The King is Dead

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The King is Dead: The Blood is the Life (Revised)



Chains of Blood

The blessed of Sathaniel watch over mankind as shepherds watch over their flocks, but sometimes shepherds must use sheep dogs to guard the lambs from wolves.  To this end, vampires employ their still-living children -- the dunpeals -- and their blood-bonded servants -- the moroi,

Moroi

The power of Sathaniel that flows through the veins of vampires and dunpeals can bestow their inhuman strength and vitality upon mortals who drink it.  Old men feel young again and young men feel immortal when they drink the blood.  When offered such temptations, few can resist agreeing to any service the vampire commands and become the instruments of their own oppression -- sheep trained to be sheep dogs.

Moroi exist in many levels of society.  The Glorious Revolt worries most about those used as assassins and double-agents to infiltrate the secret societies, but the majority are the aldermen, bailiffs, and burgomasters that enforce the law in the hamlets and towns of Malleus.  These willing dupes ensure that their inhuman lords receive the blood tax and that the population remains compliant.

It is rare for vampires and dunpeals to waste their blood on human lovers, unless they have particularly athletic tastes.

Savage Worlds Rules

Moroi are normal humans who have been fed the blood of a vampire or dunpeal and given some of its strength.  An ancient vampire may maintain up to its natural Toughness x 3 moroi, a young vampire may maintain up to its natural Toughness x 2 moroi, and a dunpeal may maintain a number of moroi equal to its natural Toughness.

Any NPC archetype may be converted to a moroi by adding the following template:
  • Enslaved: The will of the moroi is suborned to the master vampire.  This functions in most ways as the Vow (Major) Hindrance.
  • Feed: The moroi must drink at least a pint of blood fresh from its master once a month.  This is otherwise treated like the Habit (Major) Hindrance. 
  • Strength of the Damned: Strength +1d and Vigor +1d.  Since this effectively offsets the Elderly Hindrance, there's some surprisingly spry old men watching out for the vampires' interests.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The King is Dead: I Have Changed My Mind About Vampire Boners

NOTE: THIS POST HAS BEEN COMPLETELY REWRITTEN

One of the earliest novels “from the vampire’s point of view” (as Otto the bus driver would say) I ever read was The Palace by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; the vampire protagonist is Count Saint-Germain, based on the real-life 18th century con man.  One of the startling choices she made in her approach was to make vampires incapable of sex; since they’re undead and their hearts presumably do not beat, there is no way for the erectile tissues of their bodies to function.  As Yarbro’s work was an early influence on my impressions about vampires and as Saint-Germain is one of those Enlightenment fakers I admire so much, I thought I’d just steal this fairly unique approach to vampire sexuality and work it into The King is Dead.

But then I had a few thoughts:

1)      The vampires need some strength in numbers to maintain control over the humans.
2)      A role-playing game needs opponents of varying power levels.  Even young vampires in Savage Worlds are pretty tough.
3)      I could use the Buffy-style vampire minions from the Horror Companion, but could the vampires really maintain control over the population if thousands of them need to feed every night?  Wouldn’t people rebel?
4)      There’s got to be something in it for the humans if the majority of the population actually buys into this Church of Sathaniel nonsense.
5)      The vampires need servants who can move by day.
6)      Would you choose to live forever if you couldn’t have sex?

So I decided to reverse my position on vampire sex and assume they could breed daywalker children.  I also decided they needed Renfields.

And then I thought “Why does a stake in the heart kill a vampire if their heart doesn’t beat?”


The Blood and the Heart


The heart is the seat of life; though anatomists still struggle to understand the mechanism of blood and how it carries life energy, vivisectionists have shown that the heart is a pump that sends blood coursing throughout the body.  Though damage to the brain might impair a body’s function, the body may still live; destroy the heart and it invariably dies.

A vampire must have a way of suffusing his dead body with the life it imbibes with mortal blood and so the heart of a vampire still beats, though its pulse is slow and irregular.  It may not beat for several hours while the vampire rests, as it conserves the vital life force from the vampire’s last meal.  It will beat more regularly when the vampire needs to exert itself, though even then it will never reach the drumming intensity of a mortal heart.  Nevertheless, it beats, and destroying the heart destroys the vampire.

Dunpeals

The heart beats and the heart yearns.  The blessing of Sathaniel does not make vampires immune to the temptations of the flesh, though it does reduce their capacity to enjoy and participate in such pleasures.  Arousing oneself for fornication, for example, is a great labor for the male vampire (though admittedly a labor many readily undertake); distressingly, it appears the female is more easily ready (though less readily satisfied).

Dunpeals are the rare children of unions between vampire males and mortal virgins.  (While it is possible for a female vampire to conceive, there is no recorded case of a pregnancy coming to term; the female’s body feeds off the child’s blood and leads to miscarriage.)  Why precisely vampires can only impregnate virgins is a matter of speculation, but it is believed it has something to do with the mingling of hymenal blood and semen.

Carrying a dunpeal to term is difficult and dangerous.  The most successful methods require the mother to drink vampire blood (preferably the father’s) on a daily basis and to supplement her diet with fresh animal blood.  The process seems to be eased somewhat if the mother is a blood relation of the father; the vast majority of Mallean dunpeals are bred within the princely blood lines, and the vast majority of dunpeal parents are grandparent and grandchild.

Raising a dunpeal child is also difficult and dangerous.  They usually spend their early lives on country estates where the deaths of servants can be more easily ignored. The murder of a nanny and several footmen by a hungry dunpeal toddler in residence at a townhome in May Fair scandalized Hammerstadt several years ago; seditionists who trumpeted this accident in their newspapers were executed after a mob burned the home to the ground.    

The benefits of having dunpeals to guard the nobility and execute their orders by daylight far outweigh the difficulties in raising them.  Like vampires, they can also use their blood to maintain moroi servants.  They are free to come and go without a homeowner’s permission, making them capable of espionage and acts of theft that their vampire parents simply cannot do.  While sunlight stings their eyes, the blight of day does not burn dunpeals.  It is far, far safer to send dunpeals to maintain peace in the Colonies than to risk a vampire on the months-long crossing.

Of course, dunpeals are as vulnerable to ash wood as any vampire, and they lack the vampires’ immunity to steel and lead.  It is only at great risk to their lives that dunpeals accept missions to the Colonies – it’s far safer to accept a commission in the Polizei and hunt rebels in Malleus – but the rewards are great for the bold and ambitious.

Dunpeals can live for hundreds of years; like humans, they can also be given the gift of unlife and made vampires.  This is, in fact, the reward for which they are willing to risk their lives to thwart the Glorious Revolt.  No one knows the siren song of immortality as much as those who have lived for centuries.

Savage Worlds Rules Redux

Dunpeals are trained to a variety of roles.  Since they are nobility, it is not expected that they will work for a living, but they must still serve their sires in some capacity.  Dunpeal archetypes include: assassin, courtier, duelist, military officer, privateer, and thief.  Dunpeals have a lifespan of 150 + 2d100 years.

Any NPC archetype may be converted to a dunpeal by adding the following template:
  • Feed: The dunpeal must drink at least a pint of fresh blood (which need not be human) every day.  This is treated like the Habit (Major) Hindrance.
  • Royal Blood: Each of the four princely bloodlines has its own unique gift.
  1. von Ruprecht -- Rats in the Walls: The dunpeal has the ability to summon and control swarms of vermin (cockroaches, fleas, and rats are typical choices). This requires an action and a Smarts roll at –2. If successful, 1d4 swarms of crawling vermin (Savage Worlds Deluxe p. 141) come scurrying out of the walls or earth in 1d6+2 rounds.
  2. von Rickard -- Change Form:  With a Smarts roll at -2, the dunpeal may change into a wolf or bat.
  3. von Rot (Wilhelm the Red) -- Charm: The dunpeal can use the puppet power on someone who finds him or her sexually attractive using his or her Smarts as the arcane skill.  This can be maintained indefinitely, but can only affect one target at a time.
  4. von Heinrich -- Wall Walker: The dunpeal can move at its full Pace (and even run) along any surface.
  • Strength of the Damned: Dunpeals start with a d6 in Strength and Vigor instead of a d4.
  • Weakness (Ash Wood): Dunpeals take +4 damage from weapons made of the wood of the ash tree,
  • Weakness (Sunlight): All physical tasks made in direct sunlight are made at a -2.
It is believed that dunpeals sired directly by the king may have greater abilities, but no known living dunpeal claims to be a child of Wilhelm the Everlasting.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Month When There Are No Gods

I think Beedo over at Dreams in the Lich House has the right idea with his junkyard posts: when you’ve got an awesome idea but fleshing it out will disrupt your current campaign (or ongoing campaign development as with The King is Dead) then you just write out the fragmentary ideas you have and put them aside.  Perversely, just days after starting an actual The King is Dead campaign, I am distracted by thoughts of another setting.

The Month When There Are No Gods


from Onmyōji by Reiko Okano



October in Japan is known as “the month when there are no gods” because of an old tradition about the eight million kami gathering at the Grand Shrine of Izumo.  I get the impression that the Japanese don’t view this with any anxiety, but that haunting name and our own Halloween traditions call to my mind the spooky side of Japanese pop culture much more than the authentic Japanese tradition of the Obon festival of the dead in summer.  For people with stronger nerves (and stomachs), Japanese horror conjures images of “The Ring” and “The Human Centipede;” for wimpy, wimpy me, it means the Heian period.

The Heian period (795 to 1185 CE) is one of those remarkable, self-contradictory eras that so capture my imagination.  On the one hand, you have all the decadent pomp and circumstance of the Japanese imperial court at its height – bed-hopping polygamy, The Pillow Book, poetry, political intrigue, The Tale of Genji, tea parties – and on the other hand you have the fact that half of the imperial capitol was basically a deserted ruin, that burial practices essentially just meant trundling corpses off to a charnel ground outside the city and dumping them, and that outside the capitol the emerging warrior class was busy constantly raiding each other and making life miserable for the vast majority of the citizenry.  It was a time of beauty and squalor, of silk and steel.

It was also a time of terror and magic.

The Heian period is a perfect setting for a horror game.  Despite all of the luxury and refinement, the people of Heian Japan were convinced they were living in the corrupt Latter Age of the Law, the Third Age of Buddhism when the way was lost.  Ghosts and demons were omnipresent; it was even possible for an otherwise innocent person’s spirit to leave her body while she slept to murder rivals.  Buddhist priests were on call for exorcisms and an entire branch of the government existed to employ feng shui diviners – the Onmyōji -- to determine auspicious dates and times. 

The Savage Worlds Horror Companion has the perfect setting rules and new Powers to bring a haunted Heian setting to life.  Abe no Seimei, the most famous historical Onmyōji, is credited with binding and commanding monsters and spirits, shape-changing, and killing with a wave of his hand in addition to divining the future; adding the setting rules Chronological Phenomena, Rituals, Signs & Portents, and Wards & Binds to the usual list of Powers perfectly captures the feel of Onmyōdō.  I usually chafe at how specialized Savage Worlds characters have to be, but that would work great in the haunted Heian; will your character devote his advancements to monster-hunting or rising in political power?  It would be fantastic.

Maybe I’ll put together a Heian primer and/or campaign together after The King is Dead.  Robin and I have tried Heian fantasy before, but that floundered; we got too caught up in worrying about historical detail (a lesson I have certainly learned) and got bogged down in rampant sexism of the time.  These days, I’d either suggest we just make her character a cross-dresser or that we assume her abilities make her so unique that exceptions are made.  I think I’d rather do it as a group game, though, since that would enable us to play with the political dynamics a bit more. 

Oh well…

Friday, September 20, 2013

Things I Need to Own: Le Scorpion

Now I know how I want the art for The King is Dead to look.

Did you know there's a bande dessinée about an 18th century Indiana Jones wrapped up in a Dan Brown-style Vatican conspiracy?  I didn't.  It's called Le Scorpion.


Franco-Belgian comics are the best comics.  Subtler color and linework than American comics and all the variety in genres of manga wrapped together with le sexy

Le Scorpion is published in English by Cinebooks and is available at Amazon.  I'll get it eventually.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The King is Dead: The Colonies


I’ve actually decided to start our new The King is Dead duet in the Colonies rather than on Malleus.  I haven’t quite figured out how the vampire nobility works – How many of them are there? How are their families organized? Why haven’t they eaten the entire island already? – and so I decided to start with life in the Colonies because that’s relatively unchanged from real-world history.  Which means I need to get some material written on the Colonies.

I have also changed my mind on the subject of vampire sex.  An upcoming post will address this in more detail (once I’ve better sorted those details out) but take it as given at this point they can and do have the capability for intercourse (though it is difficult and somewhat embarrassing), that male vampires can sire dhampir (known as dunpeals in the King is Dead) while female vampires cannot carry a child to term, and that the sex lives of noblewomen are just as proscribed as I stated earlier.  Dunpeals do need to drink blood to survive, they can live several centuries, but it is very difficult for them to breed true. 

Anyway…

The New World

Atlantika

Exploitation of the continent of Atlantika has proved problematic for the noble houses of Malleus.  Unlike its sister continent Darién, it is covered in ash trees; unlike Bharatastan, it has no native vampire population to assist Mallean interests in gaining a foothold.  Indeed, the native population of Cruthin (“Painted People”) are determinedly hostile to vampiric expansion.  This has led to a development deeply uncomfortable to King Wilhelm and his advisors: unsupervised human settlements.

The vast majority of Mallean settlements in the Colonies are devoid of vampiric presence.  There are no proper vampires in the Colonies at all and only a score or two of adventuresome (or desperate) young dunpeals.  As moroi -- blood-fed human servitors – require a vampire or dunpeal to provide the blood that gives them their strength – and as the blood of dunpeal is weaker than that of vampires – their presence is also extremely limited.  Therefore most colonists are left to their own devices with only the sermons of their local pastor to keep them obedient to king and country.

This is not working.

The Colonies are a hive of freethinkers and anarchists.  Released of the burden of the blood tax, even colonists of upstanding Mallean families begin to question the word of Sathaniel.  Clavish and Lochlanders who buy their way out of servitude find that they really can get a plot of land to call their own.  The example of the Six Nations of the native Cruthin inspires talk of democracy.  The vast, unspoiled wilderness is a siren call to freedom.     

The “Thirteen” Colonies

Mathildeland
Founded as a refuge for Orthodox Sathanielists, the colony has since been overrun by Reformed Sathanielists and its original Orthodox inhabitants have become a hated minority.  Its primary crops are tobacco and wheat.
 
Moswetuset Bay
Originally founded by Purified Sathanielists, the colony has become infamous for the Druid trials at the beginning of the century and growing unrest that has plagued the two decades.  The capital of Trimountaine is a hotbed of Illuminated activity.

New Kaiserland
It’s only been a few decades since New Kaiserland was appointed a governor separate from New Malleus.  The pine barrens are home to what local legend claims is either a malformed dunpeal or escaped demon called the Kaiser Teufel.

New Malleus
Dominated by the Neuhammer and Maquas river valleys, this large colony is both the most civilized colony (particularly the busting port city of Neuhammerstadt) and home to the threatening Six Nations confederacy.  While relations between the colonists and the Cruthin are amicable, the local governor is less sanguine.

New Thornshire
Relations with the Cruthin are less amicable in New Thornshire, but then the colonists there are also often in armed conflict with New Malleans as well. 

Nordkarolina
Decrees by King Wilhelm against expanding westward into the Allegany Mountains are deeply resented in the colony, and frequently ignored by frontiersmen and trappers. 
 
Quinetucket
Home of gun-runners, pirates, and whalers.  Due to the haphazard way land grants have been issued by King Wilhelm, it has large western territories on the far side of New Malleus that bring it into conflict with Überwald.

Reinland
The oldest colony, it was named for the promise of its virgin fields and woods.  Early attempts to start install a vampire at Roanoke led to the mysterious disappearance of all the inhabitants.

Rote Insel and Vorsehung Plantations
A strange and eldritch colony, home to more devout Sathanielists than elsewhere in Atlantika.  It’s best not to linger in the graveyards at night.

Südkarolina
The capital, Karlsberg, is a prosperous port (even if it has been home to the infamous pirate Schwarzen Bart).  The western part of the state is a contentious buffer zone between Cruthin and colonists. 

Überwald and the Low Counties
Technically one colony, Überwald and the Low Counties were settled independently and maintain separate Assemblies; only the recalcitrance of royal officials keeps them united.  The Low Counties are unremarkable in culture, but Überwald hosts a large population of Thunderers, a strange religious movement that began in the Nachtwald. 

Wilhelmia
…is on my mind.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The King is Dead: Savage Worlds Character Creation

Robin and I are going to start running a The King is Dead duet campaign to work out some of the bugs in the setting, so it behooves me to make up some character creation rules.  

A representative The King is Dead party: the 18th Century League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The King is Dead Savage Worlds Character Creation

Character creation follows standard Savage Worlds guidelines except for the following provisions.

Savage Worlds Horror Companion

The King is Dead makes use of the Savage Worlds Horror Companion.    

The following Hindrances are allowed from the Horror Companion: Bleeder, Bullet Magnet, Combat Shock, Cursed, Jumpy, Screamer, Slow, and Victim.

The following Edges are allowed from the Horror Companion: Relentless, Fanaticism, Exorcist, Necromancer/Master Necromancer, Talisman Craftsman, Monster Hunter, Tower of Will, and One of the Chosen.

The following Setting Rules from the Horror Companion are in force: Buckets of Blood, Chronological Phenomena, Rituals, Signs & Portents, and Wards & Binds.

All of the new Powers introduced in the Savage Worlds Horror Companion are available in The King is Dead.

Secret Societies

The King is Dead is a setting about conspiracies.  All player characters must choose a secret society to which to belong and for which they receive special benefits.  GMs may allow players to choose a secret society after play begins, or they may wish to run induction into the society as part of play; in those cases the characters do not get the benefits of membership until after they are inducted.  During the course of a campaign, a character may be offered honorary membership in other societies.  They do not get the Skill bonuses bequeathed by membership for any but their original secret society.

Membership in any secret society grants the Connections Edge for that society.

Membership in any secret society imposes the Vow (Major) Hindrance to uphold the goals and protect the secrets of that society.

Each secret society trains its members in Skills of vital importance to the society.  If a player does not choose a society before play begins, then the GM may feel free to impose 1d4 months of downtime on the character while she learns her society’s Skills.

  • The Balefire Club: a gathering of libertines run as a mock occult society, membership in the Balefire Club grants a d4 in Knowledge (Occult) and Persuasion.
  • The Bloodstained Blade: weapon masters who secretly worship the Pariah, the Enemy of Sathaniel, membership in the Bloodstained Blade grants a d4 in Knowledge (Occult) and Stealth.
  • Clan O’Nail: a mad band of separatists from Clavus and Lochland who support the pretender Jacob O’Nail, membership in the Clan O’Nail grants a d4 in Streetwise and Survival.
  • The Illuminated: genteel intellectuals who foment radical changes in society, membership in the Illuminated grants a d4 in Gambling and Persuasion.  [Note: the Illuminated use the incredibly common pastime of gambling to send secret messages by cheating at cards; this requires only a regular success on a Gambling roll and can be combined with gambling to win money.]
  • The Red Brotherhood: a fraternity of pirates, robber-knights, and smugglers, membership in the Red Brotherhood grants a d4 in either Riding or Boating (depending on whether the character chooses to be a highwayman or live a life at sea) and Streetwise. 
  • The Sorority of Belquis: dedicated to spreading the message of empowerment amongst women of all classes, membership in the Sorority of Belquis grants a d4 in Persuasion and Streetwise. 
  • The Star’s Children: mutants created by the Newtown Weald meteorite who have learned to hide their special abilities in plain sight, membership in the Star’s Children grants a d4 in Stealth and Streetwise.
  • The Wild Hunt: a loose network of backwoodsmen and monster-hunters, membership in the Wild Hunt grants a d4 in Survival and Tracking. 
  • Zunft von Hohenheim: a society of mystic alchemists and mad inventors, membership in the Zunft von Hohenheim grants a d4 in Knowledge (Occult) and Knowledge (Science).
Leadership Edges

Characters in The King is Dead are expected to rise to positions of power and prominence in their societies; it is hoped they will become the leaders of the Glorious Revolt against the vampires.  To that end, all The King is Dead player characters receive Command as a bonus Edge at Novice.  Upon attaining every new Rank, they may choose another bonus Leadership Edge for which they are qualified. 

The benefits of Leadership Edges also apply to Mobs (see Setting Rules).

Derring-do

Even the most foppish member of the Illuminated may occasionally find the need to climb a garden wall or swim away from a sinking ship.  The Climbing and Swimming Skills are removed from play and replaced with Strength and Agility checks respectively.

Setting Rules

The following setting rules from Savage Worlds Deluxe are in effect in The King is Dead:  Blood & Guts, Born a Hero, and Joker’s Wild.  (In duet games, it can also be assumed Heroes Never Die is as well.)

The following Wine and Savages setting rules are in effect:  Anguish, Cooperative Skills, and Mobs.  (In duet games, Too Many Cooks is also in effect.)


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Slightly Later Impressions of Accursed


Returning to my examination of the preview Accursed Player’s Guide, we find ourselves at Hindrances.  Anemic, Bloodthirsty, Obese, and Outsider are removed.  I get Bloodthirsty – I doubt anyone’s going to be very shocked about not taking prisoners when you fight the Witches’ banes – but I’m a bit surprised by the others; I guess the special qualities of the Witchbreed make being Anemic or Obese physically impossible.  The “new” Hindrances are primarily drawn from other sources.  Jingoistic is accidentally merged with Glass Jaw.

There aren’t any restrictions on existing Edges the way there are for Hindrances, except for Arcane Backgrounds.  (I do feel I should point out to would-be vargr that there is no reason to take Berserk; you’re much better off waiting to Veteran and taking The Wilding).  There are nineteen new Edges available in this section, which means that with the racial edges included there are a bit shy of fifty new Edges in the game.  I’m not a big fan of piling on new Edges – Savage Worlds PCs only have nineteen chances to advance before things slow down at Legendary rank – but the new Edges in Accursed don’t feel as intrusive as in some other settings.

Many of the new Edges are for very specific character concepts; Enochian means you’ve chosen to be a priest, Grand Coven Veteran and Officer of the Alliance assume you want to concentrate on your character’s war-time experiences during play, Knight of the Redhawks requires you to be a Knight of the Redhawks, etc.  Admittedly, additional Edges are also referenced from the Savage Worlds Horror Companion, but there aren’t any overly-specific weapon specialization Edges and for that I’m grateful.

I am a bit surprised that Arcane Backgrounds are restricted to the setting-specific Alchemy and Witchcraft.  Given the emphasis on the role of the Enochian Church and the overt presence of mad scientists in the setting, it seems like AB: Miracles and AB: Weird Science should be allowed.  There doesn’t seem to be any indication of benevolent supernatural entities in the setting (except for the ambiguous, now-vanished Seelie fae), so I’ll concede Miracles, but Weird Science seems like a missed opportunity.  Maybe there are plans for a mad science Witch.

“Chapter 3: Unholy Powers” is a short examination of how the Arcane Backgrounds allowed in Accursed work.  The actual Powers for Alchemy and Witchcraft are refreshingly flavorful; they really suit their Arcane Backgrounds.  Electrolytic Transferal, Liquefy Object, and Transmute Weapon are the highlights in Alchemy; Circle of Thorns, Squall, and Transmogrify are my favorites for Witchcraft.  I’m happy to see the inclusion of some subtler “utility spells” amongst the more obvious combat Powers.

“Chapter 4: Tools and Gear” is my surprise favorite.  The “Personal Resource Die” mechanic they’ve borrowed from Sean Patrick Fannon makes perfect sense in a setting where the emphasis is on self-sacrifice for the greater good rather than raiding labyrinths for fun and profit; I might need to borrow it for The King is Dead or the Regency project.  The available gear itself helps to define the feel of the setting in ways I feel the setting history muddied; paper cartridges, reinforced greatcoats, bullseye lanterns, and dark glasses give me a concrete sense of place and time.

I begin to suspect that simply having more art in the book will go a long way toward relieving the dissonance I feel between reading about noble kings and knights riding off to battle the Grand Coven and the frock coats I see in all the extant illustrations.  Perhaps I should imagine the knights more as 19th century cuirassiers rather than wearing heavy plate.  Do the Redhawks of Valkenholm dress like the Polish hussars?  The extensive section on field artillery certainly suggests it was used during the war, so it’s reasonable to assume the final battle looked more like Waterloo than Agincourt.  In any case, raising money to buy more art is a big part of why the Accursed Kickstarter is running in the first place and I think that will help clarify the world tremendously.

Is this what the Army of Light looked like?
“Chapter 5: Witchmarks” adds something I often feel is lacking in Savage Worlds: holistic advancement.  In a class and level RPG, every time you advance to the next rank you get multiple benefits – hit points, improved saving throws, crazy-ass class benefits, etc.; your character advances in a holistic manner.  In a point build game like Savage Worlds, the Storyteller System, or Unisystem, you only get that one thing you buy – an Attribute, an Edge, or maybe two Skill points; you only improve by increments.  Sometimes it really bugs me how Savage Worlds characters stagger from advancement to advancement; sometimes it forces them to be even more specialized specialists than you get from D&D character classes.

The Witchmarks add a small but helpful touch of holistic advancement to Accursed.  The marks are “brands” the Witches set in the flesh of their victims that grow in size and power as the characters advance in Rank.  At Novice, the Accursed can sense others created by her Witch within 25 feet and feels disturbances in the Force that lead her to those in need; at Seasoned, the character can communicate through “spoken telepathy” with other Accursed within one mile; at Veteran, the character essentially gets Danger Sense for free; at Heroic, the Accursed gets a boost to the sensory powers from Novice; and at Legendary, she can choose to increase an Attribute for free or get a bonus to Toughness.  It’s not a lot, but it’s at least something to help smooth the jagged edges of Savage Worlds character progression.

The chapter then progresses into the Fate Track.  This will feel familiar to World of Darkness gamers; it tracks a character’s acceptance or defiance of her monstrous heritage and grants bonuses and penalties as she progresses along it.  The important thing to note is that there are bonuses and penalties for going either direction; Accursed does not assume that your character is determined to win back her humanity.  If a character accepts being a monster, she gains additional powers but also gains more of her archetype’s vulnerabilities (a dhampir gets boosts in Agility and Parry but also finds herself unable to enter a home without invitation, etc.); if she denies her Witchmark, then she loses her powers and becomes more human (this is accompanied by an increase in starting Bennies for most Witchbreed).

Like the Witchmarks, this is a holistic character advancement that I like in theory.  My gut instinct is that it’s imbalanced in practice, but I may not be looking at the big picture.  Dhampir, for example, seem to have smaller-scale effects than the other Witchbreed – but at the same time, they’re not nearly as shackled by their curse as the other Witchbreed in the first place.  That said, the vargr definitely get the best effects at either end of the scale; if they accept their curse their claws do aggravated damage to all supernatural creatures, while if they reject it they get to keep the curse as a wolf companion. 

The appendix contains some additional material on the setting and a few leftover racial Edges.  I really think the vargr are becoming my favorites.

I like Accursed; I really do.  I’m not completely sold on every aspect of the setting or every Witchbreed, but the description of the player’s guide as a playtest document promises that all is not set in stone.  I suspect I’ll never want to play a mongrel or a mummy, but that’s just my taste; I’m actually coming to like the revenants more and more and hope to get a better idea of what the cauldron-born are like soon (I’m beginning to imagine Cairn Kainen as the Appalachians with a twisted fairy forest dropped into it rather than a pseudo-Arthurian Celtic highlands). 

I wish the team at Melior Via the best of luck with the Kickstarter and look forward to when they start polling for feedback on the setting.  Now I just need to win the lottery so I can pledge a thousand dollars to design one of the missing Witches…

Monday, September 16, 2013

Early Impressions of Accursed



The preview Accursed Player’s Guide available to backers of the Accursed Kickstarter presents the history of the setting, abilities and character creation guidelines for the monstrous player character races, a double handful of new Edges, and some of the setting rules that make Accursed an interesting new dark fantasy addition to Savage Worlds.  It isn’t perfect, but it’s a good start that I only expect to get better.

Let’s start with the fun and evocative cover.  A cadaverous Solomon Kane lookalike, a Frankenstein’s Monster with spectacles and his hair tied in a club, and a raven-haired lady dhampir in sensible clothes face off in front of a spooky castle against a creepy hag with vine-tentacles emerging from under his robes.  The illustration tells me a lot: the clothing styles all favor the 18th and 19th century so I know the setting speaks to my interests in more modern periods, the creators respect their female audience, and there’s at least enough humor and humanity in the setting to allow for a nebbish golem – plus, it’s all about monsters fighting monsters.  If this cover is a mission statement for Accursed, then I am wholeheartedly with it.

“Chapter 1: The Land of Morden” is, admittedly, the part I haven’t really read yet.  I get the basics: the continent of Morden was invaded some decades ago by an army of nearly goddess-like Witches, their monstrous servants, and some samurai* and Viking mercenaries; when the king of the fairies blew up one of the Witches and a big chunk of the resistance, the Witches decided to consolidate their holdings rather than continue the war; now the land is divided into fake-Russia, fake-Germany/Switzerland/Transylvania (?), fake-Prydain, fake-Italy, fake-Israel, and fake-Egypt and all the Witchbreed the Witches created have decided to join the good guys.  I’ve skimmed the chapter and read some parts in more detail than others; with that caveat, the actual setting fluff doesn’t appeal to me quite as much as the high concept.

The cover and interior illustrations certainly suggest a pseudo-Victorian setting – something that reflects the influence of Hammer Films both in its specificity to the 19th century and its vagueness as to the actual period – but the text suggests something far more medieval, something more of the “fantasy” in “dark fantasy.”  This is especially obvious in the land of Caer Kainen, a pseudo-Britain with distinct overtones of Arthurian legend and Lloyd Alexander, but there’s a lot of talk about knights throughout the book.  It would, of course, be possible to play Caer Kainen as an early 18th century Scotland – it has feuding clans – but the Celtic legend suffusing the land creates a certain cognitive dissonance in my brain.  I mean, revenants are the primary Witchbreed for Caer Kainen, so presumably the Solomon Kane-looking guy on the cover is Caer Kainen’s “iconic character” Cath Sarder and he just seems an odd fit with the Horned King and a White Hart.  Honestly, I’d recommend cutting the White Hart for Cath Sarder’s description from the appendix because his undead Natty Bumppo schtick is much more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the setting.

Also, why did Sanguinara the Blood Witch, settle down in the middle of a forest?!  Presumably vampires are as vulnerable to wood as dhampir, so why settle in a land full of undead Kryptonite?**   

“Chapter 2: The Accursed” provides character creation guidelines for the PC “races:” dhampir (herein “living vampires” rather than the children of vampires), golems (Frankensteins, Scarecrows, and Tin Men), mongrels (misfits from The Island of Dr. Moreau), mummies (who wear their sarcophagi like Anakaris from Darkstalkers), revenants (more like the Crow than just zombies), and vargr (werewolves).  Every race is given a page of setting fluff and a page of crunch – racial abilities and race-specific Edges.  They cover the majority of classic movie monster types (I’m waiting for gill-men, invisible people, and King Kongs) and are pretty flavorful, however I’m not sure how well they balance or how much everyone’s going to want to play them all.

The dhampir and vargr are obviously more appealing to someone who likes a little sexy with his scary, and they’re perfectly solid races.  I’m not sure how useful the dhampir’s Twilight-style leaping Edge really is, but their extra die in Agility means they’ve got a jump on the other races in raising their combat Skills.  The vargr’s pretty cool, even if the fluff suggests they become mindless animals when they change and that actually requires a special Edge that replaces Berserk.  The duet I’m going to run to playtest this with Robin will concentrate mainly on dhampir and vargr.

I worry that the golems are crippled as combatants by their restriction to an Agility no higher than d6.  It sometimes feels to me like people forget how few chances Savage Worlds characters get to advance; every advance only gives you a single Edge, a single Attribute point, or a pair of Skill points… at best.  You get two Skill points with an advance when you’re trying to raise Skills up to the controlling Attribute, but only one when you’re trying to increase it over the Attribute.  Agility controls Fighting, Shooting, and Throwing, so it’s going to be really expensive for a golem to become a combat machine.  Maybe that’s why Von Coric, the iconic golem, is a spellcaster. 

I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to play a mongrel.  I stopped dead at the Agonizing Pain racial “hindrance” which reduces several Attributes unless the character is full of drugs.  The only sensible way to play a mongrel is to be an Alchemist so you can synthesize your own smack, and that’s kind of limiting.

Mummies seem really underpowered; even the extra Edges in the appendix only make them even with a novice dhampir.  Revenants, however, seem insanely powerful.  They can essentially take an advance to Strength twice a rank!  It suddenly occurs to me that Solomon Grundy might be their inspiration rather than the Crow.  (Wait, why does Cath Sarder carry a gun instead of punching things to death?  He’s got a sub-optimal build!)  I have to admit that I haven’t taken too close a look at these two, since they don’t really suit my kind of duet.

The chapter segues on into setting rules.  The ones borrowed from the Horror Companion are essentially set dressing, but some of the dedicated setting rules are both intriguing and infuriating.  Guys, on the rare cases where I roll dice, I roll them in the open; is “Deadly Accuracy” only supposed to be for the players, or am I going to have to spend every combat apologizing to Robin for killing her character?  That said, I like “Just as Lucky” because I don’t want my recurring villains getting shafted, and “Situational Bonus” is a nice rule that will encourage more imagination in fight scenes.

Skills come next – still as part of the same chapter – and I’ve really got to ask, why did the guys at Melior Via fuse Lockpicking and Stealth together into Subterfuge, but not consolidate Climbing and Swimming?  I hate Climbing and Swimming!  Yes, knowing how to rock-climb and how do the breaststroke are not related skills, but there’s also a reason why AD&D 2nd Edition rangers had Hide in Shadows but not Pick Locks.  Also, the word “subterfuge” suggests lying and deception to me rather than sleight of hand and sneaking.

Yikes!  This is running much longer than I anticipated, and I need to spend some time working up some NPCs and plots for the new Accursed duet.  I’m going to cut things short for now.  My apologies for what mainly seems like a lot of complaining.  This is a playtest document after all; I expect there will be significant changes to it before it’s finalized.  My criticisms are meant only to help clarify Ross Watson and company’s vision.  I really like Accursed, and I want it to be the best it can be.



*Dudes, I’ve got three entire bookcases full of Japanese anime, literature, manga, and non-fiction.  You should totally add a stretch goal where I write a mini-supplement for Sakurada.  The King is Dead has the personal endorsement of the creator of Planet Motherfucker and Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, so you know I’ve got the writing chops.  Give the world O-Kamen no Koroshi, the Lady of the Murder Masks!

(Yes, I’m just kidding.)

(No, I’m not.)

**The vampires in The King is Dead are only hurt by the wood of the ash tree, which they have attempted to exterminate from Malleus.  If they were vulnerable to all wood, they’d burn the forests to the ground.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mob Rules

Oh, there's no justice like angry mob justice.
Principal Skinner, Bart After Dark

Whether you're looking for help storming the Bastille, burning down Castle Frankenstein, or lynching Homer Simpson, sometimes you need a mob of angry townsfolk to help.  The following optional rules can help Savage Worlds players rile up some extra help or help Savage Worlds GMs run snooping heroes out of town; sure, you could just use Savage Worlds: Showdown or put a bunch a bunch of allies on the battlemap, but we'd be tearing down a part of ourselves.  "You could close down Moe's/Or the Kwik-E-Mart..."

New Setting Rule:
Mobs

A mob is a swarm (Savage Worlds Deluxe p.141) composed of humans (or sentient humanoids) who have been incited into a violent frenzy. 

Rabble-rousing

Raising a mob requires a standard Social Conflict (SWD p.96) made to an audience large enough to potentially form a vengeful throng; crowded street corners, public forums, and town halls are likely venues.  This Social Conflict may be opposed if the prospective mob has a leader (the corrupt mayor or pacifist preacher); if it is not, the GM should be judicious in assigning modifiers to the Persuasion roll based on how dangerous the opposition to the mob might be ("But he's a vampire!") and how much incentive the mob has ("He's carried off our attractive cousins!"). 


Margin of Victory/Result
Failure/The prospective mob disperses.
Tie/The prospective mob is unconvinced.  The audience disperses unless a new argument can be made by the players (which would usually mean "unless a different player character succeeds on a new roll").
1-2/A mob the size of a Medium Burst template is motivated to action.
3-4/A mob the size of a Large Burst template is motivated to action.  The rabble-rousers may substitute two Medium Burst mobs instead.
5+/A mob the size of a Large Burst template is motivated to action.  This mob is treated as a Wild Card.  The rabble-rousers may substitute two Wild Card Medium Burst mobs instead.

A single player character may only control a single Large Burst mob or two Medium Burst mobs at a time.  If the audience is sufficiently large and the situation calls for it, attempts may be made by other characters to raise more mobs.  If the original Social Conflict was made as a cooperative roll, any characters assisting in the roll are disbarred from making their own individual attempts; they've already had their say.

Attributes

A mob of unarmed people is simply a standard swarm in most respects -- though less cynical GMs may allow that for Smarts d4 instead of Smarts d4 (A) -- save that it occupies a larger template because it is made of bigger creatures.  "[A] character can stomp to inflict his damage in Strength each round" should be amended to "a character may use brute force to inflict her damage in Strength each round" but the effect is identical.  Rabble-rousers inside the mob's template are considered immune to the mob's damage.

An armed mob may instead inflict 2d6 or 2d8 damage depending on what kind of weapons they are carrying and GM generosity.  If the mob is carrying torches, then add +2 to damage; every round characters are attacked by a fire-wielding mob, they must check to see if they catch on fire (SWD p.88).  A mob may also choose to inflict nonlethal damage (SWD p.74) if it is motivated to bring someone in for justice.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The King is Dead: I Never Drink… Wine


Vampires can only survive on blood alone, but that does not mean they do not crave some variety in their diet.  While only fresh human blood sates their hunger, the practicalities of constant predation on mortals and the tedium of drinking the same thing night in and night out have led to a profusion of blood-related foods and beverages.  Human and animal blood is an ingredient in black soup, blood pudding, blutwurst, pancakes, schwarzsauer, and other dishes while fresh blood is mixed with beer, honey, milk, tea, and whiskey for extra flavor.

It is never mixed with wine.

The taste of wine is nauseating to the unliving.  It is not poisonous, but it is foul.  For that reason, wine in Malleus and Incus is a peasant’s drink.  The grape is not cultivated on the grand estates of nobles or monasteries; vintages are not collected and stored in grand cellars.  That is not to say it is not made – wine was the drink of choice in the ancient Remulan Empire – but in modern times it is a crafted by unrefined villagers for local consumption.

Except…

The art of winemaking was carried into the deserts by the survivors of Tzion, and now the vast and hostile Ostermann Empire treats the grape as a sacred fruit.  In the Colonies, the untitled, rebellious landowners have begun to grow the grape in quantity; they turn to the surviving works of Remula and Akhaia for secrets of the winemaker’s art.  And in Malleus itself, even the upper-crust members of the Baelfire Club and the Illuminated toast each other with wine before settling down to secret business.

Savage Worlds Rules

A vampire or moroi (living blood-drinking vampire servant – like a ghoul from Vampire: The Masquerade except with a different name for copyright issues) who drinks even a sip of wine must make a Vigor roll to avoid retching.  Because moroi are still alive, they receive a +2 bonus to the roll.  A roll of 1 on the Vigor die means the blood-drinker is Shaken, a failure means the vampire spits it up, a success means the unliving is able to swallow the drink without ill effect.  This roll must be made for every drink the blood-drinker attempts. 

Better quality wines can impose a penalty on the roll; these penalties equal -1 to the Vigor roll per $100 spent on the bottle.  Because wine-making was suppressed in Malleus and western Incus, the best vintages come from the Ostermann Empire’s holdings in Akhaia and the Haemus Mountains (roughly equivalent to Greece and the Balkans). 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Behind the Scenes of Accursed


Today sees the start of the Kickstarter campaign for Accursed, the dark fantasy Savage Worlds setting from John Dunn, Jason Marker, and Ross Watson of Melior Via, LLC.  I’ve been intrigued by Accursed since shortly after the development blog launched; it’s my kind of setting – alchemy, (sort of) alt-history, mad science, underdog heroes, vampires, the works – and I have no shame in admitting that it helped inspire my approach to The King is Dead (though little to nothing about the content).  Since the guys were kind enough to treat this blog as a serious thing that actually deserved to receive press releases and review copies, I’m happy to return the favor and give them a forum to share a little more about Accursed.

The following interview was conducted by e-mail before I received my preview copy of the playtest materials.


W&S: I’ve familiarized myself with your biographies and past work from the website, but what would you like to say to introduce yourselves and what you bring to Accursed? 

Melior Via: We all bring different elements to the project, because with our breadth of game freelancing, we've each had the opportunity to work on different projects from different perspectives. We've also done an amazing amount of collaborative work on the project. In truth, everyone has backed up one another throughout. Ultimately, though, that's a bit of a cop out. So, here's the short version:
·         With his years working as lead developer on Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay for Fantasy Flight Games, Ross had the most discrete experience directly within the industry. He's got a fantastic breadth of knowledge for everything that can work well and that is likely to encounter issues on a large scale perspective. He's also been the "big idea" man on Accursed.
·         Jason has a knack for compiling an amazing word count in an extraordinarily short time. He's also got a very down to earth point of view as regards the kind of material that people are going to find appealing and for judging human nature -- both within the fiction of the game world and for what people are most likely to find appealing. He's also been the one to make certain that everything stays "dark" enough to be true to the setting's ethos.
·         John's done the small press publishing thing before and has focused on making sure that the project can get done, to the high standards we expect, within the desired time frame,  and within the allocated budget. To a certain extent, that's meant that he's been the one to play taskmaster and schedule keeper, but it has also meant that he's the one to try to make sure that nothing slips.

W&S: You describe Accursed as a dark fantasy setting. What does “dark fantasy” mean to you and how does that differentiate from horror?
 
Melior Via: There are certainly elements of both Dark Fantasy and Horror in Accursed. The biggest thing, though, that distinguishes our setting from typical horror is that the characters are true heroes. We expect them to have a decent chance of succeeding and triumphing in the face of improbable odds. From the fantastic perspective, we certainly have magic and fantastic races -- in the form of archetypical movie monsters -- but we have a world in which the characters must struggle to survive. The combination of a world of magical fantasy mixed with one where the characters desperately battle tyranny seems like an ideal combination to us.
 
W&S: Why the Witchbreed? Is that the influence of Hellboy and the Hammer horror films? What made you choose to go with a setting where the monster hunters are monsters themselves? 


Melior Via: All of us our fans of classic monster movies. Jason, in particular, loves to recount how his dad would tell him as a child about how the monster movies were historically accurate.  One of the elements that we really loved about these characters is their inherent nature as tragic characters. That's certainly epitomized with Hellboy. The idea that the characters, through their Witchmark, are doomed to a tragic fate, but that they may have some chance to overcome it. We thought the combination of internal and external conflicts with terror made for a particularly compelling storyline for the game world.
 
W&S: I notice that the bylines on the blog articles indicate John Dunn has written the most about Caer Kainen, Hyphrates, and Manreia, Jason marker has written more about Hebron and Steppengrad, and Ross Watson seems to handle the broader strokes of the setting (and vampires). Have each of you carved out your own territory in Morden? 

Melior Via: Don't trust the bylines too much. John ends up making sure that all of the posts go out at times, so he inadvertantly ends up with more credits than he deserves. Having said that, there are six major nations, six major witches, and six major witchbreeds because that way we could each handle one of them. John had Hyphrates/Mummies/Djinn and Manreia/Mongrels/Chimera. Jason had Steppengrad/Vargr/Baba Yaga and Hebron/Golems/Crone. Ross had Valkenholm/Dhampir/Sanguinara and Cairn Kainen/Revenants/Morrigan. That's not to say that any of these were solo projects -- we all had a lot of interaction and input with one another. However, those are more or less how we broke down the principal writing.
 
W&S: I notice strong parallels between the nations of Morden and those of Earth (Caer Kainen and Celtic Britain, Steppengrad and Tsarist Russia). This archetypal similarity seems a good choice to me; it renders easily familiar a setting wherein the PCs themselves are so strange. Was this your thinking as well, and is there any particular reasons you chose the Earth cultures you chose?
 
Melior Via: Yes, that's certainly the case. In some places, we went with settings that were a little bit more of a hybrid or that had a particular twist on a setting, but we definitely wanted to create places that were easily identifiable. There are a few reasons for that. The first is that by relating things to archetypes that people already know, there's a bit of a shorthand in that people can sort of "fill in the blanks." This enables us to do things with a bit less of a word count allocation. At the same time, we're able to make things distinctive by clearly delineating the places where things are distinct from those archetypes.
 
W&S: Is this secretly a steampunk setting? I notice that Manreia has steam trains and airships. Is the setting (metaphorically) like the old Universal horror films where the civilized parts of the world look like the 1930s and the countryside is full of lederhosen-wearing peasants?
 
Melior Via: We like to think of Accursed as a "steampunk-friendly" setting. We didn't want it to be a steampunk setting, but we wanted to include some steam elements. Manreia has some brilliant scientists, as well as some mad ones. We definitely wanted to enable Game Masters to introduce as much or as little of that into their campaigns as they could. And, you're bang on with the Universal analog. Yes, there are portions of the setting - particularly Manreia, that look like, let's say the 1880s, while there are also people that'd look like peasants in your prototypical medieval fantasy movie toiling away in the countryside.
 
W&S: Is this secretly a sci-fi setting? What’s up with the lightning bridge? 

Melior Via: No, it's not a sci-fi setting. Well, inasmuch as you can have mad scientists and golems without sci-fi. But, we'll take the 5th amendment on the Lightning Bridge.
 
W&S: You’ve written about why you chose Savage Worlds on the development blog. Are you finding any challenges in adapting Savage Worlds to your vision, or has it been pretty seamless so far? 

Melior Via: I hate to give you a total non-answer, but Savage Worlds has really been a fantastic fit for what we wanted to do with the setting. Maybe the hardest thing to decide is how many of our banes we wanted to have as Wild Cards. Initially, we wanted to make them all Wild Cards. Playtesting has indicated that we probably need to scale that back a bit. We're still feeling that out, and we hope to get some good feedback from our backers during the Kickstarter.
 
W&S: A lot of the magic described on the blog so far seems more subtle and fanciful than the artillery spells that dominate Savage Worlds’ magic system. Are we going to see any significant additions or changes to the magic system in Accursed? 

Melior Via: We have two Arcane Backgrounds in Accursed. Witchcraft and Alchemy.  They both have access to a limited subset of the Powers included with the core rules, as well as a few from the Horror Companion, and then some we've reprinted from other sources as well as some we've created.  I think it's safe to say that we have a bit of a different tone with these Arcane Backgrounds, but again, we do want to see what feedback we receive during the Kickstarter about them. We're willing to make changes until we achieve just the right tone.
My thanks again to the guys at Melior Via for sharing some insights into the making of Accursed and giving me a chance to go semi-pro.  I look forward to sharing some of my own reactions from the preview materials in the next week.  Check out the Kickstarter and see if you're ready to be Accursed!