Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hex Reassignment Surgery: Humanoids, assembled!

Right now I'm still reading the Blackmarsh hex list. It's interesting to note that the material looks pretty sandbox-y to me on the surface, but actually has some story baked right in.

Today I'm looking at races and making notes on how to use them. Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque takes an approach that I think is interesting:

"Since my campaign setting is humans-only for the player characters, I tend to associate each human-like race with a fear linked to the human condition; that is, each demi-human race represents some problematic aspect of mankind that we like to pretend doesn't exist."

So, I'm making a list of things that will help me keep towards the uncanny side of demi-humans. Its intended to be a kind of quick-n-dirty reference to remind me what I'm aiming for when I use or re-skin demi-humans from the Blackmarsh source. I intend to "lump" some of these together and so they are listed together.

Dwarvesthe fear of Avarice
Dwarves should always have a price. One that is high, strange, and inflexible. Dwarves should always have the most unique gear and / or services that can be crafted and bought. Dwarves will always insist on being paid in the clearest of terms. They should be blunt to the point of rudeness about what they will and won't do; do and don't want etc. Dwarves should also behave as though their greed is normal. They will expect those they interact with to have a price, and will want to know what that is. Graft and nepotism are expected...then you'd want to run their societies kind of Roman. Patrons, and favors and bribes, and obsessions. They might be kind of Hanseatic, or Mafioso...I'm not sure. The entire race should be in some sort of protracted war against another non-human race over a failure to pay a debt. These are the folk who created the idea of interest as a thing that accumulates, they may have invented money too.

Drow, Eladrin & Elves:  fear of Decadence, Alien-ness, & Chaos
My first lumped group, and one of the more problematic demi-human races for me personally. I don't really like fantasy elves of any stripe, its just a problem I have. I like that Jack has removed the color coding from his elves, so I'm keeping that and renaming them all Faeries until I come up with something better. Every Elf, Nixie, Sprite, and Mermaid in the Backmarsh source needs to be filtered as I go. That shouldn't be hard to do because one of the stories baked into the setting has to do with Elves and where they stand on the idea that they have the right to govern the other races. That can be spun in a gothic way, right?

Where you find a Faerie will tell you a lot about them. If they are rustic, they might be Elves; urbane and social, possibly Drow; aloof and hermit-like...maybe Eladrin. Fey should have a modestly knowable set of logical operators. They should keep their word (perhaps strictly), have long memories, and have a hard time relating to shorter-lived races. They should not use magic, but rather be magical. They should distribute boons and curses frequently per the TotGaD source.

My list from before applies here. Making them weird and unique will be necessary as they have a large part of the Blackmarsh back story, and I might get bored with them if I don't lean into the challenge.

Giants, Trolls, & Ogres fear of inebriation, the abject, & cannibalism
Two words for you...Troll Hunter. There is plenty of swamp in Blackmarsh and plenty of Trolls in the TotGaD Compendiums. A broad selection of Troll-ish goodness lets me have good, old-fashioned monster fun times. I like that Jack gives Trolls a kind of antipathy. Their nearness assaults the mind and drives out reason. They curdle milk, and pollute clear streams of water. They rage through the countryside and consume mass quantities. If they do talk, they talk of the greatest meals they've ever had (or the bravest people, or the most valuable item) and may be goaded and tricked easily. This includes Hags though, too so don't get too triumphant there, Finn McCool.

Gnollsfear of Animality
Maybe it was all the He-Man and Thundercats in my early days, but Hyena / Jackal dudes are completely rad. They should attack in packs, have alphas, and be red in tooth and claw. Anytime you start to put a wolf encounter in, change it to a Gnoll encounter instead. Gnolls are often linked to slaving in D&D...who are they taking people to? They don't keep them.

Gnomesfear of the Unheimlich
If used correctly, the players should assume the Gnome in question is a kind of representation of Satan. Maybe there's only The Gnome, and it serves some similar cosmological role as the adversary / tempter. Rows and rows of shark-like teeth is a great image to use to startle and disarm. They should offer great power at a terrible price, or seemingly easy solutions to tough problems.

Goblins & Koboldsfear of science run amok & misrule
Basically Gremlins. They should spawn like crazy, die in droves and be mostly reptilian...keep the "dog head" for extra strangeness if you like. Should be known for eating the flesh of Humans, diabolically-trapped warrens, dangerous war machines, weird magical automatons (made of what: wood? bronze?), and unexpected explosions. Their leaders should be a major cut above, with ageless shamans and wizards maintaining enough organization to keep the Man-flesh supply steady. Goblin as a name has a lot of baggage attached to it for me, so I will probably use Kobold in its place. "Kobolds ate my baby!"

Halflingsfear of place
What happens to a Human when they have no hope? What does it look like when they succumb to the mundanity of life? Hobbits. Thats the answer. Over time, Humans can literally shrink as their spirit of independence withers and they become a caricature of the free-willed individual they were once. Halflings, are therefore mundane in every outward aspect and sinister in every interior manner. Interactions with them should be a kind of "hey this could be you, if you'd settled down and started pig farming..." or "Damn, down-and-out is really down and out..."They might be used as a kind of house-fairy analogue as well...the ones you leave little gifts for in hopes they don't ruin your life. They should certainly be a kind of gleeful parasite on human societies.

Orcsfear of savagery
Bred for war, but by whom? Everywhere you find a Faerie who does not want to get its hands dirty, or whatever...there will be an Orc. Guards, brutes & enforcers. Orcs without masters leave the "civilized" areas and wind up with even more sinister masters. TotGaD has them listed as a created race, so there may not be any sexual dimorphism. Being created raises lots of interesting questions. How do you control them? Can they be commanded to do anything other than delight in savagery? What vile rituals and ingredients come together to create them? 

Tieflingsfear of racial degeneration
Caliban & Half-bloods. Interbreeding rarely goes well, and there are dark, corrupting forces out there everywhere. Curses, diabolic-pacts, and magical mutations are just a few ways you could wind up with a messed up humanoid. I personally don't like Tieflings (see Elves above) so I wont be using them in the strictest sense. Maybe some cultists and sorcerers have to hide their forked tongues, and file their horns down...thats fine. What I'm thinking of is more along the lines of Mike's Half-Elves. Setting aside the willfully mutated, I want some slice of half-blooded freaks to be victims, or innocents. That might be too Quasimodo...I don't know.

That's everything I have that overlaps between what I want in the game, whats in Blackmarsh, and what Jack has written. I'm resisting the urge to kitchen sink a whole bunch more monsters. Snake-men, for example, make an appearance in any game that I run (...too much V: The Final Battle for me as a kid...) My counter-argument to myself being that any more 'monsters' should be unique rather than assumed as a 'species' ... which serves my ethic of trying to fight the Vanilla Fantasy Creep.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hex Reassignment Surgery: Backmarsh, meet The World Between

Deciding where I wanted to pull my ideas from for this mash-up / re-skin was pretty easy. I've been reading +Jack Shear's Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque compendiums for a couple of weeks now. I am really enjoying them as gaming materials and academic primers on the subject of gothic literature. Reading them, and trying to understand 'how-to: Gothic' has been fun and challenging. I'm finding that in my attempts to wrap my head around the materials that I'm able to prevent some of my own, vanilla fantasy assumptions from being so automatic.

The Swords & Wizardry SRD has all the marks of a labor of love, and like its bigger cousin the Pathfinder SRD I love that its online, and easy to get to. When I saw the Blackmarsh Campaign Setting described as an example for newer GM's to follow, I decided I wanted to take the time to try and understand it. Hex-mapped campaign settings are not really in my background as a gamer; I was rarely able to afford game books growing up, and I didn't take the time to really appreciate the technical side of game books until much more recently. So, hex-mapping is pretty much "all-new" to me.

Having read most of the TotGaD companions a couple of times now, I can tell that while I'm going to aspire to be as "Gothic" as I can manage while re-skinning this, I don't think I will manage to be as faithful to the inspirational materials as I want to be. That's pretty okay with me in the context of trying it out though. I'm not writing any papers for Jack's class so I should be okay. The exciting thing for me is going to be using his material as a way to stretch my GM repertoire and try to put a clear "fingerprint" on this basic campaign setting. Due to my own personal tastes I may wind up with something more Alex Toth than Edgar Allan Poe, but I will have made an honest attempt.

I want to read Blackmarsh through a couple of more times before starting, in earnest with the re-skin and hex reassignment, but here are some of the ideas I've got forming currently on the big picture side:

Blackmarsh vocabulary changes:
We have GOT to get rid of 'Viz' as a name. I can't take it...I keep flashing back to the Coo Coo Cola Cult episode of Rescue Rangers. I'd rather call it Magicite, or Manna. Quintessence has the right sort of feel to it, but seems less "does what it says, says what it does" than Manna. Even blood stone, star metal, or ghost rock would be better. So, Viz is gone and Manna is in for now. I want to reserve Jack's 'demonstone' for later.

So, Manna is a thing in this setting. A discreet unit of magical quintessence that allows a magic user to cast a spell, but retain it in memory. This works on a 1:1 ratio of Manna to Spell Level. So, you can burn 1 Manna and keep a Level 1 spell in memory; 2 Manna for a Level 2 spell etc. Also, 1 Manna is equivalent to 100 GP for making magic items.

That's pretty cool, right? It makes Manna a fantasy-style gold-rush kind of resource. The problem now is that I'm reading that Manna (Viz) is both a discreet unit and some kind of interestingly unique snow-flake resource. The setting has some indications that it can be any number of amazing forms: "a flask of pure spring water, a newly bloomed flower, or an iridescent rock" while simultaneously, the sand-box has locations with artefacts that have places where "Viz can be inserted." So I'm going to want to clean that up. Hopefully without rules / too many rules. The questions that arise immediately for me are "where are the Manna pools?" or "how can I make that game-able?"

What I'm thinking right now is that Manna can be caught, and crystalized somehow to make it a unit. With some skill, this could tie into the gothic 'grandeur of nature' thing and maybe even cast an eye towards Reason vs Supernaturalism...I'm not sure yet.

Gothic themes and window dressing:
Feyan Folk, Elves, Eladrin, Drow and fairies of the D&D description are a bit whimsical for the inspirational material. Making Elves weird is going to be hard for me in actual play, so I'm going to want to set them up well in my head. That means narrowing the field and changing some designations and really trying to use Elves for something other than 'High Men' or whatnot. (I will not take 'Ancient Astronauts' off the table.) So I want to lump Elves, Eladrin, and Drow as concepts into something more compact. I think I want use them to highlight the fears as indicated in the Compendium...I just don't want to make a major kind of distinction between them. I think I'll have an easier time emphasizing the subtleties at the table if I keep them together in one slot in my head.

I will want to think deeply about the cultural rules that allow Men and Feyan (or whatever I'll call them eventually) to interact. In Blackmarsh, as in Tolkien, the Elves are the shepherds of civilization but on the wane...I'll want to address that in particular rather than assume it. Bake it into the setting as a feature not a bug. Keeping them weird will require some anthropological raiding for strange customs and the like.

Weird ideas about individuality, property, and modesty
roles as names "Puck" "Alder King"
bound by certain kinds of agreements
morbidly fascinated by mortality in short-lived sentients
a comment on class / colonialism
problems with intensity or exposure to human emotionality makes ruling humans complex
have a 'veiled countenance' and 'unveiled' wich is hard on other sapients

Monsters are going to get lumped a little too. I want Trolls that are Giants, and want to call them Trolls ala 'Troll Hunter' with a lot of various breeds. There are Troll tables for that. Gnolls are definitely in because of the 'Grand Guignolls' and my love of animal-dudes. There's plenty of swamp, but I don't know what kind of D&D swamp denizens I want. I do want Goblins as Gremlins, and maybe Kobolds can be my swamp guys. They eat humans and are devious so they hit some classic Degenerate Hillbilly notes with a lot less of the classist implications I see with Ogres and Voodoo Halflings. If I have Orcs, I may use them as created enforcers for the Elves...

Thats it for now. Feel free to sound off on some of this if you have the notion.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hex Reassignment Surgery: Getting Started

Okay, I want to learn something about hexes and stocking them. I've been doing the reading, and being the lazy sort that I am...I intend to re-purpose, re-skin, and borrow wholesale from wherever I can. The purpose is to learn something about what kinds of building and randomization tools I work best with. That means its time for Hex Reassignment Surgery!

Rule #1: Free is for me
If its not free, with some sort of fairly-clear intent of free use attached its not going to be used.

Rule #2: Re-skin-spiration!
There are a ton of awesome, random generators and free ideas out there...try to use them to good effect.

Rule #3: Less is more
Just a reminder to keep the representations light so more people can use them.

Basic Ingredients: 

Hex-Stocking Theory:

Miscellaneous Inspiration & Resources:

Damn, that's a lot to contemplate! Next time, the Elevator Pitch, and some re-defining of the basic Blackmarsh lingo to suit my desire.