Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Elvish Religions

One of my problems as a creative person is that I suffer from a very fleeting attention span combined with an overactive imagination. I start writing one story/idea down and then another quickly replaces it, leaving the object unfinished, then THAT story/idea gets replaced, etc. ad infinitum. It can be a bit frustrating. Anyway, I came up with some Elvish religious tidbits that I probably won't use unless I run a HOW or Unisystem game so I figure I should share them with y'all for inspiration.

(Picture only for clickbait purposes)

Nature

Nature-worshiping Elves is really a cliche at this point but by using other religions like those below it's possible to make it less cliche. The cult of Nature preaches harmony with the natural world, preservation of natural beauty/resources and the rejection of "excessive" technology and artificial methods of altering the land. Societies where Nature is the main deity tend to be reactive, only acting militarily when their territories are directly threatened by outsiders' expansion.


The Ur-Elf

"Damn it feels good to be an Elf." The cult of the Ur-Elf deifies, exaggerates, and worships the traits of the Elvish race. It can shoot better than the god of archery, sneak up on the god of sneaking, out-magic the god of magic, and out-swordplay the god of swordplay. You can do all these things too if you're an Elf! (Not Really.) The Ur-Elf (who was going to be named "Amys") is essentially a god of egotism and self-adulation. It was my conception that Amys would be portrayed as genderless, male, female, and/or hermaphroditic depending on the temple in question and local traditions to express the universality of Elvish awesomeness. Inspired by Heedless One, the statues of the Ur-Elf would be made of emerald or jade but now this idea seems a little silly to me. Unlike the Nature worshipers (see above), the Ur-Elf religion encourages aggressive expansion and conquest. I also was thinking that magic in a society dominated by Ur-Elf religion would be stagnant as the leading mages would only care about ye olde Elven magic and not any of that non-Elf witchery.

Fire

Since Elves are traditionally forest-dwellers and fires can destroy forests, it seems weird to me that no one seems to have examined the Elvish view of fire. I did toy around with the idea of giving all Elves pyrophobia one time but it seems like something that would work in a story not a game. Anyway, Fire-cults worship and appease powers of fire in an effort to ward off forest fires in particular and all dangerous fire in general. They practice ceremonial burnings of effigies and objects to "feed" the fire so that it won't be "hungry" and burn the environs. They also dance around fires and with torches. While on inside of the group this all seems on the level, mainstream Elvish society sees a bunch of nascent arsonist whackos only a single step away from burning down the city. For this reason, most public Fire-cults are in non-Elven lands.

Magic 

Much like Nature-worshiping Elves, Elves as the masters of magic is a bit of a cliche too. Elves who worship Magic are viewed by almost all Elvish societies as dangerous loners due to their obsession with power and immortality. It's the goal of many to transcend into something else via magic, something that isn't part of the natural order (so Nature-worshipers don't like it) and which implies that Elves aren't the best creatures ever (so Ur-Elf worshipers don't like it). Magic-worshipers tend to be wizards. They also tend to be found almost exclusively in non-Elf settlements, usually as founders and teachers in magical academies or employed in the government/military.
  

The Bat

No, not Batman. "The Bat" is a title used when referring to the Elves' god of curses, night, and caves, who is represented by a bat. Similar to the Fire-cults above, worship of The Bat was mainly intended to ward off curses but there were also plenty of curse-mages for hire, which led to a violent suppression of the cults by major Elvish society. I imagined that the worshipers of this deity eventually became wandering Gypsy/carnival analogues who used Elvish skills and magic to entertain the masses. Another idea that I never really expanded is that one of The Bat's major curses is the origin of vampirism.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Obscure D&D Lore

Dungeons & Dragons has been around for 40 years now. As you can imagine, both the roles and the fluff (lore) of D&D have changed a lot during that time. Some fluff remained pretty constant throughout all edition (the difference between arcane and divine magic), some got tweaked between editions (alignment), and a few were radically changed (OD&D's Gnolls and 4e's Eladrin ). This short list isn't going to be too surprising to veteran players but there are some tidbits here that are interesting.

-Gnolls were originally Gnome/Troll hybrids.

-The Gold Dragon was originally the only Lawful (i.e. Good) dragon in OD&D. The remaining five dragons were Chaotic (i.e. Evil) and correspond to what would later be referred to as the Chromatic Dragons.

-There was a UK-published adventure where D&D unofficially crossed over with Warhammer Fantasy. To paraphrase: "In a distant land, the men do not worship the same deities as us . . . they bow to a pantheon of Hope, Anger, and Love . . . and those who will not worship these deities they execute." Hope, Anger, and Love are what Warhammer's Tzeentch, Khorne, and Slaaneesh are embodiments of.

-At one point during AD&D 2e, Yeenoghu (variously the god of Gnolls or the demon prince of Gnolls) was identified as a god of the Giants, and a Giant himself.

-The AD&D 2e multiverse was created by two supergods cosmic snakes who are/were the most powerful beings in the multiverse. 

-In AD&D 2e, Archons (Lawful Good celestials), Asuras (Chaotic Good celestials), and Aasimon (angels) are the transformed souls of Good creatures in the afterlife but Guardinals and Eladrin are actually extraplanar races whose origins have no ties to mortal souls.

-Adding to the above, Asuras, Guardinals, and Eladrin are not immortal like Archons and Aasimon. They do live for a long time though. Guardinals seem to have the shortest lifespans of the three.

-OD&D and Chainmail Gnomes are just Dwarves that live in hills instead of mountainous areas.

-In AD&D 2e, Stygia (one of the Nine Hells) has "ancient tentacled gods" frozen underneath the ice. These descriptions seem to reference the art in Planscape that showed an "evolved" Nupperibo (minor devil) and an "ancient Baatorian" (the inhabitants of the hells before devils moved in).

-In D&D 3.5, probably based on the lore above, Zargon from the Basic D&D module B4 The Lost City was retconned into being an ancient Baatorian despite the fact that the concept had been discarded by the tail end of AD&D 2e.

-Wizards of the Coast created a campaign setting for AD&D 2e based on wuxia. It was only released online (with each chapter as a separate PDF), regarded as crap, and was never again mentioned by WOTC.

-The Witch, an AD&D arcane spellcaster class created by Gary Gygax and published in Dragon Magazine, could not effect clerics, Djinni, or Efreeti.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Weird Dreams

I stayed up a little too late while reading excerpts from the late AD&D supplement called Guide to Hell, a detailed look at the Nine Hells of Baator and the Lawful Evil Baatezu. I've never cared much for D&D's Devils but it did have some interesting little tidbits that I'll probably detail in another post.

This morning I had a dream inspired by what I read. A Lovecraftian Great Old One (unnamed in the dream) somehow took over a swampy layer of Baator. Due to declining power it was forced to assume a three-dimensional form based on its worshipers' beliefs: The entity appears as a light-skinned and powerfully built old man wearing buckskin robes. He has a long, neat white beard and equally neat white hair (think of Christopher Lee in his role as Saruman in LOTR). His eyes are pupilless and solid white. Twig-like horns emerge from the crown of his head. This interloper wanders through the swamp, untouched by layer's water, mud, or beasts. Explorers surveying the layer have discovered areas where bramble weaves together with many-eyed green tentacles to block off some areas. It is unknown what these eldritch cordons guard.

Developing an RPG 1: The Fluff

I've been sporadically working for two months on a roleplaying game  tentatively titled Wrath of The Giants! It's mainly a creative exercise just to see if I can make something that works. In the game the Chaotic Giants are the protagonists and the horrible Law-spreading mortals are the antagonists. It's supposed to be a pretty rules-light affair but we'll see how it goes.

The first thing I'd like to share is the history I've thought up for the setting. I'm going to skim/summarize a lot of parts to keep it brief.

***

I'll start with the gods. The gods had existed since time immemorial, their generations countless and their origin long forgotten. The were nourished by the [legendary super awesome god fruit tree] but as time went on, the tree bore less and less fruit. Fearing starvation, they rounded up their best artisans and commissioned them to make a new food source. The artisans made what would be The World.

The World in its early stages was wracked with horrific natural disasters of every type as elements melded together. Terrified by the energies they sensed from The World, the gods kept their distance while greedily gobbling up its energy.

From the energy unleashed by The World's birth throes, the giants arose. The World began to slowly drift into slumber. For centuries or even millennia, the giants ruled all. They created writing, art, cities, and sailing. The giants lived in a paradise.

At this point, some of the gods gathered up courage to survey The World and see if anything was broken during the early cataclysms. What they found were these things crawling around in their food and messing with it. The godlings attacked the giants and were rebuffed. This is the event that starts the enmity between gods and giants.

After this, the artisans noticed that instead of being Lawful Cheesy, the energy the gods are consuming is actually Chaotic Ranch flavor; the gods worry that at best this extra helping of Chaos will mutate them and that at worst it will make them explode. The only thing that can explain this imbalance is the giants, so they have to go.

Using blood from the giants, the gods made animals to restore the balance and hunt the giants. Unfortunately, they were rather unskilled in making life so the animals ended up just being animals instead of super disposable giant-slaying machines. The one boon the gods did gain was one they hadn't engineered: A giant ate animals after watching predators hunting, then spread the custom to his tribe, who spread it to other tribes, etc. This introduced hunger to the giants and forced them to eat regularly.

In spite of this, making animals was a huge mistake since the psychic energy the produced congealed with nascent godstuff used to create The World and birthed the fey. The fey are the creations and creators of magic; their ranks include creatures like elves, fairies, minotaurs, satyrs, etc. Naturally, the fey and the giants came into conflict. Eventually the giants realized that fey couldn't (or wouldn't) leave and the two settled into an uneasy peace.

The gods once again started panicking as they noticed that their sustenance was now the equivalent of a Double Bacon Chaosburger with extra Chaos on the side and sent more godlings in to seize fey and giant specimens. Using their new and improved knowledge, the gods created the ultimate fey-and-giant exterminators, the dragons. Unfortunately, although they could create a soul that would return to them for reuse when the dragon was slain, they had no way to hardwire their desires into the dragons.

Dragons have one fatal flaw: They are insatiably curious. Fey and giants quickly learned to bribe dragons with curios, folk tales, gossip, songs, and anything or everything else. Nevertheless, the mere presence of dragons managed to tip the scale of The World's alignment very slightly toward Law.

The gods next attempt to purge the giants and fey were the orcs. The orcs were supposed to be swarm fighters, weak but numerous. It took only a few generations for the orcs to abandon their mission.

The gods made more races like goblins, dwarves, and especially humans who managed to defeat much of giant and fey forces and purge other god-made creatures that abandoned their directives.
Where once the giants ruled the whole world, they now skulk in inhospitable mountain peaks, magma chambers, caves, and swamps.

***

In Wrath of The Giants! the giants are the dying remnants of a great civilization desperately striking out against their enemies to avenge their ancestors and display their unyielding defiance.

I think I've got the lore portion of the game down, next comes the rules.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Heroes & Other Worlds: A Second Look

In a previous post I gave my first impressions of C. R. Brandon's Heroes & Other Worlds and Magi Carta. After having more time to go over it (and after Brandon linked to my review on his blog), I felt that it was fitting to talk about everything that I missed on the first go.

Heroes & Other Worlds

After more time reading, I've come to appreciate that the two classes have a lot of depth in terms of options. You can create uber-powerful one-trick ponies (who will quickly burn through EN in the case of wizards) or weaker/average characters with more versatile repertoires. Fortunately, both versions seem equally viable.

The Adventuring section is dungeoneering 101 with some rules on poison, fire, secret doors, light, and wandering monsters. Some noteworthy advice is that an addition to a Mapper (who makes maps) the party should have a "Caller," a sort of spokesperson for the group to the GM.

When it comes to combat, HOW is crunchier than homemade fried chicken coated with cornflakes. Unlike in D&D (mainly speaking from a 3.x perspective here) were movement can be done willy-nilly unless you're capable of multiple attacks, HOW's combat is much more cerebral. To cast a spell or shoot a ranged weapon, the farthest you can move is 1 space (5 feet). To be able to defend/react to an attack you have to move half your Movement (MV) value or less and you can't move the next turn. The questions of when to move, how far to move, whether to defend, and how to defend (dodge, parry, block) make combat very engaging. It should be noted that although Brandon mentions both hex and square grids in the introduction, HOW is very clearly designed to operate on hex maps. Facing is mentioned, especially in relation to shields and sneak attacks, but not elaborated upon. I'm assuming that your facing will be whatever direction you last moved in or toward the location of your most recent attack targets.

The default Experience Point system is pretty simple: Characters receive 3 XP for each test successfully passed, with bonus XP if it was an extremely difficult (i.e. a test where you have to roll under a target number using 4D6 or 5D6). The only concern I can think of is munchkins trying to make a bajillion Detect Hidden (equivalent to D&D 3.5's Spot) and/or Detect Lies (equivalent to Sense Motive) in order to rack up XP faster. A strong GM hand will probably curtail that crap should it come up in-game.

The Referee Resources section is very short, giving pointers on how to improvise for player's crazy stunts and advancing a Gygaxian philosophy of creating atmosphere using non-visual phenomena such as smell and taste. It also features a handy selection of NPCs and hirelings.

The treasure section covers all the typical doodads you've come to expect from traditional fantasy, with some appropriately designated "Oddities" thrown in for flavor. One thing to note from the treasure tables is that magic items are comparatively rare.

Following the magic items section is a small "Find your Fate"-style solo adventure that I'll play through at some future junction. Past this is a guide on constructing your own dungeons and adventures, including various random generators, NPC reaction tables, and a sample dungeon. One thing I don't like about this section is the very oldschool "Gotcha!" trapfinding method. Not only does a player have to say where his character is looking for traps, he has to say how that character is looking for traps. This has always felt to me like something easily abused by asshole GMs or that would drag on a game to the point of boredom as the party takes 30 minutes in real time to clear a average dungeon hallway. I'm not in favor of the D&D 3.5 "I roll to find traps" method either, but I've yet to find a good intermediary between what I consider two extremes.

The equipment sections features the ever-essential weapons and armor, miscellaneous tools, and "flavor" items like silk gloves and fancy gloves. The entire section is five pages of rules composed almost entirely of charts. An availability check rule helps determine what items can be found in certain regions. This section is lacking in some fundamental information for tools, like what caltrops actually do rules-wise or how many approximate pages you can write/draw using a single container of ink. These are pretty minor complaints though.

I stand by my earlier statement that Heroes & Other Worlds is a great little system.

Magi Carta

Magi Carta can be divided into three distinct pieces: New rules; revised spells from the core rulebook; and spells converted from the D&D 3.5 SRD/OGL.

For the new rules, I've already opined on the Wizard Staffs and Familiar sections, so I'll focus on the other sections. The first thing here is optional limits to learning spells. For example, a country bumpkin wizard can't start the game knowing Chain Lightning (an IQ 14 spell); he's limited to IQ 8 or lower spells at the start of his career no matter how much of a supra-genius he may be. Another option is a sort of "spell tax" where you must learn low-level spells to learn high level spells. Under this system, in order to learn an IQ 11 spell, you need to have an IQ 10, IQ 9, and IQ 8 spell as well. If you want to learn two IQ 11 spells, you need two spells of each lesser IQ level. It feels too constraining for my tastes.

There's also Cartomancy, spells inscribed on cards that are thrown Gambit-style and can be activated by anyone for the low price of 2 EN. Unfortunately they're pretty difficult to make and for most wizards they'll end up being extra IQ 8 spells. Still, a neat concept.

Dermal Magic is magical scarification that doubles the potential spells a wizard can know. There's also magic tattoos for wizardly wusses which also expands a wizards spell capacity but makes casting the inscribed spells more difficult. By RAW it appears that only wizards can use dermal magic.

Next are Spell Gems, which are similar in concept to D&Desque wands (Magi Carta's staffs are more like GURPS' magic staves). They can either be used to cast a stored spell or thrown as magical grenades.

I already covered Wizard Staffs (and Familiars) but I want to say that despite the awkward composition of the Staff text, the rules seem very sound.

Wrapping up the new rules are Spellbooks. I am so very, very glad that Brandon didn't make Spellbooks Vancian-style items. A spellbook is like a magic scroll but permanent; you can use it to cast spells but the spells won't fade away. Spellbooks are also the only way to learn a spell that is above your IQ (wizards only. Sorry adventurers :< )

As for the old spells, most are relatively unchanged (Enfeeble, Magic Strike). The rest are either expanded/clarified (Drop, Iron Flesh) or nerfed (the Freeze spells, Summon [Spectral] Bear) compared to their core versions.

With regards to the OGL spells, Brandon very sensibly altered many of the effects so that Color Spray is very powerful but not quite as effective as it is in D&D 3.5 (unless you're fighting Goblins).
(Tasha's) Hideous Laughter has also been nerfed so that exploits such as hitting Demogorgon with Hideous Laughter and the unleashing a salvo of murder on him are unlikely. Problematic spells like Sleep are also split up into multiple spells with the weakest like Lesser Sleep only affecting one target.

Overall, I'd say Magi Carta is a really good add-on for players and GMs wanting more thematic magic in their games.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Slivers in Heroes & Other Worlds



Yesterday I was nosing around C. R. Brandon's Heroes & Other Worlds blog and found a nifty Magic: The Gathering to HOW creature converter. It's a nifty little spreadsheet and I really like MTG so it was a good find. Unfortunately, 1) it can really only convert vanilla creatures & 2) it doesn't work well for tokens.

Take Sliver creature tokens as an example: ST 0, DX 8, IQ 2 (chosen by me), MV 4, AR -2.
By RAW in HOW, the Sliver is already dead; by RAI, the Sliver is unconscious and just an immobile bag of XP.

The solution I devised was to convert one of the classic buffer Slivers, in this case Sinew Sliver: ST 10, DX 8, IQ 2 (chosen by me), MV 4, AR -2, Other Slivers within 50 spaces get +6 adjusted ST.


This not only reflects the traditional MTG flavor of Slivers but also functions in a very flavorful way; taking out the Sinew makes the larvae fall back into hibernation. By the same token, it makes tactical planning very important because you don't want to lead a Sinew Sliver into a room full of larvae!
Granted, the Sliver Larvae are weaker than a peasant with a Sinew Sliver around. That can always be fixed by throwing a few more Sinews to the group~

Heroes & Other Worlds: First Impressions

I got my copy of Heroes & Other Worlds and its spell splatbook, Magi Carta. I bought this mainly because I saw Brandon 's (the author) enthusiasm on his blog and as an amateur game designer I thought it was neat. I haven't read all through these two books but I wanted to give a reactionary review.

***Edit: I read through all of the core rules and quite a bit of Magi Carta. After you read this post, you can get a more detailed look at them over here.***


Heroes & Other Worlds Core Rules

Described as "[Steve Jackson's] The Fantasy Trip with a dash of Moldvay Basic D&D," HOW is at its core a class-based, stat- and skill-dependent, D6 roll-under system: You roll 3D6 or 4D6 and compare it to a target number with a roll equal to or lower than the target succeeding.
Character creation is point-based: you spend Hero Points to boost your stats (Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Endurance) and to buy Skills and/or Spells. It's very reminiscent of GURPS, which is fitting considering its inspirations.

Health is measured by two stats: Strength (ST) and Endurance (EN). You can spend either EN or ST to cast spells. When your ST reaches 0 your character gets KO'd. It reminds me of the Vitality/Wounds system Wizards of the Coast used in the d20-based Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Revised Edition which also incorporates HP-equivalent expenditure to activate Force Powers. It makes me wonder if Brandon was inspired by it and also how viable a Star Wars HOW hack would be.

Intelligence (IQ) is basically only there to give limits on the highest spells you can learn and how good you are at casting spells.

Dexterity (DX) determines how fast you move, how quickly you react in combat, AND your ability to hit things. It's a lot like Unisystem Classic in that regard.
As I mentioned earlier, there are two classes: Adventurer and Wizard. Adventurers are skill-focused (although you can still buy spells) while Wizards are spell-focused. There are also three non-Human races included for player use that are just stat adjustments + a minor ability. The three playable races are Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings.

I skimmed the spell section and skipped the combat section and went straight to the bestiary. It's relatively small but focused with plenty of little fluff to base a setting on. Two bits of fluff I particularly like is Hill Dwarves are the "default" Dwarves and Mountain Dwarves are their unfriendly cousins (a reversal of the typical D&D cliche) and that the Drow equivalent are are refugees who refused to go home after a war ended, much to the Mountain Dwarves' chagrin.

The art is good but many images are pixelated for some reason, which is a shame because it seems like the pixelated art pieces are also really good. There's also some pixelation on charts and tables but they remain legible. At some points it feels like page number references would be helpful, such as adding a note on the Skill section (pg. 16) to flip back to page 10 for explanation of the mechanics behind skill/attribute tests.

Overall and with the caveat that I haven't had time for an in-depth study of the book, I feel that Heroes & Other Worlds is a very good system.

 

Magi Carta

Magi Carta is essentially a spellbook that features spells converted from the Dungeons & Dragons System Reference Document to HOW rules. Although there aren't as many problems with art in this one, there a lot more problems with the text. For example, the section on Wizard Staffs (pg. 11): "For every 2 ST spent by caster, adds 1 EN permanently." This is the first mention of spending ST in this item's creation and comes in the third paragraph. It feels awkward.

Another weird thing happens on page 13, where Book Worm are described as "a brownish green in color with shimmering skin," but the sentence immediately afterwards that they "resemble longish purple worms" .

There also the rules for Familiars adapted from the OGL which don't make mention of how to actually get a familiar. I know that it's easy to convert that info from OGL to HOW all by myself but missing an essential part of the ruleset is a big mistake.

That said, Magi Carta delivers on the lots and lots of spells front, allowing classic archetypes like Paladins, Elementalists, and Illusionists into the HOW ruleset. It's a good supplement to the core rules despite the mistakes present and it can also be used to convert D&D 3.x's vast collection of spells into HOW spells. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fantasy Settings: Cults and Religions

Happy belated Turkey Day, y'all.

Today, I'd like to post some musings on the nature of cults vs religions in fantasy settings. This is particularly flavored by D&D lore, so pardon me if this is old hat to some people out there.

In most high fantasy settings, religions follow the teachings of what are verified gods and tend to have a very visible presence in society; cults on the other hand, follow creatures that aren't really gods but are powerful (demon lords, elemental princes, really powerful dragons) and tend to be shunned and persecuted by society.

Going off of the above, it seems that religions=good and cults=evil but there are plenty of evil gods kicking around in most settings also, which makes cults seem redundant. There have also been good cults that worship archangels or their equivalent in some settings, which I'm not sure I like but serves to balance the moral position of culthood.

The question of the day is why someone would sacrifice social position and community ties by rejecting religions and joining cults. Being a hipster is one reason but I later thought of another: Power with no strings attached.

Religions have bureaucracies and gods have tenets that they demand that you follow; the powers that a cult worships give power without any fiddly doctrines up front, using foot-in-the-door salesmanship to slowly entice cultists into a deeper devotion.

This also complicates matters because while a worshiper of Killdeath, god of murder, will be very clearly murdering people to appease her god, a cultist might have signed his soul away for something as simple as a promotion at work. The spectrum of petty to serious evil runs a much broader gamut in evil cults than in evil religions, making disposal of a cult something that isn't as clear-cut as disposal of an evil religious cell.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reflections on Ravenloft


Ravenloft  is an interesting story in the world of RPG settings: It started as a breakout adventure module that inserted horror tropes into D&D and introduced the nefarious Strahd von Zarovich, the game's first Vampire wizard.  It was followed up with another module called The House on Gryphon Hill that is widely panned but introduced a character that would become very important: The Lich Azalin.

From these humble beginnings, Ravenloft evolved into a full-fledged campaign setting although it was constructed using a weekend in hell design philosophy that empahsized easy one-shots.

At its core, Ravenloft is a setting about the Human struggle of good vs evil, sin, guilt, and hubris. In Ravenloft, those who have committed particularly horrendous crimes tend to become Darklords; these Darklords are awarded with new realms by the mysterious Dark Powers of Ravenloft but are also forever bound to them. The setting is also dripping with cruel irony. Strahd bargained with the Dark Powers for the power to kill his brother and claim his bride for himself; she committed suicide to escape him and reincarnates every few decades but always slips from the grasp of the now-immortal Strahd. Similarly, Azalin was a mighty Wizard-King who feared death and loved magical knowledge; the Dark Powers gave him the secrets to Lichdom but he cannot learn new spells. Azalin's domain also has a similar cruel twist in that the world he left was a civilization at its peak while his domain is (or was, if you take later AD&D products to heart) filled with the citizens of that same empire after centuries of collapse.

But there's on big problem with Ravenloft: It's a Dungeons & Dragons setting. There are Elves, Dwarves, hundreds of Liches and Vampires, Mind Flayers, Werebeasts of a dozen varieties, and a Fey kingdom. And many of the domains and Darklords are from canon D&D worlds like Forgotten Realms or Dark Sun. In worlds were Liches are a dime-a-dozen enemy then what makes Azalin so special? If Vampires are running around everywhere, then what sets Strahd apart? If Ravenloft scoops up all these terrible sinners then why aren't all of the Orc chieftains and Drow generals in it?

In my opinion, the best way to preserve the flavor and themes of Ravenloft is to cut out a lot of the D&Disms. Dwarves, Halflings, and Elves should be virtually non-existent. Azalin should be the only Lich, and Strahd should be perhaps be the only vampire or the progenitor of a certain strain of vampires. The Darklords should be almost entirely baseline Humans, perhaps with some monstrous ancestry to sweeten the taste; alternatively, they were Human but now can't truly be called that.
Some realms, like the ones from Dark Sun, Forgotten Realms, and Azalin's own will need to be trimmed or heavily altered. When thinking of the tone of Ravenloft in general, I think that approaching it as a strict historical fantasy then adding the horror and supernatural elements is the best way to go.

Going Ape in Fantasy: More D&D/Pathfinder Monsters.

I previously talked about the notable fiendish apes of D&D, and now I'm going to summarize some the mortal(?) simian monsters of D&D (and some Pathfinder monsters too).

Ahuizotl
Based on Central American legends, the Ahuizotl is an ampihbious and very evil monkey-dog-thing with a claw on the end of its tail. Interestingly, the first D&D version of the Ahuizotl in the Maztica setting is more of an anthropomorphic crocodile.

Alaghi
Goat-horned temperate-environment cousins of the Yeti that look sinister as fuck. They are actually rather peaceful though.

Ba'atun
Evil bat-winged baboons rumored to be from an parallel icy parallel world. They are practically immune to cold. From an obscure UK module called Dark Clouds Gather.

Blood Apes
Despite their name, blood apes are actually peaceful sapient creatures: the name comes from their bright red fur. The alpha male of the a pack can use an "animal growth" ability on himself, perhaps the best phallic joke in all of D&D.

Charau-ka 
From Pathfinder. These guys are basically more upright and (barely) murderous versions of chimpanzees. They're advanced enough to make leather armor though.

Chemosit 
It seems that someone was a big fan of the Gorilla-bear below and basically ended up copying it while adding in a brain-eating ability. Bravo, game designers!

Cloaked Ape
Technically more like monkeys, these creatures have raccoon tails and leathery skin-flaps they use to glide/fly.

Dakon 
Law-abiding, common-speaking, sapient apes. Come on, 3rd party publishers, this is AD&D Fiend Folio-tier.
...
After the last sentence, I flipped through the AD&D Fiend Folio and the Dakon was in it. Get your shit together, 3rd party publishers.

Forestkith Goblins
Like regular Goblins but hairier and and better at climbing. They also tend to knuckle-walk.

Feylaar
From the post-apocalyptic world of the Dark Sun campaign setting, these evil four-armed psychic gorillas have exposed brains. Despite being evil they seem to have a rather loving and egalitarian family life.

Gambol
Big blue baboons with a spooky howl and lots of speed.

Gibberling
Furry hunched humanoids. They have no language but communicate via hoots and howls.

Girallon
Four-armed albino gorillas.

Girallon, Anghazani 
Smart four-armed albino gorillas with swords.

Gorilla-Bear 
"These monsters have the head, body and legs of a gorilla with the sharp teeth and powerful arms of a bear."

Hadozee
Often called "winged deck apes", these simian humanoids are often sailors and pirates.

Hengeyokai, Monkey
A D&D monster and a player character race in Pathfinder that can assume Human, monkey, and monkey-faced Human/hybrid forms.

Horrid Ape
Part of a broad class of Druid-created living weapons, this giant gorilla has red scales, lots of fangs, spikes, horns, and a tail. Their claws also secrete acid. Talk about overkill...

Howler Wasps
Baboons + wasps = horrifying

Hsing-sing
These white-furred apefolk have Human faces. Despite personifying "the principles of pacifism and harmony with nature", once every year they go apeshit* and murder a whole bunch of people.

*I had to say it :^)

Hulking Growler
A creature that's a cross between an ape and a caveman, from the licensed Kingdoms of Kalamar setting for D&D 3.5. They're gender egalitarians! Also, if you kill a Hulking Growler's mate then be prepared for relentless murderous revenge.

Julajimus
A gigantic freaky black-furred baboon with a rat's tail. It can shapeshift into rabbits, puppies, kitties, or other fuzzy wuzzy animals, an ability which it uses to eat children.

Kech
There are two types of Kech: One is from D&D and is monkey-like, the other is from Pathfinder and is ape-like. Both have weird leaf-like skin that functions as camouflage. D&D Kechs are predators that stick to jungles; PF Kechs are more likely to stray from their territory. PF Kechs also have a taboo against eating apes and monkeys.

Lhosk
A sapient tauric creature with the upper body of a gorilla and the lower body of a spider. Strangely, the Monster Manual III doesn't mention Driders (evil Elf-Spider creatures) in their description. Drider-Lhosk interactions could prove very interesting indeed.

Limbo Stalker
A beast from the plane of Limbo, it's described as an "anthropomorphic serpent" but is really just a gorilla with some scales and an ugly face.

Monkey Goblin 
Like regular Goblins but with more hair and monkey tails. They're also not spineless cowards, unlike their common cousins.

Monkey Spiders
1-inch tall monkeys. They are also sapient, Good-aligned, and their bites are poisonous.

Quaggoth
White-furred ape-men that dwell underground.  They also hate surface-dwelling Elves for some reason. 3rd edition made them look a little more like bear-people.

Saqualaminoi
These guys are "Yeti-kin". They're rather well-adjusted tribal carnivores who surprisingly don't eat humanoids. They're also immune to cold.

Sasquatch
A Pathfinder-only race as far as can tell, these creatures are based on pop culture Bigfoot with some skunk ape and weird hippie vibes thrown in.

Shadowperson
Supposedly resembling "thin, gangly apes", these guys look more like really hairy Orcs. They are also mildly psychic and can have ESP. Also, more skin-flaps for gliding.The can also create a friendly psychic ghost-monster called a Revered Ancient One that's an omega-level healbot.

Skindancer
Imagine a shaved gorilla with a lizard face and magic chitin armor. Wizards truly have no sense of right and wrong.

Snow Goblin
White-furred variants of the average Goblin that dwell in cold areas. Look like ugly tailless monkeys.

Spirit of the Air
Golden monkeys with freaky arm-wings that serve gods of air. They cast spells like Clerics and can transform into a whirlwind once per day.

Su-Monster
Big gray psychic monkeys.

Taer
Clan-based apefolk similar to cavemen. Dwell in cold mountain regions. Very low tech levels.

Tall Mouther
A creature that looks like a tusked gorilla head with six arms sprouting from it. It eats Halflings/Hobbits.

Umber Hulk
One of the "iconic" D&D, it's especially evident in older edition art that Umber Hulks are insectoid apes.

Vanara 
Extroverted monkeyfolk from Oriental Adventures. They get along with every except Evil beings.

Warforged Charger
Magic robot gorillas.

Wendigo
Not exactly simian, this creature is a fey/fairy equivalent of a werewolf. A terrible flying hunger spirit that flies through the air, instilling madness and paranoia into its prey.

Yeti 
White-furred ape-people of the cold mountains. They are invisible if even lightly covered in snow or ice and their fur drains the heat out of living creatures, making them a weird heat-vampire-ape. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Creating a quick fantasy setting using Magic: The Gathering

Tired of medieval fantasy in pseudo-Europe? Want to make a strange game setting but don't know where to start? I've got an idea for you to use. It involves seeing random Magic the Gathering cards and then creating a world based on those details.

Step 1: Go to http://magiccards.info/random.html (my preferred database) or http://gatherer.wizards.com/Pages/Card/Details.aspx?action=random

Step 2: Note the first 5 non-Legendary creatures you find (including subtypes like Elf, Orc, Wizard, etc) and the first 3 lands (Mountain, Plains, Forest, etc.) and/or landscapes (Sunken City, Fog, etc.)

Step 3: Put it all together.

Let's make a quick world!



Creatures:
-Alphetto Alchemist, a Human Wizard according to errata. The Morph ability might also be an interesting twist.
-Myr Sire, a Myr (magic robot) that creates more Myrs.
-Brassclaw Orcs, hardy Orc tribes
-Sewer Rats, and lots of 'em!
-Diligent Farmhand, a Human Druid. It's looking like Druidism and Alchemy might be two competing philosophies in this world

Land(scape)s:
-Stomping Ground, ruins reclaimed by nature and beasts.
-Murmuring Bosk, a haunted or otherwise sinister woodland.
-Blood Moon, a magical red moon that alters the world.

Putting it all together:
The world is choked with forests that spread like a plague across the land, swallowing up cities. In the oldest forest strange sounds are heard; some say that spirits from another world are trying to enter into this one. A baleful red moon glares upon the land at night, and all blame it for the sudden surge in forest growth. Rats, once restricted to sewers, are now virtually everywhere; disease outbreaks are becoming more common. The Orcs still persevere amidst the unnatural woods thanks to a mixture of healthy superstition. The Humans of the world have polarized into two camps: The Alchemists, who want to use magic to reverse the "sylvan scourge" and the Druids, who want to use magic for the adaptation/evolution of their people. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Recommended comic reading: Hobgoblin limited series

We live an era when cape comics are oversaturated with Big Events. Most of the time these events are quite frankly utter shit like DC's Trinity War or Marvel's Original Sin. But sometimes, we get a legitimately entertaining event. Right now, Marvel's Axis is one such event. Despite a lackluster prelude and beginning, it's really entertaining so far. Due to a botched spell several heroes and villains have had personality inversions: they haven't quite gone 1005 good or evil but they exhibit either much nobler or ignobler behavior. One of the best things to come out of these inversions is the change in Roderick Kingsley, the Hobgoblin. Before the inversion he would franchise out old villain identities to upstart criminals, setting up their gangs and committing crimes disguised as them to give his customers instant street cred...and his only fee was a cool 40% of all their profits. Now, the Hobgoblin is training heroes and has become a motivational speaker. Deep down he's still a greedy bastard but he's noticed how profitable heroism is. Hopefully, this change will stay part of the post-Axis status quo.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Going Ape in Fantasy: Sinister Simian Spirits of Dungeons & Dragons

As the first major hit of the roleplaying game industry, Dungeons & Dragons has always been expanding through new editions and supplements (aka "splats"). Those expansions have introduced a number of primate monsters over the years. Most are mundane or mortal: A notable few are not. They are fiends, a broad classification in D&D that describes evil "outsiders" like demons, devils, demodands, and daemons. Curiously, all of these ape-like fiends are demons, beings of chaos and evil shaped by mortal evil according to some versions of D&D's fluff. So let's take a look at these abyssal apes:

The Big Kahuna


Demogorgon: Pictured above, Demogorgon is the self-styled "Prince of Demons" who keeps the title by sheer virtue (vice?) badassitude. He is one of the "Big Three" archfiends of D&D, joined by his fellow Eldritch Wizardry alumni Orcus and AD&D's Graz'zt. Despite his baboon/mandrill heads, his only worshipers in older editions (circa AD&D and earlier) were very rarely evil Humans and most commonly Ixitxachitl, sapient evil manta rays with occasional vampirism thrown in. During this time period he also had a strong vampiric theme (because of the Ixitxachitl) which was later dropped and he once changed sex for no discernible reason in the Immortals boxed set.  The 3rd edition of D&D added Lizardfolk and Yuan-ti (evil snake people) to his list of followers, then obliquely hinted that he has a jungle of apes and monkeys in his home realm but never actually bothered to talk about them or really detail any simian cults of Demogorgon. The only instance I could find was the Dungeon #120 adventure "The Lost Temple of Demogorgon" written by Sean K. Reynolds; in features several awakened (magically sapient) gorillas, giant gorillas, a baboon sorcerer, and a baboon priest. I'm utterly at a loss as to why D&D keeps focusing on his amphbious/reptilian qualities while ignoring his simian qualities...

One last note on Demogorgon is that his two heads have different personalities: Aameul (right) is suave and cunning while Hethradiah (left) is savage and simplistic. Both heads hate each other and are constantly scheming on how to separate/kill the other without dying in the process.

Smaller, but still rather Large, Kahunas

 

Angazhan: A huge, horned gorilla with a tail who rules over a horde of vicious demon apes in the Abyss while his cult thrives in the deep jungles of the mortal world. He's actually from Pathfinder,  but PF is just a D&D clone so it seems fitting to mention him. He also the king of the Baregara and several mortal ape-like races.

Fraz-Urb'luu/Var-Az-Hloo: Not technically an ape but "ape-like", Frazzy is the demon prince of deception, which for some reason means that he could summon other demon princes willy-nilly to his castle to humiliate them. Tired of his shit, several demon lords gave a crazy Human wizard some kinda magic sword and he whupped Frazzy's ass and sealed him in a bas-relief on a dungeon wall. He later escaped thanks to dumbass adventurers and now hates Humans. He's traditionally an enemy of Demogorgon.

Ilsidahur: A huge, horned gorilla with a tail who rules over a horde of vicious demon apes in the Abyss while his cult thrives in the deep jungles of the mortal world... In case you didn't notice, Pathfinder basically ripped off Ilshiadur to make Angazhan. They're even both lords of similar-sounding demon types (Bar-Lgura and Baregara). One thing that distinguishes him from Angazhan is that in his original Dungeon incarnation he also has necromantic powers that can only be used on apes. He also has a greedy streak and an eye for bronze.

Mandrillagon: Demogorgon's "brother" from Gary Gygax's Gord the Rogue novels is technically speaking not a D&D entity since TSR rendered Gygax's books non-canon when they fired him. He's basically a giant ape with a blue mandrill face. He really seems like a huge pansy despite his huge stature. HE'S UNABLE TO CONTROL HIS SPEECH VOLUME SO HE'S ALWAYS YELLING. He also secretly hates Demogorgon.

The Mooks:

 

Bar-lgura: Pronounced "Bar-le-goo-ra" because Gygax was whacky like that, these demons started out as six-fingered, sinister orangutans before turning into something closer to a musclebound gorilla with tusks. They are canonically the thralls of Ilshiadur but since he's a z-list demon lord Demogorgon tends to have more of them. The Barry-Gra are also telepathic.

Baregara: From Pathfinder, these giant horned gorilla-demons have an extra mouth on their chests for maximum rip n' tear potential. They are thralls of Angazhan. Seem like ideal shock troopers/scouts for a simian demon army.

Nalfenshnee: Giant ape-pig-demon things with tiny wings, the Nalfenshnee are the judges of the Abyss...don't ask me how beings of undiluted malevolent chaos can have a judicial system because I don't have an answer. Compared to the two BGRAs above, the Nalfs are a bit more magical even if they do pack a physical punch. They're also fat. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Going Ape in Fantasy: Egypt

Welcome to the first installment of a semi-regular feature on the blog! I really like the concept of intelligent apes in roleplaying games (and if you do too then I advise you to buy a copy of Terra Primate asap ;) ). In this feature I will detail some Ape/Monkey-related fluff or lore.

Egypt apparently had several Baboon gods, among them the (NSFW) Babi/Baba, Hapi, and Astennu. Thoth also apparently got in on the act every once in a while as well.

So, let's look at the pieces we've got: grayish noble/ruler baboons; normal(ish) baboons; dog-headed apes.

A question before going forward is how anthropomorphized the baboons should; I lean toward "moderately', that is about 4 feet tall and quite capable of standing upright in a hunched manner. Real baboons are pretty violent but wouldn't work with a faux-Egypt setting unless they just took over the ruins, so I'd tone down the overt violence. Brutal formal duels/brawls would be an interesting way of conveying a strict hierarchical society with big anger issues.

As for magic, using Egyptian-inspired sun/star magic doesn't seem to particularly "feel" right with these horrible Egyptian baboons. Earth and water magic, focusing on stability, life, and fertility seem much more flavorful.

As for the "dog-headed" apes, they could just be an animal or a barely sapient race. Used as beasts of burden in peaceful times and war-beasts in war times (Bet you didn't see that coming!)

If an equivalent to Arabia exists and this Baboonian Egypt is as well-known as the real Egypt then there's really no way to make this revelation surprising unless the general character of the world is an insular/xenophobic one and the players are trailblazers.

Creating a Superhero Setting part 4: Parallel universes, alternate timelines, and you

I just want to apologise for the huge wait between blog posts. Being a nerd in college isn't easy .__.

Previously I discussed teams and organizations, people and places on Earth, and space and other dimensions. Now we get to one of the most iconic parts of cape comic universe: Parallel universes!

The idea of parallel Earths with alternate versions of heroes seems to have debuted in "Wonder Woman's Invisible Twin" from Wonder Woman #59 (May 1953)  but it wasn't fully expounded upon until the classic "The Flash of Two Worlds" from Flash #123 (September 1961) with the concept of "parallel Earths occupying the same space but vibrating a different frequencies". Substitute the Earths with Universe and you've got a Multiverse. Crisis on Infinite Earths amended this even further by making the Multiverse a set of INFINITE parallel universe occupying the same space and vibrating at the same frequency, right before destroying all of them. Oh well.

There's a big difference in the way Marvel and DC approach multiverses, with Marvel favoring Divergent History and DC favoring Parallel Evolution. Divergent History is just that, it starts with an established real-life or comic book history and asks What If...? So we get a world where Captain America didn't wake until 1984 (What If Captain America Were Revived Today?) or where Sue Storm abandoned the Fantastic Four but Spider-man became a permanent member (What If Spider-man Joined The Fantastic Four?). The Divergent History method is a way to revisit old concepts and roads not taken. The Parallel Evolution method tends to change the setting and rework concepts and archetypes to conform to that setting. For example, a world where Kal-L of Krypton landed in USSR in the 1940s (Superman: Red Son) or one where Bruce Wayne is bound to the Demon Etrigan and lives in a steampunkish version of Camelot (Batman/Demon: A Tragedy). The Parallel Evolution method is a way to take a fresh look at concepts and inject a little weirdness into a multiverse.

You don't have to choose between the two methods and it's quite possible to mix and match between the two approaches (90s What If...? and some of the later Elseworlds did this).

The exact difference between a Multiverse and a Timestream is hard to decipher. Indeed, Crisis on Infinite Earths featured heroes going to the wild west, WWII, and the medieval era to destroy the Anti-monitor's evil tuning forks, seemingly conflating both Temporal and Universal travel. Marvel tends to treat pasts and futures as simply other worlds in the Multiverse; indeed, for a long time the rule was that an attempt to alter the past by time travel resulted in the creation of a new Universe while leaving the traveler's home Universe unaltered (This rule is being broken/bent in modern Marvel comics). After the destruction of the Multiverse, a few DC writers (Mark Waid is the one that most easily comes to my mind) proposed a time-equivalent of the Mulitverse called Hypertime. To paraphrase the above line about the Multiverse, Hypertime could be interpreted as "infinite parallel timelines occupying the same time but vibrating at different frequencies." So while the Multiverse and Hypertime are definitely not the same thing, they're close enough to be considered the same thing by most people.

There's a problem that I've been dancing around and that is the "infinite" part of the Mulitverse/Hypertime equation; namely, it makes all the heroes' and villains' actions meaningless. For every life saved in this world, there's another were one or more were lost. If all actions are a finite drop in an infinite bucket then it can quickly seem pointless from a character perspective. A good examination of this comes from Owlman in the animated DC feature Crisis on Two Earths (although Batman is very badly written in it). A way to combat this to make the Multiverse/Hypertime at least appear finite in a way similar to the "snowflake Multiverse" of Warren Ellis' Planetary or DC's post-Infinite Crisis Multiverse. So how do you present a somewhat satisfactory answer as to why the Multiverse/Hypertime is limited? I'd personally take a page from atomic structures: The strong nuclear force can only hold together a nucleus that has about 100 protons in it; go above 100 and it will start breaking apart via radioactive decay. But there are atoms with over 100 protons, the just violently disintegrate in very short times. So certain frequencies in the Multiverse/Hypertime are inherently stable and past a certain frequency there can be no stable Universes/Timelines.

Confused yet? It really confuses me too, although I still love it. I've probably rambled enough so let's get to the details already, yeesh. I use Universe and Timeline interchangeably below, so don't be afraid to make an alternate present where everyone's evil or an alternate Earth that's a sci-fi future.

The Evil Universe

A mainstay of fiction sometimes called a "Mirror Universe", this reality features evil counterparts of heroes and good counterparts of villains. In some cases, history may be altered or reversed, such as making England a colony of America that revolted and gained independence in 1776. For very brief adventures, just switching the moral leanings of your main reality's supers while keeping a realistic population should do well enough to convey differences; for extended looks at this type of universe, shades of gray can make the reality more engaging. For example, the counterparts of villains might be "good" but are still brutal or the counterparts of heroes are "evil" but have a certain code of honor.
Examples in comics: DC's Earth-3, the "shadow Earth" created by Warlock/Magus in Marvel's Infinity books

The Old Universe 

In this reality, all major heroes and villains debuted at a specific time decades ago, aged, and have children. This creates a much longer, stronger Superhuman culture in this reality. It's also not unreasonable to expect more teams than usual here to accommodate the much greater number of Supers. Although this type of universe shows up in comics, it's a bit harder to adapt to a roleplaying game.
Examples in comics: DC's Earth-2, some issues of What If...?

The Nazi Universe

A perennial favorite of "speculative fiction" is the alternate time/place wherein Nazis won WW2. In comics it generally manifests as turning most post-1940 supers into Nazis. Depending on the current year of this reality, there can be a lot of fundamental differences between this Earth and the "main" Earth of the setting.
Examples: DC's Earth-10, Marvel's Hauptmann Englande and Thunder Guard universes.

The Near Future Dark Age

40-100 years in the future, The Team is dead and so are most heroes. Megacorps/Terrorist organizations/Criminal syndicates rule the world (or maybe just the USA). The government is too weak or corrupt (or both) to put any pressure on the corporate juggernauts. The poverty gap is wider than ever. Cyberpunk elements become more pronounced. Heroes are more pragmatic in their methods and most villains are only in it for the money.
Examples in comics: Marvel's 2020 and 2099, DC's Booster Gold and Zoom futures 

The Apocalypse

Overlapping with the above, the Apocalypse reality is about 50-200 years in the future after some great disaster has ravaged the world. The great disaster can be any number of things, including but not limited to: Nuclear war; biochemical war; magic gone awry; alien invasions; science gone awry; demon invasions; zombie uprisings; robot uprisings; or pretty much anything else. Humanity is perilously close to extinction and very few supers are around in this reality.
Examples in comics: Marvel Zombies, DC's Kamandi

The Cosmic Future

500-1000 years from now, Earth and Humanity are part of the cosmic stage, colonizing and exploring the fringes of space. Aliens that had previously been enemies of Earth may have become allies or vice versa. In some cases, Aliens that hated each other have teamed up to fight Earth! The equivalent to The Team in this era is heavily inspired by the ancient legends from the Super or Heroic Era of Earth and tend to be almost dangerously idealistic.
Examples: Marvel's original Guardians of the Galaxy, DC's multiple incarnations of the Legion of Super Heroes

The Missing Hero Universe

In this reality, the most popular "big name" hero of the main reality (usually equivalent in influence to Superman or Captain America) (re-)appeared significantly later or didn't appear at all. Without this hero's influence the Super society is a bad state and the general public is fearful of supers. If the hero ever does appear he or she might cause some major shake-ups in society and culture.
Examples in Comics: Marvel's various What if Captain America was revived today? stories, DC's JLA: Nail

The Reverse-Sex Universe

Like the Nazi Universe, the Reverse-Sex Universe is a common cliche but it has even less world-building in place. In this reality, all Supers (or all beings) are the opposite sex...men become women, women become men, and I guess sexless entities become hermaphodites and vice versa (dare you enter that magical realm?). If you use one of these realities then please take the time to do a little world-building so that the world isn't just "the same as the regular one but Superman has boobs and a vagina!!!"
Examples in comics: Marvel probably has one that I can't find, DC's Earth-11 and a Pre-Crisis universe.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Creating a Superhero Setting part 3: Out amongst the stars

We continue our look at elements of a Superhero setting! (Sorry for the delay, college kicked my ass this week.)
In previous parts I discussed teams and organizations and people and places but you may have noticed that everything I've talked about only deals with Earth. This installment will remedy that with a look at some of the common alien civilizations, groups, and worlds in these type of settings. I'll also cover some of the dimensions too.

The Neighbors

The Neighbors are an Alien (or modified Human!) species living right in our solar system, usually on a terrestrial planet but also found on the Jovian planets or our own moon (!). Such species are technologically advanced but usually few in number. Individuals also have superhuman powers, making the perfect material for heroes or villains. Their society and culture tend be isolationist and they are usually a civilization in decline or rebuilding from some great disaster.
Examples in comics: Martians (DC), Inhumans

The Space Cops

Endowed with cosmic power by a group of Aliens with big egos, the Space Cops police a large portion of the galaxy or universe. Recruits are drawn from a myriad of species, although there's inevitably a hot-shot Human rookie that some think might become the best Space Cop ever. The founders of the Space Cops are a little distant and their actually authority to enforce space laws is pretty sketchy but most civilizations at least pretend to care.
Examples in comics: Green Lanterns, Nova Corps

The Militaristic Empires

Two (or more) empires that frequently war with each other, often dragging other planets into their own brutal wars. One or both empires also consider Earth to be a key strategic point in this war and will often attempt to conquer it.
Examples in comics: Kree and Skrull Empires, Rann and Thanagar

The God-World

This larger-than-life world is inhabited by beings that identify themselves as gods and have the power to back up their claims. Although the average "god" isn't necessarily superhuman, the people higher up on the totem are ridiculously powerful. Their technology is so advanced that it either seems or IS magic. The gods often meddle on Earth and other planets, sometimes for altruistic or selfish motives. In some cases there might be a second God-World inhabited only by evil gods.
Examples in comics: New Genesis and Apokalips, Asgard (Marvel)


The Three Cosmic Beings

The Three Cosmic Beings are extremely powerful wild cards that follow their own agendas. One is Benevolent, and will often help Earth or other beleaguered planets; another is Malevolent and wants to kill/eat/enslave most of the galaxy; the final is Neutral, pursuing its goal single-minded and sometimes breaking the rules along the way. These three don't have to be actively opposing each other; They may not even be fully aware of each other. If the Malevolent being gets too crazy then the Neutral being will aid the Benevolent out of self-interest.
Examples in comics: Silver Surfer/Terrax/Galactus, Highfather/Darkseid/Metron

Now, let's veer off in a more mystical direction with dimensions:

The Hell Dimension

Whether based on traditional fire-and-brimstone imagery or something stranger, the Hell Dimension is home to both what Humans would call demons and the souls of evil people (or people who signed contracts). Evil magic-users tend to draw their powers from this realm. The head honcho is usually a stand-in/analogue of the devil, although he/it is rarely presented as THE devil. Likewise, there are sometimes multiple Hell Dimensions.
Examples in comics: Neron's Underworld, Mephisto's Hell, Dormammu's Dark Dimension, Darkseid's Apokalips (debateable)

The Afterlife Dimension(s)

There are also dimensions based on almost every religious conception of the afterlife, although the Judeo-Christian Heaven tends to only be hinted at (see the ends of Thunderstrike and Ostrander's Spectre). The afterlife dimension are really just set-ups to meet departed friends or foes, not for full adventures.

The Magic Dimension

Quite simply an excuse to throw weird shit at the heroes and villains, the magic dimension(s) make a mockery of rational thought and real world physics. Magical characters get stronger and slightly more unhinged in these places.

That's all for now. Next: Alternate timelines, possible futures, and the multiverse.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Creating a Superhero Setting part 2: People & Places

In the previous installment of this series, I detailed some of the organizations I thought were essentially for a large-scale, kitchen-sink  Superhero universe. In this installment I'll be focusing on the ever-important civilian population and some key locations.

The Civilians

The little people. The ones most frequently in danger during villains' onslaught, the one who become a statistic during the alien invasions, the ones heroes swear to protect. The most important factor in civilian population is how they feel about Superhumans. As noted in part 1, The Team is the most well-known and well-liked team on the globe (or a big part of the globe). But if the general populace detests Superhumans and sees them as walking WMDs, that's analogous to saying that The Team is the least hated example of Superhumans and still are constantly trying to prove themselves. There's a couple of viewpoints that can crop up regarding Supers:
-Fear/Hatred: Supers are inherently dangerous; they cause damage to cities when they fight. Also, Supers are causing aliens/demons/whatevers to attack Earth...if the Supers leave, Earth will be unmolested as it was before the Supers emerged (of course there usually have been invasions prior to the emergence of Supers, they've just been forgotten/mythologized)
-Cynical: Yeah, the really powerful Supers are good guys but one day some crazy asshole will win the superpower lottery and turn Earth into a hellhole.
-Optimistic: The inverse of the above, it's only prevalent in areas ruled by villains or Supers with extremely loose morality.
-Idealistic: The good that Supers do far outweighs the evil. And we can trust them because (most) are still ordinary people deep down.

A "realistic" setting would have a mix of Idealistic, Cynical, Fear/Hatred, and simple indifference about equally distributed. Marvel leans toward Cynical & Fear/Hatred viewpoints. DC leans toward Idealistic viewpoints.

Places

So now that I've ranted about civvies, let's focus on locations.

The Villain-ruled Country

This smallish, fictional country is ruled by a villain or an extremely pragmatic hero who took control after ousting a "corrupt" government. This country is usually in an are with a recent history of war and instability such as the Balkans, Eastern Europe, or the Near East. The ruler might be a total despot or a "tough but fair" figure: Population viewpoints are split between Idealistic, Fear/Hatred, and Optimistic (if the ruler is a jerkass), but any viewpoint that challenges or condemns the ruler is unlikely to be expressed publicly for fear of retribution.
Oddly, the regional impact of this country seems to be frequently neglected.
Examples in comics: Latveria (ruled by Doctor Doom); Kahndaq (ruled by Black Adam)

The Hero-ruled Country

Ruled by a Hero, this country is a hereditary monarchy. You'd think this country would come into conflict with the above but it's usually placed in a different region than the above. It also has a surprisingly low impact on regional politics. The majority population viewpoint is Idealistic.
Examples in comics: Wakanda (ruled by Black Panther); Markovia (ruled by Geo-force)

Atlantis

As something that has intrigued Humanity for centuries, it's no surprise that Atlantis gets heavily used. The exact nature of the Atlanteans varies but they generally have superhuman durability (to withstand pressure) and strength. They can breathe underwater but being capable of air-breathing could be a rare atavism/mutation. Atlanteans tend to be lead by a ruler that is half-Human/half-Atlantean. Depending on how scientifically accurate you want to be regarding interspecies breeding, this would mean that the Atlanteans were once Human.

The Lost World

Whether it's an unreachable island or a secret spot under the Earth, the Lost World is a place were dinosaurs, cavemen, wizards, and Conan rip-offs dwell. There are also occasional bits of ancient hyper-technology that boggle the mind. The Lost World is a savage, tribal land where hunting-gathering is the main mode of subsistence. But feel free to insert random castles and a suitable agrarian support network for them. There's also plenty of room for Lovecraftian elements.


Now, let's head into space and the outer reaches of the galaxy!
Or you can explore parallel Earths if that interests you more.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Familiar yet Unknown

It has been three days since you crossed the farthest border of the tribal Orc lands. According to the shaman you interrogated, the kingdom of Jeng-Gu is only 10 days' journey away. As you travel, the ranger notices footprints near the bushes. Some are booted but others are impressions of bare feet. She recognizes the three-toed footprints immediately: Goblins. The party carefully fans and searches, then spot movement near a stream. The warrior carefully approaches a Goblin standing inattentively near the foliage. He prepares a mighty leap to cross the 10 feet or so between him and his mark, a skewering, leaping charge that should lead to a quick surrender. Enough time has passed: the others are in position. He leaps, ready to deliver a killing blow to his enemy's back! He brings his mighty bastard sword down and...there's is a blur of movement and he finds the blow blocked by his enemy who has turned but is still not facing him. It wheels around to face him. The fighter realizes that this thing isn't a Goblin, at least not the normal kind. From its hairless head spring two antennae; its swollen, bulbous eyes are solid black and gleam with hunger; from within its mouth, attached to its upper jaw, a set of mandibles juts out. The ambush turns into a blood-soaked skirmish; the Goblin-things move with perfect, wordless coordination. An unnatural coordination. But the party triumphs; a bloody and pyrrhic victory that might just guarantee their defeat in the next battle. Looting the bodies, the thief finds an ivory amulet with a figure carved upon it: The Goblin god of war, Ramahsa. But there is something amiss with his depiction; his hands are pincer-like claws, his head combines the worst aspects of a mantis, an ant, and a spider. What horrors have you stumbled upon?

 Pardon the above piece of overindulgent and overly RPG-recap-esque fiction but I was particularly inspired at the time. If there's one old D&Dism that I actually find charming, it's got be the concept of subraces. I'm not talking about the relatively tame subraces like Hill Dwarves (like Dwarves, but with Hills!) or Wood Elves (like Elves, but with more redneck!) but really crazy stuff like aquatic Gargoyles, the half-plesiosaur Sea (or was it Ocean?) Giants, or the weird monkey Goblins.

In a low-fantasy world, I believe that such really bizarre variations help create a more memorable and adventurous experiment. The places where normal monsters dwell should actually be pretty well-know and close by the core region where the game is taking place. But beyond those monster-ruled wildernesses there should be something it is weird.

In my little fiction, I assume Goblins are roughly on par with an average Human but much more cowardly. But the bizarre Insecto-Goblins the party encounter aren't cowardly and in fact seem to show no fear at all, fighting to the bitter end even when retreat is a sensible idea. There's also hints that these guys have a hivemind or telepathy which gives them their "unnatural" coordination.


AD&D weirdness: And then the Elf girl was a snake

Carnival was an AD&D supplement detailing a wandering carnival led by a fallen(?) angel for the Ravenloft (although the cover hastily tacks on "OR FOR OTHER SETTINGS!" to milk those sweet, sweet dollarbux). It's full of various D&Disms like Elves, Wizards, Orcs, and Lycanthropes but there is one bit that is so utterly bizarre that I wanted to single it out.

Take a look at the cover here http://www.museumofplay.org/online-collections/images/Z004/Z00493/Z0049356.jpg. It's very late 90s cheesecake-y goodness, although the number of shirtless fit men outnumber the lone busty blonde Elf. There's a kind of "innocence" to this type of art, much like Frank Frazetta's art, where a weird sensual (or perhaps sexual?) energy objectifies both men and women, making it comparatively inoffensive (at least to me).

So what's the story on our nearly-naked Elf maiden with huge knockers?

She's a snake. No, literally. Someone, somewhere for some (perverted) reason turned a snake into a Elven bombshell who now prances around practically nude. Imagine if a PC ends up romancing her and then learns the truth. At least she's sapient though!
Seriously, look at the butt. Wizards truly have no sense of right and wrong.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Creating a Superhero Setting part 1: Teamwork

"So what elements do you need to make a decent superhero setting?"
I was thinking about this earlier and had a few ideas in quick succession about. This list is specifically based on "kitchen sink" settings like Marvel and the old 52 DC. I can't guarantee that it'll make your setting great and memorable but it should convey a sense of familiarity while preserving some surprises. For now, I'm just going to focus on organizations that should be present in such worlds.

The Team

This is the main superhero group of the world, known by virtually everyone, and influential on a global stage. It contains a variety of heroes; magicians, superscientists, people who can punch really good, etc. A good group size is about 5-9 heroes here, most of whom should have a noteworthy career outside of the group. Also, consider who/what the heroes are and how being a global celebrity might shape public opinion. If a member is a robot or an alien, expect to see more acceptance of robots or aliens, respectively.
Examples of these organizations in comics: The Justice League, the Avengers

The Old Team

Founded back in dubya-dubya-two, The Old Team has been kicking ass and taking names since before most of The Team was even born. Although they made history, The Old Team is largely forgotten, overshadowed by The Team. The Old Team consists of a few survivors from World War Two, who have usually experienced some sort of time skip to avoid too much aging or are practically unaging, and new heroes inheriting the mantles of the survivors' comrades. They also fight Nazis a lot.
Examples of these organizations in comics: The Justice Society, the Invaders

The Young Team

Members of The Team have an unfortunate tendency to hoard sidekicks and gain  derivative characters much younger than themselves. These youngsters organize into a new team where they don't have to deal with the stuffiness of either The Team or The Old Team. Most members are in the 16-20 age range.
Examples of these organizations in comics: The Teen Titans, the New Warriors

The Government Agency

Superhumans pose a lot of legal questions. Can you use x-ray vision on someone without a warrant? Is anyone who throws on a spandex suit and tries to rob a bank unfit to stand trial?
Stuff like this is the purview of the Government Agency, which is the public face of Human-Superhuman relations.
Examples of these organizations in comics: Department of Metahuman Affairs (pretty sure that's a thing in DC), House Committee on Superhuman Activities

The SECRET Government Agency

While the Government Agency is the public face of Human-Superhuman relations, this organization is its private face. At times helpful to Supers and other times harmful, this Agency believes in preparing defenses against a possible Human-Superhuman war and often engages in questionable activities to obtain it.
Examples of these organizations in comics: Cadmus, Checkmate, S.H.I.E.L.D.

The Criminal Syndicate

Crime usually pays but in a world with Supers you get diminishing returns.This is where Syndicate steps in. Need some crazy science doohicky? Need some super-powered muscle for a job? The Syndicate is more than happy to provide it as long as you help advance its agenda. From petty crime to global domination, the Syndicate is always hiring!
Examples of these organizations in comics: Intergang, AIM, Hydra

Next, we need to think of people and places. On to Part 2!
Or you can skip to OUTER SPACE if you prefer.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

JoJo before JoJo: or Fabulous Magic Kung-fu Goblins and Weaponized Life Force

Some of you may or may not be familiar with JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. The early installments are summarized as huge muscled martial arts striking bizarre and almost impossible poses while using life energy to punch vampires and SUPER vampires. This is a JJBA image macro:
Now compare the above to this, from the Deities & Demigods supplement for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons;
 
As you can see, Maglubiyet is also pretty fabulous in the posing department. As the creator of Goblins, it seems like his creations would take after him.
So what about Goblins that are some form of bizarre magical martial artists? If based on JoJo's concept of weaponized life energy then Goblins could perhaps be a race apart from all others, supernaturally linked to a plane or dimension of life force.
Maybe they never die of old age like Tolkien's Elves. They could be walking bombs of "positive energy", anathema to the undead. Maybe they have innate healing powers.
Another thing worth considering is if non-Goblins can learn their mysterious martial arts. It could just be plain impossible, making Goblins the kung-fu race of the campaign world; it could be partially available but Humans/Elves/Dwarves/whatever lack the link to the mysterious "life-force" and must content themselves with mundane techniques; or it could be possible for anyone to learn with a healthy dose of hard work and guts.

Friday, October 3, 2014

It Lives!

Hi, my name's Buzzclaw.
I have a lot of ideas (most are admittedly kinda crap) and I feel like some are worth sharing. Since some of those are too niche to actually discuss on most web forums, I'm going to soapbox here.

General topics will include: Comic books, particularly of the superhero genre; role-playing games; 16- and 32- bit videogames; general science fiction and fantasy ideas; sophisticated toys for sophisticated adult toy collectors such as myself; and a whole bunch of other crap you probably won't care about.

Hopefully you will find something on here that you'll find cool.