Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The King is Dead: Convention Game Planning

For those new to the blog, The King is Dead is my setting of revolution in an 18th century ruled by vampires. In less than two weeks, I’ll be running a series of The King is Dead games at GaMExpo. San Antonio’s new gaming convention. It’s been a few years since I’ve run games for strangers, so I need to psych myself up and figure out what I need to bring.

The single most important element I need to bring is pre-gen characters. I can improvise a hell of a lot, but not character sheets. Thankfully, the work I’ve completed so far on The King is Dead includes a bunch of pre-generated characters, so I really just need to assign Hindrances and think up some names and backgrounds. Right now, I’m debating with myself whether to illustrate the characters with period illustrations and portraits, or to use stills from movies. Given the Hollywood History approach I’ve taken to the setting, I feel that the movie stills might be the best bet.

(I can’t see how there would be anything unethical about that, especially if I include credits for what film the picture comes from.)

Hmm… I realize that I could also use characters from the Assassin’s Creed series. The advantage there would be reusing the pictures to make some custom figure flats, too…

(I don’t want to use the awesomely-appropriate plastic minis from my A Touch of Evil sets because I’d be really mad if I lost any. Perversely, I’m tempted to bring the actual game boards in lieu of a map.)

Hmm… I have pre-gens already built for every secret society, but should I bring pre-gens for every secret society? Some of the mechanics and concepts are more challenging than others…

I’ve got bennies (a bunch of plastic bats) and my awesome Venexiana Dark playing cards.

Even though I prefer “cinema of the mind” combat, I feel like I should use battlemats to get across the full Savage Worlds experience; I’ve got a few, but I wonder if I need to print up some more. I have a large tavern, a brothel with a hidden room, a marsh or moor, a forest, a country inn, a toll booth, and some assorted wilderness stuff. I suppose that I need a proper manor of some sort. I need to check out the printing options for FedEx Office; I wonder if it would be more economical than printing at home.

I can always reskin existing monsters or improvise bad guy stats in Savage Worlds, so I don’t have many worries there. All I need for the plots are outlines; TKiD is intended to foster player agency so I want to encourage the players to concoct their own strategies to take on the bad guys and not straightjacket them with too many plans of my own.

Hmm… I’m not sure that a convention is the best place to demonstrate the secret society mechanics – then again, I work best under pressure, so deciding to use those will probably prompt some great inspiration. I’ll have to think about that.
And I just got off the phone with Robin. She thinks we should do a setting handout – and that we can easily put one together from existing material. That’s actually a really good idea. 
So, priorities are: 
  1. Work up at least 6 pre-gens at four different Ranks.
  2. Prep a setting handout.
  3. Manufacture custom paper minis or make peace with possibly losing some plastic ones.
  4. Have a manor map printed.
Ok, I can do all this in just over a week.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Races of Altellus: Sphingidae for 5e

The Kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck
"SPHINX: …And now, I am going to give you a demonstration. I’m going to show you what would happen in this place, Oedipus, if you were any ordinary handsome youth from Thebes, and if you hadn’t the privilege of pleasing me.” – Jean Cocteau, The Infernal Machine

Born from the very spirits of enigma, Sphingidae revel in the questions their very existence entails. Few can imagine what confluence of desire and danger could lead to such a mating of mortal and mystery; some doubt that even these humanoid descendants of the sphinxes know the truth of their origin.

Enigmatic and Alluring
Modern scholars write of the majesty and otherworldliness of sphinxes, crediting the human/lion/bird hybrids with divine origin – indeed, describing them as guardians of the gods’ secrets – but the natural historians of ages past make reference to the lustfulness of criosphinxes, the desirousness of gynosphinxes, and the frigidity of androsphinxes. While it is debatable that the gods were lewder in ages past, the proof of the sphinxes’ libidinousness walks upon and flies above the earth as the hybrid humanoids called sphingidae.

Most sphingidae resemble winged cat-folk, though usually with more human-like facial features. It is said that some few are descended of the ram-headed criosphinxes and hawk-headed hieracosphinxes, but this may just be a fable; those same ancient authors who write of the sex lives of sphinxes comment that the lusts of the lesser sphinxes are reserved for the gynosphinx. The known sphingidae prides all claim descent from androsphinxes and gynosphinxes.

Noble Beasts
The mystic –even divine – origin of sphinxes lends to their descendants the grace of cats and the beauty of angels. Given that only the mightiest of heroes and the holiest of the devout can win the hearts of sphinxes, sphingidae prides are often nobility or ascetics. They walk the world as living reminders of the mysteries of the universe.

The leonine instincts of sphingidae are largely sublimated into a constant hunt for knowledge and learning. They give themselves over to solving mathematical equations or researching ancient history with all the intensity of cats on the prowl, but sometimes their wild side erupts. Sphingidae still have claws, after all...

Prides and Prejudice
Sphingidae prides are usually found either in service to their sphinx ancestor or in the position in society won by heroes who answered a sphinx’s riddle; in other words, they either live apart from the world in remote temple complexes and hidden tombs or have inherited wealth and privilege. It is a rare sphingidd indeed that grows up a commoner. Unfortunately, this only aggravates their natural feline inclination to aloofness.

The sphingidae lust for knowledge leads some to pursue the adventuring life. Learning to tolerate the company of other races is a challenge to these sphingidae, but the best approach it as yet another riddle to solve. While a sphingidd adventurer may appear to her companions to hold herself apart from tales told around the campfire, this is more because she is contemplating the lessons learned from their words than from disdain. The friendship of sphingidae is hard-won, but a sphingidd’s personal pride will not allow him or her to betray or disappoint their companions.


Sphingid Names
Sphingidae names are often borrowed from the cultures that worship at sphinxes’ temples or from the heroes who win sphinxes’ love. When prides have grown over generations, linguistic drift leads to them developing their own unique idioms and names.

Female Names: Antigone, Beruetokia, Eartha, Hatshepsut, Hetepheres, Ismene, Jocasta, Khamren, Marl, Phix, Sachmis, Sekhmet, Selina, Shagotte, Sharuru

Male Names: Amenemhat, Gogotora, Happi, Khafra, Khurappu, Khurubushi, Laius, Leontos, Maahes, Martam, Nadi, Nefertum, Ptah, Rakki, Riri, Thutmose

Sphingid Traits
As a humanoid hybrid of the hybrid sphinxes, you have the abilities of bird and beast, man and spirit.

Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2, and your Wisdom score increases by 1.

Age. Sphingidae mature at the same rate humans do and can live to around 250 years.

Alignment. Sphingidae enjoy routine (especially regular meal times and bed times) and a certain amount of pomp and fanfare. They are largely lawful, but in a somewhat selfish way that tends more toward neutrality than good or evil.

Size. Sphingidae range from just shy of 6 feet to just over 7 feet tall and between 110 to 250 pounds. Males and females are lithely muscular, with males being somewhat bulkier. Your size is Medium.

Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.

Flight. You have a flying speed of 40 feet. To use this speed, you can’t be wearing medium or heavy armor.

Claws. You are proficient with your unarmed strikes, which deal 1d4 slashing damage on a hit.

Language. You can speak, read, and write Common and Sphinx.
Guess which names in the lists are taken from Fairy Tail!

Sphingidae in Altellus
As with the other hybrid races of Altellus, sphingidae are part of the common culture inherited from the extinct human race. They are exotic, though, even by that world’s loose definition of strangeness.

Sphingidae form the aristocracy and much of the clergy of Khumat, the ancient empire allied to the Toscana Republic. There they dwell as gods-upon-earth, revered with superstitious awe by the common folk. Malicious rumor reports the court is filled with intrigue and incest, poison and plotting, but so few Erigoneans are invited to visit the inner sanctums that the truth may never be known.

They also make up the royal house of Thiva, one of the numerous city-states of the Arkadian Peninsula. The Thivan sphingidae – like nobility throughout Erigone – have scattered their seed widely, leading to a handful of sphing-led merchant houses and military companies. The mysteries of mathematics and the inticacies of tactics appeal to sphingid mind; the del Medico pride of Florentia in particular has succeeded at both. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

The King is Dead: Thinking Out Loud

The reason there's magic and weird science in The King is Dead is because you're really going to need it to kill the king.
Bear with me while I think something through by writing it down.
Sometimes the low granularity of Savage Worlds drives me nuts (especially now that D&D 5e has taught me how hit points should work). The King is Dead is basically based around fighting one kind of monster – vampires – almost all the time. This is self-obviously boring (even if every vampire-slaying mission is effectively a spy movie and spy movies are awesome) so I’m trying to balance that with a variety of different types of blood-drinkers, ranging from Renfield-like human thralls to Hellsing-style insane anime monsters. The problem is that there’s only this narrow, two or three dice (plus modifiers) range to express levels of capability.
As Savage Worlds players know, the attributes and skills of SW characters are rated in terms of what size die is rolled to score a success. The game uses the d4 through d12 for this scale, with scores above d12 adding a static modifier (i.e. d12+1, d12+4, d12+9, etc.). A d6 is the human average, but even d12+2 is attainable for exceptional human characters.
So let’s think about that for a moment. A d4 is sub-average, a d6 is average, and a d8 is above average. If drinking vampire blood makes you stronger and more durable than a normal human, then we pretty much have to assume thralls have a Strength score of d10. 
Right now, I’ve got the blood-drinkers of Malleus broken out into the following categories:
  • Thralls – human vampire servants bound to their masters and enhanced by drinking vampire blood.
  • Moroi – super-thralls who have been mutated by drinking vampire blood.
  • Dhampir – half-human children of vampires, born with superhuman abilities.
  • Vampires – true undead gifted with exceptional regenerative properties and inhuman speed.
  • Vampire sorcerers – vampiric students of black magic, capable of strange feats.   
  • Vampire lords – ancient vampire sorcerers and warriors.
  • The vampire king – the final boss and a true monster.
We know the thralls have Stengths of d10. It makes sense to me that the vampire king should be as strong as, say, a dragon (Dragon = Dracula, LOL – and also he’s basically Alucard from Hellsing, who is Lovecraftian in his monstrousness), so that means d12+9.
Ok, I think I’m getting somewhere now.
The stat maximum (mainly in terms of Strength and Vigor) for thralls is d10. It’s d12 for moroi, d12+2 for dhampirs, d12+4 for vampires (and probably vampire sorcerers, who are more of a threat for their magic than their physical abilities), and d12+6 or higher for King Wilhelm and his kids. So, I have to throw out the vampire stats in the core rules, but I was going to do that anyway so no loss there.
Skills will be slightly less. Thralls are deadly because of their insane strength and resistance to damage, not necessarily because they’re kung-fu experts. They can have a d8 skill maximum, giving moroi and dhampir d10s, vampires and vamp sorcerers d12, and the royal family d12+2. And rotten quisling human collaborators would be at best d8 and d8.
Hmm… Ok, I feel much better about this. I’ve really overcome a hurdle. Awesome!

Races of Altellus: Satyridae for D&D 5e

Satyr and Maid with Fruit Basket by Peter Paul Rubens


"She stood, with mouth agape and eyes that hailed, her thick throat full of suppressed clamour. The other was the Dream now, and these!… they came down, mad and noisy and bright—Maenades, Thyades, satyrs, fauns—naked, in hides of beasts, ungirded, dishevelled, wreathed and garlanded, dancing, singing, shouting. The thudding of their hooves shook the ground, and the clash of their timbrels and the rustling of their thyrsi filled the air.” --
Oliver Onions, “Io”

Passionate and playful, unbound and untamed, satyridae are lust for life embodied.

United in Diversity
While satyrs are the sexually dimorphic male counterpart to nymphs and breed true when they mate with the feminine fey of wood and stream, satyrs’ lusts are hardly confined to their counterparts. The children of unions between humans and satyrs… or elves and satyrs… or Halflings and satyrs… or dwarves, gnomes, half-elves, tieflings, aasimar, genasi, goliaths, goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, and sundry other humanoid races and satyrs are the wildly variegated half-breeds called satyridae.

United by the fey magic of their fathers’ blood, satyridae share many traits despite their diverse appearances. All satyridae are humanoids with goat-like horns and hairy, goat-like legs, but physical uniformity ends there. A half-orc satyrid might have orc-like fangs and huge, curling horns while a half-elf satyrid might be a paragon of beauty; despite this, the physical abilities (and inner natures) of satyridae are much the same. While satyrs are uniformly male, satyridae may be of any sex.

The Spark of Life Burns Hot
Regardless of their non-satyr origin, satyridae tend to live around 150 years. The burning lust for life that animates satyridae prolongs the lifespan of shorter-lived races like humans and orcs, but flares out to quickly to attain the many centuries an elf or gnome may live. Despite living longer than humans or goblinoids, satyridae are anxious to fill each day with as many sensual experiences as they can stomach.

Whether it’s dancing, drinking, eating, fighting, or sex, a satyrid will indulge to excess as long as it gets her heart racing. Satyridae see no shame in losing control; being out of your head means your body feels the fullest sensations. They drink to drunkenness, eat to gorging, and brawl for no reason.

Outcasts and Outlaws
Aside from the unusual world of Altellus (where satyridae have bred true and effectively replaced humans as the world’s most populous race), satyridae are rarely ever distinct populations unto themselves. They usually live on the verges of their non-satyr parent’s society or join with bands of satyrs – if they weren’t abandoned in the woods by their mothers in the first place.

Rural villages that border sylvan woods (especially those forests with portals to the Feywild) often have one or two goat-legged byblows of fertility rituals. Such satyridae may be regarded with religious awe or superstitious terror depending on the village; in either case, the satyridae are often isolated from their fellow villagers. Such children may turn to adventuring to find companions who will not judge them, or abandon civilization to cavort in the woods with the fey.

Whether they take up the adventuring life or choose the Arcadian path, satyridae often find themselves in conflict with the forces of order. A satyrid’s sybaritic lifestyle frequently costs more than what they can afford, and the forest satyrs lack even the industry of wine-making. Brigandage is a tempting path for many satyridae, though the best amongst them instead vent their passionate natures into artistic callings.

Satyrid Names
Satyridae raised amongst their mothers’ people are named according to those humanoids’ traditions. A satyrid growing up in fey society is usually given or takes a name corresponding to satyr and nymph conventions. They have no surnames, but may take nicknames to further differentiate themselves.

Female Names: Amaltheia, Antiope, Axieros, Chloe, Chrysis, Hekateris, Kabeiris, Kythere, Jenna, Melia, Neda, Oenothea, Quartilla, Tryphaena

Male Names: Ampelos, Brucato, Gemon, Giton, Komos, Leneus, Lykon, Maron, Marsyas, Phillipus, Skirtos, Torgo, Trimalchio, Zamfir

Satyrid Traits
Your satyrid character has a number of natural abilities, a birthright inherited from your father.

Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 2, and your Charisma score increases by 1.

Age. Satyridae attain physical maturity in their mid-teens and live for less than two centuries.

Alignment. Satyridae enjoy freedom to the point of irresponsibility; chaos is central to their natures. They favor sating their own carnal pleasures above either helping or hurting others, and are more often neutral than good or evil.

Size. Satyridae range from under 5 to over 6 feet tall (depending on their mother’s race) and have muscular builds. Your size is Medium.

Speed. Your bounding, goat-like legs give you a base walking speed of 40 feet.

Born Musician. No satyrid child grows to maturity without picking up at least one musical instrument. You have proficiency in the Performance skill.

Fey Ancestry. You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep.

Goatish Digestion. You have advantage on saving throws against poison, and you have resistance against poison damage.

Horns. You are never unarmed. You are proficient with your horns, which are a melee weapon that deals 1d4 bludgeoning damage.

Keen Senses. You have proficiency in the Perception skill.

Languages. You can speak, read, and write Sylvan and the language of your mother.
Satyridae in Altellus
On the continent of Erigone in the world of Altellus, humans are extinct, replaced by their own half-human progeny. Centuries of human mating with centaurs, dryads, dwarves, fairies, minotaurs, nymphs, satyrs, and sphinxes created a common culture of diverse races. Satyridae, one of the most prolific of the demi-humans, exist in the socioeconomic niche occupied by working-class humans on most worlds.

Filling the role of farmers and laborers has not dimmed the fires of satyridae’s passion. The working class culture of Erigone is vibrant and bold. Even the most menial labor is accompanied by song; a grape harvest becomes a heavenly chorus as whole communities take to the vineyards, while street sweepers in the great cities sing to the beat of horses’ hooves.

Many satyridae dream of more exciting lives, and the armies of the city-states of Erigone march on cloven hooves. Few satyridae have the dedication to rise in the ranks, but there are those who become generals and admirals. Most satyridae soldiers either return to their hometowns or seek their fortunes as bravos and mercenaries.

Altellan satyridae know High Sylvan (the common tongue of Erigone) and their local dialect of Low Sylvan.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The King is Dead: Vargr

I'm still amazed Gevaudan put up this statue.
However much the Holy Panoptic Church may extol the transcendence of the undead state, the simple fact is that vampires are predators. They are wolves who have skinned the shepherds rather than the sheep, and now carry the shepherds’ crooks to herd their prey to slaughter.

Some wolves, however, are rabid.

Once in a blood moon, a savaged, drained body is found in some unexpected place. Perhaps a shepherdess is slain while breeding her flock home for the night; it would seem like a wolf attack, but something has drunk her blood. No local vampire or admits to the deed and all the dhampirs have alibis. The community is all aflutter for a week or two, but then everyone begins to calm down.

And there’s another murder. 

And then another. 

And now an entire family has been slain in their remote farmstead home; from the youngest child to the old grand-dam, they’ve been torn apart and their blood lapped off the floorboards. The family pets and livestock that couldn’t escape have all been slaughtered, too. This cannot be the work of a vampire, because no vampire would stoop so low as to drink the blood of animals.

Then one old man – one-eyed and hard of hearing, known to mumble to himself at odd times – whispers the word “vargr.” 

Vargar (singular vargr) are blood-drinkers who have lost their minds to bloodlust. Some are moroi whose addiction to vampire blood has devolved into cannibalism, others are feral dhampir children unable to control their hunger, and others are monstrous vampires who have abandoned any pretense to civility. Regardless of origin, a vargr loose on the countryside is a threat to both innocent lives and the social order – and one of the few times that the aims of revolutionaries and vampires intersect.

A cabal whose territory is threatened by a vargr find themselves between a rock and hard place. Allowing a vargr to slaughter indiscriminately violates the ethos every secret society is fighting for, but the local vampires will also organize a hunt for the feral blood-drinker. Joining the hunt risks exposing the cabal’s capabilities to unwanted vampiric attention. 

Vargar are an embarrassment to the vampire aristocracy of Malleus, and writing about such creatures is suppressed by the Lord High Censor’s office. Common folk are forbidden from speaking about such creatures and books about them are burned. Researching vargar the first time a cabal confronts one is a five-action Dramatic Task using Investigation at a -4 penalty with each action taking one day of game time. Cooperating characters may use other skills such as Knowledge (Occult), Riding (traveling to nearby towns and villages for additional research materials), and Streetwise to aid the main investigator; the GM makes the final ruling on what skills are applicable in a particular case. If the lead researcher’s Action Card is a club, the vargr slays another victim that night; if it’s the two of clubs, the vargr kills a friend or ally of the cabal.

Success means the cabal has identified the unknown menace as a vargr. They know such beasts are mad blood-drinkers and that the creature will have the regenerative powers and inhuman vitality typical of blood-drinkers. They learn that vargar may be moroi, dhampirs, or vampires, but they cannot identify which type this vargr is. Additional successes beyond the minimum of five reveal the vargr’s origin (one success is needed to identify a moroi, two for a dhampir, and three for a vampire) or reveal one of the vargr’s powers.

Vargr (Moroi)   
A cannibalistic madman driven by hunger beyond his control, the moroi vargr retains an essentially human appearance but gains animalistic senses. The descent into vargr-madness can be slow, and moroi of exceptional willpower may even be able to retain their normal lives while sneaking forth at night to devour their fellow men. Most, though, are transformed into ragged vagrants, lurking in the woods to pounce on unsuspecting prey. Without feeding on vampire or dhampir blood, the vargr moroi loses his powers in 30+2d20 days and slips into a coma.
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d4, Spirit d8, Strength d12, Vigor d12
Skills: Fighting d10, Intimidation d8, Notice d10, Stealth d10, Survival d10, Throwing d8
Charisma: -4; Pace: 8; Parry: 7; Toughness: 9
Hindrances: Habit [Major; blood addict]
Edges: Alertness, Berserker, Brawny, Improved Frenzy, Combat Reflexes, Fleet Footed, Quick
Special Abilities:
  • Bite: When the vargr moroi has a victim grappled, it may bite for Str+d4 damage.
  • Claws: The corrupting power of vampire blood gives the vargr claws that do Str+d4 damage.
  • Fast Regeneration
  • Weakness [Sever the Head]: If the blood-drinker is incapacitated by a Called Shot to the head, its head is severed and its regeneration disrupted. 
  • Weakness [Stake to the Heart]: Disrupting the flow of blood through the body with a Called Shot to the heart renders the blood-drinker immobile.
  • Weakness [Sunlight]: The moroi is at -4 on all physical actions taken in direct sunlight.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Strider: A Steamscapes Adventure now available!


My first solo product is available now at DrivethruRPG!  And at Studio 2 Publishing!

Strider: A Steamscapes Adventure is a multi-chapter module I donated to the Steamscapes: Asia Kickstarter. Steamscapes head honcho Eric Simon felt I really deserved to make some money off of it, so it’s been slightly reformatted and made available for public purchase a few weeks ahead of Steamscapes: Asia

Strider: A Steamscapes Adventure sees the player characters on a journey across early Meiji Japan, as they guide a geisha automaton on a secret mission to persuade the genius who built her to build a state-of-the-art weapon for Japan. There’s angry ronin, corrupt politicians, hulking iron oni, stealthy assassins, and even wild doomsday cultists to contend with as the heroes journey across the country. Secrets will be revealed and trusts betrayed! 

Strider is self-contained and does not require Steamscapes: Asia (for that matter, it doesn’t really require Steamscapes: North America if you don’t care what some NPC Edges do). It can easily be played as a short campaign or inserted into any other steampunk setting with minimal modification. Strider contains new rules for indirect fire and a new race: the karakuri hiko, Japanese automatons who are openly accepted in society. It also contains an appendix of NPC archetypes easily adapted for use in any Savage Worlds samurai-and-ninja setting.

I look forward to feedback (good and bad) on this adventure. I like to think I made interesting use of the Savage Worlds interlude and travel rules, but I’m curious what others think. Leave comments here or review Strider: A Steamscapes Adventure at DrivethruRPG or Studio 2!

Friday, September 18, 2015

The King is Dead: A New Approach to Thralls and Moroi

Joanthan Harker vs. a thrall
(I couldn't find a photo so I had to use Mike Mignola art. Oh no!)

Playtesting The King is Dead gives me an opportunity to play around with the power levels of opponents. I’ve been concerned for some time that setting misses variety in its antagonists, so I need to experiment and see what options work.
After years of resistance to the idea, I’ve finally accepted the Savage Worlds dictum that opponents shouldn’t be “designed.” Building them with the same rules as player characters is a sucker’s game in an RPG system as swingy and wild as Savage Worlds. Previous versions of thralls/moroi were built around the idea of taking basic human archetypes and applying specific bonuses, but that resulted in only limited noticeable differences between normal humans and thralls. With the characters below, I’m beginning with the assumption that drinking vampire blood makes them notably stronger, faster, whatever than regular people.
Thralls are human servants of vampires given enhanced physical abilities by drinking the blood of their masters.

Thrall (Brute)
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d10, Vigor d10
Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidation d8, Notice d6, Riding d8 or Streetwise d8 or Survival d8, Shooting d8, Stealth d6, Throwing d8
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5 or 6; Toughness: 8
Hindrances: Habit [Major; blood addict], Vow [Major; to vampire master], Mean or Outsider
Edges: Berserker, Brawny, Combat Reflexes
Gear: Cavalry saber (Str+d6) or Basket-hilt broadsword (Str+d8, Parry +1), brace of flintlock pistols (Range 5/10/20, Damage 2d6+1, RoF 1).
Special Abilities:
  • Slow Regeneration
The brutish thrall may be a Kazar horseman, a rogue Keltisch gillie, or simply a Gothic thug plucked from the gutters. In any case, the brutish thrall attends his dhampir or vampire as a bodyguard and enforcer.

Thrall (Bravo)
Attributes: Agility d10, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d8, Vigor d10
Skills: Fighting d8, Intimidation d8, Notice d8, Riding d6, Shooting d8, Stealth d6, Streetwise d6, Throwing d8
Charisma: 0 or -4; Pace: 6; Parry: 7; Toughness: 7
Hindrances: Habit [Major; blood addict], Vow [Major; to vampire master], Bloodthirsty [allow a Streetwise roll; on a success, the bravo’s vile reputation is known to the character]
Edges: Alertness, Combat Reflexes, Quick
Gear: rapier (Str+d4, Parry +1), brace of flintlock pistols (Range 5/10/20, Damage 2d6+1, RoF 1) or set of throwing daggers (Range 3/6/12, Str +d4, RoF 1).
Special Abilities:
  • Slow Regeneration
The bravo thrall may be a fallen gentleman, a foreign duelist, or a hardened criminal; regardless of origin, the bravo is a trained fencer with more courtly grace than a brute. Bravo thralls act as their master’s troubleshooters as often as they do bodyguards.

A lifetime of drinking the blood of vampires and enacting their will changes a person. Inevitably, some of the pure, demonic evil of Sathaniel corrupts them, leading those thralls to become moroi – living vampires with abilities far beyond common thralls. Moroi may slake their thirst with the blood of humans, but must drink from a vampire at least once a month.

Moroi (Beast)
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d12, Vigor d12
Skills: Fighting d10, Intimidation d8, Notice d8, Riding d8 or Streetwise d8, Shooting d8, Stealth d8, Survival d10, Throwing d8
Charisma: -4; Pace: 8; Parry: 7 or 8; Toughness: 9
Hindrances: Habit [Major; blood addict], Vow [Major; to vampire master], Mean or Outsider, Ugly (bestial features)
Edges: Alertness, Berserker, Brawny, Combat Reflexes, Fleet Footed, Quick
Gear: Cavalry saber (Str+d6) or Basket-hilt broadsword (Str+d8, Parry +1), brace of flintlock pistols (Range 5/10/20, Damage 2d6+1, RoF 1).
Special Abilities:
  • Bite: When the moroi has a victim grappled, it may bite for Str+d4 damage.
  • Slow Regeneration
  • Weakness [Sunlight]: The moroi is a -2 on all physical actions taken in direct sunlight.
The bestial moroi is a predator in form and deed. Its teeth have grown into sharp, vampiric canines and its senses have grown more feral. The bestial moroi may lead packs of lesser thralls or act as an independent agent for its master or a government agency.

Moroi (Viper)
Attributes: Agility d12, Smarts d8, Spirit d8, Strength d8, Vigor d12
Skills: Fighting d10, Intimidation d8, Investigation d6, Notice d8, Riding d6, Shooting d8, Stealth d8, Streetwise d8, Throwing d10
Charisma: 0 or -4; Pace: 8; Parry: 8; Toughness: 8
Hindrances: Habit [Major; blood addict], Vow [Major; to vampire master], Bloodthirsty [allow a Streetwise roll; on a success, the viper’s deadly reputation is known to the character]
Edges: Alertness, Combat Reflexes, Improved Level Headed, Fleet Footed, Quick
Gear: rapier (Str+d4, Parry +1), brace of flintlock pistols (Range 5/10/20, Damage 2d6+1, RoF 1) or set of throwing daggers (Range 3/6/12, Str +d4, RoF 1).
Special Abilities:
  • Bite: When the moroi has a victim grappled, it may bite for Str+d4 damage.
  • Slow Regeneration
  • Weakness [Sunlight]: The moroi is a -2 on all physical actions taken in direct sunlight.
The viper moroi is as fast as a serpent’s strike. Vipers are more often found in the employ of the secret police or military intelligence than they are the private households of vampire lords.

Ian Hendry as Kerro in Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter
(totally a viper moroi in TKiD -- and unlikely to go down in one shot)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Weird Anxiety Dreams

George Clooney in Michael Clayton

It’s hard to call them nightmares because – while they do ruin a night’s sleep and leave me feeling freaked out – they don’t really scare me. I prefer calling them “anxiety dreams” because that helps me file them away in the “weird crap my Generalized Anxiety Disorder does” which in turn helps me get over the way they freak me out. I suppose, technically, they are nightmares.

Last night’s were exceptionally weird. In order to get over some writer’s block on a Savage Insider article, I drank some coffee yesterday morning. Caffeine sets off anxiety and coffee really sets off my anxiety, but it helped me get over that hurdle and I was prepared to accept the consequences. I wasn’t quite prepared for just how weird one of those dreams would be.

(As an aside, let me just say that the biggest benefit of being diagnosed with a mental disorder is knowing you have one. You can look at your behavior objectively, say “This is my disease acting up,” and compartmentalize the real you from the bad you. I probably use it to ride the ragged edge of disaster a bit too much, but generally it works.)

The first anxiety dream was wrapped up in some deep, weird personal issues. My first girlfriend, my brother, and I went to see “X-Men: Apocalypse” (an anachronism not just because the movie hasn’t come out yet, but also because we were in high school). There were projection problems and I went to get it fixed, but people had taken my seat when I got back and Karen and James didn’t want to sit with me anymore. I burst into tears and walked home, eventually finding myself lost when I got to my neighborhood.

(My relationships with those two went south years ago, so they frequently show up in anxiety dreams as kind of personal demons.)

The second dream, on the other hand, was like a sizzle reel for a movie that hasn’t been made. I was an American businessman played by George Clooney who worked at a manufacturing plant of some sort in Japan. The character George Clooney and I played had recurring nightmares – premonitions – of drowning, but didn’t know what to do about it due to his isolation as an American abroad. Eventually, the kami of the lake near the plant caused the dam to burst and the valley the plant was in flooded. All of the businessman’s co-workers drowned (as did a dog the businessman befriended), and the kami confronted him, saying all of it was the businessman’s fault for not believing in his premonition.

And that’s when I woke up.

I should really try to turn that second dream into a story or screenplay.
The kami looked like an InuYasha villain, so that took some of the edge off.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Flesh for Flash

I spent last night at a screening of Flash Gordon (1980) featuring a Q&A session with Sam J. Jones (Flash himself). Jones made the mistake of asking the audience whether we wanted to do the Q&A before or after the film; we selected “after,” so Jones was stuck watching the movie with us. Given that most of his dialogue was overdubbed by another actor, it must be surreal and painful for Jones to watch Flash Gordon. Unfortunately, I’m sure most of my fellow moviegoers wanted to refresh the film in our minds before we asked questions.

I was tempted to ask Jones about the disagreements with Dino De Laurentiis that caused the actor to leave the production before the film was completed, but that felt like it would be in bad taste. Flash Gordon didn’t destroy Sam J. Jones’ career, but it must be weird when your most famous role is a flop turned into a camp classic. I didn’t want to bring down the crowd of Flash Gordon lovers by bringing up one of the more troubling aspects of the film’s production.

I certainly love Flash Gordon myself. I didn’t for a long, long time (and I still say Filmation’s 1979 animated series is better in most ways). When I saw Flash Gordon during its initial release in 1980, seven year-old me ran shrieking from the theater during the Wood Beast scene and refused to watch the rest of it. Then, like most Gen Xers, I rejected camp in my 20s in favor of deadly seriousness. It wasn’t until I fell in love with a woman who loves the rock band Queen with all her heart that I really began to enjoy what Flash Gordon offers.

And what it offers is sex.

The eroticism is obvious even when you’re watching it streamed on your smart phone, but it’s breathtaking on the big screen. The outfits Ming’s concubines wear were always sexier than Leia’s slave outfit, but I never realized just how high some of those bikinis were cut. Flash’s shirtless prison scene is obviously filmed through the androphiliac gaze and Prince Barin’s faux Robin Hood tights do a really good job of showcasing Timothy Dalton’s toned behind. The biggest revelation to me was realizing that Mariengela Melato – the actress who played stern and scary General Kala – was actually really, really hot.

(Seriously, she was like this elfin combination of Cate Blanchett and Christina Ricci.) 

While some of this eroticism is no doubt due to De Laurentiis’ personal vision (his other comic book adaptations – Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik – share much of Flash Gordon’s visual style), a lot of it is inherent in the property. Flash Gordon the franchise is a direct descendant of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary romances and their naked-except-for-a-belt characters. Flimsy gowns and shirtless men are part of Flash Gordon from Alex Raymond’s original comic strips. Heck, the Filmation cartoon is arguably even sex-obsessed than the movie; there’s lizard women with breasts, for Jebus’ sake! 

This sensuality, this eroticism, is part and parcel of Flash Gordon. It is a deliberate aesthetic choice that amplifies the strangeness and danger of the alien world of Mongo. To some, the near-nudity invokes fears of sexual excess and contempt for the decadent Ming. To others, those same visual cues bespeak a world of more advanced societal mores and adventures of a less combative kind. In either case, walking around stripped to the waist all the time is the mark of a culture distinct from, alien to, Western society. Mongo is alien because Mongo is sexy.

I hope that sexiness makes it into the new game. 

Pinnacle Entertainment Group announced a Savage Worlds adaptation of Flash Gordon at Gen Con 2015. The announcement was accompanied by imagery from the 1980 film, so it’s logical to infer the game will use stills from the movie or illustrations invoking that style. Given that the movie is rated PG, the raciness of it shouldn’t violate PEG’s self-imposed “PG-13 rating” on Savage Worlds products. It’s certainly comparable to the barely-clad redhead who appeared on several of their genre Companions – of which I complained about it in the past.

As much as I enjoy the eroticism of Flash Gordon, I don’t think sex should sell everything. The redhead on the Fantasy Companion is wearing less than Red Sonja and the vampire woman appears to be wearing little more than the fresh viscera and blood of a victim. How is this appropriate for a generic genre rules book for a game that is trying to attract the broadest possible audience? There are a lot of women in gaming – in geekdom in general – who are understandably upset about the continued objectification of women in a culture where rape has been a joke for too many DMs, in a society where a hectoring hypocrite claims to be a moral authority for decades while raping unconscious women. When Pinnacle originally debuted a version of the 2014 Sci-Fi Companion that needlessly objectified a starship commander’s butt, I was one of many who complained. Pinnacle Entertainment Group noted our concern and had the art subtly redone to put the commander in a far more commanding pose.

That doesn’t mean they should neuter Flash Gordon. A Flash Gordon game is not a generic sci-fi supplement; it’s a specific evocation of a specific aesthetic. Flash Gordon is sexy; Flash Gordon has always been sexy. It was created that way and it should stay that way. I opposed cheesecake covers for the Companions, but I endorse a sensuous Flash Gordon.

This is not hypocritical, because this is not a binary choice. 

Life is complicated. Flash Gordon (1980) is both the highlight and lowlight of Sam J. Jones’ career. What frightens a child might delight an adult. Sexual content is good or bad depending on context. Context is complicated, too. Sometimes the most important context is the purchasing audience, and sometimes it’s the wider world. Decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis for everything in life. Absolutism is for babies and dictators.
In Flash Gordon's case, the eroticism is part of the appeal for fans of the property. People who are unfamiliar with the setting are unlikely to purchase the game in the first place, so the best choice – commerically and artistically – is to serve the existing audience by making full use of Flash Gordon's inherent qualities. Let us revel in the lushness of Arboria and the strange beauty of Frigia; let us match wits with the voracious Princess Aura and the vile appetites of Ming the Merciless!
Give us flesh for Flash Gordon!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Your Story is Not Our Story

Yeah, this works.
Tonight is supposed to be the character creation session for my major, in-person The King is Dead playtest campaign. My goal is to run it a bit differently from normal. I want everybody to sit on the comfy couches, share some snacks and booze, and pitch characters to each other. I want the character creation to be collaborative, but also keep a light touch. I’m going to deliberately discourage deep, involved backstories for the characters and instead encourage light, flexible character histories.

As a very improvisational GM, one of the great joys of multi-player games for me is seeing the story emerge from the actions of the players. I love being the audience for the unpredictable results that come from the players collaborating to defeat challenges and taking turns in the spotlight. Dramatic, epic, lengthy backstories for PCs screw this up. I hate them.

I don’t mind characters with motivations. I don’t mind characters with histories. I might argue that keeping the concept short and sweet is best because you don’t really know a character until you play them, but I know some people who can’t stop writing until they’ve got a page full of origin story. That’s fine if that character history informs who the character is at the start of play.

It sucks if that history is supposed to dictate what happens next.

I may not be one of those frustrated novelist GMs who wants to tell a very specific story from beginning to end – railroading players along the way – but I still want to run the game I want to run. I still want the freedom to throw in the political events and monster attacks that sound fun to me. I don’t want to run your frustrating novel.

I don’t want to see the choices other players make constrained by your backstory. I don’t want to see the communal narrative at the table hijacked by something you wrote on your own. You don’t get to impose your epic Mary Sue quest on everybody else.

What constitutes a flexible, group-centered backstory and what makes a character history a black hole of selfish conceit is going to be different from group to group and player to player. Hell, I can think of players in the same group who spent almost the same amount of effort on backstory, but one used it as a springboard for why the character was on the group's adventure and the other used it as a way to turn the group's adventure into his own. I suppose the simplest way to put it is "don't plot:"
  • Set goals for your character but don't plot his story.
  • Leave gaps to be filled in during play, but don't make your past a riddle for everyone else to solve.  
  • Be prepared to abandon your plot points; your story is not our story.
Now to see if I can actually put this into practice...

Thursday, September 3, 2015

For Your Espionage-Laced D&D Campaigns

Yeah, it kinda works like Tim Burton's Batmobile.

Armor of Bracering
Armor (any light, medium, or heavy metal armor), very rare

This armor has 4 charges. After you have donned this armor, you may use your action to expend a charge and command the armor to retract. When retracted, the armor collapses into a pair of decorous wristlets and anklets; its weight in this state is 1 lb and your Armor Class reverts to your normal unarmored AC. Another charge and action may be spent to command the armor to extend back to its original shape. The armor regains all expended charges at midnight.

Or like the briefcase armor...
Except in reverse and with bracers.

Wine and Savages Team Now Co-Lead Developers for Savage Rifts®

While most interested parties already know this, Robin English-Bircher and I have combined forces with Sean Roberson as Lead Developers...