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.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Running the Forgotten Realms as a Superhero Campaign

It has often been remarked that high-level D&D campaigns often approach superhero campaigns in power level and scope - the PCs can mow down lesser mooks in large numbers, and the threats they face are often world-shattering, and essentially unstoppable by less experienced characters.

So... why not run such campaigns as superhero campaigns in the first place? The Forgotten Realms, in particular, seem well suited for such a campaign, as it is positively awash with high-level characters and threats.

There would have to be some changes in gameplay, of course. First of all, the usual profit motive - "kill monsters and take their stuff" - would have to be deemphasized. The PCs aren't roving murderhobos, they are heroes and protectors! If you use some iteration of D&D, it makes sense to just give the PCs some "level-appropriate" funds to get magic items and gear, while assuming that any stuff they find during actual play (apart from unique artifacts) is spent on research/home base/lifestyle/parties and so on. That will hopefully help the players to get into the proper frame of mind. If you are using a different system, assume the PCs can get "mundane" gear and pay for especially fancy stuff or prominent magic items with character points (or whatever the system uses).

Then you have to give some thought to the character's "home base". While there are "roving superheroes" who travel the world, most of them tend to stay close to a particular region. What would Batman be without Gotham City? For the Forgotten Realms, you can either pick a particular region (the Silver Marches, the Moonsea, and so forth), or a particular city - and there is no shortage of cities in the Realms with detailed city plans (although few can approach Waterdeep, which holds the same spot as New York City in the Marvel universe). And just like superheroes, heroic adventurers will often have rather ambivalent relationships with the local authorities. They may well be feted when they thwart the latest threat to the region, but the authorities are also too aware that the heroes aren't really under their control, and that they would have difficulties stopping them, should the need arise...

Secret identities probably won't translate very well, since adventurers are generally assumed to be famous - though the odd "mysterious masked wizard" is certainly appropriate. Do encourage the players to come up with interesting nicknames, as well as a good name for their group as a whole (which also is tradition in the Forgotten Realms).

Then it's only a matter of having Bad Guys show up in their territory and be up to no good - and here is where the richness of the Forgotten Realms setting really shines. The Red Wizards of Thay! The Zhentarim! The Dragon Cult and the Kraken Society! The Empire of Shade! Add to that various powerful monsters, both organized and unorganized, and you will be able to copy most comics plots with ease. Even tales of Science Gone Wrong can simply be converted into Magic Gone Wrong.

And it is easy to increase the power level further, leading to continent- or even world-spanning team ups, with the heroes standing side by side with NPCs like Elminster and the Simbul, creating their own equivalent of the Justice League and the Avengers to deal with world-shaking threats...

Your thoughts?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Wind Flute, Beaver Colony, Blighted Grass, and Ancient Terraces

In this particularly windy stretch of canyon the explorers can frequently hear a deep, fluting sound. They will eventually discover that someone, presumably of the Old Native civilization, carved out a rock spire with a series of hollow "pipes" through which the wind can blow and emit eerie music. Air- and wind-based magics are more effective here.

While the river banks of the southern grasslands are frequently dotted by trees, in this area the forest is particularly expansive. This region has been home to an extended family of beavers for many generations, who have altered the river into a series of lakes thanks to large and extensive dams. To make the river navigable by rafts, the dams (and likely the beavers) will have to be removed.

The grasses and shrubs growing on the northwestern slopes of the volcano seem to be afflicted with some kind of disease - they will have innumerable brown spots on any greenery, as well as any flowers. This seems to be caused by the local soil in some way - removing the plants and replanting them elsewhere will gradually cause the brown spots to vanish.

The southern slopes of the volcano are separated into innumerable small terraces which were artificially constructed with stones. They were once used for agriculture, and small amounts of wild rice can still be found in odd corners. However, most of the irrigation network is now in ruins, broken apart by small rivulets streaming from the numerous small geysers and hot springs. Many of the terraces have degenerated into swamps, full of stinging insects.

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Ancient Memorial, Elder Tree, Fog Canyon, and Spire City Ruins

This otherwise flat area is criss-crossed by numerous small ridges which rise one yard above the plains. Their width varies from 10 to 30 yards. While they are as overgrown with grass as anything else in the region, digging will eventually reveal strong, thick stone of a type inappropriate to the region, and closer analysis will confirm that the stone was magically created. When viewed from high, an 800 yards-wide side profile of an elven head can be seen, in an art style that can best be described as "classical". It is surrounded by an inscription in the letters of the First City which reads: "To the magelord-governeur Nyros, in the fifth year of his reign. May he lead us to limitless glories." Incidentally, after he successfully activated the God Chamber at the heart of the continent, Nyros became the God of disease, survival of the fittest, and self-elevation, so at least the "glory" part worked out...

A vast tree, a conifer of an unknown species more than 200 yards in height, grows on these plains close to the Tribal Meet. Its vast network of roots hides innumerable small hollows carved out of the earth, some of which have been decorated as kivas, as communing with spirits is easier here. Unfortunately, the Wendigo Cultists know this as well, and have hidden one of their altars here. When not in use, the entrance to the small cave is hidden by magically conjured earth, and only a careful search will reveal this.

Numerous rivulets from the Burning Hills to the east stream down the canyon walls here. As they fall, they transform into a near-permanent fog that somehow covers the entire canyon along an 8 mile stretch. Echoes distort here, and the explorers get the feeling that they are constantly being watched as long as they stay here. A very through search, possibly supported by vision-enhanced magic, will reveal a cave complex with another wendigo altar.

Where the two northern river canyons meet, the Old Native civilization built a city into the canyon walls. Wide roads - frequently carved into the canyon walls - wind down the northern, western, and eastern sides of the canyons. They meet via magically created stone bridges (still home to guardian spirits preventing their collapse) at a central rock spire which was transformed into a fortress. The lower levels of the fortress have been sealed off and still contain Old Native treasures, though also a number of ghouls left from the Great Darkness. The top of the old fortress currently houses a spire drake. The northern Elk Tribe occasionally passes through this fortress when they move their herds to different pastures.

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Whipgrass, Zone of Silence, Gopher Mounds, and Eye Botfly Swamp

Here the grasses of the southern plains grow especially tall. And hidden amidst the ordinary longgrass are patches of whipgrass. These grasses have razor-sharp edges and will attempt to wrap themselves around any creature that approaches them, using their blood as fertilizer.

This part of the Northern Wastelands was once the site of another titanic battle between the Mothmen and the Xill. As a result of the weapons unleashed here, there is an area approximately 2 miles in diameter where no divinations, no telepathy, and no communication spells will work. Furthermore, nothing can produce sounds here. There is an old, half-ruined First City facility close to the center which was used for clandestine meetings, as well as the most secret plannings when the First City colony was at war with its mother country. Excavating the site in depth will reveal a number of small glass slabs which are pressure-sensitive - their surface will turn white at points where pressure is exerted. This will fade over the course of a few minutes - faster if the slab is shaken. These were used to communicate between people who met there (since verbal communication would, of course, be impossible).

The fairly flat valleys between the hills in this region are filled with innumerable small mounds, which are up to 2 yards high and 10 yards wide. They are so abundant, with one placed next to the other, that it is hard to believe that they have a natural origin - and indeed they don't, as they are the work of innumerable generations of fey gophers who have created these mounds as their nests. The gophers are quite shy and will avoid strangers, though some of them do speak the language of the Coastal Tribes. They are not very bright, however.

This swamp area is inhabited by a particularly nasty variety of botfly - these insects have specialized in injecting their immature larvae into the eyes of mammals, where they will grow and eventually hatch, with predictable results for the afflicted eye. The nearby Inland Tribes know enough to stay away from these swamps, but their shamans know a herbal cure which will cause the larvae to die. If applied early this will prevent permanent damage, although the eye will be blind for a few days.

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

Plundering the Suppressed Transmissions Community, Part 01

One of my more popular achievements on Google+ is the creation of the Suppressed Transmissions Community, which is dedicated to the memory of +Kenneth Hite's old gaming column of the same name. Primarily, this column looked at various aspects of the "Real World" - history, mythology, folklore (old and modern), conspiracy theories and so forth, and then interpreted them creatively for gaming.

The Community, meanwhile, has become a place where various factoids and sources of inspiration are posted on a very regular basis, which is good. However, to my mind there has not been enough creative interpretation of the various stories and links posted, and at which the old column excelled at.

Hence this series of blog posts. I plan to go through the archives of the Community, starting with some of the very oldest posts (which newer members of the Community likely aren't aware of) and discuss possible interpretations for role-playing games in more detail - quite likely focusing on interpretations for my Urbis setting, since that's the main focus of my game writing these days. Furthermore, where applicable I will also write and update entries for the Arcana Wiki, another long-running project of mine which strives to collect all this weirdness in a more organized fashion.

So let's get started!

Dec 11, 2012 by +Rob Bush: The linked article tells of a "Zone of Silence" in a Mexican desert where radial signals are allegedly blocked or scambled - up to and including satellite signals. This was discovered in 1970, when a faulty Athena Missile from White Sands crashed here and a joint American-Mexican operation retrieved it. Since then there have been numerous reports of strange phenomena and encounters with similarly strange beings, including some that suspiciously sound like the Nordics, while others were covered in "raincoats and ball caps".

For a game set in the modern-ish day, this would be a good location for an alien mothership buried beneath the ground - possibly an old crash site, possibly deliberately buried there - and perhaps the signal interference has made this into a "neutral meeting ground" for aliens of sorts. And if the PCs investigate this area, they also can't rely on their cell phones and all that other modern communication gear so harmful to a proper horror atmosphere - they need to communicate by staying within line of sight and hearing distance. But surely they are professional enough to do this without any problems, and certainly none of them will be split off from the rest of the party by the local phenomena for any reason.

For Urbis, meanwhile, I think I will use this for my Cold Frontier campaign, which has its fair share of desolate places and alien influences - so this can be a "fallout site" from an old, titanic battle between alien forces. The "Zone of Silence" aspect can be extended further - perhaps it blocks all divinations, all telepathy and communication spells, and all sound! This would make the region into the ultimate "neutral ground" for clandestine meetings, but if you want to cast spells you'd better be able to do so without saying something...

Jan 1, 2013 by +Laston Kirkland: Here we learn about Mima Mounds, a type of natural terrain consisting of numerous oval-shaped mounds up to 8 feet high and 30 feet across. Theories for creation range from the activities of pocket gophers gradually building up nests over long time spans, to weird post-glacial meltdown effects, to (of course) UFOs. For the Cold Frontier I think I will go with the gopher theory - fey gophers, that is, as +Laston Kirkland pointed out that these mounds make perfect hiding places for the Little People. These critters speak the local human languages, but aren't very bright and will generally stay away from strangers. Their mounds do count as "fairy mounds" for accessing the plane of Fairie, however.

Feb 4, 2013 by me: I had stumbled across this rather gross article describing how a woman in Sweden had an unfortunate encounter with an elk botfly that had injected 30 immature larvae into her eye, which later had to be surgically removed. The botfly, it seems, had mistaken her eyes for the nostrils of a moose, which is where its larvae usually mature until they are ejected in a shower of mucus and elk blood. Now, how about flies which specialize in laying their larvae into the eyes of mammals? After all, these are so soft and squishy and nutritious...

Arcana Wiki entries (as always, feel free to edit and expand on them):

Continued in Part 02.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

[Urbis] Cold Frontier - State of the Campaign 1

Last Saturday was the 10th session of my Cold Frontier campaign, so this seems like a good place to look at the current state of the campaign.

The PCs have been all over the southern parts of the map, and this is their version of the region:

Compare and contrast this with the current version of my map, which can be found here. The PCs haven't visited all of the locations on their map - they have only heard reports of Blue Octopus Village, and glimpsed the Spring Seeds Farm and the volcano in <7,4> from afar.

Recently they have learned that at least two shamans of the Mammoth Tribe (currently lairing at <2,5>) are secretly Wendigo worshipers, or at least possessed by "spirits of hunger". After talking with a shaman of Soaring Eagle Village, they have learned that Wendigo cultists prefer to hold their dark rites during the nights of the new moon, one of which is fast approaching, and they plan to expose the cultist during the next ritual night to their tribe (the shaman of Soaring Eagle Village encouraged them in this, since he'd much rather have outsiders like the explorers potentially agitate the Inland Tribes than doing that themselves).

However, the Wendigo cultists suspect that the PCs know about them, since the PCs stole a fetish with an imprisoned hunger spirit from them. Plus they took a guide and went out to search for the remains of another tribal shaman they had slaughtered the previous winter.

The Wendigo cult is currently not interested in a direct confrontation with the explorers. In fact, the Wendigo is rather looking forward to the colony - so many new people to devour...

Therefore the cultists will leave before the PCs return. However, so that the PCs feel they are making some kind of progress, they will leave magical doppelgangers behind. These can be defeated by the PCs and exposed to the tribe, which will establish the PCs as more-or-less trustworthy allies yet leave some doubt whether the shamans had been really Wendigo cultists all along, or whether they had been replaced by doppelgangers. I will have to read up on Native American legends about doppelgangers for this scene...

Another thing that happened is that the PCs sent letters home arguing for a much earlier start to the colony - they've found so many possibilities for mining ore that they want to get started right away. The Director for Nardhome of the Far Shores Trading Company recently received those letters and magically contacted them. He was open to the possibility, but asked them if they thought they could secure the colony sufficiently so that it would be able to last through the winter. The PCs said they wanted to eliminate one possible threat and he gave them until the end of the month (10 more days) to think about it before making his decision.

So, beyond the immediate needs of the plot, what do I need to do next?
  • Come up with stuff for lots of hex around the middle of the map, where the PCs have started to zip around a lot. I expected them to head for Blue Octopus Village, but they ended up going Northeast instead. I had to come up with the Ancient Dig during our dinner break, for instance - fortunately, this site was riveting enough to keep them occupied for the rest of the evening. But as I discovered, coming up with interesting grasslands locations is hard - with forests, mountains, hills and so forth it's easy to describe an interesting geographical feature, but with featureless plains...
  • Come up with an encounter table for the Southern Grasslands. This seems tricky - I want to largely stick to the Pathfinder Bestiaries 1-4, but most of the creatures that inhabit plains give off the wrong mythological vibe.
  • Read up on the Pathfinder Kingdom Building rules and come up with some ideas for how they interact with the GURPS rules. Since the buildup for the colony will have to be gradual, I will probably hand them 10 BP per month instead of 50 all in one go to establish their primary settlement.
Beyond that... I am accumulating a lot of material for this campaign, with a lot more likely to come, and I am giving serious consideration to publishing it in a more coherent form as a Pathfinder product. So I'd value your opinion. If I published it, would you consider buying this campaign? Or alternately, would you be interested in playtesting it, using the Pathfinder rules?

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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Cave Fisher Cave, Fog Island, Ancient Dig, and Elder Apluachra

On this island, there is a cave whose entrance is readily accessible only during low tide. Two cave fishers lair here, and they will attempt to make a meal of any intruders. Further in, almost entirely covered by detritus and barnacles, the explorers can find a set of lightweight yet tough armor, which carries enchantments which allow the wearer to breathe water and freely move underwater for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, it was made for and by the alien xill, who had a rather different body structure than humanoids (not to mention six limbs)

This island receives especially heavy precipitation from the prevailing west winds. Appropriately enough, a mist drake lairs here. It will leave human intruders alone if first appeased with sufficient amounts of meat left on the shorelines. Near the center of the island there is a small cave looking north across the mists. This cave is occasionally visited by local shamans (as evidenced by the numerous native symbols painted on the walls) for divinations. The evening light shining on the mists is said to reveal visions of the past, while the morning light will reveal visions of the future.

In this flat grasslands area, one of the few noticeable locations is a small lake, perhaps 50 by 25 yards wide, and a small hill next to it. Anyone with knowledge in geology will quickly determine that this lake is artificial - and indeed, a long time ago it was an archaeological dig excavated by the First City colonists who had found an old Mothman fortification. Numerous Mothman body parts crystallized by Xill weaponry can be found here - as well as a few fragments of Xill killed by friendly fire, if the explorers excavate the area thoroughly. The First City archaeologists used an impressive-looking metal golem sculpted in their peculiar style to help with this excavation. Its left arm ends in a drill, while its right arm ends in five flexible yet strong digits which it used for picking up samples. It has further been enchanted to exert little pressure on the ground (preventing it from crushing interesting objects below its feet and incidentally allowing it to climb steep or slippery slopes). Its golden glowing eyes are capable of detecting "magical anomalies", which it is currently ordered to retrieve and store in a (no longer existing) storage areas. PCs who qualify as "magical anomalies" or who carry equipment which does might misinterpret its approach, even though its currently active order is helpfully displayed in First City letters on its forehead. This displayed order might change if a different priority surfaces, such as defending itself against attack.

At one point, the river has formed a small basin. In it, a whirlpool will form much of the time. This is actually an elder apluachra, kin to those further downriver, which has become so large and bloated that it has simply allowed itself to sink to the river bed and simply devouring any fish and other animals coming this way by forming the whirlpool.

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