Sunday, April 5, 2015

Gods and Magic

I think,” he ventured tentatively, “I have a handle on this magic thing.”

Today, I'm gonna discuss the magic system for my Norse setting, as it applies to the available classes. With the wise council of both my commenter, I've modified my previous views concerning the use of magic in the setting and will detail, in brief, what I'm currently thinking.

(A disclaimer: I'm not attempting to pass off this magic system as in any way 100% historically or culturally accurate. I'm merely inspired by the aesthetics and mythology I've researched – much more thoroughly, I might add – in the past few days.)

The world is infused with seidhr, the Norse conception of sorcery. Not native to Midgard, seidhr is the tool and function of the gods and the denizens of the other eight realms. Through the many portals that infuse Midgard, seidhr leaks forward, infusing the land with its raw power.

There are three ways a player character in this setting can wield seidhr:
  • Godi (Cleric): As a direct worshipper of one god in the pantheon, a character can attain a small portion of that deity's seidhr. Working as their earthly vessel, the godi speaks on behalf of their heavenly patron and wields their seidhr at their suffrage.
  • Druid: By tapping into the seidhr that's infused the land, a character can bring potent magical effects to bear. Rather than learning to wield the secrets themselves, a druid simply channels the seidhr of the land, typically staying near and protecting a particularly area.
  • Völva (Wizard): To gain a measure of seidhr power for themselves, völva trap magical potency within runes. Serving only their own selfish desires, the völva can entrapped seidhr power for use later and in personal goals. Not bound to service of a god or a location, völva wander the countryside and have a particularly foul reputation among the common people.
(Note: I'm currently toying with the idea of imposing some manner of drawback on certain – possibly all – magical heroes, to display the dangerous aftereffects that come when mortals tamper with seidhr.)

What do you think? Does that magical breakdown make sense? Again, keeping in mind that I'm attempting to marry a role-playing system's flexibility with a need for both a cohesive narrative for the world. I'm aware seidhr was more concerned with prophecy and illusion but any scan across the 5th edition spell list would see that, were I to limit the spells to simply those from the schools of “divination” and “illusion,” I'd be severely limiting the viability of my comparatively few casting classes remaining.

Plus, I like the idea of a fireball spell becoming more powerful or easier to cast the closer to a portal to Muspelheim the caster is. That's just cool to me.

Also, somewhat unrelatedly, I narrowed down the list of gods, from the laundry list of contradictory and relatively minor deities that fringe the Norse pantheon, into a core eight that I'll probably use for the setting. Whether I change names or shift their domains a little remains to be seen but, in essence, this is the pantheon I'm working from:
  • Odin – god of knowledge and war
  • Freya – goddess of fertility and love
  • Thor – god of storms and thunder
  • Rán – goddess of the ocean
  • Tyr – god of battle
  • Skadi – goddess of the hunt
  • Loki – god of tricksters and fire
  • Hel – goddess of death
As to which parts of the mythology (Loki being Hel's father, whether Loki is a jotunn or a god, the Freya/Frigga debate) I'm keeping, I'm not yet sure. I wanted to keep the genders pretty evenly distributed and had to mine a little deeper – specifically Skadi and Rán – to find evocative choices that could round out the number, rather than relying on Njord or Baldr or someone.

Baldr's one of those few I wouldn't mind including, but I feel like I'd want a decent counterpart. Maybe Sif or a giantess or something could do.

It does make me look at
Banner Saga, who simply invented their own pantheon, and wonder, but I think the traditional Norse gods are integral to the setting that any poor imitation of mine would have to work twice as hard to feel even half as rich and textured.

That's all I've got for today. Next time, I'll maybe start looking at politics? Who knows.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Exploring Exploration

Firstly, there's an interesting discussion occurring in the comments ofyesterday's Worldblogger about the Norseness and inclusion of arcane magic and specifically the wizard in the theoretical campaign setting. Please, share your thoughts on the matter down there!

A few ideas simmered overnight. In no particular order:
  • The random Yggdrasil idea has been growing on me; that the celestial heavens are actually composed of Yggdrasil's branches. I like the stars as glimmering fruits, maybe even have day-stars or something, as opposed to one centralized sun, that wilt or close at the onset of night. Maybe the tree's trunk stands over the northern pole and its boughs reach out and encompass the entire northern hemisphere or something. There might even be a way to combine this with the Ymir's skull myth. Maybe the gods planted Yggdrasil's seeds in dead Ymir's skull?
Obviously lots of things to be hammered out, but I think that's a big, mythic, obviously fantastical set piece that could be interesting to explore further.

(A hasty Wikipedia search has revealed the existence of Sól, the Norse sun deity, that striking the sun would probably remove the need for. She doesn't seem super relevant, from a cursory glance, to the machinations of men or the pantheon.)
  • Not a huge revelation, but I think despite prevailing cultural thought about how the gender politics during the Viking Age might have been, I'm gonna continue Mooncrash's 100% random sex assignment. No trumped up “historical accuracy” is gonna justify sexism here. Plus, this.
  • The big thing that's been percolating, I think, is more a setting theme than anything else. I want this setting to focus on exploration.
So much of what we perceive of the Viking Age is dominated by images of plunder and rapine. I'd be lying if I said that's not one of the main attractions for me, at least initially, to the aesthetic – bold, barbaric warriors, pillaging the fat lands of Europe and being compared unfavorably to sea-wolves – but that's a very shallow read into the accomplishments that Dark Ages Scandinavia gave European culture at the time.

Trade is such a huge part of the Viking's contribution – interconnecting nations and peoples that never would have had any contacts, shipping goods and slaves along these routes, inter-populating the world. Sure, they were raiders and slavers and bloodthirsty conquerors at times, but the inroads the Vikings carved, with their superior seafaring technology and far-ranging exploration, is way, way more culturally significant than horns on helmets and bearded axes.

I mean, to get technical, I think the first real “adventurers” in the medieval period, as a D&D player would think of an adventurer were Norse and Germanic mercenaries, like Harald Hardrada or the Varangian Guard.

In short, I think I'm going to place a greater emphasis on the Norse people striking out and making contact with other cultures for the first time. Rather than extensively mapping the entire world, I think I'm gonna map the region or small continent than the “Vikings” originate from and imply, via the salty rumor of mythical sailors, the distant lands and strange peoples that can be found far and away across the ocean. In the way that previous Edge of the Empire assumes your party is the rough-and-tumble crew of a smuggling vessel, I feel like this setting can be constructed, assuming your the rough- and-tumble crew of a Viking longship, bound for trade, plunder and exploration across the sea.

More as this stuff trickles in. Thanks for reading and lemme know – do you think I should use arcane magic in my fictional, fantastical Scandinavia?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Everything's Better With Vikings

Frost giants are cool. Vikings are cool. Norse mythology is cool.

How come there's no truly Norse campaign setting? Least case, not one I've heard of.

Worldblogger to the rescue!

The advantage of creating a themed campaign setting comes from how limiting I'm allowed to be. One of my biggest pet peeves with most modern campaign settings (Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, even Eberron) is how many races, classes, pantheons and whole magic systems that're shoehorned in, to allow the widest possible option base for the potential PC. These worlds invariably end up feeling like insane grab bags, with hundreds of sentient species, five or six competing layers of contradictory magic and a video-game-esque sense of geography and worldbuilding – here's the desert place, here's the snowy place, here's the forest place, etc.

By creating a campaign setting influenced exclusively by Norse mythology, I can crack down on the free-range nature of races, classes and redundant story elements – such as both divine, primal and arcane magic – under the auspices of adhering to my Norse theme. Not that I can't deviate here I wish, defy expectations a little, but anyone who willing runs or joins such a campaign knows what they're getting into and doesn't seem as likely to demand to play a tiefling sorcerer or whatever the fuck.

Races: D&D campaign settings have this tendency to value race as a key determining factor in a player character's identity. Going off the Tolkien model, that's understandable, but there's plenty of rich and vibrant fantasy that utterly eschews this philosophy. Two of my favorites – A Song of Ice and Fire and the Gentlemen Bastards sequence, in particular – are populated pretty much exclusively by humans. Monsters, beasts and magical elements are still prevalent in both, but there's no shortage of invigorating characters or cultures because there's no cat-people, bird-people or dog-people.

On the one hand, the tradition of elves and dwarves actually originates in Nordic cultures and I think it would be totally justified to include them. On the other hand, very rarely are Nordic elves and dwarves the protagonists of the great sagas. They're frequently side characters and quest givers, in most myths that I've read, and I think that's where I'd slot them.

The only playable race will be human, with elves, dwarves and giants relegated to non-player character status. I think the bigger question, in a Viking-themed game, is one's cultural background – what kingdom, village or culture they hail from.

Class: Let's look at the 5th edition class list and see if there's anything especially un-Norse that leaps out right away.
  • Barbarian: Absolutely. Berserkers all day long.
  • Bard: The tradition exists, but is much less arcane trickster and more heroic skald. Could use a little re-flavor, possibly even a name change.
  • Cleric: I think so. The schism exists between the pagan-feeling druid and the traditionally Christian-influenced cleric. That being said, I think lumping the entire Norse religion into one class, along with nature worship, feels off. I think a distinction could be made. Hell, maybe even the Christianization of Scandinavia could be explored.
  • Druid: Druids have a place, I think, in a setting based on northern Europe.
  • Fighter: The fighter and the rogue work everywhere.
  • Monk: This is the first one that really seems to clash with the aesthetic. I think monk's are getting the axe, but like, a cool Viking axe, though. This axe.
  • Paladin: This one's a toss up, too. The cleric makes sense to me, assuming they're less the “power-of-Christ” cleric and more the Norse godi, but there's practically no tradition of the crusading knight, the blackguard or really even the Green-Knight-esque warden. Like, if the Christian influence becomes a real thing, I could see something like this, but I'm leaning towards “no.”
  • Ranger: I think so. Not a huge tradition, but I think the hunter/tracker is generically European enough that it could fit here.
  • Rogue: Absolutely. The rogue fits everywhere.
  • Sorcerer, Warlock & Wizard: The elephant in the room. I don't think arcane magic's got any place in the setting at all. The existence of clerics & druids predicates divine magic, but magic deriving from somewhere besides from the gods feels strange and un-Norse to me. It may grieve some players, but I think I'm gonna lose arcane magic. Maybe reflavor the bard as a divine caster, as a skald?
That being said, I don't think that necessarily means this is a low magic setting. The Norse actually have one of the few mythologies that stipulates extraplanar travel. It might be cool to have the Nine Realms more accessible – have the world speckled with portals to Jotunheim, Muspelheim, Alfheim and such. Maybe that's the justification for monsters and magic in the world?

An unseasonal winter can sweep over a country because a gate to Jotunheim was opened nearby? A mountain becomes a volcano when a gate to Muspelheim opens beneath the range? Elves and dwarves have only entered the world through these gates and trade and war with mankind?

I mean, this could be extended even further. What if the sky is actually Yggdrasil's branches, the stars are fruit, dangling from those branches? That's going a little nuts, but would defeat the idea this is a fiercely historical world and embrace the fantasy nature of the setting.

That's not bad for a lunch break's worth of worldbuilding, I think. Who knows if I'll ever return to this, but now I'm gonna be thinking about vikings and frost giants and shit all during my afternoon shift.

It's a well-established fact that everything's better with Vikings.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


Last Week's Poll:
What should I name the fortress?

  • Winner: Kogr
Without further ado, then, may I present...
Orc Stronghold

Welcome to the shattered ruins of Kogr! Whatever this fortress's original name may have been, it has long been forgotten by its current inhabitants. Once a stout human fortress constructed atop a strategic hillock, now loose squads of orcs patrols its crumbling walls. Now rubble is all that remains of its former master's power and its once great strategic importance has no dwindled to an obligation, upheld by savages unfit for military discipline.

The history of the fortress called Kogr is an unsteady one. One of the dozens of human stronghold erected in this part of the world, the remnant of some petty war between neighboring fiefdoms, Kogr's modern history began when the Shepherd, his dark forces consolidated, marched on the keep. 

Despite Kogr's amble defenses, the Shepherd's quick and wicked cunning made the siege a short one. Before attacking, the Shepherd divided the majority of his forces – orcish infantry, plus several platoons of warg cavalry – into two even sections, one stationed to the east, one to the south, both well out of bowshot of the curtain wall. The first stage of the siege involved a team of giant artillery, hurling stones at a particular section of the southern wall (1). In addition to stones, however, the giants also threw the occasional "troll-bomb" – a round metal casing containing a furious live troll, designed to break upon impact – over the walls, instantly causing panic within.

With the defenders distracted by thrown stones and rampaging trolls, the second stage of the siege can progress. A team of goblin sappers burrows through the cliff face and beneath the western wall (2). Once they surface, a goblin strike team quickly dispatches the crew at gatehouse garrison (3) and open the gate. The gate open, the eastern section of orcs and wargs charge. As soon as the giants succeed in smashing the southern section of the wall, the second battalion of orcs and wargs charge. Within short order, the keep is taken.

Ever since the Shepherd took the fortress, it's never been repaired. The orcs were never designed for construction or masonry and so Kogr (its orcish name) has remained utterly ruined and dilapidated, only increasing that way over time. Even now, with the Shepherd long gone and an orc tribe squatting in the ruins, its less a defensible structure for its inhabitants and more an old habit.

The following legend corresponds to the above map.
  • A. Camp: Here the majority of the inhabiting orc tribe has set up camp. Since the Shepherd's fall, the orcs have upheld a superstitious fear of the fortress. Rather than seek shelter within Kogr's walls, they erected their tents and a simple palisade here. The palisade's nothing impressive, little more than sharpened sticks at this stage – hardly enough to keep roving warg packs at bay.
  • B. Chokepoint: Where once an iron portcullis spanned across the cliff walls, now only a pile of rubble and twisted iron stands. A small orcish garrison is still posted here and, in some ways, it still serves as a decent barricade, should the palisade be breached. The orcs have bolstered that barricade as best they can with more rubble and climbing over it can be treacherous.
  • C. North Keep: The north keep, thanks to the persistent shelling of giant stones, has more or less completely collapsed. Some small shell of it remains upright, but many of its upper levels are utterly unsafe to traverse within. At present, the north keep is wholly abandoned.
  • D. South Keep: The southern keep, on the other hand, managed to withstand the attack far better is largely standing. A smattering of orcs have taken up residence here, though there are plenty of chambers and wings they out-and-out avoid, considering how pervasive the Shepherd's influence still is. 
Tune in next Wednesday for more Worldblogger!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ruin + Stronghold

Last Week's Poll:
What should I worldbuild next?
  • Winner: Ruin or Stronghold
This week, I took the poll's advise and sketched out a ruin or a stronghold for today's Worldblogger. Because I'm an indecisive son of a bitch, I decided to actually combine them and build a ruined stronghold. There is, however, a little extra exposition that comes along with this one.

The map depicts a location (tentatively) set in a distantly future novel of mine, entitled The Hog King. On the surface, The Hog King's your typical fantasy fare; epic conquest, marching armies, political squabbles. The catch is that it's told from the perspective of orcs. The cheap elevator pitch is "What happened to all of Sauron's forces once he was destroyed?" 
In The Hog King, humanity has, in the distant past, thrown down a Sauron-esque necromantic evil, a great and terrible warlord with dark powers none can guess and armies of monsters marching at his command. To ensure these loosed horrors do not run rampant in the dark lord's absence, the various kingdoms of man take a sacred covenant and erect massive walls between the mountain ranges that encapsulate the Enemy's region. For hundreds of years, all the leaderless monsters – orcs, goblins, giants, trolls, wargs – have been fighting over territory and resources and, most of all, multiplying. 
Their homeland is now dotted with the ruined and ancient fortresses the dark lord once conquered. One of those fortresses was the subject of this week's map. Make sense? Then, behold!

The notion was, before the dark lord's rise, humans built many of the strongholds that could eventually come to dot his country. During the dark lord's rise, however, his armies laid siege and claimed each of the once-human fortresses within his realm. Once the humans were driven out, of course, they remained in terrible disrepair for as long as the orcish armies laired there. As orcs, I don't imagine they've any skill at masonry, stonework or architecture and, over the years and the various occupations, the building's state of repair has only gotten worse.

So, the fortress consists of a curtain wall, now shattered, resting atop a high cliff. It sported eight turrets along that wall, two of which have fallen or been utterly destroyed, three of which are in serious danger of collapsing and three of which are more or less intact. One section of the southern curtain wall was smashed by thrown stones from giants and never repaired, leaving a convenient slope of rubble and skeletons leading up to the gap in the wall. In many other locations along the wall have the thrown stones from the giants left vulnerabilities; most notably, at the gate.

The game is smashed, its portcullis gone and now only a pile of rubble and broken battering rams lay scattered across its choke-point. In order to access the fortress proper, its orcish garrison must clamber awkwardly through the rubble which, after a fashion, serves as an impromptu barricade in its own right.

All the fortress' outbuildings have been burnt or broken; none now remain except as smoldering beams or partial walls. Much of their original purpose has been utterly forgotten by the years. Some orcs continue to lair beneath them, most prefer the comfort of their own yurts.

A pair of stout keeps guard the choke-point but a heavy pelting of giant stones has all but collapsed the northern one. Orcs continue to lair in the halls and chambers of the more intact keep (I imagine their chief or leader holds power here) but the crumbling keep is often avoided or, better yet, used for some fouler purpose. Hmm. I'll need to think on that.

In the absence of the gates proper, the orcs have erected the best possible defense they know how – a palisade of sharpened sticks around the perimeter of their camp. Many of the orcs that currently lair here (around 300 in total number) find the place unnerving, with too much presence of their ancient master still lurking about, corrupting the place. These orcs dwell in animal-skin yurts outside the main fortress, while a decent number do erect their own tents within the fortress walls.

That seems a decent enough summary for the time being. Next week, I'll go into more specific details!

What should I name the fortress?

  • Kogr
  • Tvek
  • Qagga
  • Mzu
Next Week on Worldblogger: The Siege Begins!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Trouble with Clementine

I gave you a shot, Cherie Priest – I really did. And you done squandered it.

On the surface, Clementine by Cherie Priest looks like it can't miss. During a steam-powered revisionist Civil War, a southern belle Confederate spy is sent on the trail of dangerous escaped slave turned sky pirate Croggon Hainey, his all-black crew and his stolen warship, the Free Crow. Along the way, she's forced to team up with the pirate crew to achieve a common goal and they make the strangest of bedfellows.

In one respect, Clementine is successful. It achieves basically what it sets out to do – a safe, predictable adventure, set during a steampunk Civil War, that features mad inventions and airship chases. That's all there.

On the other hand, Clementine is a disatrous misstep and my final nail in the Cherie Priest, Clockwork Century coffin.

The premise of Clementine is so rich; there's a veritable multitude of issues and baggage and opportunities to unpack there. The two protagonist factions – Boyd, the Confederate spy and the all-black pirate crew – should ostensibly have such a fascinating power dynamic, considering all the different axis on which they're unequal.

  • A: Croggon is a freed black slave and Boyd is a wealthy, educated southern belle. According to the social mores of the time, she should consider him stolen property.
  • B: Boyd is a woman during the Civil War, while Croggon and his entire crew are all male. They may be black, but there was no reason they'd respect women anymore than white men of the time.
  • C: They're criminals and she's a law enforcement officer. This puts them at odds and, really, puts Boyd in power, as she's the authority to send them back to prison or slavery.
  • D: There are three pirates and one woman. While a formidable customer in her own right, Boyd couldn't possibly hope to defeat three opponents, should things dissolve into blows.
It's a fascinating pairing, right, and one that seems very deliberately chosen to create a morass of tension and character drama.

Except it doesn't. Ever.

The moment they meet, barring some very initial hesitation, both parties work flawlessly together. They both very quickly assess what the more pressing threat is, cooperate fully to overcome that danger and continue to see the benefits of working together the entire book. It's kinda mind-blowing how not a big deal these two groups of people working together are.

The differences between the characters are practically non-existent. We're talking about Scalzi levels of protagonist cloning; they might as well all be the same goddamn character, talking to themselves in fucking circles. Considering the incredible pains Priest goes to separate her characters across every gender, societal, racial and economic line, it's almost hilarious how none of that is ever brought up once.

I wanna know what the fucking Wire would make of this premise.

What's almost more offensive than that is, of the four different dynamics mentioned above, the only one that ever sees any play in the plot, is Boyd's plight as a woman. I'm certainly, certainly not attempting to downplay women's subjugation during as backwards a period as the Civil War – certainly not. But surely we can all agree that if Boyd lives in constant fear of being disregarded or treated unequally, the plight of the fucking escaped slaves maybe deserve a little plot attention, right?

Clementine is very clearly written from the prospective of a modern white woman, only comfortable with the kinds of social issues she's encountered in her life. These are the sections of the book that work best, character-wise – when Boyd is attempting to convince the patriarchy around her that she's a valid, worthwhile and capable operator, regardless of her gender. 

The thing is, I wouldn't know the first thing about writing a story from the perspective of an escaped Civil War slave. Me either, Cherie Priest – I'm just as white and even more privileged than you. But then, I didn't set out to write an entire goddamn book about it.

Beyond that, the plot doesn't get started until halfway through the book, contains entirely too many insipid scenes of booking passage aboard, talking to station agents and traveling to and from Kansas City, Louisville and a number of other flavorless, interchangeable cities in the middle of the country. It's poorly structured, uninterestingly written and worst of all, it's cowardly.

There's nobody who can squander a premise quite like Cherie Priest.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Garme Jurnalizm

Craigslist is a force for neither good nor ill, but rather both. At its worst, it sends me scams, like this one. At its best, it sends me great opportunities, like this one.

Yes, my endearing spambots, its true – I've begun some super minor league freelance video game journalism for a few scattered websites; HD Report and Gameverse, mostly. I have three articles published, at present, and even raked in a little cool pile of cash for them, but it's mostly exciting to see my name at the top of a legitimate new site.

Now, be not mistaken, any of you among the accredited journalists who read this blog. I am little more than an armchair enthusiast in both the video game and journalism fields. I've done little more than watch Jimquisition, Extra Credits, Penny Arcade and read a few scattered sites in the past few years. I have lots of loud opinions on video games and their mechanics, but don't expect to see too many of those. This is strict reporting and, evidently gets a fair amount of traffic.

Wanna see my articles? Well, here you go!

Nintendo Absent, Microsoft and Sony Duke It Out At E3

5 Indie Games I Desperately Want To Play But Probably Won't

No Female Assassins On Ubisoft's Watch

Nothing fancy, of course, but pretty cool! Expect more fascinating articles next week too!