Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fishers of Men

Yesterday, I witnessed a fairly interesting procedure.

My home region of Franconia has numerous carp ponds - small, artificial lakes in which carp are seeded when they are small, and drained in the fall when the carp have grown large and fat. My father's ornithological society is maintaining a number of such lakes and I witnessed how one such lake was drained. They opened the outlet and, when the water became shallow enough, they waded in and began to catch the all the fish - which were reduced to swimming in an ever-shrinking area - with nets and deposited them in containers. Some of the fish - especially pikes, which had proliferated to an astonishing rate (I was told that their eggs frequently hitchhike on waterfowl) - had injured themselves during the capture attempts and had to be killed. Others were deposited in other lakes and ponds. Finally, some fish were taken home and eaten.

Now imagine what this whole process must have looked like from the point of view of the fish.

Suddenly, some powerful, unknowledgeable entities are shrinking their world (or at least the part in it in which they can survive), herding them to an ever-smaller area, and then stalking them, picking them off one by one and removing them to an unknown place outside everything they have ever perceived. Even if they survive the process and are put into a new habitat where they can survive, many of their peers have simply gone missing.

When you think of "Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror" while reading this, your mind is on the right track.

So... let's say some vastly powerful aliens decide to remove humans from their native habitat (i.e. Earth) and put them somewhere else. What can we do with this for gaming?

First, let us consider the "herding" mechanism - the equivalent to draining the carp pond. It should start by isolating some part of Earth from the surrounding area. How large? A country? A state? A metropolitan area? A small town or village? And how fast will the carp pond train? Each choice will change the social dynamics of those trapped inside. A large area will likely have some kind of government which will attempt to retain control while desperately attempting to find the solution (or at least pretending that they have the solution).

And how isolated is the area from the rest of the world? If infrastructure remains largely intact by the draining mechanism, then they can communicate with the outside world and attempt to find a solution - or allow the outside world to watch in horror as the pond drains. On the other hand, if there is a total information blackout, then nobody will know what happened and the former inhabitants of the area seem to have simply vanished.

Furthermore, how does the draining mechanism work? Is it simply impossible to get outside - i.e. an actual wall of force or something equivalent? (And does it only affect humans, but also animals, objects and so forth?) Or means attempting to get out oblivion - a choking fog, a total lack of air, a shimmering wall that seemingly disintegrates anyone who touches it (but maybe they are just teleported elsewhere), or alien constructs just grabbing everyone in an ever-tightening circle?

Furthermore, is it possible to escape? This is important for deciding whether this scenario will be part of a one-shot or an ongoing campaign - if it is impossible to get out of the draining pond, then the player characters will inevitably either (a) get abducted by the aliens or (b) killed before they get to that point, and the adventure is about what will happen in the meantime.

If escape is possible, then it shouldn't be available to everyone trapped in the Circle, at least early in the campaign. If the draining pond is surrounded by a choking fog, then you can escape while wearing a gas mask - but only few in the area should have gas masks, and those few will be targets for other desperate victims. On the other hand, if the draining mechanism only affects the space close to the ground, then maybe the victims can be airlifted out - but how much airlift power do the surrounding areas have? If it's not enough, then the fight over space on the helicopters or planes will be very fierce indeed.

And maybe the countermeasures to the draining mechanisms aren't obvious at first - for instance, can you be really sure that the gas masks will protect you from the choking fog? Besides, maybe some further aliens will lurk in the fog, which means immunity to the fog itself is only the first part of the challenge...

Now, on to the aliens themselves. These should be all-but-impossible to defeat with weapons available to the victims, though sufficient abouts of force may be able to drive them away for short times. But how aware are the humans of their presence? Is the first sign of trouble a fish catcher appearing out of nowhere and dragging its victim into another dimension? Or are they townering figures that crack open nearby houses with brute force to see if any humans are hiding in there? Do they capture humans with rays that instantly teleport (disintegrate) them elsewhere? Do they grab them and put them into some kind of extradimensional container? To they shoot strands of some sticky material at them, which the humans will not be able to get free off - and which then drags them off into dimensional portals or up into the higher reaches of the atmosphere? Whatever the method used, it should terrify all who witness it.

And what happens after the pond is drained? Will the aliens revert the draining and allow other humans to return there? Or does the area become permanently uninhabitable, which means that the whole of Earth is essentially a draining pond? How will the remaining governments react? What countermeasures will they develop to convince their citizens that they have the situation under control, or at least convince them that it is worth continuing with life-as-usual? There is also the scope to consider - if only a few town-level incidents like this happen over the course of a year for the entire year, it will be much easier to prevent chaos than if a couple of major metropolitan areas are snapped up every month.

Finally, what happens to those who are snatched up? The campaign doesn't need to be over at that point, after all. Let us say that our aliens find humanity a fascinating species which they want to study, and for that purpose put sufficient numbers of breeding pairs into new habitats for long (which means that older humans might be considered unfit and removed from the groups). But from the perspective of the player characters (who should, of course, remain in the same group) they are suddenly put on an alien planet. Perhaps the aliens provide some tools (either devices snatched from Earth or alien technology) to help their survival - after all, while they are not particularly careful with individuals, they don't necessarily want them to die either. But perhaps not. They and the other abductees near them (which might not be of the same group that has been snatched up with them) will now have to cope with surviving on this alien world, and contemplate whether it is worth it to reestablish some veneer of civilization. Perhaps the aliens are simply content to let them run around until the next generation, when their descendants are snatched up and redistributed. Or perhaps they actively meddle and "correct" things according to their own strange criteria. Perhaps some of their fellow abductees are even secretly alien constructs or have otherwise been messed with in ways that are not immediately apparent. Or perhaps they have been modified and will start exhibiting strange powers....

Whether the humans will ultimately understand the aliens and perhaps be able to face them and take control of their own destinies again, or if they remain forever the playthings and experimental subjects of unknowledgable beings - in either case this could become the basis for an interesting Cosmic Horror campaign.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Forest Lanterns, Larval Spore, Wind Shrine, and Aranea Coven

In this fog-shrouded stretch of forest, unseen beings have hung up numerous tiny lanterns made out of branches and leaves and which are lit by magical lights in blue and green hues. Despite - or perhaps because - of the light, it is extremely easy to get lost in this area, and the weak-willed or tired might find themselves wandering off into random directions. Some characters may experience profound unease, while others become fascinated by the lanterns and stare at them as if hypnotized until distracted.

There is a small section of these plains - roughly 30 yards in diameter - which are covered by strange, tendril-like plant grows. These tendrils have buds which will release pollen that cause hallucinations and psychoses in those who inhale them. These growths emerge from an immature form of a mu spore which is growing beneath the soil. Within a few years it will emerge from the ground in its mature form.

North of the Spire City Ruins, a large flattened boulder, approximately 20 yards wide, is partially buried in the ground. The Wendigo symbol has been painted on its surface numerous times. This is an important shrine to Wendigo, and strong winds constantly pass over it which seem to sap the stamina from those nearby and replace it with a ravenous hunger. The Elk Tribe frequently stops at this location

In a side valley of the mountains south of the Zone of Silence, a coven of five araneas makes its lair. This is the main coven of which the lone aranea to the south is a member, and if she becomes more active in the workings of the colony, her fellow araneas might choose to become more involved involved as well. They otherwise distrust outsiders who stumble into their valley, and do their best to drive them away without forcing a direct confrontation. The araneas are all female - males only visit periodically.

Note: A list of all Urbis-related posts can be found here.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

[German Folklore] The Devil in the Fränkische Schweiz, Part II

Continued from Part I.

Further stories of the Devil in the Fränkische Schweiz:

- Near Leutenbach there is a small well next to a chapel dedicated to St. Moritz (Saint Maurice). It was used as an oracle by sick people by throwing a small stick into the well. If the stick floated, they would live for a long time, but if it sank to the ground they would die within the year. One year, during the local Kirchweih (a folk festival celebrated at the anniversary of the local church's sanctification), a group of young people decided to test this oracle on a lark. When the local village headman's beautiful daughter threw in her stick, the stick sank immediately, causing the girl to despair. Upon hearing this, the girl's grandmother told her that she should go to the well on the night of the full moon between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday and draw some water - which would turn to wine at midnight - and drink of it, which would banish her doom. But she should "leave her fear behind", as "horrible things happen this night, and the spirits of hell are abroad".

And indeed she saw uncanny signs on her way to the well - there was a fire on a nearby field, and as she drew from the well after a prayer, a horrible storm arose and the Wild Hunt rode through the sky. After she drank, she waited for the end of the storm and was about to go home when a huntsman with a green suit and a green hat stepped out of the woods. She realized that he was the Devil when she saw his horse foot. As she screamed for help, the huntsman said: "No one cam hear you and help you. You belong to me, and shall be queen in my realm!" She called out for St. Moritz, who then suddenly appeared and managed to drive the Devil back.

At the same time, a local young man who had a crush on the girl had a dream about his beloved lying helplessly near the well. He woke up and hurried into the direction of the well. On the way he met a wanderer and asked him if he had seen a young girl. The wanderer replied: "Satan has seen her!" But the young man also recognized the Devil by his horse foot and called out: "You have stolen my beloved! By St. Moritz, I will tear you apart!" After this second call to the saint, the Devil was banished, tearing a nearby pear tree in half during his departure. The young man found his beloved, managed to revive her, and (as it tends to happen in these stories) they married soon after. [100]

- Near Elbersberg the Devil once attacked a man, but couldn't defeat him because he had "Freitagsbrot" ("Friday Bread") in his pocket. However, the Devil was able to snap his neck once the bread fell out of his pocket during the struggle. (Note: I have been unable to determine what this "Friday Bread" is. The only other appropriate reference I have found is here, where apparently baking it is a taboo that humans who use local fey spirits must not break, or else the spirits will no longer work for them.) [108]

- Two similar stories revolve around Knight Kuno, a Count of Gräfenberg. In one story he came across a "fearsome knight in black armor, sitting on a frothing horse" who waited for him at a crossroads and challenged him to a fight. To his horror, Kuno couldn't harm him as all blows simply bounced off. Kuno was defeated but survived, and when he had recovered he swore revenge. "Let him come, if he is not a coward."

In the other story, Kuno (during a night of drunken revelry) had promised to sit down and eat with the Devil, as long as it wasn't "in my own home". In both stories the Devil arrived at Kuno's castle and invited him for a midnight meal at the nearby Eberhardsberg mountain. Not wishing to appear as a coward, Kuno accepted the invitation and arrived at the mountain. The Devil was waiting for him, and thrust a boulder into the ground which then became flat like a table and was filled with plates and food by an invisible hand.

In the first story, the church bells of the nearby monastery church banished the Devil at this point, while in the latter story Kuno banished the Devil with a heartfelt prayer. The boulder can still be seen today, and is called the "Teufelstisch" - the "Devil's Table". [154,155]

- A third story concerns a farmer who had to go over the Eberhardsberg at night. He passed the Devil's Table around midnight, and saw a group of "Fellows of Hell" sitting at the table and celebrating. He became curious, sneaked closer, and listened to them talk about hell and how they were torturing the souls of various rich people. After they had drunk their fill, they started to gamble with pure gold coins and were rather careless with throwing the coins around. One of those apparitions accidentally let a bag of gold fall to the ground, and the farmer sneaked closer and grabbed it out of greed.

Then the Devil appeared in his "horrible true form", smelling of smoke and bearing rolling eyes of fire. The Devil got the attention of the crowd, drew a blood-red piece of parchment from his pocket and read a list of names of people which he would soon claim for his own. The farmer recognized a lot of well-known and respected names, thinking "Now I know where those people got their money!". But then the Devil read the name of the farmer in a particularly loud manner, and the farmer became frightened. But he didn't dare leave his hideout and waited until the apparitions vanished before he raced home.

Then he realized he still had the bag of gold with him. While his conscience told him to give the gold to the church or to the poor, an uncanny voice whispered to him: "Keep the gold! Live a good life! Now you will be respected in your village and others will be envious of you!" As he made the decision to keep the money, he heard mocking laughter.

He invested the money carefully and eventually became the wealthiest farmer in the area and the mayor of his town. However, one day the cattle in town became sick from a plague, and the villagers looked for a scapegoat. An ancient woman in the local poorhouse was called a "witch" and blamed for the plague. She was tortured, with the mayor being the most eager interrogator. The old woman finally admitted being a witch in order to stop the torture, and as the villagers were about to burn her, the mayor demanded that she first told them of her helpers. The old woman only said: "The mayer has dealt with the Devil!" before dying from her injuries. The mayor remembered his experience at the Devil's Table and was so shocked that he was unable to defend himself against this accusation. Now it was his turn to be tortured, and when he finally told his story, the villagers burned him on top of the Devil's Table. [156]

- A fourth story concerns a Count Botho (of Weißenohe near Gräfenberg) who had drunken revelries with his followers at the same location "night after night". They also played with "metallic cards" which were adorned with "uncanny symbols". The final guest was the Devil, who brought a round table, and the group of revelers "mocked and cursed everything good and holy in the world". Flames shone out of "blood-red cups". Finally, a Benedictine monk banished the whole group - once again leaving a stone table behind. [158]

- At the old Breitenstein Castle near Hetzles, the Ladies of the Castle once had a grand washing day on Good Friday. Since it was very sunny that day, she hung them up to dry on the same day. But then the Devil arrived "with the rush of a storm", took all the clothes from the clotheslines, and departed with them. (Note: The three Ladies of the Castle were apparently capable of using magic and otherwise felt into the "Three White/Wise Women" archetype. But that will be a separate post.) [178]

- In Kainach two households were feuding with each other. A woman in one of the families was allegedly a witch. When the neighbor's wife wanted to milk her cows in the mornings, a small black devil sat on the backs of the cows, and the cows produced blood instead of milk. [193]

- In Krögelstein two huntsmen wanted to capture the Devil and hold him hostage for a lot of money. They agreed to meet under a huge fir in a nearby forest. One of them brought a "magic book" ("Zauberbuch" - this could also be translated as "spell book") with him, and attempted to summon the Devil as midnight approached. A large thunderstorm arose. The Devil arrived within the storm with a glowing red "hell hound" and saw the two men waiting. These were now so afraid that they abandoned the plan and fled in terror. They became deeply ill after this adventure and did no longer want anything to do with the Devil. [214]

Source: Heinz Büttner, "Sagen Legenden und Geschichten aus der Fränkischen Schweiz". Numbers in   [brackets] represent page numbers.

To be continued.

Note: For a list of all "Fränkische Schweiz" posts go here.

[German Folklore] The Devil in the Fränkische Schweiz, Part I

There are a few figures which loom large in German folklore, and the Devil is one of them, appearing in innumerable places and stories. While he does fulfill the traditional role of Tempter towards those weak in their faith, I found something surprising in his depictions in these stories. While entering into a bargain with him is a very bad idea, as expected - and so is taking his name in vain - making a bet with him is much safer, as he is easily tricked out of his price (i.e. human souls), and even priests frequently make bets with him (often involving speeding up the construction of a new church) without any apparent bad consequences.

But for now, let's see what the Devil has been up to in the Fränkische Schweiz. I will only list explicit appearances - magic powers derived from the Devil deserve a post of their own. He is also often identified with the Wild Huntsman, but again that entity deserves a separate post.

- In a manor in Adlitz there lived a cruel noble who oppressed his peasants and also terrorized the priests of the church in nearby Poppendorf, causing them to flee and the church to decay. When a new priest showed up, he was forcibly taken to the manor and eventually told he would be killed if he lost a debate with a "highly educated man" - the Devil, who appeared as a scholar "wrapped in red cloth". He first attacked the Christian faith, and then the priest's past sins as the latter countered every argument. After the priest won the debate and turned to leave, the noble begged the priest to banish the Devil for the sake of their souls, which he did. [17-20]

- A widow in Aufseß wished that the Devil "would turn the face" of a Jewish moneylender "on his back". The Jew tried to hide from this curse in a cave (taking his bag of money with him), but the Devil found him and not only rearranged his body but also trapped him there, where he still remains today, still sitting on his bag of money. (Note: Unfortunately, there is a strong trend of anti-Semitism in these stories, and Jews are generally portrayed in a highly negative light, with the implication that they deserve whatever grisly fate befalls them.) [23]

- Again in Aufseß, Karl Holley, a servant of one Christoph Ludwig von Aufseß, was said to be able to summon the Devil and get "advice" from him. But once he was caught by a horrible storm around midnight and sought refuge in a church - whereupon a huge gap opened in the earth and a "horrible dragon" appeared which caught Holley and dragged him into the Earth. After that, the gap vanished without a trace. [29]

- In Bieberbach, three rather drunk men returning from a pub crawl in nearby Egloffstein argued that money "was the most important thing in the world". They were then approached by a Stranger who promised them plenty of money if they could "walk over three different graveyards within one hour". Getting excited, they started in Thuisbrunn, moved on to the graveyard in Egloffstein, and finished at Affalterthal. There they met a "small man" who handed them a stein. When they opened it in their home full of anticipation for the treasure it must contain, a "black thing" emerged which caused terrible chaos on their farm and was identified as "The Devil". Only when the local priest came and sprinkled holy water into every part of the house did the creature vanish "with a terrible cry". [41]

- In Dürrbrunn, a farmer was tilling his field when the church bells called for prayer. The farmer didn't heed them and continued to till. Then a downpour started and the farmer called out: "I won't go back, even if the Devil fetches me for it!" Then there was a bolt of lightning and the farmer, his plow, and the ox before the plot were swallowed into a hole in the earth. The field is now called the "Totenacker" ("Dead People's Field"), and allegedly the filled-up hole can be found even today. [57]

- In Ebermannstadt a man frequently had problems with someone stealing his herbs, and he was desperate to catch the thief. One day, when he was out in order to catch the thief, he encountered a huntsman with a green hat - the Devil. The Devil presented him a book and told him: "Write down your name into this book and you will discover who the thief is". The man did so, and discovered the thief. A few day laters he (and the story is unclear whether this refers to the man or the thief) hanged himself. [65]

- The devil was said to lurk at a waystone near Effeltrich at midnight and help people coming to him with money if they sold him their souls in exchange. [69]

- "A devil" was said to lurk on a path in Eggloffstein during the night. At one point it attacked a farmer walking on this path around midnight, but the famer hit this creature until it fell to the ground. Since then it is called the "Teufelsgraben" ("Devil's Ditch"). [79]

Source: Heinz Büttner, "Sagen Legenden und Geschichten aus der Fränkischen Schweiz". Numbers in   [brackets] represent page numbers.

Continued in Part II.

Note: For a list of all "Fränkische Schweiz" posts go here.

Friday, October 31, 2014

[German Folklore] Fränkische Schweiz

As any gamer should know, much of what we now consider "modern fantasy" has roots in German folklore, myths, and legends. The most famous collections of German folklore are, of course, the various works of the Brothers Grimm which spawned numerous derivatives by Disney and others. But, as I have learned over many years of collecting books about German regional folklore, these barely scratch the surface - German folklore is much stranger and even outright bizarre than the tame, made-for-children animated movies hint, and much of it is ready-made for gaming.
Unfortunately, while there are numerous books on regional folklore, myths and legends, few of these books are available in English. Which is where I come in - I plan to read through these books, and as I do so take notes on particularly interesting gaming material. But where to begin?

At home - or to be more precise, a region near where I grew up. This is the Fränkische Schweiz, which Wikipedia translates literally as "Franconian Switzerland" - a phrase I won't use henceforth, as it sounds rather daft in English (incidentally, the current name for the region was only established early in the 19th century, when people all over the German-speaking lands started to call local hilly areas "Schweiz", or "Switzerland", for marketing reasons in order to attract tourists).

The Fränkische Schweiz is a hill/low mountain region in Franconia (the northern half of Bavaria), roughly occupying the space between the cities of Bayreuth, Bamberg, and my hometown of Erlangen. It has an extremely high density of castles - about 200 (most of which are now in ruins or completely gone) were once scattered through this region, many of which once housed infamous families of Raubritter ("robber knights"), preying on the surrounding trade routes, especially those connecting to the nearby trade center of Nuremberg. Due to its chaotic terrain, the region was never really unified, with the surrounding cities vying for influence. To top it off, the region is dotted with innumerable caves.

In other words, the Fränkische Schweiz would be a prime ground for adventures even if you were to ignore the supernatural elements - which we won't, of course. My guide to this aspect of the region will be "Sagen Legenden und Geschichten aus der Fränkischen Schweiz" by Heinz Büttner (which you can order here, and tell them I sent you!).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

[Campaign Idea] Eberron - Morgrave University Archaeologists

Here is a campaign idea which I want to run one of these days:

Morgrave University - situated in Sharn, the famed City of Towers - is a beacon of scholarship and research (and claims that it is funded primarily by selling ancient artifacts under the table are vile rumors started by rivals)! Its archaeologists travel the world in search of knowledge - the jungles of Q'barra, the Shadow Marches, or even myth-shrouded Xen'drik - in order to excavate the past, illuminate the dark strands of history... and be the first ones back alive in civilization to talk about it! It's a "publish or perish" world, after all...

The PCs would be a professor of archaeology and assorted flunkies, such as students (ordinary, grad or even PhD), post-Docs, bodyguards, wilderness scouts, black marketeers, and so forth. Their mutual home base unites the party and also gives a good excuse for rotating or absent players (i.e. the character had another appointment coming up).

Away from the university, the basic missions are clear: Go to distant countries and remote regions, find ancient stuff, and excavate and plunder it - not so different from what normal adventurers are doing, really, except for the veneer of academic research. Opponents can include pesky natives who seem to object digging around in their ancient burial grounds, adventurers and looters without the proper academic credentials, people with the proper academic credentials but who come from rival universities or departments, and so on.

But the stories need not end at the doorsteps of the university, as academia can be every bit as cutthroat as the outside world - just in a different way. Rival student societies, rival academics, and the day-to-day hazards of a university environment where far too many people know how to use magic. And as a special treat, there should be occasional "faculty meetings" which the player character professor is required to attend - while the other professors as well as the dean should be played by the other players, with their own personalities and agendas provided by the GM. Who can successfully blame the latest budget shortcuts on others, while spinning the problems of their own department in the most positive way? Vicious back-stabbing is strongly encouraged!

Essentially, this campaign would run like a crossover between Indian Jones-style adventuring archaeology and GURPS IOU.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

[Urbis] Help me build a Halfling Survivalist Compound!

I've decided to put some more effort into detailing the Spring Seeds Farm, especially since the party may ignore one character's prejudices against halflings and investigate the compound any day now.

To recap, this farm complex was founded by a halfling splinter sect following the God of Agriculture who believe that they are their god's "chosen people" since halflings are more fecund than other "civilized" (i.e. agriculture-practicing) races. And to make sure that they "inherit the world", it is their holy duty to have as many children as possible. However, the Evils of the Modern World are constantly tempting halflings off the right and pure path, leading to an inordinate number of youngsters running off the the Big City and whatnot.

To prevent this, one halfing patriarch (a fairly powerful priest) convinced four extended families to come with him to this remote northern wilderness so that they could practice their faith (and agriculture) free of any distractions. They have the most productive farm in hundreds of miles around, and their closest link to "civilization" is a coastal trade outpost which is 30 miles away even over the most direct route (which goes through forested hill country). They trade with the outpost for metal tools they can't create by themselves, but otherwise keep contact at a minimum.

This region is not safe, however - there are wandering monsters and nomadic tribes who would certainly be interested in the food stores of the farm complex. Furthermore, the village elders encourage an "Us versus Them" attitude to keep the community unified against any impure outsiders - and they conduct regular drills so that they can make optimal use of their defenses in real emergencies.

So, what should this compound contain? Let's do some brainstorming! The good folks at RPGNet already had some ideas, but I am open to further suggestions.

Main Buildings

These will be immediately apparent to observers. Note that only the barn, temple, and communal hall will be large enough for humans to stand upright, and the halflings will be unwilling to let a human get into them.
  • Temple to Kortus
  • Communal burrows for the four extended families, each housing perhaps 30 halflings (including children)
  • Communal hall (for dances and non-religious celebrations)
  • Kindergarten (there will obviously be many, many kids...)
  • School (Smaller than the kindergarten, for the moment.)
  • Barns
  • Granaries


These buildings and other constructed elements are primarily defensive in nature.
  • Observation/guard towers (useful for sniping intruders with crossbows from afar)
  • Halfling-sized tunnels connecting everything. These will have the occasional doors in case anyone tries to smoke them out.
  • Underground warehouses with plenty of food and other stockpiles in case the aboveground storage sites get raided
  • Underground safehouses for the women and children.
  • Crisscrossing hedges which give cover to halflings and allow them to snipe from anywhere - but humans will frequently have to crouch to get cover. Many will have thorns.
  • A ditch surrounding the entire compound - not intended as a serious defense, but more as a demarkation of property. "This land is ours, and as long as you stay outside of it, we are going to do just fine..."
  • Ladders to the roofs and towers are just large enough to accomodate someone of halfling size or weight, but won't support larger characters
  • Dog Kennels
  • Covered pit traps for people larger and heavier than halflings


The farm is in a fairly cold climate, which should be kept in mind for figuring out which plants (crop or otherwise) the halflings grow. On the other hands, the plant magic of the priests can make a difference.
  • Potatoes
  • Rye
  • Beans
  • Herbs, in special herb gardens
  • Pumpkins

Lifestock and Animals

  • Fierce guard dogs
  • Geese (as an alarm system)
  • Cows
  • Chicken
  • Sheep
  • Pigs

Defensive Tactics

  • Most of the male population will have crossbows, with slings being a popular backup weapon (they are also common among adolescents).
  • At night: Using slings to lob magically glowing stones to the locations of the intruders so that they can be sniped with impunity.

Supernatural Defenses

I don't want to go too overboard with these - most of the defenses should be entirely mundane, and they should largely be so effective because the inhabitants drill regularly. However, the patriarch is a powerful cleric (the equivalent of a 10th level Pathfinder cleric), and he has two younger priests (3rd level) assisting him - so some minor supernatural defenses are entirely appropriate. Some kind of animated plants, maybe?

That's what I've got so far. Any other suggestions?
Note: A list of all Urbis-related posts can be found here.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Plundering the Suppressed Transmissions Community, Part 02

Continued from Part 01.

Once again, let us plumb the depths of the archives of the Suppressed Transmissions Community, and let us see what kind of inspiration we can find - in particular, for my Urbis Campaign Setting.

April 3, 2013 by +Mikkel Liljegren: This one is a delightful story about a site in Turkey called "Pluto's Gate" - a basin that filled with noxious carbon dioxide fumes and which was as a cult site by the ancient Greeks. Birds that flew into it - or the sparrows that were thrown in as part of rituals - died almost instantly, and humans who came too close suffered from hallucinations - excepting the eunuchs of the fertility deity Cybele (which was often mentioned by +Kenneth Hite in his original columns), who presumably held their breaths.

For Urbis, the appropriate deity of Death and the Underworld would be the goddess Cryelis. The equivalent of the Mediterranean would be the Lake of Dreams region, so let's put the "Gates of Cryelis" there - let's say, somewhere in the protectorate of Ascenon, my take on Plato's Republic. This location does not only have the toxic vapors, but anyone who dies from them is guaranteed to become a ghost and directly descend into the Plane of Shadows (the "Underworld" of Cryelis) - a highly desirable situation for her followers!

Furthermore, many of the lesser cult sites of Cryelis copy these Gates on a smaller scale, and create their own toxic fumes for this purpose. This is especially popular with the Discendenti - my own take on the Sicilian Mafia who also happen to be ancestor worshipers and followers of Cryelis. One of their rituals involves binding those who have displeased them and throwing them into their Cryelian Gate - so that when they die they become slaves to their ghostly relatives.

But that's not all! Back when this was first posted, I also created an Arcana Wiki entry for this story. Then another contributor to the wiki appended the entry with a link to another wiki entry describing a portal to the Mayan underworld found in Mexico! This immediately led me to the Far Coast, my South America analogue (where all the natives have seemingly vanished and which is now being settled by along the coast by different cultures), for which I wrote up the "Ghost Gates" - ritual locations found scattered across the continent which seem disturbingly similar to the Cryelian Gates and which are haunted by angry ghosts and have extensive Underworld locations anchored to them. Was Cryelis also worshiped in this land in an alternate guise, or was a different deity responsible? In either case, quite a few priests of Cryelis have made the journey to this new land to reconsecrate those sites to their own deity...

See how this works? The Suppressed Transmissions have always about finding the right connections, and the inspiration from a single article provided several - and the Arcana Wiki is all about finding and establishing such connections. I would not have thought about the Mayan connection of my own, and thus would not have come up with a cool mystery for an entirely different continent - but the work of others at the Arcana Wiki allowed me to see the bigger picture.

So look at the Arcana Wiki and then read this article on how you can contribute to the wiki and make your own connections. Help us all see the bigger picture - and expand your own!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Soaring Eagle Village

It's time to finally detail the last village of the Coastal Tribes - Soaring Eagle Village. At only 200 inhabitants, it is the smallest but by no means the least important of the villages - as it serves as the home base for the Giant Eagle Riders, who serve as scouts for all the villages and keep an eye on the interior of the continent. As this includes warning of a new outbreak of the Great Darkness, this task is seen as being of the utmost importance for the Coastal Tribes, who all pay for these services with supplies and other support. Furthermore, they serve as one of the primary source of news.

The giant eagles don't actually live inside the village, but to the north of it at the Giant Eagle Eyrie. Still, individual giant eagles can frequently be found perching on the cliffs overlooking the village.

So, what else should we know about the village? Let us turn once again to the Random Nations Generator to fill in some details.

For government, we get Autarchy, a minimalist government whose inhabitants adhere to strong, informal codes. For this village, let's say that everyone is dedicated to the ultimate mission - everyone is either an Eagle Rider, supporting the Eagle Riders in some fashion, or a minor, and everyone who doesn't do their best to support the Eagle Riders is not-so-subtly encouraged to move to another village. The nominal chieftain is Black Falcon (male gender like all warriors, female sex), but he is out on patrol so often that there is little in the way of actual leadership, not that it is necessary. If there are any conflicts, each of the three groups (men, women, and shamans) will handle their own affairs in an informal manner.

As for organizations, we get Biker Gang - well, it should be obvious that the Eagle Riders take a lot of pride in their jobs. Some members might "mod out" their saddles, picking particularly garish colors and feathers to adorn them. Some of the giant eagles might even consent to dying some of their feathers. We also get the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, which is interesting in this context. Perhaps as part of their initiation into the higher ranks of the Eagle Lodge, the Eagle Riders must retrieve something noticeable from far inland - whether an exotic stone or even an artifact of a prior civilization. The more unusual and unique an artifact is, the more bragging rights the Eagle Rider will get, and these artifacts are proudly displayed within the local Eagle Lodge.

Among the NPCs, we get Jason And The Argonauts. Let's say that quite some time ago, a group of young Eagle Riders decided to press on inland as far as possible, and after many reached the central crater where the God Chamber is located. They even brought a minor Mothman artifact with them. Only one member of this group - one Fading Light - is still alive and very old. He would have quite a tale to tell - if he were inclined to talk to the PCs, which isn't likely.

The next NPC is Bede, the famed 8th century English monk. Let's say the village has a shaman - Deep Water - who has an unusually scholarly bent. He is deeply interested in the writing system of the Old Native culture and may be one of the few alive today who can read it. He is also interested in the writings of the Flannish Cities culture and has even managed to acquire a book all the way from Footfall. Once the colony expands, he will be very interested in acquiring print products from them, and he might not like what he reads there. Once he learns of printing presses, he might be interested in modifying one for the Old Native script and promote its use among the Coastal Tribes. Likely as a counterweight to the spread of Common - which, after all, is a memetic virus in Urbis, and he may be one of the few able to see it for what it is.

Finally, we have an Artifact of Doom - as a distinct character. Maybe the "artifact" brought back from the God Chamber by Fading Light actually contains a small fragment of the Immortal Ichor that still lives there. For now, it is safely sealed away - but if something were to crack its container, it would try to dominate a nearby human and use them as a minion to restore the God Chamber.

Among political issues, we get "More than 230,000 Japanese centenarians 'missing'" - a report that there may be rather less old Japanese people than commonly reported. And indeed, somehow Soaring Eagle village seems to have rather fewer old people than the other Coastal Villages. Where have they all gone? Well, once they feel they can no longer contribute to the Village and its Cause, they are led to a nearby hidden cave that is strongly protected by spirits. There they are put into suspended animation by magic - inactive, but still alive, and their souls represent a vast reservoir of power as well as a ritual circle of sorts that the local shamans can tap into when the need is the most dire (as well as for enchanting powerful magic items). More than 2,000 old people have now been put into hibernation here - ten times the living population of the village!

The "Major Projects" section at the Random Nations Generator reinforces these themes. The Bible Retranslation Project represents the efforts of Deep Water to translate works in Common into the native language. The Global Consciousness Project represents the souls of the old people gradually forming a gestalt mind, which is also very sensitive to all sorts of psychic disturbances - such as increased Mothman activities, or whatever else the PCs get involved with. Finally, Scientists Make Teleportation Breakthrough could represent Deep Water's use of the Circle of the Elders to teleport to the ends of the continent - including to Footfall (where he got those books), but potentially also to other interesting locations (such as the Crater).

Among "Religious Practices", one stands out - Glossolalia. This might represent the Circle of Elders taking temporary possession of someone when they have an urgent message. The "unknown language" spoken in such a case is simply the result of so many minds speaking through one tongue - but still, it requires magic to understand. Magic which, of course, the local shamans have access to.

Among the historic events, Chilean Blob and  "Huge blob of Arctic goo floats past Slope communities" stand out - which remind me of the aquatic abominations that come to the nearby Mating Beach to the west. It probably wouldn't be too surprising if sometimes the... secretions of these creatures drift further along the coast, and some of the shamans might as well collect some of the substances for their own purposes. The normal villagers, on the other hand, are encouraged to stay clear of the oceans at such times. We also have "Portal to mythical Mayan underworld found in Mexico" - which here, once again, refers to the Cave of the Elders, which has probably all sorts of warning symbols to keep outsiders away (you know, the kind of symbols that seems to attract daft graverobbers and adventurers).

Among the "Famous Locations", we get Ys, a city sunk for its sinful ways (also, by the Devil opening the floodgates). Perhaps there was a nearby village which also consorted with the abominations from the depths and which gave rise to many mutated children, just like the marsh giants. But the shamans of Soaring Eagle Village destroyed it with a mighty magical earthquake and sunk it beneath the waves.

La Isla De Las Munecas - the Island of the Dolls - also conjures an interesting image. What if the dolls are animated? What if, in fact, they are some variant of tupilaqs, a construct that fits into the general mythology of the region. What if they can be powered by the Circle of Elders? What if one form of tribute Soaring Eagle Village receives from the rest of the region is whalebone, and they have built a Strategic Tupilaq Reserve? If so, intruders had better step very lightly in these parts...

Note: A list of all Urbis-related posts can be found here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

[Urbis] Maps of the Cold Frontier, Part III

I had a rather lengthy train trip today, which gave me plenty of time to draw some quick map sketches for my Cold Frontier campaign.

First, a map of the Spire City Ruins, which I have mentioned here - basically, this used to be a major trade town at a location where two large canyons merged into one. Each direction had its own cliff side settlement - now fallen into ruin - and these settlements are connected by vast bridges (still maintained to this day by spirits bound into them) which meet at a central fortress carved out of a tall spire.

The next map is of the heart of the continent - the central crater where the God Chamber is located, and thus the location of the center and finale for the whole campaign! Obviously, the PCs won't get there for a long, long time - but it doesn't hurt to plan ahead, does it?

Note that the individual sublocations are not necessarily to scale. I am currently doing a lot of brainstorming for this location elsewhere - so stay tuned!

Note: A list of all Urbis-related posts can be found here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to deal with Elminster and other powerful "Good Guy" NPCs

Many settings have powerful NPCs that are more or less supposed to be "on the same side" as the player characters, or at least not outright Bad Guys that are supposed to be defeated. The Forgotten Realms is especially well-known for this - Elminster, Khelben Arunson, the Simbul and many others - but they are hardly the only ones. Aberrant has Divis Mal and Caestus Pax, Trinity has the Proxies, and the old World of Darkness also had its share of extremely powerful NPCs.

Many players - and quite a few GMs - worry that these NPCs will constantly overshadow the PCs and "steal their thunder", solving every problem for them and showing the player characters how useless they are.

But that doesn't need to be the case. Properly handled, these NPCs will not harm the campaign and instead be a useful asset to the game.

I've formed these opinions after (a) reading David Rothkopf's book Superclass, which describes the livestyles of the 5,000 most powerful and influential people on the planet and (b) the past three years of my work life - I am now working as a project manager, and this certainly has given me quite a lot of insight into power hierarchies.

First of all, you need to realize that the more powerful and influential people are, the more busy they tend to be - and the most powerful people are incredibly busy. The scarce free time is highly cherished, and they go to extreme measures to make sure they aren't bothered about inconsequential stuff. This means that they will have flunkies - also called "gatekeepers" - who do little else than make sure they aren't bothered for trivial reasons. This is even canon with Elminster, whose scribe Lhaeo takes perverse delight into making visitors fill out obscure forms in triplicate!

In other words, for low-level or inexperienced parties, such powerful people should be figures that are almost never seen, only occasionally glimpsed from afar. Even a short appearance should add importance to a scene, but they will soon be gone again and leave the PCs to their own affairs - in other words, the PCs remain the protagonists of their own story.

Of course, sometimes the PCs do stumble across extremely dangerous threats where it is entirely reasonable to notify the most powerful people they can find, and where it is entirely reasonable that said people would take an immediate interest in intervening.

In that case, let them meet with the powerful NPC. And let the NPC take them seriously.

"All right, you have convinced me. I will look into this and take care of it."

But... look at this from the POV of the NPC:

"Okay, these are obviously resourceful people, to have stumbled across this problem and survived to tell me about it. I have... uses for resourceful people like that."

So after that, the NPC tells them:

"By the way, there is a small problem I can't spare the time for right now. Would you mind looking into it?"

This is not presented as a trade - the NPC will help with the first problem no matter what. There is no obligation on the part of the playercharacters. Rather, this is a test of character - and the possible start of a mutually beneficial relationship.

If the PCs say "No", then it's that - the NPC will deal with the immediate problem (though inevitably there will be a few loose ends), but he won't show them any special favors later on. If they do say "Yes", and resolve the second problem to the NPCs satisfaction, then they have just joined his informal "network". He won't be constantly there to hold their hands, but he will pass useful information to them from time to time (especially when that information is about a mutual foe) and introduce them to all sorts of useful people. Of course, he will also continue to ask the PCs for all sorts of "minor favors" - dealing with problems which he doesn't have the time for. If the PCs attempt to get too much out of their relationship, he will become more distant again - only helping out with a genuine emergency.

What the PCs gain out of this is primarily a wealth of information - and if the PCs have a problem that is outside of their own expertise, the powerful NPCs might be willing to hand it to some of their other flunkies. The PCs should always feel that they are getting a lot out of this exchange of favors - and the GM can use this to hand out the next adventure seed.

Of course, if the PCs ask for more material assistance, then that's also an option.

"Okay, let me think - there is this magic sword that I don't have any personal use for, but I think you might find it useful.

Oh, and if you find any really oddball magical stuff, be sure to show it to me, hmmm?"

Again the PCs are given a favor in advance, with hints that the NPC would like to see some favors in return in the future. If they refuse to participate, future favors will start drying up, but if they do return the favor, the trades will likely work out beneficially for both of them.

If it's money they are after:

"Hmmm... what do you need all that money for?"

If they hint that the costs of living in the area are too expensive:

"Oh, that's no problem. I have a friend in the town who would probably allow to live in one of her building practically for free if I asked her! In fact, she would be happy to do so if you helped her with a little problem..."

And now the GM has another adventure to throw at the PCs - and if they go along, they will get something useful at a vastly cheaper price than otherwise.

A party member needs to be raised? Again, another contact of the NPC - a priest this time - will come to the rescue and do it for free, but he, too, will expect a favor.

Do they want a noble title? A "unfortunate misunderstanding with the authorities" cleared up? That, too, the NPC can arrange - by simply dropping the right word with the right people that the PCs are just the right adventurers for some highly specific jobs.

The PCs get what they want - not for free, but considerably easier than if they didn't remain in the good graces with the powerful NPC. The NPC gets what he wants - all sorts of little problems solved that he doesn't have to deal with any more, and thus can focus on other things. And all the contacts of the NPC also get useful contacts in the form of the player characters...

Eventually, as the PCs become stronger, the relationship becomes less one of patronage than one between peers. Then the PCs might meet not only with their former patron, but invited to meetings with other powerful people. By this time, the PCs probably have developed expertise with a particular "problem", and these powerful NPCs will only be too happy to hand any pertinent information about this problem to the PCs so that they don't have to deal with it - "It's a drow problem, let's hand it to these guys". The PCs, in the meantime, can try to foist dangling problems that they can't deal with themselves over to them. But ultimately, they have some of the most powerful people in the setting as peers and allies - and be counted as peers and allies by the great and powerful in return.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Where I read the Bible for Gaming Inspiration - Genesis 2:18-25

Continued from here.

"[18] And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
[19] And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
[20] And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him."

I am not sure what to do about the "out of the ground" phrase - perhaps the aboleth bio-factories I mentioned also seeded the land with animal life? However, this "naming of every beast" business strikes me a lot like a grand biological survey of all life forms on the planet. The aboleth presumably didn't have to survey the planet since they created all the life forms in the first place (unless they stuck around for long enough that evolution became a serious factor). So let's make the survey the work of a later civilization - in particular, the mythical Oreanor which is also called the First City. As they were masters of magical biotechnology, searching the world for life that might be useful for their research seems appropriate. Perhaps there are still some hidden repositories with samples somewhere in the world... such as in the Cold Frontier, where the First City certainly had active outposts.

"[21] And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
[22] And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
[23] And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man."

When I read that women were designed later - and as "help meets" to boot - I am immediately reminded that the First City basically created all the nonhuman races with their bio-magics as helpers (except for the elves, who were an experiment in genetic transhumanism). But it would be fun if a garbled account of this process survived somewhere in mythology. But garbled to what degree, and in whose deity's mythology?

Let's pick the deity Ouneiros, who is basically a demigod worshiped only in the ancient city-state of Ouneirotur in the Lake of Dreams region - which just happens to be the same city that the First City was allegedly in (though nobody has identified its precise location). Let's go with this idea:

Ouneiros was also the patron deity of the First City (or so he claims). And after the people of the First City "took stock" of all the animals in the world, they begged him for helpers that could help them in a way that the beasts could not. So Ouneiros took various body parts from various human inhabitants of the city and turned them into various nonhumans:
  • Elves (role as "companions"): Hair from the fairest maiden.
  • Halflings (role as "domestic servants"): A foot from the most good-natured household slave.
  • Gnome (role as "artisants"): An eye from the best artist.
  • Dwarf (role as "laborer"): Testicles from the most hard-working worker.
But then, in their hubris, the people of the First City attempted to create further servant people and combined humans with animals (for example, orcs with wild boars), which of course went terribly wrong. This was one of the reasons why Ouneiros turned his back from the First City, cursed it, and went to build a new city-state with his few loyal followers elsewhere before the First City suffered its inevitable doom.

At least, this is what his Book of the First City claims - one of the few texts describing Oreanor, which is why it is of so much interest to scholars, despite its often dubious contents. Ouneiros rules his city still, as he has done for millenia, and the city remains unchanging. Elves, halflings, gnomes, and dwarves are the only nonhuman races allowed to exist in the city, and they fulfill their ancient roles as servants - though since many of them object to this subservient role and flee, slavers occasionally capture members of these races from elsewhere and sell them here.

"[24] Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
[25] And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

My key phrase here is "shall be one flesh". Perhaps the First City also dabbled in combining men and women into hybrid critters? Whether this is something as simple as a hermaphrodite or as complex as an artificial intelligence formed out of multiple brains, Ouneiros probably disapproved either way. Though the latter are probably more interesting if the PCs encounter them in a long-abandoned First City lab...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Azoth Refinery, Treaty Stone, Ghost Boat, and Star Tower

In the heart of this volcano, the First City colonists built a refinery which used the heat of the magma to create azoth - pure, distilled magic in liquid form, which serves as "universal ingredient" for most magical rituals and whose production in nexus towers serves as the cornerstone of the economy of the Flannish Cities. The refinery is heavily damaged, and will only produce one drop of azoth every 36 hours. If fully repaired - which would be quite expensive and require importing a number of experts on magical engineering from the homeland - the refinery could produce as much as 1 drop per hour. Possibly more important, in the process said engineers could learn how to apply these principles for building future refineries, turning volcanoes into a new power source. Unfortunately, the structure and its environs are swarming with thoqqua and similar creatures of fire coming from the depths of the planet below - they would have to be kept away during both the repairs and the refinery's operation.

Near where the rivers meet, a (now fallen) monolith has been enchanted against the ravages of time, which makes its inscriptions still readable. The top side shows the script of the Old Native people, which has largely vanished from modern-day usage. The down side, now buried in the Earth, displays the same text but in the language of the now-vanished Naxal Empire of the Far Coast. If translated magically, the text says:

"We affirm the eternal brotherhood between the Naxal Empire and the Tribes of the North, pledging to stand firm against the monstrous brood of the Chasm of Filth and any other enemies of our people."

This refers to the war against the would-be god who attempted to reactivate the God Chamber at the center of the continent and who released hordes of alien creatures in order to fight the Old Native civilization.

Downriver of the Canyon of Faces there is a ruined cliffside settlement. One of the few recognizable remnants is an old, crumbling stone pier. During the day, sensitive people approaching it might sense an otherworldly presence. During the night, while the moon is shining, a large ghostly boat (capable of housing up to six passengers) with an equally ghostly navigator will appear. The navigator will be clad in native garb and will not speak, for while he has eyes, he has neither mouth nor nose. If spoken to, he will carry passengers to other parts of the river system, at a speed of 10 miles per hour - but he is unstable, and there is a cumulative 1:6 chance per hex that he will suddenly disappear, dumping his passengers and their cargo into the river.

South of the Bird Lakes, a half-ruined stone tower is covered with grass and shrubs. The tower is approximately 10 yards high and constructed in a conical shape, with a spiral ramp leading to the top. If examined closely, various star constellations can be seen chiseled in the wall, and somehow protected against the decay of the rest of the tower. Interacting with them via magic or other mystical means threatens to summon abominable creatures from beyond the stars. However, if the tower were to be restored, the proper rites could also create powerful wards against such creatures or help with banishing them.

Note: A list of all Urbis-related posts can be found here.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Canyon of Spiders, Bird Lakes, Giant Frog Swamp, and Bat Caves

Downriver of the Crystal Falls, numerous insects, large and small, congregate to feast on the plant and algae growths emerging from the mineral-rich waters of the canyon. These, in turn, are preyed upon by a multitude of spiders, some of which can reach the size of a large dog. Their nets cover the canyon walls, and anyone who gets entangled in them will quickly be swarmed by them. None of the spiders are intelligent.

These marshlands south of the volcano are fairly shallow and are subdivided into innumerable small lakes which are bordered by fairly low-growing vegetation. During the warmer seasons, large flocks of water fowl make their home here, preying on the numerous insects and fish and building their nests in the hedges.

The warm swamplands downriver from the First City Spa are home to a species of giant frogs. While they are not averse to make a snack of halfling-sized snack (they will leave larger creatures alone), their main problem is the noice they are making. Their croaking will thunder around the area, sounding like the call of a much larger creature. Sleep is next to impossible within this hex.

The small caves dotting the sides of this small canyon are used as refuge for a large number of bats who prey on the insects in the swamps to the south. Most of the caves are too small for a full-grown human. Still, for those who can gain access, large amounts of bat guano can be harvested for both alchemical and magical purposes.

Note: A list of all Urbis-related posts can be found here.

Friday, August 8, 2014

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 11 - Messages

Before we reached Ivarstead, we saw a lone figure running up the 7,000 steps to High Hrothgar.

It was Lydia - alive and well, though a bit bruised.

"But... how?"

"Well, first I landed in a massive snowdrift and had to dig myself out...

...and when I had done that, a huge pile of dragon bones landed on top of me."


"Which pissed me off even more, since it meant that I couldn't carve that overgrown lizard's heart out for knocking me off the mountain. So the next time we fight one, save a piece for me!"

"...sure. Glad to have you back."

"See? He does care!" said Vrija from behind me. I gave her the Glare of Death, but it did nothing.

I was shivering heavily as we entered Ivarstead, and that the snowfall had turned to rain did not help. I wanted nothing more than warm myself by the inn's fireplace, but just before we reached it two strangely-garbed figures wearing bizarre and identical masks approached me.

"You there. You're the one they call Dragonborn?" Morrowind accent. Curious...

"The Greybeards seem to think so..."

"Then it is too late. The lie has already taken roots of the hearts of men. So we shall expose the falseness in their hearts by tearing out yours, Deceiver!"

I swear, I could hear the capital letter in "Deceiver".

"When Lord Miraak appears all shall bear witness! None shall stand to oppose him!"

With that, they started to throw bolts of fire around - from close range. And while I was too busy freezing to death to put up much of a fight, they were still facing three of the deadliest warriors I've known (and Vrija). A short time later, and their corpses presented yet more evidence that fanaticism doesn't compensate for combat experience, let alone brains.

They were indeed dunmer. And one of them had a note with them. But wasn't there something else I was supposed to do? Oh, right - get inside and not freeze to death.

As I sat down so close to the central fire as to be practically on top of it, I pulled out the note.

"Board the vessel Northern Maiden docked at Raven Rock. Take it to Windhelm, then begin your search. Kill the False Dragonborn known as Araneus Venator before he reaches Solstheim.

Return with word of your success, and Miraak shall be most pleased."

Well, well, well, now isn't that interesting. I only learned that I was a Dragonborn two days ago, when I absorbed that first dragon's soul near Whiterun. Which means that this "Miraak" either became supernaturally aware of this event and was capable of learning my own name at the same time, or that he knew that I was a Dragonborn before I did and kept careful track of my movement before I even reached Skyrim. And quite possibly both.

As the puddle of molten ice and snow forming around me began to cover more and more of the floor and earned me dirty looks from the barkeeper which I studiously ignored, I pondered the decision I had to make. Continue to Ustengrav to get that Horn for the Greybeards, or go to Solstheim and conduct an interview with this Miraak, quite possibly involving the Mace of Truth?

Ultimately, it was no contest. "Interview with a dragon" will beat "interview with some deranged sorcerer" any day of the week.

Fredas, 22nd of Last Seed, 4E 201.

According to what the Greybeards told me, Ustengrav was northeast of Morthal, where the swamps of the region meed the hills west of Dawnstar. Looking at my map, I could either return to Whiterun and follow the road north, or travel into the direction of Windhelm and then move up the river Yorgrim. The latter would lead me through Stormcloak-held territory - probably a bad idea at the moment, as I was still wearing the light imperial armor I had taken from Helgen. I needed to replace that at the earliest opportunity...

As I stepped out the inn, I encountered a courier who handed me a letter - allegedly from "Siddgeir, Jarl of Falkreath" who claimed that my "reputation" had attracted his notice, and invited me to visit him if I was "interested in becoming Thane of Falkreath". The letter also insinuated that "a choice parcel of land" would be available for purchase if my "services would prove useful" to him.

Well, far be it for me to speculate on the Jarl's character. But, well, back when High Rock was about a hundred thousand independent principalities, sending such letters to rich people in Cyrodiil who were greedy for some aristocratic title were a major industry. Just allow these merchants and shopkeepers to pay you large sums of money for some petty noble title, and you have enough funds for throwing the next sybaritic orgy or two, while the merchants could brag about their new title to all their friends while becoming the laughing stock of the actual Cyrodiilic aristocracy. Even after the Warp in the West,when there were only five kingdoms left, this scam didn't stop - the only thing that changed was that the kingdoms the letters were allegedly from were as fictional as the titles themselves.

Anyway, the Courier.

"Listen, this is important. Do you go to Cyrodiil? Maybe even to the Imperial City?"

"Mister, if I get paid enough, I will go anywhere in Tamriel."

"Good." I stuffed my notes of the last four days into a watertight bag, and pressed it into his hands.

"Take this to the offices of the Black Horse Courier, Market District, Imperial City on the fastest way possible. Give this to the hands of editor Dro'Bassa only. Do this, and he will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. Tell the furry bastard I said so."

"You said so? Well, who in Oblivion are you?"

"I am Araneus Venator, the best damn writer his rag has. I've seen the first dragon to rise, and the first dragon to fall, and once this hits the press, everyone will want to read about it. Now run, little man, as if all the dragons in Skyrim are bearing down on you!"

Monday, July 28, 2014

My Gaming Projects, Part III: The Arcana Wiki

"The Wikipedia - written by gamers, for gamers!"

That was the basic idea when I created the Arcana Wiki six years ago, and that remains the goal to this day. As any veteran game master or teller of stories knows, pretty much anything can serve as an inspiration for stories if you just look at it from the right angle. The trick is then to find the right inspiration for your current needs and start thinking in the right directions. Streams of high-inspiration material like the Suppressed Transmissions Community are useful, but the posts soon vanish into the archives and are forgotten by most readers. Therefore, trying to sort all this inspirational stuff into a wiki only made sense - it would allow proper indexing, cross-referencing, and brainstorming among its readers.

Most entries in the Arcana Wiki have a fairly standard layout. A good example of this is the entry for the Kowloon Walled City, a former slum region in Hong Kong.

As you can see, this page includes a hierarchical navigation bar, which shows that the Kowloon Walled City is within Hong Kong, which is within China, which is within the "Countries" hierarchy, which in turn is within the "Places" hierarchy. Not all pages of the Arcana Wiki - 4380 pages as of this writing - are included in such a hierarchy, but it does making navigation easier.

Though some pages (see the "Love Potion" entry for an example) start with an inspirational quote, most will start with a "Basic Information" section which tries to explain the basic concept of the entry in a fairly factual manner (though not usually as dry as the Wikipedia, and we don't concern ourselves with citations as much, either).

Incidentally, the blue links refer to existing Arcana Wiki entries, while the red links refer to entries which do not exist yet - a good place to get started when writing new stuff!

This includes a short "Sources" section with links where readers can get more information. Often this will only mean the relevant Wikipedia entry, but frequently contributors came across other interesting links that would contribute to the reader's understanding - and inspiration.

Below that, there is a "Game and Story Use" section where both the creator of the entry and others can add their own story ideas in the form of bullet points. The formatting is intentionally looser here, as the ideas can be highly subjective and idiosyncratic - in fact, this part was inspired by the TV Tropes Wiki, which uses the same format when discussing tropes. If someone wants to elaborate on another idea or add variants, they can do that via higher-order bullet points, which can get some lengthy discussions going.

This is the basic formatting for most Arcana Wiki entries. So, what subjects does the wiki cover?

Plenty. While it is nowhere near as exhaustive as the Wikipedia (and how could it be, considering it doesn't have the latter's zillion contributors?), some of the highlights include a Geography section listing real world locations around the world, famous real-world People, Mythological Creatures, a List of Mythologies (which admittedly needs some work, but it does include a basic page for the Cthulhu Mythos), Organizations, sections on Science, Technology, and Magic, a Tropes section loosely based on the aforementioned TV Tropes Wiki, and a Historical Timeline which, especially in newer years, links to all sorts of fascinating news stories (which use a slightly different formatting than the standard entries described above). There are also some tools which use random wiki entries to generate ideas - like the Random Adventure Seeds (which pick three random entries for adventure inspiration), or the Random Nations Generator (I've used the latter to generate villages for my Cold Frontier campaign - see here, here, and here for examples).

But while there is a fair amount of decent material on the wiki, most of the contributions came from a very small number of people. And I'd like to change that - which is where you come in.

The Arcana Wiki needs more contributors on just about any conceivable subject imaginable - and everyone is an expert on something that can be used for gaming. Do you know a lot about fantastic or cryptozoological creatures? Write it up. Do you know about really strange places in or near your hometown? Write it up. Do you have some favorite conspiracy theories? Write them up. Have you studied some particularly fascinating periods of history? Write them up. Inspiration is everywhere, and the goal of the Arcana Wiki is to find it and make it accessible to everyone.

But how do you get started? Well, first of all you need to register - in the beginning I allowed anonymous edits, but sadly the wiki eventually attracted sufficient spammers to force me disable that option. You can register via the link at the top and right.

After that, all you need to do is to click on the edit button at the bottom of the page and start editing.

I would recommend starting small - go to existing pages first and add some gaming ideas of your own. The wiki code is fairly easy to understand - for example, the "Game and Story Use" section of the Kowloon Walled City entry looks like this:

The main code to remember here is:
  • Lines starting with "* " are bullet points, and if the "*" is moved further to the right (for example, " * ", these are turned into
    • higher-level bullet points.
  • Words in //double slashes// are turned into italics.
  • Words wrapped in **double asterixes** are written bold.
  • Worlds written in [[[triple square brackets]]] are links to other Arcana Wiki entries.
  • Words written in single [ square brackets] with URLs are links to external (non-Arcana Wiki) pages.
 After a while, you will probably click on one of the red links, which will bring you to a page like this:

Click on the link, and a new page will be generated based on a template of your choosing (the "standard" template is the default, but there are also templates for news stories, calendar entries, and so forth) - you only need to fill in the details and save the results.

After that, the next step is to read the following essays at the wiki:
Furthermore, the wiki has its own forum on which you can ask questions if anything is unclear.

That's it - for now! I hope to see you there, and I will be looking forward to your contributions.