Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Shrouded Lands

If you were to sail south through the Ruined sea, navigating between the numerous islands of Eusebes, past even the shores of the Lion Empire, hugging the coast as to avoid the perils of Drowned Calaus, you would eventually reach the dour coasts of Oschei. Although still pleasant in the summer months, these lands and waters are noticeably colder than the warm seas of Eusebes.

Moving inland from the shores, the land quickly slopes upwards, rising into a great mountain chain stretching from Oschei to Nardag on the Haunted Sea. This mountain range forms an almost impenetrable barrier between the Empire of the Peacock Throne to its north and the cold, vast and unpleasant lands of the Venvard nomads to the south.

Along the shores of Oschei, traces of Eusebian culture have been introduced by sailors and traders. Some temples of the Assembly have been built overlooking the sea and Eusebian currencies and artifacts are not uncommon.

Deeper inland, along the foothills of the mountains, the Lion empire holds its sway with a string of mountain fortresses which are constantly at war with the Peacock Throne, whose monarch are always trying to spread their influence further east and south.

The mountains however, have never been conquered by any great kingdom or empire. Its people are scattered and their tribes isolated and incredibly diverse. Almost each village speaks a wildly different dialect or an entirely different language. There are dozens of ethnic groups throughout the area. Their religious practices are however surprisingly similar. They revolve around the worship of a divine being who gave mankind knowledge and skills, against the will of its brethren, and is being eternally punished for it. Worship is a thing of everyday duties and rituals, but some members of society retreat into remote mountaintop monasteries, where they delve deeper into the mysteries of their faith.

Many villages are at war with each other over petty feuds, while others enjoy peaceful alliances or an existence completely isolated from outsiders and each other. Because of various attempts at incursions from both the Lion empire and the Peacock Throne, some villages have been built like fortresses, while others have retreated further and higher into the mountain valleys. Some people have carved their homes into the softer rocks of some hills or cliff sides, containing whole underground complexes.

People's subsistence depends largely on flocks on sheep and goats, fish from mountain rivers, gathering, hunting and some small-scale farming. The area has the highest density of ethnicities on the continent, many of them native, but with numerous small communities of settlers coming from as far as Béné.

The mazes of Pakmanethet

In the far western reaches of the continent, a small cluster of peoples speak of a god that came to them across the outer oceans. It is a foreign god, not born of their soil. The theology they preach is that of Man-Pac. On the opposite side of the urth, by the coasts of the Ruined Sea and the banks of the river Tanaquis, people worship a god, whose rituals and tenets resemble greatly those of Manpac, even if the two peoples have never had direct contact. The worship of Man-Pac is older, but the worship of the other god is native to the deserts of the south-east. This confuses theologians to no end.

This second god, the god of the kings of Tanaquis, known as the Judge With Teeth of Fire and the Ghost Eater, is Pakmanethet in the original language. He has two distinct but confluent identities. One is that of the golden solar disc, The Yellow Rotund One, a position in the heavens that allows him to observe and judge the deeds of mortals during the day. During the night he descends into the winding passages and endless chambers of the underworld, where he becomes the executioner, the gobbler, chasing after the spirits of the sinful inside his domain.

As he howls through the endless winding passages of the Maze of the Dead, Pakmanethet requires the sacrifices of his faithful to maintain his strength while he journeys to the underworld. Should they fail to provide him with the fruits of the earth, he will wane in power - the foul spirits may overcome him, and he will never reach the Eastern Gates where he can emerge from the darkness to shine on the world again. 

Although not part of the official creed, it is commonly believed that Pakmanethet was one of the giants of old, that came to this world from the stars and made war with the serpents in the earth. His relentless obsession justice and merciless treatment of sinners comes, according to some apocryphal text, from his failure to save some of his shipmates, when the sailed the black oceans to make war with the great serpents. He holds humanity to such high standards, because he doesn't want them to repeat the mistakes of the past.

His worship certainly originates in the deserts north of the Ruined sea, where the sun's oppressive gaze is omnipresent during the day. The desert peoples believe that a person's soul is made of water and Pakmanethet devours the sinful with his fiery teeth, taking into the sky with him where it might undergo terrible trials and torments until it can be released back into the earth through the rains and flow to the Silver Mother beneath the earth. But that is a discourse for another day.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Sardonic cults of the Ruined Sea

In the early days, before people knew how to work bronze and the children of Erache still ruled the world, it was customary amongst the peoples of Eusebes to exalt the finest amongst them through funerary worship. Feeding on sacrifice, the exalted dead did not fade into the grey anonymity of the underworld, but continued to impart their blessings upon the living. A number of them continues to be worshiped as the Assembly of Anostos, a separate set of gods from the more savage deities of Eusebes' past.

There was one king, especially mighty in his rule, who had come to receive such exaltation before his passing from the world. He became an eternal, and was set to rule his kingdom in perpetuity. Although the identity and manner of his murderers varies with each account of the myth, it is always said the king was fed the deadliest of poisons and forced into the ashen oblivion of the underworld. Though they may have taken his earthly body and authority from him, the king preserved his place in the Assembly.

His mortal name struck from the records and swallowed by the underworld, he is known as The Lord of Bitter Waters, He-who-laughs-in-death, Rootbiter, Waits-in-the-earth, or simply the Nameless in the Assembly of Anostos. People of the Sea Exarchs identify him with the mythical First King of Gebal. He is worshiped on the Raven Isle as Carro, who must be appeased to allow the sowing of crops least he will poison the grains, causing convulsions, delirium, laughter and eventually death. Sailors from Venvard have identified him with the ritual royal sacrifice of their lands, intended to ensure a good harvest for the year.

He is depicted with a terrible skull-like grin, his body either stiff like a corpse or crooked as if enduring great pain. He sometimes wears a crown weaved from poison flowers. Mushrooms are sacred to him, as are all things old and immutable. Old age is praised over youth, decline over growth. The rulers of Eusebes are impostors on his rightful throne, life is a mockery that is only allowed to continue unchecked until his return. He is worshiped in dead places, underground, in natural caverns or earthen cellars, dug for this specific purpose.

Temples of the Assembly only include his shrines in a token capacity, keeping his statue veiled. Seeking communion with him through an oracle of the temple costs double. Those who would benefit from his benevolence typically pass the ritual duties and sacrifices off to devoted cultists, preferring not to deal with the god directly. His cultists are scornful and derisive of society, breeding a particular sense of superiority mixed with resentment, strengthened by their isolated status.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Sagas of the Icelanders reprint

I've been teasing this for a while, and here's a rather tardy announcement: Sagas has been reprinted and will be available in print format again. It's not a huge deal: it's not a second edition or revision, just a straight up reprint, because there has been a lot of interest in getting printed copies after I ran out.

The second part of the announcement is that IPR will be taking over the shipping and handling part of the deal, taking a significant chunk of work off my hands. So if you want a deadtree copy of Sagas, look to the IPR store in the coming weeks, I'll post and update when it goes live. Or (if the mail delivery service doesn't screw up and the books get to the US in time), you should also be able to pick up a copy at the IPR booth at GenCon in 10 days or so.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Adjudicating tone and genre through moves in PbtA games

[Edit: Jonathan Walton reminded me that in this blog post I was actually talking about a subset of moves, which was not made explicit in the original text. There are many moves that cannot be simply reduced to a "Defy Danger" equivalent and there are even moves that don't have a fictional trigger which I implied in the starting paragraph. "Increase your hot by +1" is a legit move and doesn't fall under this discussion. I just kinda assumed all of that because otherwise I'd have to explain more stuff.]

Prefacing with some basic stuff you all know: Players don't decide to trigger moves, or "activate" them like powers. Moves are triggered by the fiction. That requires an instance of judgment. As with (virtually) all roleplaying games, that judgment is carried out through a silent consensus of the table, but ultimately that responsibility falls to the MC.

Now, there are many levers that subtly or less subtly inform the tone and genre of the fiction for both players and the MC. Seed content (Names, stuff...), principles ("barf forth apocalyptica", "play your characters as real people"), gamebook art, boxes-to-clouds mechanics informing the fiction, etc.

Systems are about how we agree at the table about what happens in the fiction. Tone and genre are about expectations of what happens in the fiction. Game design is about saying something, including saying something about the source material, the genre. These are all tied together. (I could go on a whole tangent here about emulating genre & source material with the AW framework, but that's for another day).

Moves have pretty specific and clearly defined triggers. Some more so than others, in some games more than in others. You do it, it happens. When you go aggro on someone, you go aggro on someone.

However there's some...wiggle room (I dread to call it that) for the MC in the moment of judgement there. Like, when you walk up behind Dremmer and shoot him in the head, do you just do it, dealing harm? Are you acting under fire, and the fire is he (or someone else) notices you first? Are you going aggro and the thing you want him to do is keel over and bleed out into the irradiated sand? It's impossible to say without context, with the actual in-the-moment situation, and without a judgment call about that situation.

If you peel back layer after layer from AW, making it an ever simpler game, I think there's a good reason for ending up with only one move - the ubiquitous Defy Danger/Act Under Fire/Tempt Fate/Do Something Dangerous (as also evidenced by the World of Dungeons/Bootleggers lineage). All (basic) moves are about a moment of crisis, a risk. Danger is relative here. It might be social, emotional, physical, financial, metaphysical. What matters is that you're risking something.*

So at some fundamental level adjudicating moves is about adjudicating the danger. What is dangerous and how, to what degree - if at all.

Which finally brings me to my point: that moment of judgment is where the GM/MC has the space to set the tone of the game, from comedic to heroic, from gritty to pulp. This invariably impacts the overall (sub)genre as well.

I'm just going to throw out a bunch of examples. I'm going to use DW as the system in the examples.

GM: "A great tentacled horror from before time crawls out of a dark and slimy pit and it begins smashing everything with its pseudopods, you see it crush a donkey cart like it's a child's toy. What do you do?"

Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "Ok, you cleave its jellied flesh, spraying brain matter everywhere and it slides back into the pit with agonized screeching."

Ex. 2
Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "Ok, seems to me like you're hacking and slashing? Go for it."
Player: "A full hit! I'm chopping its tentacles left and right."
MC: "Cool! You deal damage, hacking your way through, but you're not at its core yet."

Ex. 3
Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "Great! But it's flailing its slimy tentacles around. They're wooshing dangerously close to your face. You're going to have to defy danger to even attempt any sort of attack. Do you still want to do it?"

Ex. 4
Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "It swats you aside like a fly. Your steel and mortal strength can't possibly match its arcane power."

Now, within the rules, those are technically all legit situations and outcomes, depending on the fiction. The player always narrates what is fundamentally the same (re)action, but if you watched the scene in a movie, it would play out completely differently, and not just in terms of outcomes, but - far more importantly - in terms of feel. The first is epic, heroic, perhaps even comical. The last one is desperate and gritty. Again, just one scene isn't enough, but you get my drift.

I wanted to try another example, from a different perspective, with the player narrating different actions:

GM: "The thug stands in the narrow opening of the alleyway, digging her heel in the sand and drawing a knife. She won't let you pass."

Ex. 1
Player: "I draw my dagger and advance on her, trying to knock her weapon to the ground."

Ex. 2
Player: "I run up the side of the wall, vaulting off it and slicing at her with my double scimitar as I pirouette to the ground."

Of course, the GM can again respond in any number of ways to both of the above. Just a couple of examples again:

GM: "Cool, she's out of the way."
GM: "Ok, it seems like you're defying danger to me. The danger of course being she shanks you while you wave your fancy weapon around."
GM: "You go at it, fighting in the street. I assume you're hacking and slashing?"

And so on...depending on the GM's response, the scenes might again appear and feel wildly different to someone watching them in a movie. The bottom line is, the way the situation/action are judged as dangerous/non dangerous, possible/impossible, difficult/easy and to what degree, can significantly alter the tone of the game and twist the genre of the game itself. This is also part of a response to all those "but how do I do difficulty modifiers in AW/DW/whatever?" questions that keep popping up.

Addendum: Some of the PbtA games are more susceptible to this than others. Fantasy is malleable by default, so DW is a great game to make my point. Monsterhearts probably significantly less so. The last AW hack I ran was The Hood and there was sufficient judgment space (and just general creative space) to tune it more like The Wire or Lock, Stock and Two smoking barrels, which play quite differently. Sagas was definitely written with a naturalistic, realistic prose in mind, but I'm sure it can be done in a more buffed up, epic Beowulf-style (the Man's bean-counting playbook is probably the least accommodating in this sense) even though I've not done it myself yet.