29 October 2010

Friday Off

Busy day at work today (lots of meetings) and some travelling for the weekend means there likely wont' be anything substantive here until Monday.  Have a great Halloween, everyone!

And public thanks to Risus Monkey for the nice things he said about our old campaign.

28 October 2010

Inspiration -- The Lions of al-Rassan

Ameican trade paperback of The Lions of Al-Rassan

Perhaps more than any other book, Kay's The Lions of al-Rassan has inspired me to work on this setting.  I first read it maybe three years ago.  Like much of Kay's work, Lions is a fantasy novel with historical roots.  Lions draws it's inspiration from medieval Spain during the reconquista.  In our history, most of Spain was conquered by Islamic Berbers and Arabs early in the 8th century.  For the next 500 years, Spain teetered back and forth between Christian and Muslim, finally becoming entirely Christian by 1492.  In the novel, al-Rassan is the site of several small kingdoms, all seeking to gain at the expense of one another.  There are three major cultural groups: the Jaddites (Christian analogs who worship the sun), the Aserites (Muslim analogs who worship the stars), and the Kindath (Jewish analogs who worship the moon).  The novel begins when an Asherite king is assassinated (by a bard named Ammar), the Kindath quarter is burned (causing a healer named Jehane to flee), and generally all hell breaks loose.  Soon after, we meet Rodrigo Belmonte, Jaddite general turned mercenary, who is modeled after the actual el-Cid.

I love this book.  It tells an interesting and exciting story, to be sure, but what takes it beyond a good fantasy novel is Kay's descrpition and exploration of culture.  al-Rassan, like the real al-Andalus, is a complex melding of three major religious cultures.  Kay shows us that while exploring the tensions between culture and individuality, all the while telling a compelling story.

This isn't a book review, so I'll stop there.

Lions gives me lots of things to include in a gaming setting.  The celestial analogs of the three major monotheistic religions is something I am tempted to appropriate whole cloth, as is the general socio-politcal state of affairs in al-Rassan.  City-states, ostensibly divided by religion, but with intrigue and conflict that goes well-beyond religious difference.  As in Tigana, there's a light touch of magic (less so here, actually) -- one of Belmonte's sons has the gift of precognition.  Finally, there are the characters themselves, which would hopefully serve as inspiration for both PC's and NPC's.  Ammar, for example, is a famous poet as well as an infamous assassin.  He's also immanently likable, both by the reader and the other characters.  I'd like to have characters of that depth and complexity in the setting (which may mean that, system wise, I need to go with a story game a la Burning Wheel rather than something like D&D).

So, religious systems, socio-political ideas, and system suggestions all from Lions of al-Rassan.

27 October 2010

Inspiration -- Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay)

In many ways, it is Kay that feeds me the most inspiration for this setting, given that he writes fantasy novels that are, to varying degrees, based in real history.  Kay himself began his career as Christopher Tolkien's assistant, helping to edit and compile The Simarillion.  Nice work if you can get it.

Tigana was Kay's 4th book, published in 1990 after he had completed The Finoavar Tapestry.  It was actually the third kay book I read, after The Lions of al-Rassan and The Last Light of the Sun (both of which will get their own entry here).  Tigana is based on medieval Italy, with a confederation of city states pit against one another, all of whom are under the thumb of two invading powers.  Each of those powers is ruled by a sorcerer-king, who are bitter rivals in their own right.  The protagonists -- a young actor, a singer, and a courtesan of one of the sorcerer kings -- are all connected to the lost realm of Tigana.  During the invasion of the Peninsula of the Palm, one of the sorceror kings lost his son in the battle to conquer Tigana.  The sorceror retaliated by using his magic to literally wipe the city-state from memory.  Tragially, those who lived in Tigana at the time of its fall can remember their home, but cannot speak of it to anyone not from the city-state.  Everyone else has forgotten the place ever existed.  The plot revolves around the singer (a lost prince of Tigana) and his effort to restore his home by uniting the city-states and killing the sorcerors.

I appropriated the "forgotten land" conceit for a short-lived Dungeons and Dragons game I ran a few years ago.  In addition to the historical details in Tigana that I want to use to provide atmosphere to elements of this setting, there are certainly other things I'm considering.  The idea of magic being very rare, very powerful, and draining is one that I'll certainly use.  I'm kicking around the idea of having heredity play a role in magic.  I'm also considering the idea of the rareness of magic being somewhat intentional.  In Tigana the sorcerer-kings can sense when others are using magic, with varying degrees of success due to proximity and power.  They employ agents to hunt down and capture or kill those who try and use magic who aren't under their control.  This is similar to the Bondsmagi in Scott Lynch's work, who maintain a monopoly on magic with brutal force while selling their talents to anyone with enough coin.  Don't mess with these guys.

Kay is a big reason I'm trying to do this setting in this particular way.  Tigana is a wonderful book.

26 October 2010

First (ugly) Map!

Obviously, this is rough.  Very rough.  Like sandpaper-in-underwear rough.  But this took me all of 30 minutes, which includes me downloading Google Earth and GIMP.  Italy is destroyed, there are some larger islands farther away from Vesuvius ground zero, and there are smaller islands scattered about the south (my Straits of Fire).  The little red dots are volcanoes.  Duh!

No masterpiece, but a good start, especially since I know nothing about GIMP or image manipulation in general.

(GIMP, by the way, looks awesome and is totally free.  I found out about it with some lurking on The Cartographer's Guild).

25 October 2010


File:Golem by Philippe Semeria.jpg

I should probably be following up my post on destroying Italy with something more concrete about what consequences such an explosion had on the world.  And, dear Lord, I need to make a map.  But for some reason this weekend I was thinking about Golems.  There are likely all sorts of posts I need to write before I even write a full-on post about golems -- another inspiration one about Michael Chabon, a post about magic, a post about alchemy, and a post or seven about religion.  But here's a brief post about golems.

I love the idea of the golem and plan to have them in the world.  Note, I am talking about the classic Jewish golem, not the 189 types of golems now found in D&D.  I just find the idea fascinating -- a creature, made to serve, carved out of clay and brought to life by magic.  What I really dig is the importance of words or language to the golem's creation.  You either have to carve a certain word into it's forehead to animate it or write down the holy-magical words on parchment and then place the paper in it's mouth.  Many accounts have the word being the Hebrew word for truth ("emet"); to deactivate the golem, one letter must be changed so that the word reads "met", which is Hebrew for dead. 

Likely, they will be very rare to the point of virtually mythological.  But imagine the game possibilities!  Players may have to help build the golem by finding the scripts to animate it.  Players may have to help stop a golem that's run amok.  Or players may even be unwittingly transporting a golem in their ship when, of course, it comes to life and poses all sorts of problems.  This is to say nothing of the powerful thematic elements golems present -- life/death, hubris, the unpredictability of magic, soullessness, creation. . .

This is exactly the sort of thing I want to have in this setting.

22 October 2010

Sorry, Sicily

I am thinking about destroying Italy.
File:Pompeii the last day 1.jpg
Not literally, but in terms of my basic Mediterranean geography.  Let's say, for example, that the Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD didn't just bury Pompeii.  Let's say it was cataclysmic in nature, blowing off the bottom of Italy's boot and turning most of the peninsula into islands.  The southern-most of these islands are still, hundreds (thousands?!) of years later, within an active volcanic zone.  Shrouded in mist and smoke, and inimical to navigation, these islands have become a haven for not only strange beasts, but also for those who seek to hide from the region's powers -- pirates and criminals.  Few dare the Straits of Fire.

The explosion ended the reign of a powerful and dominant Empire, whose culture, architecture, and language still pervade throughout the region.

It also caused religious upheaval.  The ash that blotted out the sky lasted for years, not only obliterating the Empire's native religion, but giving rise to various Sky Cults. Three of those cults grew into the dominant religions of the present -- the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.

The north literally fractured into island city-states.  Over time, they grew into dominant cultural, political, and social forces in the region.  Many ships headed East-West travel through these islands to avoid the Straits of Fire.  Tariffs, trade, and smuggling have enriched these states significantly.

Of course, all of this makes my "just use the map of the Mediterranean" idea only somewhat worthwhile, but I think this significant geological event is just the thing to get me going on many of the ideas I have for the setting.

21 October 2010

Monsters, or lack thereof

This world won't have monsters, at least in the sense that standard Dungeons and Dragons settings have monsters.  It's definetly human-centric.  There are no elves, dwarves, or any of the "standard" races.  There are no dragons, beholders, orcs, goblins, or any "magical" monsters of that sort.  It's human beings in various sorts of conflict and cooperation with other human beings for 98% of the setting.  We humans are, for the most part, nasty enough to one another without there being anything nonhuman to cause conflict.

I did say 98%, though.  As I think through the cultural and religious dimensions of the setting, there are certainly room for genii, spirits, or demons -- something otherworldly and supernatural.  I'm leaning toward some variant of monotheism for the principal religions of the world, something loosely like early medieval Christianity and Islam.  Within that framework, there are restless dead, nasty spirits, and, perhaps, direct servants of the deity or it's adversary.  I have to be careful, though, because I don't want there to be a dominant cosmological, Manichean theme for the setting.  It's not a Good vs. Evil sort of place (though that's not to say there aren't people in the setting who believe the world is all about Good vs. Evil).

The other bit is that there are certainly monstrous animals.  Giant sharks prowl the waters.  Carniverous apes lurk in the cliffs.  Huge scorpions hide in the desert sands.  Deep in the jungle, there may be dinosaurs!  Plenty of animal nastyness waiting for the lost and unwary.

I also think it's telling that I immediately think of all these things, monsters or no, as potential antagonists of players, rather than as part of the setting.  This is a Dungeons and Dragons holdover, no doubt.  I am trying to move toward a sort of naturalism in how I conceive of the the plants and animals, strange or no, in the world.

20 October 2010

Anachronisms and Ancient History

The first real "fantasy" book I remember reading was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I had just moved to South Carolina, been bumped up from second to third grade, and was being pulled out of class once per week for speech therapy.  It was this therapist, whose name I have forgotten, who let me borrow the first book in Lewis' Chronicles.

This isn't a post about those books, nor about nostalgia, though I've already engaged in a bit of that.  It's a post about the Lamp Post.

If you remember, when Lucy stumbles through the wardrobe into Narnia, one of the first things she sees is a gas lamp-post, shining in the middle of a forest.  We later learn this is the traditional border of Narnia.  We later, later learn (in The Magician's Nephew), how that lamp-post got there.  But I've always remembered that image -- lonely, out of place lamp post, shining in the forest.

It's part of Narnia's ancient history, but it's an anachronism and very mysterious for most of the Narnians (and the reader for most of the series).  I always like the idea of an ancient past, one that's incongruent with the present in many ways, but that shows up in strange, scary, and mysterious ways.  This is different from say, Tolkien.  The Lord of the Rings is very much about the past, but it's a past that's always present, known by the current players (think of the Council of Elrond), and embodied in current events.  Aragorn is old, and restores the past line of Numenor.  Frodo fixes the mistakes of the past by destroying the Ring.  The past is known.

That's not the case in many of my influences for this setting.  The aforementioned Lynch books have mentions of the Elderen.  All we know about these people is they left Elderglass -- indestructible glass with varying degrees of strange properties.  In the first book, for example, the Elderglass of Camorr, which is woven into much of the city's buildings, retains the sunlight for a few hours, extending dusk with a soft glow.  Elderglass shows up as an entire island in the second book, but is also used in arms and armor.  It's old, it's indestructible, but we never learn anything about it or the beings that created it, at least not yet.  And if the books reveal that sort of information at some point, I think I will be a little disappointed. 

Another one of my major influences, which I am sure I'll talk about soon, also has ancient technological advances as part of its history.  It's central to the setting.

I'd really like to include this sort of element, but can't quite decide how.  Is it going to be window dressing, like the lamp post?  Or should it be something more central?

19 October 2010

Basic Geography

An advantage (one I consciously cultivated) about having a quasi-historical Mediterranean setting is being able to use, well, a real map of the Mediterranean.  I love maps, but my cartography skills are mediocre at best.  Drawing maps is also fun, but time intensive.  Using real world geography and maps is helpful in this way, saving me time and allowing me to show future players better quality images than I could ever feasibly produce.  (Don't think, however, I didn't think about using the back of a paper grocery bag to draw a map, a la middle-school days).

Looking at this map (a very cool one from the 16th Century), I am flooded with questions and ideas:
  • The sea is bottlenecked at both ends -- Gibraltar on the west and the Bosporus to the east.  One leads out to the ocean, the other to a large inland sea.  Both are highly strategic.  Who controls these chokepoints?  What do they do?  Are there fortresses?  High tariffs?  Gigantic gates?
  • A narrow strip of land separates the Med from the Red Sea, at the Suez.  Is there a canal?  Who controls it?  Are there ports on both sides?  If there isn't a canal, is there a well-established trading road?
  • There are lots of islands, from large ones (Sicily, Sardenia) to tiny ones, scattered about like pebbles.  What's on them?  Is this where the pirates hang out?  Is there a pirate city?
  • What does one need to to to get from the ports surrounding the sea into the interior?  There's desert to the south, forests to the north.  How easy is it to get there, or to get across land at all?  What are the hazards?
Are there any other questions or ideas you have sparked by this geography?

These are just a few.  They are all based on existing geography, topography, and climate.  There's plenty to think about, even assuming I don't make any major changes.  I am considering making a significant one -- something may explode. . .

15 October 2010

Inspiration -- Secret Antiquities

There are lots of RPG blogs out there, many of which are very good.  Michael Curtis' reinvigorated Secret Antiquities is becoming one of my favorites.  Curtis is best known within the Old School RPG community and  is the author of Stonehell Dungeon and The Dungeon Alphabet, both of which are excellent.  His Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope blog is a great source of old-school goodness.  Secret Antiquities is his working blog for his Lovecraft-esque project -- a quasi-historical horror setting, drawing upon real world weirdness for game elements and mood.  That certainly sounds familiar. . .

His post today on "ushers" reminded me of something I've been toying around with for a long time -- the idea or theme of "doorways."  Doors serve, literally and figuratively, as portals and mechanisms for transport to other places.  There are lots of other associated elements -- locks and keys being the two biggest ones.  We'll see if they have a place in the overall project.

14 October 2010

Inspiration Part One -- Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora CoverRed Seas Under Red Skies Cover
I found The Lies of Locke Lamora in the mass market paperback spinner of our local library.  I turn to that rack when I need something to read that will be quick and entertaining; I try not to be too picky.  If it looks interesting, I'll take it home and give it a whirl.  That has led to some not-so-great reads (Melladon, I am looking at you).  But it also led me to Scott LynchThe Lies of Locke Lamora has certainly been the most entertaining book I have read in a long time.  It has, in many ways, been the catalyst for this setting project, if only because the book was so fun I kept thinking to myself "Wouldn't it be cool to do that in a game!"

The underlying conceit is simple -- it's a fantasy version of Oceans 11.  Set in a fantasy analog of Venice, the titular character is the leader of a small band of thieves and con-men who engage in elaborate plots against the nobility of the city.  Mainly, these plots are for sport -- both to entertain the restless Lamora and "stick it to the man" by robbing nobles of money, valuables, and pride.  Of course, their dangerous game nets the attention of both the criminal leader of the city, someone trying to displace that leader, and the city's nobility.  Complications ensue.

I'm about half way through Red Seas Under Red Skies now.  It's similar in conceit to Lies, but it adds pirates!

Stylistically, Lynch writes like a movie.  You get flashbacks and flashforwards; snappy, profanity-laced dialog, and lots of fun plots and action.  It's good stuff.  Very entertaining.  Any issues I have with the books are literary and stylistic, so they aren't really important for our purposes here.  What is important is the inspirational potential of the books.  They've motivated me to this point.  They are also rife with specific details, both large and small, that I'm going to try and work into the world.  I'll deal with those details bit by bit, but wanted to acknowledge my debt to Lynch from the beginning.

13 October 2010

Pirates vs. Vikings

It appears my elevator pitch wasn't the best one.  I knew it was pretty weak; things are still in their formative stages at this point.  But I don't want it to be misleading.

When I say "historically derived" I do not mean my players have to know much or anything about European history to enjoy, or even participate, in the setting.  I don't know that much about Mediterranean history, which is why I had to look to Wikipedia to figure out that the Berbers and the Tuareg are (sort of) the same group of people.

I mean "historical" in the sense of real-world history will be a primary source of inspiration.  The two principal literary sources I'm drawing from in this project are quasi-historical fantasy -- one moreso that the other.  (Those two sources are getting their own posts soon).  There's also other senses that the setting is "historical".  One way is that it's human-exclusive.  No elves, dwarves, or halflings are in the world, unless I decide to do something weird with faerie.  There aren't dragons or beholders or anything.  And magic is subtle, rare, and dangerous (what else it is I am not exactly sure).  Historical inspiration means I'll take cool things from real-world history and throw them in there as long I can can stretch and make them make sense, even if those things were separated by lots of history in actuality.

So, to the person who doens't know a lot or care about history and wants to know how it will be awesome, I say:

Pirates vs. Vikings

In reality, the Barbary Pirates and the Viking Age activity were separated by about five hundred years. But. . .

I see my world having Spanish-style galleons fending off attacks by Viking Longships while running from Barbary Corsairs.  Where the cutlass parries the scimitar only to get smashed by an axe.  Oh, and the Corsairs are secretly financed by a Medici-style ruler who is stirring up discontent to discredit the church, who really does have the power to exorcise demons.  Which are held in a box in the Spanish Galleon.

Awesome enough?

12 October 2010

The Elevator Pitch

My ideas for this setting are still scattered; the blog is an attempt to get them out there, make some decisions about what does and does not belong, then organize them in a meaningful and fun way.  But here's the basic elevator pitch:

A historically derived Mediterranean fantasy setting.

Well, that sounds kinda boring.  How about:

Think about all the cool stuff from 2000 years of Mediterranean history -- Barbary Corsairs, Tuareg Caravans, Venetian Politics, clash of cultures, cutthroat merchants, Sinbad, alchemy, Rome, Greece, Byzantium, Gibraltar, Cordoba, Alexandria -- It will be in there and OH MY GOD IT WILL BE AWESOME!

11 October 2010

A Place for Gaming Ideas

Nothing's been posted here since 2008, but I've held onto the space for no reason I could put my finger on.  Lately, though, I've been brimming with game ideas, particularly for a sandbox setting.  This will be the place where I put those ideas.  I can keep track of them for myself and invite comments from the world-at-large.  I'm just putting gaming stuff here, almost exclusively setting-related stuff.  Personal things will still go on my personal blog. 

Let it begin!