Friday, July 24, 2015

Suggested Readings for Running Fantasy Cities

Regrets weigh on my mind. I cut a few sections from the Fever-Dreaming Marlinko manuscript and one of them I am already rueful about is the Suggested Reading section.

The readings from the gaming product list (I will post the non-fictional and fictional suggestions if there is reader interest) are for the most part geared around the central design challenge that nagged the hell out of me during the writing and playtesting: how can we do a better job presenting gameable fantasy cities by minimizing the traditional layering of boring, not-useful mundanities (the whole “here's a hobbit bootmaker with 3 hp and two daughters” syndrome) and maximizing things that either give it more flavor or make for better adventures at the table?

The products in the list below are all things that helped me think that framing question through (though it's up to y'all to decide if Marlinko succeeds).

In-Print Gaming
There's been a good deal of digital ink spilled on this one and for good reason—it is a forceful, articulate partisan of the “can the mundane” way of running large, sprawling cities. Of particular utility at the table are the numerous generators for things such as random streets, neighborhoods, taverns, NPCs (and their quirks and motivations), etc.

In a recent social media exchange WA author Trey Causey (and for full disclosure, one of my fellow co-partners in the Hydra Collective) said:“ If you want a Lankhmar or New Crubozon, it means the city has to be almost a character. It needs to inhabit mostly a space of content in players' minds, not as much a place of spatial location."

This seems not only broadly true but something I found deeply inspiring about WA's centerpiece City (a 1930s-ish fantasy NYC). I found his general approach of imaging the hell out of the features of a city that make it unique and memorable coupled with a neighborhood focus (with sidebars and boxes for unique social features or gameable charts) to be worth reading for the how to bring out the flavor and life in a fantasy city. You get a strong whiff of it on his blog index.

Glorantha produced a wonderfully adventurable city in the Chaosium-era boxed sets (republished together with a huge expansion by Moon Design). While I found some of the building entries to be on the bland side in Pavis, the product makes up for it by having evocative and interesting factions, distinct neighborhoods (each with their own street gang), town god cult (Pavis), dwarven undercity and best of all a massive ruinscrawl in the next-door Big Rubble.

The city write-up section is a flavorful exploration of an Asian-inspired city (and thus a nice departure from the standard more Western-based city books). I love the variant equipment lists and neighborhood encounter charts.

Lesserton and Mor seems to be directly inspired by the Big Rubble or at least it's very similar (ruinscrawl next to small base town). I found Lessertown, as a good solid example of an interesting adventurer boomtown, to be surprisingly more interesting than the ruined Mor.

Out of Print Gaming
City adventures run as much or more on navigating humanity and information as they do on site exploration. As such Cities by Midkemia Press (and later Chaosium) with it's massive array of city encounter charts is a huge inspiration for its breadth and depth (covering everything from a table of accidental jostlings of and by NPCs to a sub-table for the rare appearance of gods). The back section of the booklet is an intriguing downtime system that lets players run a minigame for what happens to them between adventures. 

(Btw Jeremy Duncan's cover for Marlinko is a bit of an homage to the second edition cover by Richard Becker).

First most on any list of suggested readings for fantasy cities just has to be Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories. TSR's first and second edition are uneven but have some highly useful urban geomorphs and a beautiful map (that allows space for said geomorphs).

City State of the Invincible Overlord
The granddaddy of all fantasy gameable cities has to make the list even for all its mundane aspects. I dig the weird little sub-systems such as the strange and vicious court system.

City State of the World Emperor
Much as above though I found much of the actual city detail to be weirder, more evocative and more interesting than its brother CSIO.

Loaded down with a heap of mundane descriptions and some of the worst and blandest character names, Midkemia's Jonril makes the cut by having a really interesting expedition sub-system for generating missions in the nearby howling wilderness of the Sunken Lands.

Friday, July 17, 2015

A Quick Tour of Marlinko Canton

Despite being the geographically largest of the Hill Cantons, Marlinko Canton (affectionately known as “Bloody” or “Sun-Damned, Fucking Marlinko” by its neighbors) is far and away the least densely populated. Much of its cedar-covered, ferrous red-soiled hillscape lies wholly inside the Weird and its not uncommon to feel the sudden, palpable electric shockwall and instant cessation of bird song that marks entering the mythical wilds several times strolling along a country back road.

As such human settlement clusters tightly and nervously together in the Ostrod river basin. A fertile region with its rich soils bi-annually renewed by the super-nutrients of the Blood Rains brought on by Habeka the Celestial Lady's whipping of our dear Sun Lord with her silver chains.
But don't be fooled by the bucolic whitewashed and blackwood-sided villages with their smiling floral-embroidered-tuniced peasants and bluff  red-faced rural boyars, their superficial rural easiness masks a life as strange and dream-cast as their big city capital, Marlinko.

Indeed each village tries to out do the next in having numerically more and vastly more eccentric mini-contradas competitively aping the demigod-centered, ancient traditions of their urban neighbor--some tiny hamlets sporting as many as 6-7 even!

Who cannot marvel at an entire so-called “contrada” being made up of two rundown cottages and a barn dedicated to an entirely-fictitious godling called She Who Mothers a Donkey?

The tidy blood-apricot orchards and wide barley fields...but Hot Hell, I come not to bore you with such mundanities, let's get to the hexcrawl.
Clicking does the enlarging.
Scale is 2 cantonal miles/hex (3.2 of your Earth kilometers)
02.13-03.13 The Misty Isles. Deep never-lifting fog covers these isles said by many to be a pastoral paradise where cheese and apricot pastry-trees grow along gentle banks of plum-brandy rivers and rock-candy boulders. This is, of course, some bullshit, upended by the cold, hard pocket universe reality of the upcoming Misty Isles of the Eld.

03.05 Lumaš.  A tall free-standing bone-tower monument rises here in memory to the sweetest of joys: organized slaughter of co-religionists on the field of battle. A massive granite slab sits on rollers below the tower cutting off the chill tomb-warren haunts below. 

04.11-07.11 Slumbering Ursine Dunes. You've probably heard about this place.

06.08 Kugelberg. Jaromil the Old Smith's thriving little thorpe.

14.08 The Frog Demon Temple. A wide bowl in the surrounding rocky, cedar-sprinkled hills holds a fetid bog. A low causeway runs over the swamp toward a cypress-ringed mound. Beware the Batrachian Prince that Gnaws at the Soul of the World Turtle, bewarrrre. [This death-trap dungeon which my G+ group was (rightly) terrified of and refused to step into for almost three years (after losing a hireling to a stair trap in the first minute) is one of the star attractions in the upcoming What Ho, Frog Demons.]

15.10 Hrad Fraza. A fortified country estate of the villainous banking family (a redundant distinction), the Frazas. Currently displaying the fabulously-expensive, yet poorly-executed and gauche Tapestry of Xvikz (also see Fever-Dreaming Marlinko p.40).

The Inflexible Highway. An old Hyperborean stone highway stretches just over the ridge from Marlinko precisely north and south. Stubbornly its engineers refused to route it around ridges or cut notches to reduce the gradient and can be a grind to walk even with its magnificently un-shitty pavement.

16.00 Ancient Mountain Hall of the Hyperboreans. High on a flattened mountain top lies the campiest of Hyperborean faux-barbarian ruins-camp: an over-wrought meadhall raised in cold grey slate and supported by gleaming cyclopean pillars. Beneath it lies...well, a dungeon (seven whole levels to be precise).

17.07 Marlinko. Marlinko (or Marlank if you using the Nemec exonym) is a bustling, smallish, and deeply odd city of 7,000 and the council seat of the Marlinko Canton. Life there as such takes on a strange dream-logic cast even by the standards of the rest of the borderlands. It's all in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, why are you even reading this?

17.12 Ctyri Ctvrt. A pleasant market town and port of white-washed and black-trimmed buildings saddled with a tongue-twisted name that opaquely translates to "The Quartered Fourth." A local boyar has unearthed a 500-stone beet from his tenant farmer's field in the hamlet. 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.

18.02 Here Be Deodands. Not terribly far from the best, most obvious and most comfortable place for unlikely travellers to camp is a series of small caves in the bank of a short creek. Living in tidy, glittering sequin-walled caves is a lair of 20-200 deodands (100% “in liar”). A wise traveler refuses their late night entreaties to “cut a sweet real estate deal with them.”

19.09 Stary Maso. This oddly-named village (“Old Meat” in the local Pahr dialect) has a remarkable tolerance for adventurers, especially given several incidents in which said itinerant ruffians sired illegitimate new local residents—and a rather inglorious and infamous incident in which the local peasantry were collectively tricked into believing into a cargo cult centered around a Golden Barge by an obese, pig-masked mountebank. Indeed the precociously-glib toddler-bastard “Lil Colonel” is a much beloved village center of attention at barnyard line dances.

21.08 Bad Rajetz. Inbred eastern hinterland town renowned for its leather goods (especially its fetishwear). Infested with diabolists, demon-lovers, crowdfunders and Old Pahr heretics. Vast caverns with great, swooping bats and fire-breathing lizards lurking in the shadowy depths are said to feed into a vast, sprawling and most improbable Undervillage. Beware of your sister-cousins.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Ten-Minute Guide to the Hill Cantons

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 seven-year campaign and now a published backdrop 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 gods, godlings, local gods, beast gods, hero 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

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).

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 here, here, 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.

Oiorpata, that 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.  

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Marlinko Easter Egg Contest

I do love my homages and in-jokes so. Whether it be a small backhills town, murderhole or weirdo nation, the Hill Cantons is sloppy with literary references, nods to current events, woots to favored creators, lampoons of dreadful real world trends, etc. And the published work is no exception, Slumbering Ursine Dunes containing a rather large (and seemingly not-caught) Big Lebowski reference, a wereshark and grotto ship hat-tip to John Eric Holmes, and a host of smaller little eggs.

Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is even worse, positively bursting at the seams with them. The inestimable Gus L even calls me out in a thoughtful review for it with the Catacombs section (and he's most likely correct about their jarring nature.)

So friends, having accidentally over-ordered some print copies of Marlinko, time for another dumb Hill Cantons contest.

Contest Goal
A very simple one this time, there are 12 literary and movie direct homages hidden in the text (there are actually 17, but five of them seem way too veiled to be anything but a chuckle-point for me and maybe the home group players). Whoever finds the most, wins! (Note: I am specifically ruling out campaign in-jokes and broader D&D homages, just sticking to books and movies.)

Contest Prize
The winner gets to choose from the following list:
1. a print copy of both Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and Slumbering Ursine Dunes.
2. a $10 gift certificate to Amazon (don't spend it all in one place, hoss).
3. a copy of a book or movie from the reference list (barring a runaway auto-pricing fiasco).

Contest Deadline
Given that you have to wade through 70-pages of my quirky-ass writing I am putting out a longer deadline than my usual contests, July 21.

To enter your submission, email me at kutalik at the gmail dot the com.