Friday, January 18, 2013

Warping the Brains of the Next Generation

This week I got a strange and unique opportunity dropped into my lap, an offer that basically ran along the lines of : “come teach a class about fantasy to young impressionable minds.”

In a nutshell I was asked to put my own idea together for a class for a local private, cooperatively-run K-8 school. Though my first impulse was “hells yeah we throw on some Sabbath, play D&D everyday and then I lecture about some books to read for 8 minutes” I rallied and tried to put together something that has a fig leaf of educational value.

I tried to frame the class around worldbuilding broadly speaking, titling it “Imaginary Worlds” with an emphasis on the kids (I'm orienting to the older half of the school) creating their own fantasy world setting as a springboard for the real meat of creative writing and delving into real world mythology (Nordic, Greek, and Native American), physical geography, history and fantasy literature (I'm thinking some readings from Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Tolkien's The Hobbit, The Dark is Rising and maybe a few others if we have time). In other words, a class I would have given my proverbial left nut for when I was a tween.

Shockingly, the school gave the thumbs up and class begins in early February. But now I am left with the rather awkward question of: how the hell do I pull off such a class? I'm not a total greenhorn having taught English to grade school children in Slovakia and writing classes to interns at my last journalism gig, but the task does seem rather tall when I sit down and try and think out a real curriculum.

Of course the point here is not to crow (though as a Texan I am not above extended public braggery) nor to hem and haw (again something I do from time to time), but to plug back into that hive mind for ideas.

Have any of you, as educators, parents, aunts/uncles yadda yadda, had any experience trying to teach kids how to think about fantasy (broadly or a specific aspect)? Any specific recommendations for books and other material or just suggestions/tips in general?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

From the Hill Cantons Cook Pit: Halushky and White Gravy

A guesthouse is not a proper guesthouse in the Cantons proper without heaping platters of a hearty glue-like whey, potato, and meats concoction, halushky, staring back at you breakfast, lunch, dinner and night.

But why only vicariously try them through a mediated, imaginary avatar in a dubiously-run and often arbitrary game world? Here's your chance to bring weird cooking into the sterile comforts of your own modern, real world existence.

Hill Cantons Halushky
2-3 Large potatoes
Flour 4-5 tablespoons
1 egg
1/3 lb. Organ meat (or bacon if you are a wuss)
1 lb. Vryndza (uni-horned sheep cheese, substitute a milder goat cheese and milk in this plane of existence)
Salt (preferably extracted from the briny waters around Slumbering Ursine Dunes, but any salt will do)

Peel potatoes and finely shred them. Add egg and flour. Make a dough that is not too tough but not to watery. You may use more or less flour or add a little bit of water if it is too tough. Add 1 tsp of salt. Boil water with 2 tablespoons of the salt. Drop a little bit of the dough into the boiling water. Be sure the water is always boiling. When the halushky are done they will float on top of the water, pick them out with a strainer.

Fry organ meat (or bacon, if you must) until golden-brown. Chop finely. Heat cheese (with milk if you are using one of your Earth cheeses) until it makes a sauce. Be sure to stir and keep the heat low so as not to burn it.

Heat everything together, continually mixing. When it starts to boil, remove from the heat. Slather on a pool of mutagenic white gravy (see below) and meat as garnish, serve. The dish is usually accompanied by plum brandy, sheep's milk, and/or a horrific hangover.

White Gravy
Cost: 1 lady (sp)/clay jug
An omnipresent, semi-viscous white salty mess liberally poured on two of the major food groups of the cantons: dumplings and halushky. Mako, a black, peppery spice ground into the gravy, is in fact a beneficial mutagen conveying an immunity to psychonauts and other meta-pathogens that affect agency. Cantonal gravy is now exported widely through the Flailsnails multiverse.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Visual Appendix N for the Chaos Monk

The eighties in this country seemed to be a decade hellbent on sudden, sharp, inexplicable bouts of faddish madness; our great game was sadly one of them, martial arts and all things ninja another.

Though I was allergic then (well as I am now) to strenuous activities that involve bowing to balding middle-aged, blustering authority figures, there was of course quite a bit of bleedover as the decade picked up between the two wish-fulfillment sub-cultures. Alongside the funny dice there were foam nun-chucks, there were throwing stars and ninja movies, lots of ninja movies.

For all the aspiring Michael Dudikoffs who played through dungeons and wilds in the San Fernando Valley Y Camp and behind the temporaries of Gunn Junior High, the Chaos Monk is for you.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

New Class: the Chaos Monk

Chaos Monk
Requirements: Can not be eligible to be a Monk, WIS or INT less than 10
Prime Requisite: CON
Hit Dice: d5
Maximum Level: 8

For Mad Mox, he who journeyed through the depths of Hell just to serve again a murderous and demented clown. Fuck yeah!

It is said by the sages that “clerics” are a martial lot that look outwardly for divine power and that a sub-class of those are “monks” who look inwardly for the same. But what is known only by men of science and the gentlest of birth is that that sub-class has its own sub-class of practitioners that look “nowhere and everywhere” for the source of power: the confused and puerile way of the Chaos Monk.

Chaos Monks may use no armor and often will eschew the wearing of shirts, doublets and other clothing that obscure their abs. The sheer force of will involved in the suspension of disbelief in following this path does however allow them to add a DEX bonus and a further AC bonus of +1 for each 2 levels of advancement.

Further they are restricted to a select (and somewhat lameish) range of weapons typically used by their more lawful and competent brethren or ninja-loving tweens of the early 80s: bo and jo sticks, nun-chucks (sic), clubs, man catchers, bowie knives, and throwing stars.

Chaos Monk Level Progression
Experience Level Hit Dice (1d5)
0 1 1
1,251 2 2
2,501 3 3
5,001 4 4
10,001 5 5
20,001 6 6
40,001 7 7
80,001 8 8

Chaos Monks are rarely surprised (a 1 on a d8) and then only if spoken to by a member of the opposite gender. 

Due to the improbable nature of their powers, Chaos Monks are limited to only 8 levels of advancement. Further after the 5th level they may only advance by “kicking the asses” of an equal number of lower-level Chaos Monks to the level of advancement. (Low-level Chaos Monks as a consequent rule of thumb tend to avoid their higher-level equivalents like a bad case of scabies.)
Fucking Anarchy and Shit
Reaching 2nd level: a Chaos Monk may attempt a “kung-fu kick” in combat, a d5 attack that adds a +1 for each level attained.

Reaching 3rd level: Chaos Monks gain the ability to Speak with Fungi.

Reaching 4th level: At 4th level, Chaos Monks can Flip over the back of their opponent while making a high-pitched scream.

Reaching 6th level: Chaos Monks gain the ability to cast Confusion once a day on not just themselves but others.

Reaching 8th level: Chaos Monks can use the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. It is unclear whether this has any real mechanical effect however.

Inexplicably they can be of any alignment. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

News from the Southlands

The campaign news update has been a weekly fixture of the Hill Cantons campaign over the last year, one that I immensely enjoy (having once had a job writing news briefs of the mundane and real). Beyond that satisfaction I think it adds a nice (perhaps illusory) touch to the playing out of the whirly sandbox bits (the external world events that chug alongside the players actions), since some of the entries loosely revolve around the random meta-system of the Chaos Index.

While it mostly resides on the public Google plus Hill Cantons page (a clearinghouse for campaign information in general), I will be sharing fortnightly some of that round-up here on the blog.
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—to either of the two companies of northern local hero-residents--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. Undoubtedly Smok has accumulated—or found—great treasures of his own in the depths of that Unsunly temple.

Last month's abrupt assassination of the Decade-King has set the salons and wine dens of the great hostels have been a-buzz with the most favored of all Kezmaroki blood-sports: politics. Next week our most beloved and sun-dappled Patriarch will solemn intoned the ritual opening of the Hundred Days, the ceremonial political jockeying between royal candidates selected by the Supernal College of Successors. At the end of the period—and a new Decade King emerges--an albino catoblepas will be set alight on a gilded pyre. Much (hotly-debated) augury is made around the precise shape and color of the resulting whiffs of smoke and the tones of the dying beast's bellows. 

High society in the city has opened its doors to a charming new entry to the ranks of the nobility: Lord Gurgi, Master of Tables, Sub-Patriarch of Ironspire Island, etc. Though some detractors say he is both ape-man and a lowly linkboy to a murderous clown, others welcome his spirited hambone dancing.

Eight “white hippogriff” royal candidates, direct kin of the last Decade King, have already been announced for the Hundred Days succession process. Only two “dark hippogriff” candidates (believed by many detractors to have dubious pedigrees) to date have been revealed. The Restorationists have been making their usual monarchist noise about banning such upstarts--to the predictable derision of the orchestrated street riots of the Wellsprings of the Crowd (both “dark” candidates are rumored to be backed by the Autarchs). There are rumors that the eccentric Lady Mosna is busy creating a pedigree for Lord Gurgi.
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 ruined environs of High Kezmarok are alive again with the pungent smell of horse dung. Southlands horse traders have begun their biannual halfway housing of herds on their way to the renowned Black Horse Fair in the Hill Cantons town of Marlankh (the Cold Fair starts next month).

Speaking of northerners and their uncouth drawl, a small private army of rough men much akin to the self-styled Nefarious Nine have been seen making the rounds of curio dealers on the lower west side. The ruffians--led by Mandamus a surprisingly erudite scholar—are rumored to have sold enormous sacks worth of moon-styled gemstones purloined from the depths of the undercity itself. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Worldbuilding in a Single Night?

A longtime friend and reader asked me recently asked me what one would read if you were building an old school DnDish-fantasy world of your own for the first time.

She rejected on one hand my usual “bottom-up” advice ripped from the middle sections of the 1st ed DMG (simple starting town plus dungeon plus small scale map of places between) and my rather more involved “go out and read these twenty real-world books on social/economic history, physical geography, mythic cycles yadda yadda” type advice. She, instead, wanted sources that could help her create enough of an interesting homebrew world that it didn't feel completely like a movie set backdrop–and here's the real groaner--but digestible enough to be read in a single (if long) night.

It's a daunting question.

Here's the best my wee brain can come up with. First a little quick general advice:

Practice Just-In-Time, Long-Haul Creation. Create just enough for you to feel comfortable in answering the questions and anticipating the choices of players. So your comfort level is above just a town and dungeon, figure out what your level of questions is “just enough”. Things like the name of the realm, a few stereotypes about its people (these can be contradicted in play after all), the big ticket geographical features (a volcano-ridden long chain of barrier mountains, poison fungal wood etc), the local enemies/threats and the like.

Now that you have a starting base, think of the first session and its prep as the beginning of a long journey: one step by enjoyable step you figure out more and more of the specific details. Give yourself room to breath and grow. Don't paint yourself in a corner. 

Group by Levels of Detail. Related to the above, even if you want more than just that small scale map, it makes sense to group what you actual detail to that smaller scale in the first few sessions. Put more attention into the NPCs, unique features, and general lay of the land to that small, bounded area. Think of it as the "zoom function", putting in more to the places that the PCs are likely to visit. 

Play 20 Questions. Jeff Rients famous 20 campaign questions to ask yourself is an excellent (and quick) way to put your head around the types of setting details player may want.

Now the actual question, what to read:
Ed Greenwood's “Plan before you play” Dragon magazine #63 and “Law of the Land” #65. The former article (really Greenwood was at his best before Forgotten Realms was published) is a great little thought exercise walkthrough: draw up a vague regional map, jot down some countries with a few unique characteristics, then extrapolate relationships between these realms (what are the trade routes, who is likely to go to war with whom etc.) A quick and dirty way to think holistically about how the region hangs together organically.

The second piece is another one of my all-time favorites. Ostensibly it's about the rather dull subject of creating legal systems, but the piece wanders so far off the reservation that it hits all kinds of subjects from weird local folklore/customs to how to develop interesting political intrigues. Again another piece that is both interesting and thought-provoking in getting you

MAR Barker's “Create a Religion in Your Spare Time for Fun and Profit. Again a piece that's more about thinking through a broad range of questions than direct “how to” advice (I find these types of articles far more inspiring and provoking to my creative process than the rather canned, predictable advice you get from most gaming material). Barker takes on how to create more than just cardboard deities of a vaguely familiar real world type, but how to start a thought process that weaves in a coherent religion/cosmology/mythology that relates to the “actual” world of its fantasy practitioners. (Something for the longhaul creation process).

Oh great wisdom of the collective hive mind, your turn to help a sister out. I'm sure I am blanking on any number of useful resources. What short readings/tips/tools would you suggest? And what makes them great for this purpose?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Face-to-Face Play in the Year of the Snake

While the Google Plus front of the Hill Cantons keeps chugging along week after week, I had been lamenting the many-month gap of the real life group—a streak blessedly broken with a soiree at the palatial new Casa del Kutaliko a week and change back.

Dragging out the dusty cardboard boxes crammed in the hundreds with lead and pewter figures, lichen trees, dungeon tiles, silver beads, bits of rock and other household flotsam/jetsam pressed into service reminded me—alongside the more immediate human joy of having real, laughing faces of friend-players around the table—that although I love my virtual play group it never quite closes the gap.

Don't get me wrong, the experience is quite nearly “there”, real friendships have even grown out of the experience and the consistency of that much play (closing in on 70 sessions) has been a longtime goal of this campaign. We even have the long post-game (and work morning-hating) bull session.

But there are the little moments I love in a face-to-face game: the arched eyebrow, the “oh shit” expression flashing on the face, the sudden collective crackup, the dramatic hand flourish--all the little bits of nonverbal communication that only roughly translate when you are looking at a third of a torso on a foot-wide screen. The minis, artery-choking foodstuffs, booze--the stage props of tabletop play--naturally, something I always miss—even the sudden forcible intrusion of a hijacking junior DM.

The long and short for 2013: expect more rolling of funny-shaped dice and the quiet death throes of lead men around my white pine dining room table.