Sunday 29 November 2009

The Military Game

The good thing about all-night drinking on a Friday night is that it means you can legitimately spend all day on Saturday being hungover and doing self-indulgent things. Yesterday I spent much of the day playing Steel Panthers: World at War!, a freeware remake of an old PC WWII tactical wargame, and probably the most realistic and accurate of them all. Like all wargame junkies I have graduated from the marijuana of fighting the AI to the pure heroin of PBEM against human opponents; I've found that this game is just about the best online experience you can get, offering just the right level of playability and challenge - you can take your World of Warcraft and shove it.

It's got me thinking about role playing in a wartime setting. I've not played in many modern-era military-set games (I suppose Twilight 2000 is the only really noted example of the genre); I'm reasonably sure that their relative paucity in the hobby is that people assume that the Chain of Command takes away from player freedom.

This needn't necessarily the case and I would argue that many of the major wars of the last two centuries (especially the Napoleonic wars, the American civil war, the Russian civil war, the Chinese civil war, World War II) offer plenty of opportunity for adventure, primarily if the group of PCs are set up as either deserters, brigands or guerillas. For example:
  • The Kelly's Heroes campaign (or Three Kings campaign, if you will), in which the PCs go AWOL from an armed force to find fame, fortune, or something else.
  • The The Ants campaign, where a group of soldiers (the PCs) are left behind deep in enemy territory after an armistice.
  • The Russian-or-Chinese-civil-war campaign, in which the PCs are a band of mercenaries in a gargantuan country splintered into different political entities.
  • The Sharpe campaign, in which the PCs are ostensibly members of an army and have to follow orders, but seem to spend most of their lives somehow contriving to go off on special missions and generally buckle their swashes.
I like the idea of the Kelly's Heroes and Sharpe campaigns best, myself.

Friday 27 November 2009

Tag Lines

I just grabbed myself a box of about thirty pulp SF books from the special archive at my university; not bad for £10. Lots of Pohl, Zelazny and Farmer, plus one or two Heinleins.

What I love about pulp fiction are the tag lines. These are very much a dying art; nowadays books tend to be festooned with comments from gibbering reviewers, which I always think are designed to tell you more about the reviewer than the book itself. It was more interesting when the publisher made more of an effort to get you excited about the contents.

Some choice examples:

From Tongues of the Moon by Philip Jose Farmer: "The explosive epic of a conspiracy that could free mankind - or destroy the stars!"

From My Name is Legion by Roger Zelazny: "He could be anyone he chose to be...wherever and whenever he wanted. Not a bad cover for a confidential agent on assignment!"

From Coils by Zelazny and Saberhagen: "Can a man unite his mind with the soul of a machine - and survive?"

My particular favourite, though, is from an obsure Farmer title, Lord of the Trees: "Was he man, beast, or a puppet of the world's oldest conspiracy?"

I don't know, but I can't wait to find out.

You've got to love those 1970s SF covers, too. Take a look at this one, for instance:

Tell me you don't want to know what in Christ's name that is all about.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

A Milestone of Sorts

Wait! Stop the presses, batten down the hatches, and roll out the barrel! Monsters & Manuals has 100 blogger followers; the d20s are on me!

Thank you everybody for following this ludicrous blog. Long may it continue: ad-free, opinionated, inconsistent and downright silly.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Introduction to the Yellow City Trade Tongue

It's raining and miserable outside; typical North of England November day. So I'm sitting at the kitchen table with a nice cup of tea working on an old idea - the Yellow City Trade Tongue. Here's an introductory primer.

The Trade Tongue arose out of the need for a common language which could be spoken by both humans and slug people. Slug people, lacking teeth and having only a rudimentary palate, cannot form many sounds which humans find easy to produce. Humans, on the other hand, cannot produce the pheromones which slug people use to augment their spoken language. This created a need for a simple language accessible to both races, and over centuries the Trade Tongue has evolved as a means to fulfill that need.


There are ten consonants in the Trade Tongue, corresponding to the sounds p, b, q, g, ɸ, ʝ, χ, ɰ, l, and h. In the roman alphabet these can be reproduced as, approximately, p, b, k, g, f, y, x, w, l and h. x is never produced as in 'xylophone' or 'extra', but always like the French r, the Spanish j, or the Portuguese rr. f is extremely light and is pronounced only with the use of the lips, not the teeth.


There are fuve vowels - a, i, u, e, and o, almost identical to the Spanish equivalents. These can be elongated, commonly represented as á, í, ú, é, and ó, but also sometimes transcribed aa, ii, uu, ee or oo. When elongated, vowel sounds never mutate - thus e as in 'exit',
é as in 'air', but never as in 'feed'.

Sound Structure

The Trade Tongue has a highly regimented consonant-verb-consonant-verb pattern. Two consonants are never found together. It also has a strict kind of vowel harmony which means that vowels are either regular or elongated in one word, but never both. Thus aa, ii, uu, ee and oo can be found in the same word together but are never found in the same word as a, i, u, e or o, and vice-versa.


The Trade Tongue is an agglutinative, SOV language. All the verbs are regular, and distinguished by having three past tenses (last night, yesterday, general past) and three future tenses (tonight, tomorrow, general future). Nouns and verbs are not gendered and do not inflect according to gender.

[Next step is to begin constructing the vocabulary.]

Thursday 19 November 2009

Bakak's Skinning Knife

This long, curved knife has a blade of bronze and a large pommel of pure black onyx. It is razor sharp and very thin, designed for cutting skin from flesh.

In combat it functions as an ordinary dagger +2. It is only when it is used to skin a humanoid being that its special power comes into effect.

A skin cut by Bakak's knife can be worn by any humanoid of approximately similar size to the owner (for instance, a human can wear a human or elf skin, but not a dwarf's). Once a skin is worn it becomes a disguise so perfect that it is impossible to discern; the wearer looks exactly the same as the original possessor of the skin down to eye colour, height and weight. It cannot be discovered by a detect magic spell or similar. The only way the disguise can be noticed is by a small mark in the nape of the neck of the wearer, which looks like a tattoo in the shape of the knife itself.

A skin can be worn indefinitely, and removed at will. However, if it is worn for more than 24 hours at a stretch the wearer will find himself beginning to resemble the original possessor in more than appearance. After 24 hours, and for every subsequent 24 hour period thereafter, the wearer must taking a saving throw vs. magic. If he fails, his alignment permanently shifts to that of the original possessor of the skin.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Moth Ghosts of Muroran

Inhabiting large, spherical nests of silk which float through the crepscular space of Muroran, are a race of undead giant moths. The bulbous bodies of these creatures are twice the size of a man and their broad, heavy wings are yards across; they flap through the murky air searching for living prey, from which they suck the very soul.

The tongue of a Moth Ghost is several yards long and it is tightly coiled beneath its head. Once prey is found the tongue uncoils and hangs down beneath the body; the Moth Ghost then aims to hover above its victim and touch it with its tongue. As soon as this is accomplished the Moth Ghost can devour the life force of the unfortunate.

Moth Ghosts have no society or culture and pursue sustenance with mindless resolution. They appear to be able to sense body heat, and warm blooded travellers in the depths of Muroran will sometimes be pursued by dozens of the things, as sharks will flock to a source of blood.

Moth Ghost of Muroran

Armour Class: 4
Hit Dice: 4+4**
Move: Flying 240' (80')
Attacks: 1 touch / 1 wing buffet
Damage: None (energy drain of 1 level) / 1d8
No. App: 1-30
Save As: F4
Morale : 8
Treasure: Nil
Intelligence: 1
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value : 275

Special: Moth Ghosts are immune to sleep, charm and hold spells; they can only be hurt by silver or magical weapons.

Sunday 15 November 2009

I Got My Philosophy

One thing I rather like about traditional, sandboxy D&D is that it firmly believes in self-empowerment. Once you've rolled up a character his or her fate is essentially in your hands; it's up to you to make things happen. You're the master of your own destiny - unless of course the bad luck of the dice declare otherwise. In this sense it provides valuable life lessons to youngsters (especially the geeky and bookish youngsters who the game attracts) - take risks, have adventures, make something of your life; even if you fail, which is a distinct possibility because the universe is a random and uncaring place, that's more interesting than staying in your comfort zone. Whether or not people learn those lessons is debatable, but I think they are there.

Another interesting aspect of early D&D is that it throws into sharp focus what I believe to be the crux of the human condition, namely: Are we bound by our genes or can we transcend them? Of course, the PHB doesn't use words like "genes". What I'm referring to is the way the character generation process, performed the way God intended it (3d6 in order for stats), etches the character's strengths and weaknesses in stone; they are his or her DNA as surely as your individual genome determines how tall you are and what colour eyes you have. On the one hand, this is restrictive: a character with an INT of 6 can't become a mage, just like a person as bad at maths as me can't become a quantum physicist. But on the other hand, stats can never restrict player freedom once the game has begun: it is never possible for a DM to say to a player "You can't attempt task x because your y stat is too low." You can try anything. This is somewhat contradictory, but it is also very human, at a basic level; it is the paradox that faces all of us. Your nature moulds you, but your consciousness fights to transcend that mould.

These are the thoughts once has after a few beers down at the pub watching England get beaten by Brazil in a meaningless international friendly.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Test Post

For some reason I'm not getting new posts from my blog on my RSS reader, so this is a quick test to make sure everything is working.

[Iburi System, Part VII] Tomakomai, the Flame in the Night

Tomakomai is the furthest planet from Iburi and it dwells in the coldest and darkest regions of wildspace. But it is not the place of ice and endless night that one might expect. It is a flat disc of lava and fire, so hot that it is almost a rival to Iburi itself, and it produces a constant red and orange light.

Elementals from the planes of fire, smoke and magma inhabit Tomakomai, leading some to believe that there are portals to those planes somewhere on its surface. If there are, no outsider has ever found one; the planet is so hostile an environment that it defies exploration. Most of the knowledge about it comes from the reports of an occasional mage who is able to protect himself from fire with spells and avoid being destroyed by the inhabitants. The elementals carve magical citadels for themselves out of obsidian and brass, and these sites pock the planet's surface.

There are four moons surrounding Tomakomai. They do not orbit it but are fixed, spinning, in place: one directly above the centre, one directly below, and two on a horizontal plane with the disc nominally at "east" and "west". They are traditionally called the Father, the Mother, the Sister, and the Brother respectively; a great civilisation or civilisations was once based on these moons, judging by their many ruined cities, towers, temples and monuments, but now they are only inhabited by pirates, outlaws and smugglers. Legend has it that the founders of this civilisation were a race of Mind Flayers who were exterminated by Githyanki long ago.

Saturday 7 November 2009

[Iburi System, Part VI] Muroran, the Haunted Night

Muroran is many millions of miles beyond Utashinai, separated by a stretch of space known as the Wilderness. It is so far from Iburi that light from the Primary, by the time it arrives, is dim and faint, attenuated by distance; the brightest illumination Muroran ever experiences is a crepuscular noon akin to a twilight. Because it is made entirely from elemental air, this gives Muroran the character of a ghost - dark, ethereal, near-invisible - and indeed it is often called The Haunted Night by the wayfarers who know of it. Its vast airy wastes are swept by storms and shrouded by cloud and fog.

There are many legends about Muroran; it is so poorly known that myths and rumours seem to rise up from its murky depths as if under their own volition. Many of these surround its supposed inhabitants (giant winged spiders, flying kraken, intelligent moths), but the most persistent speak of small islands of rock which float through the night and which could be mined for gold and silver if only they could be discovered.

Muroran has a single, small rocky moon in its orbit. This is known as Nopporo's Moon after its solitary inhabitant, the archmage Nopporo. So powerful that he has discovered the secret of eternal life, Nopporo lives in a tall tower at the moon's north pole, served by many varieties of magical automata which he created long ago. He has lived for thousands of years in this manner and is quite mad, as likely to be compassionate as cruel. His automata are sentient but their behaviour seems to naturally fluctuate with Nopporo's moods.

Friday 6 November 2009

Twit Off

I've deleted my twitter account. I know quite a few people who read this blog follow me there. I tried it for six months and have decided I actively detest pretty much everything about it. (No reflection on the people I follow on there; just the interface, mindset and philosophy of the thing.) This is by way of explanation for those who might miss my rare and boring tweets.

More Spelljammer later.

[Iburi System Part V] Utashinai, the Verdant

Utashinai is almost equal to Rumoi in size and grandeur, though in most other resepcts it could not be more different. It is a world of jungles, swamps, deserts and lush grasslands, of crocodile people, Yuan-ti and fire giants, and of dinosaurs - above all dinosaurs, who throng its sultry surface.

Utashinai is dominated by thick bands of mountains which are the result of the constant restlessness of its tectonics. Volcanoes abound; the air is rich with oxygen and the soil packed with fertility, making it the most verdant and populous of Iburi's planets. There are countless different kingdoms, empires, sultanates, oligarchies, kritocracies, chiefdoms, and many other varities of polity patchworking its surface.

All the intelligent races of Utashinai domesticate dinosaurs and use them as beasts of burden, war and transport.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

[Iburi System Part IV] Rumoi and the Thirteen Bodies

Rumoi is the third planet of the Iburi system, and its biggest in both size and population. Its surface is composed of one single great ocean, a vast savannah of blue, grey and black waves which is only broken by ice caps at the north and south poles.

However, the planet is not made up entirely of water - it has a rocky core and in places coral reefs and underwater mountain ranges come within a dozen or so yards of the surface. The majority of its inhabitants make their homes in such places.

Rumoi's population is incredibly diverse, as befits a vast ocean; from tritons to kraken to locathah, dozens of intelligent sea-dwelling races are present in its great depths. Its species are entirely disunited except in one respect - a propensity for the creation of cargo cults. Many wayfarers from space descend to the surface to trade, and religious movements which claim to be able to summon these outsiders proliferate. Often these cults envisage an elaborate cosmology in which the thirteen bodies which orbit Rumoi are Gods, who provide the wayfarers from the heavens with the technological gifts they possess.

The Thirteen Bodies are actual bodies, though nobody knows of what. They drift in an aimless orbit around Rumoi and appear as asteroids at a cursory glance. Close inspection however reveals vaguely humanoid, mammalian or insectoid shapes, as if each was once a living thing, long petrified into stone. All thirteen are inhabited and each is independent; they jostle with each other incessantly for dominance (sometimes in outright war). Their trade links extend throughout the system and even beyond its crystal sphere - they are the nerve centre of Iburi and its cultural and intellectual capital.

The Thirteen Bodies are named for what they most closely resemble (for example The Bear, The Man, The Child, The Locust) except for one, which is known as The Sleeper and which has the shape of some unknown beaked grotesque. Legend has it that one day The Sleeper will awaken, shed off its layers of stone, and devour the others.

Sunday 1 November 2009

[Iburi System Part III] Shiribeshi, the Warmthless

Shiribeshi is a giant curved U, spinning on an upright axis, locked in a permanent ice age. Its surface is a sea of glaciers, occasionally punctured by islands of mountains, and it is constantly swept by gale force winds, blizzards and ice storms. Very few outsiders can tolerate its frigid temperatures, but its groundling population is vast - ice trolls, quaggoths, remorhaz, derro, white dragons, giants, and many other varities of cold-loving beings.

Because of Shiribeshi's unusual shape it has certain unique characteristics. On the inside of the U days are short and separated by a few hours of "half night" around noon as the opposite side of the curve passes before the light of Iburi. Meanwhile, on the tips of the U and at its base there is never night - for the whole year light approaches from an oblique angle, providing the extremities of the planet with constant weak illumination.

Derro are the dominant intelligent race in large swathes of Shiribeshi and they make their homes in citadels in the mountains, where they burrow deep down underneath the planet's surface, mining for minerals. These are traded with visitors from other worlds, mainly for human slaves who the derro can torture, eat, and put to work. Ruinous wars are fought between different derro polities over the best lodes.