Friday, 17 March 2017

[Actual Play] Forged love letters and unscripted radio plays: Team Tsathogga get creative!

Team Tsathogga met for a (sadly brief) session this week, and things got weird. 

Last time, the session ended with Circe rushing off into the depths of Zombie Mountain and holding a dozing necromancer at knifepoint while her Invisibility to Undead spell wore out. Given that she was in her full Devourer cultist regalia at the time, the old man was understandably terrified, and ordered his skeletons to kill her if she tried anything, creating a Mexican standoff situation: so Circe played for time, launching into a sermon about the teachings of her made-up religion while the rest of the PCs (and the slug-men they'd tricked into helping them) scaled the mountain outside. Soon the situation resolved itself into four concentric bands, with the necromancer at the centre, Circe standing ready to stab him if he tried anything, his undead minions ready to attack Circe if she stabbed him, and the PCs and slug-men ready to attack the undead if they attacked her. The mood, understandably, was pretty tense.

Image result for mexican standoff
A bit like this but with more zombies.

As it swiftly became clear that much of the necromancer's hostility towards them was due to his assumption that they were Devourer cultists, the PCs claimed that their cult had changed enormously since it first left this island, and that they weren't at all the kind of nihilistic murderers that he might remember their ancestors as having been. Somewhat reassured by the fact that no-one had stabbed him yet, the necromancer explained that the Devourer cult had terrorised the people of this island during his youth, but had then all departed for the mainland, for reasons unknown. Shortly afterwards, he and his brother had been exiled from their village and had found their way to this mountain, where they discovered a trove of magical books and items which the cult had left behind. (He initially claimed that they had simply been abandoned, but when pressed admitted that he and his brother had murdered their protectors: 'They weren't even human any more! We were doing them a favour!') Not long after that, his brother had gone crazy, apparently under the influence of a cursed book, and run off with it; he had lived here alone ever since, studying the magical arts, and ultimately raising a small army of undead to ensure his own privacy, thus causing the zombie infestation which had plagued the island ever since. His name, he said, was Titus, and his brother's name had been Markus.

(This last revelation prompted a whole round of OOC incredulous laughter and 'oh NO!' reactions from the players, who swiftly agreed among themselves not to mention that his brother's preserved psychic head was now stitched onto a makeshift zombie body somewhere on the mainland, or that his cursed book was now in Hash's possession. Or that six hundred years had passed in the outside world since the Devourer cult left the island, even though it had only been a few decades from his perspective.)

Circe was curious as to why he had called out a woman's name - 'Zenobia!' - when awoken, and Titus proceeded to tell them the creepy and pitiable story of how he had fallen in love with a girl from his home village after spying on her through the eyes of his zombie pterodactyls, but had still been debating how best to go about courting her when his pterodactyls were smashed up by the purple cloud monster, leaving him with no way to continue his long-distance stalking: shortly afterwards her whole village was evacuated, and he had no idea where she had now gone. (Again, the PCs diplomatically declined to mention that all this pterodactyl-smashing had been their doing.) Sensing an opportunity to gain leverage over Titus, the PCs told him that Zenobia was now living in a village on the southern island, which they had converted to their reformed version of the Devourer's religion. Titus was initially horrified by the idea of the girl he loved serving in some kind of horrible murder cult, but after the PCs reassured him that they really didn't go in for the whole blood sacrifice business any more he calmed down a little, and asked if Circe would be willing to carry a letter to her on his behalf. After all, the religious leader of Zenobia's community, she would surely have great influence in encouraging her to look favourably upon his courtship!

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Cult leaders make great romantic go-betweens!

Circe agreed to do this, but upon one condition: that he send his zombies to help them in the battle against the 'underground monsters', who now threatened everyone on the islands, Zenobia very much included. Titus warily agreed that if these monsters were as real and dangerous as she said, he would do his part in fighting them; he then set to work on his love letter, recruiting Hash and Sophie to help him write it. As he agonised over one draft after another, the PCs explored the cave network in which he had lived for so many years, discovering that one side of the cavern which Titus used as a bedroom had apparently caved in. Titus assured them that it had always been like that, and that the cave-in was completely natural; but the PCs had been made wary by their encounters with the snake-men in the tunnels, especially as the increasingly-excited slug-men seemed to think that this room was where the 'hissing prophets' were likely to appear. They swiftly assembled a work-gang of zombies and slug-men to clear the cave-in, and sure enough they discovered that it had been concealing a hidden tunnel, sloping sharply downwards: presumably an entrance to the hidden subterranean lair of the serpent-folk, who had originally created the Devourer cult so many years ago. Not that they told Titus that, of course.

The PCs didn't feel ready to tangle with the snake-men just yet, so they headed back to the south island, promising to deliver Titus' message to Zenobia. There, they were rejoined by their comrades, Zeth and Atella. Zeth, who had been a scribe by profession before she started branching out into Mad Science, was able to imitate Titus' handwriting well enough to forge a new love letter from him, rewritten to be much less creepy; this was then delivered to Zenobia, along with heavy hints that its sender had probably been one of Amelia's soldiers, and instructions for where she should leave her reply. Her father insisted that she have nothing to do with this unknown suitor, so - predictably - later that night she came sneaking out to leave her own letter in the agreed hiding place. This letter was promptly taken and rewritten by Zeth into a new document, which insisted that she could only turn her mind to love once the threat from below had been overcome. The original love letters from both Titus and Zenobia were then thrown into the sea.

That night, the village watchman reported seeing a flash of light from the direction of the east island, followed by the sound of something flying rapidly through the sky overhead, apparently heading south. The PCs concluded that the snake-men must have created some kind of flying machine using the parts salvaged from the crashed spaceship, and were now heading off to join the army of vat-grown demons which must by now have assembled around their reactivated fleet beacon far to the southwest, presumably intending to reestablish their control over their ancient slave-soldiers. If any strike was going to be launched at the snake-man base beneath the islands, it would need to be now, before they could return with an army of demons at their heels.

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'I want these motherfucking snake-men off this motherfucking plane!'

Keen to secure every possible advantage in the coming battle with the snake-men, the PCs decided to investigate the metal cylinder that Hogarth had salvaged from the crashed spaceship. They couldn't find any way of opening it, so Skadi just put it on a rock outside the village and shot a hole in the top of it with their looted laser bracelet: orange steam came billowing out, along with a dribble of orange liquid that withered the surrounding plant life in seconds. Concluding that the liquid inside was highly toxic, Skadi called upon Atella - the group's craftswoman - to modify their stolen snake-man gas mask into a shape that could be worn by a human: Atella ingeniously sliced open its rubber hood and sewed it onto a leather cap, creating a nearly-airtight helmet capable of fitting onto a human head. Thus protected, Skadi went back to the cylinder and decanted its contents into a series of thick ceramic jugs, which the PCs then stoppered-up and took with them for use as improvised toxin bombs. They then sailed back to see Titus, who was overjoyed with the encouraging letter they brought him from 'Zenobia', and swore to dedicate his undead minions to the task of keeping her safe from the monsters below. (The fact that they apparently had a hidden tunnel to his bedroom also served as a contributory motivational factor!)

So the PCs set off down the tunnel, accompanied by Titus, the slug-men, and a whole bunch of undead. After walking for a long time in the dark, they found the tunnel terminated in a pair of wide-open powered doors, on the other side of which were a short corridor section whose walls seemed to have been painted by a shiny metallic white substance, and then another pair of powered doors, shut, with a blinking red light in a recess above them. Still in her Devourer cultist gear, and secretly accompanied by Hogarth (who was, as usual, invisible), Circe marched up to this door and declared that she was a priestess of the Devourer, who had come to speak with the Hissing Prophets. Moments later, a hissing, metallic voice echoed apparently out of nowhere, demanding to know why the supply of liquid time to the islands had been cut off, forcing them to rejoin the timestream. (This was another penny-drop moment for the party, as they finally realised what the Deathfrost Mountain shrine had been for, and why the Purple Islands had reappeared not long after the destruction of the cult there.) Circe claimed that there had been all kinds of problems and complications and she really needed new instructions, but the voice wasn't interested and just told her to get back onto the surface and build a new cult. Nonplussed, she returned to the rest of the group to discuss what to do.

This was when they had a stroke of genius. Invisibly, Hogarth walked over to the blinking light with the laser bracelet in his hand, guessing (correctly) that it was some kind of camera: he then pulled the trigger, destroying the camera and leaving the snake-men unable to see what was happening in the tunnel. The PCs then began to improvise an unscripted radio play for the benefit of the snakemen listening over the intercom, in which Circe pretended that she was suddenly being attacked by an army of zombies, while everyone else made zombie noises and thumped around as much as possible. Circe begged the snake-men to let her in before the zombies tore her apart, but their only response was to close the outer powered doors, leaving Circe and Hogarth sealed in the space between them. Circe then ran over to the intercom to narrate her own melodramatic death scene - 'They're coming! I can't hold them off any longer! Oh, if only this cruel door would open! AAAAAHHHHH!' - while, with the aid of Titus' mob of real zombies, all the strongest members of the party began forcing the outer doors open with crowbars, telling zombies to shove their arms and fingers into the crack thus opened to hold them apart. After lots of heaving they finally managed to force the doors open, wedging spears into the floor-grooves to keep them from being shut again. Then they herded the zombies on to claw at the inner door.

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From behind the door came sounds of hurried movement, as the serpent-folk scrambled to deal with this apparent zombie invasion - and then, very suddenly, the doors snapped open, to reveal a single gas-mask-wearing snake-man standing behind a tripod-mounted laser weapon. Instantly he began to fire, sweeping a volley of devastating laser blasts across the zombies which blew their rotting bodies apart. Only Hash, Zeth, and Jack had fast enough reflexes to act before the gunner obliterated the zombies and the door snapped shut again: Hash and Zeth seized the opportunity to hurl magic missiles at the snake-man, mortally wounding him, and causing the tail-end of his volley to go wide as he crashed to the floor, still clutching his weapon. Jack, for his part, leaped through the doors into the snake-man base beyond, fearlessly brandishing his lucky bow. As the handful of zombies still on their feet staggered forwards the doors started to snap shut again, catching them in the middle; there was a horrible crunching sound as their bones snapped, but ultimately the sheer mass of their crushed-together bodies was sufficient to keep the doors from shutting fully. And as the rest of the party surged forwards to try to climb over their broken corpses and into the room beyond, Jack looked around himself and realised just how dangerous a situation he had just hurled himself into...

Is this the end for Jack? If it is, will anyone ever be worthy of wearing his beautifully-tailored mountaineering trousers again? Will the the PCs ever put into practise their mad plan of staging a fake sea monster attack on Zenobia so that Titus can sweep in and rescue her from it? Will Titus ever learn just how much the PCs are concealing from him? Only Tsathogga knows all! 

Thursday, 9 March 2017

[Actual Play] Team Tsathogga Rides Again!

I haven't written any actual play reports since December, but that doesn't mean that the Team Tsathogga group has ceased to meet. In the last two months of real-time we've played through a whole year of game-time, highlights of which include:

  • Gathering all the surface-dwelling human inhabitants of the Purple Islands together into one settlement and converting them to the party's made-up dualistic religion.
  • Using the giant purple cloud monster to smash up the undead pterodactyls patrolling around Zombie Mountain.
  • Almost getting eaten by zombies.
  • Discovering that Elder Amelia is apparently some kind of alien, having no idea what to do with this information, and ultimately opting to just maintain an embarrassed silence.
  • Returning to the tunnels beneath their hometown, taking over the goblin tribes that lived there by claiming to be prophets of Tsathogga, and destroying an infestation of goblin spore zombies that they'd accidentally started during their previous visit.
  • Totally failing to assist the Toad People with the fact that their entire young adult population had been conscripted by the Science Fungoids and marched off to fight in some kind of underground warzone. ('Eh. We'll get around to it later.')
  • Breaking into the shrine of the Devourer (a slightly rewritten version of Death Frost Doom) and escaping with lots of creepy books, at the cost of only one dead PC and 150-odd murder zombies released into the surrounding region. ('They'll cope... right?')
  • Recruiting Sophie the Muscle Wizard.
  • Using absurd numbers of Charm Person spells to infiltrate a secret society at a medical college by persuading its leaders that Sophie was actually an amnesiac noblewoman, and conning them into making a new undead body for their buddy, Markus the Psychic Head-in-a-Jar.
  • Making friends with a bunch of mutant freaks in the woods, whom the same secret society Frankensteined together and then abandoned some decades earlier, and handing Markus over to them so that he, too, could learn the art of being a freaky undead mutant powered by Mad Science and Liquid Time.
  • Finding a boyfriend for Jack the Fighter, to take his mind off his dead sister.
This week, though, they finally returned to the Purple Islands, and the session which resulted was so much fun that I just had to write it up...

* * *

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So Team Tsathogga returned to the Purple Islands, which had been the site of so many of their dubious victories in the past. They found their human inhabitants living together in peace under the enlightened leadership of their friend Erin, who told them that Elder Amelia had established a fort on the eastern island, and also that there had recently been two other visits to the islands: one by Magister Sorn, the elf magician who had trained Hash, and the other by the Order of the Divine Surgeon, the secret society which the party had recently deceived. Given that the PCs had basically set up both of these expeditions (and, in the case of the Order's mission, also effectively set it up to fail) through the controlled distribution of information about what the islands did and did not contain, this did not come as an entire surprise. When time permitted, they agreed to follow up on what had become of both of them; but their first priority was to test their hypothesis that some of the serpent folk, whose cruel empire had once dominated the world, might still be alive somewhere in the tunnels beneath the islands...

Descending into these tunnels, they received an extremely wary welcome from the tunnel-dwellers, who remembered their antics the year before all too clearly. However, when the PCs told them that they had come to deal with the shadow-dwelling creatures with whom they had long suspected they had been unwillingly sharing their tunnels, they became excited: they believed that the creatures had been very active recently, with people hearing lots of movements in the darkness and even hatch doors to the surface clanging open and shut when no-one was nearby. They didn't know what had provoked this new bout of activity - as far as they knew, the creatures had never before shown any interest in gaining access to the surface - but it had prompted them to set more guards by the tunnel entrances, and they welcomed any help that the PCs could offer.

The assumption of the tunnel-dwellers was that the creatures were deliberately collapsing tunnels to hide themselves - but if they were able to creep out through the tunnels to the surface, then some secret, non-caved-in entrance to their lair must also exist. The PCs thus proceeded to spend two days searching partially-flooded tunnels and interrogating moles in an attempt to find this entrance, to no avail, and spent their nights under the watchful eyes of the tunnel-dwellers posted to guard the hatch which led up to the east island on the surface.

On the first night, the guards felt they were being watched by something, but whatever it was retreated back into the darkness whenever they advanced with lights. On the second night, however, the serpent folk attacked. The first warning the PCs got of this was a gas grenade crashing down in their midst, releasing a great cloud of yellow-green vapour which made it hard to see or breathe; and as the tunnel-dweller guards stumbled around in this, struggling to aim their blunderbusses, they began to be cut down by scything laser beams which flickered out of the darkness, slicing their bodies apart and filling the air with the smell of burning meat. With several PCs incapacitated by the gas, the remainder decided to grab their poisoned comrades and flee as quickly as possible, ruthlessly shoving their way past the coughing tunnel-dwellers as they stampeded for the ladder up.

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Snake men with laser guns! Run!

Circe, true to form, was the first one to escape to the relative safety of the surface; while Skadi, bringing up the rear, suffered a near-fatal volley of laser fire from the gas-mask wearing snake-men below as she grimly clambered up the shaft. Once they were up on the surface, Jack and Sophie provided covering fire, Jack by shooting arrows at the snake-men at the bottom of the shaft, and Sophie by dropping dumb-bells on them. The serpent-folk fell back, and Skadi managed to drag herself out of the hatch more dead than alive, but the tunnel-dwellers were slain to a man.

For a while, the PCs tried to keep the snake-men pinned down in the tunnels, engaging them in a missile duel in which the PCs fired spells and weapons down from the top of the shaft while the snake-men fired their laser weapons up. Unfortunately, their primitive weapons proved no match for the superior technology of their opponents, and they were soon forced to abandon their position, shutting the hatch and weighing it down with rocks before fleeing for the nearby woods. The apemen who lived there grudgingly permitted them to climb a tree and hide in the foliage provided they made no attempt to move further into the forest; but a few hours later an apeman messenger came shrieking through the canopy, and all the apeman warriors who had been watching over them suddenly went swinging away to the east.

Curious, Hogarth turned himself invisible and followed them on foot, soon coming to a bizarre scene: the snake-men, it seemed, had partly excavated a small, ancient spaceship from beneath the forest floor, and one of them was now tinkering away inside its engines while the rest provided covering fire, holding at bay a screaming mob of furious apemen in the trees nearby. (Several dead apemen littering the forest floor bore witness to the efficacy of their shooting.) Not wanting to be turned into laserbait, Hogarth merely watched silently as the snakeman mechanic retrieved something from inside the engine before the whole group of them turned and ran back in the direction of the hatch, hurling gas grenades into the apeman mob as they went. One of them was pinned to the ground by a thrown apeman spear, which by some stroke of fortune managed to penetrate through its weird black mesh armour; but the rest soon escaped into the distance, pursued by the apemen as soon as the effects of the gas wore off.

With both snake-men and apemen now gone, Hogarth was free to loot the dead snake-man's body (taking its gasmask, gas grenade bandolier, and weird wrist-mounted laser weapon), before heading inside the spaceship itself. It had clearly lain undisturbed beneath the earth for centuries, its only cargo a heavy, unmarked metal cylinder. An ancient skeleton in a spacesuit sat propped up in front of the windshield; his co-pilot, it seemed, had managed to eject in time. Face-down on the dashboard, Hogarth found an old, faded photograph of what must have been the pilot's high command, and noted with grim amusement that the 'Divine Surgeon' revered by the secret society they had deceived back on the mainland appeared to have been none other than the chief medical officer of this ancient spacefleet. Taking the cylinder with him, he returned to the rest of the group.

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Rest now, spaceman. The struggle against the serpent folk goes on...

Keen to avoid any further showdowns with the snakemen, the PCs headed north to Amelia's fort, which was being run by the Angel Andrew in her absence. Andrew allowed them to stay in the fort for old time's sake, giving Jack a chance to visit the grave of his sister, which since her death had become a pilgrimage site for the native population; and the next day, after Circe had finished healing everyone's laser wounds, he even agreed to lend them a ship to carry them to the west island, to further investigate the secrets of Zombie Mountain. Sailing west, they found a smaller ship moored outside the abandoned village, with a man on deck whom they recognised as Ernst, a member of the Order of the Divine Surgeon. He, in turn, recognised Sophie as 'Lady Penelope' (her fake cover identity during her time with the Order), and began to pour out a tale of woe and trauma concerning what had happened to him and his expedition on the island. Following 'Penelope's' advice, they had sailed out expecting to find an island full of docile and obedient undead: instead they had stumbled into a hell of ravenous zombies and sacrifice-happy slug-monsters, who had killed both his companions and half of his crew. Sophie could only shrug her shoulders and say that conditions on the island must have changed since their previous visit.

At this point, the party had a debate about what to do next. If Ernst returned to the mainland, then it would become fairly obvious that 'Penelope' had set his mission up for failure: but could they really kill a moderately-innocent man just to protect themselves? On balance they decided that, yes, they could, because the Order of the Divine Surgeon had been mean to them and had tried to enslave their psychic zombie-buddy Markus by building him a body that would only function for as long as they gave him regular alchemical injections, so fuck those guys. (Fortunately, Zeth, the party's budding mad scientist, had managed to hook him up with an alternative supply.) Privately acknowledging that it was 'the most evil thing they'd done so far', they invited Ernst to join them in returning to the island, as his sailors now refused to set foot on it, assuring him that his mission could still be a success. Then they lured him out to the altar of the Devourer in the slug-man settlement, and Sophie brained him with a rock.

('I do it quickly', her player said. 'I don't want him to suffer...')

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Out from the surrounding hovels surged the slug-men: but this time they were met by Circe, resplendant in the ritual regalia of a high priestess of the Devourer (which she'd looted from their shrine on the mainland), who hailed them with the appropriate ceremonial greeting before cutting out poor Ersnt's heart upon their altar. Convinced that their spiritual leader had finally returned to them, the slug-men prostrated themselves before her, eagerly drinking in her story of how the Devourer cultists who had sailed from these islands had gone on to win many conquests in the world outside. Intrigued by the fact that the island's zombies apparently left the slug-creatures alone, Circe led them to the foot of Zombie Mountain, which was much easier to approach now that it was no longer guarded by endlessly-circling undead pterodactyls. Then Hogarth cast Invisibility, she cast Invisibility to Undead, and the two of them set off up the mountain's slopes to see who or what lived inside the giant face carved on its side, the apparent origin point of the island's zombie infestation...

Hogarth's spell lasted as long as he could maintain concentration, so he climbed very slowly and carefully. Circe's spell only lasted for half an hour, so she climbed very quickly indeed, soon leaving Hogarth far behind. Looking into the 'mouth' of the giant face she saw a mob of zombies waiting just inside, peering out - but, of course, she was invisible to them. Heading on down its 'throat', she came to a phalanx of skeletons in scavenged weapons and armour - but she was invisible to them, too, if only for a few more minutes. Beyond them she saw an old man, asleep on his desk. She could have used the remaining minutes of her spell to leave quietly, Instead she used them to walk over to the man and wake him up.

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I mean, how bad could the situation get?

He opened his eyes. He saw Circe standing over him in the regalia of a priestess of the Devourer. He screamed.

Instantly Circe's sacrificial dagger was in her hand. 'Tell the skeletons to attack and I'll kill you!' she hissed.

'Skeletons!' the man wailed. 'Don't attack her unless she attacks me! But kill her if she does!'

Instantly the skeletons formed up around the now-visible Circe, levelling their weapons at her, but not striking... yet. Circe, playing for time, began blathering away about how the cult of the Devourer had changed a lot since it had left these islands, and how they now recognised that the Devourer was just one of a trinity of gods, and had he ever heard of the Frog God? Or maybe the Bright Lady? Meanwhile Hogarth, still invisible, finally entered the cave and began rifling through the old man's bookshelves, ignored by everyone; and on the mountainside below, alerted by the old man's scream, the rest of the party and the slug-men began to ascend the mountain, unaware of the Mexican standoff which awaited them within the caves above...

...and that's where the session ended. Will Circe be able to talk her way out of this one? Who will win if the situation devolves into a grand zombies vs. slug-monsters melee? Is sending multiple people to their likely deaths by feeding them misinformation really more evil than just braining one dude with a rock? And just what are the serpent-folk up to in their hidden tunnels? Some, none, or more of these questions may be answered in the next installment of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga!

Friday, 3 March 2017

Khanates of the Endless Steppe

Steppe nomad woman in Central Asia.:

North of the Great Road, the steppe stretches out for what feels like forever: hundreds and hundreds of miles of emptiness, of tall grasses swaying in the endless wind. There are very few trees, and very little cover to shelter travellers from the heat of the day or the cold of the night, or to stand between them and the winds and rain. In most places the soil is too poor and dry for farming, and so the people of the steppe khanates live by herding, and by hunting, and by war.

Each khanate is composed of an alliance of clans, usually united by their shared membership of some larger ethnic group. They are defined by continuity of culture, rather than of territory: being nomadic, the steppe peoples can (and often do) perform heroic migrations over the course of their history, and it is by no means uncommon for the people of a given khanate to live hundreds or thousands of miles from the lands inhabited by their ancestors. Each individual is part of a clan, and each clan is part of a confederacy, with a single khan at its head. Some of these confederacies have held together for many centuries, and are now so tightly bound together by alliances, intermarriages, and shared history that only the direst emergencies would break them apart, while others are much more recent creations, likely to fissure as soon as an incompetent or divisive khan takes over the duties of rulership.

In the real world, the early modern period was a transitional moment for the people of the Eurasian steppe. For a thousand years, from Attila and his Huns in the fifth century to Timur and his Turco-Mongol followers in the fifteenth, the periodic risings of the steppe peoples had terrorised (and occasionally obliterated) the surrounding empires: but by the eighteenth century technological innovations in Europe and Asia had allowed the empires to reverse the situation, with Russia and China carving up most of Eurasia between them. The genocide of the Dzungar people by Qing China in the 1750s may be taken to mark the definitive point at which mass violence ceased to be something which was exported from the steppe into the surrounding empires, and started to be something imported by those empires as they expanded their reach into the steppe. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries thus formed a period of queasy near-equilibrium, during which the steppe khanates no longer possessed the power to snuff out entire civilisations, but were still resilient enough to mostly resist imperial encroachment - and it's this moment in their history which I want to evoke with ATWC.

Tatar horseman:

To generate a steppe khanate, use the following tables:

Size (roll 1d4)
  1. A minor confederation, composed of 2d3 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a city.
  2. A small confederation, composed of 2d6 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a province.
  3. A large confederation, composed of 4d6 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a small nation.
  4. A very large confederation, composed of 8d6 constituent clans. If the khan called all his horsemen together, they could overrun a large nation.
Degree of Integration (roll 1d6)
  1. Very loose. The clans barely co-operate, each pursuing their own interests independently and frequently clashing with each other. Only a major threat or opportunity will bring them all together, and one major crisis is likely to tear the confederacy apart.
  2. Loose. The alliances between the clans are firm enough for them to co-operate in important matters (such as waging war or mutual defence), but in more everyday matters they mostly pursue their own paths.
  3. Intermediate. The clans take their shared ancestry and oaths of loyalty seriously enough to mostly work together, but each clan still has a strong sense of independent identity, and strongly resists attempts to curtail their independence. Getting them all to cooperate requires exhausting bouts of compromise and diplomacy.
  4. Strong. The clans have fought beside one another so often that they regard one another with mutual respect, and generally cooperate with one another for the good of the khanate. However, the confederacy is divided along some kind of dividing line (usually religious and/or ethnic), and in times of strain the clans tend to group together accordingly. If a major disaster ever befell the confederacy, it would probably fissure along this dividing line. 
  5. Very strong. Generations of intermarriage has softened the barriers between clans, and they generally regard each other as branches of the same people, bound together in loyalty to the same khan. Only in times of severe difficulty will the divisions between the clans begin to show.
  6. Extremely strong. The clans have so much shared history that they consider one another as brothers, and will stand together to the last. Khans may come and go, but only the most extraordinary crisis will break the confederacy itself. 
Camel races, Mongolia:

Animals which they are famous for breeding (roll 1d10 1d3 times - duplicates mean that they're just really, really good at breeding that animal)
  1. Yaks.
  2. Reindeer.
  3. Goats.
  4. Sheep, famous for the quality of their meat.
  5. Sheep, famous for the quality of their fleece.
  6. Cattle.
  7. Horses, famous for their speed.
  8. Horses, famous for their stamina.
  9. Horses, famous for their beauty.
  10. Camels.
Accomplishment for which they are famous (roll 1d10)
  1. Archery. All the steppe peoples are great archers, but the people of this khanate are amazing.
  2. Horsemanship. All the steppe peoples are great riders, but the people of this khanate are unbelievable.
  3. Wrestling. All the steppe peoples are great wrestlers, but the people of this khanate would snap you like a twig.
  4. Shamanism. The people of this khanate are famous for the number and power of their shamans.
  5. Hunting. 
  6. Eagle hunting. (That's hunting with eagles, not hunting of eagles.)
  7. Slave-taking. 
  8. Felt-making.
  9. Trading.
  10. The making of high-quality kumis.
The Buryats are the largest indigenous group in Siberia. They are a Mongolian people that practice Tibetan Buddhism with a touch a paganism. Buryat shaman communicate with hundreds and thousands of gods, including 100 high-level ones, ruled by Father heaven and Mother Earth, 12 divinities bound to earth and fire, countless local spirits which watch over sacred sites like rivers and mountains.:

Religion (roll 1d6). 
  1. Traditional shamanism. The religions of the Great Road have made no inroads amongst them.
  2. A syncretic fusion of traditional shamanism with one of the religions of the Great Road.
  3. An influential minority of the people have been converted to one of the religions of the Great Road, but most still follow the shamanic traditions of their ancestors. 
  4. An influential minority of the people still follow the shamanic traditions of their ancestors, but most have been converted to one of the religions of the Great Road.
  5. The people are divided between two different religions of the Great Road, which serves as a powerful source of tension within the khanate. Shamanism is on the decline.
  6. The entire khanate has been converted to one of the religions of the Great Road, and are now among its most zealous followers. Their shamanic traditions persist only in secret.
(NB: Religions of the Great Road can be generated using the tables here. Information on shamanism can be found here.)

Relationship with the nearest empire (roll 1d8)
  1. The emperor still fears the khanate due to the terrors that it once inflicted upon his ancestors, and leaves them alone as much as possible.
  2. The khanate engages in opportunistic raiding and slaving along the imperial frontier, retreating back into the steppe whenever a punitive expedition is launched against them.
  3. The khanate and the empire are linked together in a tenuous alliance, characterised by deep mutual suspicion. 
  4. The empire views the khanate as a convenient source of mercenary cavalry, and tolerates it so long as it remains willing to send horsemen to fight in its wars. 
  5. The khanate is currently playing a very dangerous game, attempting to prolong its independence by playing the empire off against its rivals. 
  6. The khanate has recently been forced to cede control of important territories or trade networks to the empire, and its current khan is scheming how best to recover them. 
  7. The khanate has come under steadily-increasing pressure from the empire, forcing its clans to migrate deeper into the steppe.
  8. While still notionally independent, the khanate has suffered the indignity of having to swear allegiance to the emperor, a humiliation which its current khan finds almost unbearable.
Abylai Khan:

The current Khan is... (roll 1d12)
  1. A skilled diplomat, expert in persuading the often fractious clans he leads to pursue the same course of action.
  2. A heroic warrior, famous for his personal prowess on the battlefield, who has no respect for anyone incapable of holding their own in a fight.
  3. A devout convert to one of the religions of the Great Road, in which he has been trying to interest his people, with mixed success.
  4. A devotee of the traditional shamanic practises of his people, who lives in awe and fear of the spirits and seeks the advice of his shamans before every major decision.
  5. A bloodthirsty warlord who sees the rest of the world as nothing but a source of slaves and plunder.
  6. A staunch traditionalist, who is convinced that his people have gone soft, and that if only they returned to the old ways then they could rebuild their former glories.
  7. A learned and civilised man, whose yurt is full of books and mechanical marvels imported from the cities of the south.
  8. A charismatic visionary who dreams of leading his people in the conquest of empires, just like their heroic ancestors.
  9. An embittered realist who has realised that the great days of the steppe khans are over, and is trying to find a new path to guarantee the future of his people.
  10. A drunken thug who spends most of his time blitzed out of his skull on arak and/or kumis.
  11. A moderniser, eager to experiment with the military potential of firearms and artillery. 
  12. A weak and indecisive man, the last heir to what was once a great dynasty of conquerors whose armies once terrorised the world.
Tatar warrior, 17th century:

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Oasis kingdoms of the Great Road

Three Khivans drinking tea in the courtyard of their home. - Photographed by A. S. Murenko in 1858.:

Most of the land through which the Great Road passes is extremely barren, and as such its route is determined by a continuous compromise between two absolutes: distance and water supply. No-one setting out on the arduous months-long journey from east to west, or vice versa, wants to make it any longer than it has to be: and for such travellers, the ideal route for the Road to take would be as close to a straight line as the intervening terrain permits. In practise, however, that hypothetical straight line would take you through some of the most arid regions in the world, so dry that horses and men alike would perish of dehydration if they attempted to follow it; and so the Road is forced to twist and turn, threading the oases together like beads on a string. Each oasis forms a natural choke point through which all merchants and travellers must pass, generating opportunities for toll-taking and extortion: and the larger and more isolated an oasis, the greater the potential wealth that can be extracted from the traders and caravans passing through. If he can take and hold such a location for just a few years at a stretch, even the pettiest of bandit chieftains can draw off so much gold that he will swiftly swell into a king.

These, then, are the Oasis Kingdoms: small states whose economies are based on serving and taxing the east-west traffic that passes through them. In theory, these tiny kingdoms have the power to hold mighty empires to ransom by choking off their trade; but in practise their rulers generally recognise that their prosperity depends upon the Great Road remaining a reliable artery of commerce, and limit their tolls to the merely extortionate rather than the outright prohibitive. Cut off from the outside world by hundreds of miles of desert, they are mostly left to their own devices by the distant empires whose caravans they tax, their direct conquest usually regarded as being more trouble than it's worth. (It's been tried. They usually regain their independence, de facto if not de jure, within a century at most.) But their small size and limited agricultural base means that their kings must depend upon hired mercenaries for protection, and even the strongest of them could not possibly stand up to a serious punitive expedition from one of the great empires of the east, south, or west - a fact which generally keeps the petty tyrants who rule them from getting too greedy, at least when high-status travellers and the scions of great merchant houses are concerned.

Esfahan, Iran:

Given that a group of PCs could easily pass through a dozen or more oasis kingdoms in the course of a long enough journey down the Great Road, there's little point in trying to enumerate them all separately. Instead, the outline of a given kingdom can be generated using the following tables.

How big is the oasis? (roll 1d6)
  1. Tiny. This 'kingdom' would be little more than a village if it wasn't for its strategic position.
  2. Small. The kingdom consists of a single small city surrounded by a meagre amount of agricultural land. Much of its food is imported.  
  3. Moderate. The kingdom consists of a single city surrounded by relatively fertile land. It is (just) self-sufficient in terms of food and basic goods, but for wealth and luxury goods it is entirely dependent upon the Great Road. 
  4. Large. The kingdom consists of a large city and a few smaller towns, set in a substantial quantity of carefully irrigated farmland. Even without the Great Road, it could probably function as a petty kingdom in its own right.
  5. Very large. The kingdom has multiple cities, and is a centre for trade and manufactures. Caravans would probably visit it to buy and sell in its markets even if they weren't forced to by the local geography.
  6. Huge. The kingdom is actually a substantial polity with many towns and cities, containing a hundred miles or more of the Great Road within its borders. 
(NB: the traits of these cities, as opposed to the kingdom as a whole, can be generated using the tables here, replacing the 'government' section with the more detailed information below.)

How much of a chokepoint is it? (Roll 1d4)
  1. There are other oases that trade could pass through; this one's just the most convenient. The kingdom's rulers are forced to keep their tolls moderate, knowing that traders will simply adopt an alternative route if the taxes get too high.
  2. There's another oasis that trade could conceivably pass through, but it's either much further away or cut off by very rough terrain. The kingdom's rulers keep their tolls high, knowing that only the very desperate (or the very poor) would undertake the much harder journey involved in circumventing it.
  3. There's another oasis not too far away, but it's currently inaccessible to trade due to some external factor (war, pestilence, monsters, bandit infestations, etc). The kingdom knows that this situation can't last forever, and has jacked up its tolls to well above normal levels to try to cash in on it while it lasts. The merchant houses are very interesting in resolving this problem by any means necessary, and the local government is just as interested in ensuring that their efforts to do so come to nothing. 
  4. This is the only oasis for miles and miles and miles. The kingdom imposes eye-watering tolls on traders, its greed restrained only by the knowledge that if it pushes its luck too far, one day it'll find an army rather than a caravan waiting outside its gates...
Kurdish Warrior, 1877.:

Who enforces the law? (roll 1d8)
  1. Steppe warriors hired from a distant khanate. Devastating horse archers. Fiercely proud of their traditions. They and the local population regard one another with mutual contempt.
  2. An order of warrior monks based in a nearby monastery, run by the dominant local religion. Willing to serve the local ruler for as long as his laws favour and enrich their faith.
  3. Desert bandits gone legit, bought off by the local ruler in exchange for a cut of his profits. Old habits die hard, and they still engage in occasional bouts of looting and extortion when they think they can get away with it.
  4. Slave soldiers purchased in distant markets and marched off to fight for their new owners. Discipline is enforced through ruthless punishments and the promise of freedom and promotion for those who distinguish themselves. 
  5. A rabble of sell-swords from a dozen nations, with nothing in common except their willingness to fight for anyone who pays them. Discipline is poor, and brawls between regiments of different ethnicities are commonplace. 
  6. A highly professional company of foreign mercenaries, who know that their ability to command top rates from their employers depends upon their reputation for ruthless discipline. They live in their own barracks complex and keep themselves aloof from the local population.
  7. A detachment of soldiers from a far-off empire, sent to 'assist' the local government in protecting the flow of trade. They have mostly 'gone native' and married local women, and would probably side with the locals against the empire if it came right down to it.
  8. A detachment of soldiers from a far-off empire, sent to 'assist' the local government in protecting the flow of trade. Their true loyalty is still to the empire, and they would overthrow the local government overnight if their distant emperor ordered them to do so.

How easy is it to dodge the tolls? (roll 1d6)
  1. Easy. The government is lax and their tax-gathering system is corrupt and inefficient. Any plan that isn't totally stupid will probably work.
  2. Moderately easy. The tax-gatherers are diligent, but have no real loyalty to the government and will wave through just about anything for a big enough bribe.
  3. Variable. The tax-gatherers are loyal and efficient, but they're almost all recruited from one specific religious or ethnic group and are willing to look the other way for the 'right' kind of people.
  4. Variable. The tax-gatherers are loyal and efficient, but they've been heavily infiltrated by some other organisation (roll 1d3: 1 = criminal mafia, 2 = religious cult, 3 = political conspiracy), who will see to it that you don't need to pay tolls provided you can do a little favour for them in exchange...
  5. Hard. The tax-gatherers are well-organised and highly-motivated. Unless you have friends in high places, you'll need to pay a small fortune in bribes to get them to look the other way.
  6. Very hard. The ruler's secret police keep the local tax-gatherers in a state of perpetual paranoid terror, making them very difficult to persuade or bribe. Hide your most valuable goods inside your least valuable goods and hope for the best...
Sultanhani Caravanserai, built in 1229, along the Konya-Aksaray highway in Turkey.:

Who rules it? (Roll 1d12)
  1. A bandit chief made good, trying his best to come across as more than the common brigand that he until recently was and failing pretty miserably. His children are getting expensive educations and view him as a total embarrassment. This kingdom would be a great place to sell something very expensive and very, very tasteless.
  2. A dynastic king, who is only moderately cruel or greedy by the (admittedly low) standards of the oasis kingdoms.
  3. A dynastic king, who is actually a wise and enlightened man, beloved by the people for his willingness to spend his tax revenue on great public works rather than pointless self-indulgence. 
  4. A dynastic king with a well-earned reputation for insane paranoia and arbitrary acts of tyranny. Everyone hates him, but his mercenary soldiers will continue to enforce his edicts as long as they keep getting paid. Perhaps if someone could make them a better offer...?
  5. An elderly dynastic king with many wives and many, many children, who constantly plot and scheme against each other as to who will take the throne when the old man finally dies. A skilled spy or assassin could make a quick fortune here. 
  6. In theory, a dynastic king. In practise, a merchant consortium to whom he is so deeply in debt that he is little more than a puppet in their hands. (The fact that they pay the wages of his mercenaries doesn't help.) Their traders get very favourable treatment from the local courts and tax collectors, much to the fury of their rivals.
  7. In theory, a dynastic king. In practise, the religious organisation of which he is a desperately devout adherent. These days his palace looks more like a temple, and he never makes a major decision without consulting his 'spiritual advisers' first. The kingdom's other religious communities are getting increasingly nervous about the situation, and fear that it's only a matter of time before they're forced to choose between conversion and exile. 
  8. In theory, a dynastic king. In practise, his vizier, who makes all the real decisions while the king wastes his days cavorting with concubines and going on hunting expeditions. Fortunately for the kingdom, the vizier is a harsh but fair man who has the kingdom's best interests at heart.
  9. In theory, a dynastic king. In practise, his vizier, who makes all the real decisions while the king wastes his days cavorting with concubines and going on hunting expeditions. Unfortunately for the kingdom, the vizier is a greedy and selfish man who cares only for his own enrichment.
  10. A governor appointed by the distant empire which notionally rules this place, whose assignment here was essentially a punishment disguised as a promotion. He cannot stand being stuck out in the middle of the desert and is absolutely desperate to find a way back into the good graces of the far-off imperial court. A shocking proportion of his budget is wasted on importing luxury goods from his far-off homeland.
  11. A governor appointed by the distant empire which notionally rules this place, who has woken up to the fact that he's far too distant from the centres of power for his superiors to exercise any meaningful control over his actions, and mostly acts like the petty tyrant that he effectively is. Vaguely planning to declare independence and found a new dynasty as soon as the time is right.
  12. A khan from the great steppe, whose horsemen conquered the place years back. He's still very uncomfortable in his palace, and yearns for his yurt and the open steppe. The people still haven't come to terms with being conquered by people they consider barbarians, but if his rule endures for another few decades then his descendants will probably become a local dynasty much like any other. 

The Great Silk Road.:

Friday, 24 February 2017

Religions of the Great Road

The Scholar . Samarkand:

As I've mentioned before, one of the things that interests me about Central Asia is the diversity of its religious traditions. Judiasm and Christianity came into the region from the west, Zoroastrianism and Islam from the south, and Buddhism from the east, and all five of these religions interacted in various different ways with the Tengriist and shamanic practises indigenous to the area, giving rise to regional variants such as Tibetan Bon, Khazar Judiasm, and Nestorian Christianity. The extremely mobile nature of missionary groups and nomad communities mean that you end up with situations like nomad communities in south-west Russia professing spiritual allegiance to the Tibetan Dalai Lama (Kalmyk Buddhism), or Zoroastrian sects which were persecuted into near-oblivion in their native Iran going on to become the state religion of distant empires in the far-off Tarim Basin (Uyghur Manicheanism).

I think that trying to represent any of these directly in a non-historical D&D game would be a terrible idea; but the basic concept that this is a region where faiths from far-off empires compete and intermingle and develop into forms which would probably seem very strange to their distant (or extinct) religious authorities is one that I think has a lot of potential. Here, then, are a handy set of tables for determining the religious beliefs of any random traveller or community your PCs might happen to encounter along the length of the Great Road:

Korean Shaman (1930s):

What is the religion called? (roll 1d20 on each table)

  1. The Path...
  2. The Way...
  3. The Church...
  4. The Temple...
  5. The Fellowship...
  6. The Adherents...
  7. The Doctrine...
  8. The People...
  9. The Children...
  10. The Disciples...
  11. The Followers...
  12. The Students...
  13. The Order...
  14. The Brotherhood...
  15. The Acolytes...
  16. The Apostles...
  17. The Seekers...
  18. The Upholders...
  19. The Defenders...
  20. The Soldiers...

  1. ...of Holy Righteousness.
  2. ...of the Seven Sages.
  3. ...of the Great Revelation.
  4. ...of the Divine Law.
  5. ...of Heavenly Light.
  6. ...of the Word of God.
  7. ...of the Ultimate Truth.
  8. ...of the Eightfold Glories.
  9. ...of the Supreme Prophet.
  10. ...of the Universal King / Queen.
  11. ...of the Sun and Moon.
  12. ...of the Fourteen Stars.
  13. ...of Enlightenment.
  14. ...of Eternity.
  15. ...of the Transcendent Lord / Lady.
  16. ...of the Infinite Emperor / Empress.
  17. ...of the Master / Mistress of Heaven.
  18. ...of the Secret Treasures of Holiness.
  19. ...of the Sacred Masters.
  20. ...of the Ancient Code. 
(NB: faiths whose name share the same 'of'' component are probably offshoots of the same religion, albeit possibly very distantly related ones. You have no idea how much the Children of Holy Righteousness and the Disciples of Holy Righteousness hate each other...)

Where did this religion come from originally? (roll 1d3)
  1. The distant east.
  2. The distant west.
  3. The distant south. 
How is this religion regarded in its far-off homeland? (roll 1d6)
  1. It's the state religion, and you occasionally get encouraging letters from your distant religious authorities, praising you for keeping the true faith alive in foreign lands.
  2. It's a heretical variant of the state religion, and you occasionally get visited by disapproving missionaries telling you that your doctrines are riddled with errors and you should really adopt the official theological line.
  3. It's a variant of the state religion which, while not strictly heretical, would seem deeply odd and unfamiliar to the official religious authorities. You occasionally get visited by missionaries who try to convert you to a religion that you already believe in, which is embarrassing for everyone involved. 
  4. It's a minority sect, marginal and grudgingly tolerated. The trade networks that communities like yours have established along the Great Road play an important part in keeping the religion alive.
  5. It's been outlawed, and only lives on in hiding. Religious refugees sometimes arrive in your community seeking shelter, bringing with them horrific tales of persecution. 
  6. It was persecuted into oblivion and is now extinct in its homeland, living on only in communities like yours. 
Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam, Afghanistan - a UNESCO World Heritage site.:

What does this religion worship? (roll 1d8)

  1. One god or goddess (equal chance of each). All other 'gods' are false.
  2. One god or goddess (equal chance of each). Other gods are probably real too, we just don't worship them.
  3. One god or goddess (equal chance of each) served by a whole host of lesser divinities, who may or may not actually just be the personified aspects of the godhead. (It's complicated.)
  4. A dualistic religion with two divinities, both of which are revered equally as king or queen of one half of reality.
  5. A dualistic religion with two divinities, of whom one is revered and worshipped, and the other is reviled and (when necessary) placated.
  6. A full-blown polytheism which recognises dozens or hundreds of divinities.
  7. A remote and abstract godhead who is best contacted through prayers directed to the deified saints and prophets of the past. 
  8. In theory, it doesn't really 'worship' anything: it just conveys the moral, mystical, and philosophical teachings of its founders. In practise, most of its followers worship its founders as though they were divinities.

What are this religion's core beliefs? (roll 1d20 1d4 times)
  1. That all the world's problems are due to the failure of the people to follow the Divine Law.
  2. That this world is a place in which we are spiritually and morally tested, to determine our fitness for heaven.
  3. That if only the Reign of the Faithful could be instituted everywhere, then everything would be perfect!
  4. That we are being justly punished for the sins of our ancestors.
  5. That we just have to keep the faith until the prophecies are fulfilled. 
  6. That the material world is an illusion, and we must learn to transcend it.
  7. That we will be rewarded with wealth and power and empire if we obey the will of heaven,
  8. That this world is ruled by the powers of evil, and we must keep ourselves as pure and separate from its wickedness as possible.
  9. That worldly pleasures are sinful and asceticism is the path to holiness.
  10. That we must be kind to the unfortunate.
  11. That we must punish the sinful.
  12. That only those who follow our specific creed can possibly be saved.
  13. That all sin really comes from ignorance.
  14. That sin weighs down the soul, keeping it trapped within material reality.
  15. That we must destroy the enemies of our faith by any means necessary.
  16. That the correct performance of the sacred rituals and liturgies is of the utmost importance.
  17. That we must behave with scrupulous fairness and justice in all matters.
  18. That we must respect the social order, which represents the will of heaven.
  19. That we should treat all people as equals, regardless of social divisions.
  20. That the End of Days is upon us, and we must prepare ourselves for the final battle of good and evil! 
Dervishes of Central Asia. 1871-1872:

What are this religion's social institutions? (roll 1d20 1d4 times)

  1. Every faithful household maintains a small family shrine within its dwelling-place.
  2. The faith's most devout members are encouraged to become monks or nuns, who lead lives of celibate asceticism.
  3. The faith maintains a complex ritual calendar, which the faithful are expected to observe exactly.
  4. The faith is built around the teachings contained in its holy book, and the faithful are expected to memorise as much of it as possible.
  5. Due to the syncretic fusion of its teachings with the shamanic traditions of the area, the faith is actually mostly concerned with the management of troublesome spirits.
  6. Devout followers of the faith are encouraged to undertake pilgrimages to sacred sites in its distant homeland whenever possible.
  7. The faith prizes education, and its members often become doctors, lawyers, or scholars.
  8. The faith prizes military achievements, and its members are famous warriors.
  9. The faith practises ancestor worship, and requires its members to show proper reverence to the spirits and graves of their ancestors.
  10. The faith places a strong emphasis on the practise of silent meditation. Its holiest ceremonies are very quiet and very serious.
  11. The faith places a strong emphasis on the practise of ecstatic prayer. Its holiest ceremonies are loud and exuberant affairs, full of people singing, dancing, falling into trances, and speaking in tongues.
  12. The faith has exacting ritual purity requirements, which its followers are expected to observe scrupulously (although many of them don't). 
  13. The religious life of the faith is built around a handful of large temple-monasteries, where all religious and ceremonial activities are concentrated.
  14. The faith is radically decentralised, with small community congregations gathered in local shrines serving as the main centres of religious life.
  15. The faith places a strong emphasis on the importance of public charity, and its wealthier members are expected to make ostentatious displays of generosity.
  16. The faith features a strong cult of the saints, with prayers believed to be much more efficacious if they are uttered within shrines in which holy men and women are buried.
  17. The faith strongly encourages its followers to fatalistically resign themselves to the will of heaven. 
  18. The faith strongly encourages its followers to actively strive to make the world a better and holier place.
  19. The faith includes strong elements of folk magic, with the faithful encouraged to wear charms and talismans for good luck and to utter hymns and incantations to protect themselves from evil.
  20. The faith includes a strong esoteric element; its teachings are revealed to the faithful step by step as they rise through the levels of initiation, and are never supposed to be shared with outsiders at all. 
(NB: If a religion is regarded as heretical in its distant homeland, it's usually because it has the same social institutions but differs in one or more core beliefs. If it's regarded as orthodox but odd, it's usually because it has the same core beliefs but differs in one or more social institutions!)


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Returning to the Wicked City

Bardaree Bryant's drawing of the Wicked City. Used with permission. Good luck with the game, Bardaree!

Man, did this blog ever wander off-topic. In the last six months I've only made five posts related to the ATWC setting itself: three new monsters, one post on the Siberian fur trade, and one post on the Three Thieves of the Triple Crown. Somewhere along the line it's very much become a space for general-purpose D&D rambling rather than what the blog header says it should be about, which is romantic clockpunk fantasy in a setting based on early modern Central Asia. I should probably get around to correcting that.

There's no mystery about why the switch happened. I wrote the ATWC setting to give me an outlet for RPG-related writing at a time when my work and childcare responsibilities were preventing me from actually gaming; once I had a regular group again, my focus shifted to actual play and the kind of issues and questions that were generated by my ongoing campaign. I'd also reached a point where the ATWC setting was, if not finished, then at least sufficiently complete to be useable, making it less obvious what form any future expansion should take. I'm wary of cluttering it up with information for information's sake: I've seen too many published settings which just bloat themselves out in order to fill the page count, often losing what was most interesting and distinctive about themselves in the process. So now that I've covered what I see as the important stuff, I wouldn't want to write much more without a fairly clear idea of what, exactly, the setting would gain from me doing so.

That said, I do have a few ideas, and I'm going to list them here, in the hope that doing so might shame me into actually writing them:

  • More specific places in the ATWC setting, drawing on different bits of Central Asian history and geography, in order to make the world outside the Wicked City a bit more concrete. This is a bit of a balancing act, because I do want to preserve the sense of the sheer scale of the Great Road and the steppe and the taiga, and nothing will kill that quicker than carving them up into a set of clearly defined polities. But I think they're probably a bit too vague at present.
  • In a similar vein, some tables to create random steppe khanates and oasis kingdoms, to fill in whatever blank bits of the map the PCs might happen to wander into. (I already have these for cities of the Great Road.) 
  • Some random religion generation tables, to reflect the sheer diversity of faiths, traditions, and heresies which proliferate along the Great Road. 
  • A short adventure: something like The Tower of Broken Gears, but actually set within the Wicked City itself, illustrating how it might be used in play. 
  • Another short adventure set out in the wilderness, illustrating how the ATWC spirit world might actually be used in a game. 
So that - along with making some actual progress on 'The Coach of Bones' and maybe rewriting some more Pathfinder adventure paths - is my blog objective for the next six months or so. Whether I actually manage to get there, of course, is an entirely separate matter. But at least I have a destination...

Photo: Courtesy Land Art Mongolia:

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Sophie the Muscle Wizard and the joys of random character generation

The Team Tsathogga group finished playing through Death Frost Doom this week, and one PC didn't make it out alive. The session ended with the party heading for a nearby magical academy in the hope of selling the wizards some of the creepy magical junk they'd found during the adventure, so the dead PC's player quickly rolled up a replacement character, reasoning that there might be someone at the academy whom the party could recruit to bring them back up to full strength. Rolling 3d6 in order, she got:

Strength 16
Dexterity 13
Constitution 4
Intelligence 10
Wisdom 4
Charisma 7

She considered these stats for a few moments, and then said:

'My new character is called Sophie. She was a student at the magical academy, but she wasn't really clever enough to keep up and kept getting disappointing grades. (Int 10) Thrown into depression by a failed exam, she tried to make herself feel better by pumping iron at the college gymnasium. (Str 16) Unwisely (Wis 4) she devoted herself to extreme workout routines which ended up completely wrecking her health. (Con 4) After trying and failing to justify her powerlifting obsession to her tutors (Cha 7), she was thrown out of the academy, and is now looking for adventure!'

And thus Sophie the Muscle Wizard was unleashed upon the world.

I imagine her as looking kinda like this.

One of her fellow PCs is an equally extreme case. With Strength 5, Dexterity 8, Constitution 9, Intelligence 6, Wisdom 10, and Charisma 18, Jack the Fighter seemed doomed to an early and ignominious death; but sixteen sessions after his player's eyes first widened in horror at the stats he'd just rolled for his new character, he's still going strong. (As strong as one can with Strength 5, anyway.) Weak, clumsy, unfit, and amazingly stupid, Jack is just so damn pretty that he seems to be able to get away with almost anything, and he's more than once provided vital contributions by sweet-talking guards, traders, and other NPCs into doing things that they know they shouldn't, simply because they couldn't resist the power of his innocent, dopey smile. We mostly play him as Derek Zoolander in D&D-land.

Image result for zoolander miner
Jack the Fighter descends into yet another dungeon...

These examples are comic, which isn't accidental - incongruity is one of the basic elements of comedy - but I'm confident that you could take the same stats and come up serious, and even bleak, interpretations of the characters they represented. And you would almost never get characters like this using point-buy methods - not because they're impossible to build (although under some systems they might be), but because you'd probably never come up with them in the first place. With a whimsical enough player, and a sufficient lack of emphasis on powergaming, you might get as far as 'bodybuilder wizard' or 'dim-witted prettyboy'; but in each case there are other elements (like Jack's physical weakness or Sophie's catastrophic lack of wisdom) which result purely from the whim of the dice. But the odd combinations of traits that sometimes arise from random character generation create characters who won't fit neatly into their predefined niches, and whose mere existence thus forces the game to unfold in less predictable ways.

Much though I love the sight of people rolling 3d6 in order, I don't think it's inherently superior to other ways of generating characters. If you're keen on power balance, or heroic characters, or just on giving players control over what kind of PCs they end up playing, then completely random character generation is obviously a terrible idea. (This is part of the reason why, in my current group each player has two PCs: it ensures that having one weaker or less serious character isn't such a big deal.) But random chargen does have a charm of its own, a charm which is rooted in the very things which probably led most groups to abandon it in the first place: the danger that the dice might give you a weird, weak, flawed character rather than the awesome Conan or Gandalf knock-off you'd been building up in your imagination, and consequently force you to go off-script.

To put it another way, I already know how Conan will approach being dropped into D&D-land: the kind of adventures he's likely to have, the ways he's likely to deal with problems, and so on. I've been gaming for a long time now, and there's not a lot of mental stimulation left for me in watching another Mighty Warrior do Mighty Warrior Stuff. Sophie the Muscle Wizard, by contrast, represents a combination of traits which I've never seen before, and in consequence I find I have no idea how she's likely to respond to her upcoming adventures. I'm very much looking forward to finding out, though!