Administrative

The Steward of Balic – Let’s just hope he doesn’t go batshit and light himself on fire

It used to be that when you were going on a trip, you asked your friends or neighbors to water your plants and maybe feed your cat. These days, things can be a little more complicated. See, I don’t have any plants and I don’t have any pets. But I do have something that needs maintenance and attention, and regular infusions of nerd-love.

This blog.

I’ve mentioned before that I started writing this thing not because I had anything to say to the world, or an idea I wanted to share, or even the arrogant desire to pontificate aloud as though I were an authority on some niche of the geek hierarchy, but rather to reconnect with an old friend. That other people might be interested was something that occurred to me as a possibility, but I dismissed it as unlikely. Turns out that I was wrong.

Just to put things in perspective, since my last post (DS4e – An Open Letter) this blog’s total per day views are just shy of fifty people. That’s not something I’m bragging about, because I honestly don’t know if those numbers are impressive or pathetic in the grand scheme of things. Certainly I don’t believe I’m now giving competition to Penny-Arcade or Critical Hits. But I’ve only actually told three people about this blog – and, as far as I know, only two of them have actually visited it – so, if nothing else, this blog has been a personal success.

And now, naturally, I’m going to abandon it. Not really, but on Thursday (July 29) I plan on loading all my shit into the car and leaving town. Four days later I’ll be rolling into Saskatchewan with my father and getting him set up in his new place. A couple days after that I’ll be boarding a plane and heading back to Ontario, my year-long adventure in the Arctic Circle complete. For at least a couple of days after I land, I expect to be busy getting settled and reconnecting with old friend. All of which adds up to mean that I don’t expect to be doing much blogging from here on out – for the next 2+ weeks its all about packing, moving and settling.

Which is why I’ve asked my oft-discussed friend, Glen, to sort of fill in while I’m away. Like I said, once upon a time you asked your friends to water your plants. Now you ask them to update your blog. I’ve given him free reign to write and publish his own stuff. Just to be clear – there’s no schedule, he’ll update when he feels like it about what he feels like. I’m looking forward to reading what he’s got to say as much as you all do.

It’s also worth noting I’ve written a few extra posts in advance, which are set to auto-publish while I’m away. I’m hoping that between Glen’s keeping an eye on things and my “post buffer” there will still be lots here for you guys to read and enjoy. I expect to be back and posting in less than three weeks – as I know more specifics, I’ll post updates for everyone.

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World Workshop

The World Workshop – The Celestial Blossom

Moving sucks – no surprise there, I know. However, this is a very different move than any I’ve embarked upon before, and the end result is that it’s taken more of my time and attention lately than I’d anticipated. For those of you following this blog, I want to say both thank you for reading and I’m sorry updates have been so few and far between lately.

I’d also love it if I could promise things were going to turn around, but I doubt I could deliver on that. I’ll talk in more detail about the forthcoming move, but the short version is that things are going to be a little sporadic for a couple more weeks.

Now then, on to the World Workshop! Today we’ll be discussing City C – better known to its Eladrin rulers as Surilphu and more commonly referred to as the City of the Celestial Blossom.

When I first conceived of this setting, I decided right away that I wanted the region to be defined by two powerful rivals – rivals that grew to become Kungarde and Magwer. While I wanted there to be a war between the two cities to be a matter of recent history, I didn’t want a “great war” that plunged the entire world into conflict. Which is why I decided the war would be fought on the large island between the two cities. My love of political complexity led me to want a city caught in the thick of the battle, neutral with respect to both sides, and surviving only through its own cunning.

Enter Surilphu – a city that is no match for either Magwer or Kungarde on the fields of either war or commerce, yet which somehow manages to outmaneuver both of them time after time.

Surilphu (which is, incidentally, the name of the entire island as well as the city) was founded as a colony of Ravantamar the Adamantine Forest – a kingdom of the northern elves from across the Sea of Sadaelamar. Ravantamar was an elven nation that rose out of the dark age that followed the fall of Arkhosia and Bael Turath, much like the far-off (and now-fallen) human kingdom of Nerath. At its height, Ravantamar was a loose confederation of elven cities, bound together by a dynasty of Alexander-like conquering kings.

Of course, Ravantamar’s height only lasted for 80 years or so, which is why they don’t get much space in the history books. They made a big mistake and picked a fight with those religious nuts over in Magwer. Maybe I’ll tell that story some other time. The punchline, however, is that the war ended with Magwer victorious, Ravantamar collapsing inward and fading from history, and Surilphu ruled not by elves but by their cousins, the eladrin.

Surilphu is, among other things, a city of abject wonder and delight. Its population is almost exclusively eladrin – not because other races are unwelcome, but because they find the Celestial Blossom to be in many ways overwhelming. The city exists in the natural world and the Feywild at once, and as one travels through the city various arches, doorways, and other areas act as natural portals from one plane to the other. Spires of gleaming crystal rise from the earth in the Feywild, mirrored by buildings of marble in the natural world. As once walks down a street, gradually crossing from one plane to the next, the sights overlap and seem to devour one another. The eladrin seem unaffected, but the other races often find the view both beautiful and disturbing. In some places the two planes bleed together.

Furthermore, the politics are a minefield – Surilphu rose out of cunning and intrigue, and scheming machinations are what keep it strong. Surilphu sits between the two great power of the region, and when those powers make war the Celestial Blossom is always at risk of being crushed between them. To that end, the king of Surilphu plays each power against the other, ensuring Magwer thinks Kungarde is strong and vice-versa. It is in his best interests that both court for his favor and that neither ever receive it. The internal politics are no less complex – the eladrin know that scheming and cunning keep them safe, thus a never-ending series of intrigues and schemes serves as a form of Darwinian guarantee that the man (or woman) upon the throne is the craftiest and most deadly opponent in the game.

If M.C. Escher and Niccolò Machiavelli had a baby, it would grow up to be Surilphu’s city planner.

Ultimately, Surilphu exists to satisfy my urge to have a place that is just different and amazingly cool. I might only set one scene of a single adventure there in an entire campaign, but it’s a scene my players will talk about for a long time to come.

Ultimately I like to imagine a dinner party that is incredibly deadly – not because of magic or weapons, not even because of the possibility of poison (though everyone does have their own food taster) but because one slip, one wrong word and ruin will follow. High-stakes courtly intrigue is the sort of game I’ve always wanted to run but never really been able to pull off. Among other things, you need to have an entire group that’s really into the idea of the “bloodless battle” idea – and you need to be a really smart Dungeon Master, and much as I love it I may not be up to the challenge.

Alright, so that’s Surilphu. I realize I didn’t give much detail, just sort of touched on the neat things that make it iconic in my imagination, but that’s all I have for the moment. My players won’t be going there until the paragon tier, at least, so I don’t think I need to get into any more detail about it just yet.

Cartography fans will be disappointed by the lack of mapping tutorials or new maps today. My optical mouse is one of the things I’ve boxed up, and while some people might be able to do precision Photoshop work with a laptop touchpad, I’m not one of them. No new maps until I get to Ontario, I’m sorry to say.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – An Open Letter

Dear Jeff Mariotte,

I first heard about your forthcoming novel, City Under the Sand, while writing a previous article. I couldn’t remember the name of the woman who had written Rise and Fall of a Dragon King (it was Lynn Abbey, by the way), and hit up the Wikipedia article on the setting. Skimming through the list of novels I saw all the usual suspects – The Prism Pentad by Troy Denning, the Tribe of One trilogy by Simon Hawke, and the Chronicles of Athas by a bunch of talented writers who didn’t feel like doing their research. And there, at the bottom, I saw something that had never been there before. Something thrilling. Something exciting.

New Fiction (2010) – Various Authors.

I am not ashamed to say that I nearly wept at the sight of it. Then pumped my fist in the air, all Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club-style. I promptly went to read the summary of your novel.

I’m pretty fucking excited. Just thought you’d like to know.

Signed,

Brian

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Hitting the Reset Button

One of the more interesting things about the new, 4th Edition take on Dark Sun is that they’re doing something I normally abhor – but in this case am actually right on board with. Am I making an exception for Dark Sun just because it’s Dark Sun, thus proving my pathetic fanboyish-ness? Probably – but I run a blog about Dungeons & Dragons. So I’m not exactly “Mr. Cool” to begin with.

The Prism Pentad series really gave Dark Sun most of its details and iconic characters. Rikus and Neeva, Agis of Asticles, Rajaat War-Bringer, Borys of Ebe, Tithian the Turd (though he may not have gotten that nickname until the Chronicles of Athas books) were all introduced by the Pentad. Well, to be fair Borys already existed, but just as “The Dragon.” It made the sorcerer-kings truly cool by revealing who they were and how they had come to power – then proceeded to take these amazing, awesome characters of near infinite power and kill most of them.

Similarly to what Hayden Christensen did to Darth Vader, the Prism Pentad series did to the sorcerer-kings – took something you used to think was cool, then ruined them. The sorcerer-kings didn’t become lame like Vader did, but it’s a moot point because the majority of them died, which meant – if you ran an “official” Dark Sun campaign – they weren’t of much use to your game anyways.

My favorite sorcerer-king was always Hammanu, who happened to survive the Pentad series, only to get bumped off in Rise and Fall of a Dragon King. Spoiler Alert. Don’t worry, the entire Chronicles of Athas series has been retconned as being non-canonical anyways – Lynn Abbey (and possibly the other contributing authors, I’m not sure) were pretty well known to have taken some “liberties” with the established material. Besides, there’s a statute of limitations on spoilers for novels published 14 years ago.

Anyways, the point I’m getting at – in my patented rambling fashion – is that the progression of the Dark Sun timeline was a mixed bag. The original Dark Sun was very mysterious, with little of the history of the world known or understood. The Pentad revealed most of that history – and, to give Denning his due, it was brilliant – but at the same time, some of the mystery and confusion was lost. And there is a very vocal contingent on any Dark Sun-themed board or community that wishes the “revised” Dark Sun campaign setting (the one that incorporates the Pentad) had never happened.

So it’s not that surprising that DS4e will be winding the clock backwards. Apparently the wayback machine will be transporting Sherman and Mr. Peabody to the time immediately following The Verdant Passage – i.e. directly following the death of Kalak, and prior to the war between Tyr and Urik. It’s weird, because retcons typically piss me off, but I’m cool with this. In fact, in my own eventual Dark Sun campaign I intend to wind the clock back even further, to the time when sorcerer-kings were seen as undying gods-made-flesh. The minute one of them bites it, the entire society and culture of the entire Tablelands is almost certainly going to begin to shift and change.

My attitude toward the Pentad, when I run the game, is that it’s a great novel series and an excellent go-to guide for Athas’ history – and that’s it. I guarantee, that even if I do start bumping off sorcerer-kings, the progression will be a very different thing than what’s detailed in the Pentad.

If nothing else, most of my friends are very literate. I don’t dare follow a roadmap that exists anywhere but inside my head if I want to keep them on their toes.

I’m excited to say that, my last Shameless finally garnered some commentary from people I’ve never met before – at long last, a chiming of thought and opinion from someone I didn’t date or go to school with. This is a trend I want to continue, so I’m going to start ending some of these posts with a call for commentary. How do you let novels and other sources of “official” canon affect the plotlines of your games? And, as a follow-up, when basing your campaign on a novel or movie, what do you do when you later find out one (or more) or your players has read it or seen it?

Shameless Plugs

Shameless Plugs – Podcasts, Masterplan, DDI, and more!

As I continue working on the next installment of the World Workshop, and try to decide what aspect of DS4e to discuss next (I’m thinking the in-game timeline), I realized that last week I never plugged anything shamelessly.

So this week, you get a double-dose of shameless pluggery – double-doze plus interest!

First up are the podcasts. I’ve recently been sinking my teeth into a number of gaming-related podcasts, and have found them to be just excellent. The ones I’ve been listening to lately are;

  • The NewbieDM.com Minicast – if you remember the old Sage Advice column from Dragon Magazine, you’re already familiar with the format. Every episode one listener calls in with a question, and the NewbieDM and his guest for the week do their best to answer it. Each episode is only around 5 minutes long, so it makes for a quick listen.
  • The Dungeon Master Guys – three DMs, including NewbieDM, “The Game” (founder of what’s shaping up to be this edition’s EN World, Critical Hits), and the ChattyDM (a contributor to CH). I’ve only listened to the first one so far, but it’s pretty cool – each guy takes about ten minutes to discuss a topic of interest. Most interesting, thus far, is The Game’s discussion on how to run a Groundhog Day-style time loop adventure, but with demons and giant armies of gnolls. Good stuff.
  • Open Design – this one, unfortunately, isn’t on iTunes. Also unfortunately, it seems to no longer be updating. Despite that, I’m very much enjoying it and looking forward to listening to all nine episodes – run by Wolfgang Baur of Kobold Quarterly (and known for his work as editor of Dragon Magazine, as well as work on Planescape, Al-Quadim, and plenty of other WotC properties), this podcast features a lot of pros including Skip “The Sage” Williams and Monte “My Mancrush” Cook. As you can guess, I’m a big fan of Cook’s especially – I continue to name my biggest rpg-regret as having never gotten the opportunity to run Arcana Unearthed (which I do own, and adore).

Next comes the blogs.

  • NewbieDM.com is awesome – while I might not technically be a newbie Dungeon Master, the advice there is fantastic, and as I’m prepping to run my first 4th Edition game the tips are very helpful. Specifically I’d recommend his tutorials section, there’s a lot of handy tips for alternatives to (awesome-looking but expensive) miniatures or making battlemaps.
  • Kobold Quarterly looks neat, though I haven’t had a chance to really dig my teeth in. I haven’t yet decided to subscribe to the magazine, but I’ll probably decide whether or not it’s worth the money based on my read-through of the blog. If the magazine features more material by Monte Cook and Skip Williams, then I think I’ll definitely be leaning in that direction.
  • Sly Flourish, run by Mike Shea, is another one I’ve recently followed. Shea recently put out Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips, which I bought before reading the blog based on the recommendation of The Game (of Critical Hits). The book is packed full of tips that I already knew, but tend to forget while playing or in the rush to prepare, and is a worthwhile reference guide for veterans and has some really good stuff that’ll help newbies get over the initial hurdles of running their own. Based on the book’s quality, I’ve got high hopes for the blog.

I’ve also been checking out some software:

  • Dungeons & Dragons Insider – imagine having access to a digital database of every chunk of rules material. A searchable database of every official monster – and which streamlined the process of creating your own, new creatures. Imagine being able to create PCs quickly, through an automated process that automatically ensured you didn’t take feats you don’t meet the requirements for, that updated every time a new race or class was introduced in a book, accessory, or even Dragon Magazine. Imagine this same program came with a subscription to both Dragon and Dungeon Magazine. Imagine it only cost $10 a month. It’s not perfect (I really wish you could apply monster templates with one click, instead of doing it manually), but for the price I’m not going to complain. There are plenty of other people airing their grievances online – some rightly, some wrongly – and I don’t feel the need to add to the noise. I love DDI. Period.
  • Masterplan – haven’t had a chance to really dig into this yet, but I’ve heard about it from a bunch of different blogs and podcasts. Basically, it’s an adventure-planning application, designed to streamline the design process. Apparently its very simple and a great program. I’ve installed it, and hope to check it out later this week, but playing with new software is sort on the bottom of my priority list right now. Underneath packing, moving, finding a job, blogging, and prepping my first adventure.
  • Adobe Photoshop – I realize that I’m lucky. As a student of web design, I get to buy this software on the cheap. That said, I’ve made heavy use of Photoshop in prepping for my upcoming game. I’ve made regional maps, battlemats, monster tokens, and handouts all with Photoshop and I can’t imagine anything else doing half so well by me. If the price-tag turns you off, there’s always GIMP (the open-source equivalent). I’ve checked it out, but definitely prefer Photoshop. If I weren’t a student, mind you, I’m not sure I’d prefer it by a margin of a thousand bucks of so.

Alright, I think that’s pretty much everything I’ve been digging into lately. Hope it helps some people find something useful for themselves.

FuckedWorld

FuckedWorld – Where Shit Be Crazy

One of the things I’m happiest about with this blog is that it’s re-opened some avenues of conversation between me and an old friend. Anyone paying attention to the comments will notice that the most active contributor has been my old friend Glen, whom I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to talk to for quite some time. It’s awesome to keep in touch, but it’s even better to be able to nerd out about gaming and the like.

The fruits of this reunion? Well, I’m pleased to announced FuckedWorld: Where Shit Be Crazy – coming to a blog near you!

The simple fact is, Glen and I both love to create settings, and we also have a tendency to joke about some ridiculous ideas. So now, we’re going to try and combine as many ridiculous ideas as we can, cobbling together the most insane – but still playable – game setting possible.

FuckedWorld is only a working title, for the record.

To get the creative juices pumping, he and I each wrote up a quick bit of introductory fiction, which I’ll post here. Our first, proper article, will be forthcoming soon, I hope.

Glen’s story:

SHE tried to stay out of it. That clearly was not an option. SHE was by all accounts a pacifist, and in times of war that is a virtue worthy of the highest punishment.

We don’t know how the war started, or exactly how long it lasted, all we know is that everyone died in the battles. Everyone except for the pacifist, who received a much worse punishment. For HERHER spirit was trapped inside a giant shell. inaction

As the war ragged on without HER, things got much worse. Eventually in the climactic battle between all of the gods, with the universe hanging in the balance, a catastrophe occurred. It is not know how it started, or what exactly it was. But all we know is that all of the remaining gods were killed in this moment. The souls and bodies of the gods floated about through the multiverse, with some parts of them landing on the shell that SHE was trapped within.

Many of these God Shards, as we now call them, turned into the dwarves, orcs, dragons, humans, and other intelligent races. Some provided important features to the world like the clouds, seas or arcane powers. Many are still to be discovered.

SHE spent eons struggling to escape HER shell to no avail. In recent millennia SHE has stopped struggling. This has allowed us to thrive and prosper on HER shell. However, signs from the wise men have indicated that perhaps SHE has been docile because she is dying.

It is uncertain at the time of writing if this is true or not. If it is, we have no idea how to save HER. Perhaps an undiscovered God Shard can provide us with the answer.

– Vanyyl, sourced by a God Shard of Knowledge.

Brian’s story:

Grajeb stood on the deck of the Hobbled Griffin, picking his teeth with a sliver of unicorn bone. His green face scrunched-up for a half second and then he spat over the the side of the ship, watching the coin-sized droplet of saliva glisten in the light as it sailed down, down, forever down. Then he tossed the sliver into his mouth, crunched it between his molars, and sucked the bitter-tasting marrow down his throat – unicorn bone was supposed to be good for fertility, and his third wife had been nagging about a seventh child.

The goblin captain turned from the blue sky, eyes narrow as he turned toward his first mate. Pekrovak was a hobgoblin, and he was sleeping with Grajeb’s sister (though he thought the wily goblin wasn’t on to him), but he could plot a course through the skies better than any other man, woman, or miscellaneous Grajeb had ever met.

“We need to pick up the pace.” Pekrovak made a face, shrugging.

“I don’t think we can work the humans much harder without killing some of them.” Grajeb stretched his lips tightly against his crooked, yellow teeth – left hand idly tugging on the hoop of gold dangling from his ear, an old nervous tick that ruined him whenever he played cards.

“Do it. If we’re late with this shipment, Pasha Radin will have my head and yours – and that’s one efreet whose good side I want to stay on.” Grajeb grunted, waving a hand dismissively. “We’ll replace the slaves at port – dwarves next time. They work harder.” Pekrovak nodded and left his captain in peace.

Grajeb wandered back to the railing, looking down over the side – staring down to where the ocean wavered back and forth, more than sixty miles below. He slid a hand into his pocket, fished out another sliver of unicorn bone, and began sucking on it idly while musing on baby names.

Half an hour later a human slave collapsed dead in the engine room, blood streaming from his nose and eyes, body twitching with violent convulsions. No one besides Pekrovak noticed.

Because of the dozen-plus e-mails that need to be exchanged between me and Glen to get a single article written up, there’s no reliable update schedule with this one. Those who need their setting creation itch to be scratched will still be able to tune in regularly for the World Workshop (I’ll be posting another one tomorrow, I hope). FuckedWorld is something a little different, that we both hope you’ll enjoy.

Nerdstalgia

When the Game Turns Ugly

Never force someone to be your Dungeon Master if he doesn’t want to. That’s the moral of today’s story.

The secondary moral? That one of my oldest friends, the oft-mentioned Glen, can be a total douchebag.

We were nine, maybe ten years old, and Glen was at my house on a Saturday. I remember it was raining – which was great, because it meant my mom wouldn’t force us to go play outside, and we could watch tv and play Nintendo all we wanted. Or rather, all Glen wanted. I didn’t want to watch tv. I didn’t want to play Nintendo.

I wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons.

This was back in the day of the Rules Cyclopedia, before things got “advanced,” before we heard the term “2nd Edition.” Back when men were men, dwarves were dwarves, and elves were really fighter-mages.

At this stage, it’s worth noting that Glen was – by tradition – “the DM.” Chris and I played, he DM’ed, that was how it went. So I bugged him, and badgered him, and irritated him – at ten years old I could nag and annoy with the very best of my generation – until finally, finally, he relented, threw his hands in the air and huffed “fine! Go get your dice.”

For those who missed out on the “good old days,” there wasn’t a lot of consistent internal logic to the game back then. Every weapon dealt different damage, and weapon proficiencies/specialization didn’t add a standard bonus to attacks and damage – instead dice and bonuses were based on the weapon. Which meant a lot of reference, flipping through books, checking flowcharts and tables, jotting things down, moving on.

Also, we were ten. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division come so naturally to me now that I something forget that once upon a time 1d8+5 was considered a daunting equation. Fucking thac0 didn’t help. Fuck thac0.

So, the punchline is, I’d guess it took me an hour to make my character. A fighter, I think, because I remember having a sword. Just me, by myself, a level one fighter. Wandering through the woods, seeking adventure. We were young, and we considered “fight shit in a dark forest” to be high concept.

Dungeons & Dragons Creature Catalog (1993)
Dungeons & Dragons Creature Catalog (1993)

Now, I don’t recall exactly what it is I encountered. What I do recall is that it had two claw attacks, and a bite, every round. Also? Its claws delivered a paralyzing strike, and its bite carried a deadly poison. I also know that Glen got it out of the Creature Catalog, a fun little book of 150 things to brutally murder your PCs with.

Needless to say, I was brutally murdered. In the first round I think – I remember dying due to a failed saving throw, which suggests poison. So, an hour (or so) to make a character, followed by a minute or three to kill him. My solution? I offered Glen five bucks to let me re-roll the saving throw. He agreed, and I rolled a natural 20.

Glen responded by giving me my five bucks back and telling me that, no, my character was so dead.

Dude. Never force someone to be your Dungeon Master if he doesn’t want to.