Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Saint Nick

Unknown Adventures is coming soon - it's a website that will regularly be featuring systemless gaming content from a number of authors (some of which I'm sure you know), posting themed columns using the faces of some original supervillains.  It's like getting gaming advice from the Legion of Doom.

Anyway, one of the nefarious columnists is the dapper time-traveller Professor Yesterday, who will contribute occasional columns on the interface between history and gaming, and using obscure or unusual inspirations from real-world culture and history as fodder for your games.

The following is presented as a seasonal contribution from that cad Yesterday, and a preview of Unknown Adventures.  Sign up over at Unknown Adventures for notifications on the site's grand opening, and watch that space for more previews in the coming months!

When not hopping through time stealing artifacts and manipulating the chrono-stream for his own nefarious purposes, the loquacious and arrogant Professor Yesterday occasionally deigns to pen a few words on using historical events and cultures in role-playing games...


in which the holiday spirit motivates Professor Yesterday to ramble about mythological verisimilitude

Given the season, it behooves us to take a look at Old Saint Nick and draw a historical lesson from that dominating cultural figure. You are no doubt familiar with Santa Claus, and that legendary figure’s perhaps-slight connection to Saint Nicholas. So, too, you know of the many variant Santas scattered across the globe, and how the march of time has changed our concept of the jolly old elf.

To review briefly, the whole process begins with Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, in fourth-century Turkey. St. Nick had a reputation as a worker of wonders, and for giving gifts, and thus is the kernel around which Santa Claus is built: the secrecy, the gift-giving, the placement of money in shoes. St. Nicholas becomes Sinterklaas who becomes Santa Claus, with much pagan symbolism stapled on over the years. The growth, expansion, and localization of the legend has given us the Krampus, Black Pete, flying reindeer, magic toymaking elves, an omniscient and moralizing list, and beyond. Wandering through the internet can quickly take us on a strange journey into the world of infinite Santa Claus variants - and I recommend you do so - but, as always, our purpose here is to take a look at history and apply it to your game.

What does Saint Nicholas have to do with your campaign? He is a fine illustration of the way legends and religions change, stretch, warp, and adapt over time. Consider taking a look at whatever fantastic religions you have in your campaign, and ask yourself whether they’re a little simplified. “Thurgok, the God of Fire. Does fire-stuff.” Surely that’s an excellent starting-point, but it ought not be your goal. In the real world, religions are complex, messy things that steal from one another, absorb each other like gigantic amoebae, and react to historical events and cultural change. Saint Nicholas is a great exemplar in that we begin with a historical figure and end up with myriad national variants of a legendary figure which are all fairly different yet still compatible. Would swords be drawn over what color coat Father Christmas must wear? Perhaps not.

Regional variants of legendary figures and gods is not the only issue; there is also their agglutinative nature. Saint Nicholas is not just a toymaker and gift-giver, after all. He is also the patron of pawnbrokers, barrel-makers, archers, and the falsely-accused! These juxtapositions seem odd, perhaps, but that’s precisely the point - the real world is odd. Real religion, real culture, is not designed to fall neatly into four elements or nine alignments or whatever other metastructure a game designer or GM has elected to use to sketch things out. You’re not making a Mondrian, here - you’re making folk art, ie something that looks like real people came up with it over time. Real culture is a mess. Thus, Professor Yesterday advises you to look at your in-game religions (and cultures) and make them a little more messy than they already might be.

If your fantasy campaign has a polytheistic setup and you’re working with a list of deities, invest the time to add incongruous details. Remember that in the Greek pantheon, horses are associated with Poseidon, the god of the sea; use that as a touchstone. Go down your list of deities and add one seemingly-incongruous association to each of them. It doesn’t matter how strange - use a random table (or the ‘random’ function on Wikipedia) for inspiration if you like. Then consider why your fire god - our old friend Thurgok - also has something to do with turtles. You might get a neat myth out of it, or a more logical association (turtle, natural armor, the forge, fire god) that actually makes a kind of sense the more you think about it. Distance in time and space makes allowances for the truly strange, and perhaps your modern campaign denizens don’t even recall the original association or legend. Recall that it took sixteen centuries for a generous bishop to transform into something which inspires the annual erection of inflatable lawn-idols.

You may also wish to apply this thought process to other bits and bobs within your campaign, in an attempt to build verisimilitude (a dread and charged word indeed). What about heraldry? How many fantasy or pseudomedieval campaigns have you seen in which the noble houses are all ably represented by wolves, bears, deer, gryphons, and dragons? It must be very nice to be a member of one of those houses, but at some point you reach the fantasy equivalent of the Reservoir Dogs problem where everyone wants to be Mr. Black, in competition to be the greatest heraldic tough guy. But when you take a look at real heraldry, it’s not all “wicked monster my ancestor slew” -- somebody ends up being an anchor, a pelican, or a chalice. Might it not be more interesting to have something more subtle as your heraldry, and then consider the backstory of how it was earned? The knight with the wolf on his shield might be yawn-inducing, but the knight whose tabard bears a dead squirrel in a stewpot? I want to hear his story.

For many campaigns, the creative process is collaborative, and players are allowed or even encouraged to make up cultural and religious details in advance, or on the spot. This setup will likely give you the most “realistic” progress, as you have contributors with very different ideas all attacking the same problem, with suitable twists and turns. If the player of your party cleric is the sort of person who’s very comfortable making up stories on the spot (“Yes, of course, everyone knows the tale of the paladin and the scarecrow. It’s why I keep sardines in my boots”) you’re in for a lot of ongoing culture-building at the table.

Think about a modern holiday - any of the big ones will do - and consider the complex of legends and associated items that go with it, thanks to the march of history and the tendency of religions to cannibalize one another. That kind of seeming ridiculousness lies at one end of the spectrum - the realistic end. At the far end is the lamentable Thurgok the Fire God, about whom we know nothing save perhaps his cosmic alignment and the fact that he really, really likes fire. Somewhere on that continuum lie the faiths you’ve included in your campaign; I encourage you, in the giving spirit of Saint Nick, to invest a little time in moving them a smidge further from poor old Thurgok.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

State of the Wampus: Thistlemarch

What's going on in the Wampus Country campaign?  It's been on hiatus for several months, but PCs still have downtime actions, and time still passes even when we're not playing (partly because I like Wampus to be in sort-of realtime, and partly because FLAILSNAILS allows some of the PCs to adventure elsewhere even when I'm not running games).  Through the end of the year, I'll be doing some 'update' type posts covering what's up in various subregions, with associated dangling plot hooks implicit in the text (I'll call them all out explicitly later).  This is all a work in progress, of course.


Little Thistlemarch is not so little anymore; the past six months have seen a number of new homes and businesses built in the area, perhaps encouraged by the change in the status quo.  The Mad Margrave, who occupied the garrisoned keep north of town, has passed away, and the scent of change is in the air.  Thistlemarch feels as though it is at the cusp of a rise.  Trade is bustling along the river - in part due to the continuing growth of the town of Promise, to the north - and the population has increased a bit as well.  Shop owners are expanding, and houses are acquiring second and third floors.  It's a good time to be a carpenter in Thistlemarch.

Down on Main Street - which used to be the only street - Sheriff Horvendile Early has recruited a handful of people to serve as probationary deputies, all of whom are currently under assessment.  Chiefly these civic-minded volunteers are occupied in building a new Sheriff's Office and attached jail.  The townsfolk have varied reactions to this obvious sign of law and order; while some enjoy the idea and see it as a mark of their town putting itself on the map, others express concern that the badges of law enforcement might slowly transform into the sign of a political elite which is counter to their frontier instincts.

Resident sorceror, Chauncy Woolstrike, breezes in and out of town - his young apprentice and some hirelings in tow - every few weeks.  He says he's been spending time with the Cloud Rabbits, which makes sense as his assistant is one of 'em - but nobody knows for sure.  Sometimes he is seen at the Blue Rabbit on the edge of town, commiserating with other adventuresome types, including local journalist Abel Killiejoy.  Killiejoy has procured a printing-press and has been putting out his own little irregular newspaper, when he isn't out of town chasing rainbows.  No, seriously, that's a thing he does.  The Church of the White Mouse has finished expanding their church-hall and associated garden, and Father Andrew is proud as punch.  Although he got into more than one argument with that halfling, Barnaby, a few months back, it seems that Brother Barnaby has been content to remain in Saltvale recently.

Up at the keep, a little reconstruction work has been done; the keep itself is in decent shape, but the trappings of the Margrave are long gone.  The garrison of guards no longer patrols the ramparts or the hills around the keep, although local luminaries occasionally visit or use the keep's spaces (it has a rather large dining room suitable for weddings and the like).  The poggles - little dog-folk - have dug a series of tunnels beneath the keep and in the surrounding land, including a conveniently-located opening in a side of a hillock closer to town.  This small tunnel serves as the interface between the poggles and their new neighbors in Thistlemarch - some folks are calling the site "Dog Hole" or "Poggletown" - and there's a bit of trade going on there.  People from town march up the hill once a month on the first Saturday to see what odds and ends the poggles are selling at their little bazaar - the "Flea Market".  Under the rule of their leader, Red Blanket, the surviving poggles of this tribe seem relatively civilized and have been treating fairly with the Thistlemarchers.  Red Blanket, chieftain of the semi-civilized poggles, hopes to recruit some eager mercenaries who can return to the poggles' former subterranean home and oust the portion of the tribe still loyal to his father.  The underground complex cannot be too far from Thistlemarch, yet Red Blanket refuses to disclose its location to anyone not signed on to the mission.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ancient Yuletide Carols

Recently an old tome was recovered from a cave-tomb near Dropfinger Pass; the well-weathered book, bound in troll-hide, contained some smattering of cosmic lore as well as a series of hymn-spells linked to the worship of moribund lesser godlings of winter and song such as Komo and Mathys.  Once the text of the hymn-spell and the corresponding commentary has been read, these new prayers may be uttered by a priest of any faith or alignment.  We know little of this old cult, but judging by their hymn-spells, they were definitely skilled at espionage and secrecy, and concerned about mutant or lycanthropic infiltrators; any connection to certain green-furred beings is unknown.  Since the cult held power in the north, it will not surprise us that their texts mention reindeer and evergreen trees.  Further mention in the tome of brightly-colored knit sweaters may perhaps place this cult's dominance after the reign of Huxt.  Any relation between this old singing-church and the Rime-Singer cult on the rise in the north is unknown.

Angels We Have Heard on High  (Listen to the Heavens) (level 2)
Using the feather of a non-flightless bird as a focus, the priest incants the prayer, imbuing himself and up to four other people within twenty feet with the temporary ability to understand - but not speak or read - heavenly and angelic tongues.  The effect lasts only 4+1d4 rounds, but this is often sufficient for basic communication with otherworldly visitors.

Children, Go Where I Send Thee  (Scattering the Beardless)  (level 1)
With a mighty exhortation, the cleric demands that younglings remove themselves from his presence (and that of his lawn, no doubt).  When the spell is cast, all sub-adult creatures (humanoid or otherwise) of less than 4HD within 100 feet who fail a save versus spell must depart quickly, scattering back to their snot-nosed hidey-holes.  The casting priest has no control over the direction in which the children will flee, although if the caster is blocking an exit, the tots will react logically and attempt to flee in the opposite direction where reasonable.  Children, Go Where I Send Thee counts as mind-affecting and a fear effect.  While this incantation is potentially curmudgeonly, at least it stops short of the over-the-top effects of a spell like Summon The She-Bears of Vengeance.

Do You Hear What I Hear?  (Sharing the Ears)  (level 2)
This prayer requires the use of two tufts of lambswool, one of which is carried by each recipient of the spell (the caster may be one of these, but need not be).  Once the hymn is sung, the two willing targets can each hear whatever the other one hears, even if separated by up to a mile.

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Shaming of the Deviant)  (level 2)
The priest gathers together a group of people, four to ten in number, and casts the spell; one of the subjects who is not like the others will be magically marked by a crimson glow floating in front of their face.  The spell itself is simple, but its use can be difficult, as the caster has no control over what quality - or lack thereof - the hymn detects.  It may discover a single werewolf amongst a group of innocent villagers (which seems to be its purpose), or it may single out the only adulterer (or non-adulterer!) in the group.  The incantation is thus best used as a tool for coercing confession, rather than a reliable detector.

Silver Bells (Alarum of the Skinchanger)  (level 2)
Bathing some silver sleigh-bells in holy water, the priest sings the hymn.  For the next week, the sleigh-bells will jingle of their own volition when a lycanthrope or shapechanger (doppleganger, etc) comes within ten feet.

What Child Is This?  (Most Infallible Determination of Paternity) (level 1)
The priest spends a full hour anointing a child less than a year in age with holy oils, smudge sticks, etc, and chanting.  By the end of the ritual, the priest hears the name of the child's father whispered in his ear.  The spell always works and always speaks the truth, but there is no guarantee that the name spoken is the same name by which the priest might know the father - aliases, shapechangers, and the like can make a mess of this hymn very quickly.

Let's Go Kill Werewolves, Charlie Brown

Friday, December 6, 2013

Behold, the Blingdingel

Adapted from a lecture given earlier in the year by Dr. Hornapple at the Heaudrybock Institute for Scientifactual Education.

Although the Wampus Country features numerous creatures - many of them strange - it is important to remember that they do not exist in a vacuum.  Metaphorically, I mean - surely there are life-forms which dwell in the airless void beyond the sky, but they are not the topic of today's discussion.  Animals, plants, sapient species - they all form an interconnected web of life, no one existing in true isolation from the rest.  As students of natural philosophy, you of course have some familiarity with the idea of ecology, but I mean to suggest a larger interconnectedness still, combining ecology, culture, and history.  We cannot examine a creature's biology or behavior without also taking a look at how it is related to the practices of thinking people and intertwined with our own history.

Let us take, as exemplar, the humble blingdingel.  If you are not familiar with the beast, please take a moment to look over the illustration mounted here on the wall.  The blingdingel is a semi-bipedal, predatory beast which was once common in the Snowdeeps, now nearly extinct.  Note the long, muscular arms - you can easily imagine the beast's lumbering gait.  The face and cranial structure resemble that of a short-snouted baboon or banderlog, yet the blingdingel is blessed with these massive tufted ears, which is uses to locate prey in the snowdrifts.  Snow-lampreys, certain polar oozes, that sort of thing, but I assure you the blingdingel is quite happy to consume manflesh as well...which leads us to the next step in our journey.

Were the blingdingel a passive species, the men of the north might never have bothered to hunt it.  After all, it does not provide much meat, and is generally clever enough to make difficult prey.  But the rapacious blingdingel does threaten northern communities, so men and women had to learn to kill it.  No mean feat!  Look here on the drawing, and consider these overlapping scales which cover the entire torso of the adult blingdingel.  Those scales are remarkably tough, and behind them hides a thick layer of subcutaneous fat.  The blingdingel is, in essence, a massive, armored, potbellied yeti.  You see?  Difficult to kill, even with modern firearms.  Imagine those early clashes, in which hunters accustomed to mastodons, snow tigers, and the like found themselves faced with a huge, creative predator immune to their weapons.  Imagine them describing the blingdingel as a giant bipedal tiger wearing armor.  I don't envy them their task.

A small sculpture of a Blingdingel; such idols are common near hearths in the north, used to ward off evil spirits.

As the hunters strove against the blingdingels, they came to learn about their natural armor - those brilliant silvery-white scales.  First, they came to learn that spears cannot easily threaten a blingdingel.  And then - more importantly - they learned that the talons of a blingdingel can cut through the scales.  Perhaps they were lucky enough to witness a pair of young blingdingel bulls competing for territory, or tussling over a potential mate during rutting season.  But, armed with this knowledge, the hunters knew that the key to killing blingdingels was the acquisition of their claws.  One hunting-party, armed with bludgeons and axes, stuns a blingdingel and makes off with a pair of paws.  And that singular event set the whole thing into motion.  Stolen claws made into weapons; weapons make it easier to kill blingdingels.  With each dead blingdingel, it becomes exponentially easier to kill blingdingels.  And what do we do with dead blingdingels?  Always industrious, we use the claws to skin the damn things, and peel off their natural armor.  A quick tanning of the connecting flesh, and very rapidly we have a cottage industry turning dead blingdingels into superior scale armor jackets.

You can surely see where we are headed in this tale: blingdingel extinction, or very nearly so.  And indeed, that is precisely what happened.  The combination of demand of blingdingel-based armor and weapons, and the ever-progressing ease of killing them -- which I can depict on the blackboard like so - can have only one result.  A short Blingdingel Boom, then no more blingdingels.  As a side effect, you also end up with a number of northern warrior-types - thanes and mercenaries and such - armed with Blingdingel-claw spears and daggers and superior armor.  Most of whom have gotten quite accustomed to living high on the hog, as it were, from blingdingel-related profits.  What comes next?

That's right.  War, or something resembling it.  The blingdingel events directly precede a series of small-scale wars in the Snowdeeps which create some political situations we can discuss later.  Let us try to stick to the biology while we can, shall we?  Here's another side-effect of the blingdingel boom.  While the claws of the beast are a direct way to pierce the scales, there is another way - and of course the clever folk of the north puzzled it out, or some of them, anyhow.  A few hunters, who lacked talon-made weapons, took to coating their spear-points in the spoor of snufflehausers.  Snufflehauser dung is rather corrosive, and becomes more corrosive and even a bit explosive when exposed to friction and heat.  So, in theory, you jab your coated spear into a Blingdingel, and the combination of the acid and minor external pressure from the friction of the point against the scales would serve to force apart the scaling and allow some purchase to your weapon.  If you were lucky, of course.  Now, compare the snufflehauser to the blingdingel.  One creature, the blingdingel, hunted toward extinction; the other, the humble snufflehauser, needs to be kept alive, in order to hunt the blingdingel.  For a solid decade, a handful of snufflehauser farms were quite successful in the lands around Dropfinger Pass, and the only thing they produced was snufflehauser dung.  Can you imagine?  The snufflehauser is edible, but scrawny, you see.  Its furs are suboptimal due to the size, but  even today you can meet Freeholders who wear heirloom snufflehauser coats or stoles in brilliant blue or purple colors.  There are no snufflehauser ranches extant, however - the profit just isn't there.

But back to the blingdingels, and their relation to Freeholder culture.  The northmen believe the blingdingels themselves have an unusual origin.  One of the ancient heroes in their sagas, a brilliant swordsman called   Bjerd Blingding, is thought to be the father of the entire species, in a strange, roundabout way.  Blingding was transmogryfied during his adventures into a sentient coat of scale mail armor - these things happen when one is an adventurer by profession, you understand.  Although his pillaging days were over, Blingding could still think and speak, and...apparently do other things, as the saga tells us he wedded an auburn-haired ogress.  The blingdingels are ostensibly their descendants.  Now certainly as reasonable people and inquisitive students, you are wondering whether this isn't just some quaint explanation after the fact.  After all, here we have these scaled, ogre-like creatures, let's come up with an amusing fireside tale that explains everything.  And you would be right to question it, but in the end it doesn't matter whether it's true - what matters is whether the Freeholders of the north believe it.  For they surely do, and it influences their behavior.  I shall illustrate.

According to the sagas, Bjerd Blingding had a younger brother called Thurfinn, and Thurfinn and most of his direct descendants were natural shapechangers, able to take on the form of a wolf or several other creatures of the ice and snow.  They were not large in number, and mostly lived out in the wilds, as one might expect.  But what happens when Thurfinn's great-great-great-grandchildren come to learn about the wholesale slaughter of the Blingdingels?  Nothing good.  Learning about the mass murder of their cousins, and the very insulting fact that fat Freeholders were wandering about wearing their kin's skin as armor, Thurfinn's line resolved to make war against the offenders.  And they, arrived in the civilized areas of the north just as the aforementioned small political battles were dying down.  Even the mightiest warriors amongst the Freeholds were worn out, tired, wounded -- and here come scores of skinchangers out for blood.  Worth noting, perhaps, that blingdingel armor is not proof against werewolf claws.

So we have much of the north stained crimson with blood, and all of it because of the interplay between the blingdingels and mankind.  And there's still more, you see.  The devastation of the wars had a deleterious effect on the population in the north, as you might imagine.  This gap allowed for an earlier and easier introduction of giant-kind into the north than might otherwise have occurred.  The giants stepped in and did the work, and the Freeholders could hardly complain, as they were unable to do all the work themselves.  Yet a discussion of the interrelation of giants and men must be left for another time, for I can see by the clock on the wall it's very nearly time for the test match to resume, and I've no intention of lecturing at the sides of your heads as you all stare out the windows at the pitch.