Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia Development Log -- YAY!

The feedback on my submitted outline for the Japan chapter in Steamscapes: Asia is overwhelmingly positive.  Hooray!  Eric told me I can kick back and relax while they get the Kickstarter put together.  Time to party!

(Actually, now I want to write some fiction in order to show I can write the accompanying fiction piece for the chapter.  Hmm...)

Monday, April 28, 2014

Gamer ADD attack

I really, really like saber-toothed cats.

Mammoths on a pyramid!

A big wine thing this weekend took Robin and me out to College Station, TX.  While there, we visited the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History and now I want to write/run a setting like the beautifully craptastic movie 10,000 BC with saber-toothed tigers and giant sloths and hyper-advanced Lemurians and Muvians and ridiculous junk like that.  Dammit.

Then, on the hotel room cable TV the next morning, I caught part of Disney's The Little Mermaid which reminded me of the Dynamite comic Damsels which reminded me of a vague notion I had a while back about doing a deliberately Princess Bride-ish Hollywood swashbuckler setting which then combined into an idea for a fairytale swashbuckler setting (like Lace and Steel, but with fewer centaurs) and now I want to write/run that too.  Double dammit.

I have never actually read Damsels.

The pernicious influence of The Princess Bride!


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Catching Up

My apologies to all of the commenters I didn't answer until today. 

I'm working on a playtest packet for The King is Dead.  I hope to have it ready for distribution next month.  More word on that when it's ready.

Oh crap, I should write an adventure to go with that...

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


I gave up cable to help afford a mortgage, so I have to wait (and wait and wait) for a lot of interesting programming.  Right now I'm missing Turn, the series about America's first spies during the Revolutionary War from AMC, but thankfully I don't have to miss Salem, the freaked-out reimagining of America's most famous witch trials from WGN.  It's airing on Hulu Plus which (for my money) is the better investment over Netflix (though I admittedly subscribe to both).  I just watched the pilot of Salem right before bed last night, and it is one crazy show.

The thing the pilot most reminds me of is my arguably favorite movie, Brotherhood of the Wolf, minus the kung fu.  "A rational-minded gentleman soldier returns from time amongst the Native Americans to a supposedly civilized village embroiled in occult conspiracy; based on real events (contains strong sexual content and violence) " is a pretty good description of both properties.  I didn't know that American basic cable channels could get away with so many bare bottoms; c'est tres European!
I can't say I thought the pilot of Salem was actually good.  The acting is kind of wooden, the dialogue is occasionally laughably modern, and the politics of the series are... weird (which is surprising, given that Brannon Braga of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Voyager/Enterprise and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is in charge) but Robin suggested that the point might be that the rational skeptic is the only sane person in the whole town.  Regardless, it's going to make for a fun colonial Gothic fill-in until Sleepy Hollow comes back.
(And it's making me reconsider the role and themes of the Sorority of Belquis in The King is Dead.)

(Also, it's obviously a great source for imagery and characters for The Savage World of Solomon Kane and other Gothicky, colonialish RPGs.)


Sunday, April 20, 2014

The King is Dead: Plot "Points"

I'd rather have players invent the fully automatic crossbow than buy it off the shelf.

One of my ambitions for The King is Dead is to provide a proper Savage Worlds Plot Point campaign.  For those unfamiliar with them, Plot Point settings straddle the line between old-fashioned sandbox settings and newfangled adventure paths; they are meant to provide a lot of room for player agency and GM improvisation while at the same time providing a tour of the setting that is also a plot with a beginning, middle, and end.  I've read some Plot Point settings that I really like (50 Fathoms, Slipstream), some I enjoy but find problematic (Evernight, Rippers), and some I just don’t like.  I've been struggling for a while just how to approach a Plot Point campaign for The King is Dead, and I think I've had a couple of epiphanies.

One is coming up with a title.  Most of the classic Plot Points are intimately intertwined campaigns and settings, and many end by “breaking” their settings in some way.  They’re usually about confronting the Big Bad of the setting and “healing” the setting; some radically change the setting while others end the “season one” villain while setting up new adventures.  50 Fathoms ends with the magical flooding of Caribdus stopped and Slipstream ends with the defeat of the evil space monarch, but both Evernight and Rippers include major “gotcha!” moments that really screw with the players.  The Rippers Plot Point campaign especially effectively ends the setting.   Giving The King is Dead’s Plot Point campaign a title designates it as a discrete entity from the setting itself; a title promises that no matter how much the campaign might change the sociopolitical structure of the game world, the setting and characters continue on regardless.

(That title, of course, must be “The King Must Die!” because there’s really no way you can do a campaign in Malleus that doesn't end with the defeat of King Wilhelm.  Just because the players have freed Malleus, however, doesn't mean they've either ended the plague of vampirism or saved the world…)    

The other epiphany is something that’s still a bit murky in my brain: actual plot points.  As in, giving out points to the characters that they can spend on the plot.

Plot points (plot point$?) would be a way of enabling player control over the metaplot.  Nothing happens in a vacuum, but no player likes having her character overshadowed by NPCs.  I imagine plot points as a way of buying change in the greater campaign setting without having to play out every scientific breakthrough or political rally.  Points might be gathered for achievements in play or between-game Dramatic Tasks and/or Interludes.  Points might be spent to introduce a piece of steampunk equipment into the world (“I've just received a word from a learned compatriot that he has perfected his Magnetic Divinometer, and he's willing to lend us the prototype!”) or cashed in for plot contrivances (“Our allies in St. Goliath’s will stage a mob uprising to distract the Watch while we break into the armory.”) or even discover new vampire weaknesses ("These long-forgotten tomes tell me the ancient Pariah worshipers once knew of something called 'holy water.'").  

Or something like that.  I’m not sure of the details yet -- I just had this thought a couple of days ago and I'm still working out the details -- but my instinct is that this would be a fun way for players to literally invest in the setting.  There's some genuine fun to be had in spending all the imaginary gold you earn in an old-school dungeon crawl, but that money-grubbing approach really doesn't feel right for a game about revolutionaries.  I've been thinking about expanding the unique abilities of the secret societies (maybe granting a free Edge or imposing a specific Hindrance); maybe every society could have a unique menu for spending plot points.



Friday, April 18, 2014

Well, This is (Bleeding) Cool!


Just in case you didn't catch the news yesterday...

I've been following comic book and entertainment news site Bleeding Cool ever since it was just Rich Johnston's rumor column at Comic Book Resources.  It's one of my favorite places to keep up with the insanity at Marvel and DC and get actual news I can use on movies and TV.  Surprisingly, they've recently started running RPG articles as well -- and the latest spotlights some of the craziness of the do-it-yourself end of the RPG blogosphere!

Self-Publishing Roundup: Three Fantasy RPG Supplements You Won't Find in Game Stores by Dorkland! blogger, Battlefield Press co-publisher, and fellow Google+ user Christopher Helton  puts the spotlight on Trey Causey's Weird Adventures from his From The Sorcerer's Skull blog,
the new The Dungeon Dozen book from Jason Sholtis' The Dungeon Dozen blog, and friend-of-the-blog Jack Shear's Planet Motherfucker quasi-Savage Worlds setting from his gloriously warped Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque.  My totally unscientific impression is that Bleeding Cool is kind of a big deal, so I hope this publicity brings a gajillion hits to three very deserving bastions of DIY creativity.

This is not the first gaming article on Bleeding Cool and it won't be the last (but I can't find any tags on the site so I can't link to any other examples).  Helton has stated on Google+ that this particular article is intended as the first in a series on RPG self-publishing, so I really need to get my act together and get a book published.  I can just imagine the thrill of seeing The King is Dead on the same screen as rants about Dan Didio ruining yet another character or spoilers about Michael Bay's Ninja Turtles...

No, seriously.  That would be awesome!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The King is Dead: The Benevolent Association

There is a truism in RPGs that if you want the players to do something, you should design the game to make them do that something.  I want The King is Dead to be about plots and skullduggery in the alleys and parlors of pseudo-Georgian Malleus, so why the heck did I put a hybrid pirate/highwayman guild in the core secret societies?!

“I’m a respectable landowner who is secretly a mad scientist.”

“I’m a Clavish valet who is secretly a deadly assassin.”

“I’m a disaffected noblewoman who has turned to magic.”

“I’m a pirate!  Arr!”

Yeah, why deliberately create a situation where one player is going to have a character who doesn’t fit with everybody else – who is yearning to be off gallivanting about on his ship while everybody else built their character to fit into the society of mainland Malleus?  Presented below is the new “thieves’ guild” to replace the Red Brotherhood.

The Benevolent Association

They say there is no honor among thieves.  The Benevolent Association of Highwaymen, Pickpockets, and Second-Storey Men is the exception that proves the rule.

The underworld of Malleus is a treacherous maze of constantly-shifting loyalties and alliances of convenience.  The innkeeper that’s been your fence for years would sell you to the thief-takers in an instant if he knew you were schtupping his daughter; the old man who taught you everything you know has ratted out a half-dozen apprentices before you.  It takes a thief of true honor to resist the siren’s call of easy money.

The Benevolent Association is comprised entirely of those brigands who have proved themselves loyal to their friends and allies.  They’ve got a safehouse in every town and village where you can rest easy without fear of treachery; they’ve got the manpower and money to stage jailbreaks or bribe guards at all but the most secure fortresses.  They’re the shining knights of the underworld -- paragons of the simplest of virtues -- and they will enforce that code of honor with steel and shot, boyo.  

Don’t screw with them unless you want six inches of steel in your gut.

Archetypes: gallant highwayman, quixotic gentleman, smiling cutthroat, young burglar.

Membership in the Benevolent Association grants one die in Streetwise and one die in either Riding or Lockpicking.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia Development Log -- Woo-hoo!


I've finished the first draft of the outline for the chapter and sent it off to Four-in-Hand Games for their approval.  I expect some changes will be ordered, but at least I have a lot of the research done and a lot of ideas swimming in my head.  Plus, the process of breaking down the beats of the chapter into a formal outline gave me some really good practice that I can use for The King is Dead; I've always been a very improvisational writer, but this more focused approach should prove really helpful in getting my book done.

To celebrate, here's one of the most awesome (and Meiji Era) fights in anime history: Himura Kenshin versus Saitō Hajime from Rurouni Kenshin!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia -- More Wagakki Band

Hey! Some fan actually subtitled this one!

I am determined to plow through the last section of the Steamscapes: Japan outline tomorrow.  I've outlined up to the arrival of Perry and skipped ahead to the aftermath of the Boshin War, but that section between the Black Ships and the establishment of the Republic of Ezo is where the alternate history happens and I'm not sure how much depth I need to go into. 

In Steamscapes: North America, a lot of weird stuff happens but a lot of history runs parallel to the real world despite itself.  The main difference seems to be a fragmenting of the United States of America into smaller republics.  I'd originally thought that the Tokugawa Shogunate should win the Boshin War, but further study leads me to the conclusion that the shogunate was too deeply flawed to last.  There's just no way a despised military dictatorship can win in the long run if it opposes the basic religious beliefs of the nation -- plus the Republic of Ezo is amazingly weird, so I think the setting would benefit from including it as an ongoing concern. 

There's a fine balance to be maintained between "alternate" and "history."


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Setting Sketch: Tír na nÓg

This is another one of those things I need to get out of my head so I can concentrate on my real work: a superhero setting of epic adventure inspired by the soundtrack to the anime Fairy Tail.

The manga/anime franchise Fairy Tail has a great setting -- an anachronistic magical/modern/medieval mashup where magic is as common as iPhones and wizards gather into guilds to take on epic quests for fun and profit (and where being a wizard means "being able to shoot fire from your hands and punch demons in the head") -- but the background music to the anime is this crazy mix of rock and Celtic music that always makes me yearn for my misspent youth as a would-be druid.  It is awesome!

(I could and should write an entire post about how anime music is the perfect supplement for gaming ambiance, but that will have to wait.)

It makes me imagine a Tír na nÓg with the techno-magic of Jack Kirby's Asgard and the weird pastel vistas of a Filmation cartoon; it would be an anime by Jim FitzPatrick.  It would be a superheroic setting where the characters didn't have to worry about the great responsibility that comes with great power -- because they're too busy punching giants in the face and stealing their stuff.  Shirtless heroes and castles of bone and explosions and skyships and...

Aw, crap!  I'm describing Exalted, aren't I? 

Friday, April 11, 2014

More Interruption

So... I joined the San Antonio Sci-Fi/Fantasy RPG Gaming Guild a month ago but haven't had much time to actually join any games.  Last week, Robin and I attended the first session of a new Shadowrun campaign where we decided to bite the bullet and play the team's decker and shaman -- despite the fact that Robin hasn't played Shadowrun in 20 years and I have never played it all.  We've both been gaming for a long time and we like Lupin IIIThe Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings, so it seemed like we could easily jump into a setting that mixed up heists, hacking, and elves.


In retrospect, that was a terrible mistake. 

While the mechanics are more complicated than I like, I think it was really the setting that left us baffled by the end of the night.  Shadowrun is a weird, complicated world with a lot of idiosyncratic assumptions about character behavior that we just don't get.  Trying to balance ongoing design issues with The King is Dead and Steamscapes: Japan, making up a new duet campaign, and learning a new world is just too much for my brain right now, so we had to bow out this week.

Which, as far as I know, leaves a team of street samurai and a face with no tech support. 


I feel like a heel, but I really don't have enough space in my brain for that world right now.  I'll try to make it up to everybody by running The King is Dead soon. 


Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Brief Interruption

Last Wednesday, I got up at 5:30, drank some coffee, did a bunch of house cleaning and errands, wrote about half of my first draft outline for my chapter of Steamscapes: Asia and a blog entry, and was frazzled for the entire rest of the week.  Yesterday, slept in, did the same amount of house cleaning and errands, wrote a couple of paragraphs on the outline, did some desperately-needed work on the new duet campaign, and feel much better physicially even though I regret not getting more work done.  Hmm...

Sesshoumaru is our favorite.

Robin wanted a break from playing heroes who are weaker than their opponents, so she requested we basically do an InuYasha game.  This took me completely by surprise, so it really stumbled for several sessions -- but then I remembered that I have Kitsunemori, a D20 setting that's pretty heavily inspired by InuYasha, and things have been going better.  We're using Savage Worlds Super Powers Companion for the rules.   

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

National Poetry Month vs Steamscapes: Asia -- Tanka 1

Yokohama Harbor by Kuniteru II (1870)

Driven, man and steel
Scuttle along the busy
Yokohama road.

The future is the present
And what I knew fades away.

Hokusai died in 1849.  Hiroshige died in 1858.  The ukiyo-e print was in sharp decline by the time of Steamscapes' 1871, but it was still a contemporary artform.  The Edo Period was still part of living memory.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia -- Tengaku by Wagakki Band

Actually, it might officially be "Suzuhana Yuuko with Wagakki Band," but I'm not sure.  That's the problem with following pop culture in languages you don't actually read or speak (I took two semesters of Japanese at UTSA; I was not great at it).

I wonder if anyone has invented the electric guitar in the Steamscapes world?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia Development Log -- Karakuri

Tea-serving karakuri ningyo
The images above are of a karakuri ningyo: a doll-sized robot that walks when you place a cup of tea in its tray.  These were used as an entertaining way of serving guests by the merchant class in Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate.  It is but one example of karakuri: mechanized puppets and wooden robots that were used in religious festivals, theatre, and as household entertainment during the Edo period.

When I first started working on Steamscapes: Asia, I did a Google search for the phrase "Edo Era Robots" and discovered multiple articles about this amazing extrapolation of the clockwork technology Western explorers and missionaries brought to Japan during the Sengoku Jidai.  Since I have less time today than I'd like (but I want to keep building momentum), here's some links:

The First Japanese Robots: Karakuri Ningyo

Japan's First Robots Are Older Than You Think

Edo-period “robot” returns to life in Japan

And here's an awkwardly-subtitled piece about a tiny robot THAT DRAWS ARROWS FROM A QUIVER AND SHOOTS THEM!  It doesn't just pull back on the string once you put the arrow in its hand -- it draws the arrows from the quiver itself and then shoots them!!!

The only arguably fantastical element in Steamscapes is the presence of artificially-intelligent automata. Powered by miniaturized Babbage Engines, clockworks, and steam, the automatons have become so ubiquitous that they have been granted citizenship in some of the North American nations. In Japan, I'm going to assume that Western automata have been paralleled by improvements to the historical Japanese karakuri.

Now imagine what could be if those robots could be built at human size?  That tea-serving karakuri doll becomes something like this...

Karakuri by Keith Thompson

The exact place of automatons in the society of Steamscapes' Japan is something we're still working out.  Given the ubiquity of karakuri in real life, I'm inclined to think that they would be more common and prominent than many Western visitors would expect.  Perhaps bunraku puppet theatre has become the stage for karakuri actors?  Perhaps the geisha never developed because robot musicians played for the oiran instead?  Perhaps those little arrow-shooting dudes have been upscaled to shoot cannons?  And perhaps big-ass oni automata guard the land?
"Oni Grunt" by Emerson Tung

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia -- Senbonzakura by Wagakki Band

Need some audio-visual inspiration for Japanese steampunk?  Wagakki Band certainly have the "Japanese" and the "punk" part covered.  Their first album drops on April 23rd!

(I do not actually speak Japanese, but given that most of the Western music I listen to is instrumental soundtrack stuff, I'm happy to listen to beautiful voices singing words I don't understand.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Steamscapes: Asia Development Log -- Flashman

I wish I could have used Frank Frazetta's cover for Flashman at the Charge.

Wait?!  What?

What do the Flashman Papers -- that series of historical adventure novels about the cowardly, jingoistic, womanizing bully Sir Harry Flashman VC KCB KCIE by the curmudgeonly conservative George MacDonald Fraser -- possibly have to do with Steamscapes?  Aren't the Flashman Papers' celebration of Playboy-style bed-hopping and Victorian empire-building contrary to the tone and intent of the social justice alternate history I'm supposed to be writing?  Didn't I say I was going to write about Yojimbo next?

First, the Flashman Papers are a perfect example of the adage "history is stranger than fiction."  While Flashman himself is fictional, the vast majority of people he meets and interacts with are not and reading these novels opened my eyes to just how colorful and bizarre the real world can be.  Lola Montez?  James Brooke?  The Taiping Rebellion?  I wouldn't know about any of them without Flashy.  I'm sure many gamers read the description of Steamscapes as "a pure genre steampunk setting" and think it must be boring.  The Flashman Papers long ago proved to me that the real world is a setting as wild and wooly as any that exists.

Second, I can hardly recommend that everyone read the Flashman novels (especially the first one), but the fact of the matter is that Harry Flashman's brutally honest and self-deprecating narration takes to task the worst aspects of both British leaders and those of the foreign lands he visits.  One of the design concepts for Steamscapes is that every nation in the setting should have both its positive and negative aspects, that it can be both hero and villain.  I'm too much a student of history to be entirely supportive of either the ishin shishi or the shogunate, and Japan's success in resisting Western domination must always be measured against its own aggression toward the rest of Asia.  I'd say the Flashman Papers have helped with maintaining perspective.

Third, I haven't had the time to re-watch Yojimbo yet.  (For the first time in my life, I am having the unholy wish that I could watch it dubbed so I could follow the dialogue without having to watch the screen, and thereby multitask.)  What I have had time for was to browse Hulu Plus for inspirational material, which led in a roundabout way to this post.

One of the half-dozen or so anime available on Hulu Plus that are set in and around the time period I'm working on is Intrigue in the Bakumatsu - Irohanihoheto, the story of a mysterious ronin and an equally mysterious theater company that get involved in a crazy occult conspiracy involved in the fall of the shogunate.  (Or something like that; I haven't made it past the first episode yet.)  Browsing the Wikipedia entry for the show told me that one of the characters in the show is the historical figure Thomas Blake Glover: a Scotsman who defied English law to sell arms to the anti-foreigner(!) pro-Imperial faction and later went on to help found Mitsubishi and Kirin.

Cripes, history really is crazier than fiction.  And when you add in steam-powered robots and make it an alternate history you can go nuts in, then why wouldn't you want to play?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

National Poetry Month vs Steamscapes: Asia -- Haiku 1

The Shinsengumi, as seen in Rurouni Kenshin.

Beneath white mountains,
Sword-fanged wolves of Mibu hunt
In red lantern's light.

The Shinsengumi were a vigilante squad of pro-Shogunate samurai and commoners who policed Kyoto during the waning days of Tokugawa rule.  Beloved by many as populist underdogs and derided by others as ruthless assassins, what role might they play in a world where the shogun still rules?

Fast and “Fury”-ous

Evil Beagle recently provided me promotional copies of Leonard Pimentel’s Magnum Fury and Six-Gun Fury . No expectation of a review wa...