Monday, September 30, 2013

Arab Travelers: The Leopard

Fatimid pottery cup, 11th century.
From here.
Of all the animals, the leopard alone can jump more than forty cubits. In the church at Hunak, there was a window forty cubits in height above the floor. A leopard used to go there during the hottest part of the day, then jump down and go away. At the time, the landlord of Hunak was a Frankish knight called Sir Adam, a real devil of a Frank. He was told the story of the leopard, and he said, 'When you see the leopard, inform me of it.'

The leopard came as usual and jumped up to that window, so one of the peasants went and informed Sir Adam. Sir Adam put on his hauberk, mounted his charger, took up his shield and spear and went off to the church, which was in ruins except for one standing wall where the window was located. When the leopard saw Sir Adam, it pounced down from the window on top of him while Sir Adam was still on his charger and broke his back, killing him. It then went away. The peasants of Hunak used to call that leopard 'the holy-warrior leopard.'

One of the special qualities of the leopard is that if it wounds a man, and a mouse urinates on the wound, the man will die. A mouse never gives up trying to reach a man wounded by a leopard: one person, out of fear of the mice, even had a bed made for himself sitting in the water, with cats tied all around it.

-Usama ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplation, p. 123-124. Trans. Paul Cobb, 2008, Penguin.

Leopard, from "The Benefits of Animals"
Image from here.
"The leopard is a fierce enemy of man, unmanageable and ferocious. He eats only his own game. When satiated, he sleeps for three days and three nights in succession; (...) A sick leopard gets well by eating mice. His skin is tender and if he is wounded it breaks with a slight stroke.

The flesh and fat of a leopard, boiled in the juice of olives, serve as a good salve for the sores, abcesses and pimples that break out on the body; his blood is a preventive liniment for all skin diseases."

-Ibn Bakhtishu, The Benefits of Animals, quoted from 1001 Tales of History's post on the book - which you should totally check out, if only to see the other fascinating pictures and descriptions.

Well. There's clearly something up between leopards and mice, some connection here. But why would these two creatures be connected?

Hmm. I am reminded...
“I am reminded,” said the Mouser, “of what a witch told me about adepts. She said that, if an adept chances to die, his soul is reincarnated in a mouse. If, as a mouse, he managed to kill a rat, his soul passes over to a rat. As a rat, he must kill a cat; as a cat, a wolf; as a wolf, a panther; and, as a panther, a man. There he can recommence his adeptry. Of course, it seldom happens that anyone gets all the way through the sequence and in any case it takes a very long time. Trying to kill a rat is enough to satisfy a mouse with mousedom.”

- “Adept’s Gambit,” Fritz Leiber
Clearly the Mouser is misremembering (or the witch misspoke) and it was leopards, rather than panthers, that were in the adept chain of succession. But what if there were some way to short-circuit this process? What if an adept-turned-leopard-turned-mouse could easily slay a man while as a mouse? Perhaps through a wound that they had made as a leopard?

And this would explain why the mice never give up trying to reach the wounded man. Because if they can work their arts on the wounded...ah, the chance to be a human once more!

Perhaps some adept-leopards (leopard-adepts?) retain their loyalties in life, as the case of the holy-warrior leopard shows. Or perhaps this was merely an opportune moment for the adept to strike at a human and return to a human form. Yet it is curious that it did not attack the peasants...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Arab Travelers: Cave of the Seven Sleepers

My route took me by the Cave of the Seven Sleepers. So I stopped there and went in to pray at the mosque, but I did not go through the narrow passage that one finds there. One of the amirs of the Turks who were with me, called Barshak, came, wanting to enter by that narrow cleft.
Cave of the Seven Sleepers, near Amman, Jordan
Photo from itsanillution

I said, 'What are you doing that for? Come and pray outside.'

'There is no God but God,' he replied. 'I must be a bastard then if I can't get through that narrow cleft!'

'What are you talking about?' I asked.

He said, 'This is a place that no son of adultery can pass through - he cannot enter.'

What he said forced me to get up, enter by that spot, pray and come out again without - God knows - believing what he said. Indeed, most of the troops came and entered and prayed. 

Yet, in the army with me was Baraq al-Zubaydi, who had with him a slave of his, a black man - devout fellow, taken to praying a lot, and one of the tallest and leanest people. He came to that spot and tried with all his might to enter, but he could not get through. The poor fellow wept, moaning and sighing over and over, and then left after failing to enter.

- Usama ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplation, p. 23-24, Trans. Paul Cobb, 2008, Penguin Books.

This is one of ibn Munqidh's stories which has stuck with me. (Possibly because of his prompt emphasis on his own easy and unobstructed passage. Not that he believes in such superstition, of course.)

From a gaming standpoint, this is a helpful reminder to make a region feel alive through legends and folklore, stories tied to places. There doesn't always have to be anything major to the legends, mind you. It's completely legit to have an ancient hoary legend which doesn't actually have much backing it up! Certainly ibn Munqidh didn't encounter anything significant in visiting the cave...although perhaps Baraq's slave did.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Making Exploration Fun

This is a cross-post from a forum I frequent, Intangibility. A lot of the stuff here is commonplace wisdom among the folks likely reading this blog, but I figure it's worthwhile for me to get my thoughts out on this, if nothing else. 

So over on RPGnet someone posted a question about how to make exploration exciting and fun in RPGs. I've been having some good luck with this in the Hill Cantons (~2 years now, forth the Nefarious Nine!) so I thought I'd start the ball rolling on a parallel discussion here.

Chris has a few thoughts here and here, and Zak had some really good thoughts on hexcrawls and exploration here and here and here.

From the player perspective, some things that have worked well for exploring the Hill Cantons (but now flipped around as statements to the GM) have been:

a) Having a coherent theme/themes. It's important to have dungeons that are not only weird and fantastic, but also have a structure and logic to them. Being able to determine things about the dungeon from your surroundings helps fix the environment together and provide ideas for what else can be around, driving exploration efforts. 

Concept Art for Linage II
b) Using random encounters to provide time pressure. This means that choices have a significance to them because the longer you take to explore, the more dangerous the site becomes. 

c) Jacquaying the dungeon. Creating interesting structures to explore, that have multiple branching paths. Weird geometry, shortcuts, loops - these things make exploration exciting, provide opportunities for sudden windfalls, and suggest new ideas. ("This flooded tunnel might be a path to the next level; let's see if we can figure out some way to get through it!")

Unsure of this image's origin, alas
a) Provide options. In contrast to the dungeon, where you're navigating a presumably utterly unknown environment, I think wilderness exploration benefits from having known landmarks as guideposts to provide immediate areas of choice. The dungeon provides a series of constrained options ("doors are north, south, and the trap door in the corner leading down") but the wilderness is wide open. Give players a map and let them know what the major things around them are! Those options serve as the initial "dungeon doors" of exploration, providing the option for players to set goals and formulate plans. But remember Korzybski here: the map is not the territory. Toss in curveballs, make the map inaccurate (maybe let the players know beforehand that it may be inaccurate!) and add in things that the mapmaker may not have known about.

b) Provide for altering the wilderness. In the HC, we're in a pseudo-domain-game stage, which requires clearing and holding hexes (exploring to make sure they're safe for regular folks, then establishing control over them through patrols), giving us an opportunity and incentive to interact with the environment. 

a) Recognize that you're going to create and prep areas which may not see the light of day. THAT IS OK. Part of exploration means that you're likely going to miss things. 
b) Have interacting parts. Don't make each hex / dungeon zone it's own little bubble. Have groups move around and interact with each other and make use of their surroundings. (A multitude of factions also provides players with another reason to explore: being able to find allies and/or Yojimbo their way through trouble.)

All of these are centered around making exploration contain meaningful choices. Someone on the RPGnet thread suggested that exploration is like a slot machine hit. I think it ought to be more like a hand of poker or blackjack; a slot machine is completely random, but blackjack and poker both require the application of skill along with the randomness to provide an (arguably) more compelling experience. Chance should most certainly play a role, but exploration should also make use of player agency and decisions.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Equipment List Additions

Photo from, found here.
Traditional sword of the Freelanders. Single-edged, with the blade tapering, then flaring out again before tapering to a full point. Deals d8+1 damage, cannot be purchased in towns.

The arrow-guide is placed on the interior side of a bow and allows for greater pulls on the bow and heavier arrows, yielding greater damage and armor penetration (though causing a penalty in accuracy). Users take a +2 bonus to their attack rolls, but will roll twice and take the worse result. Increase the bow damage die by one (so a shortbow fires at a d8, a longbow at a d10) while using heavier arrows. The arrow-guide costs 5 dinars; the heavier arrows cost double normal arrow costs.

The assegai is a short (2') stabbing spear with a leaf-shaped blade, not suitable for throwing. It deals d8 damage but cannot be used for second-rank attacks. It costs 10 dinars. 

The shotel is an extremely curved sword. Its unwieldy nature gives users a -1 penalty to hit in close quarters, but it deals 1d6+1 damage and ignores the presence of shields. 12 dinars.
Photo from, found here

Naft Projector

Proposed Greek fire naval projection system, Haldon and Byrne
From Wikipedia's Greek Fire article
The naft projector, as designed, is not viable for individual use, but can certainly be mounted on ships or placed for structural point defense. Naft is similar to Greek fire; the projector heats the naft before spraying it out through a brass nozzle under pressure (50' range). Individuals within the firing arc of a naft projector must save vs. breath weapon or take 1d10 damage for 2d4 rounds. Not a staple naval weapon because you're creating a fire on board your ship and transporting an extremely hazardous chemical; choppy seas can result in... awkward results.

(I mention not viable for individual use "as designed" because I'm sure some murderhoboes are going to try and find a way to McGuyver this for use in a dungeon.)

Naft Grenade
Greek fire grenades
Athens National Historical Museum
From Wikipedia's Greek Fire article
The use of flaming oil has a long pedigree in D&D, but naft grenades make that easier. A naft grenade has a pre-inserted wick that can be lit and the grenade then thrown; it will deal 1d10 damage as long as it burns. Each round it burns, roll a d4; if the roll is greater than the number of rounds it's burned, then it keeps burning. (So on the first round of burning, it will continue to burn on a 2-4; on the fourth round, it will go out). Naft grenades are officially restricted to use by the military, but available on the black market for (d6+1)x10 dinars.

Lamellar Armor

Metal plates laced together to form armor; generally the heaviest armor that's regularly worn. Like scale armor, but lighter. AC 4, costs 50 dinars. While it counts as "heavy" armor for the purposes of environmental distress, distress checks are made with a +2 bonus (yay, airflow!)

Can be coiled up in a torc before being withdrawn. Deals 1d4+1 damage, but can be concealed easily. Available on the black market for (2d4)x10 dinars.