all things, Marya is the god prayed to most often for mercy or aid.
Sofya, weaver of fate. Marya’s only daughter, Sofya is invariably depicted as a teenaged beauty carrying an hourglass in one hand and a bloody knife in the other. She represents the inevitability of death and the possibilities of the future. Her priestesses are said to hold the secrets of prophecy, and many seek their knowledge of the future.
Castur, god of war and madness. This warrior-deity is depicted in statuary and art as a blood-soaked berserker, naked to the waist and surrounded by the corpses of his enemies. Castur is the madness in the heat of battle, the fury that drives men to do terrible things. The Marikuhlians believe that Castur is present at every battle that is fought, and that the battles with the greatest atrocities are the ones in which he participates.

As mentioned above, the number of demons in existence is virtually without number, but a few of the known ones are more popular than others. Any potential demon worshipper can learn the rites necessary to call a random demon from the spirit plane, but many Marikuhlians would rather depend on the tried and true than risk summoning a useless demon or, worse, a genuinely dangerous one. The following are some of the better-known demons, descriptions of their powers, and the magical schools they typically grant to their mystical worshippers.
Asteroth, demon-lord of chaos. It is said that while other demons lurk in the spirit realm awaiting summoning into the mortal plane, Asteroth remains there despite having been called forth. While he extends his influence into the world, he remains in the spirit world, for only there is it possible for his true form to exist. Asteroth allows his followers to summon pieces of him to act as servants and minions, though their forms inevitably dissipate after a time. (Conjuration)
Ba’al Zevuv, demon of pestilence. This is the demon that was summoned during the Scourging, and that prevents Marikuhlian occupation of Ovidium. It is said that Ba’al Zevuv, when not hunting his hated foes, dwells at the heart of the nation he destroyed, lounging on a throne of bones and holding court over his undead thralls. (Necromancy)
Beleth, demon of fear. This demon teaches her supplicants to be paranoid and cautious, instilling them with a drive to protect themselves and their interests that approaches the insane. She typically appears as a black-skinned woman with dead-white hair, and ceremonies to her involve terrifying others, often to death. Still, her cautious nature and terrible wrath make her a fine choice for those seeking defense rather than offense. (Abjuration)
Hastyr, demon of madness. Often called “the Unspeakable,” Hastyr’s most common manifestation is of a blighted leper wearing tattered yellow finery. His worshippers grant him mastery of their bodies for short times, effectively becoming possessed, in exchange for the power to rend minds and conceal the truth. (Illusion)
Ithaxa, demon of cold. Ithaxa’s powers over the winter months and creatures of cold draw many ice-hearted individuals to his service. The Ko’Manna sometimes call Ithaxa “the Hungry” for his ability to instill cannibalistic hunger in those that draw his ire. Most of his rituals involve the consumption of human flesh. Often, these disgusting rites allow them to steal the strength of the dead. (Transmutation)
Kuhultu, demon-god of the Atlantean Ocean. This is the demon summoned by the Ordo Astra Lyceum during the War of Vengeance to destroy the Ovidian fleet. Kuhultu has dominion over the entire Atlantean Ocean, though he sleeps almost constantly, answering his faithful when their dreams touch his. He is known to induce madness during such visions, but all the plenty of the sea is his to offer. (Divination)
Molech, demon of fire. A powerful demon indeed, Molech offers the power to destroy one’s foes with flame and chaos. However, only one thing attracts Molech’s dire attention: the sacrifice of a child by burning. His “blessings” are always destructive but undeniably powerful. (Evocation)
Shaitan, demon of deception. This manipulative seducer offers his supplicants powers over the minds and emotions of others. It is said that much of his time and effort is spent in setting his minions against one another to amuse himself by their struggles. (Enchantment)