Someone Else’s Great Big Wall

So I’m giving another listen to Dr. Kenneth Harl’s Barbarian Empire of the Steppes series from the Great Courses. This is maybe my fourth listen-through. Especially with Dr. Harl, I can listen to these series over and over again.

In episode three, Dr. Harl discusses early Chinese contact with the steppe nomads, and he talks about the Warring States period. He mentions how many of the northern states started building the kind of defensive structures that evolved into the Great Wall, and as is my wont, I started thinking about how cool that would be as a setting.

I can imagine a group of soldiers overseeing such a construction. The workers are peasants with whom the soldiers might have a lot in common, but the PCs saw that there was social mobility in the military. Some might be mercenaries, and some might be “auxiliary” troops, soldiers from neighbouring cultures hired into the military. The base of operations would be a fortified camp.

This could actually be something similar to the Hell on Wheels TV series which is a Western action-adventure retelling of the construction of the railroad. Like that, there would be characters conflict, cultural friction, and fights within the camp, with actual incursion by the steppe nomads a rare occurrence.

The easy over-arching plot is the rise of a leader that could unite the steppe nomads. The first hints would come from defectors, leaders from assimilated tribes unwilling to bend the knee to this new ruler. Attacks might become more coordinated and the PCs notice troops from different tribes/cultures raiding together. The PCs might be trying to get a warning up the chain of command but – as always seems to be the case – no one listens. And then the camp is overrun. The PCs are behind enemy lines, trying to link up with another military unit, possibly also trying to protect civilians.

A different narrative might see sickness spreading through the civilized lands and news keeps reaching the camp of this town or this village succumbing to the sickness. The reports are wildly exaggerated – as happens – but no one in the camp knows that. A local nomad leader comes with their shaman and warns the camp that unless they abandon the wall and come to join the nomads, the sickness will consume them to. The shaman has seen it in the oracle bones.

In both these cases, the chain of command is focused on the wall above all else. More raids? Not our problem. But you’re behind schedule on the wall. The village where you purchase supplies lost half of its population to the plague? Not our problem. You know you’re behind schedule on the wall, right?

This could also be a framework for a more traditional adventure, with ancient sites near the camp disgorging supernatural threats that the PCs are then sent to investigate. There might be a big evil rising from its slumber, attempting to bring the steppe nomads under its control so it can re-conquer its ancient empire – basically the plot of the Sword’s Edge campaign I just wrapped up.

Education, great on its own but also awesome for inspiring RPGs!

You can find out more about Barbarian Empires of the Steppes here.

I’ve discussed Hell on Wheels elsewhere.

Please support my Patreon.

The Sword at the Edge of Wuxia

A good friend of mine (hey JJ!) asked about creating characters from a genre like wuxia using Sword’s Edge. Would one do it mechanically or narratively? Would one use SFX? I didn’t really give an answer, but I’d like to now.

For this example, I’m going to use the character of Li Mu Bai from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This should provide a kind of objective target from which to draw Qualities.

Okay, so we have our character, but before I can create Li Mu Bai mechanically, I need to know the setting in which he exists, and this is why I would say the kind of qi powers seen in wire-fu and wuxia stories can be replicated both narratively and mechanically.

If we are playing in a setting similar to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is no need to mechanically represent Li Mu Bai’s more fantastical abilities, like walking along the top of a bamboo forest, flying, or bouncing off of water. These are all accepted parts of the genre, and so I would expect that I could relate how Li Mu Bai acts using those factors narratively rather than mechanically. If Li Mu Bai were instead to be part of a story in which such powers are not common, then I would need to create a Quality that could explain them.

In creating Li My Bai in a fantastic, wire-fu setting, I’d be looking more to his character than to his powers. To me, the key part of the character is his fight against injustice. He arrives, seeks out the wrong, and attempts to right it. So I would make his Concept “Knight Errant.” That touches on both his martial skills but also his questing nature. I think his training would be his Background, and so I would make that “Warrior Monk.” I’m tempted to make his Faculty “Martial Arts,” but in this setting, most characters would be martial artists, so I’m going to call his Faculty “Sword Mastery” – this reflects the style that we see him use through the movie.

Here’s where I would deviate from the expected. To me, it is neither Li Mu Bai’s physical power nor his intelligence that drives his martial arts, but his force of will and sense of justice. I’m linking his “Sword Mastery” to Charisma. I’m also going to throw in an Element there, which is probably sub-optimal, but I think his “Arcane Medicine” is important, but that needs to be linked to his Cunning – I have a really hard time justifying it as a Charisma Quality, even though mechanically that would make sense.

As for Pivots, I believe his Goal would be “Justice for All,” his Quirk would be “Doomed Romantic,” and his Style would be “Contemplative Tornado of Violence.”

So Li Mu Bai in a fantastical, kung fu setting would be:
Concept: Knight Errant +4
Background: Warrior Monk +2
Faculty: Sword Mastery +4 (Charisma)
Phy +0; Cha +6; Cun +0
Arcane Medicine (Cun) +2
Justice for All; Doomed Romantic; Contemplative Tornado of Violence.

Were Li Mu Bai in a more common setting, like a straight-up fantasy, or semi-historical adventure, I might need to add more mechanics to justify his more “magical” abilities. I think in such a case, his Qualities would be about his abilities while his core character is expressed in his Pivots. I would change his Concept to “Mystical Sword Master,” and his Background to “Warrior Monk.” To really hit this on the nose, I might go with “Supernatural Sword Master” for Concept and “Mystical Martial Arts Monk” for Background. For Faculty, I think I would use “Perfect Balance,” but would still link it to his Charisma for the same reason. I could mark this as an SFX Quality, as something that allows him to do actions outside of the laws of physics. I would also have the Element “Leap of Faith,” as he doesn’t really fly, more jumps really well. This time, I can link it to his Charisma since it is powered by his qi energy.

I think his Pivots all still work really well, but I would replace “Doomed Romantic,” with “Knight Errant.” I think it’s important that the GM understand that this is important to the character – and that’s the role of the Pivot. I would love to work the doomed romance in there, but I think that could be done through the level of narrative control a player has. I could insert it into the story and link it back to his Knight Errant, many of whom – in European lore – were part of tragic love affairs.

So to insert Li Mu Bai into a more conventional fantasy, the character would look like:
Concept: Mystical Sword Master +4
Background: Warrior Monk +4
Faculty: Perfect Balance, SFX +2 (Charisma)
Phy +0; Cha +6; Cun +0
Leap of Faith, SFX (Cha) +2
Justice for All; Knight Errant; Contemplative Tornado of Violence.

So that’s how one could create a wire-fu, qi-powered warrior like Li Mu Bai both for a game that is specifically set in a wuxia environment or in a game that is in a Western-style fantasy. In the end, I prefer the former version, because it is much more about the character than his abilities. I think characters are more evocative when players can reveal their cores through their Qualities, but everyone enjoys something different. The beauty of light systems is they tend to be able to be flexible and hit a variety of targets.

At least, that was the plan with Sword’s Edge.

If this sounds cool, please check out my Patreon, for more adventures and games.

Studio Firebase Oats Rakka

Neill Blomkamp isn’t resting on his laurels but is creating some amazing speculative fiction shorts. Both Rakka and Firebase are out now, and each of these provides tons of inspiration for both writers and RPGers. I’m only going to look at it from an RPG perspective.

Rakka is kind of an apocalyptic/bodyhorror/alien invasion short which looks at the way humans try to fight back. There are shades of the backstory for Terminator – which became a frontstory(?) with the imperfect Terminator SalvationAliens, eXistenZ, and District 9 while still remaining briskly original. For inspiration, there is the enemy itself – one that has both technological superiority but also psionic superiority – those humans that survive the aliens’ experimentation (maybe the super-powered PCs?), and the hinted-at saviours of the world. Is the Earth caught in the middle of an interstellar war, useful because of its strategic location? Does one side view Humans only as an irritating pest while the other recognizes sentience? Or do our saviours merely seek to use us as proxies, to avoid their own casualties while still hitting at their opponents?

I actually enjoyed Firebase more than Rakka. Neither one is really complete, although Rakka feels like its complete, just ambiguously so. Firebase teases more to come. It has many elements similar to Rakka, but this time it’s in Vietnam during the war and the force being faced seems more supernatural than interstellar. What could be interesting is taking the premise of Firebase and transporting it to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, trapped in decades of fighting and insecurity, and use it along with a riff on “Heart of Darkness” – itself the inspiration for Apocalypse Now. As the team gets closer and closer to the River God substitute, things get weirder and weirder. Reality is breaking down, but the characters/PCs are able to stand outside this decay for some reason – maybe for reasons they also don’t understand. I think the premise is very cool, and it is ripe for use in an RPG.

I can’t wait to see what else comes out of Oats Studios, because I will bet it will be as pregnant with inspiration as these two pieces have been.

You can see both Rakka and Firebase at Oats Studios.

Karimala – Queen of Kush?

As part of my research into a cultural and historical primer for Nefertiti Overdrive, I’m reading Robert G. Morkot’s The Black Pharaohs. It’s a bit rough going because it’s a very technical book and not a popular history. My readings on Egyptian history have been at the popular history level, and much of the archaeological and historiographic discussions in the book are over my head.

I have hit on a very interesting point. There’s an inscription on a temple in the fortress of Semna in what would become Kush, and it refers to Karimala, whom the inscription calls “King of Upper and Lower Egypt, King’s Great Wife, King’s Daughter.” While she was apparently a great wife to a pharaoh, that inscription seems to suggest she also ruled in her own right. Dr. Morkot’s assumes this is not true, even though he does not indicate a specific reason why it could not be. He does indicate that the hieroglyphs are difficult to decipher, though I do not know enough to be able to make a guess as to why.

I understand that female rulers in Egypt and its surrounding cultures were uncommon, but they were not unknown, and given the accepted – if uncertain – translation, it seems reasonable that someone, quite possibly Karimala herself, considered her the pharaoh. Certainly Hatshepsut ruled as pharaoh, as did Sobekneferu, and possibly Merneith and Ahhotep I, among others. As serendipity would have it, the temple on which the inscription was found was believed to have been built by Thutmose III, with whom Hatshepsut jointly “ruled,” as he was a child of her husband, Thutmose II, and a lesser wife. It was also in the rule of Thutmose III that an attempt was made – possibly by him or his counsellors – to remove Hatshepsut from all monuments and inscriptions: to erase her from history.

The Karimala inscription also relates to a period in which the ruling powers – whomever those might be, let’s say it’s Queen Karimala – turned away from Amun, which created turmoil in the kingdom. The carving shows Karimala giving sacrifices to Isis, so maybe – like Akhenaten – she tried to change the state religion and raise Isis above Amun. Imagine her nation in turmoil as the nobles and warlords turn against her. The inscription seems to indicate that in the end, Amun was returned to his place of pre-eminence, so I guess in our story Karimala would have to lose.

In the end, for me, it’s a great piece of inspiration, a seed that could grow into a really interesting story. I don’t have the knowledge or skills necessary to actually ferret out the truth, but Nefertiti Overdrive is about kick-ass adventures rather than strict historical accuracy, so there’s nothing stopping us from running a game in which Karimala, an acolyte of Isis, challenges the status quo and finds herself embattled by her own subject – though maybe not all of them.

It’s also important not to assume anything. There may be plenty of evidence not presented that Karimala was a wife of the ruler rather than a ruler in her own right, but that’s not included. Unfortunately, it seems very much like an assumption based on expectations, and that is very dangerous.

You can find The Black Pharaohs on Amazon here, where you can also find Nefertiti Overdrive,

You can get the print+PDF combo of Nefertiti Overdrive at Indie Press Revolution.

Adventures in the Anglo-Saxon Migration

When I consume media of any sort, I get inspired and think about how I could apply it to either my fiction or my gaming. Since my gaming is the creative endeavour on which I spend most of my time these days, it tends to default to gaming. This happened when I listened to the most recent episode of the Fall of Rome – and, as a side note, if you like history or just Rome, you need to be listening to this podcast.

Episode 20: “The Anglo-Saxon Migration, the North Sea World, and the Birth of England” got me thinking of Great Britain in the fifth century. Now, this period has been mined pretty extensively, but generally as it relates to King Arthur. Patrick Wyman, the host, had previously mentioned Riothamus, a possible candidate for the historical Arthur, but other than an offhand reference to this being the period of Arthur, he focuses on the much more interesting – for me – topic of the Anglo-Saxon culture and the history and process of migration.

What I really loved was the discussion of a hypothetical Saxon family, their first introduction to Britain through the father’s work as a mercenary in a Romano-British aristocrat’s armed retinue until his grandchild has carved out a “kingdom” for himself. This is something that could work with Kiss My Axe, which does discuss the Age of Migrations but doesn’t look at the Germanic migration into Great Britain. In Kiss My Axe, all Vikings are linked by the Quality of “Sailing” – the term Viking likely refers to seaborne raiders – and I think for an Anglo-Saxon migration game I’d change that to “Honour.” This would work as a pretty common modifier, mostly to the benefit of the characters – providing them with courage in battle and defence against deception – but also as a Weakness, as that honour can easily be used against them in many situations.

I’m thinking of a game in which the PCs arrive in post-Roman Britain around 420 or so, and follow this group of mercenaries as they rise to positions of power and prestige. This version of Britain would include the supernatural aspects that we now consider superstition, and I would be interested in referencing the religious friction of the heathen Saxons vs. the Christian Romano-British.

Right now, I have a fantasy and a modern spec ops campaigns happening, but there’s nothing stopping me from mapping this campaign out for possible later usage. Perhaps backburner until it comes Kiss My Axe’s turn for revision.

You can find the episode in question here.

You can find the excellent the Fall of Rome podcast here.

You can find Kiss My Axe here.

Cutter’s Headspace

Inspired by our character creation sensation for Todd’s Headspace game, here’s a little Headspace fiction. The names are changed, as is the precise situation:

In my head canon, Cutter is played by Ha Ji-Won

She sat there, staring at the drink, knowing it wouldn’t help but lacking any other alternative. She had died. No, not her, Stocker. The boss. He had died. But she had been in his head, she had witnessed it. More, she had endured it. She had shared his mind as Stocker died. That was after Whistler disappeared into the grid. Mills might have still been alive, she didn’t know. If not dead, Mills had lost her implant, had lost her link.

Dead by any other name.

In there, in the head that held remnants of her teammates, still dwelt the ones who lived. Their doubts added to her own. Their grief piled on top of hers. Even when she slept, their nightmares intruded.

She had plenty of her own.

Was their some change in the pressure in the room, some palpable tension that rippled along its surface? As much as she tried to turn it off, she had become attuned to emotions, maybe even to thoughts. It was as if someone had opened a sepulchre and the stench of the dead wafted out.

“Hello Cutter”

Her hand almost went to her pistol. He kept it still and on the bar. She turned her head to meet Ashton’s eyes. She didn’t know if he had a uniform of charcoal suit, white shirt, and red tie, but she had never seen him in anything else. The two brutes flanking him, just a step behind, should have had a corporate brand on their forehead.

She offered him the most insincere smile she could muster. “What’s Hayashi-Senko doing sending it’s best and brightest into this dive?”

Todd runs Broken Ruler Games.

Headspace is published by Green Hat Designs.

You can find Headspace at Drive Thru RPG.

Edge of Inspiration: Rigging for Running

As I mentioned in my last post, the Riggers playtest is going well, but Dream Riggers has woken. I have to admit that I was getting into the creation of the campaign, but the results at the table dulled that enthusiasm. I corrected that problem by splitting up my gaming group into two, but enthusiasm for the campaign had waned.

I gave the groups choices, and these were what was on offer:

Centre of the World (fantasy)
The group are minor agents for the Urban Prefect in the city of Hadrapole – once an outpost of the dread Aeolean Empire, and now the most prosperous and powerful city in the world, trapped between its old masters and the Holy Kingdoms, a collection of squabbling states bent on exporting their messianic religion. In the middle of this powder keg, strange, ritualistic murders begin to occur. Think Lankhmar meets Constantinople meets Seven.

Warlords of the Wastes (post-apocalypse action)
Post-apocalyptic with a group seeking a way home from a foreign land after the assassination of their leader and destruction of the army of which they were a part or with which they had travelled. Think the 47 Ronin meets Anabasis meets Fallout.
47 Ronin:
The Anabasis:
Fallout series:

Mission Creep, Mission Crawl (espionage thriller)
You are the Contact Team of the Clandestine Activities Special Executive – CASE – sent to disrupt North Korea’s recruitment of a Russian physicist in Almaty, Kazahkstan. Think the Mission: Impossible films meets the Bourne move series meets The Activity.
Mission: Impossible films:
the Bourne series:
The Activity:

The Vanguard (fantasy)
You have been recruited into the Vanguard, a mercenary company that traces its roots back to the last legion of the lost Aeolean Empire. The company seeks the banner and eagle of its ancestor legion, two items of mythological power. Think the Black Company meets the legions (as portrayed in Centurion: Legionaries of Rome).
The Black Company:
Centurion: Legionaries of Rome:

One group chose Centre of the World and the other chose Warlords of the Waste.

More on those later.

Edge of Inspiration: Bronze Age Trade

You know I kind of dig ancient history as a setting. Nefertiti Overdrive – set in 25th Dynasty Ancient Egypt – is on its way to backers and should be in stores by November and I had previously dabbled with Immortals of Bronze. Listening to the Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt over at the Great Courses has, as usual, hit on more than one points of inspiration.

Ruins of Byblos from “gordontour” used under Creative Commons

In the last lecture I discussed for the Listen Through, Dr. Brier talked about Old Kingdom Egypt’s trade missions, and specifically to the Sinai for turquoise and Lebanon for cedar. That definitely hit the right buttons. Immortals of Bronze was all about trade missions as the connectors of cultures, and  1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed does a great job of showing how trade created the kind of intricate, interwoven networks we believe happened only with “globalization.”

To me, the city of Byblos is key. This was likely the destination of the Egyptian mission to acquire cedars, and from the very cursory research I did, it sounds like a relatively cosmopolitan place. I’m thinking the group could similarly be cosmopolitan – my first thoughts are of an Egyptian emissary and his (or, if we want to have some fun with it, her) bodyguard, a Phoenician captain (yes, the Phoenicians were an artificial division of cultures used by the Greeks, but we’re gaming, so shorthand is acceptable), maybe an astrologer (wizard?) from Mesopotamia and a barbarian or two for “fish out of water” moments (maybe one from Central Asia/Turkey and one from Sub-Saharan Africa, just to stir things up).

Yes, the trade mission would get them to Byblos, but they would be facing political negotiations as well as economic ones as the city is rife with factions. There would be favours needed to achieve for the rulers, and that could lead to unexpected discoveries, possibly of “monsters” now thought mythological. The Sneferu mission described in the lecture would have been around 2600 BCE, so before even the Mycenean civilization in Greece, but easily encompassing the height of Mesopotamia. Adventures in and around “the Great Green” could be awesome, and this is a period with little actual primary evidence, so your version of history can be just as valid as any others.

You can find Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt here.

The Listen Through for lecture two “Sneferu” is here.

A discussion of my attempt at Bronze Age gaming here.

My review of 1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed here and you can learn more about the book here.

Fallout Noir

Those of you who have been around here a while are aware I’m a big fan of the computer games Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. Fallout 4 has been announced, and already it is providing inspiration. How is that possible, you might ask, given that we know next to nothing about the story? It’s the imagery that has piqued my interest.

One of the initial pics from Fallout 4 had me thinking of F:NV. F:NV is a mix of the post-apocalyptic and western genres. This image made me think that Fallout 4 would also mix genres, specifically post-apocalyptic and noir. Given that I’ve published a sword & sorcery noir, you can imagine how this might have grabbed my interest. So what about post-apocalyptic noir?

The one aspect of noir that I think is important is an urban setting. Post-apocalyptic adventures don’t really need urban centres. In fact, most work without them. Fallout, though, has regular urban areas of different sizes, from towns to cities. These are represented in the computer game by groups of buildings and characters of varying sizes, but all much smaller than the populace they are to denote. New Vegas is actually a pretty small geographic area, but one can imagine that it indicates one of the larger urban areas in shattered North America. Rivet City in Fallout 3 is the same.

With examples like those, and the urban density the image seems to suggest, it is easy to imagine cities with governments and rudimentary law enforcement in this setting. Most of the plots and macguffins of hardboiled detective fiction could be ported into such a world as easy as they could a sword & sorcery one.

You could easily take your standard travelling group of troubleshooters that are regularly getting into messes as they move between points of light in the wasteland and bolt that onto hardboiled plots. Imagine something like Raymond Chandler’s the High Window, in which the characters are hired to find a treasure their employer believes was stolen by an estranged daughter-in-law. This could totally work, and work well, in New Vegas or Rivet City. Instead of a rare coin, it could be a piece of technology – though this would make a couple of the twists in the story a little bit difficult.

There’s also something like the Dashiell Hammett novel the Thin Man, in which Nick and Nora Charles investigate a dead body and get involved in a pretty messed up family. The key points of the mystery and the family would work just as well in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Just take a look at that picture and try to figure out the story behind it. I’m pretty sure it includes corrupt officials, femme fatales/homme horribles, criminals, and snappy dialogue.

You can find out more about the Fallout series here.

You can find Sword Noir: A Role-Playing Game of Hardboiled Sword & Sorcery at Amazon and DriveThru RPG.

You can find out more about the High Window here.

You can find out more about the Thin Man here.

Edge of Inspiration: Bond Contains Multitudes

On Tuesday I wrote about niches and how important I believe them to be. What if you are looking for inspiration for niches from mass media? There you are in for a bit of trouble, because in many cases the niches are all wrapped up in one person.

In the very first Accidental Survivors podcast episode, we talked about James Bond. One of the pieces of advice we gave for adapting Bond to an RPG was to break him up into his constituent parts. Bond is good at everything. His sidekicks are truly sidekicks – they rarely do anything essential though they are sometimes useful. Bond needs no one.

With apologies to Walt Whitman . . . Bond is large. He contains multitudes.

This isn’t to say that you can’t find niches in a Bond movie or novel. You can go through any mass media property and look for the different obstacles the characters must overcome and what kind of role the character(s) assume when overcoming them. Those are your niches.

As an example, let’s look at my favourite Bond movie: From Russia With Love. This is a really simple breakdown of some of the challenges within the movie, ignoring the role of Red Grant in seeing much of it through to success.

The first real obstacle or challenge Bond faces is the surveillance of the Soviet consulate. Bond is being a spy or a sneak.

Then, in the Gypsy camp, Bond needs to ingratiate himself. So he’s a diplomat or a face.

There’s a big fight at the camp in which Bond mostly shoots the bad guys (though he also fisticuffs a couple) so we’ve got him as a shooter or marksman.

He assists Kerim Bey in killing an enemy spy, so maybe as a leader or controller?

Once he has the floor layout of the consulate, he plans the assault and theft of the decoder. I would say in this he’s a commander/leader or possibly an expert.

The theft goes really well, though this is very much Bond in command, leading others, so certainly leader or controller.

While it might not be obvious at the time, Bond does realize what Red Grant is doing during the escape on the train when he drugs Tatiana. This is him being a spy or a sneak.

The big fight on the train – which is actually kind of a boss fight but well before the end of the movie – is all fisticuffs all the time with Red Grant. In this, Bond is being the martial artist or maybe the muscle.

On the run, Bond shoots down a helicopter with a sniper rifle, definitely being a shooter or marksman.

The boat fight – in which Bond destroys some pursuers – is kind of based on resourcefulness as much as it does marksmanship, so I’d go with Bond as an expert or thinker (with a dash of shooter).

And then the final fight with Rosa Kleb, in which Bond is once again the martial artist or muscle.

Understandably for an action movie, Bond leans to the shooter/martial artist, but there are plenty of displays of his expertise, leadership, and diplomacy. In a game, you would want to add more scenes for those kind of characters, but depending on the rules, being an expert, face, or leader in combat can still be effective, if not as effective as a shooter or martial artist.

Mass media can provide inspiration both for challenges and for the kind of characters needed to overcome those challenges.

Even when it’s all the same character, like Bond.

You can find that podcast episode here. It’s kind of rough, since it was our first outing.

You can find out more about From Russian With Love at Wikipedia and IMDB.