Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Age of Conan

This is a character background that I wrote during a short stint when I thought that I would play the Age of Conan MMO, as part of my Robert Howard investigation.  This was a great game for the first 20 levels, then fell apart.  I enjoyed the attempt to write in a fast-twitch mechanic (buttons for individual swings of your weapon had to be linked together into powerful combos, as opposed to the WoW action buttons that activate abilities), but the game ultimately failed in terms of content, twitchiness, and a little less gory graphical awesomeness than promised.  I named the character Iranon, with the idea that like Lovecraft's character, he spent his time wandering in a (digital) dream.  Ultimately, my chicken scratch was just an experiment in envisioning a character that I could tell stories about in my own head. Here it is:

Iranon’s father was Wulfhern, a warrior of Clan Grannish, and his mother was a Vanir woman taken as a child from a raided village.  His mother was gifted with the Sight, and traveled often in her dreams, awaking to tell strange tales of distant lands, or screaming with the emptiness of the outer dark.  His father loved her despite her strange gift, and defended her from those in the village that thought her cursed.  When Wulfhern was killed in the battle of Vanaheim, Iranon became the brunt of many jokes, his eccentric mother and red hair marking him as an outsider.  When at age 13 he killed one of his tormenters with an axe handle, the aggression stopped.  His mother was eventually driven to madness by her visions, and he booked passage to the south, hearing that the leechcraft of Aquilonia could heal the madness that afflicted her.  The master of the caravan was a Stygian spy, however, and sold his passengers into slavery.  Iranon was parted with his mother and sold to the south, forced to ply the oars of a stygian galley for two years.   At the age of 16, he dove overboard during a storm, and washed ashore on the southern coast.  Half-mad with hunger, wandered inland barefoot and in tattered rags.  He was ambushed by a Pictish hunting party, and killed several with his bare hands before taking up their copper axes against them.  This assault in the dappled light of the southern jungle drove his mind from him, and for weeks and then months he lived like a beast in the mud, slipping forth in darkness to slay beast and man alike.  He adorned himself in the likeness of a Pict, and slayed mercilessly, howling like a night gaunt.  He fed on roots and raw flesh, and humanity was lost to him.  
One day, with a pictish arrow through his thigh and a party of angry warriors behind him, Iranon came upon the stone walls of a trader’s city on the southern coast. The sight of men and women dressed in clean clothing, standing tall in the sunlight jogged his memory, and the madness left him.  He limped in to the city and lay in an alley, where he was found by an old Cimmerian man.  Iwah the Traveler treated his wounds and drew the fever forth from his veins, and his memory returned to him.  He worked on the docks, learning of the wide world from the talk of sailors and merchantmen. During this time, his hatred of Stygian slave-takers grew, and he vowed to avenge his mother and his countrymen. 
After earning silver enough to book passage to his homeland, Iranon arrived friendless and cold in Conarch village after years in the south.  At home once again in the mountains and taverns of his childhood, he recalled his love of the Cimmerian wilds.   Haunted by strange dreams, Iranon wandered into the wilderness, and learned to live among beasts as a man, hewing logs into a shelter and skinning his prey for their leather.  Though the madness of the southern jungles has left him, he dreams often of Picts sliding through the darkness, and keeps a wolf-skin pouch full of Pict teeth round his neck.  As the son of both a warrior and a mystic, he strives to walk a middle path.  He works now to understand his dreams, and has vowed to use the fighting-madness honed in the darkness of the south against the enemies of his homeland.   

The Archaeology of Gaming

I have been playing pen and paper (now “old school”) rpgs since I was about 10 years old, I think.  Being something of a systems nerd, I have read a lot more than I have played.  I enjoy the various ways that these games try to simulate reality; going back to Tactical Statistics Research (TSR) and the original Dungeons and Dragons, rpgs are both a game (in which rules for action resolution are dealt with using the randomizing element of dice) and a venue for creative story telling.

I’ve never tried to list all the games that I’ve played or read, but I’m gonna give it a chance now, in roughly chronological order.  Started out with a homebrew system my buddy Bret made up to play a straight old-school fantasy game.  I remember that the currency for his game was fangs, ripped from the mouth of anything that had fangs (largely goblins and wolves).  From there, I moved on to actual published games, starting with:

Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP!)
            A simplification of ICE’s Rolemaster system, with great art and WAY too many tables.  Action resolution required addition and subtraction of 3 digit numbers, and percentile dice rolls on multiple tables.  It was ridiculously complicated, but you never forget your first time.

            Palladium’s lumpy, unbalanced post-apocalyptic fantasy/cyberpunk mash-up.  The core book was amazing, and one of the few that I have re-purchased for the fond memories.  This game was tremendously creative, but suffered (in retrospect) from a crazy inconsistent system, too many attributes and bonuses, and an increasing power level.  In the core book, you could play as either a dragon or a hobo.  Down the line in the various supplements (Rifts Atlantic rocked my face off), starting characters got more and more powerful.  All in all, it was a really fun setting, and one that I have since converted to work with the BESM 2nd edition rules. More on that later.

Then there was a mixture of:

            Awesomely detailed combat system that resolved actions in 10ths of seconds.  You could be a street samurai, or a shaman.  In retrospect, the appropriation of  essentialized Native American “spirituality” was ridiculous (thanks a lot, Anthropology degree).  This was one of the first games I played that dealt with multiple planes of reality (the spirit world, with one set of rules, and cyberspace, with another).  Really difficult to run, but a good setting/atmosphere and my first experience with dice pool mechanics.

            Read, but never played.  Had sky ships and lizard men as playable characters, which were pluses, as well as some neat classes.  All in all, the FASA games (including Shadowrun, Earthdawn, Battletech and Mech Warrior) were a neat alternative to Palladium and D&D, but I never spent much time with them, other than designing mechs and playing battletech on graph paper in high school. 
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition
            Yeah, I know, 2nd edition is no AD&D.  But I started there, and I still think that it fixed some systemic flaws in the earlier games (heresy!).  I liked that limited skill system, still enjoy calculating THACO, and have a fondness for the original Monsterous Manual that will never go away.  I played this one for years, and wrote adventures for it long after I had lost my core players to other concerns.  There’s nothing like rolling up random treasure, and this is the core of so much of what came after --- in my opinion, an essential read.  I have considered picking up these books again, having given my copies away (I think to Dave S.) when I moved to Georgia.  Again, a major focus of nostalgia.

Call of Cthulhu
          I got Chaosium's early outing here, at about 2nd edition.  This system used percentage based skills, and a detailed sanity and insanity system.  I was reading a lot of Lovecraft, and the creepiness and detail of this book had a big influence on me.  The book detailed how to run games set in the 1890s, 1920s and 1990s, and included a long list of both historic events and actual "weird and creepy" events from history.  Since I went to pretty bad schools, the history timelines in the back of this book actually added to what I knew about the 20th century for years to come ---- that is one of the bonuses to reading these books, which are full of actual history, literary references, and allusions to larger cultural themes.  Like a lot of nerd kids, i think that I learned a lot from RPG books, and this one in particular.  Plus, the artwork in this book made me love Tsathoggua.

          This was a system put out by TSR near the end of their run. The system, which was largely d20 based, was a precursor of the d20 system that formed the basis for later Wizards of the Coast offerings.  Unfortunately, the system itself was unrefined, and used a scaling die as a modifier (d20 + d6, or d20 -d4 vs a difficulty number) that was sucky to calculate, and a scaling results system (various levels of successes and failures) that were likewise overly complicated.  But the hard science sci-fi setting was great (Star*Drive was the official campaign setting), and it set the stage for the D20 system that came afterwards.

There were others, too --- I spent a lot of time with White Wolf's 2nd edition of the World of Darkness games, especially Mage 2nd Edition, but that deserves it's own post.  These were the building blocks that made me into a systems nerd, however --- a lot of these systems brought skills to the fore, which allows for characters (and thus stories) that are not entirely about, as Katherine would say, killing things and taking their stuff.  

The House of Meliatus, Part 1

This is the beginning of a short story that I wrote awhile back, during a phase when I was reading a lot of R.H. Howard and reading the D20 3rd Edition Conan Rpg.  It was a good system, but the best part was an increased familiarity with Howard's Hyborian Age.  I do this sort of thing a lot -- get deeply involved in a specific IP, play with the notion of writing short fiction in the setting, and then move on to another IP.  This story is illustrative of that habit -- playing with a setting, writing characters and short one-off adventures for a specific RPG system, as a way of keeping my daydreaming focused (and giving me a medium for telling Lizzie bed time stories).  This one's not finished, but here it is, none the less.

The House of Meliatus

Three stooped figures dashed across the road and pressed flat against the stone wall, blending in to the shadows cast by the waxing moon.  Creed held still, listening for any sign of their detection, then turned and began groping for handholds on the rough plastered surface.  Digging in with his thick fingers, he pulled himself up, moving slowly and smoothly, and nearly without sound.  Mekai and Zef watched him power up to the top of the wall and slide like a lizard, laying flat along the top for a moment before dropping over.  He landed on the balls of his feet in the dusty yard and pressed back into the shadows, looking for danger.  The compound was a hundred yards across at least, enclosed by the stone wall unbroken except for the wooden gate.  There a tunic-clad archer stood in the light of a guttering torch atop the small gate house, peering over the wall towards distant city walls of Sargossa.  The compound was dominated by the house of Meliatus, whom they had come to kill.  It was a towering stone affair, with a series of oval windows circling the second story, and a circular tower emerging from the center of the rectangular structure.  A few lights flickered in the oval windows, but the huge wooden door that opened on to the courtyard was drawn to.  To Creed’s left, a sweet smelling garden lay dreaming against the side of the house, while elsewhere in the compound horses whinnied softly in their thatched stable.  Creed took this in quickly, noting the archer on the guard house and the other standing at the corner of the house’s roof, apparently drowsing.  From his belt Creed unlooped a length of rope and flung it carefully over the wall, then wrapped it around his thick wrist and braced himself.  Soon Zef slid over the wall and dropped down, still drawing no attention from the two guards.  Mekai clambered on to the top of the wall, crouching low, and Creed released the rope and pointed silently at the two guards.  Unslinging his horn bow, Mekai knocked an arrow and took a deep breath before letting fly.  The arrow shot passed the guard’s head, disappearing into the night, and the three held their breath as the guard slapped haphazardly at the back of his neck, as if shooing a fly.  Creed glared at Mekai, who was still frozen atop the wall.  He drew another arrow from the quiver strapped to his back, took careful aim, and loosed.  This time the arrow drove deep into the man’s throat, and he glanced surprised at the fletching at his chin before dropping silently to the roof.  Mekai breathed a sigh of relief, and notched another arrow.  This motion on the wall finally caught the attention of the guard at the gate, who turned and saw Mekai just before an arrow took him in the chest.  This time they were not as lucky, however, and the guard screamed as he fell off the top of the guard house and over the wall.  Creed cursed and yanked his broadheaded battle axe from the thong that held it across his back, drawing the short stabbing sword from his belt in the same motion.  So much for taking Meliatis by stealth.  Zef drew sword and poniard at his side and they moved towards the gate house, hearing Mekai leap from the wall behind them.  Three men, wearing the blue silk sashes of Meliatis’ bandits, tumbled out of the gate house, weapons drawn.  They saw the imposing figure of Creed crossing the open courtyard, lit by the moon and the flickering torchlight.  Shouting, they charged.  Creed turned a mighty overhand blow with his short sword and took the first bandit in the shoulder with is axe, cleaving flesh and bone.  The man dropped, pulling the axe with him, and Creed barely avoided a thrust by a second bandit before he could yank his weapon free.  Zef sidestepped his assailant’s charge and slid his poniard through a gap in the man’s thick leather cuirasse,  and he cried out in pain before wheeling to face the dark-haired thief, who grinned sardonically and flicked blood from his thin blade.  Creed set his feet and swung his axe sidelong at his opponent, who caught it on his own sword but could not move fast enough to block the bigger man’s short sword, which shattered his jaw as Creed pivoted to his left.  Muscles screaming with the thrill of steel, Creed turning in time to see Zef jousting with the last bandit, turning him slowly so that his back faced the wall they had just climbed.  Suddenly the man shook, glaring at awe at the arrow emerging from is chest before dropping.  Mekai emerged from the shadow of the wall, knocking another arrow to his squat bow.
            “To the door, quickly.  I’ll draw them out.”  Creed ran to the door of the main house, scanning the yard for additional foes. All seemed quiet in the compound, while shouts could be heard from the interior of the house.  Mekai and Zef pressed themselves against either sides of the door, waiting.  The iron-shod door flew open, and four more bandits stood in the light of the door, brandishing axes and swords.  Just as Creed had guessed, Meliatus had heard of the outlander who had slain so many of his blue-sashed mercenaries in the slums of Sargossa and had drawn his men in around him.  Creed lifted his weapons high, screaming the battlecry of his ancestors.  The four caught sight of the fallen guards and charged towards the single invader, shouting in Brythunian.  Zef’s shortsword slit the throat of the rearmost, and a second staggered with an arrow in his side, but did not fall.  Mekai dropped his bow and yanked a curved sword from his belt, entering the fray.   Surprised and surrounded, the bandits hesitated just long enough.  Creed dashed forward, seizing the initiative, and slashed savagely at the men with his axe.  His blow was blocked just in time, and a blade raked his side, barely turned by his thin leather jerkin.  He battered aside the small shield of his lead attacker and nearly impaled the man, but the other’s blade caught his sword and turned a killing strike into a minor wound.  The second attacker rained blows on Creed from twin swords before he was caught in the groin by a rising swing of the barbarian’s axe.  Creed yanked upwards viciously, toppling the other man and nearly parting his leg from the hip.  The last bandit backed away, raising his shield, but Creed advanced like a beast towards prey.  The bandit ducked quickly to avoid a dagger that spun through the air from Zef’s nimble fingers, raising his shield to guard his head.  A swing from Creed’s axe spread his shield arm wide, the short sword took him in the chest. He fell, clawing at the wound.  With another thrust, the bandits were finished, and Creed breathed heavily in the night air, his vision clearing.
            “My friend, I am reminded again to avoid crossing swords with you.”  Zef grinned wolfishly at Creed and retrieved his dagger from the yard.  ‘What now?”
            “Now we find Meliatus and finish this.”  Creed shook himself, suddenly cold in the night air.  Sweat poured from him, and he examined the carnage around them. “He may have more of these dogs in the house.  Let us be cautious.”
            Mekai removed his fur camp from his head and mopped sweat from his brow, then replaced it.  “I think he must run out of Blue Sashes eventually.  We have killed nearly two score now, if you include the ambush on the Lema plain.” He grimaced and straightened his long black mustache.  “You take your revenge seriously, friend Creed.”
            “No man can attack me without cause, and expect to remain untouched.  Besides, I would have let it go if it had not been for Zef’s love of drink.”  He grinned.
            “I am more than sure that I was polite to those gentlemen.” Said Zef. “Doubtless they had heard of their brothers’ failed attempt to rob us, and took offense.  It was no fault of mine.”
            “I am sure your flaunting those blue sashes had nothing to do with it.”
            “How was I to know that they were the symbol of Meliatus’ men?  I simply thought them more fashionable than the prison rags we’d been wearing.” Zef lifted one of the bandit’s blue sashes with the tip of his blade
            “So it is not your love of drink, then, but your foppishness that drew their ire?  I’m not sure that that is much better.”
            “No matter who’s fault it was.  There must be coin in this house, and that Sargossan guard captain said we could keep what we could carry.  Lets get on with it.”  Mekai gestured toward the door with his sword.
            “Captain Markus simply implied that we would be doing Sargossa a great service by removing Meliatus and his bandits from his jurisdiction, and that the Sargossan watch might overlook a few missing items if Meliatus were to meet an untimely end.”  Zef moved toward the door.  “This is a lawful Brythunian city, after all.  They cannot tolerate murder and looting.”
            “Big words for a thief.  I did not come here for coin – I came to kill one who has wronged me.  Now lets go.”  Creed moved inside, sword and axe ready.  The others followed.
            The house was lit with oil lamps hung from sconces, revealing thick woven rugs on the stone floor and richly colored tapestries on the walls.  The wooden door opened onto to a hall, which ran the length of the house.  The first set of wide arched doorways opened on to a sitting room on the right and a hall with a great table and carven chairs on the left.  Creed satisfied himself that these were deserted, and moved down the hall, his sandaled feet silenced by the thick rugs.  The next set of doorways opened on a richly appointed room where a huge map was laid out on a table, and a fire crackled in the hearth.  On a bench, bundles of poppies lay scattered, no doubt samples of Meliatus’ wares.  The air was thick with a soft, sweet-smelling smoke.
            “Opium.” Mekai sniffed the air.  “Meliatus no doubt has been sampling his crops.”
Meliatus’ control of the poppy fields north of Sargossa had been achieved only through the use of his hired mercenaries, and his personal empire had left many a resentful noble craving his wares in the night.  Creed was sure that his many powerful enemies were the reason Zef had been able to get assurances their revenge on Meliatus would be overlooked by the guards.  They had run afoul of the blue-sashed bandits on the Lema plain, and it was no doubt convenient for the nobles of Sargossa to avoid the appearance of attacking one of their own by having others do their dirty work.  A blood feud with a barbarian was an unfortunate way for Meliatus to die, but he and his monopoly would not be much missed.

By Way of Introduction . . .

I have been a gamer for a long time.
Now I am a father, a student, a teacher and a researcher.  I spend a lot of my time reading and writing in my chosen field, and trying (sometimes desperately) to complete my graduate program.  But I am still a gamer.  I rest my brain by dreaming about adventures, making impossible characters and impossible worlds for them to live in, and rolling a lot of dice.
That's what this blog is about.  My life is exciting and boring in equal measure, but I am not going to write about that.  No coherent life story here (or at least not mine), and no catalog of my daily comings and goings.  Just a place to put my writing, my scheming, my thoughts on games both digital and pen-&-paper.  It's hard to be nerdy in public, or dump one's private mental life on to the web.  But I'm gonna try it.  Maybe it'll improve my writing, it will certainly be an interesting experiment for me, and maybe it'll amuse somebody.  I guess we'll see.