Let’s Make Icons! (Arabian Fantasy Edition, vol. 3)

Nothing is really in final form until the campaign begins, and probably not even then. But I think I’ve gotten my Khavayish icons settled now. What got them solid in my head? Active use.

Yep! I have now finally run a 13th Age game, and seen how players react to the icons — well, some of them, really. Only two PCs, so only six dice to distribute for this initial run. Still, they worked just about how I’d expected.

The Game

PC #1: a tiefling relic thief, of the sort discussed in this book here. Lifted a skull from a temple, turned out to not be a saint, but a devil’s skull from the 999 — a concubine of the Slumbering King, and as it turns out one of his ancestors. Said skull was his One Unique Thing, and she was also his greatest burden.

Relationship dice: Slumbering King (2 dice, conflicted); City of Thieves (1 die, positive)

PC #2: an air genasi sailor and former handmaiden in the Queen of Birds’ court. Her backstory suggested two major ties: the Queen’s Court, obviously, and one of the Serpent Emirs (a feathered serpent who also attended the court). I had also swapped out the Lawgiver for the spicier Ascending Flame — an organization of mages trying to bring magocracy to the land — and that appealed to her player as well, as she likes the paradigm of “wizards are jerks and you need to punch them.”

Relationship dice: Queen of Birds (1 die, positive); Serpent Emirs (1 die, positive); Ascending Flame (1 die, negative).

The game itself was profoundly entertaining in a number of ways. Far too many to go into here. But the icon rolls seemed to hit the right notes.

  • Slumbering King (5): The villain of the piece turned out to be bonded with an imp that was another of the 999, and PC #1’s ancestor-skull was able to give him some advice, though she was also less than helpful in various ways at key junctures.
  • City of Thieves (6): Once the relic thief got his assignment, he asked around. A colleague was able to point him toward a failed thieves’ expedition to the island, which wound up letting the players find an abandoned base camp and loot the potion satchel there.
  • Queen of Birds (6): In classic fairy tale form, the PCs eavesdropped on a pair of talking birds who were discussing whether or not the PCs would in fact fall victim to a particular trap, or if they’d find the way around. This allowed them to neatly avoid the trap, of course.

All of those relationship dice functioned exactly as I’d hoped they would. It was pretty great; everyone was on the same page re: expectations of what a relationship die might mean, so that seems to mean the icons are solid. And speaking of:

The Heroic Icons:

The Enlightened Caliph: A hero in his youth and a pious, compassionate man in his middle years, the Enlightened Caliph wishes to see Khavayin grow past its petty hungers and bloody feuds. His city is one of the finest in the land, and his agents — loyal soldiers, cunning spies, righteous priests and forthright paladins first among them — support those who work for peace and prosperity.

The Immortal Sage: This benevolent archmage works quietly to keep ancient evils bound deep in the earth or confined outside the mortal realm. He shows interest in adventurers who seek knowledge for the right reasons. His influence is felt in summoned spirits, agent-adepts, even intelligent magical treasures.

The Prophetess: She is touched by the gods, or perhaps even the voice of Fate itself. She calls on heroes to help fulfill the brightest visions of the future, and to keep her darkest nightmares from coming to pass. Anyone, from beggar to noble champion, could be working for the Prophetess’s dreams — in extreme cases, her influence can be mistaken for purest coincidence.

The Serpent Emirs: A race of intelligent, benevolent serpents, the various Emirs take an interest in rewarding the virtuous and courageous. They have many mortal allies and fey servants, making them one of the subtlest of icon influences.

The Ambiguous Icons:

The Ascending Flame: Khavayin was once split asunder by a war fought between wizard-tyrants, as well as the rebellious people they’d oppressed. Wizards have been since kept from positions of temporal power, but the Ascending Flame wishes to change that. They are an order dedicated to bringing Khavayin back under the rule of mages, whether the people accept it or not. Some agents of the Flame truly have the best interests of the people in mind, but the group as a whole is not interested in sharing power.

The Beasts of Stone: The spirits of the wild are numberless, and concerned with their own business. But some will speak to mortals they find worthy. The Beasts of Stone are the primal spirits who take interest in people, either as followers or as enemies. Each one is tied to an idol of some sort, its primary means of communication with the physical world. Some are predatory, some benevolent, some dispassionate. But they all have an interest in the natural world, and a distrust of growing civilization.

The City of Brass: All genies have an interest in Khavayin, but the ifrit in particular have plans. They offer meticulously worded bargains to those who impress them, and may the heavens help anyone who tries to evade payment. Ifrit, like any other genie, are also not above taking more personal and sometimes even romantic interest in mortals of especially notable quality. Their collective resources and agents are almost innumerable, though any ifrit’s influence is more limited in the mortal world.

The City of Thieves: The most widespread organized crime syndicate in Khavayin are those who know the secret name of a city that does not exist. Its streets and districts are laid out in their organization, its culture formed by their activities. All classes of criminal may claim to be residents of the City of Thieves, from the cruelest cutthroats to the noblest liberators.

The Queen of Birds: Of the many fey monarchs, the Queen of Birds has the greatest interest in Khavayin. She is enthralled by beauty, art, music, gossip, and secrets — all of which are in great supply. She can be kind, as archfey go, but she is fey after all, where compassion is more of a challenging exercise than an inborn urge. Her subjects range from bird maidens and elementals to talking birds of all sorts, giving her eyes and ears anywhere she might find interesting.

The Villainous Icons

The Brotherhood of Vipers: There are many orders of assassins in Khavayin, where assassination is often seen as more pragmatic than open war. The Brotherhood of Vipers are the most feared of all, for they have no master but their Ancient One, and no cause save avarice and spite. They have made themselves snake-blooded through dark rituals, the better to advance their agenda of toppling the old ways and watching the land writhe in chaos.

The Ghul Queen: She is ancient, cunning, and a master of sorcery. The Ghul Queen is said to have eyes in every cemetery, and knowledge of every catacomb. Her hunger for power is stronger than her hunger for flesh, though they are often the same. She savors devouring the corpses of particularly strong or knowledgeable fallen, so that she can add their experiences to her own. Her network of ghuls, specters, scavengers and necromancers is larger than anyone would like.

The Ogre Khan: A great lord among ogres lives in the wastes beyond, and he has cast his eye on the fine cities of Khavayin. His raiding parties seek out the treasures and luxuries of the civilized world. He has many children, some of them brutish chieftains and some of them clever sorcerers — and almost all of them dedicated to earning their father’s favor by taking some portion of Khavayin in his name.

The Slumbering King: A great shaitan who ruled in the mortal world long ago, with his court of 999 other devils, the Slumbering King was overthrown and bound into sleep long ago. Even his name was lost with the realm. But certain of the 999 remain in the world, and both they and power-hungry madmen work to locate and wake the Slumbering King once more.

And there we go! I imagine if this gets turned into a campaign proper, more will be said about all of them. I do like campaign wikis, and it seems appropriate to write them all up in standard format (or something close to it), with more detailed discussion of the allegiances and rivalries between them, among other things. We’ll see if that happens. But for now it does seem that I have more than enough to work with — they worked before, and I think they’ll work again. The game was a solid hit, and now I’m pledged to run a second session for these two over Thanksgiving.

They insisted on rolling relationship dice well in advance, to see how I could use the results with more prep time. Looks like it’s Queen of Birds (5) and Ascending Flame (5).

Should be interesting!

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Posted by on November 17, 2014 in Uncategorized


Let’s Make Icons! (Arabian Fantasy Edition, vol. 2)

Last time I went through the process of brainstorming some possible icons for an Arabian fantasy-styled 13th Age game. (Let’s call it 13th Night to be cute.) Next phase: building them out a bit.

In order for icons — or any characters, really — to fill up half a damn’s worth of interesting, they have to want things that they don’t yet have, or that they’re in danger of losing. Similarly, for players to care about their connections to these organizations and entities of power, they need to know what an icon is worth. What are their shared interests? What are the toys that might come into play? What are the fun conflicts? How do they go after what they want?

Brotherhood of Vipers: Aileen said that she felt assassins should be more morally ambiguous. I do get the point, but I actually wonder if it might not be more interesting to have assassins be something available to every icon, separate loyalist brotherhoods, and this particular icon is the “creme de la creme” of murderers-for-hire. Borrowing from an existing goddess in the realm, there’s the double motivation of hatred and greed. Spite also seems appropriate; and a certain love of destabilization, watching a city writhe and collapse after you kick out its linchpin. If they show up in an adventure, it’s not so much that they’re after a Macguffin — it’s that I need to figure out what personage in the adventure has been marked for death for some reason.

City of Brass: Ifrit are one of the main reasons I like messing with this subgenre of fantasy, so I really want them to be able to play a part indirectly even if they don’t show up to fight low-level characters. At every turn they’re about bargains. They want luxuries, singular goods, unique and interesting and powerful objects, entertaining people and beasts. They also demand respect: insult an ifriti, and they’ll make sure that insult’s paid for.

The City of Thieves: Two “city” names in a row… is that bad? But I love the idea of the secret code language, where members of the organization are the only ones who know its secret name. Their motive is obvious: avarice. They’ll show up trying to steal all manner of treasures, kidnap interesting people, uncover lucrative secrets.

Enlightened Caliph: I see the setting as a collection of city-states, emirates, caliphates, wild wastes, and nomadic protectorates, so our Haroun al-Rashid analogue clearly isn’t The Caliph that oversees all. Unifying the realm is a solid goal, but if he’s a benevolent-themed icon, then he probably shouldn’t be a warmonger. (That’d turn the setting into a Sengoku/Three Kingdoms setup anyway, and although that would be interesting, it’d also be super distracting.) But let’s go with the idea that he’s interested in reform, and that he participates in various intrigues and sponsors efforts to influence other cities. (Edit: He should also be religious, come to think of it, so he can be another strong option for PCs whose faith is a key part of their concept.)

Ghul Queen: Hunger comes to mind immediately. But it’s not enough for someone with icon-level influence. I’m going to assume she’s a sorcerous sort, and her influence is as widespread as it is thanks to magic. There’s a Nights story that involves a demon or jinn that lives in a graveyard, and travels to another graveyard at night. So the Ghul Queen has eyes in every cemetery (or close enough). That conjures the idea of interest in the dead — she collects the most interesting corpses, to devour them and consume their knowledge, or to resurrect them for her growing organization. Add to that an interest in old magic and she’s got the story-driving punch she needs.

Immortal Sage: Benevolent Solomonic figure, though not a worldly king. Concerned with bindings and conjurations, old curses and places of power. That’s plenty for a mysterious occultist attempting to keep the world running, but he needs that extra bit of something. I think he’s not entirely ascetic — he has some lost love, beyond the reach of all his magic. That gives him an extra motivation to pull out just when players figure him for nothing more than an archetype.

Lawgiver: Very easy. A figure that wants the more ambiguous form of unification, less compassionate than the Enlightened Caliph. Easy to see nomad and other freedom-loving PCs opposing him; who would want a positive relationship? Perhaps the Lawgiver’s an abolitionist, liberating slaves in the places that fall under his sway. Or “liberating”; he drafts them into new roles, a better lot but still on the ambiguous side.

Ogre Khan: The ogres in these parts are pretty monstrous and varied: elephantine ears, Harryhausen cyclops-types, tusks, apelike builds, and all other sorts of various standouts. The Ogre Khan, like his parent inspiration, is the force outside civilized lands. Like the Ghul Queen, he needs influence throughout the adventuring territories. In this case, I favor making him a “family man,” with dozens or hundreds of ogrish offspring scattered throughout, vying to become the favorite of their father the Khan. Ideal mini-bosses and lieutenants for a game.

Prophetess: I’m still tempted by the thought of having the Prophetess being a stand-in for a rather benevolent version of Fate. As such, I think she’s the exception to the rule. Nobody’s sure what her true motivations are: her influence is as Fate decrees, and her workings aren’t always recognizable as hers.

Queen of Birds: A proper fey entity is interested in passion, beautiful things, singular experiences, esoteric secrets and perhaps romance. All of these things drive the Queen, but I’m particularly interested in gossip. I like the thought of talking birds bringing news and demanding to hear things the Queen doesn’t know in return. Bird maidens and simurghs: also interesting.

Serpent Emirs: The serpents are more classic benevolent fae entities. They repay favors for favors, and have a vested interest in seeing the success of virtuous and honest people. I’d probably encourage anyone with relationship dice with the Emirs to define a particular relationship with a given serpent noble. Probably many of the emirs are religious to boot, as divine-powered PCs could use another icon with that hook. Oh, and also they hate the Brotherhood of Vipers. True snakes hate mock snakes. I’m pretty sure that’s a rule.

Slumbering King: The King himself and his motivations aren’t really the issue, unless we look at high-level play and the players wrapping the campaign around him. It’s the motivations of the 999 shaitan (or whatever’s left of them) and the mortals who want a measure of his power. Plenty of retribution, pursuit of relics from the King’s age, and whatever individual quirks seem likely for your local representative.

Voice in the Wilds: And here’s where it’s time to lock this thing down into something not so generic. Reassessing, I know I want something for the primal characters, an icon couched in the terms of protecting the wild spaces. The main issue here is that when you’re dealing with an incarnation of the primal wild, it is by default (and appropriately) shown as being larger than most human motivations. But an icon? I recall living idols being a thing in Al-Qadim, and they might make good mouthpieces for a vibrant spirit world. Serpents and birds are both representing other icons; other appropriate fauna would be lions, hyenas, crocodiles, scorpions, jackals… hm. Al-Qadim offers the kahin idol-priests, and those work well in the “druid” slot — some might be shapeshifters to boot. I like it. We’ll change this to either the Beasts of Stone or the Stone Beasts. Each idol might have different demands, so there’s that locally personalized feel. I like this take better already.

Second pass down! Am I ready to start writing them up? Could be.

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Posted by on November 10, 2014 in Uncategorized


Let’s Make Icons! (Arabian Fantasy Edition, vol. 1)

With two games about to wrap up their seasons, it’s time for a bit of a break. I’ve been interested in trying out 13th Age, and it seems both groups are interested in trying it out as well. (Yes, this means the wife had better be interested, as she’s gonna be stuck with it.) To avoid going into an overlong derail, I’m definitely interested in seeing if the mechanics work out in that “descriptive/streamlined but still not wholly abstract way,” but the real things I want to play with are Backgrounds, One Unique Things and relationship dice.

Backgrounds are great — and they’re pretty much defined by the player. The One Unique Thing is great, too. They’ll allow players to come up with concepts like “phoenix whose egg was corrupted and was reborn into humanlike form,” should they be so inclined, and have some support for doing that. Relationship dice seem also great — but there we run into an issue, as they imply much more work on the GM’s end. Well, ordinarily they wouldn’t, of course.

If you’re not familiar with 13th Age, the icons are essentially major powers in the setting. They’re rival factions whose maneuvering and ambitions shape the events of the campaign, and players select relationship dice with a few of them. It’s a way for a player to say “I am opposed to the Lich King and in good with the High Druid and have a weird bargain with the Prince of Shadows,” thus allowing their connections to influence play. The game comes with a default setting and a list of 13 icons ready to go.

So when I floated it past the alternate-Thursday group, they were quite amenable to just about any setting, but one player in particular would like something Arabian in theme. Uh-oh. Or, well, I say “uh-oh,” but I really mean “well, that’s a lot of work to do but I think I’m going to enjoy it.” Because, you see, the default icons are really bog-standard fantasy, meant to emulate that classic sorta-Tolkien, sorta-sword-and-sorcery D&D feel. But you look at something like “the Dwarf King” and… that doesn’t exactly say “Arabian Nights.” (Or rather, sorta-Arabian-Nights-inspired, because I admittedly make major changes to the feel just by including, say, institutionalized gender equality. Cultural appropriation? Possibly, but I do my best to avoid the exoticized Other and orientalism, so, we’ll see.)

I welcome the work of making new icons, even though it will be work! Because the thing about icons is that they’re not just a chance to establish the politics of the setting. They’re about establishing archetypes. Choosing “City of Brass” as an iconic force means an emphasis on ifrit; not having any dragon-type icons means you’re not assuming dragons are a core stylistic element. And because I’m feeling kind of like doing this exercise in public, let’s start doing it here.

Shotgunning Archetypes

I started with asking how many of the 13 default icons suggested something out of the Nights. Answer? …Not a lot. But we could start with those 13, and start drawing equivalencies. The other thing was thinking of big mythic-seeming archetypes that could become icons. The latter idea actually will feed the former, so here’s where I started with that part of the brainstorm:

  • Jinn/City of Brass
  • Malicious nobleman warlord
  • “Forty Thieves” as inspiration for organized crime syndicate
  • Sorcerers transforming people into animals
  • Elephantine ogres
  • Alamut/order of assassins
  • Brass man/artificer who makes brass men
  • Old Man of the Sea
  • Sleeping threats from buried, lost civilizations
  • Lawgiver
  • Benevolent shapechanging serpents
  • Talking animals

Reworking Icons

Next step was taking a look at the 13 icons and figuring out rough equivalencies. Could the essence be kept? Let’s get to work on the first draft.

The Archmage: Sound enough concept — a mage/wizard/sorcerer of great power but also great wisdom. Like having King Solomon still around and active. I want a setting that’s more feuding city-states or a rough confederacy of kingdoms and emirates than a unified empire, though. We’ll keep the idea of a heroic icon who is also the Best Wizard. I don’t want to get too specialized with a magic style (which is the opposite of how I normally operate), so we’ll consider him a reclusive but influential person. I’m thinking something like The Immortal Sage.

The Crusader: Okay, that name would have to go. But the idea of someone using dubious means toward an ostensibly good goal is sound. The Crusader is ambiguous, and I like that. Here I’m thinking that a force of legalistic judgment might be appropriate — so let’s consider the idea of someone attempting to bring law to the various quarreling city-states by force. We’ll jot down The Lawgiver.

The Diabolist: Infernal forces suit the setting, with a bit of a tweak. My first thought is to have this be “the Shaitan,” but upon reflection that’s a little generic. I look back at the list of archetypes and the “sleeping threat” seems to have legs. So what if it’s a powerful shaitan, but one conjured into the world and bound by a Solomon-like figure long ago? Then the icon could represent his devilish followers (999 of them sounds pretty cool) and the cultlike types trying to bring back The Slumbering King. I like it; we’ll see if I still like it later on.

The Dwarf King: Way, way too Tolkien. The intelligent benevolent serpents might be more interesting creatures to tie into the wealth below the hills. Of course, they’re benevolent and the Dwarf King is more ambiguous, thanks to that archetypal greed. So let’s hold the snakes back. While tying the brass men to a wonder-crafter of no real moral certainty is interesting, I can’t type “brass” without thinking of The City of Brass, which definitely deserves a slot. We’ll put that there for now. Can’t get more ambiguous than ifrit (unless you want them totally malevolent, but I find them less interesting that way).

The Elf Queen: Similarly, completely Western. Ambiguous fey types have their place in pretty much any myth structure, though. For now I’m going to accept that I probably want bird maidens in the game, and that someone’s got to do all that turning relatives into animals. We’ll throw out The Queen of Birds as an ambiguous fey force for now.

The Emperor: I know I don’t want an empire. I also have my personal biases against hereditary aristocracy as something that works for very long. But Harun al-Rashid shows up in the Nights as this benevolent figure, and there’s an argument for that. I would ordinarily go with switching him to ambiguous, but we’ll see if The Enlightened Caliph can work out, or if it’s too boring.

The Great Gold Wyrm: There’s arguably room for dragons in this style of game, even if the argument is “remember the Harryhausen dragon in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad? That was cool!” I don’t know that I want one as an icon, though. This is a clearly benevolent slot, so let’s go back to the serpents we didn’t use for the Dwarf King slot. The Serpent Emirs? Will have to kick around a structure for their organization.

The High Druid: This one is hard. Undeniably I want something for more primal characters to feel a connection to. Unquestionably the word “druid” is terrible for this kind of setting. I think of living wilderness and talking beasts and how people would want to play actual ranger and druid classes. For now I slap down The Voice in the Wilds. This will almost certainly be one of the ones to change during Pass Two.

The Lich King: Famous Arabian undead = ghuls. The Ghul Queen. Smart, organized. So quick, easy and obvious there must be a flaw with it, but for now I’m feeling fine.

The Orc Lord: Once more, says “Tolkien” too readily, even if I think half-orc mamluks are a nifty borrow for the setting. Ogres are more archetypal. Calling him The Ogre Khan for now to avoid too many kings and queens, though may have to ruminate on whether that has unfortunate cultural implications.

The Priestess: This one could almost work as is. My first instinct is to make her The Prophetess instead, mostly because an icon that hands out prophecies and interprets the hand of Fate seems to imply more adventuring-style intrigue than holding religious services might. I am actually contemplating relationship dice with Fate itself, which would suit some of the inspirational stories, but that would probably be so much work to adjudicate in an interesting and not-lazy fashion.

The Prince of Shadows: Honestly, I feel organized crime syndicates belong in almost any setting. Instead of having one single supernatural master thief, a brotherhood might be more appropriate. The City of Thieves has a neat ring, though maybe it implies too many members? I’ll stew on this one.

The Three: As with the Great Gold Wyrm, I’m not feeling dragons as a pillar of the setting. The Three do have an assassin’s guild working for them, though, and that’s something I could use. I’m awfully tempted to combine the Old Man of the Mountain with the classic sword-and-sorcery serpent people like yuan-ti. It would be a good counterbalance for the benevolent serpents. The Brotherhood of Vipers goes down as a villainous icon. It may cause problems, though, because Aileen prefers an ambiguous assassin organization (understandable if you have placed any of the Assassin’s Creed games). She has a point, but if I flip the assassins to ambiguous I need another villainous icon, with or without the serpent-men attached.

It’s a Start

So there’s 13 icons. Not bad. I would not call them ready for publication even as core ideas. Next step will be to go back and refine them — see if there’s anything problematic, anything weak, any super ideas I’m missing out on. (I already wonder if I should change The City of Brass to something involving a wider variety of jinn, and let players taking it choose which elemental faction they’re allied with/opposing.) I’ll likely do a blog post on the second pass, as long as I’m favoring this behind-the-curtains writing.

Still a long ways to go before I’d be happy with this set of movers and shakers, but I’m already liking how going to this effort better sells the flavor of a setting. It just feels so much better drawing on the specific cultural myths. If everyone voted to play Arabian-style 13th Age once the current game’s season winds down, I think I’d have something good by then.

Oh, did I emphasize that I just did all this for a game I might not ever run? Yeah. Where GMing and world-building is concerned, I may have a problem. But I can quit any time, I swear.


Posted by on October 26, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Holiday Gaming

It started with Shadowrun and corned beef.

When I had first come to Atlanta to start work with White Wolf, I started up a D&D game for some of the gang. At the time, Ian Lemke (who was developing Changeling: The Dreaming, a job that I admittedly envied) had a long-running Shadowrun game going on. He invited me to join the game; for the next session, on St. Patrick’s Day, he was planning to run the adventure Celtic Double-Cross. The game would take place at the apartment shared by my good friend/ex-girlfriend who’d gotten me to apply to White Wolf in the first place, and her roommate, a rather quiet woman whom I’d eventually marry. To make it all particularly St. Paddysish, there would be Guinness of course (a beer I never learned to love), and Aileen fixed up a big mess of corned beef, potatoes, carrots and soda bread.

I don’t remember a lot about the game itself, save that my rigger had to start out (before he joined the party) acting as a bodyguard away from his car, which he did not like. Of course he didn’t! Rigger. But naturally I remember the festive occasion of it all. I also remember previously thinking that corned beef sounded nasty — being dumb enough to confuse it with creamed, chipped beef — and becoming a convert that night. To this day I love Reubens considerably more than Aileen does, given her distaste for sauerkraut and rye.

I can’t say that holiday gaming became a tradition from that point on, because there are many, many holidays we missed. Part of this is no doubt because I am the sort to run ongoing campaigns until the wheels fall off or until we reach an acceptable stopping point. But as we spent more time on the Internet and found out more about other gaming groups doing the same, sometimes we’d grab the opportunity.

Valentine’s Day — A one-on-one session with Aileen (go figure), in which her necromancer had to help the ghosts of two young lovers from feuding families.

St. Patrick’s Day — A pack of marauding fey assassins (“leprechauns”) forced down the skyship Bifrost for its unending cauldron of whisky (“pot of gold at the end of the rainbow”), using magic seeds to choke the ship with vines (“shamrocks”). The players had to investigate the shipwreck, where the fumes from the cauldron was making everyone drunk as hell (holiday “tradition”).

Easter — A pack of elemental terrors had stolen some dragon eggs. Eggs? That’s it? Yeah, I know. Sometimes the link is tenuous. I feel there was a rabbit-Kin in that game somewhere, though. I believe I also ran something about hidden gems more recently but boy my memory is spotty.

(Edit: Aileen reminded me about the gems and the rabbit-Kin thing. It was a session where a small group of allies had been captured and imprisoned in gems, their life forces being used to empower wicker golems. “Eggs in baskets.” And it was a rabbit-Kin that guided them there. Memory not what it used to be.)

Independence Day — Not sure I have done this! You’d think I’d find a game with explosions.

Halloween — Numerous opportunities. Of course, given how Halloween trappings tend to find their way into any game I run (as anyone who’s seen my miniatures cabinet might guess), there are remarkably no standouts in my brain. Usually there’s something involving witches, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, mummies or stitched-together corpses going on several times in October.

Thanksgiving — Intrigue at a feast.

Christmas — A pack of Games Workshop-style beastmen (“reindeer”) besieging a sacred elven star-oak (“Christmas tree”). The beastmen may or may not have been led by a minotaur with a blood-soaked muzzle. Special Bonus Round: There’s a small caravan of traveling elves trying to reach the sacred oak so that they can receive its blessing for a child about to be born. Pity the racist locals won’t let them stay at the inn.

That’s not actually a lot, is it? Well, it’s certainly true that holiday gaming isn’t nearly as much of a tradition as the holidays themselves. Again, I blame the ongoing campaigns: if you know from last session that this week you’re going to visit the vampire salon in disguises, and everyone’s looking forward to it, then the session probably won’t be hijacked by fey wearing green. But it’s worth a shot every now and again if the story’s right.

Aileen still fixes a St. Patrick’s Day feast every year, whether we have company or not. I suspect it’s because that first dinner was also the first salvo in her war for my heart, fought through the battlefield of the stomach. That sentiment endures, even if we don’t have people over for Irish beer and delicious corned beef. As far as I’m concerned, St. Patrick’s Day is personally a reenactment of that particular time, in which we celebrate her deciding to stealth-court me and the camaraderie of good friends. Even if I’m not a little bit Irish, that’s become our holiday for different reasons — as these things do, just as secular people still celebrate Christmas.

Even so, this coming Wednesday, Aaron’s going to run his Call of Cthulhu game in which we’re all Irish mobsters, and Aileen’s planning an Irish cream-based dessert. I’m calling that close enough. Holiday gaming continues!

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Posted by on March 16, 2014 in Uncategorized



Like our previous two dogs, she was a bit of an accident. We were looking at getting a third dog, and thought a male puppy would be a good choice. Terra was very bossy with other female dogs, and we didn’t want to adopt a dog that would just be dominated all the time. So we looked at the county paper, saw that there were some puppies up for adoption, including a handsome brindle male. Boxer/pit mix, was the speculation. Out we went.

But just as with the Lab before, the dog we came home with wasn’t the one we set out to get. The males from the litter had been adopted. There was a female, though: a cute, curious creature with dark brindling, who was getting stepped on a little by the puppies she was sharing a corral with. We spent a little time with her, in which she was more interested in exploring the broom closet than hanging out with us. And we decided to take her home. During the adoption process, she pooped on the office rug — well, fair warning, that’s what happens when you adopt a puppy. Her prison name was “Scooter,” but since she was advertised as a boxer/pit mix, we thought she might wind up looking like Terra, something like an African wild dog. So we named her Lycaeon Pictis, or Lyca for short. No, it wasn’t short for Lycanthrope, nor was it “Laika” — it was an individual name for what turned out to be a very individual dog.

She wasn’t what we expected as she grew up. For one, to our relief Terra never had problems with her. In fact, Lyca seemed to bring out Terra’s maternal instinct, so Lyca quickly figured out there was a lot of advantage to being “the puppy.” She would be a professional puppy all her life, squeaking and acting submissive and being very jealous of other dogs who tried to be lower on the totem pole than her.

She also wasn’t a boxer/pit mix. To the best of our knowledge, she was a Ploxer — one part Plott hound, one part boxer. It was a strange and wonderful combination. At some times she’d be gregarious and friendly like a boxer, squeaking at everyone in sight. Then her inscrutable hound nature took over and it was off for some alone time. We called her “fey beast,” because she was sometimes a boxer and sometimes a hound and sometimes she even acted feline. She loved to go up to a party at my parents’ house, and then she was ready to go home twenty minutes later.

She was quite the huntress — growing up in the mountains, she caught rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, even a wild turkey chick, although she wasn’t the best at killing them always, and Terra had to show her what to do with a squirrel once. She loved running with the groundhog-hunting expeditions my mother’s hound would lead late at night. Sometimes she’d miss dinner, out running with her second pack. A couple of times she missed breakfast the next morning, too. She had two different barks for different prey. One was her “It’s up a tree!” bark for squirrels — she’d tree a squirrel, and then sit at the base of the tree for hours. The other, more immediate bark was her “It’s down a hole!” bark for chipmunks. I could tell they were different, and so could the other dogs — “It’s up a tree!” meant the chase was over, but “It’s down a hole!” meant they could still get it. Sometimes they did. And eventually she figured out that we would take her nasty carrion prizes away from her, and give her treats for it. She didn’t even try to eat the last chipmunk she killed, when we had just moved into our new Atlanta house. She left it out in the yard, perhaps waiting for an opportunity to barter.

She got into the pork fat after the Easter barbecue one year, and after a bout of explosive diarrhea was afraid of her own farts ever after. She tore off toenails trying to climb trees, and learned to distrust the vet after an assistant accidentally clipped the quick. When we changed the rules so that peeing on the floor didn’t automatically mean a free trip outside, she housetrained herself in the space of a single day. She’d lie quietly on a couch with her chin on the armrest so she could watch goings-on without moving — “sniper mode,” we called it.

She was, in effect, a strange and beautiful and sweet creature, and there was nothing else like her in the world. They all are.

Saying goodbye to Lyca was murder. She wasn’t our first dog to die. She wasn’t First Dog. But she was our puppy, and when she was trapped in a body that wouldn’t work, unable to do anything but sit up to eat or drink or be carried outside to potty, she was depressed and miserable. Looking after this poor, sad, crippled dog was the worst Christmas ever, and frankly I’d give up all Christmases for the rest of time if I could have gotten a couple more years of health out of her. It hurts so much not to have her around any more — but it also is a great relief to know she’s not suffering. That’s the best we can hope for.

And we’re going to do it again. I miss her so much, but our surviving dog is going to need a new companion. We’re going to open ourselves up to heartbreak again. It’s awful that there will never be another Lyca — but I’m so grateful for what we got.


Posted by on December 26, 2013 in Uncategorized



The Machine of Lum the Mad

Short version for the people who are saturated in AD&D lore: The Machine of Lum The Mad makes a good metaphor for running a game.

For everyone else? Well, let’s pull up a chair and start with the titular contraption.

So among the many things that littered the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons way way back in the day was an artifact called the Machine of Lum the Mad. Now, most artifacts were designed to really see what the players could do to break a campaign. Ridiculous powers, weird drawbacks — the sort of things that would trigger highly experimental play. But the Machine was perversely special. It was described as having 60 levers, 40 dials and 20 switches, about half of which still worked. It could do just about anything — if you had the right combination of levers, dials and switches. DMs were encouraged to map this out.

Let’s pause and marvel at the insanity of this. So say there are 30 working levers, 20 working dials and 10 working switches. If you try to figure out how many combinations of those switches alone are possible (like “off on on off off on off off on on”) I think you get somewhere around 512. Now add dials — and by add I guess I mean multiply. All those 512 combos, multiplied by the on-off combos of the set of dials. Now switches. In other words, the only sane approach to adjudicating the Machine is to figure out a few specific combinations, those you intend to reveal, and ad-lib the rest.

Sort of like adjudicating a world, really.

Running a roleplaying game is a fascinating exercise. There’s not much like it. Writing books or plays or building train sets are in some ways less limiting, because you don’t have to worry about the word “playable,” but at the same time they aren’t like the Machine. Unless you are an extreme believer in the idea that your characters do unexpected things, when you write a novel you can generally stick to the characters you’d planned. You might have to devise a character when you figure out that you really do need to have a police officer show up and ask questions. But when running a game, players may stop and talk to anyone, walk into any building. They might ask what the bar’s specialty drinks are, if the bartender’s hot, and if there are any taxidermied animals hanging around that they can mess with. They might ask what the latest opera in town is, or who their Senator’s mistress might be and where they could find her.

And you have no idea what questions they might ask. If the world is an infinite combination of levers, dials and switches, then the players are the ones finding the combinations and running them through the Machine. It’s like writing a novel and then having your readers ask you about things you’d never considered — the life of the man who cut the heroine off in traffic, the menu at the coffee shop mentioned in passing, what the local schools are like.

It does something to your brain, I think. Those of us who operate the Machine are very like creators in other media — we are compelled to accumulate ideas, keep notebooks, rehearse lines. Because that’s the joy of playing a tabletop RPG — that you can try any combination of levers, dials and switches, and someone will tell you what the Machine does. And although you can let the players discover combinations, encouraging them to try prepared content, you can never be sure they won’t just pull something completely random. And that’s when your familiarity and confidence with the world will allow you to determine what the Machine spits out. Or an idea from your notebook, swimming back into your brain. Or you pull out something completely random, staring at a nearby household object like Verbal Kint with a fistful of dice and ad-libbing at the speed of light.

Or you can stammer “Nothing happens,” and the players will nod sagely and say “ah, that combination must be burned out.” It’s always an option. But I think many of us, in our hearts, feel terrible if it comes to that. After all, we wouldn’t have sunk so much effort and creative energy into a Machine of that complexity if we didn’t want to see it in action.

Of course, it’s arguable that building a Machine of this complexity and then passing out tickets to come and play with it means that we’re all mad anyhow.

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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


Sister-in-Law Count += 1

When I was a kid, I once asked my father, “Why don’t we go to church like other families do?” His response stayed with me:

“If you want to be close to God, sit under a tree. Man made the church. God made the tree.”

Yesterday, my brother got married under a tree. It was pretty great.

Which isn’t to say that it was a perfect wedding. (Though it may have been the best one I’ve ever been to in which I did not personally receive a bride of my own). It would have probably been much lessened had it been perfect, mind. Perfection, as we tend to evaluate it, would have been highly impersonal. The flaws are what knock something out of the philosophical ideal and make it real, accessible, grounded, personal.

When it poured rain during the wedding rehearsal, it was less than ideal. But it reflected the land.

When my wife couldn’t be present for any of the wedding pictures because she was keeping the dogs safely down at the pond, near where we buried the first dog we lost — well, the people who appreciate wedding photos might notice her absence. But she was pretty happy where she was.

When the officiating pastor (also the father of the bride) came out in costume and started re-enacting the Mawwiage portion of The Princess Bride, it was perhaps not a moment of great dignity for the institution. But it was a great example of how two families got along with a shared sense of humor.

When said pastor also got hung up during the ceremony a few times, being too emotional to go through the ceremony at a regular clip, that wasn’t perfect timing. But it was pretty affecting.

When one of the readings was given through tears, and the other was enunciated with a faint Shakespearean sense of Overdoing It, then those counted as hiccups. But welcome hiccups.

When a dog went tearing down the road barking at the top of his lungs mid-ceremony because some people were arriving late, it was the kind of interruption that would have made a more serious audience appalled that dogs were even invited at all (much less given clip-on bow ties). But people like that weren’t invited, and they probably wouldn’t have appreciated a wedding held outdoors between lawn and pasture in the first place.

It was, all in all, pretty magnificent. My wife and I were kinda jealous — I mean, I have no complaints about our wedding (except that we probably coulda gotten a better photographer), but this glorious mess was so beautifully personal and non-traditional you couldn’t help but be a little envious.

Also, I made my brother cry. And although that’s the sort of thing you should never be proud of when you’re kids, when you’re adults and you realize that it’s because this incredibly outstanding human being appreciates and admires you more than you deserve — it was humbling, but also maybe the best thing I’ve done all year.

March 30, 2013. Couldn’t be happier.


Posted by on March 31, 2013 in Uncategorized