Sunday, 18 February 2018

Akkat, Mother of the Sunrise: Part 2, City Builder

Last time I discussed the basics of this city build: what kind of place is it, what is it famous for, where (roughly) is it located? Now the time has come to go into a little more detail. What, exactly, is this city like?

When I've discussed character design before, it's always been in the form of question-and-answer.  Exactly the same process can be followed here, slightly altered. So where I might ask about the character's name, age, ethnicity and gender, I now ask about the city's name, age, ethnic makeup, and landmarks.

To give you some examples:

Name: Akkat, Mother of the Sunrise. The title Mother of the Sunrise derives in part from the city's most valuable find: the Sunrise star gem, currently held by the Lugal, or ruler, of Akkat.

Age: People have been living here for uncounted generations. However the current rule of the guilds is less than a century old; in the time of grandfather's father, Akkat was ruled by the Lugal, who in turn owed his fealty to the great Raj of the Northern Kingdoms. The Northern Kingdoms in their mountain fastness have ceased to be a concern ever since the great rebellions, and the Lugal hasn't been a serious force in local politics for many decades.

Ethnic Makeup: Akkat is majority human. There is a much higher proportion of Tieflings here than anywhere else in human lands; about a fifth of the city are Tieflings, including many of its most important guildsmen. Though there aren't many half-orc citizens, nearly all the guild guard are half-orcs, with human officers - though the officers are largely for show, the guard being commanded in practice by its non-coms. Halflings and Elves are uncommon but not unheard of; many of the riverboat captains and crew are members of these races. Dwarves, gnomes and dragonborn are among the least common, and dragonborn are especially distrusted, since the old Raj of the Northern Kingdoms was led by dragon-kin.

Three Landmarks:
  • The Thousand Window Palace, where the Lugal traditionally holds court, is an architectural wonder, and its stained glass windows are a superlative example of the glassblower's art. The scenes depicted there show the great moments of the Lugal, and the Raj. Though the Palace is meticulously preserved, no new windows have been added for a hundred years. The Palace Guard is headquartered here, and the Lugal's Court is open daily, so the Lugal can hear the concerns of his people. The Palace Guard, as distinct from the city guard, is entirely human, and ceremonial. In days long gone, it was often the case that a new Lugal achieved power thanks to the quick and stealthy blade of an influential Guardsman. As a result, these days the Guard aren't allowed anything sharper than a wooden staff. They even eat their food with wooden utensils.
  • Destiny Quarter, the ghetto where most of the Tieflings live, is alive morning, noon and night. When Tieflings began coming here, at first they were confined to a small section of the city that nobody else wanted. Over time, as more of them arrived, their political power increased. Now some of the richest citizens of Akkat live here, side by side with the finest merchant mansions, the most expensive and famous inns and eating houses. The one thing that hasn't changed in all that time is Destiny Gate, that used to mark the way in and out of the walled ghetto. The Tieflings prefer it that way, as a reminder; the ghetto walls may have come down, but if you seek your Destiny, you go through that gate. 
  • The Permit House is where you have to go if you want permission to build anything. Since the very rocks of Akkat are impregnated with magical materials, and since merely digging a foundation might uncover priceless wealth, building rights are very strictly controlled. There are only three licensed building contractors in the entire city, each of them richer than a king. Building without a license, or hiring yourself out as an independent contractor, is  brutally punished; the hands of those who try are cut off and nailed up above the Permit House door. Applications for new build, or to repair existing buildings, often vanish within the labyrinthine corridors of the Permit House, never to be seen again. Of course, grumble ordinary citizens, Tieflings never seem to have any trouble getting permission ...
Economy: Akkat's most famous, and lucrative, export, is the star gems from which it gets its name and reputation. These highly magical items are sought after by wizards, sorcerers, liches, kings and princes. There are only a handful of official mining operations, and unofficial diggings are harshly punished - hence the Permit House. This increases the scarcity of an already rare commodity. Moreover the wizards and Tiefling jewelers of Akkat are supposed to have an especial affinity for these gems; a magical device incorporating a star gem shaped and polished by their cunning hands is said to be especially powerful, and valuable.

However it does not stop at gems. The forges of Akkat, incorporating that same magically potent stone, are supposed to be capable of producing the finest magical blades. The very best swordsmiths are, it is said, working on sentient items to rival the creations of mythic wonder-workers of times past. Whether or not this is true is besides the point; a magical blade from Akkat, with the mark of one of the Guild's swordsmiths, is worth twice as much as any other of its type, whether or not it has any kind of extra potency. 

Finally there are the glassblowers. This is a relatively recent innovation for Akkat; the first master glassblowers relocated here forty years ago. However in that brief time they have become renowned for their skill and delicate craftsmanship; alchemists and lovers of art alike swear by Akkat glass, which, so it is said, captures sunlight like nothing else on this earth. The thing that puzzles visitors to Akkat is, why do these glassblowers not add new windows to the Thousand Window Palace? Yet, to date, none have.

There is one other branch of the economy that the Guilds and the lords of Akkat prefer did not exist: poppies. Again, thanks to the magical qualities of the city, its people are themselves slightly magical. You can't live all your life surrounded by material from the far-flung stars, and not pick up a tiny amount of background radiation. Even the animals are a touch fey. What this means is, the night-soil of the city - excellent manure - is the perfect food for a particularly delicate flowering plant, commonly called the Sunset Poppy. The seeds of this plant, properly processed, produce an addictive narcotic, sold throughout the Southern lands as Sunset, Moonglow, or Journey's End. The Thieves' Guild makes a very tidy profit from cultivation of these poppies; most, if not all, of the night soil collectors of Akkat are on the payroll. It's safer that way. Those who resist meet unfortunate accidents. The fields, and processing facilities, are outside the city proper, high up in the hills; it makes it that much easier for the lords of Akkat to ignore a problem on its doorstep.

***

What I'm getting at is this: as a designer of worlds, you can create cities and characters in exactly the same way. If you want to design a character, you ask how old they are, how they make their money, what they look like, what they value, what they want, what they dream of, what their secrets are. For a city, you ask exactly the same questions. The difference is merely scale. A city needs more, makes more money, has grander vistas, and outlives even its oldest citizen. But the questions remain the same.

Don't think this just applies to fantasy cities. The same technique can be used to design your version of London, or Macau, or wherever it might be. Sure, a lot of that information can be found in Wikipedia, but you're after the stuff that's not in Wikipedia. Say you're building a version of London much like that Ben Aaronovitch uses for his Rivers of London series. It's very like the London of today - but not exactly like. For the bits that don't fit established modern London, you ask exactly those questions I've asked here - and design your version of London around that.

Which brings me to adventures. Once you design a city, the kind of adventures that happen there should flow from that design. Such as:

A swordsmith has crafted a particularly fine longsword, that he wishes to sell to a nobleman far away. However he needs someone to guard the weapon on its journey South. The swordsmith's rivals are very jealous of his work, and one of them will stop at nothing to prevent the sale - but which of them paid off the bandits that attacked the adventurers?

A Tiefling, on coming of age, or marking a particular life triumph, walks through the Destiny Gate as part of a ceremony that usually involves days, sometimes weeks of feasting, masquerade, and song. The masquerade balls are particularly famous; the grander the masquerade, the more important - and wealthy - the Tiefling host. However this particular Tiefling, on walking through the Destiny Gate, somehow opens up a small, personal connection to the Abyss. Nothing so dramatic as a flaming portal through which can be heard the wailing of the damned; rather, unexpected and swift corrosion, say of furnishings, clothing, or food, or a brief plague of Abyssal small fry, like Dretch, or Manes. Each time this happens, it's centered on the unfortunate Tiefling who walked through the Gate. Naturally this complicates the masquerade somewhat, but it also provokes a human backlash. Can the adventurers defuse the situation, before an angry mob tears through Destiny Quarter?

An innkeeper has, through accident or design, dug a very small pit in the cellar of her inn. Only the tiniest of scrapings, but if the authorities ever hear about it, her hand will be nailed up above the Permit House door. However, if she were somehow to obtain retroactive permission for her illegal excavation, all will be well. Can the adventurers forge, or otherwise obtain, that all-important permit?

That's enough for now. Next week, something completely different!

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Building Fantasy (13th Age, Dungeons & Dragons)

Some friends of mine are leaving the island soon. If you listened to the last Halloween game, you know who they are - Tach and Max. Tacha is off to pursue a degree in Stage Management in Canada, and Max is going with her because those two are joined at the (very tall) hip, and besides, there are more chances for actors in Canada.

As a kind of farewell present, I said I'd run a game of their choice, and they opted for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, which until now I'd never run. I've played D&D before, of course - red box, DMG with the Efrit on the cover, 3.5, yadda yadda. But I stopped at 3.5. Now I've been talked into giving 5th a go, I must admit, I'm pleasantly surprised. It's by far the easiest of the systems to run, and it's not so chart-heavy simulationist as to frighten off the new player.

I thought I'd play with the concept a little bit, and design a fantasy town. Keepers running 13th Age games, take note: while I won't go heavily into 13th Age stuff, there's no reason why you couldn't pillage this for use in your game.

Begin at the beginning: why design a town? Mainly because the players need a base of operations, somewhere they can return to for supplies, healing, and emotional support, after the dragons have ruthlessly mocked their combat skills, dubious parentage, and other weak points. Of course, that base could be anything - wizard's tower, hobbit village, elven shrine - but by making it a town, you open up a variety of different plot threads. Ultimately there's only so much mystery to be had in a tower. If you design a town, there's a lot you can leave blank, to be filled in later. Plus, there's more chances for other fantasy races to get involved. Hobbit villages are all very well, but unless you're planning on putting a half-orc ghetto on the outskirts of Hobbiton - and Bilbo Baggins strikes me as the ultimate NIMBY - there's only so much diversity to be had.

Let's start with the very basics: what kind of town, and what kind of setting? Is it a trading outpost, a manufacturing town, a great port? Is this broadly Northern European, Mediterranean, Pacific island waystation, ancient necropolis on the outskirts of a vast wasteland?

I like the idea of the town being able to supply something nowhere else can. Its unique status means it'll be fought over by all the powers, but it also means everyone will want to go there. Merchants will send their caravans, nobles and leaders their emissaries, and everyone else will want to go just to say they've been.

That brings me to Nordlingen. If you've ever spent five minutes on the internet, you've probably seen an article or photograph, as it's famous in an Atlas Obscura kind of way.


About 15 million years ago a meteorite smacked into what is now Bavaria, creating a massive bowl-shaped crater, about 14 kilometers wide, between 100 to 150 meters deep. Over time humans arrived, and started building in that crater. They didn't know it was caused by a meteorite; they thought it was a volcano. Be that as it may, they started quarrying the remains of the meteorite and using the diamond-encrusted stone as building material. The diamond remnants are breathtakingly small - about 0.2 mm across - but there are uncounted hundreds of thousands of them embedded in the bricks and stones of Nordlingen.

So let's poach that, and posit: millennia ago, a meteorite smashed into the earth, bringing with it large quantities of precious minerals. Most of it was smashed into pieces so small that they can't be seen except with the most delicate of instruments, but there are still portions large enough to be quarried, shaped, and polished to a fine sheen. These gems, found nowhere else on earth, are prized highly by magical scholars, for their mystic properties. Physically, I picture them as similar to rubies, but with an internal, captivating flicker.

Sorcerers and Warlocks, particularly Tieflings, are drawn to this place like a moth to a flame, and the Tiefling community here is larger and more politically powerful than in any other place in the realm. A great river runs nearby, and merchants from across the realms send their caravans, offering up the wealth of kings in exchange for the magical gems of this proud city.

As a government, I see this as a town where the craftsmen's guilds have taken over, big time. There was a noble leader at one point, and there probably still is a kind of rump nobility - someone to wear the pretty hat and wave at ceremonies. But the guilds wear the pants in this metaphorical marriage. They pay for defense, they negotiate with other powers, they write and enforce the laws. If they want something done, it gets done, or there'll be trouble.

With this much money at stake, there's bound to be a Thieves' Guild. They'd have to tread softly with all these Craftsman's Guild enforcers wandering around ostentatiously sharpening their weapons, but that's never stopped a greedy man before. Besides, merchants will want a way around all those tariffs the Craftsmen's Guild imposes, and getting around tariffs is what a good Thieves' Guild is all about.

The only thing I haven't discussed so far is cultural location. What kind of place is this? Well, I've mentioned rubies, and that always makes me think of tropical locales. Myanmar, in Southeast Asia, has long had a reputation as a source of rubies. So we're talking cloudy, rainy, with hot, humid summers, and a parched dry season in winter. There are mountains to the north, but I don't see the town in a mountainous locale. Tropical forest covers most of the countryside, and the great river sweeps down to the delta and far away, to the wide, trackless ocean.

So I give you Akkat: Mother of the Sunrise, jewel of the great Chinda River, where the Asteria, or Star, gems come from. 

Next post shall be a deeper dive into Akkat. What makes it tick, and what kind of adventure can be found there?

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Man Downstairs (Miskatonic Repository)

Well, I said I'd do it, and it's done.

The Man Downstairs, a CoC scenario set in Jazz Age Harlem, New York, is up on the Miskatonic Repository at DriveThruRPG. This is very much an experiment for me. I want to see whether it has legs.

If any of you buy it, I hope you enjoy it - a review would be appreciated!




The tenants at 224 Lenox Avenue, between W 121st and W122nd, New York City, have a neighbor they have never met, and never knew existed until a few weeks ago, yet he has always been there. Josef Voorzanger has been hiding for more than forty years, but time has eaten his once-sharp mind, and his wards are no longer strong enough to keep out the curious. Josef made a bad bargain a long time ago, and now the entity he bartered with is sending the Man with Lightning Flowers to collect - unless the investigators, hired by the owners of 224 Lenox, can find Josef first.


Sunday, 4 February 2018

Person of Interest: Benjamin Rucker, aka Black Herman (RPG all, especially Timewatch)

Professor Black Herman, the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Negro Magician, was born in a Zulu village, to hear him tell it, and spent his early life learning the mystic secrets of the Orient while dodging Chinese assassins, bent on revenge for his refusing to help them steal a priceless diamond from the head of a statue of Buddha. Seeing that the end was nigh, rather than deliver himself into the hands of his enemies, Black Herman drank poison and died. Many dignitaries, including the King of the Zulus, gathered to pay respects, only to gape in wonderment, as Black Herman stepped out of his coffin and back into the land of the living. Then, after a display of wonders to rival the best, Black Herman went across the seas, to try his luck at fame and fortune in the Americas.

Or, to be slightly more accurate, Benjamin Rucker was probably born in Amherst, Virginia, in 1892. He tried a number of different professions before taking up the magician's wand, but by 1906 he was well on his way. He's known to have worked with Harry Kellar, but it's his alleged association with huckster, herb doctor, and fellow Virginian Prince Herman that he's best known for. It's not entirely clear whether Rucker worked with Prince Herman or not, but Rucker said he did, and he took on Herman's stage name after Prince Herman died unexpectedly in 1909.

Rucker, then only 17, was set to conquer the world, but there was a problem: he was black, in a world where that mattered more than anything. When he worked with Prince Herman, he could perform in the South; now he was a solo act, segregation laws confined him to non-white audiences, unless he was performing in the North. So he set his sights on other audiences, and by 1918 was at the height of his talent. An absolute master of stage magic, he also mixed in a healthy dose of hoodoo and herbal remedies; for, as Rucker himself put it, he was a man who knew how to spend $1 twice over and still have change left, and fortunetelling with a healthy dose of herbal remedies were where the money was.

Hoodoo, for those unfamiliar with the term, is not voodoo. Hoodoo is an American variant on West African folklore, also known as conjure, root doctoring, or rootworking. It blends herbal remedies with Moses-as-conjuror; the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses are the core texts of this spiritualist movement. A hoodoo worker makes talismans, oils, candles and incense, to minister to every possible need or ailment. Though hoodoo has a strong element of ancestor worship, it lacks the loa that vaudon sanctifies, and also lacks the Catholic overtones of voodoo.

The man who not only can foretell the future, but also supply every possible remedy to human frailty, can make a great deal of money, which is exactly what Benjamin Rucker did.

Things went from good to better. He bought a brownstone in Harlem, NYC, where he saw all his clients. He performed across the country, and when the performances were over, he used his hoodoo skills to counsel his audience. He became a devoted friend and counselor to Marcus Garvey, leader of the Back to Africa movement, and Garvey was far from Burcker's only friend and confidante; Black Herman was probably the best-connected hoodoo man and performing magician of his day. He was an Elk, a Freemason, a Knight of Pythias. He donated to churches and worthy causes, funded scholarships, was a friend to poor man and intellectuals, politicians and power brokers. Everyone wanted to be on good terms with the man who knew how to twist the skein of fortune any way he wanted.

HIs signature performance piece was a living burial. He picked a spot, which he called his Private Graveyard, and lay in his coffin on display for all to see; it cost ten cents to check his pulse. Then he was buried, but when his coffin was disinterred a few days later he stepped out, none the worse. He used his miraculous recovery as a kick-off for his stage performance, emerging from the coffin to lead a parade to the stage. It was his boast that he returned to a venue once every seven years - a picturesque way of saying he was constantly on tour.

Things didn't always go his way. In 1927 he was arrested and sent to Sing Sing on charges of fortune telling and selling medicine without a license, but he only spent a brief time in jail. His supporters claimed a prison cell couldn't hold him; he'd walk out of there any time he liked. He wasn't in jail long in any event, and the 1929 stock market crash didn't hurt his fortune much; whatever financial losses he might have suffered were soon made back again, by telling more fortunes and selling more conjure medicine.

He died young. In 1934 he collapsed at a friend's home - some stories say it actually happened on stage - suffering massive cardiac failure. He was only 44 years old.

Even then, his admirers and well-wishers didn't believe it. Professor Black Herman, dead? The man who'd stepped out of the coffin more times than a man could count? No, never; thousands went to the funeral home to see his body, laid out in state. His assistant, Washington Reeves - later to take on Black Herman's stage name - charged money to view the corpse. But this time it didn't step out of the casket; Benjamin Rucker had enraptured his last audience.

From a gamificiation viewpoint, a hoodoo stage magician who performs throughout the 1920s and 30s, all across the United States, is a perfect NPC for Trail or Call of Cthulhu. However with that mysterious death, can he be anything other than a Timewatch agent? You can almost picture the funeral home, after everyone else is left, as Black Herman walks out of the grave one last time, and into Time itself.

With that in mind:

Recruitment Drive: TimeWatch intends to pick up Rucker at the funeral home in 1934 but, when the agents get there, he's not in the coffin any more. Instead, an aged and scarred Rucker appears at his brownstone in Harlem, witnessed by his employee and protégée Washington Reeves, who he tells to go to the funeral home and give a message to whoever he finds there. Clearly Rucker's been time travelling, but on whose dime? And was his reappearance an attempt to contact TimeWatch, knowing that TimeWatch agents would have to be in Harlem on that date? Or is this some elaborate trap?

That's it for now. Enjoy!