Monday, April 18, 2011

L is for Linguistics

There are dozens of different languages in use on Malaster. Some of them are mutually incomprehensible - the Thri-Kreen can use the audible parts of tradespeech only with great difficulty, and pretty much no mammalian - or most other - species can make intelligible conversation in Thri-Kreen, for example. Most, however, can be learned, and spoken - after a fashion, anyways - by most species. Many (although by no means all) languages fall into one of the following linguistic groups, although over the centuries drift has occurred in nearly all of them - even the most uptight xenophobic elven cultures from the Old Country have had enough contact with other species to pick up loan-words and concepts.
  • Fae - language of the Fair Folk. Members (if somewhat loosely) of this linguistic group include the various Elven tongues, Gnomish (more like influenced by, or possibly starting from a similar root tongue in different directions), certain Human languages, and, oddly, the original Orcish tongue (although that has long-since been subsumed into Darkspeech). The "official" language of Isderay is based off of a variant of an Elven language, and is thus (very loosely) related to the Fae tongue.
  • Malthandirin - sometimes regarded as "Human", this is actually incorrect - it is, however, the case that many of the cultures most represented in the Diaspora came from the same general area of the Old Countries, and spoke languages based roughly off of this root tongue. As a result, many of the current versions of "human" spoken in cultures throughout Malaster are related to - if not directly derived from - Malthandirin. 
  • Draconic - Draconic is one of the oldest languages, and although nearly impossible for humanoid throats and mouths to master, its great age and power has ensured that it influences nearly all languages it comes into contact with. There are a number of dialects of Draconic - perhaps as many as there are sub-species - but they are all basically comprehensible to one who knows any singular Draconic form.  
  • Dwarven - The Dwarven language family primarily includes the various dwarven tongues, of course - but also some languages spoken primarily by humans, and it has had substantial influence on a couple of gnomish and halfling languages as well. 
  • Goblinoid - called 'Gubbrik' in the root goblin language, goblin dialects are primarily spoken by goblins, hobgoblins, gnoblars, dekantar, and various other relatives of the goblin species. Goblinoid is a relatively simple language, and easy enough for humans to pick up - which may be part of what has facilitated the use of goblins by some human societies. 
  • Darkspeech - although referred here as a linguistic family, Darkspeech is really a single language with a number of variant dialects. Crafted by the unseele, and forced upon their various servitor races - in some cases wholly eliminating whatever tongues they may have had before - it is a foul tongue, and difficult even for some servitor species to understand and speak, let alone those-who-would-be-man
  • Acantar - this is the presumptive name of the human language that was primarily in use on the continent of Malaster before the last great Fall. Its forms and structure can be deduced in part from the remnants spoken by various barbarian tribes, and more can be gleaned from documents and fragments recovered from various tombs and treasure vaults. 
  • The True Language - The Language of AO. Largely unknown - and unknowable - today, except for singular words and phrases - which are spells and enchantments of great power and potency. In a way, all languages are members of this sub-group - but in reality only Draconic and perhaps Fae could really claim to be even slightly derivative of the True Language in any meaningful fashion. 
Beyond these main linguistic groups, there are dozens of independent - or semi-independant - languages as well. Some are dead, or nearly so, while others have, in fact, been "resurrected" - Palyrinthran, for example, existed only as a set of (remarkably intact) manuscripts found in a southwestern mining complex, but has since  been translated, and is taught in Palynthra Reborn (itself only a century or so old, under somewhat mysterious circumstances) as their primary tongue.

Friday, April 15, 2011

K is for Kain, Knights, and Kibble

Not, in this case, a mis-spelling of Cain, but rather a Scottish term, meaning payment in kind - a form of rent paid by tenant farmers to the land's owner, usually in the form of produce, wheat, and other goods.

More generally, kain - or cain - is services or goods rendered on a regular basis in return for some action or debt. Usually this is rent of some sort, but can be nearly any service. The distinction is that cain is not paid in coin, nor is it barter per se - barter connotes some one-time deal or action, while cain suggests a continuing - if perhaps informal - agreement.

Although uncommon in most cities and large towns, or in areas with well-developed and formal systems of exchange (which tend towards various forms of currency as arbiters of value), kain is far from uncommon in smaller villages, hommlets, etc. where coin may be sparse (and reserved for trade with wandering merchants, etc.) and reputations better known.

Knights, Orders of
Although few nations support large standing armies, it sometimes seems like you can't swing a dead goblin without hitting some new Knightly Order raised by one nation or another. There are a number of reasons for this - Knights are required (in general) to raise and support their own troops (if only a handful - but even the simple maintenance costs for a squire or two, 2-5 pages, and a dozen men-at-arms, plus horses, armor, weapons, etc. can still be substantial), and ties those knighted to the ruler who has granted the title in some semi-permanent fashion (although some Orders have long-since outlived their originators, and are to a greater or lesser extent self-sustaining).

There are many reasons why one would accept knighthood, given the costs (both social and economic) involved - above and beyond any questions of cultural conditioning, sense of honor, ego, and the like. Knighthood is generally seen as (and frequently is) a step up into the nobility (if any) of a state or culture, usually comes with some (minor) grant of land (which can offset or eliminate the costs incurred - and in some cases, even provide a tidy profit), and Knights are granted some measure of immunity, in many cases, to lesser crimes and misdemeanors - particularly involving the lands they have been granted fiefdom over, although this by no means excuses their every action (theoretically, at least).

Although knights are frequently Fighters of some sort, not all of them are. More than a handful of wizards, sorcerers, illusionists, and various other arcane spellcasters have been inducted into knightly Orders, and there are Orders that encourage - or even mandate - some manner of arcane ability. In similar fashion, the more devout Orders can count among their number not only Paladins, but Clerics as well.

Kibble, in this case, refers to the miscellany found in any dungeon. It's all the stuff that doesn't precisely count as treasure - candlestick holders, interesting crystals or river-polished stones used to hold down piles of paper, writing sets, wax sealing kits (for scrolls and letters - although the signet ring used to imprint the letter or scroll might well be valuable), trashy fiction novels, half-finished manuscripts for plays, forks, plates, eating knives and the like, serving platters, tchotchkes, and the like.

Kibble is generally - although not exclusively - valueless to anyone other than the people who accumulated it - Kazorg's collection of knucklebones is unlikely to be of much use to anyone but Kazorg, and nobody wants to know what Mulgrag keeps in that book of his, given that he can't read, but still giggles maniacally as he flips through the pages. Instead, it is useful for building character - players might come to know that an archmage really likes tiny carvings of unicorns, and seek to set him up by creating a situation in which some become available, for example.

J is for Janissary, Janitors, and Jubilee

In history, Janissaries were the slave-soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, and the personal army of the Caliph. Not-quite slaves, and not-quite free, they were, for nearly 500 years, some of the most feared soldiers in the Western world.

In Malaster, the idea of a slave-soldier is far from unknown. Although few nations field very large armies, many have need of soldiers that are loyal - that can only be loyal* - to the local potentate. While some trust in the allure of gold - and the threat of a bad reputation - to keep mercenaries in line, and others try and develop familial bloodlines where (hopefully) blood will run thicker than water, some more pragmatic (if less, strictly speaking, good in alignment), have developed janissary regiments of one sort or another.

Many species can end up in these units - although, typically, nations which use them tend to have favored targets of oppression. Goblinoid units are somewhat common in the Northlands, while southern nations often prey upon humans of differing countries and/or religious beliefs. Elves see little if any use in such units - only magic can keep an Elf who does not want to be imprisoned or enslaved alive for long (although many elves will not choose to discorporate because of simple - or even not-so-simple - slavery - preferring instead to simply outlive their master - eternal servitude in a military unit that could take centuries to finally be disbanded is another matter), and halflings and gnomes are rarely used for reasons that might be obvious.

Curiously, Dwarves are more often the instigators of such units than they are victims. While Dwarven infantry is famed throughout history as powerful shock and siege troops, none can claim they are horribly mobile - even Dwarven reconnaissance forces, while cunning and silent, are far from speedy. As a result, some Dwarven nations create janissary units to shore up their weaknesses on the battlefield - cavalry, archers and skirmishers make up the bulk of these units.
*at least theoretically....

Or, more simply, who the heck keeps these drafty dungeons clean?

Well, in large part, nobody. Abandoned dungeons, tombs, mining complexes, underground fortresses, cavern systems, and the like, are usually far from anywhere someone with a dust allergy - or even a mild case of mysophobia - should be spending any time in. Dust and detritus accumulates - especially in those areas which see some level of traffic from outside. (An exception to this would be some tombs, etc. that lack generally mobile guardians, and are sealed from external intrusion, which can be remarkably dust-free). Areas with frequent external access (whether by adventurers, creatures, or simply animals seeking shelter, etc.) can become positively filthy.

There are some things that can ameliorate this, however. Gelatinous Cubes - long believed to have been deliberately created for this very purpose - scour passageways clear of any organic material, and deposit metallic and mineral gloamings wherever they see fit - often in the corners of turns, for some reason. There are spells (similar in nature to the 6th level spell Guards and Wards) which can banish dirt, grime, and such from whole sections of a complex, while lesser spells and cantrips can be used to clear individual rooms. And there are always effects like permanent Unseen Servants, which can be used to create a perpetual - and invisible - cleaning team.

No, not this Jubilee, more like this one. The Jubilee is a celebration held every ten years, to offset precession, in the most commonly used calendar system on Malaster and Isderay. During this celebration feasts and parties are held, gifts are given between friends, special alms are given to the poor, and there is a general forgiving of debts of all sorts.

In Isderay, the Crown can be asked to intercede in any debt or bond, frequently resulting in the manumission of slaves, the freeing of Crown prisoners, and the nullifying of various debts, oaths, and promises. This forgiveness is also held to be... well, a mitzvah, essentially - by those of lesser stature than the royal houses of Isderay - so while only the Crown may be formally petitioned in these matters, many who hold slaves or tickets of debt choose to release them during Jubilee.

In Malaster, while many differing customs have arisen, and the forgiving of debts and releasing of slaves/prisoners is less common, it is by no means unknown, and many cultures do practice some form of pardon - formal or otherwise - during Jubilee.

Strangely, even some evil cultures also practice some sort of similar behavior - although the granting of mercies and indulgences may take their own forms (swift executions, banishment, etc.) they are - in their own fashion - mercies of a sort.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

J is for Justice

Although there are gods of Justice (in both Courts, actually), and a number of related gods, there is no universal, over-arching concept of justice that all cultures at least pay lip service to. There are, however, some over-arching themes, isolated largely by alignment as follows -

  • Lawful cultures tend to have well-developed systems of jurisprudence, or (for less sophisticated and/or organized societies - certain tribes and the like) codified systems of behavior and cultural mores and rules. These laws may make no sense to outsiders - "In Unknown Kadath, no man may kill a Cat" and the like - but they exist, and are (to a greater or lesser extent) enforced. 
  • Neutral (re Law/Chaos) cultures often also have developed legal systems, but they are more often either looser in structure and enforcement, or to have other purposes than their mere alignment (re good/evil) might suggest. An example might be a jurisprudence system based on balancing actions and re-actions - at it's simplest, "An Eye for an Eye" - seeking only to redress harms done directly.
  • Chaotic cultures - those few that exist - usually have at least some sort of legal system and code of law - but the system is very often either moribund, corrupt, or simply disrespected to the point of uselessness. Some chaotic systems are nearly (or are) anarchic in structure, relying on personal honor and codes of ethics to mitigate anti-social behavior. In a small handful of (mostly elven) societies on Malaster, this actually works. 
  • Good societies use their system of laws to both defend the public from abuse, and (in some cases) to level the playing field between the wealthiest and poorest to some extent - but this is only uncommonly found in larger societies. 
  • Neutral (re good/evil) societies tend to see the law as an arbiter and unaligned party in any dispute, favoring no side, and seeking only that the law be followed in its letter and spirit. 
  • Evil societies may well have very well developed legal codes - but this does not mean that they are evenly applied to all (or even any but the societies' enemies). Counting on the legal system to protect you in an Evil society can be a fool's errand. 
These points on the two axes of Alignment combine to provide an overview of culture's possible legal system - but can be swung around to favor one or the other. So one Lawful Evil society might see their legal codes as unassailable, paramount, and to be evenly applied as written in all situations - but dreadfully tilted to favor the wealthy and powerful in their formation, and harsh and cruel in all situations, while another might have an extremely sophisticated legal system - that is ignored entirely when it suits the wealthy and powerful (although such a society might be sliding into Chaos). 

The Three Falls legal system is, understandably enough, primarily concerned with matters of trade, contract law, right-of-way on the rivers and in the dam lift wells, etc. It is supposedly applied evenly to all, but those with a more discerning eye can see that while outwardly sound, peeling back the first few layers of the system reveals a fine patina of corruption that, while not omnipresent, certainly allows those in the know to sidestep many - although not all - rules, laws, and regulations, to a greater or lesser extent. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for Invisibility

Only one I topic today - since today is, in fact, technically tomorrow (late night gaming, sorry, folks) - I might go back and fill in a couple of extras as I think of them.

My thoughts on magical invisibility are largely informed by a Dragon Magazine article - Seeing is Believing, by Geoffrey Meissner (Dragon #105, January 1986, available in the Dragon Magazine CD archive - my players can read this article if they like, since I have a copy of the archive).

Invisibility basically breaks down into three types - Mental (invisibility invoked by the caster in the target's mind), Illusionary (invisibility invoked through the use of illusion and misdirection), and Physical (illusion invoked by the physical bending of light around the subject in some fashion). Nearly all known forms of invisibility fall into the first two categories - only a very small handful of magical devices, and no known spells or conjurations, allow for physical invisibility.

Mental invisibility can be quite effective - but is limited to targets that have a working mind of some kind. Spells that grant invisibility of this type are usually of the Enchantment or Charm schools of magic, in whole or in part. These spells are somewhat more rare than those which grant illusionary invisibility (below).

Illusionary invisibility is much more common than the other two types, and is extremely potent - but limited in scope and aspect. Unlike mental invisibility (which often also covers other senses - it acts more as a sensory edit that wipes all evidence of the target from the victim's mind), illusionary invisibility is often limited to a single sense (sight), although Improved Invisibility at least covers some level of deception with regards to other senses, and more puissant spells can act in many ways like mental invisibility does.

Physical invisibility is by far the most potent kind, for it works completely in the "real world" - but it is also the most difficult to manifest, and the most rare form of invisibility. Like Illusionary invisibility, it only covers sight - including infravision and ultravision, among others - but unlike those arts it cannot be extended to cover other senses.  Unlike other forms of invisibility, until the duration of the effect wears off (or some other action is taken to nullify the effect), it does not degrade or fail to function - which can be both a blessing and a curse.

Invisibility is certainly a known spell in most corners of Malaster, and the general assumption is going to be - when faced with actions that are likely the result of an invisible subject - that this is, in fact, the result of an invisible prankster or assassin, rather than those of demons, delusions or madness, etc. This does not, however, mean that invisibility is worthless - quite the contrary, for defenses agains the myriad forms of invisibility are hard to arrange, expensive, and require near-constant upkeep, in most cases - but it does mean that invisibility is far from unknown, and it is an effect taken into account when dealing with strange crimes, etc. and when arranging for security, and the like.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for Hell, Healing, and Hotels

Although those uneducated in such matters use the term, referring to a place of punishment and torture (and, indeed, torture chambers are often referred to as "The King's Hell"), and some mythologies may refer to a Hell of punishment, there is - as far as any sage, savant, magus can determine - no such place. Instead, there is the Outer Darkness, which exists separately from the Great Beyond (sometimes referred - erroneously - as Heaven), the Elemental Points, and all-that-is.

Although some savants believe that the Outer Darkness is the primordial Chaos from which all-that-is was wrested by AO, others - perhaps the majority - believe that that Chaos is, in fact, something else entirely. All that is known is that when those-who-did-not-agree were banished from all-that-is, they were cast out into the Outer Darkness, and have since carved out for themselves places of exile that are - if not to their liking, at least suitable to their needs and purposes.

Which, to the eyes of those-who-would-be-man look much the same as we regard Hell....

Healing magics are, if not commonplace, relatively easily attained in Malaster - priests of various gods are relatively common (and adepts who have been able to master minor orisons, etc. even moreso), and a variety of alchemical and herbal unguents, philters, potions and such are available as well.

The exact effects of a healing salve, etc. are based in part on their precise nature. Most clerical healing is direct restoration of physical prowess, as are potions of healing - the user recovers full usage of the injured area near-immediately (within a round or two at most, unless they were fatally injured), and without scarring or long-term debilitation of any kind. Alchemical (and especially) herbal remedies, on the other hand, often have some sort of side effect, take longer to come to full potency, or work merely to accelerate normal healing rates - while such healing is usually without long-term effects, it often does not prevent (and may cause) scarring.

Magical healing effects are under some level of limitations. A person can, in a 24 hour period, avail themselves of only one of each type of spell-based healing, in general (some exceptions, like Goodberry, are noted). So a character with grievous wounds might have a Cure Light, a Cure Moderate, and a Cure Serious Wounds cast upon them - but could not be spammed with a dozen Cure Light Wounds from a pair of scrolls*.

*For this reason, Wands of Spell have never been developed, because their efficacy would be strictly limited in most cases. Rings of Spell-Storing, Amulets, and the like are usually considered a better use of enchantments, and military units tend to prefer Potions of Healing (because they can be made in large batches).

Most alchemical solutions are similarly restricted (although they are most often wound-based, rather than spell-based - so an Unguent of Rapid Healing can be spread over a wound, but using two doses does not double the healing - just the cost of the preparation) - except for Potions of Healing of various sorts, which for some reason do not have this limitation. This makes them very much desired by those who go in harm's way, for obvious reasons, and it is considered fortunate indeed that there are a number of different recipes that all produce very similar effects - which helps keep the cost of these potions down.

More commonly, places where accommodations can be had for a short or medium-term stay. A wide variety of locales can be  said to provide lodging for a price - some of the more common examples can be found below -
  • Hotels are distinguished from the (usually) smaller taverns (below) in part because of their size (usually multiple floors, sometimes as many as six or seven), locale (more commonly found in cities and larger towns, while taverns can be found in nearly any community), and their clientèle (while not all hotels seek after a more affluent sort of guest, many do).
  • Private Clubs are not generally in the business of renting out room to their members - but they often have rooms that a member (or their guests) may stay in for a few nights, either while between residences, on the outs with their partner(s) (of which nothing more need be said), or simply because they have extended business in the club to take care of. Membership in such clubs is highly dependent on the exact nature - some are incredibly exclusive, while others are open to anyone who meets some basic membership requirements.
  • Guild Halls are akin in many respects to private clubs, but are usually less exclusive (any member of the Guild is afforded rights to the Hall), less posh and circumspect, and less polished in most respects (exceptions to this - to a greater or lesser extent - to exist, e.g. the Wizards Guild found in many cities).
  • Taverns are, essentially, inns that provide some level of formal accommodation in addition to food and drink. This can range from a handful of rooms above the stablehouse, to several floors or outbuildings worth of rooms, depending on the location and nature of the owner.
  • Coaching Inns, on those well-traveled roads that have them, do not generally have formal accommodations for travelers - but will usually allow those who come into the Inn after nightfall to stay the night (sleeping on benches, in booths, or wherever else they may find a place to rest) for a few silvers, so long as they look trustworthy.
  • Road Houses, on the other hand, normally will provide lodging of some sort (the difference between a Road House and a Tavern generally being the location and nature of services - a tavern's primary income source is from the food, drink, and lodging they provide, whereas like a coaching inn, those revenues are secondary to the services provided to various coaches, wagons, etc.)
In all cases, those who service the roads and those who walk/ride them tend to be circumspect in their dealings with travelers - on the one hand, one can never know that the person one is dealing with is a doppleganger, or lycanthrope. On the other hand, they could also be a powerful sorcerer, incognito godling, or member of the Fair Folk gone on walkabout - and antagonizing the latter can be as dangerous as admitting the former. Fortunately, most who seek to stay overnight merely want a place to rest, perhaps a hot bath, a filling meal, and a stout drink before making their way onto the trail again in the morning.

Friday, April 8, 2011

G is for Gods, Gnomes, and Ghouls

Depending on exactly how one defines a god, there are anywhere from dozens to hundreds of Gods that are known to intervene in the affairs of all-that-is (if only to the extent of granting spells to their worshippers). Some of these "Gods" are more like extremely powerful nature spirits, the ascended might of once-mortal heroes that have themselves become objects of worship, or puissant spirits of the undead, like arch- and demi-liches.

The greater deities are somewhat smaller in number, and count among their various characteristics an Aspect - something they are specifically worshipped for. Usually this is some metaphysical ideal -, Justice, Mercy, Duty, Death, etc. - but can be nearly anything. Most gods have a primary Aspect - some, particularly the more powerful/well-known ones, may have one or more secondary Aspects  as well. These are usually - but not always - related to their primary Aspect. They also have one or more Attributes - unique, or nearly so, powers or artifacts they wield, usually related to their Aspect(s). These gods are broken up into a small number of different groupings, roughly as follows -
  • The Courts - the Seele and Unseele Courts are two of the major factions of deities, and have between them absorbed some number of gods formerly of other pantheons between them (and many more pantheons have, in fact, been comprised in whole or in part with members of the Courts, sometimes wearing slightly different guises). 
  • The Unaligned - some gods - and pantheons - are more or less unaligned with respect to the Courts - they are powerful enough, minor enough, or important enough to be able to stand to one side - or cunning enough to play the Courts off against each other, never really committing to either. 
  • The Old Gods - it is exceedingly difficult to kill a god with any great finality - and even after a deities' worshippers have passed on, some power echoes evermore, granting them some (comparative) sliver of might. (even these worshipless gods are still far greater than all but the mightiest of mortals, however). Some of the Old Gods are still worshipped, having existed before the Courts came into being. Others have faded into near-senescence or even the death-that-is-a-god's - which is not entirely like the-death-that-is-man's. Some of these gods are dark and bitter, others merely desperate and seeking. Many are mad, to one degree or another. 
  • The Wild Ones - there are gods that were in Malaster before the coming of explorers from the Old Country. Some of them were merely guises of Court members, or the Unaligned, but others were legitimate Powers in their own right, with Aspects of their own (sometimes overlapping with those of members of the Courts - but this is far from unknown, even within the Court). 
  • The Dead Gods - although gods can die, this loose grouping refers not to those who have actually undergone what is sometimes called "final death" - but rather to a grouping of deities, dark and malefic, that seek for reasons of their own to undo what AO wrought. Few in number, little is known of them, and littler still said, for it is written that even speaking their name can draw their attention - and worse still, sometimes their affection. These horrible beings have few worshippers - and most would desire that they have fewer still. 
Gods grant power to their worshippers - this is part of the definition of being a god, and is not entirely a conscious act (although the greater the power granted, the more discretion the god has regarding it). In exchange, gods measure their power - in part - by the number (and devotion) of the worshippers they can count as theirs. This is, again, not an entirely conscious act, nor are their hard rules about how this works - that anyone has been able to discern, anyways. 

Some gods are highly active in all-that-is. Others are more restrained in their behavior. It is known that most will intervene when some great threat to their worshippers is extant - but the exact nature of that intervention is variable. 

Although originally amusing, the image of gnomes as half-competent mechanical and alchemical tinkers has increasingly annoyed me over the years - in part because of the fact that it is often played for laughs. In Tolkein's material regarding elves, the Noldor were called gnomes - and they were far from played for laughs! 

In Malaster, although gnomes can be known as pranksters, they are far from inherently comedic in nature. Although they can be skilled craftsmen (not just with clockworks and other technological devices, or alchemy, but in any craft that requires precision and a deft hand rather than raw strength - although not great blacksmiths, they can be exceedingly renowned white (silver, copper, etc) smiths), their devices are usually more practical and workmanlike - if well-crafted - than the flights of fancy that are sometimes represented in some versions of D&D. 

They are adept with illusions and similar magics - but this makes them as feared as they can be amusing, for a gnomish illusionist with a grudge to settle is a terrifying thing. And while not naturally skilled in the more direct arts of magic, when working in conjunction with a wizard or magus they can produce artifacts and devices of rare power and cunning. 

In battle they are more likely to be combat engineers, sappers, siege architects and experts in munitions and field weapons than front line fighters - but those who choose to work with "reconnaissance" units are often cunning warriors or clever thieves as well as spellcasters of some puissance. 

Physically, gnomes strongly resemble the version found in D&D 3.0/3.5 - somewhere between halflings and dwarves in height, with a slender, elfin build (and slightly pointy ears). They are prodigious of appetite (although not as gluttonous as halflings tend to be), and resistant to most magics - illusions most of all, given their near-instinctual command of them, but enchantments and evocations of all sorts find little traction against gnomes, if they are unwilling targets. 

Ghouls are the eaters-of-the-dead. While some claim that anyone who partakes of the deceased - for any reason - will become a ghoul - in death, if not in life - others dispute this claim as nothing more than superstition and myth. Certainly, however, it is true that many - if not most - ghouls were once living souls who ate the flesh of those-who-would-be-man and became thereafter cursed to gain sustenance only from the dead, but the particulars are generally not known - those who have undergone this hideous transformation are rarely able to speak of it, and those who know how it was undertaken - mostly necromancers - are usually geased from speaking of it. 

Although the common ghoul is a near-mindless being that hunts in packs, not all ghouls are without wit - greater ghouls (sometimes called ghasts) retain some semblance of intellect and cunning, and the great ghûl lords - thankfully rare - retain nearly all of their mental prowess - which can include spellcasting abilities, if they had them in life. 

Although inimical, ghouls are not necessarily hostile. When they attack the living, they do so at the behest of some greater power, or because of starvation (they are clever enough, in general, to know that a living body becomes a dead one - and thus, eventually, food - if properly bludgeoned). Ghouls that are feeding, or have recently fed, will generally leave trespassers alone unless provoked - although what, precisely, will provoke a ghoul pack is sometimes unclear. 

F is for Firedust, Fair Folk, and Food

Although Malaster does not have guns, per se - they do have explosives. Alchemists have produced a variety of substances that go boom when sufficient (which can mean any, in some cases) heat, pressure, or electricity are applied to them. Explosives are, as a rule, at least as hazardous as they are in our world, usually more expensive, and are by no means general-purpose materiels - rather, they are tools, for the most part, of highly trained specialists.

Firedust is by far the most common of Malastrian explosives. It is, in fact, exactly what it says it is - firedust is Essence of Fire, reduced and purified into a crystalline form. In its purest state, firedust is extremely hazardous, and aggressively unstable - to the point where magical protections and tools are needed to handle it. Instead, firedust is mixed into various other concoctions, to lend them some of its elemental nature. Depending on the exact formulation, firedust preparations can be used as rocket propellants (although rockets are largely considered to be of dubious value in warfare, except as signaling devices or distractions), produce voluminous clouds of smoke, as a blasting charge, or as explosives in grenades - usually "blast" type, rather than fragmentation type (although experimental versions of the latter exist).

Firedust's major problem (aside from its cost, and the general hazards of working with explosives in a world where Burning Hands is a first level spell...) is that the more of it is in a mixture or charge, the more unstable the firedust gets - the assumption is that there is some sort of sympathetic resonance that occurs. While this is rarely a problem with contained charges, large amounts of firedust, even in suspension/mixture, are difficult to work with safely, restricting the possible size and power of firedust based devices. As a result, most firedust devices are easily man-portable, and few are larger than a small keg (5 gallon or so) in size.

As of yet, Firedust - and other alchemical explosives - have made relatively little impact on the battlefield - they are hazardous, expensive, and hard enough to use that only trained individuals can make proper use of most of them, which has so far restricted them to specialty units, "reconnaissance" forces, and the like.

Fair Folk
Faeries, Boggans, Boggarts, Sidhe, Brownies, Barghests, Nixies, Pixies, and Yosei, the six-and-thirty sisters of Yakshini, and the six-and-twenty of Apsara, Kilmoulis, Leprechauns, and a host of others. Call them the Fae, or the Fair Folk. Heap praise upon them, and keep your criticisms tightly reined - or cleverly worded - because drawing the wrath of the Fae upon you is far from wise.

Fortunately, the Fair Folk are not as common on Malaster as they were in the Old Country - and in the centuries since the Diaspora, many have forgotten the old ways of propitiating them. But while they have lessened in number, they are not extinct, and in the forgotten places, they still gather.

Although there are some suggestions that Elves and the Fair Folk share some common ancestry, elven-kind are not generally considered to be part of the Fae hosts. Despite this, the Sidhe, and the sisters of Yakshini and Apsara are well-inclined towards their Elven cousins(?), and there are more than a few legends of the offspring of unions between elves and these greater Fae.

Fae magics are strange and powerful, but also specific and limited - they have access to impressive illusions and glamours, and spells that can befuddle the wits and sap the will of their opponents, but few if any defensive magics, and almost no directly offensive ones. And their spells are often restricted in some way or another - they may only be able to create winds that blow widdershins, for example, or create specific illusions that are often not useful. Nearly all Fae magics react poorly to the touch of cold iron, and even the mightiest of the Fair Folk are vulnerable to iron that has never known heat in its forging - even those who have a geas protecting them from conventional weapons.

People on Malaster eat food. Surprising, but true.

I'm generally not going to spend a lot of time talking about food on Malaster - they have food, some of it looks a lot like what we eat, some of it is what we eat (but they might have different names for it), some of it isn't much at all like what we eat in specifics, but close enough in generalities that it's close enough. So the characters might have sostera berry cakes with kalwen syrup and yik-yik butter for break-fast - but, frankly, if it looks like blueberry griddle cakes with maple syrup and butter, and smells like it, then it probably is - or close enough.

Where foods are culturally significant, or might have some secondary effect (whether herbal, alchemical, magical, or merely cultural) from being consumed, that will be a different matter - but in general, players should feel free to assume that geographically appropriate foods are easily available, and those that aren't might be available at times, or in some forms (preserves, for example, or canned goods), but are going to be more expensive, or require magical intervention (which is available, and is certainly used in some cases).

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

E is for Elves, Enchantments, and Elvis

Elves will tell you that they are the eldest of those-who-would-be-man, and the greatest. Few would gainsay them this... to their face, anyways. Certainly Elves are puissant in a wide range of abilities - they can be cunning thieves, mighty warriors, adept sorcerers, and puissant servants of their gods - and frequently can perform in multiple spheres at once, something few other races can manage.

But although powerful, Elves are also limited - they can become mighty indeed, especially when choosing to specialize in a single field of study - but they cannot match the heights to which Humans can reach in their sole class. Elves can live, it is said, for centuries - perhaps even millennia - but this lifespan brings with it a mindset that is curiously incapable of changing and shifting with the times, at least in the elder members of the species.

Although not as differentiated as, say Dragons are, Elves are still found in a wide variety of species. Although a number of lesser sub-species are also known of, the following are by far the most common in all-that-is -

  • High Elves - Most elves are members of this sub-species, and they are considered the standard by which all other elves are measured. They have, to a large degree, integrated into "common" Malastrian society (which has bent as much in their direction as they have bent in its - it is because of the large High Elven population that many cities in Malaster have such large parks, woodlands, and other growing, "natural" areas in them). 
  • Grey Elves - Actually one of the more uncommon sub-species, outside their Isderayan island kingdom of Maranthil. Grey Elves are reputed to be mighty sorcerers and wizards, but are rarely seen - and more rarely identified, for they often travel in disguise. There are rumors that they Grey Elves were responsible for whatever caused the Diaspora - but this is held to be true of nearly every culture that is not Isderayan, Human, High-Elven, or Dwarven in nature. 
  • Sylvan Elves - sometimes called "Silver" elves, after their hair, which is commonly silvery in nature. Sylvan elves are those who have not forsaken the woodlands and forests of their ancestors - for the most part - and while not actively xenophobic, they do not relish contact with outsiders, and many Sylvan kingdoms... "strongly encourage" traders and visitors to keep to the towns and cities that they have set up as trade centers. 
  • Dark Elves - with a reputation as vile as theirs, it is perhaps unsurprising that few Dark Elves were brought from the Old Country during the Diaspora - and being unskilled at best at sea travel (for the only seas they are used to are the dark and placid waters of the Underdark), only scattered remnants of the once mighty Aldryani kingdoms now remain. Those Dark Elves who have survived are both pitied and distrusted, and few show their faces outside the small enclaves they have created for themselves. 
  • Wild Elves - when explorers from the Old Country first se foot on the Malastrian continent, they found elves already living there. Xenophobic and hostile, these tribes make little allowance for trespassers of any sort - even Elven ones. They are stronger than most Elves, and hardier as well, but their relatively small numbers, hostility to anything from outside their own tribe (even other tribes of "wild elves" - and their distaste for modern "technology" makes them an endagered race on Malaster. 

Some have it that elves are exclusively sylvan dwellers, and shun cities and towns. This would be quite the revelation to the many High and Grey elves who make their home in the great cosmopolitan centers of Malaster and Isderay.

Trade is done between the various cultures and sub-species of Elves and most of the rest of those -who-would-be-man, to a greater or lesser extent - High Elves are, naturally, nearly indistinguishable from humans in their pursuit of the art of trade, and while their goods are often uniquely identifiable as Elven in nature, they are nonetheless comparable to those created by the finest Human or Dwarven craftsmen. Grey elves specialize - to an extent - in alchemical and enchanted goods, while Sylvan elves are experts in botany, herbology, and small-scale agriculture of various sorts. The Dark Elves - to the extent they trade with the other species of those -who-would-be-man - deal in far darker and less wholesome good - but also in various treasures, minerals, and substances unearthed from the bowels of all-that-is. Only the Wild Elves seem to do not trade with others - and even this is by no means a settled thing, for rumors and legends speak of villages that have survived harsh winters only with the aid of nearby Wild Elf tribes.

Enchantments can be broken down into two basic types - those that are cast upon an object or device, and those that are cast upon a person. Although many enchantments are part of the enchantment/charm sphere, not all of them are - the primary thing differentiating an enchantment spell (as a category) from a spell in the same sphere (Invocation, for example) is their duration - Enchantments are usually of an indeterminate, and often indefinite, duration.

Enchantments intended for an object are used to enhance (or afflict) it in some fashion - they can render a sword unbreakable, or preternaturally keen, they can reduce the weight and apparent bulk of armor, or cause a stone to glow with power when rubbed. While rarely permanent (with out additional spells being cast), they can be of substantial duration - some lasting months, or even years without enhancement.

Enchantments cast upon a person are often of a more sinister bent - most such enchantments (like Charm Person) are intended to short-circuit or bypass entirely the subject's will, emotions, or sense of self. Many are questionably evil in nature, and for some, there really isn't much question. Nonetheless, they are a common school of study, and not all uses of such spells are, in fact, inimical. This does not, unfortunately, prevent the unschooled and unlearned from assuming that anyone with the title of enchanter is capable of clouding the mind and befuddling one's will.

Elvis has left the building.
(okay, okay, I ran out of topics starting with E, and the elf topic ran long. Shaddup...).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Beginning of All-That-Is - How the Demons lost all-that-is

When AO created all-that-is, it is written by some who are wise in such things, there were spirits and godlings and beasts and those-who-would-be-man who did not want to play the-game-that-is-All that AO first postulated as what-was-to-be."Why should we play this game, whose Rules are not ours to suggest and to create?!?" said some, who were outraged that they had had no say in the making of the rules-that-were-to-be that would govern them. "Why should we play this game, whose Rules are not to our liking at all?!?" said others, who grew discordant at the idea that all-that-is-to-be should have rules at all. "Why should we play this game, we who see no profit in this?" quietly said a third small group, who even in the great Beginning of Beginnings saw that there is profit, and loss, and that one of these things was, to their eyes, better than the other.

And AO looked upon AO's creations, and grew sad, for it was not even the End of Beginnings, and already there was dissension and chaos. But such is as it is, and so AO said unto the first group "In the times to come, there will be opportunity to modify and create rules - which shall be known as Laws - in some aspects and respects. And while some Laws will be immutable, and you may not change them, others you may arrange as you see fit, and all beasts and men and gods shall fail to follow them at their peril. Kun? (is this good?)"

And the gods and the beasts and the spirits and those-who-would-be-men looked on this, and most said "Paya-Kun". (this is good) for it was good. But some said nothing.

And AO turned then to the second group, it is written, and said unto them "In times the Laws shall grow over-bearing, and at times they shall be written poorly, for only AO has all-the-wisdom-there-is, and so is infallible. And in these spaces and in these places you who have no respect for rules-as-they-are-written shall flourish, and your disdain for them shall be a potent reminder that the Law is a tool to an end, not an End itself. And some of you shall live within the Law, but others beside it, and you shall bring Change to all things. Kun?"

And the gods and the beasts and the spirits and those-who-would-be-men looked on this, and saw that though this division would bring change - but also strife - but that it was better than a never-ending stasis, and many said "Paya-Kun." But some said nothing.

And so AO (who was ever so clever, it is usually said) turned to the third group, and said unto them "And you who seek only profit, You I give both profit and task. For you shall be able to use both the Law and Change to your advantage, and shall conceivably grow mighty, though ever small in numbers. And some of you shall oversee both Law and Chaos, and stand between them, seeking always Balance between the two, for this is your geas that I set upon you, and others shall seek to defend always my creations that have no voice, for this is the geas that I set upon you as well. But others shall wind the Engine of Commerce that you shall create, and use it to better those who have voice but no power - for that is the third geas I lay upon you, for as you desire to grow mighty, so shall you spend that power in my bidding. Kun?

And the third group looked about, and saw that their path might be the hardest of the three, but also the most interesting - and certainly the most profitable - and so most of the gods and the beasts and the spirits and those-who-would-be-men looked on this, and said - if reluctantly "Paya Kun." But some said nothing.

And so it was that there were those of Law, who set forth to creating rules and regulations, and those of Chaos, who set about creating dissension and change, and those of Neutrality, who depending on their geas created profit, defended those-with-no-voice, or sought Balance between all things.

But there were those who had said nothing, and thought themselves unbound by any agreements with AO. And some created Laws that were unjust, favoring only themselves, and others flouted all laws, not just those that were too stifling or too restrictive, and created abominations, and others sought only profit at the expense of others, regardless of their duties.

And in time word of this came to AO - as indeed all things did, in the Beginning - and AO gathered up all the gods and the beasts and the spirits and those-who-would-be-men, and AO's wrath was terrible, and AO separated out those-who-had-made-no-agreement, and AO said to them "You, who said nothing and did not Agree, now you do not play the Game-that-is-All by any rules save your own, and you create nothing that is great and mighty, but only that which is dark and twisted, and you do not fuel the Engine of Commerce with your profit, but horde it. And for this I banish you to the Places Beyond, and you may enter into All-That-Is only when invited, and must serve the whims of your invitee, and I name you Devils, you who twist the Law, and Demons, you who follow no rules and make no beauty, and Daemons, you who seek only your own aggrandizement. And I say to you that you shall have no taste of the pleasures of the Heavens, and shall dwell only in dark places!"

And so it was.

And to this day, those who did not Agree are called Devils, and Demons, and Daemons, and when summoned they must serve - if the summoner knows the words and the terms and the bindings and the Names. But few today can speak the Language of the Beginning in the ways it must be spoken. And fewer still know the Terms and the Bindings. And of those who speak the Language, and know the Terms and can perform the Bindings, few have more than a handful of Names - and often those names are only partially correct. And so demons and devils and daemons are often free to twist and even ignore the commands of their summoner.

And the hatred they bear for those who dwell in all-that-is is secondary only to the hatred they bear for those that dwell in all-that-is-Beyond, and for AO who sleeps.

D is for Dungeons and Dragons and Demons

Although it is said that many citadels and fortresses of the Old Countries had underground complexes associated with them - and this method of construction has continued to the present day, these (usually) small subterranean complexes are often dwarfed by the massive partially-ruined underground compounds that can be found with disturbing regularity on the continent of Malaster. There are some whose original purposes can be discerned - whether they are the long-buried ruins of cities forgotten, with streets turned into corridors, and houses and shops into room complexes, dwarven mining complexes left to moulder by whatever disaster took the miners, tombs and funereal labyrinths, the dungeons and basements of fortresses long-since reduced to rubble, or something similar.

Many, however, have no coherent theme or purpose that can be discerned - some, indeed, seem to have only been the expression of some mad-god or magus' fevered imaginings, filled with deathtraps and puzzles, creatures that have no purpose beyond the assassination of intruders - sometimes literally - and treasures scattered haphazardly throughout (although whether they are purposely left by the creator, or lost by those who dared its hazards since, is often impossible to discern).

This plethora of underground (or partially underground) complexes has made exploration of the inner reaches of Malaster hazardous and a slow process - even in the earliest settled areas, there are still dungeons and other complexes found in areas long-since cleared out, or new sections of labyrinths long thought cleared are unearthed inadvertently. Some sages - although not necessarily well-regarded ones - opine that the entirety of Malaster's underground might be honeycombed with such complexes, natural and man-made. While this is given little credence by most, it certainly is the case that creatures thought restricted to one area or another of the continent are occasionally found hundreds or even thousands of miles from their native territories - with no plausible reason for why.

Dragons are an exceedingly ancient species - some say they date back to when AO made all-that-is, while others say that the Draconic sub-species were, in fact, present at the Great Creation itself - although this is, naturally, madness, for before AO undertook the Creation there was only Chaos and AO.

The Metallic and Chromatic branches of the Draconic races are the most well-known, but by no means the only ones - by some accounts, there may be as many as a hundred different species of Dragon, ranging from the diminutive Faerie dragons, to the massive Reds and Golds. Dragons have changed - whether through accident of evolution, or purpose-driven change brought on by their own magics - to exploit nearly every possible niche, and are largely considered to be the apex predators in nearly every biome on Malaster.

Fortunately, they are exceedingly rare. Many - particularly in the more "civilized" areas of the continent - will go their entire lives without ever seeing* a dragon from closer than far in the sky (and grateful for that), and even in the wildest parts of Malaster dragon sitings are uncommon to be sure.

But those who have witnessed a dragon's attack - or those who have somehow survived one, or (more rarely yet) overcome a dragon - will never forget the experience, for even very young dragons are fearsome creatures. And the power of the most ancient and largest Dragons is rare and wondrous beyond belief.
*or, at least, without ever knowing they have seen a dragon, anyways, since many of the more powerful and cunning have mastered the secret of taking the form of others. 

Demons are those-who-disagreed-at-the-beginning - those who flouted the agreement with AO, and thought themselves unbound by AO's will. Although the term is often used by those with less knowledge of such things as a catch-all term for all such beings, Demon specifically refers to those who worked against the forces of Law in the Beginning, and were bound therefore to the Law in their very Chaos.

And so Demons, who are themselves Chaotic, are nonetheless held to be structured and rigid in their society and organization in the Places Beyond and the Outer Darkness. They, who created no beauty in the Beginning, themselves are believed to have none - even those who work through the temptations of the flesh are supposedly hideous in appearance, working through illusion and deception*.

Two things are certain, however - Demons can only enter all-that-is with the assistance of those already within, and if summoned with the proper rituals and circumscribed with the proper bindings and agreements, they are bound to serve the summoner, although such acts are, even when everything appears perfect, nonetheless risky to both body and soul.
*Demons of Temptation are widely held to be Erinyes, not Succubi, who are themselves held to be Devils by most sages - although as with many things "known" about the Outer Dark and its inhabitants, this could be the result of mischief, deception, or misinterpretation. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

C is for - Common, Coinage, and Courts

Trade tongue (also called tradespeak, Trade, or - rarely - Common), as it is generally known, is the equivalent of “Common” in Malaster. Its roots devolve back to the Old Countries, where it was the language of a semi-nomadic group of halfling and human merchants, now believed extinct (or nearly so).Trade Tongue has an easy structure to learn, is understandable when spoken by a wide variety of different mouth types, and seems eager - even aggressive - to absorb loan-words and phrases from other languages (although, as Elves are wont to exclaim, exact pronunciation rarely survives contact with Trade tongue).

 This makes it highly suitable for a trade patois with a focus on mercantilism and exchange, but is less useful for certain highly esoteric or precise topics. For these subjects, various other languages - Elven, Draconic, etc. - are used instead.

 Trade tongue is probably the most commonly spoken language in Malaster. It is nearly always the second - and sometimes the first - language learned by most "civilized" races, and more than a few "uncivilized" ones - while the lesser servants of the Unseele Court rarely deign to learn tradespeak (or little more than enough to give commands to slaves, and understand their responses), goblinoids, many giants and giant-kin, and other humanoid (and semi-humanoid) species will speak at least a smattering of tradespeak.

Coinage is broken down into three primary groupings, with two being in common usage. The mints of Isderay produce a series of coins known as Sovereigns, in bronze, copper, silver, electrum, gold, and platinum, which are legal tender on the isles, but (officially) are not to be traded further than Isderay's holdings. This makes the Sovereign a fairly stable coinage, but hard to get ahold of.

Most coinage in Malaster in common circulation is minted with the blessings and auspices of the city-states of Aldyrin. Such coinage can be produced in any fashion or denomination, with any kind of decoration, but must use blanks purchased from the Aldyrin mint, and copies of every coin created must be turned in to the Aldyrin Assay Office in Myrashelle. This produces a regularity and trustworthiness that is unmatched even by Isderayan coinage - coins minted in this fashion are of known purity and weight, and are standardized in a way that makes them popular with merchants and customer alike.

Aldyrin-templated coins are minted in brass, bronze, copper, silver, electrum, gold, platinum, orichalcum, and mithril, although the latter two are highly uncommon. A variety of designs are possible, but most common are a coin which can be broken into four quarters - these are known as "bits", and have one-fourth the value of a whole coin.

The last pool of coins commonly found are heirloom, heritage, or foundling coins. These are available in an amazing variety of styles, options, metals, and designs - especially when foundling coins (which are "found" in ancient tombs, dungeons, and the like) are considered. While some, principally those from the Old Countries, have some level of numismatic value beyond the value of their materials, most - particularly foundling coins - are sold to assay offices, to be melted down and turned into blanks for minting.

Although coinage is the main form of wealth, some countries do use alternate forms of currency - paper monies, magical options, trade goods, etc. And many areas, particularly those on the fringes of civilization, trade is as much a matter of barter and negotiation as it is raw wealth.

Although the pantheons of gods are far more complex than two simple courts of "good" and "evil", the Seele and Unseele Courts are certainly important parts of the sophisticated web of godlings, spirits, deities and entities that rule over - or at least influence - the world of Malaster.

The Seele Courts 
The gods of the Seele Courts are, for the most part, gods of Good or those with Good tendencies. Many - though by no means all, and perhaps not even most - are Lawful by nature. They are promoters of civilization, and the patrons of humanity and demi-humanity (in general). Despite their seeming beneficence, there are those who claim that the Seele court holds humanity back - that their patronage of humanity is seeded not in some munificent desire to help, but rather to retard humanities progress - they point to the examples of human champions that have ascended to the Courts - and the lack of them in recent centuries - as proof that humans can become Gods, but that the Courts have no interest in this becoming a more common occurrence.

The Unseele Courts 
Where the Gods of the Seele Court are primarily gods of Good and (to a lesser extent) Law, the gods of the Unseele Courts are primarily (but not exclusively) those of Evil (or self-interested Neutrality), and Chaos (although a number of Lawful deities also make their home in the Unseele Courts). Strangely, (some of) the Unseele claim to be promoters of humanity just as strongly as the Seele do - they assert that only through trial and tribulation are people tested and made stronger - or found to be wanting and discarded or destroyed.

While the Unseele Courts are largely seen as inimical, capricious, and even cruel, they are by no means heartless (it is said, anyways), nor are they without redeeming features - most, it must be stated, are loyal (to some degree or another) to their worshippers and servants, and all of them take their Aspects seriously. For although they may be Evil, they nonetheless play the game-that-is-all that AO created in the Beginning of Things, and they dwell not in all-that-is-Beyond, but in the Heavens Above.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

B is for - Bugbears, Bodyguards, and Bolt-throwers

Bugbears are perhaps the most commonly encountered - although not the most feared* - of the Unseele Court's servants. Although mighty in battle, and fearsome both in appearance and demeanor, they curiously many of the mannerisms and depravities found in other servants of the Court - they are cannibalistic, but not rapacious, cruel, but not sadistic, and while they torture for information or intimidation, they appear to derive no joy from it. Even their warfare and raiding is goal-oriented in nature - although chaotic in aspect, and evil by nature, they do not seem to enjoy war for its own sake.

For these reasons, while few seek out dealings with the children of Hrugg (self-proclaimed god of the Bugbears), and war between the Bugbear tribes and "civilized" lands (especially the Dwarves) of Malaster are not uncommon, Bugbears enjoy somewhat less hatred than other servants of the Unseele.

But only somewhat.
*That dubious honor is bestowed upon the foul Orcs who revel in all of the sins that the Bugbears appear to eschew, and more besides. Or perhaps the Kobolds, widely regarded as cruelty and depravity personified, although their small stature and general xenophobia renders them less outwardly harmful, save to those foolish enough to brave their warrens. 

Bodyguarding is a somewhat popular way for low-born - but talented - individuals to rise up in social status - at least to some degree - without some of the hazards and risks of warfare, or "adventuring".

Bodyguards are hired primarily by nobility, by higher-ranking merchants, and in particular by the merchant-princes found in some of the more mercantile nations and city-states of Southern Malaster (particularly in the Hundred Islands). Merchant-Princes of Makorios make the most use of bodyguards, as befits their highly cutthroat business style and anarchic form of governance - even lesser merchants will have a small retinue of bodyguards to attend to their person and their loved ones, and the Great Princes of Commerce hire entire cohorts - really, small armies independent of and superior to their actual military forces - to oversee their safety.

Bodyguards are rarely considered servants, but at the same time, are not at all equals or friends - they usually occupy a somewhat grey area between the two. Their duties vary according to contract, tradition, and need - most often they are primarily concerned with the physical well-being of their charge, and others handle supplemental duties (like taste-testing for poisons, handling the charge's spiritual and magical well-being, etc.). Depending on the nature of the threat, they may - or may not - be charged with ensuring their protectee is not taken by kidnappers or the like - even to the point of making certain that if they cannot protect their charge, they must be eliminated.

The problem with guns in fantasy games is that they are immensely polarizing. On the one hand, actual interpretations of early firearms result in few characters using them - a weapon that reloads and fires at the rate of a crossbow (at best), creates clouds of choking smoke, is less accurate than a crossbow, and only slightly more lethal is rarely the preferred weapon for an adventurer. On the other hand, more modern(ish) weapons - or less realistic interpretations - often run into the massive amounts of mystique that surround modern firearms - the gun as magic wand of death - and the massive amounts of rules-lawyering and unwarranted assumptions that spring up around them.

But while Vlad Taltos is perfectly capable of swashing his buckle without the aid of a gun, he does have access to various tools to make this more feasible. And while swashbucklers and pirates are by no means a central concept to Malaster, they certainly are part of it (just because I love rapier-and-dagger work, if nothing else - hey, I grew up on Errol Flynn movies, okay?) and I felt that they needed something to make up for their lack of heavy hitting power, defensive prowess (armor), and the like. So they needed a proper, hard-hitting missile weapon of some sort... but guns are out. But gun-like objects are not guns, right? And so, Bolt-throwers and dart-flingers. Based on the mechanisms used in various trap designs, they are essentially crossbows, but instead of using a spring arm, they used a coiled spring mechanism, making them far more compact (if more expensive because of the higher quality steel needed, and additional engineering expertise).

Because they are still a fairly new invention (being less than a century old), and because they are still in the process of being worked out, there are many variations, but few recognized designs - nearly all currently are pistol-sized in nature (although a few arms-masters have begun producing something akin to a carbine - they're still rather nose-heavy, however, since the steel spring rides around the barrel), most have a pair of springs to allow a quick follow-up shot, and there are relatively few "pepperbox" designs, because of the massive weight involved.

And so - a gun that is not really a gun, and (hopefully) carries little or none of the mythology and mystique that surrounds firearms.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A is for... Arduin, Azathoth, and Atlantis

Arduin was both the name of a series of role-playing supplements, and the name of the world they were set in, both created by David A. Hargrave starting from 1977 until his death in 1988. Arduin was one of the first - or at least best-known - early examples of what might be called "Gonzo" fantasy - a sort of anything-goes, all-inclusive melange of mythpoetic madness that shamelessly borrowed from nearly everywhere, and when it ran out of stuff that wasn't nailed down, trekked into the wilds of imagination - drug-induced or otherwise - to fill in gaps and plasterboard over the worst holes in the narrative.

The result was a roller-coaster ride of races, spells, poisons, monsters, weird weapons, classes, rules extensions, world details, religions, gods, demons, and a plethora of strangeness that nearly any dungeon master could find something to love in - all painstakingly typed up on a typewriter and laid out in digest-sized handbooks (8 of them), with artwork pasted in from the likes of Erol Otus and Michio Okamura.

Very little of Arduin has directly made it into Malaster - it's a little too gonzo, in some respects, for my current play style. But to say that Arduin has not informed and inspired nearly everything I do in gaming would be incorrect. So there is, perhaps, a little Arduin - if only because of its inspirations - in Malaster.

The Blind Idiot God. The Daemon Sultan, who dwells at the center of the universe, kept sleeping by the  mad piping and drums of unseen tormentors. In this case, Azathoth stands in for all of the Cthulhu-esque madnesses of the Great Old Ones and their many-angled servitors.

Cthulhu and Swords&Sorcery fiction are nearly tied at the hip - many of the writers of Lovecraftian fiction and pulp fantasy drew from the same inspirational progenitors (Lord Dunsany, for example), merely in different directions, and many of the early writers - Clark Ashton Smith, HP Lovecraft, and Robert E Howard, for example - were close friends, shared frequent correspondence, and even collaborated on plots and world-building. It is not surprising, therefore, to find references to Lovecraftian horrors in some of Howard's works, for example, and to see suggestions of Hyperborea and Atlantean excesses in some of Lovecraft's writings (and such ties were much more strongly suggested - or even outright stated - in the works of those who would come after).

But a little - or even a very little - Lovecraft can go a very, very long ways in a fantasy game. Too much, and it begins to dominate the plot landscape very quickly, overriding nearly everything else. SO hints and suggestions that Things Man (and Elf and Dwarf) Were Not Meant To Know certainly can be found - but players are unlikely to spend much time seeking out the thin melodies of mad pipers who cast their somnolence upon the Nuclear Chaos.

Atlantis serves many purposes in fictions of the fantastic. It is the lost utopia, the advanced civilization that fell because of hubris, or decadence, or invoking the wrath of the gods. It can be a threat from beyond time, a source for amazing treasures, or sciences, magics or miracles long-lost - or all of these things. Númenor is Atlantis, in a sense - so is the Dragon Shogunate, or the First Age, in Exalted.

There are several Atlantis stand-ins in Malaster. The most obvious, of course, is the Old Countries - the lands that many/most Malastrians fled from two centuries ago, in the face of some mysterious threat so horrible few can even agree on its nature, let alone wish to speak of it. But Malaster itself has its Atlanti - the terrible Secret Kingdoms of the Sarastian Empire, the proud realms of the Acanti, the demon-infested horrors of the Maras-til. Little is known of these strange principalities of yesteryear - indeed, to some scholars they are little more than myth and conjecture. But even through the millennia, they cast their shadows over the current inhabitants....

A-Z for Malaster, 2011 - Introduction.

A-to-Z Blogging Challenge

So, like many (over a thousand), I'm taking part in the A-Z Blogging challenge this year. Mainly, this is to try and kick-start my blog back into sentience, after a few haphazard attempts at startup.

So, each day of April (except Sundays), I will post at least one blog entry regarding Malaster, and gaming in general, with a theme based around the next letter of the alphabet. So today is the 1st, which is A (A is A - remember that, or Ayn Rand will cry. Or something). A posting might be one topic, or several. It might be short, or long. But it will be posted every day. 

I hope.