Friday, November 21, 2008

Pandora (Kinda) Fails Me

I'm a huge fan of Pandora Radio, a web page that uses something called the "music genome project" to pick music for you. It's an ingenious system that takes a single song seed and, based on what the system knows about the song, finds similar songs and plays them for you. For instance, as I type this, Pandora is playing Greece 2000 (Original Mix) by Three Drives on a Vinyl. Pandora recognizes the following major themes in this piece:

techno roots
disco influences
use of modal harmonies
a variety of synth sounds
synth heavy arrangements
trippy soundscapes
prevalent use of groove

If I mark this song as a favorite, it will add these attributes to what it's looking for in the music it plays for me. It's a very cool system which, of course, appeals to the gamer in me. It's also introduced me to lots of music I'd not have heard otherwise.

Unfortunately, the variety isn't quite what I'd like. Most specifically, I'd really prefer a bit more oriental folk and traditional music. Both my big writing project and my work on the Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack could use with some Dhol Project or Dead Can Dance for inspiration. They've got DCD, but nothing from the Dhol Project, and so the channel I set up for it, called Yulunga Radio, is turning into a trippy techno thing, rather than the exotic rhythm machined I'd been hoping for.

Still, finding some neat music. If you haven't tried it yet, I'd highly recommend it.

2e Triumphs

There's been some talk lately about the horrors of 2nd edition AD&D. Technically, 2e is the version that was on the table when I've played and DMed the most, but the truth is, I've always played Moldvay/Cook with a thin veneer of other rules layered on top. Maybe that's part of the reason why I never made the leap to 3e. You can't just trowel on a few character creation rules and spell lists and have done with it. And that's honestly what I did with every edition of D&D that came into my hands. In that sense 3e and all that followed after it "isn't D&D." But that's a fairly narrow definition of the game, based entirely upon my laziness.

Taking what I did use from 2e, though, it's got one distinction that I miss when I play in other editions. 2e (and here I'm using just the core rules of PHB, DMG, and MM) really got clerics right. The rules for specialty priests make your priest of Zeus play differently than your priest of Thor than your priest of Bast. This was especially true if your DM was, like me, brave enough to create spell lists that didn't include most of the healing spells. With the spheres rules as laid out, it was a fairly simple thing to custom tailor clerics to your campaign. It was a bit of work, but nothing like the effort required to do the same thing from scratch for 1e.

In the end, I decided not to attempt something similar for my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack. Instead, I've crafted the setting so that universal cleric spells make a bit of sense. But in the future, I can see myself attempting to recreate 2e's clerical spheres, if I don't just make separate classes for every priesthood.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Stan "the Man" Lee has been awarded the National Medal of Arts!

I can't really say too much about Mr. Lee himself. He's combined some maybe shady business practices with some sometimes shady writing, but given us incredible characters who, like Isis and Osiris, Odysseus and Penelope, and Quetzalcoatl and Tetzcatlipoca, have a pretty good chance of being remembered and loved long after our civilization has collapsed into dust.

I have no idea how much of this was Mr. Lee's influence, but I've had an on-again, off-again love affair with Marvel comics for a long time. When I was a kid, I wasn't a regular reader because comics were far too juvenile for me. It wasn't until I got to college that I put away the fear of childish things and discovered the joys of Excaliber, mostly through back-issues. (Fans of Planetary Romance would do themselves a favor to track down the justly famous but painfully too short issues 16 and 17. The cover for 16, I think, says all that needs to be said.)

The thing that struck me about Excalibur was that my favorite issues didn't revolve around really cool villains or the "death" of a team member or anything like that. They were most likely to be the more "quiet" issues, where the team never got into costume, but wore their civies and dealt with slightly more mundane issues, like Kitty's birthday or the destruction of the only bathroom (sorry, water closet) in their lighthouse.

And that informed my DMing. Yeah, you knew I was gonna drag this around to RPGs eventually, right? Because it taught me that the most powerful events in the lives of our PCs were not going to be when they won the vorpal blade or defeated the archlich. It was going to be the quiet moments, often those times the players created between themselves, where I just sat and watched, holding the inevitable ninja attack back a few more moments. Because, honestly, if the players are having fun, I'm usually having fun, and if they can entertain themselves with romances and rivalries and jealousy and longing, then heck, I can sit back and enjoy the ride a little bit.

So we had entire sessions where I had little to nothing of any serious consequence planned. Some were given over to parties, often to commemorate recent victories. The players would plan the parties, write up menus and guest-lists, and then we'd play through conversations and events. There might be a drunken fistfight or two, someone would invariably attempt to play match-maker, and usually at least one couple (or trio) would end up disappearing into the bushes. I usually, but not always, dropped in something relating to the next section of the vaguely planned campaign arc.

And everyone had a great time. Granted, you need a special sort of player to pull this off and make it work, and the group needs to be pretty comfortable in their characters and the world. Tying this sort of thing into the customs and rituals of the locals also helps to make the world they live in feel more like a real place, somewhere they can invest emotional and creative energies.

And once they've done that, well, that's when the real magic starts, right?

'Nuff said!

What a Week


So I'm ready to jump back into the blogging thing. Lots of things to talk about, what with all the controversy over certain products. At first, I thought I should unleash a thunderous broadside in defense, but more vigorous and stalwart authors than myself have already given good service on Mr. McKinney's behalf. From the somewhat oblique, to the deeply reasoned and considered, to the smack-between-the-eyes-with-a-clue-by-four, just about anything that can be said has been said on this topic. (Though I do have to say, some of us might, possibly, exercise a bit more restraint when it comes to pushing the big shiny red button. Or maybe not.)

I will only add this little word on my own personal experience: the subject matter discussed in Mr. McKinney's book may seem bizarre, hideous, and unusual to you. You are certainly free to not purchase his book or use such material in your games. As for me, I'm what you might call a "High Church" Christian. Thus, while rituals of torment, human sacrifice, and cannibalism might be rare in your life, for me they're just a typical Sunday morning.

But then came life with its broken computers and hacking, nasty colds, and looking for a new job, and so the website languished again, for which I can only offer the usual lame apologies.

In any event, offered in no particular order, here are a handful of gods for my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack.


God of Knowledge, the Bronze Man

Uban appears to be an eight-foot tall statue of bronze, with gears and hinges of silver and copper, teeth and nails of jade, and eyes of lapis. His form is beautiful but androgynous, and three “wings” or “feathers”, resembling brilliant white palm fronds or the antennae of a moth, float and undulate around his head like a halo. His voice is sweet, like the ringing of crystal bells, but often lacking in emotional inflection.

His priesthood is charged primarily with the creation and keeping of knowledge. While writing is an old skill, he has given great advances in mathematics to the world. His devotions include meticulous recordkeeping, the writing of journals and histories, and the copying of written works, maps, diagrams, and charts, as is meditation.

His servants are owls, squirrels, and bees. His higher servitors are mechanical versions of these creatures fashioned in bronze, copper, and iron.

His symbol is a bronze lamp or pen nib. His priests wear long, sleeveless robes with pen, ink, paper, and other writing and charting instruments carefully kept in ornate leather belts.

PC clerics of Uban can earn an additional 10% EXP bonus by keeping a journal of their adventures.


Goddess of the Stars, the Dancing Goddess

Hasrit is a tall woman, nearly six-feet tall, curvaceous, with delicate hands and feet, and long, dexterous fingers and toes, each possessing an extra joint. She is usually wearing a short, sleeveless, hooded tunic of black silk over a longer robe with a full circle skirt and broad sleeves in translucent, midnight blue linen. A veil of amber beads held in place by silver chains covers her eyes, which have never been seen by a mortal. Her hair is raven-black and falls to her ankles when unbound.

Hasrit’s priesthood studies the motions of the stars, moons, and sun, and from these observations attempts to divine the past, present, and future. By their rites are the heavenly bodies kept in their proper orbits. These rites revolve around astronomical observations and intricate, whirling dances.

The wolf, rooster, and moth are sacred to her. Her higher servitors are wychlamps. Moonless nights are considered sacred to Hasrit.

A silver star of four greater and four lesser points is her symbol. Hasrit’s priests wear robes with long, bell-shaped sleeves, and from their belts hang long strings of gems, stones, metal chains or ropes that splay out as they dance.

Clerics of Hasrit can turn lycanthropes as if they were undead. Such lycanthropes can never be destroyed, just forced to flee.


The Law-giver, the Judge.

Aratshi appears to be a tall man, nearly seven-and-a-half-feet tall with dark grey eyes and long, silver hair. His clean-shaven features are long and lean, as are his hands, which some have described as spider-like. He’s usually seen wearing either a fringed kilt of red wool belted with a broad girdle of gold, or robes of purple silk. He bears a staff of pale ash capped on either end with gold and iron. The shaft is heavily carved from end to end, inscribed with the core of the law he administers.

Aratshi’s priests dress in accordance with their duties. Those who serve as judges dress in kilts of white wool striped with purple. Enforcers of the law wear sleeveless chain mail over red tunics and bear iron-headed maces. Inquisitors wear long crimson robes. Aratshi’s symbol is a long chain from which hangs a conical stone or weight, to point true to the ground.

The god himself creates the laws; his priesthood is tasked with enforcing them. They concern themselves only with obedience and due punishment. Justice is not their concern. Judgment and punishment are both sacred acts, and smaller devotions are marked by repetition of the law’s preamble, an argument and justification for the importance of the law as a bedrock of any stable civilization.

The hound is sacred to Aratshi, and his greater servitors are the (man-headed bull things which are not in the 1st edition Monster Manual like I thought they were, darn it). The sixth day of every week is considered sacred to Aratshi, as this is when most trials are held.

In civilized lands, the priests of Aratshi carry powerful influence, as they are both admired and feared by the citizens.


God of Slavery, Aratshi’s Hound

Shkeen is closely associated with Aratshi, and it is said that he is in truth a creature of Chaos bound in obedience to Aratshi. That would make him not just the god of slaves, but also the slave god, if it is true.

Shkeen stands just under six feet tall. His body is that of a muscular man with bronzed skin, broad shoulders, and large hands and feet. From the neck up, however, he has the head of a red-furred hound with golden eyes. Around his neck he wears a collar of black dragonscale studded with gold spikes. He wears a kilt of leather stained a deep rust color. He usually bears a staff of venom-green poisonoak shod with iron on either end.

Shkeen is no executioner, though he is a hunter of those who flee justice or their owners. Slavery is a common punishment under Aratshi’s law, and many who are brought to face one of Aratshi’s judges end up in the hands of Shkeen’s priests. They are tasked with marking slaves (usually by branding), breaking them, and then selling them, as well as hunting those who flee from their servitude. While they do not command a monopoly on the slave trade, the priesthood of Shkeen has grown very wealthy in this business. This has lead the priests to branch out into aspects of slavery, including transport, marketing, training, and financing.

The vestments of Shkeen’s priesthood include rust-colored tunics worn with belts of plaited green ropes, heavy bracers of green leather covered with bells that they clash loudly during services, and red dog masks. Shkeen’s symbol is a short length of chain, usually just three links, each incised with the four triangles arranged like the canines of a hound.

Hounds, of course, are sacred to Shkeen, as are gelded bulls. His higher servitors are tamed mammoths and a certain species of giant ant. As with Aratshi, the sixth day of the week is held as sacred.

The transformation of a free person to slave is a sacred rite, as is the manumission of a slave to freedman. Most rites, including smaller, daily devotions, are marked by the repetition of the Hunter’s Oath, said to be the exact same words Shkeen used to pledged his obedience to Aratshi.


Goddess of the Underworld, Keeper of the Dead

Lergan is rarely seen in the living world, as she is mistress and governor of Tartarus, the Grey Lands of the deceased. When she does appear in the living world, she is a tall, matronly woman of serious mien, dressed in a gown of black silk, tasseled in crimson and wearing jewelry of silver and bright jewels.

Lergan is not the goddess of death, as the Elder of the Silver Moon, Ushk, holds to that title, and no god has yet been able to wrest that authority from him. Rather, Lergan is the keeper and queen of those who have died and passed into the afterlife. It is said she is barely able to hold on to that title, for the titaness called Grandmother Spider is said to pass freely between Tartarus and the lands of the living, and that the wily crone openly makes her home in Tartarus, in open defiance of Lergan’s claim to dominion.

Lergan’s priesthood, then, is little concerned with executions, burial rites, and the like. Rather, they primarily concern themselves with making sure the dead aren’t wandering about where they’re not supposed to be, specifically the lands of the living. The dead are given reprieve to visit the living world once a year, the day after the autumnal equinox. The day after, the most sacred day of the year for Lergan’s priesthood, the priests go from house to house and search all around to make certain that none of the dead have remained behind. On this day, they may not be denied entrance to any place.

Lergan’s priests dress in grey kilts or robes and wear ivory jewelry. Her symbol is a skull. Rites usually conclude with a dirge-like chant called Lergan’s Welcoming, a reminder that all who live will eventually find themselves in her realm.

Bats and snakes are sacred to Lergan. Certain spirits, those of exceptional devotion or honesty serve her as go-betweens and messengers between her court and the living world.

Priests of Lergan turn undead as if they were two levels higher.