Thursday, February 7, 2013

Posting Hiatus

I've had a very unexpected family tragedy happen yesterday, hence my lack of a post. I probably won't be getting back to posting until next week. I need to be with my family and don't much feel like writing.

Cheers, all.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Design Decisions Tuesday: Fantasy Religion

Today's "Design Decision Tuesday" covers the topic of religion in my fantasy campaign world, the World of Samoth.

As most of you know, this is a campaign world that I've been tinkering with for the past 24+ years, and actively gaming in for the past 11+ years.

Early State of Religion in the World of Samoth
When I started working in the world, it was really sort of a knock-off of the World of Greyhawk, mixed with some ideas from Dragonlance, and with the internal politics based on my relationships with favorite school mates at the time - letters in names were re-arranged to create countries, and alliances between countries were based on whether I liked someone or not, as well as how they got along without me.

However, one thing that differed a bit was the way that I originally approached religion in the game. Initially, I followed a somewhat faux-Dragonlance style by having three "groups" of religions (Good, Neutral, and Evil) all warring for supremacy. Their wars took the form of various battles that took place on the World of Samoth between religious armies of humans and allied races.

Old Notes on World of Samoth Religions.
Circa 1989-1990.
In this early proto-Samoth campaign design, the "neutral" god(s) won (it was left vague as to whether each neutral god was actually a separate being, or rather just one being with different forms for each different culture in the world), who then laid-waste to the main continent of the world (and the only continent that I actually was developing at the time). In the aftermath of this religious cataclysm, the sun burned a deep reddish-black, thereby providing heat but no light, and the moon burned bright red, providing light but no heat. I thought this was super clever at the time, associating darkness with heat and light with cold, although of course it makes no scientific sense. But, it's magic!

I eventually scrapped pretty much all of this, except for the ideas of religious warfare, which I thought was a very under-developed notion in fantasy RPGs at the time, especially given our own Earth history and how many times it's happened throughout the centuries.

The Religions of Samoth Become More Developed
As I began to shift the focus of the World of Samoth and tighten up the concepts, I eventually decided on the idea of creating monotheistic religions as the basis for my campaign world, rather than sticking with polytheism as has been done since the foundations of the hobby in almost every campaign world (Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, the Known World...).

One thing I knew I wanted to do was to have multiple monotheistic religions, each operating under the idea that they were the only true religion. In fact, I planned to have splinter groups of each main religion, that not only fought against the other main religions, but also among each other to attain supremacy as the "proper form of worship."

I turned back by my old notes and grabbed some names and  ideas that I really liked, including "The Hol" (the name of one of my monotheistic religions), ancestor worship and superstition (I figured there still had to be some more "primitive" people who either hadn't been exposed to the main religion, or chose to mingle their cultural superstitious beliefs with the main religions to create an odd form of hybrid worship), and the idea of cultural differences influencing how each society viewed what was essentially the same being, but caused them to turn that into completely separate religions.

At the end, I had the main religions of Ætonism (both Universal and Eastern), Holism (aka, worship of "The Hol"), and Bhuwanism (in two main "sects", including one that was essentially the worship of thousands of 'spirits').
I discarded all of the various humanoid and demi-human gods, saying that at this point, most of them had been in contact with humans for so long that they'd been assimilated and followed one of the main human religions. Those who didn't and chose to cling to the "old ways" were usually labeled pagans, and often hunted and persecuted. They didn't have strict, formal religious practices, but rather followed ancient themes like ancestor worship, spirit worship, etc. I did this mainly as a way for creative players who wanted a challenge to help shape the world by designing their own religious customs.

The Three Main Faiths Take Shape
Using a variety of religious texts from my university library as inspiration, I began designing the tenets and precepts of each faith. I'm going to eventually post all of these on my World of Samoth website so you can get a sense of how they all tie together. One of the things I heavily relied on was the 2nd Edition AD&D Complete Priests' Handbook, as it had a section of "Faith Design" at the back that was really helpful for answering questions like "what is the creation myth of the faith?" and things like that. I followed that format when creating each religion, and then of course designed holy symbols, priest uniforms, etc. 

All three faiths were based on actual Earth religions, but what I did was mix them around a bunch, combining concepts from all various faiths into each one so that they were not direct translations. Of course, the World of Samoth bears a very strong resemblance to Earth in terms of the culture of each country and where they are located on the map in relation to each other, so it's been pretty easy for players to figure out the main "source" religion for each fantasy faith in my campaign. In my mind, this is actually a feature rather than a bug, as it allows my players to instantly get a handle on the faith in question.

Problems Arise
When I originally designed all of these faiths for the World of Samoth, I wasn't actually playing D&D at the time, and hadn't done so for quite awhile. This was during the 2E era, which represented a very long 12 year drought in the actual playing of RPGs for me. 

So, when I started up my 3E campaign in May of 2001, I had all of this stuff written up, which I proceeded to send to my players, including pages and pages of notes on the various religions. As the designer of these faiths and as the DM of the world, I placed a huge importance on religion in my game and I wanted it to play a very important part in the actual campaign setting.

However, this taught me a very important lesson when it comes to running a RPG, because, as it turns out, my players weren't all that interested in the religious aspects of my world. They, of course, didn't know all of the stuff going on "behind the scenes" and why I, as the DM, felt that it was important, but I eventually just let go of the idea and moved on to focus on what the players wanted to deal with. I still feel that it's a huge missed opportunity, and I continue to bring in some religious stuff from time-to-time, because other things do happen in the world besides just what the players' characters are dealing with.

Another problem that arose came when I tried to figure out things like "can a cleric of any alignment ask for spells from the monotheistic god?" That was a huge problem to deal with, as I wanted to have corruption and evil priests infiltrating my priesthoods. In some cases, they weren't necessarily "evil" but rather just "misguided" - selfish or power-hungry - and I had a very difficult time figuring out how to deal with that in terms of how they would receive their spells. It's something that had never occurred to me when designing the faiths, because I designed them as part of a fantasy world, not really as part of a gaming milieu.

This problem got exacerbated with my focus on religious warfare. All three "main" religions could have paladins, and yet that would mean that I would have to, at some point, reconcile the idea of a paladin of Ætonism attacking a paladin of Holism, and potentially being able to use his "smite evil" ability, since to each paladin, the other one was "evil," as he followed the "wrong" religion. This is still an on-going issue that impacts my campaign, as one of my current players, who plays a "tribal" paladin from a desert-like country, told me that he feels that most Ætonist priests are "evil" due to the way that they treat non-believers (as an example - his reasoning goes far beyond this, and makes a lot of sense given his character background). So, he will lobby to use his "smite" ability on most Ætonist leaders. It's hard to deny his logic when I've set things up so that the organization of Ætonism has done some not-so-nice things in the name of religion, even though individual followers might not be aware of this and are probably good, or at least neutral, in their moral outlook. It's a tough thing to figure out when you're dealing with monotheistic faiths like this. 

 The last little issue that I've needed to deal with is, since I've designed three "main" monotheistic faiths, each of which thinks it is the "true" religion, is it possible that they are all, actually, just different forms of the same faith, all following essentially the same "god"? And, if so, that ties back to the idea of two paladins from different "religions" attacking each other and using their smite ability (or clerics casting spells at each other, etc.) - would the same "god" grant these powers to two different followers just so they could attack each other? If not, how does he choose which one to grant them to? And if he grants them to neither one... why not?

Final Thoughts on Monotheism in Fantasy RPGs
I'm curious how many of you have monotheistic faiths in your RPGs, and if so, how you've dealt with some of the questions I have, above. I can't be alone with struggling with these kinds of issues. I actually don't always have answers in my game world. I tend to take a very liberal approach with what I allow my players to do, just to see how things work out. I'm often surprised by the choices they make, and it's helped me to further define how these different faiths interact in my world.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Boatswain Chocolate Stout
Listening: "Exploration" by Karminsky Experience


Monday, February 4, 2013

More Monday Pulp Goodness: The Pulp-O-Mizer

Chris B. over at A Rust Monster Ate My Sword totally ninja'd me on this one, because I had this post ready-to-go to post later today.

In any event, over the weekend, I read about a cool site called the Pulp-o-Mizer, where you can create your own 1930s-style pulp magazine "covers", digitally, using a variety of templates, magazine titles, pictures, backgrounds, etc., and adding your own text.

I created this adjacent image in only about 5 minutes just to test it out.

As a cool feature of the site, you can then download your creation but also then turn it into a poster, coffee mug, iPad case, notebook, cards, etc. Very cool, and a fun way to waste a little time if, say, you're like me and have to jump onto a weekly work conference call in about 8 minutes.

Pulp Noir Monday: Masks

The Four Variant Covers of Masks #1.
©2012 Dynamite Entertainment.
We're back to Monday again, and Monday's theme is on the Pulp Noir era - comics, games, movies, and other media that are set in the Pulp era of the 1930s and 1940s.

So far, I've covered the TV show, Tales of the Gold Monkey, and an RPG gaming supplement, Heroes of Rura-Tonga.

Today's post is about a fantastic comic book called Masks, from Dynamite Entertainment. Masks is an eight-issue limited series, currently on its third issue, which features many of the great pulp-era heroes from the past, all working together toward a common goal. You get the Green Hornet and Kato, Zorro, the Shadow, the Spider and Ram Singh, Miss Fury, the Black Bat, and more. Really, the only pulp character I could think of that I'd want to have seen included was the Phantom, but I'm sure it came down to a rights-issue.

This isn't going to be a full-on review, as the story is still unfolding and I don't want to give up any spoilers for those who plan to read the series. Instead, here are some things to whet your appetite.

What's It About?
(This all comes out in the first couple of pages of issue #1, so I'm not spoiling anything here).

The story takes place in 1938 in New York, where a political party called the Justice Party has swept both city and state-wide elections. However,  the Justice Party is controlled by powerful criminal syndicates, and the elected officials end up being extremely corrupt and power-hungry. There are shades of Nazism to their actions, as they institute a police-state and begin rounding-up "wrong thinkers" and the like. Only a few masked vigilantes stand against them...

Who Are the Creative Team?
The story is written by science-fiction author and comics veteran Chris Roberson, known for many SF short stories, his alternate-history series Celestial Empire, and also his comics work on Fables, House of Mystery, Superman, and Superman/Batman.

The art for the first issue is entirely done by fan-favorite Alex Ross, who provides the pencils, inks, and colors, painting the entire issue. This is Ross' first fully-painted interior work since DC's Justice in 2005.

Starting with issue #2, the interior art is done by Dennis Calero, known for his work on X-Factor, Legion of Super-Heroes, Cowboys & Aliens, and Kolchak.

The covers for each issue are done in four variants by different artists: Howard Chaykin, Jae Lee, Sean Phillips, and Alex Ross. Each cover is printed at 25% of the total print run, and it should be easy to get any of the particular four covers you're looking for.

Cool Bits
Seriously, you've got the Green Hornet, Kato, the Shadow, the Spider, Zorro, Miss Fury, and the Black Bat teaming up to fight against a bunch of corrupt politicians and the crime syndicates that back them. That's cool!

Roberson does a great job illustrating the differences in the personalities and methods of each hero, who may seem, on the surface, to all be a bit interchangeable given their origins. The Shadow, in particular, stands out a a hero who would prefer to work alone and doesn't necessarily think the other heroes are all that helpful. We also get to see rich playboys Britt Reidd and Richard Wentworth comparing the sizes of their fortunes and their choice for their aides/side-kicks.

Who Will Like It?
Obviously, if you're a fan of pulp-era heroes, then this is right up your alley. As it's a limited series of only eight issues, it's not a huge commitment, and will most likely be collected as a trade paperback after issue #8 has come out, so you don't need to go search for the individual issues at your local shop, unless you want to try to collect all of the variant covers.

Even fans of standard super-hero stories, or period-piece mystery fiction, may want to give this a try. Given that it features all of the characters in one story, you get a good glimpse of each one and how they operate, in the event that you want to delve deeper into an individual character later on. It's also a great introduction to the genre if you haven't really followed it before. You don't need a prior knowledge of any of the characters to enjoy this story.

Any Good Fodder in Here for My Role-Playing Games?
Of course! The setting, with its corrupt politicians controlled behind the scenes various criminals would make an ideal backdrop for a straight-up pulp-era game. The work's been done for you with character names, the organization itself (Justice Party), and even drawings of the main characters that you can show your players for maximum effect. This would be good for systems like the original TSR Gang Busters or perhaps a version of d20 Modern, using the d20 Past supplement.

The inclusion of heroes with a very slight mystical bent, like the Shadow's ability to "cloud men's minds" is a great launching off point for examples of how to include "super-hero" type characters in an otherwise semi-realistic pulp-era setting. In this case, I think a system like Savage Worlds would be absolutely perfect, although many of the current super hero RPG systems could probably work, with a little tweaking, as well.

Again, the system of choice is up to you - this is really about the setting and the types of characters you can create as inspiration.

Is It Good for Kids?
I think this one is probably fine. There is, of course, the ubiquitous super-hero type violence (punching, guns shooting, etc.), and it is a pretty dark setting in terms of how corrupt the government is. However, there is no swearing and no sex, so you'll have to balance how important the "sex vs. violence" thing is for your kids. In America, we seem to be okay with our kids being exposed to graphic violent images rather than sexual ones. To be safe, you might want to wait until your kids are around 9-10 or older before letting them read this. It's actually officially rated "Teen+" so let that be a guide for you.

MASKS
  • Format: Eight 32-page full-color issues
  • Where to Buy: Try to buy it at your local comics shop. If you don't have one, try Dynamite Publishing's website here, where you can order it.
  • Price: $3.99 per issue
  • Rated: Teen+
  • More Information: The Dynamite Publishing press release for Masks
Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: A glass of La Granja Syrah/Garnacha with lunch
Listening: "Lush Life" by Sarah Vaughan

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Game World Inspirations Friday: DL5 "Dragons of Mystery"

My allergies are not bothering me quite as much today, so here's the post I intended for yesterday.

Based on the number of views I received to last Friday's post on how the "World of Greyhawk" inspired my own campaign setting, combined with the views and comments on previous posts on D&D's "Known World," the "World of Conan," and real-world Earth History, I've decided to dedicate Fridays to cover some of the sources of inspiration for my long-running campaign world, the World of Samoth.

After the sources named above, a rather unlikely source emerged in the form of a small module that was technically part of the Dragonlance series. It's DL5: Dragons of Mystery, and it was published in 1984 by TSR, shortly after the first Dragonlance module series came to an end.

I had read some of the Dragonlance short stories that had appeared in Dragon magazine around issue #84 or thereabouts, and had somehow acquired the first four Dragonlance modules, DL1-DL4, which basically replicate the action of the novel series The Dragonlance Chronicles. I had briefly flipped through the modules, and I vaguely remember my friends and I going through part of the first module before giving up. The game play just wasn't as fun as some of the other modules and home-made adventures we were playing at the time.

However, the world of Dragonlance was really interesting to me. Lots of the concepts were very post-apocalyptic in nature, and things like the disappearance and then rediscovery of the gods, how steel was more valuable than gold, and the various "alignments" of magic were quite new to RPGs back then, and particularly intrigued me. Even though I didn't want to play the modules any longer, I knew that I wanted to try to borrow and expand on some of the concepts of the world to include in my own world-building efforts.

Around this time, I was over at a friend's house and he had a copy of DL5. I flipped through it briefly at his house, and asked if I could borrow it for awhile. He tried to talk me out of it, saying that it wasn't an actual module but instead just "notes about the world and stuff. It's boring." That was actually the exact reason I wanted to borrow it from him, and he eventually agreed, and later on said that I didn't have to give it back because he didn't really want it. I still have it, and pulled it out of my collection to look through to write this post.

DL5 is really a grab-bag of a lot of stuff, and lots of it wasn't really useful to me. Firstly, I'll get the stuff out of the way that was of no interest to me, but which I think is interesting to look at from a historical perspective. There's a 32-page booklet, and out of that, the stuff that I didn't really have much use for included the section on "Dungeonmastering the Dragonlance Saga." This is where you'll find the now-infamous section entitled "Obscure Death and How to Live With It." This 1/2-page section mentions that Dragonlance is a story, and certain "name" heroes and villains "are important and should not die until the right point in the story (sometimes, they should die at all!)."

It then goes on to detail the concept of "obscure death" - basically, as a Dungeon Master, you are expected to cheat if a "name" hero dies, by such clever conventions of being comatose (the character was only thought to be dead!), miraculous escape (if the character fell off a cliff, it turns out there was a ledge right below, just out of sight, that caught him), or saved by another (essentially, deus ex machina). Villains are allowed to cheat death by having a "special defense" unbeknownst to anybody else, having been someone else (it wasn't really the villain but someone dressed like him!), resurrection, a "secret escape route," or using magic to "feign death."

Wow. Just... wow.

Not much else to say about this. Either you like playing "games" that way (in which case I'd say you're not really playing a game but instead just acting out a script pre-written by the DM, and should then really just have the DM tell you how everything is supposed to end so you can save your time), or you don't. I don't really begrudge people for liking one or the other, but you can guess where I fall in that dichotomy.

Other bits in the booklet for which I didn't find a ton of use included errata from the first four modules, "how the heroes met" (a narrative on how the different "name" heroes all came to work together), and then 12 pages of character sheets for twelve different characters that you are supposed to play in the adventures (because, as as the booklet notes, they "don't recommend" making your own characters, because you'd need to alter your character concept to "fit" into the world).

Now that we've got that stuff out of the way, let's cover the stuff that I really liked as a kid.

Firstly, the inside cover of the module was a map of the constellations of the world of Krynn (the name of the Dragonlance world). I can't quite explain why, but I really dug this as a kid. Having a map of the constellations just seemed so cool and helped to make the world seem a little more "real" while at the same time keeping it fantastical with the inclusion of the three moons that controlled good, neutral, and evil magic and the different creatures and objects that made up the constellations. This, combined with the list of planets that was mentioned in the World of Greyhawk boxed set really got me interested in the astronomical and astrological implications of my own world, and which I spent a lot of time developing before finally just quitting because, as I mentioned in the Greyhawk post, it never saw any use during game play.

There was also a "Creation of the World" myth that I really liked a lot - I hadn't seen one of these in a game product before, and hadn't read Tolkein's Silmarillion at this point, so aside from classical mythology, which was the first time I'd encountered the idea of having a creation myth for how the world came together, and I really liked that idea. I wrote several for my World of Samoth, each one told from the different perspective of the major races of the world. This also had an affect on my astrological stuff I'd been working on, as the constellations "changed" depending on which race of creatures you were dealing with. It all got a little complicated.

The booklet also details all of the gods of Krynn, covering their "other names" (a little touch that I really liked, as it again spoke back to the fact that different cultures would worship the gods differently), their symbol, colors, spheres of influences, etc. This wasn't anything that hadn't been done in the World of Greyhawk, but for some reason, the gods of Kyrnn resonated with me more. I felt like I had a better understanding of who they were and how they related to each other and to the world than I did with the Greyhawkian gods. I still kind of feel that way today.

There were two maps in the booklet: one of the entire world, one large color-map of the continent of Ansalon, which is where the main action from the Dragonlance Chronicles took place. The other was a huge two-color (brown and blue) map of the Dwarven Kingdom of Thordardin, which was pretty cool, but I personally liked the continent map better. It was more to my interests then of how to develop my own campaign world and create its accompanying map.

One thing I noticed while just looking through the booklet, is that the last page is identified in the Table of Contents as "Questionnaire: In which our Marketing Department desires to know your feelings and desires, and the fate of the world of Krynn lies in your hands." (The entire table of contents uses this kind of flowery, faux-Gygaxian language). I didn't actually fill the questionnaire out, but I have a copy of another TSR marketing survey from another product that I did fill out (but never mailed) that was stuck into the back of this booklet. I'm not sure which product it came from, but I included a copy of it here just for giggles. I blurred out my address and phone number (at the time), as well as my birthday. It's really funny to read what my "favorite" programs were at the time. I think I mainly wrote those to try to be cool, because while I did watch all of those shows, I'm not sure they were my "favorites," particularly "Miami Vice."

So, that's a look at DL5: Dragons of Mystery, and how I took some inspiration from it to help develop my own world. Any of you have this one, and if so, how did you "use" it - as intended, as a way to complement your Dragonlance games, or did you use it like me and just pick-and-choose the parts you found interesting to "kit-bash" into your own games?

DL5: DRAGONS OF MYSTERY

  • Format: 32-page soft-cover booklet, plus cover and two fold-out maps 
  • Where to Buy: It doesn't look like this is available as a PDF yet on dndclassics.com, but there are several people selling used hard-copies on Amazon.com.
  • Price: Original) $6.00
  • System: 1st Edition A&D
  • More Information: There are tons of fan sites, but here's the entry on Wikipedia.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Lots of water in preparation for a whiskey & scotch tasting tonight

Listening: "On the Outside" by Oingo Boingo

Friday, February 1, 2013

Inspirations Friday: (Postponed)

Just a quick note to let you all know that today's post will be postponed until later this weekend, due to some kind of severe allergy attack I seem to be having. Extremely annoying and really bothering my head and eyes, making it painful to stare at the computer screen. This isn't a sympathy-grub - just an alert, since I'm really trying to get back on track of blogging about once a day.

Fridays for the foreseeable future will be dedicated to covering the inspirations for my campaign worlds, based on the success of last Friday's "Game World Inspirations: Greyhawk" post, which has become one of my most-viewed posts in a long time.

Catch you later this weekend. Until then, Happy Bride's Day!
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