Friday, May 29, 2015

The King is Dead: Bloodcoats


Malleus is an occupied country, trampled beneath the boots of a hostile army – an army made of its own citizens. Dressed in blood-red coats, the soldiers of King Wilhelm the Undying eagerly turn whip and rifle on their fellow humans in order to preserve the privilege of the vampires.

While the Mallean army is ready to defend the island from continental invasion or be deployed abroad in the name of colonial adventurism, its most basic purpose is to protect the haves from the have-nots. As the vampire aristocracy consider themselves shepherds of the people, so is the army (like the church) their sheepdogs. The bloodcoats watch over the common folk, keeping them peaceful and herding them where need be. 

Every significant city and town is home to a garrison of bloodcoats that arrests suspected traitors, puts down riots, and patrols the countryside for bandits and rebels. They are not a police force; they have no writ to investigate murders or retrieve stolen property (unless said crimes victimize nobility). While magistrates may call upon the military to enforce civil law (such as public floggings of thieves), there is no hope in appealing to soldiers to protect the weak and helpless.

Given the cruelty the military are trained to inflict on their fellow citizens, it may seem surprising that any commoners enlist. Joining the military is in truth a seductive opportunity for many Malleans. It is, literally, a promotion from prey to predator. Soldiers are lauded by the church and the nobility, given comforts denied most of the citizenry, and enjoy the power of life and death over their fellow humans. Those who impress the vampires and dhampyres that form the upper ranks of the military may even become moroi – gaining supernatural power by drinking the blood of their vampire patrons.

The daily life of bloodcoats is comfortable. Officers are quartered in the homes of wealthy citizens – usually merchants and tradesmen rather than aristocracy, but some nobles occasionally host high-ranking officers – while the enlisted men are usually quartered in barracks at the fort. In those towns and villages that have no fortifications, the enlisted men are also quartered on the populace; this has become increasingly common in the colonies and in Lochland. Rations are allotted to soldiers first when the winter famines come, and their tavern tabs are paid by government stipend.

Such soft living means that bloodcoats are often reluctant to risk their lives performing their duties. It is rare that their sharpshooting is equal to an experienced Wild Huntsman’s and few have the swordsmanship of the Bloodstained Blade. Graft and bribery run rampant through the military, leading to the dereliction of even basic duties. As long as bandits target commoners and don’t engage in sedition, soldiers turn a blind eye (especially when they also receive a greased palm). They may be sheepdogs, but they are mangy curs more often than not.

Bloodcoat Infantryman 
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d4, Strength d8, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidation d4, Notice d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d4, Streetwise d4, Survival d4, Taunt d4
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5 (6 when wielding bayonet in melee); Toughness: 5
Hindrances: Mean
Edges: Combat Reflexes
Gear: Brown Bess (Range 10/20/40, Damage 2d8, RoF 1, 2 actions to reload) with bayonet (Str+d6, Parry +1, Reach 1, 2 hands), uniform, 2d8-1 reichsmarks.

Bloodcoat Non-Commissioned Officer 
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d8, Vigor d8
Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidation d8, Knowledge (Battle) d4, Notice d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d4, Streetwise d6, Survival d4, Taunt d6
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 6
Hindrances: Greedy, Mean
Edges: Combat Reflexes, Command
Gear: Flintlock pistol (Range 5/10/20, Damage 2d6+1, RoF 1, 2 actions to reload), saber (Str+d6), uniform, 2d10-1 reichsmarks.

Bloodcoat Commissioned Officer 
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d8, Vigor d8
Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidation d8, Knowledge (Battle) d6, Notice d6, Riding d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d4, Streetwise d6, Survival d4, Taunt d6
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5 or 6; Toughness: 6
Hindrances: Arrogant or Greedy, Mean
Edges: Combat Reflexes, Command, Steady Hands
Gear: Flintlock pistol (Range 5/10/20, Damage 2d6+1, RoF 1, 2 actions to reload), rapier (Str+d4, +1 Parry; if infantry officer) or saber (Str+d6; if cavalry officer), uniform, war horse, 2d20 reichsmarks. 

Turn (duh)


Thursday, May 28, 2015

To BC or not to BC...

Well, that’s some weird serendipity.

The current duet campaign is in a bit of rut, so I’ve been contemplating new settings. Trey Causey just posted a setting sketch for the Strange Stone Age, a wild “cavemen vs. aliens” kind of thing in the vein of Devil Dinosaur and other Jack Kirby comics, and Tribality posted a look at a prehistoric/lost world D&D setting. I’ve also been thinking about a prehistoric setting over the last couple of days because I spent a few hours this weekend at Discover the Ice Age at my local natural history museum.

(Fuzzy pictures courtesy of me.)

Discover the Ice Age wasn’t exactly the greatest exhibit I’ve ever seen. The cotton-stuffing fake snow was hilarious, the sounds the animatronic critters made were goofy (especially the bleating megaloceros), and most of them were just plain fake-looking. Heck, the hipparion – which the graphs on the display clearly showed was smaller than a human – was as big as a modern horse. The whole thing was woefully shabby.

Yet that didn’t stop me from getting a frisson of excitement when the cheap puppet smilodon turned its head and looked me in the eyes.

My own thinking on a prehistoric setting runs more toward Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series (Clan of the Cave Bear, The Mammoth Hunters, etc.) which I haven’t actually read. I have, however, seen a few bits and pieces of the movie, read some reviews, and heard it described by some friends who were into it. Combine that with Devlin & Emmerich’s 10,000 BC, the Stone Age flashback in American Gods, a smattering of Princess Mononoke’s animal gods, and my benighted days as a neo-pagan and I could reasonably cook up a New Age-influenced, spiritual journey across the primitive wilds.

(Quest for Fire is on Netflix; I could always watch that for some additional inspiration.)

Obviously, I’m thinking more in terms of a duet campaign with my wife than a Friday night game with the gang. I’m sure some GMs could run this kind of introspective campaign concept with their groups, but group games for me are a chance to laugh at dumb jokes and whale on bad guys. Robin and I barely ever roll dice, so a spirit quest might actually be a better fit for us than the usual swashbuckling adventures.

I like the idea of Altellus, but it seems like that would require a lot of world-building before we got started. A prehistoric journey of discovery, on the other hand, would let me make up stuff as we go. We’d just need to start with a core cast of fellow tribesmen and go from there. (Well, I suppose we’d want to set some limits on just what kind of monsters and demihumans are allowed; I’m torn on the idea of dinosaurs and dino-people.)

This deserves some consideration…

(And, yes, I already looked at Sticks & Stones and decided against it. It looks fun for a goofy group game, but it's obviously not the tone I'm thinking of for a duet.)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Altellus, a swashbuckling fantasy world.

A dryadborn duelist
(Yes, they're basically elves.)
(No, I'm still not using Pathfinder.)

My Queen,

Infinite crystal spheres exist in the incomprehensible vastness of the Prime Material Plane. Some are big and hold entire universes; some are small and hold strange, singular worlds. Some are fueled by science and technology and some are filled with magic and wonder. Some are home to gods who walk the earth, meddling in the lives of their followers while some are home to religions that pray to emptiness that never answers. Some worlds are filled with dreariness and dread; some are home to adventure and delight.

In searching for a new home for your next transmigration, I have followed your instructions to limit my divinations to those spheres you have described as “swashbuckling” – by which I assume you mean roughly contemporaneous with our own sphere in technology and sartorial fashion. “Rapiers and ruffs,” as you said. I commend your majesty for your discernment, and I humbly submit that I have discovered several worlds that may please your next incarnation.

One of these crystal spheres is home to a world called Altellus. It stands at a strange midpoint in the extremes of the Prime Material Plane. The world of Altellus itself is the third major satellite of its sun, but Altellus’ sun is the only sun in its sphere. Gunpowder and gearworks exist happily alongside crystal balls and summoning circles. The gods are distant and unseen, yet no one doubts their presence in their lives.

Altellus itself is a modest-sized, blue-green world, resembling its cousin Earth in many ways. The continents are all placed more or less where we should would expect them, the weather works the way one would expect it to, and the flora and fauna are… largely familiar. Perhaps great dragons sleep beneath ancient hills, unicorns frolic in its forests, and the deeps of the seas are filled with leviathans and sea serpents, but it is certainly recognizably Earth-like.

Except that humanity is extinct.

This is not a fact recognized by the inhabitants of this world – they would, perhaps, laugh in my face if I dared suggest that humankind has ceased to be – but it is nevertheless a fact. Do not be alarmed, though, my queen, for it appears that humanity died a pleasant death. One might say that it passed in the arms of a tender and generous lover during a vigorous bout of lovemaking. Well, numerous lovers, actually…

Humanity has been replaced by its descendants: a cornucopia of interfertile species derived from mankind mixing its blood with the nature spirits and half-human creatures of classical myth. The continent of Erigone – Europe’s close cognate – is populated by hirstute satyr-blooded, long-lived dryadborn, bull-horned Minosians, feline sphinx-kin, and sundry others. Even the humblest of peasants can claim a minor godling in his past (even if the only sign of that is a stubby goat tail above his buttocks) while the highest-born noble (or, in truth, the luckiest of humble peasants) may just be a minor godling, for all intents and purposes.

As one might guess from the profusion of Greco-Roman demi-humans, the unseen but omnipresent gods who attend to Erigone are the Olympian pantheon. The gods have not remained fixed in their spheres, however, for Bacchus the Liberator overthrew the tyrant Jove (as Jove overthrew Saturn) and now rules the Dodekatheon. The church that has evolved in the wake of this cosmic revolution greatly resembles Christianity in form and function, if not perhaps entirely in ethos. Venus, Mars, Mercury, and all the rest are honored much like saints. There’s a Pontifex Maxima (yes, Maxima; the roles of the sexes are far more equal on Altellus than our Earth) in the ancient city of Rumen who heads the church. The amount of wine they drink when they commune with the god is rather greater than what we would see on Earth, but otherwise it is more familiar than not.

Admittedly, there is a strict injunction against slavery that has shaped the course of Erigonean history. Holding freedom as the highest ideal, the Erigoneans have not known the leadership of kings or emperors (except as aberrations that were fought and destroyed). The Tiberian Republic gained primacy over its les-advanced neighbors through diplomacy and trade, using its mighty legions only as a last resort. A Federation was formed as foreign nations allied themselves with the Tiberians, and – as the populace of Erigone grew too large for one Senate to rule – eventually an Alliance was formed as the federated states created Senates of their own.

At this moment, my queen, I fear that you are reading this missive and finding it wanting. “Where is the silk and swordplay, dear doctor?” you might ask. “This looks rather like sandals and pepla instead,” you might say. Have no concern, your majesty, for though political science seems to have been stunted during the Roman Republic, the world has still advanced.

Contemporary Erigone may even be somewhat technologically superior to our own sphere; their ships are sleeker, their swords are slimmer, and the firearms are more reliable (the flintlock mechanisms they use being a vast improvement on our matchlocks and wheellocks). I must confess that the spectacles I acquired there are much improved upon my old pair.

Magically, Altellus as a whole is far more advanced than Earth. The schools of abjuration, divination, enchantment, and transmutation are practiced by scholars of the highest order, transforming the daily life of its people. In sharp contrast to many of the other worlds I have viewed and visited, there is a surprising de-emphasis of conjuration and evocation. Indeed, the offensive applications of magic are largely unknown, and spells such as the fireballs and blasts known on other worlds seem to be taboo on Altellus.

(I have several theories about this, but they are all mere conjecture. It is possible that these forms of magic – so closely resembling the thunderbolt of Jove – are merely repugnant on a moral level to Erigoneans. It is possible that the higher concentrations of phlogiston found in the Altellian sphere make such magic impractical. It is also possible that just don’t consider it sporting.)

Despite the emphasis on freedom found in the Bacchanal Church, human (or demi-human) nature seems to be the same throughout the Prime Material Plane. Power is still the ultimate aphrodisiac, and an aristocracy descended from the patricians and knights of ancient Rumen hold most of that power. While matters of state are debated in the Senates (rather than being decided by strong-willed monarchs such as yourself), self-interest still leads to intrigue and limited resources leads to war. It is, admittedly, far easier for a talented and driven commoner to climb from poverty to the highest ranks – perhaps even be declared a princeps – but there are still ranks to climb. Freedom does not equate to equality.

As confusing as the concept might be when the church worships a god of hedonism and personal freedom, there is also still heresy and religious war. Jove is not forgotten, and there are conspiracies to reinstate his primacy even after all the centuries he has been deposed. Worshippers of Pan agitate that Bacchus has ruled too long and now his son in turn should lead the gods. There are even disputes between those who prefer “Bacchus” and those who prefer “Dionysus.”

And yes, there are ruffs and there are rapiers, my queen. There are dashing musketeers and daring highwaymen. There are pirates and the sea dogs you love so much. There are witty playwrights and desperate thieves. There are rebellious ladies and untamable lords. There are ripped bodices and breathless escapes. There is swashbuckling.

(It’s just that the gentlemen may have the horns of a goat or the tails of horses, and the ladies may have the claws of cats or rather delightful pointed ears.)

And, as I somewhat glossed over earlier, women may swash their bucklers as freely as men.

There are other worlds I might recommend to you. Some few are equal to Altellus in beauty and opportunity, but none surpass it. Whether you transfer your spirit to the seed of a cobbler or a senator, you will have the opportunity to indulge in a life of freedom and adventure. You may pursue ambition and rise to rule a nation (more or less) or simply breeze through life laughing and fighting and making love. I will be happy to write more of other worlds, but I will also happily instruct you in the intricacies of Altellus.

Your friend,

Friday, May 15, 2015

Eponiad (D&D 5e creature)

No. Appearing: 1 - 15 (2d8-1)

Mysterious creatures that blur the line between fey and elementals, eponiads are wondrous horses made of living stone and metal. They mix freely with pegasi and unicorns in sylvan settings, sharing a common empathy born from their equine nature. On the Elemental Plane of Earth, they are sometimes enslaved by dao (though the dao insist they are merely “domesticated”), while on the Prime Material Plane eponiads occasionally befriend hill dwarves and gnomes.

Eponiads appear as powerful, muscular draft horses and ponies formed from stone and metal. They show as much variety in composition as normal horses do in coat and markings; one eponiad might be uniformly made of pink granite with eyes of turquoise while another might be bronze with a jade blaze on its forehead. Regardless of their apparent composition, all eponiads display similar durability and strength.

Large elemental, chaotic good

Armor Class: 18 (natural armor)
Hit Points: 73 (7d10 + 35)
Speed: 50 ft., burrow 50 ft.

STR 20 (+5), DEX 10 (+0), CON 20 (+5), INT 10 (+0), WIS 15 (+2), CHA 13 (+1)

Damage Vulnerabilities: acid, thunder
Damage Resistances: bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical weapons
Damage Immunities: poison
Condition Immunities: exhaustion, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, unconscious
Senses: darkvision 60 ft., tremorsense 60 ft., passive Perception 12
Languages: Understands Celestial, Sylvan, and Terran but can’t speak in a manner intelligible to humanoids. Some rare eponiads understand Gnomish.
Challenge: 3 (700 XP)

Earth Glide. The eponiad can burrow through nonmagical, unworked earth and stone. While doing so, the eponiad doesn’t disturb the material it moves through. The eponiad can willingly extend its earth glide ability to a single rider.

Hooves. Melee Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 12 (2d6 + 5) bludgeoning damage.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Armor Class in a D&D 5e Swashbuckling Setting

Watch out! It's the pernicious influence of The Princess Bride!

This has been nagging at me for a couple of days, so I need to surgically remove it from my brain. 

We all know that one of the challenges of changing the setting of D&D from a quasi-medieval world to a quasi-early modern world is Armor Class. In D&D proper, how hard it is for your foes to hit a character (one’s Armor Class or AC) is determined almost entirely by what armor the character is wearing. Characters prancing around in silk shirts or even leather jerkins are at a severe disadvantage compared to characters in plate mail. Heavy armor, however, just doesn’t fit the aesthetic of sword-and-cape adventure, so how does one incentivize the swashbuckling style in D&D?

The most obvious incentive is also the historical one: firearms. If firearms are plentiful – and if they pierce armor as they do in real life – then players and characters will value the un-pierceable AC bonuses from high Dexterity scores, leading them to choose light armor that does not interfere with those bonuses over the dubious protection of heavy armor that negates Dex bonuses. I do not believe that firearms as presented in the 5e DMG have any armor-piercing rules, but this would be an easy fix.

This is still going to lead to relatively low Armor Classes, making even high-level characters vulnerable to low-level mooks. One way of handling this would be to include more magical protection items as the campaign progresses, allowing characters to accumulate magical amulets, bracers, rings, and silk shirts that increase their AC. This might be the simplest option for the outright fantasy swashbuckling world I proposed in my last post, but it’s less useful for low-magic or historical settings.

For those more realistic settings, I have two ideas: add characters’ proficiency bonuses to their Armor Classes (a significant change to the rules) or make the Parry action implicit in the Defensive Duelist feat and several NPC statistics into a combat action available to everyone (a much less significant rule change). Adding the proficiency bonus to AC has the advantages of being easy to track (it modifies the base AC in all situations) and not requiring an action to use (thereby not changing the basic action economy of the game). The Parry option, on the other hand, just feels cooler.

For those without access to the optional feats listed in the Players Handbook, let’s unpack the Parry action from the Knight statistics on p. 54 of the DM’s Basic Rules:

Parry. The knight adds 2 to its AC against one melee attack that would hit it. To do so, the knight must see the attacker and be wielding a melee weapon.

That “2 to its AC” is equal to the knight’s proficiency bonus, so in other words (and trying not to duplicate the wording of the PHB text):

Parry. You can attempt to parry when a hostile creature scores an attack against you. To make the parry, you use your reaction to add your proficiency bonus to your AC, possibly turning aside the hit. To perform a parry, you must be able to see the attacker and be wielding a melee weapon.

I like this idea because it invokes the cut-and-thrust seesaw of swashbuckling fencing without over-complicating combat or changing the rules too far from normal D&D 5e. It strikes a good balance between the static Parry score of Savage Worlds and the complex choreography of Honor + Intrigue.

Anyway, that’s just something I needed to get out of my head. Does anyone else have any ideas for Armor Class in the context of a D&D 5e swashbuckling campaign?

Friday, May 8, 2015

My Next Campaign Setting

Jirelle, Pathfinder iconic Swashbuckler
(I definitely won't be using Pathfinder, whatever I do.)
I should be furiously typing away at Steamscapes, but I desperately need to drain the overflowing brain juices that are clogging my writing-pipes. The thing that's inconveniently obsessing me at the moment is the idea of a broad-based classic fantasy swashbuckler setting.

It's not that there aren't fantasy swashbuckler (or sword-and-cape) settings. I can think of Lace & Steel, 7th Sea, 50 Fathoms, and Freeport off the top of my head (and that's not even counting pseudo-real world settings like Honor + Intrigue and Pirates of the Spanish Main). The problem is that each of these settings is rather narrowly focused on either musketeers or pirates, but not really both. (Yes, there are pirates in Lace & Steel and 7th Sea, but both settings explicitly do not have Western Hemispheres, so they don't really do proper pirates.) 

The slightly broader-based settings (Lace & Steel and 7th Sea again) aren't classic fantasy either. There's no elves or dwarves or hobbits in either setting (though Lace & Steel does have centaurs and satyrs). Honestly, I like multi-species settings and so do most RPG gamers. 

Basically, I don't know of any Age of Sail equivalents to the Forgotten Realms or Golarion. 

(Yes, I'm fully aware that both settings -- Golarion and its iconic swashbuckler and gunslinger especially -- verge on being swashbuckling settings, but neither one is explicitly a sword-and-cape setting. I want a setting where chainmail and plate armor are completely passé.)

Here's what I want from my next campaign world:
  • Swordfights - specifically graceful duels of skill vs. skill, not brutal cleaving
  • Repartee - smack talk and speechifying should be in the heroes' arsenals
  • Acrobatics - swinging from falling chandeliers and leaping out windows
  • Panache - duh
  • Sex-positivism - 'cause I like sex
  • Multiple sentient species - 'cause I like inter-species sex
  • Democracy - 'cause I hate kings; maybe a Rome-like republican empire?
  • Gunpowder - explosions are cool and guns level the battlefield
  • Exploration - you have to have remote islands if you're going to have a pirate republic
  • Intrigue - for which you need established, competing governments
  • Upward mobility - PCs should be able to rise to rule nations, which would be easier to believe with a merchant nobility or meritocracy

I don't specifically feel the need for any emphasis on magic; despite being a wimpy nerd, I've always identified more with swordsmen than sorcerers. I really don't want any Lovecraftian twists; I'm completely over sucker-punching PCs.

I don't necessarily need classic D&D-style races, but I definitely want a range of humanoid species. Riffing off of Lace & Steel's half-horses and satyrs, I've been considering the idea of a world where the Greek and Roman inhuman races interbred with humanity, resulting in crossbreeds somewhat like tieflings and aasimar. They're distinctly not purely human, but more human-like than not. There might be bull-horned minotaur-born, elf-like dryad-born, omnisexual satyr-born, and cat-like sphinx-born. Heck, maybe there aren't any pureblood humans in the setting (or all the pure humans are the "primitive" natives of "Africa" and the "Americas").

I'm mainly thinking of this in preparation for my next duet campaign with Robin, but a stupid, stupid part of me almost wants to suggest abandoning A Gleam of Silver for this concept. You could easily run a magic-lite swashbuckling game in D&D 5e using only fighters (champions and battle-masters) and rogues (assassins, swashbucklers, and thieves) with maybe berserker barbarians and Way of the Open Hand monks (and maybe the Unearthed Arcana magic-less ranger). It might be fun to do a straight high-fantasy sword-and-cape setting, too,

A really, really stupidly stupid part of my brain wants to test-run several different game rules to figure out which one handles swashbuckling best. Savage Worlds is fast and furious, but the duels are almost too fast. D&D 5e looks like it could handle sword-and-cape -- especially with some of teh alternate rules in the DMG -- but it's an unproven commodity. Honor + Intrigue is built for swashbuckling, but previous experience showed the combat rules were almost too detailed. And despite being an early backer, I've never even attempted playtesting The Queen's Cavaliers. Alternating systems from week-to-week, though, would probably mean sticking with a more humanocentric setting, H+I and TQC don't have rules for non-humans.

Whew! I think I got all of that out of my system. Once Steamscapes is done, I owe it to all the hard work Robin and I have already put into it to get back to work on The King is Dead. If this fantasy swashbuckler thing continues to prey on my brain, I might turn it into the focus of future blog posts (I can't just keep giving away all the TKiD stuff, after all) -- but I also have to admit to a temptation to return to Regency/Gothic. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is coming out next February... 

Updated to fix the name of this danged game.

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...