Thursday, June 13, 2019

And Now the News Draft Download on Patreon

It's self-styled Throwback Thursday and having just released the 34-page draft booklet of Hill Cantons news to my Patreon backers I am going to indulge my summer whims and re-post an old post (with small updates) I put together on the use of campaign news to cohere and maintain a longstanding campaign (part of my old series on building dynamic sandboxes that you can find here). 

News as Campaign Glue, the Hill Cantons Method

Seven of the ten years of the Hill Cantons existence has been spent weekly online. One of the biggest hurdles with running games online—or hell even face to face with adult schedule--is social cohesion. There is just something about the lack of direct human contact that ratchets up the flake factor beyond the usual range of adult scheduling issues: players drop out of games within minutes of kickoff; gamemasters cancel sessions with wild abandon, campaigns fizzle after a single game; the video hangout freezes/drops/freaks the fuck out etc.

One coping mechanism is that you have to be a lot more conscious and deliberate about engaging players between sessions. Creating a campaign rhythm and rapport because vital. At the low end of the effort poll is creating a community page or other discussion and information hub, but I have found that it helps for a gamemaster to be proactive and create certain regular entry points for the players to be able to plug into and feel the dynamism of a campaign.

Beyond the weekly “take,” a combined After Action Report and loot/exp haul, I have churned out with on again/off again regularity a weekly news report as a “campaign cohesion linchpin.” Mirroring the exact style of 50-word news briefs I had to churn out each and every day for a while as a news editor, the reports invariably feature 3-4 points (that rarely go over three sentences) and an image. You can see examples hereand here.

My campaign news briefs come in at least several recognizable stripes (often combining two or more):
Obvious Adventure Hook. The incredibly not-subtle, bang-you-over-the-head “here be adventure” hook. Usually involving a discernible mission, macguffin and/or defined bounty. This is always either an announcement that I have designed a new area or to a tease a site they may have missed in their sandbox explorations (hate wasting material).

Example: For five long centuries the sleepy Kezmaroki-ruled island of Ptuj has tolerated with a resigned shrug its sister isle, Tolmin, lost to the Weird. Last year alas Smok, a youngish offspring of the great wyrm Zirnitra herself, descended on great wings onto the House of the Axe, a shunned temple of the cthonic goddess called the Mistress of the Mountains. Terrified Ptujians, whose rural residents have become the favored snack of the great beast, are offering a substantive bounty for the slaying of the dragon: gender-appropriate nubile concubines, a small mountain of the island's vintage corn liquor, a local latifundia estate, and 10,000 suns of cold hard cash.

The Subtle Hook. Perhaps only subtle relative to the above is a mixed item (from the list below) that may contain a line signifying that an actionable adventure or geographic place may be interesting enough to warrant in-session exploration. The actual site or mission will often be obscured.

Example: Vatek son of Vatek, is claiming to have unearthed a 500-stone beet from his tenant farmer's field in the hamlet of Ctyri Ctvrt. Most strange of all is the twisted face-like blemish near the giant beet's crown. A local shepherd claims to have heard a booming voice emanate from the storage hut where it is currently housed two nights ago. 

Oblique Background. The Hill Cantons has developed firmly in the bottom-up worldbuilding camp, accreting levels of detail as the campaign rolls on (really starting just as a wilderness map of a very small bounded area). I have a strong preference for presenting small interesting little bites than dumping large reams of setting info.

Example: The Blood Rains have swept into Kezmarok leaving syrupy, sticky puddles and residues throughout the city. The Patriarch has declared the ritual sympathetic mourning period to commiserate with our most holy Sun Lord as he suffers his silver-chained beating from his spurned former wife, the Celestial Lady. On pain of a hefty fine, all residents of the city must wear the customary mustard yellow through this period.

The Big Ticket Event. Most all long campaigns start to generate dramatic large-scale events; the bloody wars and earth-shattering cataclysms that make our world so lovable. Some of these truly huge events sculpt the world the players have to negotiate, others are significant and dramatic but may be actionable of the party (the latter here).

Example: Two weeks of inexplicable, furious flurry of activity in the Turko-Fey siege camps have been followed by an even more ominous development--a fusillade of shelling by the dreaded dragonne-cannons. While bonders have braced pikes-awaiting for the usual half-hearted sortie following the bombardment, the guns seem to have not abated in their fury. In the first time in the five centuries of the Kezmaroksiege the outer of the three massive wall seems dangerously close to a breach.

The Whimsy. Quite often the last news item is an example of “I write whatever the fuck I want.” These on self-indulgent ocassion run over long from my usual “keep it quick” format. Shockingly also often these tend to morph into Subtle Adventure Hooks.

Example: Of the many family-dominated usury guilds to escape the collapse of last decade, the Frazas were among the most infamous in deftly transferring their massive debts back to the public treasuries of the cantonal councils. But long before this, they had accrued notoriety far and wide for another feat: the weaving of the Tapestry of Xvikz. A full two centuries ago, then Frazas family head, Franzoht Fair-Breeched, called on his dark powers to summon and bind the Xvikz, a demon from the darkest, deepest hell of high finance.

A great lover of petty humiliation Franzoht tormented the creature by refusing to put the dreaded demon's powers to appropriate use instead compelling him to weave a great commemorative tapestry from the velvety firmament of the domed heavens. That the required scene was both cloying and derivative only added to the sulk of the demon who plodded away needle point in hand. Years stretched into decades as the demon passively-aggressively refused to finish in a timely manner—and each successive generation of bull-headed Frazas refusing to release the demon in turn led to impasse.

Inexplicably fourteen years ago, Xvikz declared his last stitch sewn. Though the resulting tapestry was horrifically underwhelming, its unveiling was heralded as a major cultural achievement in Overkingdom aesthete circles and became a much-sought fixture of upper crust soirees in the borderlands.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Morvna and Blue Bear


[The following is an "origin story" of sorts for the Revoca Hill Cantons Book and a fatherly love letter to my son, Sammy, who is the original Blue Bear creator. If you find this blog helpful and most of all want to help me get a new Hill Cantons book out please consider backing my Patreon.]

The Revoca Chant of Morvna and Blue Bear (Modrý Medvěd)
So it came to pass in the lands of Morvna the Callipygian, first and last Petty-King of Revoca, that the lord felt lonely and ill at ease both in his heart and viscera.

“I feel jejune,” said the crapulous monarch. “Send onto word to my hirsute brother-in-arms in many a quest, the mighty and semi-divine master of the Dunes, Medved, that we can make merry again and find pleasures in the struggles of man versus antagonist.”

A fortnight passed and in reply, the godling in much apology said: “Oh but great and puissant friend. I am but busy this decade with my vexing war with the race of newts, I will send onto you in my stead my nephew, Modrý Medvěd (Blue Bear), so that he can attend in your hall.”

And lo before him stood a great bear. And his color was of deepest blue and his axe poled. “I come onto you as a friend and bearer of arms in your household,” said Blue Bear. And Morvna embraced him mightily and welcomed him to his hall and many oaths were sworn under the shadow of the house-sabre.

Their adventures were many and many a foe fell. [The Stuzika Cycle, undoubtedly of later origin in the Revocan oral folk tradition, accounts for the many travails and deeds the duo had in their struggle in that the ancient forest.]

And so it was on the fifth year that Ute the Great King of the Nemec came with his immeasurable host to the hill-border of Revoca. “Send homage to me and ye shall keep your lands in my service. For I must must have my army feed and cross your lands to that of Marlinkh.”

In reply Morvna and Blue Bear sent terse and cryptic word, “deese nuts”

As so a great battle ensued. The arrows fell dark in clouds so that our beloved Sun Lord was not seen. The host of Revoca, mighty in elan but not in numbers, fell. Only Morvna and Blue Bear stood weakened on the field.

Thus strode Ute in his breastplate golden to them. With a mighty swing Morvna was laid low.

Woeful Blue Bear wept. The Sun Lord moved in his own grief and finally he spoke, “oh Ute, great lord of all you see, today a man dies and I am verklempt.”

Ute's glory became grief. He wept and embraced the body of the fallen. “Heroic Morvna will find rest under the leaves of the ancient beech. His body will lie adorned with gilded orb, trident mighty, and many a stone precious to guide his husk-spirit to the heavenly firmament. Come Blue Bear, ye shall be Het-Bear of my realm and Morvna's sons shall rule as vassals in fair Revoca eternal.”

With great and rueful shake of cobolt head Blue Bear said “preved.” And with that vanished beneath the soaring trunks of the Stuz.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Five Stupidest Weapons of the Hill Cantons


[Pandering note: if you find this blog helpful and most of all want to help me get a new Hill Cantons book out please consider backing my Patreon.]

Hear ye, hear ye! For this month-only the Hill Cantons only semi-nomadic weaponsmithery, Zikmund and Sons, will be making its cutting-edge devices of things martial available in its silk-canopied booth in Revoca Town's Trhove. Come for the free kolaches, stay for the marvels of tools of harm both wondrous and jealousy-producing. Near complete satisfaction or your gold suns back*!

Lucernaštít (Lantern-Shield)
+1 AC and d4+1 damage, 140 gold. Right-handed nocturnal duelists, murderhole specialists, and compulsive self-lovers fear not, Zikmund and Sons has you covered. This state-of-the-arm steel buckler fitted with both external and internal lantern brackets allows you to be protected, illuminated, and weaponized all while keeping a free hand. But wait there is more, each shield comes with built-in dirk, steel gauntlet, and gratuitous buckler-spike allowing the wielder to make a single strike per round. With a mere 1 in 20 chance of a trifling left arm break on being struck (say if you want to quantify on a randomized 20-scale a 'natural 20') this is an essential must buy!

Lantern sold separately.

Spring Dagger
d4+1 damage, 70 gold. Get an edge on your enemies with this nasty surprise of a sticker. Simply press a button on the hilt and ho, you have three blades for one. Buy our special silver-plated model at a mere 210 gold for dealing with that stubborn lycanthrope or finanical advisor problem in your life.

Blowgun-Shield
+1 AC, d4-2 damage, 25 gold. Stay protected while you penetrate your enemies from up to 30 feet away. This amazing steel buckler combined with central holder/blowgun is available on clearance: buy one get another free. Zikmund and Sons is practically giving them away! (Inquiries regarding the addition of paralytic, lethal, and passive-aggressive poison applications should discreetly seek out the Guild of Slayers and Bloodletters in Marlinko).

Tabat-Kopi
D6 damage plus special, 75 gold. Designed for the discriminating footman, the Tabat-kopi (also referred to “the grabber” or “groper” by the vulgar of tongue) is an eight-foot polearm fitted with a razor-edged, grasping-hand mechanism that can dismount a man-sized foe a full 40 percent of the time. Afraid of being in the frontline? Soil your metal breeches not, this product allows you to strike from the second rank!

Tabat-Kopi, Giant
2,000 gold. Need something a little heaftier for your grabbing needs? We have it. The Tabat-Kopi now comes in a 50-foot-long model weighing a convenient single ton. Act now while supplies last.

*All Zikmund and Sons products are not available in Himyar, core provinces of the Overkingdom, or other realms overly valuing the rule of law. All refund guarantees include a modest restocking/reprocessing fee of 39 gold suns and an additional cantonal inspector-graft fee of 26.5 gold suns. Zikmund and Sons assumes no liability for the mangling of limbs in its products. Before using any Zikmund and Sons product, users should seek out the advice of masters of games for appropriate class restrictions. Dual-weapon-use prohibited while employing products except where permitted by ludic law.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Slumbering Ursine Dunes: The Extended Dance Version (Series Omnibus)


[Before we get into today's matter at hand, if you find this blog helpful and most of all want to help me get a new Hill Cantons book out please consider backing my Patreon. I am about to drop the first chapter of the new Revoca Hill Cantons book next week so it's really the optimum time.]

Going on two years now 1-2 times a month I seem to field a variant of the question “are there plans for a compiled version of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes books?” With a whole damn reddit thread (that I was blissfully ignorant of for a fortnight) and What Ho off my plate I think I've reached a tipping point.

Yes, I want to do an omnibus of the first four SUD books.

And I want to do it sooner rather than later with an eye for actual value and increased playability for both existing and new readers.


Likely Going In:
  • All Four Books. All four SUD-kickstarter books back-to-back in sequence. So expect to see Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Marlinko, Misty Isles and What Ho under one cover with one unified, sharper, more user-friendly layout. Hell I want this for my own table.
  • Larger Format. Likely switching from digest size to full 8.5 x 11. While digest is my own personal jam, we need to let some of those cramped tables and illustrations breathe.
  • Hardcover. Preferably with stitching (better quality binding, easier to lay flat over time) and likely with a high-quality traditional print run rather than only Print on Demand.
  • Index. A traditional back of the book index to assist with play at the table.
  • Bookmarks for Digital. The PDF edition will have them for reasons above, a perennial ask for the books from readers and reviewers.
  • More Illustrations. Luka's generous and productive mind packed the last two SUD books with illustrations, looking back from the Dunes and Marlinko they could use some more interior illustrations to snaz them up.
  • Unified Appendices. All those new monsters, items, new classes, subsystems, and weirdo subsystems will be organized together for ease of use.
  • New Cover. Hell, we do judge books by their cover, don't we? Something big, something splashy and hitting the Hill Cantons aesthetic just so.

Maybe:
  • Supplementary and Cut Material. In the maybe category is pulling in wider material to give the books more context and usability. Why I say maybe is that I am laser focused right now on not only finishing the Revoca book but getting it out much quicker than the previous books (and at the same quality level) which means realistically my writing time is sparser. But with my recent move and crazy person level of organization I keep finding whole notebooks of campaign notes relevant to all four books (tons of monsters, items, and even some dungeons) and pinko DIY me loves throwing value at readers who support the Hydra.
  • Design Notes. How and why the sausage was made.
  • Largescale Aesthetic Makeover. Maybe even if we do crowdfunding really kicking it up some design chops (more than than the significant makeover I am imagining above even).
  • Strong Unaccounted Stuff that Readers Want. Seriously, here's your time to chime in. What do you want? Nagging questions from the text? New vistas? The sky is the limit.


Monday, February 18, 2019

Details on the Revoca Hill Cantons Book

I wanted to give readers of this here blog a better sense of the Revoca book ahead, the fifth Hill Cantons book and the first non-SUD installment. If you want to support the creation of this book please consider supporting my broke writers ass at the Hill Cantons Patreon here.

The Revoca Book Elevator Pitch
The Revoca Canton book will lean in much harder to the Mythic Wilderness theme readers saw in Slumbering Ursine Dunes (in this case the old growth woods of beech of the Stuzika with its cycles dominated by the forest czar Leshi giants and the town and dungeon bordering and in synch with its reaches) again with deeper elements of the acid Slavic inspired but still peculiar Hill Cantons cosmology playing a much heavier role. It comes straight off of a campaign phase I ran in 2015-2016 with a mix of old and new players playing new low level PCs.


The wonderful Revoca Canton players map done by the talented Gus L
What You Can Expect in It:
  • A return to the classic sandbox triptych of some of the best early D&D adventures like Keep on the Borderlands: small settlement, wilderness, tentpole dungeon (with some outlier smaller dungeons). In other words a small geographic mini-campaign that can be slotted in a forested mountain remote area of other campaigns and is capable of supporting either a short or long period of play sessions.
  • A heavier dark Slavic fairy tale vibe. Drawing on much more of the supernatural creatures and folk magic of Western and Southern Slavic traditions. Currently the draft has 15 creatures taken straight from these stories (expect that to be expanded).
  • A Twin Peaks/Local Hero/Northern Exposure local eccentrics in a remote small-town vibe (surrounded by a slightly menacing forest and wilderness with layers of mystery). There will be an NPC-driven (but not overly complicated and hard to run) dynamic sandbox.
  • A long rumors and hooks section that will be presented in two optional ways:
  • the traditional random table for those DMs who want to just jump right in.
  • As an opening scenario—an annual “truce” party at the local noble lady's house in which the creatures of the mythic wilds rub shoulders with the local human notables—in which the party one-stop shop learns all the players.
  • A pointcrawl of the Stuz, the mythic wilderness that has sandbox dynamics to keep it changing and feeling alive. The seasonal conditions of the forest change with whatever Leshi has control of the czar's crown at that moment and so do the relative fortunes of the weird denizens (and yes there is a Chaos Index related).
  • A tentpole dungeon, the Great Aviary of Komius Otmar. The main adventure site sits on the opposite side of the wilderness from town. The upperworks sit under a vast glass dome and have a huge array of mythic bird like creatures (taken from a wide variety of world traditions or invented whole cloth by me). It also has some sublevels of extreme danger and reward. The underworks play with a lot of vertical connections and non-linear space with lots of entrances and exits to various places.
  • A hidden payoff mini-wilderness area, Beyond the Mural, that lies...well behind a magic mural in the underworks. This is a whole square few miles of a lush orchid/lily field and rainforest pocket dimension with its own mysteries, sites, and creatures.




Thursday, February 7, 2019

Fifth Hill Cantons Book is Underfoot, Come Be Patronizing

Marlinko hillscape by Luka Rejec

The cat's out of the bag in an interview today about the fifth Hill Cantons book, a yet unnamed project that covers the small settlement-wilderness-dungeon classic set up of tiny and weirder Revoca Canton. I'm 26 pages in, but boy howdy is my writing slow and creaky af.

Readers of this blog will also have noted the sheer, sad neglect of this space for going on three years. Between workaholic political day jobbery, dading (these aren't words), and hobby publishing it just squeezes your time/energy too hard. Unfortunately it has also squeezed the vital pipeline and ferment that comes from throwing out mad shit on the wall and having you fine folks riff and mutilate it in real time here.

But hey I'm at a crossroads after moving to Austin and other massive life changes when it comes to continuing writing and designing things ludic and fantastical.

Which gets me to the pitch, I just launched a Hill Cantons Patreon. 

This Patreon is pretty damn simple in concept:

  • I will produce a “chapter” (roughly 5-18 pages) of new adventure locales, pointcrawls, weirdo NPCs, bizarre items, my usual shit in other words.
  • Each chapter will mostly build toward a final published book or game, in this case Revoca Project X and will likely be released every 2-5 weeks.
  • I will add goals as we go along to produce not just my own written content but also supporting illustrations, cartography, etc from some of our other starving artists in the milieu.
And guess what? You don't get dinged monthly if I don't make deadline. Your support only comes in when I finish a section—and like the Slumbering Ursine Dunes kickstarter I plan on doing right by those who do support this along the way and on the backend. And looky here Luka Rejec has already generously made this eye-poppingly lovely banner of Marlinko for the project above (you should also support his Patreonas he is trying to make a go of things too). 

It's a virtuous cycle upwards if you like the work I have done so far on this. Please click here to patronize.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The World of the Hill Cantons Revisited

It's probably a testimony to how insanely busy and distracted I was over the last year with campaigns in the so-called real world, but I have been discovering and rediscovering all kinds of sadly neglected Hill Cantons material as I methodically work backwards through Google Plus archiving well over 1,000 related posts. 

One great little gem is the following map drawn by one of my fecund of creative partners, Luka Rejec (go support his Patreon and keep this talented guy fed and clothed.) Drawn from my own crappy players map of six years ago (which you can see in this revised post below). It's a rather nice view of the southwestern quad of Zem, the Hill Cantons campaign world. It provides a nice context to the four books of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes series which all take place in an inch wide area right in the middle. 
click ye here.
What the Hell is This Special Snowflake?
This Slavic acid fantasy snowflake is the world of Zem. The Hill Cantons is a region proper (a loose collection of poorly-run borderlands cantons ostensibly ruled by the Overking), the name of the ten-year campaign--and of course now a four-part published series to be ignored and smiled at indulgently like an eccentric uncle.

Zem is a world divided into four near-symmetrical parts, double bisected by the World Canal, domed by the heavenly firmament, and riding on the shell of the World Turtle that swims in a spiraling loop through the cosmic void. It is believed to have its reflection in an mirroring Anti-Reality.

Old wives also foolishly believe it to be a spherically-shaped, concentric “shellword” , a world inside of an Overworld and containing another Underworld. And that the heavenly firmament is but the illuminated rock underside of that upper layer of the world which itself elliptically orbits an outer sun, one of countless billions.

But that's crazy talk.
You can click on me. 
Where did Zem Come From?
Some believe that a dreaming Overgod in floated from Demonspace to this dimension and created it in his self-loathing/loving image. Others believe that the world is but a psychic projection of another, a shadowy cave of folk-spirits and broken platonic ideals.

What Kind of Cracked God Would Want to Live Here?
For a world dominated by a monotheistic religion (the Sun Lord and Solarity) that denies even the existence of other divine forces, Zem is crawling wall to wall with countless cohorts of failed godsgodlingslocal godsbeast godshero cults, and atrophied gods.

Read all about it in the Hill Cantons Cosmology if you aren't asleep yet. Or see here for the Cosmological Appendix N


Just What Exactly is Up with the Weird?
The Weird is a marble-cake band of mythic wilderness/underworld and magitech other dimensions bleeding over and living in a constantly changing/moving (dialectical) tension with human civilization. It is a shifting zone of Other Reality. It's where the feral things are.

But I said it way better and with more detail hereOne of the in-game models of this is the Chaos Index campaign idea

Civilization?
Human civilization is smaller, more thinly-rooted and more inwardly-focused than our world. There's a small-scale survey of the campaign spots in Hill Cantons Compendium II , but here's the big picture rundown:

The Overkingdom of Nemec, Nurian, Heimeti, and Pahr Lands, a “bright colors” psychic projection of late 16th century Western and Southern Slavic (the Pahr) and German (the Nemec) countries. The coreland Overkingdom has three large semi-autonomous borderlands regions: the Hill Cantons, the Translittoral Canton of Hoimatbuch and the Marches of Nur (famous for its War Bears and kuduks).

Marlinko Canton. Well you can read your eyes off about Marlinko city proper here and the greater Marlinko Canton here. The central original hub of the campaign. 

Revoca Canton.  A tiny, remote canton even odder than fever-dreaming Marlinko, the fourth campaign hub--and my next book! Read a tour of it here

Kezmarok on the Rock and Over The Water, a former empire now clinging to life in a half-ruined metropolis after 500 years by the Turko-Fae. Run by the Decade King, a monarch that until late was deposed and blinded each decade. Quite a bit written about this glorious dump herehere, and here.

Himyar, the 19th century Orientalist/pre-Muslim Arabic-ish “Scarlet Sultanate” of the south (with a splash of Clark Ashton Smith necromancy). 

Hy-Brasos, barely-settled Magyar-esque horse nomads cum feudalists with war wagons. Pity the poor dirt-gnomes, glammer-slyphs and talking dogs enslaved by them. 

The Kozak hordes, Old Pahr horse nomads. The western horde being led by Hetboy Pavol.

Oiorpatathat distant and exotic isle near the resting point of the Sun Lord's daily ride, are a fine, strong-boned, if verbally assertive race of Amazons noted for their love of high-crested, baroque helmets, polished armor, and knitting circles.  

Races and Places Weird
Hyperboreans. A long-fallen, world-spanning super-human civilization that possessed great lost sorcerous techologies (read Kirbyesque space gods/science fantasy). Shit went south a millennia ago and their Necromancer-King successor-states left great undercities and ruins on their way out.

Anticantonal Eld. Lords of one of the Cold Hell (a rigid, hierarchical anti-reality). You know, these assholes.

Turko-Fae. Grey-skinned and inscrutable, these strange turbaned warlords have laid seige lines outside Kezmarok for five centuries. They wipe clean (literally) any bit of civilization they wrestle control over.

Grugach. Crazed homicidal and anarchic they pore forth from the so-called "Summer Country" in elk-riding hordes to lay waste to...well anything.

Vlko. A lost (but found by the players) Old Pahr kingdom.

The Feral Shore. A former Kezmaroki borderlands completely wiped clean 500 years ago by the Turko Fey. Now thick with Old Pahr mythic wilderness and the center stage for the current campaign.

So Wait, Aren't We Still Talking About an Elfgame Here?
Yes, yes we are. While I will admit to slipping semi-embarrassingly into long daydreams during the real world grind, there is no childhood hand-carving figurines, collection of awkward short stories for my made-up world. The HC is a creation that has no independent force driving it other than the anarchic and organic process of layer being laid down on lair from the repeated bruising contact with the play table over seven years of running it.

It's a campaign world that has an arc divided up my discernible “phases”. Starting as a West Marches, radically plotless and exploration style campaign, it morphed into a broad-bases sandbox with layers of accreting layers of mystery. (That devolution plotted here)

Still the game, D&D and its microexploration focus, drives the setting. And all roads lead to the dungeon.