Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Steamscapes: Asia Kickstarter is LIVE!

The Kickstarter for Steamscapes: Asia is now live!  I'm contributing the chapter on Japan, so -- if you like this blog -- please contribute so I can get paid some real money for my writing!

(Yeah, I know that's a really selfish reason, but I think it's a good argument.)

I know my section has some really surprising twists on how Japanese history could have gone, and I think they make it a really interesting and exciting world to play in -- and this is the time-frame of The Last Samurai and Rurouni Kenshin, so you know it's good!

There will be more up on the blog as the month progresses, so stay tuned!

And speaking of tuned, think of this as the unofficial theme song of Steamscapes' Japan:

Friday, September 26, 2014

Your Experience Is Not Universal

I became a nerd on the first day of sixth grade.

I wasn’t a nerd before that.  Oh sure, I liked reading a lot and didn’t like sports much, but I wasn’t a nerd.  I liked G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Transformers, mythology and fantasy, but I wasn’t a nerd.  I was just a kid with glasses who read more than he played outside, who had just moved to a new city and didn’t know anyone at his new school.  I was just a normal kid.

I was a normal kid until I introduced myself to the first kid I saw on the playground, and then he pushed me down and called me a nerd.

And I became a nerd.

I spent the next three years being bullied by kids who thought Biff Tannen from fucking Back to the Future was a fucking role model (you have no idea how much I hate that fucking movie).  I went from not being very good at sports but still enjoying playing soccer to absolutely loathing sports and everything that goes with them.  I went from being a boy the girls liked to being a guy who couldn’t get a girl to notice him.  I went from being a normal kid to being a nerd.

The bullying continued on into high school.  It dropped off dramatically after I grew my hair long and started dressing like a member of the Trenchcoat Mafia, but never completely stopped until I entered the workforce as an adult.  It scarred me in ways I can’t shake even today.

My refuge was my hobbies: action figures (when I was younger), reading, writing, theater arts, and (when I was older) role-playing games.  While I realize in retrospect that several of my friends would have bridled at being labeled “nerds,” the majority of my friends certainly played AD&D 2nd Edition because it was an outsider rite of passage, a nerdy thing that was part of the sub-culture that welcomed those of us who had been rejected by the mainstream.  Gaming was a refuge from a world we hated and feared.

I know I’m not alone in this.  The frequency of similar experiences to my own is why you see references to it on The Big Bang Theory, Community, and Futurama.  It’s the reason Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel got into RPGs.  It’s the reason there’s an entire “nerd culture” these days.

My experience is not universal.

There are a people out there in the RPG blogosphere who are mystified by this culture of traumatized nerds.  My unscientific sampling of the OSR indicates a large number of the guys who got into D&D back before the Satanic Panic were just normal kids (and adults) who just happened to like this new, then-popular game.  They went on to have normal friends and normal lives and they continued to like sports and beer and all that normal stuff.

Good for them.  I don’t want my experience to be universal.  I don’t want anyone to be bullied for liking a certain book or a certain movie or a certain game.  I’m happy that there are people in this world for whom D&D and Star Wars and all that was just part of a happy childhood… Like those kids from E.T., I guess.  (I don’t know; I hate E.T. too.)

The thing I’d like to say to those gamers, though, is “Your experience is not universal.

There are a lot of us who suffered through our childhoods because of bullying.  It’s only natural that we formed communities of our own where we didn’t have to deal with the bullies (or the “normal” people who were allied with the bullies by default).  We’re downright jealous of those of you who got through life without having to deal with this; we’re baffled that you can be a jock and a nerd at the same time.  It just seems so unfair and it leaves us scared and angry and jealous.

But that isn’t the fault of those gamers.  Our experiences are not universal and they are not exclusive.  There is no single true path to gamerhood than there is a right and a wrong way to play D&D.  We have gathered on the internet to celebrate our hobby, so we should try to make it the biggest, baddest party possible.  We are all among friends here.


But forgive me if I sometimes stand off to the side.  Forgive me if I stand with my back to the wall, scowling over my wine, wincing when the noise gets too loud.  Forgive me if I roll my eyes when you talk about your sports teams or even laugh that you – the popular guy, the normal guy – feel ostracized from a hobby you love by people united by shared sense of trauma.

Forgive me, but your experience is not universal.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

My Godzilla vs. King Kong Headcanon

I’ve got several different pet theories about Godzilla.  In the canon of Mecha Kaiju Sensō Tai!!! – my half-developed Savage Worlds kaiju setting – he’s a weapon created by beings from the future.  In another theory, Godzilla is a mutated dinosaur from Skull Island.  Sometimes he’s both at once.

In the latter two versions, Skull Island did not sink into the sea following the events of Son of Kong, but was instead quarantined by the U.S. government.  During WWII, Skull Island became the battleground for DC Comics’ The War That Time Forgot.  American forces “tested” the atom bomb by dropping one on Skull Island during the final days of the war.

Few of the animal inhabitants survived.  The Son of Kong began to suffer the gigantism that early atomic weapons infected so many of their victims with and swam away from the island to find a life elsewhere, but he was suffering from radiation sickness and would eventually succumb to his disease.  The most successful of the survivors was the semi-aquatic carnosaur species later known as godzillasaurus.

The godzillasaurus was – like the spinosaurus known from the fossil record – a semi-aquatic bipedal predator.  Unlike the spinosaurus (and the more familiar tyrannosaurus), it was a carnosaur – a sub-group of dinosaurs less directly related to birds – which accounts for its more distinctly reptilian appearance.  That exposure to an atomic blast mutated the godzillasaurus into a radiation-absorbing monster of mass destruction suggests the population of Skull Island might have been seeded with nano-biological enhancements by parties unknown.

Godzilla was attracted into northern waters by the atomic testing of the early ‘50s and eventually attacked Japan.  In the early ‘60s, the mutated Son of Kong was discovered and the furious battle seen in King Kong vs. Godzilla occurred.  Godzilla was, of course, unharmed by the fall off the cliff and into the ocean. 

Apes are notoriously bad swimmers.  Godzilla is an aquatic predator.  The Son of Kong’s survival after the events of the film is doubtful. 

There was evidently a small population of godzillasaurs in residence on Skull Island.  While it has been assumed that Godzilla is male, eggs and young of his species have hatched several times since the 1960s.  These may have been laid by deceased females of the species prior to Skull Island’s destruction.

Huh, I just noticed I changed tones partway through from a personal collection into a Wold Newtonian treatise.  Ha! 
And this all was a plot point in the ongoing Victorian adventure campaign...

(Slow Clap)

Bravo, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..  I really didn’t see that coming.

I stayed with AoS all through its first season, so I’m obviously not someone who ever thought it was actually bad.  I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t admit it got better during the lead-in to and spin out from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  I’m happy to report that the first episode of the new season kept the momentum from the latter half of last season.

I had two main questions in my head through most of the runtime of S2 E1 “Shadows:”
  • How is this ragtag band of underdogs possibly going to defeat a Thor/Hulk villain like the Absorbing Man?
  • How are the writers of a show with an ensemble this large already going to deal with adding four more cast members?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


The first thing I checked this morning was to see if English is Gotham head honcho Bruno Heller’s second language.  Nope.  His father is German, but Heller himself was born and raised in England.  In fact, he created HBO’s Rome, a series I quite liked and which certainly did not suffer from the bizarre dissonance of Gotham.

The pilot episode of Gotham suffers from tonal dissonance – different elements of the story just kind of clash – but it also just plain suffers from dissonance.  It sounds weird.  I have never in my life heard the phrase “a tall glass of milk” used to describe a human being; the only reference I can find for it online is at the Urban Dictionary, which – frankly – seems to make a bunch of crap up.  The word “lackadaisical” is prominently used in the pilot, causing both the audience and Donal Logue’s Harvey Bullock to ask “Lackadaisical?”  There are forced references to penguins and awkward lines from Jim Gordon and it all just grates on my ears.

The tonal dissonance also bugs me.  Gordon and Bullock’s moment of peril is suddenly a scene from a jokey buddy cop dropped into the middle of Gotham’s grim pretentiousness.  There’s a twelve year-old child slinking around the city in sexy Catwoman poses (I shudder just thinking about it).  Oswald Cobblepot looks like a skinny version of Danny DeVito’s take on the character but walks like Burgess Meredith’s version from “Batman ’66.”   The most natural-feeling scene in the episode was Renee Montoya and Gordon’s fiancée having an “It was just a phase” conversation.  It’s just weird. 

This might all be deliberate.  The show airs in the timeslot before Sleepy Hollow, a show I and many others love for its baroque insanity.  Maybe Gotham is going to follow in that tradition instead of the more obvious “police procedural” mode; it’s hard to really judge a show by its pilot episode, so there’s certainly a chance the show will start to harmonize its elements. 

I’ll keep a wary eye on it for now, but I don’t know how long my interest will last. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

My Dracula Headcanon

I am totally revved up for Halloween already. 
So, as my previous post about our untitled Victorian adventure campaign (starring the adventurous archaeologist Lady Atalanta Scarborough!) indicated, our current duet game takes place in a world where Dracula happened.  In keeping with the many, many other authors and gamers who have continued the story of Bram Stoker’s characters, I have my own ideas about what the cast has been up to since the novel ended.
Dracula himself is now a globe-trotting supervillain, because of course he is.  Dracula  constantly seeks new information on the origins of vampires and the means to create them, pausing in his relentless hunt only long enough to toy with his dogged foe, Quincey P. Morris (see below).  Why he seeks this knowledge is something of a mystery as yet, as Lady Atalanta didn’t feel much like trading banter with him the only time they met.

Unlike the rest of the Draculacast, he doesn’t look like the actor from Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Instead, I’ve been describing him as young of face but gray of hair, so I guess that means he looks like Alucard or Dracula from Castlevania.

Weird. I’m a Sega guy and never played Castlevania.

Jonathan assumes his marriage is happy and is living a nice, quiet life as a chartered accountant law.  If he discovers Dracula is alive, it may unhinge him…

Honestly, I always feel sorry for Jonathan, but it’s hard to imagine him becoming an interesting character.  If I had the time and patience for such a thing, I’d love to write a Dracula sequel that’s a simple domestic drama about the Harkers’ repressed recrimination and pain.  But I don’t, so I’m not gonna.

Hmm, maybe Jonathan has a thing for kinky sex that he keeps hidden from Mina, and if they only shared their hidden desires they could enjoy a happy swinger lifestyle?  That would be kind of cool…

I just can’t imagine Jonathan deliberately choosing to become an ongoing vampire hunter action hero, though.  That just doesn’t seem like his thing, no matter how much kukri-wielding action he got into at the end of the novel.


You know what Dracula being alive means? 

It means Mina was never cured!

Mina Harker is still a proto-vampire (a moroaică, or “living vampire” in Romanian terms), hiding her curse from her husband and friends through judicious use of make-up and mesmerism.  The initial signs of vampirism that seemed to disappear when Dracula “died” were in fact just “growth pangs” and vanished because Mina’s body adjusted, not because they were gone.  She controls her bloodlust well, but the physical strength and stamina that come from being moroaică leave her frustrated at the confines of hearth and home.  She’s had a string of lovers on the side; she feels guilty because she still loves Jonathan, but he’s such a putz
Mina’s biggest worry is that Dr. van Helsing will discover her secret and kill her in her sleep


Van Helsing has pretty much given up medicine to concentrate on killing things.  He lives in a small London house and keeps no servants.  His cousin, the baronet Sir Justin Integrity Wingates-Hellsing, funds Van Helsing’s continued research, but none of the other characters know about that yet.

I do a pretty good impression of Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing, but it takes me a while to warm up. 


I haven’t given a single thought as to what he’s up to.  Maybe he emigrated to New York City and founded a new asylum with a partner named Arkham?   

Actually, I just got off the phone with Robin, and her theory is that Seward is Bram Stoker’s self-insertion character.  Van Helsing might be Stoker’s Mary Sue (they share first names and have similar builds; Van Helsing is all gregarious and wise), but Seward is the quietly competent guy who has to put up with all the crap.  He’s the guy who has to deal with “bookings” and arranging things and all that jazz, just like Stoker handling things for Henry Irving.  That makes me think that Seward has probably been quietly researching vampire phenomena and studying new, technological techniques of vampire fighting so that he can ultimately show up both his mentor Van Helsing and the dreaded Count Dracula.

Seward is kind of an unpleasant ass, but you can understand where he’s coming from.

Quincey P. Morris was, until recently, a vampire and had been so since his apparent death at the end of Dracula.  Quincey’s sire, however, was not Dracula himself.

The exact circumstances of Morris becoming moroi are a mystery to him.  Back before he met Lucy Westenra, he lived an occasionally dissolute lifestyle, so it’s possible he picked up vampirism at a Mexican bordello just south of the Texas border.  The peculiarly snake-like features of his vampirism certainly suggest a connection with vampire cults of that area.   

Yes, I’ve been watching From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.  Your point?      

It may have also occurred during his expedition to the Pampas, as recounted in Dracula.  During that adventure, Quincey’s horse was mortally wounded in the night by vampire bats and had to be put down.  It is possible that Morris himself endured an attack he does not remember and was infected at that time.  In any case, Quincey Morris was already a moroi when he battled Dracula and changed into a strigoi (an “immortal” or undead vampire) after he fell in battle. 

Painfully, that means the blood he donated during the series of blood infusions attempted to save her life actually helped to infect Lucy Westenra with vampirism.  He realizes that and may never quite forgive himself.

Lady Atalanta first encountered Quincey during an adventure involving the Lilith Tablet, a Babylonian relic recounting the supposed origin of the world’s first vampire.  Dracula and Atalanta battled for possession of the tablet and the discovered it housed Lilith’s undying spirit.  Quincey aided Atalanta in banishing the spirit, the Count retreated, and the archaeologist and the reluctant vampire became lovers.  As is the sad story of many such people called to adventure, they had to part to pursue their own destinies.

Many months of game time later, Lady Atalanta and Morris were reunited in the Yucatán.  Both sought a mysterious lost Mayan city that had been recently sighted, but not properly explored.  After fighting off a nest of Mayan vampires, Atalanta discovered a gold "Rosetta Stone" Mayan codex.  Lady Atalanta recently translated the mysterious Mayan codex and discovered a rather… unconventional… cure for vampirism (or at least the South American strain).  After helping to cure her on-again/off-again lover of his curse, Lady Atalanta and Quincey parted once more to pursue their own adventures.


Arthur Holmwood, Lord Godalming, was shattered by the tragedies he experienced during the events of Dracula... 
So he traveled the world, seeking solace in the mystic teachings of the East... 
And now he fights crime in London as the mysterious vigilante, the Black Pirate!
(Because that's how I roll!)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Caius (Weird Wars Rome: Dux Bellorum)

Colin Firth in The Last Legion
(Fun fact: Firth loves playing jerks and laments he doesn't get those roles.)
Heroic Wild Card

Caius Artorius Caecina is the cousin and foster-brother of Artorius.  It is hard to imagine that two men could be so different yet be so close; Artorius is professional and thoughtful, while Caius is boorish and rowdy.  Despite his pride in his Roman heritage, Caius is almost more a barbarian Celt by demeanor.  He acts as as a "drill sergeant" and unit commander for Artorius' warband.

Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d10, Vigor d8

Skills: Fighting d8, Intimidation d8, Knowledge (Battle) d6, Knowledge (Briton) d6, Notice d6, Riding d8, Taunt d8, Throwing d6.

Charisma: -1(-2) Pace: Parry: 9(1) Toughness: 10(3)

Hindrances: Arrogant [Major], Mean [Minor], Stubborn [Minor].

Edges: Block/Improved Block, Blood and Guts (WWR), Brawny, Command, Giant Killer, Military Family (WWR), Strong Willed. 

Gear: bronze breastplate (+3 Armor, torso only), clipeus/medium shield (+1 Parry, +2 Armor vs ranged attacks), formal robes, greaves (+2 Armor, legs only), 2 javelins/spears (Str+d6, range: 3/6/12, RoF 1), legionary helmet (+3 Armor, 75% chance of protecting against head shots), marching pack, pavilion, spatha/long sword (Str+d8), war horse.

Bedwyr (Weird Wars Rome: Dux Bellorum)

Clive Owen in King Arthur
(I think he makes a better knight than a king.)
Heroic Wild Card

Bedwyr of the Perfect Sinews is one of Artorius’ oldest friends and most formidable warriors. Even though he lost one of his hands in an early battle, his courage and strength have made him a paragon the younger warriors of Artorius’warband. His success and good looks lead some jealous rivals to accuse him of witchcraft.

Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d8, Vigor d8

Skills: Fighting d10, Intimidation d4, Knowledge (Battle) d6, Knowledge (Latin) d6, Notice d6, Persuasion d4, Riding d10, Throwing d8.

Charisma: +2 Pace: 6 Parry: 8(1) Toughness: 9(3)

Hindrances: One Arm [Major], Enemy [Minor; jealous rivals], Loyal [Minor].

Edges: Attractive, Counterattack/Improved Counterattack, First Strike/Improved First Strike, Frenzy/Improved Frenzy, Steady Hands.

Gear: bronze breastplate (+3 Armor, torso only), clipeus/medium shield (+1 Parry, +2 Armor vs ranged attacks), formal robes, greaves (+2 Armor, legs only), 2 javelins/spears (Str+d6, range: 3/6/12, RoF 1), legionary helmet (+3 Armor, 75% chance of protecting against head shots), marching pack, spatha/long sword (Str+d8), war horse.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Artorius (Weird Wars Rome: Dux Bellorum)

In the late 5th century CE, the colony of Britannia finds itself defenseless after Rome recalls her legions.  The Romano-British hire Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to defend their borders, but soon find themselves at war with their erstwhile protectors.  As the light of Rome begins to die in the west, a leader arises – a man history will call King Arthur, but whom history knows as the…


Russell Crowe in Gladiator
(The best King Arthur movie yet made is the the first act of Gladiator.)


*Legendary Wild Card

Ambrosius Artorius Aurelianus is the descendant of a long line of respected military leaders.  As Britannia devolves into petty kingdoms in the wake of the Anglo-Saxon uprising, Artorius earns his title as “the last of the Romans” by putting the cause of freedom before personal gain.  He is a master tactician, a competent politician, and leads an army of cavalry descended from Sarmatian and other foreign auxiliaries stationed in Britannia centuries ago. 

Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d8, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d6

Skills: Fighting d10, Intimidation d6, Knowledge (Battle) d10, Knowledge (Briton) d6, Knowledge (Germanic) d6, Notice d6, Persuasion d8, Riding d8 (includes bonus from Military Family).

Charisma: +2 Pace: Parry: 8(1) Toughness: 8(5)

Hindrances: Code of Honor [Major], Death Wish [Minor; free Britannia from the Saxons], Loyal [Minor].

*Edges: Band of Brothers (WWR), Command, Common Bond, Cry Havoc! (WWR), Equestrian/Patrician (WWR), Fervor, Inspire, Leader of Men, Military Family (WWR), Rank (tribune, WWR), Tactician, Trademark Weapon (spatha named Caledfwlch).
Gear: bronze breastplate (+3 Armor, torso only), clipeus/medium shield (+1 Parry, +2 Armor vs ranged attacks), contus/lance (Str+d8, AP 2 if charging from horseback, 2 hands), formal robes, greaves (+2 Armor, legs only), legionary helmet (+3 Armor, 75% chance of protecting against head shots), marching pack, pavilion, spatha/long sword (Str+d8), war horse.

*Edit: To heck with it, I'm making Legendary after all.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Music = Magic

(I know I should be working on any number of other projects right now, but this is one of those “Write it down or I’ll forget it” things – and the best place to keep things I don’t want to forget is one the blog.)

Since Jem and the Holograms is one of Robin’s favorite childhood cartoons and Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad is one of her favorite anime, I have, from time to time, contemplated running a campaign about musicians.  Attempts so far have not been particularly successful, but I think I might have figured out how to make it work.

Music = Magic

Not (necessarily) in the D&D bardic style, but rather in using the mechanics of spellcasting in order to simulate the drama and challenge of performing.  It seems to me that the music itself should be some sort of mini-game with its own evocative flavor, rather than being a dull series of skill checks.  There should be some magic to making music, and an obvious way to do that in a tabletop RPG is to use the game’s magic system.

(Alternatively, of course, we could always bust out the karaoke machine or LEGO Rock Band, but that has its own limitations.)

I’m just tossing out ideas here – I would certainly not claim to have the whole thing thought through – but…


Actually, doing “magic songs” could be perfect for Jem.  Let’s think about that for a moment in Savage Worlds terms.  Got an orphan who is down in the dumps because peer pressure’s getting to her?  That’s being Fatigued and can be cured by a song of succor.  Want to race in the Indy 500 in order to show up your rival?  Sing a thrashing song of speed to get your car moving or boost/lower trait in order to boost your Driving skill so you don’t crash into a wall.  Want to jumpstart a new romance?  That would be… Umm… We’re going to need a few new powers.

Concerts could be a way to earn Power Points or Bennies.  Maybe they’re essentially rituals?  There should be some reward system where the difficulty of the set list (or successes for invoking certain effects) grants extra benefits.  Maybe they’re used to generate Fame points for something similar to Pirates of the Spanish Main’s fame/infamy scale…

Dang it.  I think I’m on to something.  Too bad I don’t have the time to work it up properly.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Let Me Tell You About My Character

My character's plan: step 1) Become Strahd's BFF; step 2) Kill him and take his stuff.

Yeah, I know.  Nobody wants to hear about anyone else's RPG character, but I've never had a character to talk about before now!

I’ve been gaming since I was 16 (yes, I got a bit of a late start) and have been the GM in almost every session I've played over the last 25 years.  Prior to this year, I could count the number of times I was a player on one hand – and pretty much all of those campaigns imploded after a single session.  I had never actually played a PC for more than two consecutive sessions until this year, so I honestly had no idea what kind of player I was or what kind of characters I liked to play.

Well…  That’s not entirely true.  Since most of my gaming is duets with +Robin English-Bircher , a lot of the recurring NPCs are essentially GMPCs – and a lot of those characters are scoundrels.  Some of those quasi-GMPCs have included Elaith Craulnobur, a superspy version of Dorian Gray, and numerous, numerous pastiches of Lupin the Third.  If I’m going to be honest with myself, then I suppose it was inevitable that my first real player character was going to be a scoundrel of the first order.

The campaign in question -- GM'd by +Alan Vannes -- has an interesting conceit: it’s Ravenloft, but the outsiders trapped there are from the Old World of Darkness’ Dark Ages setting (needless to say, we’re using the Storyteller system).  A reluctant coalition of mages, werewolves, and Bastet was called upon to investigate an incursion by Ravenloft onto Earth, and now they’re all trapped beyond the Mists, theoretically trying to close the gate between dimensions and find a way home.

(For those that don’t know, Bastet are cat-people.  For those that know me, yes, I’m playing a sexy cat-man.)  

Catman as Catwoman by Zumaon
I say "theoretically" because I'm pretty sure my character (Ceilican rogue Tamlin Mackenzie) has pretty much no interest in returning to his role as Gaia's spy and defender of Nature, nor the usual sense of mission or angst that comes with being a World of Darkness character.  I'm pretty sure he's just interested in exploiting his relative uniqueness within Ravenloft to become rich and powerful.  He is, honestly, a pretty lousy Bastet.

(I say "relative uniqueness" because Robin is playing Tamlin's fraternal twin Tamsin, who is also a scoundrel but slightly more honest and good-hearted.)

The fact that Tamlin is such a grasping social climber is somewhat unfortunate, because he's stumbled into a position as the party leader.  This is not my fault; I created him to be the party's Haley Starshine or Belkar Bitterleaf, but the players whom I assumed would be playing Roy Greenhilt and Durkon Thundershield dropped out of the game after the first session.  As a GM, I am rather used to trying to drive the game; as a for all intents and purposes first-time player, I am of course indulging my id.  The result is a hot mess of moral ambiguity and self-serving behavior.

When we first got to Ravenloft, there was a portentous meeting with the local pseudo-Gypsies that didn't go nearly as well as Tamlin hoped because it didn't end with him sleeping with any Gypsy chicks.  This was then followed by an altercation with a ghost at a nearby inn; the party's disorganization and frequent cross-purposes during that encounter persuaded Tamlin (and me) that a stronger hand was needed.  The opportunity to exert that stronger hand was presented in the next session when we got to a nearby fishing village and discovered a lynch mob about to execute a deformed woman for a mysterious murder.

Tamlin took the opportunity to announce to the local sheriff that he was the :Inspector General" and would be taking over the investigation.

(I am apparently the only player in the group who has seen Danny Kaye's The Inspector General, which is odd because it's in the public domain and used to be on cable all the time.)

It turned out the deformed woman was guilty, but it was okay that we let her escape because the murder victims had been abusing her in a sex dungeon for years.  Tamlin blamed it on a demon named Zarathos and set about schmoozing his way into local society.  This raised the ire of the local burgomeister who called Tamlin and company out on Strahd appointing a new magistrate without telling anyone.

Which meant the burgomeister had to die.

Burgermeister Meisterburger and friend (Santa Claus is Comin' to Town)
So we tricked a rampaging black dragon into eating the burgomeister and the sheriff and Tamlin stole the burgomeister's fancy clothes (Tamsin looted his wine cellar).  Unfortunately, the dragon sat on the burgomeister's house, so we weren't able to set ourselves up as the town's new gentry.  Thankfully, Strahd finally sent his black carriage to summon us to Castle Ravenloft, so Tamlin can finally get down to implementing his master plan in the next session.  Hooray!

What I have learned through these precious few sessions of play is that I was born to play a murderhobo.

(Now I just have to somehow finagle escaping from Ravenloft to the Forgotten Realms so I can become a Lord of Waterdeep.)  

Tamlin's true ultimate ambition -- despite having technically never heard of Waterdeep.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The King is Dead: Ananzi's Web

Olaudah Equiano
Ananzi’s Web
Abolitionist and spies

“Ananzi the Spider is a weak creature, but a powerful hunter.  With its webs of silk, it can catch prey much larger than itself.  With its webs of words, Ananzi also caught all knowledge, tricking the lion and the elephant out of their secrets and teaching them to humankind.  When the foreigners came to the shores of Afar and stole its children, Ananzi’s knowledge traveled with them to the new lands across the sea…”
Anonymous, Ananzi’s Creed

When Malleus and its Ereban rivals began their conquest of the Caliban Sea and the Atlantikan continents, they brought pestilence and death to much of the native population.  In order to farm the rich soils of those lands, the Malleans and Erebans turned to the importation of black slaves from the Dark Coast of Afar.  Entire villages – entire nations – were clapped in irons and packed as cargo, sailed across the vast Atlantik Ocean, and turned into human tools.  Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, slaveholding grew more common and even became fashionable amongst the aristocracy and gentry of Malleus.  Slaves were imported from the colonies and became household servants, dressed in gaudy costumes to emphasize their exoticness.  A significant population of Afari slaves, escaped slaves, and freedmen grew in throughout Greater Malleus.

Though brutal means – bridles, chains, humiliation, whips, and outright murder -- were used to break the wills of the Afari, they still fought to retain their humanity.  Enmities between rival tribes were forgiven on foreign soils, escaped slaves helped others escape, the rare freedmen established businesses or homes in order to hide fugitives, and soon Afari ghettos grew in Hammerstadt and other urban centers.  It took decades, but at last an organized resistance grew in the plantations and noble houses, a web of conspiracy connecting farm workers and freedmen, household slaves and saboteurs.  Named for Ananzi, a trickster god revered throughout the Dark Coast, this secret society protects the Afari ghettos, frees slaves when it can, and spies on the doings of the great and powerful.  Ananzi’s Web is spun far and wide.

Membership in Ananzi’s Web is far from universal amongst the Afari slave population, but it is growing. 
It is rare for a vampire noble to not have at least one Afari slave in his household, and the webspinners of Ananzi work hard to make sure that at least that one slave is a member of their society.  Since most aristocrats consider their slaves to be even less “human” than their Gothic and Keltisch servants, members of Ananzi’s Web are virtually invisible as they watch the planning and plotting of the vampires.  More than one cabal has been saved because a webspinner passed along word of a raid on their headquarters.  

Intelligence is often passed through the Afari communities that have emerged in Hammerstadt, Brustlager, and cities, and defending those ghettos has become the secondary purpose of the society.  Freedmen often find themselves threatened by malicious Mallean commoners, happy to vent their barely-suppressed fear and rage on those even less fortunate than themselves.  Some of Ananzi’s webspinners have been forced to grow fangs with which to defend their people, and turn to the fighting arts.  Other webspinners have adapted Ananzi’s gift with words into a secret weapon: Obeah, a system of magic as complex and flexible as the Ars Mercurius of the Illuminated, but taught only as a secret oral tradition.  The leadership of the society hopes to change the minds of those threatened by their presence and hopes telling the true story of the brutality of slavery can convince the white population of Greater Malleus to realize the only true path to freedom is universal freedom.

Brave abolitionist, ghetto fighter, shocking socialite, unbroken slave, unseen servant.

Belle: Dido Elizabeth Belle
Casanova (2005 TV series): Rocco
Roots: Kunta Kinte, Fiddler, and Kizzy
Roots: The Gift: Cletus Moyer
Swashbuckler: Cudjo Quadrill and Nick Debrett

Benefits of Membership

Ananzi’s Web can rarely provide much in the way of materiel or combat support to a cabal; the society is simply too limited in its resources to provide equipment or combatants.  It can, however, often provide advance word of vampires’ plans and help arrange distractions if breaking into mansions or disrupting social events are needed. Members of Ananzi’s Web receive the following bonus skills and Edge:
+1d4 Persuasion  
+1d4 Stealth  
Connections (Ananzi’s Web) Edge.  The Afari quarters in Hammerstadt and Brustlager are avoided by non-Afari at night and can serve as excellent places for cabals to hide when the authorities know their names and faces.  Ananzi’s Web can often provide help in escaping slaveholding estates and plantations.

Example Characters

Ghetto Fighter (Novice)
This laughing madwoman is known, feared, and admired throughout the city’s slums. 

Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d6.

Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidation d6, Notice d6, Persuasion d6, Stealth d6, Streetwise d6, Taunt d6, Throwing d8.

Charisma: +0 Pace: 6 Parry: 6 Toughness: 5

Hindrances: Wanted [Major; escaped slave], Bad Eyes [Minor], Poverty [Minor]

Edges: Acrobat, Connections (Ananzi’s Web), Quick Draw

Gear:  bandolier with 10 daggers (Range: 3/6/12, Str+d4, RoF 1), much-mended normal clothing, spectacles.

Unseen Servant
Passing unseen as a “mere slave” in high society, this Obeah sorcerer is placed to wreak havoc.

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d6.

Skills: Fighting d6, Investigation d8, Notice d8, Persuasion d6, Spellcasting d6, Stealth d6, Streetwise d8.

Charisma: -2 Pace: 6 Parry: 6 Toughness: 5

Hindrances: Slave [Major], Cautious [Minor], Enemy [Minor; a cruel overseer or suspicious slave hunter]

Edges: AB: Magic (Obeah), Connections (Ananzi’s Web), Investigator

Gear:  dagger (Range: 3/6/12, Str+d4, RoF 1), formal clothes, staff (Str+d4, Parry +1, Reach 1, 2 hands), 15 reichsmarks in savings to buy his freedom.

Special Abilities:
Power Points: 10.
Powers: entangle (either a literal spider web or a web of words), speak language (a murmured multi-lingual singsong phrase), wall walker (spider-like scopulae sprout from fingers and toes) 


New Hindrance

Slave [Major]
This hero is someone else’s property under the laws of Malleus.  Whether the character’s owner is a fellow player character or a malicious vampire is immaterial; the hero has no rights under Mallean law.  She receives only half the usual starting funds (though, unlike with Poverty, does not halve her funds every week) and suffers from a -2 to Charisma (as with Outsider).  In addition, the hero may be sold, tortured, and even killed at her owner’s whim.  If the character escapes slavery, she may trade this Hindrance for Wanted [Major] and if granted her freedom, may trade it for any two Minor Hindrances. 


I could just cover this up.  I could just pretend I had this in The King is Dead the entire time, but I won't.  

My original plan with The King is Dead was to simply avoid the issue of the African slave trade altogether. I was going to engage in a bit of what TV Tropes calls Fix Fic and simply have it be that the pseudo-Africans had managed to fight off the pseudo-Europeans and the slave trade never happened in my world. That plan failed during the first playtest, when Robin and I realized that the Colonies just didn't feel right without the horrible specter of slavery looming over all the talk of freedom and equality.

It was fake, in a way that vampire aristocrats and magic powers weren't.

So the grim, unpleasant history of America forced its way back into the narrative of my imaginary world of vampire-killing, and then I promptly forgot to address it.  I had a secret society for women's rights, a secret society for Irish and Scottish rights, and even the X-Men, and I didn't even think to put in an abolitionist society, let alone one headed by Africans.

And -- dammit! -- I had a book of Anansi stories as a kid.  I grew up admiring James Earl Jones' and (especially) Geoffrey Holder's characters in Swashbuckler.  My step-father (with whom I had an admittedly strained and brief relationship; he came into my life when I was twenty, moved himself and my mom halfway across the country, and died when I was in my mid-20s) was Haitian. I have no excuse.

I have no excuse, so I offer this as mere apology.

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