Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Spectre (7+3 HD) Is Haunting the Flaeness: Towards a Leftist OSR

    Special thanks to Kazumi Chin, Fiona Geist, Camilla Greer, Michael Lombardi, and Robert Parker for their feedback and guidance.

    The design space associated with OSR games is often assumed to be inherently reactionary, an interest in classic games coinciding with a desire for social regression and oppression. Setting the incorrect nature of that assumption aside, I started wondering what an explicitly leftist OSR framework might look like. This pondering was accelerated by a query on the same topic that Mabel Harper* raised on Discord a while back.

    This isn't untrodden territory. Some past must-reads from others: Marx + Monsters: A Radical Leftist Fantasy Sandbox, City of Brass "West Marxes"

    Inspired by Marx + Monsters, I concluded that a leftist OSR framework would move away from a simple advancement through gold route, and instead work through improving the community that PCs reside in. The approach I list below is strongly influenced by Mayfair Games's 1993 RPG Underground, a game centered around superhero-veterans attempting to improve their communities as the world around them went mad.

    This is a potential new framework for experience gain that a GM can use to frame a social format for their campaign. It assumes that PCs are still taking on adventurous projects, but seeks to present greater ties to the communities that they are a part of.

    Communities and Experience

    1. PCs start out as members of the same community. While they may have wildly different origins and backgrounds, they're all united by current location and ties. (This can be a city or town, or even a neighborhood. For higher powered games, a province or nation might be apropos.)

    Figures outside the tombs of the caliphs, Cairo, Egypt.
    Coloured lithograph by L. Haghe after D. Roberts, 1848.
    Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain
    2. This community is assessed on six stats:

    Identity - How strongly the community identifies as a group together, with a shared culture. Identity 4 or 5 might be a newborn boomtown, Identity 14 or 15 might be a longstanding ethnic enclave in a larger city.
    Prosperity - Whether the community is economically stable. Are folks able to get by comfortably? Are folks living hand-to-mouth?
    Safety - Are people physically safe in this community? Is their security under threat?
    Governance - The breadth and scope of government function. How well do governing institutions respond to the requirements of the community?
    Legitimacy - Is the government regarded as representative of the community's people? Are these seen as interlopers or leaders?
    Sustainability - Is the community's usage of resources sustainable in the long run? Is support infrastructure properly available for the residents?

    These stats are rated on a 3-18 scale, just as character stats are. The GM may either work with the PCs to collaboratively generate a community, as in Beyond the Wall or Dream Askew/Apart, may assign stats to a pre-existing community setting, or may roll 3d4 (not 3d6) for each stat.

    3. During downtime, between adventures, PCs may place money and time into raising one of the categories. They must describe how they are using their resources and time to combat problems or improve conditions for their community.

    Ex: Shaghab and Arslan live in a community with Legitimacy of 6. They decide to improve this stat by ousting the famously corrupt qadi, or chief judge, and seeking to install someone a bit better. Shaghab describes how she'll be spending three weeks organizing street protests against the qadi as he attempts to rule on cases, shouting out the stories of those he's screwed over, while Arslan will try to force the local governor to be confronted with this evidence of the population's unrest. They hope that through this, the governor will consider removing the qadi and replacing him with someone new. While the replacement's unknown, Shaghab and Arslan believe that they'll be able to influence the selection and pressure the governor to find a more virtuous replacement.

    Tizemt lives in the same community, but they think that trying to replace the qadi is merely supplanting one outside leader for another. Instead, they decide to spend a month organizing a community council that will resolve disputes outside the scope of the qadi and avoid having to appear before the corrupt pustule. Tizemt sees this as improving the community's Governance rating (conveniently, also 6), but it might also apply to Identity or maaaaybe even Legitimacy as well. Tizemt plans to support this council through holding meetings and determining who among the community will have sufficient stature to be seen as legitimate decision-makers.

    4. The GM assesses their plan, mentally considers counterarguments and forces that will operate to protect the status quo, and places it in a matrix framework to assess how effective this is at addressing the issue in question. (See: Matrix Games.)

    Strength of Argument
    Adjustment to Roll
    Very Strong Argument
    Roll 5d6 against stat
    Strong Argument
    Roll 4d6 against stat
    Average Argument
    Roll 3d6 against stat
    Weak Argument
    Roll 2d6 against stat
    Very Weak Argument
    Roll 1d6 against stat
    Abysmal Argument
    Roll fails!


    Ex. The GM thinks that Shaghab and Arslan's plan isn't too great -- aside from trusting in the benevolence of the governor, they also don't know that the governor and qadi have been working together to feather both nests, and that the qadi has some compromising information on the governor. But significant enough street protests might be able to sway the governor, if it becomes clear that the city won't quiet down until the qadi is removed. It's not the best thought out and there are hidden factors, but it's not completely unreasonable - the GM considers it a weak argument. They get a 4 on 2d6 against the community’s Legitimacy 6 -- the plan fails.

    The GM thinks that Tizemt's plan is more likely to receive results, since there isn't any hidden information in play, the scope of the change is enough to merit increasing the Governance stat, and Tizemt's player has identified prominent NPCs who they think have established a solid community reputation, even in the cynical Vancian atmosphere of the setting. While it's more likely to get off the ground since there's no particular opposition, having an alternative dispute structure may not necessarily take off and gain community support. It is considered an average argument.  They roll 3d6 against the community’s Governance 6 and get an 11 -- the plan succeeds!

    5. After the time and resources have been invested, the GM rolls against the stat as above:

    a) If the roll is above the stat in question, the PCs' effort is successful. The stat is raised by one, and all PCs who contributed to this effort gain experience: Firstly, each PC gains 1500 x the number of times the stat in question has been raised (so, 1500 XP for the first improvement, 3000 for the second, etc.) Secondly, they gain 1.5x the GP value of resources that were contributed as XP. Finally, the GM makes an explicit note of the method that the PCs have used to shape the community, to ensure that its effects continue to be remembered (and leveraged) as play continues.

    b) If the roll is under the stat in question, then the PCs have failed to improve conditions. The stat remains unchanged, and no experience is awarded. The GM keeps a tally of how much resources have been put into improving the stat in question; if the PCs manage to improve the stat later, then all PCs who have contributed (past or present) gain both the stat-raise experience, the benefit of 1.5x the resources of the successful attempt, and 0.5x the value of all prior resources put in, combining failed attempts with the most recent success. Long-term campaigns may not succeed at first, but they continue to build the foundation for subsequent success.
    Sao Paolo General Strike, 1917
    Unknown artist. Source: Wikimedia

    Note: Application of extra resources beyond the base requirements can grant rerolls on step 5, allowing a second chance at a failed increase: When a stat is 3-8, putting in an additional 3000 gp grants one reroll. When a stat is 9-12, this amount increases to 9000 gp. When a stat is 13-17, the amount increases to 27000 gp. Resources spent towards rerolls do not grant additional XP.

    6. After a stat has been increased successfully, the GM determines another stat to be tested against, and rolls 3d6 against that stat. (The statistic is either determined randomly, or emerges naturally from the nature of the improvement.) If the GM rolls under, that stat decreases by 1, to a minimum of the lowest stat present (if the two lowest stats are both 5s, one cannot lower to a 4 through this method). Decreases represent additional challenges that have begun facing the community; the GM should generate new adventure hooks from these.

    Ex. Tizemt's plan to create a community council as an alternative to the qadi was successful. Given that the community council now serves as an alternative form of governance to the incumbent, the GM chooses to decrease Legitimacy by 1, since there is now uncertainty over who really rules the neighborhood.

    7. This process can be used on its own, but ideally it would also take into account dynamic shifts in the campaign from the actions of other parties. The next steps would be tying additional shifts to a Chaos Index (reflecting further changing dynamics outside the control of player characters) and ensuring that adventure hooks can also present opportunities for changing a community's stats, or at least laying the groundwork for doing so.

    As a community improves, it will become harder and harder for PCs to improve its stats. PCs may choose to expand their focus (working to improve a city instead of a neighborhood, a province instead of a city). If PCs elect to expand, they begin working to improve the larger polity's stats (which are likely worse than the smaller area PCs have been focusing on). Multiply experience gains by 5 each time a player group chooses to expand. Multiply reroll resource costs by ten (and adjust costs for open-ended resource allocation accordingly as well).

    Emma Goldman
    T. Kajiwara, 1911 (Wikimedia)
    Note: Players may try and solve some of the problems that their communities are facing through violence -- their PCs are likely still adventurers or revolutionaries, after all. GMs should be cautious with this. In some cases, violence may absolutely be necessary - but it is not enough, in and of itself, to generate long-term systemic change. There must be positive action taken in order to create a sustainable improvement in a community.

    Design Notes

    XP as Central Driver

    Much has been made about 1 GP = 1 XP as the core gameplay loop driver of TSR D+D. But XP for gold retrieved also winds up being something of a de facto capitalistic outlook as well. Success is driven by accumulation of individual wealth -- by an adventuring company, even! So what's a new framework that can be used for underpinning a leftist OSR campaign?

    Marx + Monsters raises two proposals: XP for direct redistribution of wealth, or XP awarded through communal questions (a la Dungeon World). I found neither of these satisfying for my purposes. Direct redistribution of wealth is basically a slightly tweaked version of "XP through spending," and communal questions seems too far at odds with the mechanical framework of OSR games. Admittedly the system proposed here is still related to "XP through spending," but ideally generates a bit more  thought and focus regarding how people attempt to help others.

    Campaign Framing

    "Standard" OSR gaming is focused around the pulp-inspired picaresque. James's bullet-point list of what that entails (assumption of PCs at the margins, a corrupt/venal society) can fit well into a radical framing. The change is that instead of focusing on the individual rise of a small group of people (PCs), this proposed campaign explicitly looks at how a community or society changes (through the actions of a small group).

    Community Creation and Interaction

    Beyond the Wall features group creation of the party's starting-hub town, and ties the player characters together with each other and the shared NPCs they've created. (See also the communal creation of Dream Askew/Dream Apart, which focus even more tightly on communal setting as play center.) I don't know that group setting creation is a necessary part of this framing, but it can help to provide players with a strong connection to the community they are a part of, combating the detachment with which PCs can sometimes view their surroundings.

    "You Know Nothing, Jon Snow"

    Obligatory pop culture references aside, I recognize that this is a game system that's discussing social resistance and community building: areas which are pretty important at the moment, and areas which which I don't have a full grounding in. While I'm slowly learning more on these topics, I also recognize that I have LOTS of blind spots regarding these areas. If I've said something boneheaaded here, please do let me know.  
      * Also check out Mabel's new music video!

      Bibliography:

      Leftist Design and Community Interaction
      Alternative Experience Takes

        Friday, April 5, 2019

        Tuesdays in the Cantons, Eight Years On.

        This past Tuesday was the weekly Hill Cantons game - the usual B/X ruleset, going through some of Chris's new material for Revoca Canton, the next planned expansion for the setting (now getting early release on Patreon). I got to the session a bit late, arriving as the group was planning on fighting two four-armed, four-legged guard constructs (unaffectionately dubbed 'Shaq-nus') guarding the top of a tower, hidden away in an extraplanar pocket dimension.
        Kirbyesque Space Chris
        by Jason Sholtis, commissioned by Robert Parker



        Tuesday was also the shuttering of Google Plus, the social network where Chris began running the campaign online in 2012, after starting it as a local game in 2008. The play report from my very first session is here. Despite the much-vaunted lethality of OSR play, four of the five PCs listed survived through five years of roughly weekly play (with the last PC dropping away from the campaign). Admittedly, if it weren't for the additional padding of the Death and Dismemberment table, Ba Chim would have been toast many times over.

        Tuesday night was one of those sessions where you spend fifteen real-time minutes discussing the logistics of getting the group up a tree to get to the top of the tower, and then another fifteen to twenty planning out how to go through the fight, while the fight itself wraps up in five or six rounds, lasting maybe seven minutes tops. After the fight, we caught our breath with some interesting puzzle-solving (how do you disarm this energy field trap guarding the top of the tower?*), and then getting our teeth into the exploration of the tower.

        Revoca Canton Player's Map - Gus L
        The tower exploration wound up having half the group drawing upon and synthesizing information (cultural aesthetics and sociology, cosmology, goofy in-references) across like a real-life decade of play to come to an understanding of the cosmological significance and framework of the tower and some of the weird shit we discovered. Then we wound up finding a greater understanding of the space through traditional murderhobo "grab everything you can" action, found a hidden component of the tower, and wound up getting a McGuffin through being polite, friendly, and enthusiastic about exploration and discovery.

        The combination of exploration, intuitive understanding and synthesis and spitballing, and strange-but-charming discussion with an NPC who would probably be parsed as an immediate existential threat in other games is a large part of what gets me interested in and passionate about RPGs, and why I've been coming back to the Hill Cantons for eight years on.

        So big thanks to you, Chris. And big thanks to the other players who've shared adventures in the Cantons over this time. It's been a major touchstone for my life. RIP to the Big Red Plus, but here's to new adventures and frontiers.

        * No spoilers, but the disarmament process involved lots of Kirby Krackle, it turns out. (Tragically neither Nadezda the ranger nor Burt the feral dwarf walked away with the Power Cosmic.)

        Tuesday, March 12, 2019

        Hymn to the Bow: the Hunters

        “Portrait de Jeune Noir avec Arc”
        Hyacinthe Rigaud.
        Special thanks to Jerry Grayson and Lloyd Gyan for their input and guidance.

        Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze! The Two-who-are-One, the Hunters Without Peer! Some say that they are eternal rivals, vying for greater success in the hunt. Some say that they are twins, or parent and child. Some that they are lovers, forever together. Many in Manden hold that they are the left and right hands of the Path to Justice, the Orisha Oshossi. Many in Sukiyya believe that the Two-who-are-One were once human before they crossed over into the world of the jinn. But who can know the truth of that otherworld?

        They are certainly not a god, despite the rumors that are sometimes spread. If they were a god, would the princes of Manden be required to swear to the Two-in-One before their ascension to the throne? It would be unthinkable for peers of the Caliphate to forsake Ar-Rahman.

        So. Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze are manifestly not gods. 

        But all agree that they are mighty spirits, the lords of brush and forest. They are the Hunters, knowers of the paths and the way. They see what is to come, and move towards the future and the past as they track their prey.

        Chief among the simbon, those who are favored in the eyes of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze, are the princes of Manden. But any who desire the favor of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze may swear to their service, should they be willing to abide by the Code of the Hunter.


        "Hunters of Mali" - Philippe Bordas.
        Membership Requirements

        An applicant who has proven their worth as a hunter may seek the blessing of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze. They must find a simbon, a Master Hunter, who is willing to sponsor them in the ranks of the donso, and then they must hunt and defeat an animal or beast that plagues a community. This hunt is a spiritual trial for the applicant, that will test not only their skills as a hunter, but their connection to the wilderness and their willingness to serve Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze.

        Once they have returned victorious, the simbon will ask them three questions:

        "Will you learn to obey Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze before your own father and mother?"
        "Will you learn that honor is never slavery, and give your honor and your submission to the simbon?"
        "Will you learn that kola nuts are good, tobacco is good, honey is sweet - and give them over to your master?"

        Once they have agreed, they are of the donso. The new initiates must obey the code of their brotherhood and annually fulfill its requirements, or be the sworn enemy of all other donso.

        Trappings

        Donso wear skin-tight leggings and bear cowrie shells upon their cloak or blouse as the marks of a hunter. Simbons of great prowess likely carry a pouch of goatskin, the sassa, filled with sand and cowries for use in divination. They favor the spear, the bow, and the rifle. Simbons are likely to bear a hunter's whistle, to signal with others of the band.

        Hunter's shirt. Mali.
        Date unknown. Minneapolis Institute of Art.
        Mechanics

        Prerequisites
        A character seeking to become a donso must have a ranged attack bonus of +5 or greater without any magic assistance - only a combination of their base attack and any Dexterity modifications. They must gain the sponsorship of a simbon who will continue to sponsor and bear responsibility for their candidates.

        Initiation

        After becoming a donso a character continues to level normally, but gains the following benefits in addition to their standard gained abilities at a given level (see below).

        Benefits

        A donso character gains the benefits of the skills listed below when they achieve the level in question. No additional XP is required; however a donso must always adhere to the requirements listed below, or else the favor of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze is withdrawn. 
        • Peerless Trackers: Improve base hunting skill by 1-in-6, 3 points, or 15% depending on your game system of choice (1st)
        • Herbs of the Healer: 25 + (level * 3)% chance in wilderness to find herbs that can grant a second saving throw vs poison (1st)
        • Future Paths: may cast augury 3x/week (2nd). 
        • Tongues of Jinn: may converse normally with jinn of brush and forest; has 10x level chance to invoke a jinn of brush or forest and converse or bargain, 1x/month (4th)
        • Simbon: Master hunter, may sponsor another applicant into the donso (6th)
        • "Hunters of Mali" - Philippe Bordas, Le Monde
        • Window to the World of Jinn: May cast commune 1x/month (9th)

        Requirements
        A donso must always obey their oaths to their simbon regarding the three questions.

        1. Even the rulers of Manden swear to obey Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze (and their servant the simbon) above their own fathers, giving the royal court of Manden an unexpected dual loyalty. However, each ruler is sponsored by a different simbon, ensuring that no one person continues to dominate the course of the nation.

        2. Along with the duties of respect and obedience to the simbon, donso are expected to oppose slavery at every turn, rooting it out when encountered. Where open confrontation is not viable, donso may take the time to operate in a clandestine manner, but they may never abandon a slave to their fate.

        3. Each year, a donso must present their simbon with their level x 1000 dinars worth of trade goods (tobacco, kola nuts, etc.). This does not have to be all at once, but can be presented to the simbon over the course of the year.

        In return, a simbon must prepare the medicines and powders for their students to ensure that the creatures they hunt do not continue to haunt them.  Donso take a risk when they hunt. The greater power and role that their quarry plays in the cosmos, the greater the danger is that its wraith will stalk the donso that harmed it -- unless the simbon provides guidance and protection.

        Simbon speak each season with the jinn of brush and forest to ensure that they are satisfied, and to confirm that their students have followed their oaths - to guide them if they falter, and to punish them if they fail. They must teach their students the ways to talk with jinn. They must ensure that all those who hunt in their lands (donso or not) obey the traditions of the hunt. They must ensure that no prince or emir or caliph or chief encroaches upon the bounds of the donso, or answer to Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze at their peril.

        Cultural Note

        This entry derives strongly from the hunters of Kondolon ni Sané as related by Djibril Niane. Niane's work (as he directly acknowledges) came from speaking with the griot Mamadou Kouyaté of Guinea. The Epic of Sundiata is an oral tradition, and cannot fully be conveyed through the written word. Similarly, as you can see from the Guillot article linked below (and the Bordas photographs used for illustration here) the brotherhood of hunters continues to exist in Mali. The abilities I have referenced in this post reflect those mentioned in the Epic of Sundiata, and do not touch upon any other abilities or secret traditions that the hunters may have.

        I have no connection to the Mandingo people beyond those shared from a common Islamic religious and cultural tradition. I believe that Mamadou Kouyaté's work through Niane is a valid subject for interpretation in game material because of the intended public-facing nature of the work that Niane relates, and additional discussion in the preface.

        Bibliography:



        Friday, November 16, 2018

        Dungeons + Dominion II: The Domain Game

        Firstly: a salute to Evlyn M, an artist who was formerly a vibrant part of the online OSR community, but who has since withdrawn as a result of toxicity in the scene. Evlyn does some absolutely charming work, and we are made much poorer by her departure.

        Secondly: a shoutout to Stuart Robertson, creator of the ubiquitous "OSR" logo, on taking a stand re: the usage (and misuse) of the logo.  I haven't spoken out as forthrightly about misuses of community position and power in our community as I should have, and I'm glad that I've got another good example here to try and live up to.

        * * *

        This post was inspired by a query on the /rpg subreddit, where someone asked for a simple way to generate a domain setup for his kids' game, and asked if it were possible to use the cardbuilder Dominion as a framework.

        I've written about using Dominion as a setting generation element before, but I think that this new query is a way to set up an evolving domain framework without too much back-end work. It's pretty abstracted, but if you had to do something in a pinch I think this could work.

        This post assumes a decent knowledge of the mechanics behind Dominion. If you're unfamiliar, it might read a bit gobbledygook to you (you can check out the rules from RGG here)

        Martin Hoffman, Dominion
        Setup

        Play a 3- or 4-player game of Dominion. At the end, pick one of the decks to determine what resources the players' domain has - victory point cards mean territory, treasures mean fiscal resources on hand, and action cards mean buildings or resources within the fiefdom.

        Feel free to abstract meanings from the cards present - having a Golem in the deck might mean that the domain has a construct or warforged present...or, drawing upon the the original Golem of Prague story, it might mean that the polity has a strong and unflagging defender.

        Gameplay

        Each month (or other 'domain turn'), the domain can expend resources to take on new projects and keep growing and improving. The victory point cards present at the end of the setup phase serve to increase the number of potential improvements and projects that a domain can seek to take on as a card draw from the randomizer deck for the next month - the players can choose what they want the fiefdom to try and construct/purchase (adding to the deck). They'll have to keep gathering gold and resources to get what they need for the fiefdom, though (unrelated to the money cards acquired in playing the setup game).

        Resources acquired through standard play sessions (treasure, magical artifacts, alliances) wind up being translated into cards for the fiefdom deck. The game text doesn't matter too much - villages don't give you +2 Actions, +1 Card on the domain turn, but just symbolize that there's a village associated with the fiefdom that's significant in some way. You're using the deck to generate opportunities for randomization, NOT playing a game of Dominion anymore.

        Example:

        After playing an intro game of Dominion with three AI players, I win. My deck contains: 8 Estates, 4 Duchies, and 3 Provinces (Victory cards), 1 Cellar, 1 Village, 1 Remodel, 3 Markets, and 2 Mines (Action Cards).

        Matthias Catrein, Dominion
        Translating the Action cards into domain resources: well, the two mines are simple, as is the village. 3 Markets suggest strong mercantile connections (as would make sense with two extant mines). The tricky ones are Cellar and Remodel, which have no easy direct analog. I might render Cellar as a series of storage vaults untouched through the various ages by the previous domain-holders (strange new swag for the PCs?), and Remodel as the presence of a new builder who's able to start new construction projects right away.

        Now I need to translate the Estates, Duchies, and Provinces into draws from the randomizer. Each Estate is worth a quarter of a card (round down), each Duchy is worth half a card, and each Province is worth a card. This gives us 7 randomly selected cards that the domain will be able to choose its next upgrade from.

        The draw is: Shanty Town, Bridge, Mining Village, Spy, Masquerade, Caravan, and Laboratory.

        Mining Village suggests that there's been expansion around the mines and they're going to be more productive; Shanty Town suggests that the largest settlement in the domain has expanded, Bridge suggests that roads and infrastructure are developed further. Spy would suggest either the creation of an espionage network, or just developing information on one of your neighbors. Masquerade might be hosting a major social event, Caravan a greater focus on inter-domain trading, and Laboratory the creation of a wizard's or alchemist's sanctum.

        Some might (reasonably) suggest that the things listed are all things that a domain should be able to do anyway - why should mercantile expansion be limited by drawing a single card? Well, if you're looking for a very light overhead system, then that's just the random event that's available to you. If you want something that allows for a bit more player agency in the domain turns, then make these random events a bit more powerful -- the caravans here might be higher payoff, or reaching out to farther destinations, or the like.

        Wednesday, October 17, 2018

        Legacy of the Bieth Appendix N (Revisited)

        James Introcaso, over at Worldbuilder Blog, released his own Appendix N a while back, and asked folks to contribute theirs.

        Attentive readers will recall that I've written one, but that was five years ago. So here's a revised and expanded listing for Legacy of the Bieth's Appendix N.

        Primary Sources
        The Book of Contemplation, Usama ibn Munqidh
        The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun
        The Rihla, Ibn Battuta

        Epics and Folktales
        The Romance of Antar, Anonymous
        The Hamzanama, Anonymous
        Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (trans. D.T. Niane and G.D. Pickett)
        Saharan Myth and Saga, H.T. Norris

        I'm still making my way through most of these. Sundiata is amazing and absolutely fertile ground for RPG material. It's not just the main story of a denied prince liberating his home from an usurping sorceror-king, but also the little details like the far-seeing hunters (who provide another reason for the AD&D ranger to have all those divination spells...) I haven't had a chance to read Nneti Okorafor and Eric Battle's comic adaptation of Antar yet, but that's likely going to go up here also. 

        Nonfiction
        10,000 Ways to Die, Alex Cox
        Night and Horses and the Desert, Robert Irwin
        Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold, Marq du Villiers and Sheila Hirtle
        When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, Hugh Kennedy
        Cairo: The City Victorious, Max Rodenbeck
        Making Big Money in 1600: The Life and Times of Isma'il Abu Taqiyya, Egyptian Merchant, Nelly Hanna
        The Tunnels of Cu Chi, Tom Mangold and Joe Penycale
        Codes of the Underworld, Diego Gambetta 

        Most of the sources here deal with Egypt and/or Islamic medieval culture, but there are a few ringers. 10,000 Ways to Die (freely available here) was hugely influential for thinking about the tone of spaghetti westerns, and what makes them work on a thematic level.

        Fiction
        Chronicles of Sword and Sand, Howard Andrew Jones
        Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed
        Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
        Annihilation, Jeff van der Meer
        The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson (particularly Deadhouse Gates and The Bonehunters)
        Yendi, Steven Brust
        "Zothique" stories, Clark Ashton Smith (also see generally)
        "Outremer" stories, Robert Howard (also see generally)
        Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre
        City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty
        Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, Barry Hughart
        "Black God's Kiss," CL Moore

        The fiction section is one of the areas where I want to cast a wider net. One of my concerns with my inspirational material is that it's not drawing on enough North African material. The other is that it's drawing on too much of a Western lens. So, more work to be done.

        Film
        The Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone
        Black Panther, Ryan Coogler
        The Mummy (1999), Stephen Sommers
        Indiana Jones Trilogy, Stephen Spielberg
        The Proposition, John Hillcoat
        The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah

        The movie adaptations of Roadside Picnic and Annihilation would likely make it onto this, but I haven't been able to watch them yet.

        Music
        Blue Oyster Cult (see generally)
        Powerslave, Iron Maiden
        Ennio Morricone
        Federale

        Blue Oyster Cult winds up providing a lot of the inspiration and underpinning for some of the weirder cosmological elements present.



        Computer Games
        S.T.A.L.K.E.R., GSG Game World
        Mount + Blade Warband, Paradox
        Age of Empires II, Microsoft

        Artists
        Zdzisław Beksiński
        Remedios Varo

        Thursday, September 27, 2018

        Landsknecht Link Roundup, Aug/Sept


        I did one of these in late July - seems overdue for another roundup. Here's a curated list of "Some Stuff I Thought Was Cool," and discussing what I liked/found interesting about them.
        Ba Chim Seal of Approval!

        (art by Dreadbeasts)
        • Hydra buddy Trey Causey continues to be a freakin' machine over at From the Sorcerer's Skull. I particularly liked his thoughts on how Adventure Time's setting design can inform campaign construction, and his thoughts for using Operation Unfathomable as the core for a '50s monster movie setting.
        • While you're looking at Trey's blog, check out the ICONS writeup for Girlgantua, another teaser for the forthcoming Armchair Planet Who's Who. (My favorite bit so far might be the quiet Trek nod in the Tempus Fugitives.)
        • David Perry released Principia Apocrypha, an alternative to the venerable Old School Primer that discusses 'core OSR principles' from an Apocalypse World-influenced standpoint. This one has some charming art by Evlyn M.
        • Continuing on with core principles, Into the Odd has some thoughts on the trio of Information, Choice, and Impact in centering player agency in campaign play.
        • Wizardthiefighter Luka completed the first draft of the Ultraviolet Grasslands recently, and I've started the editing process. Members of Luka's Patreon can check out the first draft, and of course there's a free preview available here.
           
        • The Lizard Man Diaries's Infinigrad Suburb Generator is a nice set of tables for jumpstarting some weird fantasy neighborhoods. I'm also interested in checking out Jack Shear's treatment of the same idea in the upcoming Umberwell supplement (demoed at DIY & Dragons).
        • While the Odious Uplands churn towards completion, Jason's fired up The Dungeon Dozen once again. As someone whose campaign fits the bill, I particularly appreciate his investigations into why There Are No Dragons In This World.
        • Rey & Grey continue to chug away at Break!! - here's some exciting art from the intro adventure, Trouble in Sprocket. I've played through Sprocket, but didn't interact with large parts of the adventure (including some of the groups seen here) and now I want to play through that again.
        • Emmy Allen wrote Dolorous Stroke, an Arthurian myth wargame inspired by GW's Inquisitor. Focus on small objective-based skirmishes with a premium on narrative construction. Very cool stuff. (I'm biased, I suggested the name.)
        • Evan, at In Places Deep, has a guide to sandbox construction up. As someone who often stalls out in the procedural side of setting generation, this sort of framework is extremely handy (and one I'm recommending to other folks interested in sandbox generation).
        • Against the Wicked City has just wrapped up a nine-part series looking at the books of WFRP 2e, but my favorite part is his discussion of Renegade Crowns. This book is one of my favorites, and I'm glad to see it getting a bit of recognition in presaging some of the OSR's fortes. (I think Joseph undersells some of the utility that RC still provides, including a sandbox construction kit of its own, some nice random tables for generating opposing factions, and an excellent Trouble Index system that keeps PCs dashing between internal and external threats to their petty fiefdom.)
        • Bad Wrong Fun is previewing Offworlders (Traveller by way of World of Dungeons). I'm not 100% sold on WoD, but I appreciate the rules-minimalist approach and am curious to see where Offworlders takes that fusion. Alas, no rules for PC death in chargen (yet).
        • Skerples is teasing Magical-Industrial Revolution. In contrast to the OSR aesthetics of ruin, MIR is focused on the time just before decay...right before everything goes to hell. I tend to steer away from high magic games and frameworks, but I've been grooving on the Revolutions podcast recently, and am extremely interested in seeing game examination of how building social pressures and unexpected catalysts can start things spiralling out of control.
        • A bit out of timeframe, but I liked Beyond Formalhaut's discussion of the purpose of RPG books (creativity aid and supplement). Melan's part of the OSR that I'm not really in touch with (I came in late). At this point I'm not particularly enthused about 'calls to arms,' but I definitely appreciate Melan's urging towards a culture of experiential play. (Not to mention a focus on discussion - which is part of why I'm trying to share these out!)
        • Give 'Em Lead investigates solo campaign construction in a wargaming setting - combining WFB matches with event-table solo play to create a campaign narrative focusing on one army (rather than the traditional duelling forces of a narrative campaign, or free-wheeling all vs all multi-player campaigns).
        So. What'd I miss? What posts have had your brains buzzing?







        Tuesday, September 25, 2018

        Untapped Matrix Energy?

        "And standing there, facing the pure horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth.
        What is the Matrix? Control (of a game through preselected verbs and a fluid resolution mechanic)."
        A while back Chris wrote about the Engle Matrix game and examples for implementing it in RPGs. It's a method for running and adjudicating wargames in a mostly stat-less manner, by allowing players to construct explanations/arguments for what they think ought to happen, and then providing the referee a method by which to adjudicate these while still maintaining uncertainty (the original explanation by Engle has more detail, as does Chris's first post).

        The original Engle implementation (and the part giving it the title of Matrix game) involves a pre-selected list of cues ("Anger," "Large Formation," "Love," "Skirmish"). Players select five words from the matrix to construct their arguments ("I will have my troops break into SMALL FORMATIONS and SKIRMISH with the enemy in guerrilla warfare. This will succeed because my troops 1) KNOW THE TERRAIN, 2) and are ANGRY over enemy atrocities, while 3) enemy forces are FATIGUED from overextension.") The referee evaluates how strong an argument is, then rolls to see whether it succeeds or fails.

        We've used matrix games in the Hill Cantons campaign as part of domain-game level play, during the Feral Shore phase of the campaign. In these instances, though, Chris elided over the word selection component of the matrix game, focusing on having players construct arguments over the group's intentions, assessing their strength, and rolling based on that.

        I see the appeal of this method. It takes away the artificial feeling of selecting words, which I suspect at its worst would start to run into the same trap that bad FATE games do - spurious tagging of aspects to fit into the mechanistic requirements of the system. Obviously the referee's judgment can moderate these tendencies, but it's easy to see how the implementation can spiral downhill.

        And yet.

        Something still draws me to the use and implementation of a matrix in resolving situations. The incense of integration alludes to a magic system I've begun conceptualizing, that requires players to draw analogies between the qualities of a zodiac sign and the magical effects that the player wishes to achieve.
        “Because I thought the serpent was cunning, like a spy out to be, and the crucible could mean knowledge, what you kind of distill, and the beehive was hard work, like bees are always working hard; so out of the hard work and the cunning comes knowledge, see, and that’s they spy’s job; and I pointed to them and I thought the question in my mind, and the needle stopped at death…D’you think that could be really working, Farder Coram?” -- Phillip Pullman, The Golden Compass, displaying the intuitively engaging feel of magical analogies

        Beyond magic systems, I think there's fallow ground in playing with the list of words that compose the matrix and adapting it for targeted use in other situations away from the geopolitical. Adjusting these might provide the tools for a sweet spot in mechanical implementation of social interactions, between the unsatisfying "social combat" and the extremely broad "free RP."

        Have any of you used matrix games (or similar tools) in your campaigns? Any thoughts for how to best employ them?

        Friday, August 3, 2018

        Incense of Integration

        Feline Incense Burner - Louvre
        Khorasan or Central Asia, 11th Century
        A talisman is a spirit within a body...it is domination because its essence is coercion and control. It functions according to the purpose it was composed for: overpowering and coercing, by using numerical ratios and placing astrological secrets in certain bodies at certain times and by using incenses that are powerful and capable of bringing out the spirit of that talisman.

        -- Anon., The Goal of the Wise (Picatrix), Trans. Hashem Atallah, Ouroboros Press, 2007

        Talismanic magic, the domain of the most talented astrologers [and a likely new magic system to be detailed later -- Ed.] is a form of sympathetic magic. It requires that the magus establish arcane similarities between a configuration of the celestial spheres and an earthly vessel (a talisman), then use incense as a conduit for a minor jinn* to manifest and inhabit the talisman. Once the jinn has entered the talisman, the device becomes "charged" and will begin to enact its work.

        Selection of the incense is therefore crucial. The right blend of ingredients to tie together the earthly requirements to align the talisman with its task, and the conditions of the talisman with the stars it seeks to emulate, is a delicate balance. An error in selection is therefore the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.

        Some of the foremost astronomers have developed incense of integration, a particular blend of ingredients which helps evoke the heavens and assists in aligning the physical construct of the talisman with the desired celestial configuration.

        Mechanics:

        Selection of the proper incense ingredients is made by rolling against the mage's Int on 4d6. The GM should provide bonuses if the player can present items which can establish a connection of sympathetic magic (hairs off the bandit's beard, resin from the Caliph's garden, etc.) and are present in sufficient quantities to make some incense.

        Using incense of integration in the proposed blend allows the magus to reroll a failed Int check in incense selection. If, however, this second check is failed, there is a 2-in-6 chance that the talisman will operate in reverse.

        *The term is...imprecise; this is as much a jinn as a Firanj "kobold" is a human.

        This is my second entry in Dan D's #DIY30 Challenge.


        Source: The Goal of the Wise (Picatrix), Trans. Hashem Atallah, Ouroboros Press, 2007

        Thursday, August 2, 2018

        Ghuleh, Ghuleh

        Putrefaction
        A scent that cursed be
        Crawler from The Descent (2005)

        Under cold dark dust
        From the darkness
        Rise a succubus
        From the earthen rust

        - Ghost, "Ghuleh / Zombie Queen"

        Ghul
        No. Enc.: 1d8 (1d6x10)
        Movement: 120' (40')
        Armor Class: 6 (hide)
        Hit Dice: 2+2, or 6 (rais)
        Attacks: 1
        Damage: 1d8 (claws) or weapon
        Save: F3, F6 (rais)
        Morale: 9, 11 (rais)
        Exp: 58, 820 (rais)

        Hoard Class: IV (individual), XIV (group)

        Hideous Regeneration: The first wound a ghul suffers in a combat will cause the ghul to take an additional 1 hp damage each round. However, if the the ghul is struck again, its jinn heritage will begin healing all of its wounds with diabolical speed; it will regenerate 1d10 hp per round for the rest of the day.

        Rad-touched: Ghuls are immune to the effects of anomalies and other features of the Zone. 

        Ghuls are mutants of the jinn - descendants of those trapped in the Zones and twisted by the horrid magicks of the Bieth. Twisted faces (always sporting twisted tusks), never-healing radiation burns, and withered limbs distort their forms. Confined to their warped and twisted physical forms, they are disdained by their jinn brethren, and feared by human city-dweller and nomad alike. Cast out from all society, pushed to the wastelands and ruins, ghuls regularly turn to banditry and slaughter to survive. Given their residence in the ruined and hollowed cities of the Zones, and the inhospitable nature of the wastes, many believe that they subsist on the vast necropolises and the corpses stored within. 

        Despite their ill reputation, many ghuls dream of leaving their blasted homes and joining the societies they have dimly heard of. Given their immunities to the deleterious effects of the Zone and the perilous anomalies, ghuls will occasionally strike up relationships and even alliances with those striking out into the Zone. However, they are wary and paranoid, and many an alliance has been riven apart through betrayal and fear on both sides. 

        Ghul bands of 20 or more have a 4 in 6 chance of being led by a rais (boss), a 6 HD ghul who can polymorph self (AEC 73) into any humanoid form three times a day. They are known to ride in great bronze chariots drawn by ostriches or eyeless dogs. 



        O who will bear my news to the young men of Fahm
             of what I met at Riha Bitan?
        Of how I met the ghul swooping down
             on the desert bare and flat as a sheet?
        I said to her, 'We are both worn with exhaustion,
             brothers of travel, so leave my place to me!'
        She sprang at me; then my hand raised
             against her a polished Yemeni blade.
        Then undismayed I struck her: she fell flat
             prostrated on her two hands and on her throatlatch.
        She said, 'Strike again!' I replied to her, 'Calm down,
             mind your place! For I am indeed stouthearted.'
        I lay upon her through the night
             that in the morning I might see what had come to me.
        Behold! Two eyes set in a hideous head,
             like the head of a cat, split-tongued,
        Legs like a deformed fetus, the back of a dog,
             clothes of haircloth or worn-out skins!

        -Ta'abbata Sharran, "How I Met The Ghul" (Irwin 24)

        Notes:

        • Apparently ghuls eating the dead was an invention of Antoine Galland in his translation of the 1001 Nights (Al-Rawi). There certainly seem to be several tales and instances of MENA folklore where ghuls are shown eating corpses, but those tales postdate Galland's translation. This is honestly part of why I'm making Legacy of the Bieth in the first place - drawing upon MENA folklore and myth that tries to step away from The Arabian Nights (TM) and its dominant presence as the touchstone for "Islamic fantasy." 
        • This is my first entry in Dan D's #DIY30 challenge. Despite this post running on 8/2, I wrote it the night of 8/1, so it counts dammit. We'll see how long I can keep up.

        Sources:
        The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture, Ahmed Al-Rawi, Cultural Analysis, 8, 45-65.
        Night & Horses & The Desert, Robert Irwin
        "Zerendac," Feminist Folklore
        Folklore of the Holy Land, J.E. Hanauer (source here)


        Thursday, July 26, 2018

        Blog Roundup, 7/26

        Over on G+, there's been some discussion about how the blogosphere is dead and gone -- how the environment that made it fruitful no longer exists to provide a viable discussion zone.

        (For my part, I continue to blame the death of Google Reader, but that's neither here nor there.)


        So here's my part to try and provide some revitalization - a curated list of some recent posts, plus what I liked or found interesting about them.

        • From The Sorceror's Skull - Weird Revisited: In Arcadia - Trey is running a few old posts here, which is really good because there are a lot of his older posts that I haven't seen! Trey's post provides a slight taste of the realm and presents discussion as to how you'd integrate it into a game:

          "Magical practitioners view Arcadia and its neighboring realms as places to salvage materials and items out of myth and legend, and to parley with powers that--though perhaps consciously forgotten--still retain great mythic resonance in Man's unconscious.  As with all extraplanar dealings, caution is warranted: These primal beings have agendas of their own."

          This touches upon something I'd like to see more of - ways in which a setting's myths and legends can rebound upon and affect the setting as players grapple with them.
        • Ynas Midgard's RPG Blog - XP for Exploration in Hyperborea - this post takes on Jeff's eXPloration post and provides a worked example beyond Jeff's original post. The new wrinkle here is the "completionist" aspect, where finding different hidden wonders provides ever-increasing XP benefits. The players may not necessarily know how many of these hidden wonders there are, but discovering each one provides greater and greater rewards. I like this because it speeds up the process of evaluating how much each site is worth, and provides the players with an interesting incentive to go into deep exploration of a given region.
        • Cavegirl's Game Stuff - Dolorous Stroke - Playtests! - I'm pretty hyped about Emmy's work on Dolorous Stroke (and not just because I suggested the name!). It's taking a look at the design space that Inquisitor delved into, re-fusing RPGs and skirmish games back together.
        • Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque - Mama Lesidi Gheda, the Cult Leader of Cinderheim - Jack's almost done with the Cinderheim book, and these warlord profiles are good teasers. I wish it were a bit more simulationistic in terms of breaking down a few more of the details (how strong is Mama Gheda in relation to the other warlords?) but it's a great format to construct a punchy, evocative snapshot of a character and their domain.
        • Rolltop Indigo - Lexicon - Robert recently pointed me towards S John Ross's blog. This series, looking at developing a new set of terminology for talking about RPGs, seems to me to be setting out some useful and handy frameworks. Invisible Rulebooks, for example, is a nice and clear discussion of some of the unstated assumptions that go into a gaming group's decisions and game framework.
        • Coins and Scrolls - A 12th Century Tour, Part 7 - Egypt, North Africa, and Home Again - I'm only belatedly coming to Skerples's posts here, but of course I'm going to show up for the MENA post. And look at the entire thing! A pointcrawl of the Mediterranean, with contemporary glimpses into what many / most of those points were seen as. Holy crap. (Oh, and while you're here check out his Island-Based Reviews.)
           
        • Papers and Pencils - Questions To Ask Yourself After A Session - If you're like me, wrapping up a game session leaves you with both a sudden frenzy of energy and a lack of direction (particularly if all your players are toddling sensibly off to sleep). Beloch's questions here help provide a bit of that direction, and let you tap into that post-game high in order to provide some dynamic directions for the next session.
        I liked writing this. No promises, but I'd like to continue putting out further roundups. 

        Thursday, July 5, 2018

        Gaming Insurgencies in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

        So. Stuff is awful in the real world. Hell, between the time I started this blog post and the time I'm writing this sentence, things have gotten worse.

        I urge folks reading this to consider donating to RAICES or the International Refugee Assistance Project.

         *******

        Aaron Allston (RIP) had a long-running and stellar RPG resume, but I think his most highly regarded work may be the Champions supplement Strike Force. Strike Force was a sourcebook detailing in-depth Allston's home Champions campaign, tips and tricks for GMing a long-running campaign, analysis of how the campaign developed, etc. Jeff took a look at it a while back; it's a great "how-to" for constructing your own supers campaign in the same mode. Allston's example provides guidance for the issues that will likely come up in a supers campaign, and gives the prospective GM a framework and set of tools for being able to deal with them.
        "Face Loran" by Midhat Kapetanovic
        (a fan artist whose work Allston enjoyed)

        I was taking a bus to NYC recently on little sleep, and needed something to keep me awake and upright. So I started flipping through and rereading one of the Wraith Squadron books - Allston's first entries into writing Star Wars fiction. They focus on a ragtag bunch of near-washouts with nevertheless exceptional skills, multiclass commando/pilots tasked with special operations for the New Republic.

        The three initial Wraith Squadron books center on the squadron's operations against Warlord Zsinj, an ex-Imperial warlord with a Super Star Destroyer who's managed to carve out his own personal empire (lowercase 'e' there). The Wraiths wind up staging multiple false-flag and covert operations, masquerading first as Zsinj's own forces, then as independent mercenaries...

        As I was blearily paging through, I had a sudden realization born of equal parts brilliance and sleep deprivation.

        The Wraith Squadron books (and to a lesser degree, their Rogue Squadron predecessors) serve as a great how-to for setting up an insurgency-focused RPG campaign. I don't just mean that they're crackingly fun novels about an insurgency-style conflict (although they are that), or even that they feel akin to the vibe given by the best parts of the WEG Star Wars RPG (although they are that too). The Wraith Squadron books give you a sample set of characters (and showcase their evolution over time), raise a clear set of problems that insurgent cells might face, and provide examples of how to structure a campaign framework that meaningfully combines strategic decisions with engaging roleplay-friendly tactical frameworks (the traditional "adventure session").

        The Wraiths do seem like a traditional PC selection - one part Central Casting (Star Wars), one part goofy off-the-wall character concepts ("A Gamorrean mathematical savant!" "Imperial double agent with artificially induced dissociative identity disorder!"). But the most interesting thing for RPG purposes is the framework that Allston places the Wraiths in.

        There's a bit of throat-clearing in the first Wraith book (character introductions, training montages) but it gets going with a interesting problem that the PCs have to wrestle with: most of their X-wings are disabled in space, and they're pretty sure that a hostile ship is inbound to their location to scoop up the disabled craft. How do you deal with this?

        In short order this turns into a new problem/opportunity - 1) you've captured the hostile ship that was coming for your squadron, and 2) the enemy doesn't know that you've taken it. What do you do? How do you turn this into your advantage, in an open-ended setting with no immediate mission orders beyond "deny the enemy"? (Oh, and 'how do you modify the ship to be cooler,' in swift accordance with the gear fascination that regularly crops up in RPGs.)

        As I've written before, special operations make for a compelling campaign framework. The Wraiths continually have to deal with resource shortfalls - both personnel (as casualties mount) and starfighters (generally their most effective, but also most irreplaceable, equipment asset). Missions are designed, on both sides, with the objective of gathering factual intelligence, but also an understanding of the motivations and personality dynamics behind the opposition.

        Wraith Squadron, by Jeffrey Carlisle
        (WotC, Galaxy at War)

        The additional component that the Wraith Squadron books bring is a discussion of sources of power, legitimacy, and the dynamics of control - the heart of an insurgency discussion. Directly duelling Zsinj is repeatedly shown to be a mug's game - he refuses to give direct battle with his fleet unless he has a clear numerical advantage, and only fights on ground that he has chosen (something most explored in the third Wraith book, Solo Command). Here, Zsinj is in the position of the insurgent against the incumbent New Republic. The NR forces wind up gaming out a few possibilities - how is he maintaining support? What are the crucial components of his empire's infrastructure, and the sources of his legitimacy? Insurgencies are about convincing a population that you are going to be a better source of government than your opposition (however that population ranks 'government'). This is the fundamental objective of an insurgency-centric RPG campaign as well (regardless of which side one's on, insurgent or incumbent) - degrading your opposition's capability to govern and exert force, while demonstrating to the populace that you're able to do better on those fronts.

        Chris has written before about the incorporation of a Chaos Index into a campaign to present a campaign framework that reacts to player actions. (If curious to see a worked example of a chaos index, check out Misty Isles of the Eld; all of the Hill Cantons products from Hydra have Chaos Indices but Misty Isles is the most directly helpful for today's discussion). As Chris alludes to in his blogpost, the Chaos Index framework has origins in the political track that some wargames incorporate to determine the allegiance of a population. So here, we're bringing the Index back to its roots.
        Wraith Squadron, by Joe Corroney
        (WotC, Star Wars Gamer #9)

        If players are taking on the role of an insurgent cell, then it makes sense for the GM to track two variables in particular: the "Heat" that player actions have generated, and the population's inclinations towards one side or the other. (More ambitious GMs might wish to track the population's affiliation towards each side on its own separate track, in order to model disillusioned populaces who can trust neither belligerent, or populaces seeking alternative governance when one side is insufficiently responsive.) As players continue to take action, Heat will continue to rise, and the incumbent will devote more and more resources to countering their actions and reasserting control over the areas that the players are striking at. Notably, Heat will rise with both successful and failed operations - but if the players lie low for too long, the ability to win over the population will begin to diminish.

        On the other hand, if the players are the incumbent, then the inclinations track might be paired with a Public Will or Official Support track; as fighting and conflict continues on, the incumbent's capacity to exert sustained influence begins to wane. So the incumbent has a strong desire to bring things to a head quickly...but the quick way is often the way that decreases legitimacy, and therefore decreases inclination.

        Either way, dealing with an insurgency conflict is a fundamentally political issue, since it hinges so strongly upon gaining the support of the population (or at the very least, preventing their active opposition). It requires interaction and bargaining with with multiple factions, and mandates interaction with various stripes of leaders. This isn't 'just' a wargame, but a framework that combines strategic and tactical objectives with a deeply personal framework that makes it suitable for RPGs.

        Have any of you dabbled with insurgencies in your games? What would you want to ensure is present?

        One final note - as with any campaign framework dealing with war and conflict, an insurgency-centric campaign can go dark places. However, given the very real-world insurgency conflicts that we've seen over the past two decades, those dark places may touch too close to home for folks. Getting player buy-in (and evaluating the areas folks are comfortable delving into) is going to be crucial here.

        Further Reading:

        X-Wing Series, Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston (particularly Stackpole's Wedge's Gamble, Krytos Trap, and Bacta War, and Allston's Wraith Squadron, Iron Fist, and Solo Command)
        Counterinsurgency and the Rule of Law (yup, I'm vain enough to cite my own work here)
        Wargaming in the Classroom: An Odyssey, James Lacey, War on the Rocks
        GMT's Counterinsurgency Games

        Saturday, September 9, 2017

        To Battle in Hell - L'Mercenaire!

        A brief plug before the main entry: the Hydra Cooperative is participating in a Hurricane Harvey relief bundle on DriveThruRPG, running through 9/12/2017. Pick up over $400 of PDFs for only $25 - and help out the Houston Harvey Relief Fund  and the Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group Fund. Play elfgames AND assist those in need - win-win!

        Mercenaries have been a subject of fascination for me for ages. As a kid, I devoured books about the Flying Tigers and other merc pilot outfits, but also fell in love with Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company and Corwin raising his army of Earth mercs to take Amber. Later, Glen Cook's legendary Black Company books and Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen continue to loom large for me, as do Iain M Banks's Use of Weapons and Drake's Hammer's Slammers.
        NC Wyeth's "The White Company"

        Driving back home just now, I listened to a great interview on why Erik Price's plan for Afghanistan is terrible. Price, the founder of Blackwater/Xe/Academi/Constellis, was described by the guests as (among other things) "Gyro Gearloose" and "[a guy who] thinks he's Tony Stark but is really Lex Luthor." Hell of a listen. (See also this 2007 piece, by Paul Tullis and one of the folks on the interview, Robert Young Pelton.)

        Grizzly APC.jpg
        Blackwater's Grizzly AFV
        By Dominguez2 - Own workCC BY-SA 3.0Link
        Prince's outlook, combining a strong religious fervor (and profit-motive driven amorality) with wildly ambitious ideas (both sensible and awful) rang a few bells of recognition in my mind from a gaming perspective. Price certainly fits the mold of a recurring NPC, if not a PC himself. His peripatetic post-Iraq schemes for BlackXeCademi (an abortive attempt to foment a war with Iran, creating an anti-piracy force in Somalia before abandoning his forces in the field to go rogue, creating an oil refinery scheme in South Sudan before being kicked out for trying to skim off the top) sound like the sort of harebrained ideas that, well, a bunch of PCs would come up with. And when I hear about Blackwater creating its own COIN planes and AFVs, visions of folks geeking out over how to minmax and optimize their own vehicles in GURPS or Traveller flash before my eyes.

        Even while I listened with horror to the Blackwater podcast, a treacherous 13-year-old who lurks in my brain was going "that's so cooooool" at some of the Blackwater shenanigans. To be clear, the cool bits were more the homegrown vehicles and wild antipiracy plans than the civilian massacres, heedless destruction, and disregard for human life. (Those last bits are...kind of not so hot, to say the least).

        Joel DuQue, for HareBrained Schemes's Battletech
        This train of thought got me wondering why we don't see more discussion of PCs-as-mercenaries in RPGs. While there are certainly several games that do support this (Traveller and Battletech both pop primarily to mind, but also several games from this list - interesting to note the strong presence in all three lists of the Keith brothers), I don't know that there's too much support for the mercenary company in fantasy games. Certainly you have games like ACKS that integrate a wargame/economy system into the core rules, but given the presence of computer games like Mount & Blade and Battle Brothers, not to mention all the literary sources I've mentioned above, I'd have expected a bit more support and/or exploration of the idea.

        So. What makes playing a merc campaign interesting? One of the settings I would have expected to cover this in more detail doesn't; Green Ronin's Black Company Campaign Setting fails to engage with what playing through a merc perspective ought to entail, instead treating the issue as simply "fielding a small army." (This isn't intended to slag the BCCS, which is one of like two d20 books that I have actually sought out and really like, but just noting what it doesn't cover.) Even worse is the AD&D 2e "For Gold and Glory," which lists a slew of uninspiring and incoherent Forgotten Realms mercenary groups and their Battlesystem statistics - perhaps expandable with work into something useful, but it would be hard going.

        Instead, a better place to start is something like the Mercenary's Handbook for Battletech. This book (1st ed by J Andrew Keith - see above) lays out a few principles that help clarify what makes a merc campaign interesting:
        Niclas Meldeman - "A Landsknecht Brandmeister"

        •  It's about logistics, economics, and survival as much as it is about strategy and tactics.
          A merc unit isn't just about warfare and fighting - it's also about doing so at a profit (or else you wouldn't be mercs in the first place). While this can (if taken to extremes) lead to excessive spreadsheet management taking over play, it also helps focus the players on long-term decisions. While it's possible for PCs to take extraordinary measures to heal (or even resurrect) a single companion, it's harder to do so for whole units. Players have to conserve their forces and ensure that they're spending their money wisely. (As forces increase, player overhead does as well - perhaps a refreshing change for GMs who are all too familiar with player power creep combining with money meaning less and less throughout play.) This point seems like it might interact interestingly with the traditional "1 GP = 1 XP" rule for classic D&D.
        • The merc has two concerns to keep track of - the actions of their enemy and the actions of their employer. Corollary: the employer feels the same way about the mercs.
          Hiring a mercenary unit means that a state actor has delegated one of the state's core functions (the monopoly and control of violence) over to an actor that is operating from financial gain. This sets up a slew and a half of dangerous incentives for both patron and mercenary. Shadowrun is infamous for including a stereotypical "Mr. Johnson" patron who generally intends to screw the players over upon completion of the job (either because they Know Too Much or to avoid paying the contract.) Battletech takes a more subtle approach, with constant struggles between patron and merc regarding both payment and the amount of control that the patron will ultimately be able to exert over the mercenary unit. Long-term, the mercs have to worry about being hung out to dry, sacrificed for either financial gain or simplifying the playing board. In turn, the patron has to worry about the mercs being unreliable (failing to fight or turning their coat) or even staging a coup once they're in a commanding position. 
        • It's not all about the fighting.

          As I mentioned, many discussions of mercenaries in RPGs (primarily fantasy gaming) seem to abstract mercenary play to merely mass combat. However, this undersells several of the strange and outre mission types that lend themselves exceedingly well to RPGs in particular - the ones that require out-of-the-box thinking and unusual actions to supplement maneuver and force. In the Mercenary's Handbook, Keith identifies a few contract types that fit this bill: cadre duty, security/riot duty, siege warfare, recon and objective raids, and guerrilla warfare.

          These contracts place the players in situations where they either have interesting responsibilities not usually present in PC groups (shepherding and training green troops, conducting security rather than breaching it), or situations ideally suited to PC organization and scheming (infiltration to shorten a siege, guerrilla warfare). These are frameworks which offer social interaction, sneaky tricks, and lateral thought a chance to shine alongside direct application of force, while giving players increased resources (and responsibilities) to manage.
        • A mercenary campaign is a shortcut to domain game play.

          Classic D&D has the domain game - rulership, land management, and building a kingdom/dynasty - as a traditional endgame. The mercenary campaign lets players engage with a section of those widgets earlier than they might otherwise (and in novel ways that don't quite match up to standard domain game play). It also places PCs in a situation where they have to engage with the broader setting, interacting with movers and shakers in a situation where the PCs have got an inherent value and potential leverage for the bigwigs. 

        Rievers' raid on Gilknockie Tower, G. Cattermole
        The most difficult component of a satisfying mercenary RPG campaign will be economic balance and a satisfying campaign economic system. Normally I'm not too fussed about game balance, but since the merc campaign revolves around keeping the company in the black and not the red, this component will need to be robust enough to keep a core gameplay experience satisfying.

        The next component is a good, quick, and easy-to-integrate/translate mass combat system. (It is a merc campaign after all. Even though force on force conflicts may not be the core gameplay from session to session, you'll want to have a robust enough system to allow players to take on force engagements in a fun and engaging manner. (You'll also need players who are interested in mercenary gaming, but that's not really something I can provide assistance with here, beyond noting that such players are objectively smarter and more attractive than others.)

        It's a tricky thing to put together and organize. I've tried before and had it either peter out or crash and burn very rapidly. But I'm convinced that there's a core gameplay loop here that's immensely satisfying, and I want to explore this space further.

        ...or maybe I just want to field some homegrown AFVs along with some landsknechts.

        How have you worked war and mercenaries into your campaign? What's worked and what hasn't?