Month: June 2014

Game Designers Aren’t Wizards

In my experience, the fans who most acrimoniously disagree with certain game designers are also those who attribute the greatest skills and talents to those designers. How does that work?

It’s an extension of the persistent notion among fans of any media that their favorite creators are magicians. Not literally in the sense that they cast magic spells or pull rabbits out of hats, but rather that they have a preternatural ability to create—that they need only sit down before keyboard or easel and instantly whip out perfection.

There are, admittedly, a rare few who seem to possess the skills and talent to get it right the first time, without deliberation or error. But that sort of mastery takes years—decades!—of constant practice, and even then, I suspect few are truly that expert. For example, we view Mozart as a gifted prodigy for composing his first works at the age of five and gaining employment at the Salzburg court at the age of 17. But his abilities didn’t come from nowhere; he spent his youth in musical tutelage and practice, and he wrote dozens of compositions before his court debut. And his works did not appear fully formed—he outlined each piece through drafts and musical fragments before putting them together in their final form.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

— Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Game designers are, by and large, amateurs working on games in our spare time. Freelancers squeeze in a few hours a week on various projects in between our full time, non-gaming jobs with which we pay the bills, and our other leisure activities—like actually playing the games we love. Despite this, we do our best to revise and refine the material we plan to publish until it’s the best that it can be. But there are limits to this process that readers ought to recognize.

In the most egregious example, I’ve seen people complaining that playtest material for Exalted 3e contains problematic elements—broken rules, overpowered combos, etc. Well, duh? The whole point of playtesting is to find problems in the rules. If they were already perfect, we wouldn’t need to playtest them.

“But I spotted an error just by looking at the rules,” you say. “The designers should also have spotted it even without playtesting, so they’re idiots.” Unfortunately, not all humans think alike or spot the same things. That’s a perfectly normal part of the writing process.

I’m a professional proofreader and copy editor. It’s part of my job to spot mistakes in people’s writing. I’ve edited copy written by professional authors and journalists. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single document longer than a few paragraphs that didn’t have at least one error in it—even from experienced authors who’ve been in the business for decades longer than I have, including some authors who are also copy editors or proofreaders. Similarly, no matter how often I fine-tune my writing, editors always find errors in my work. That doesn’t mean I suck; it means I’m a writer, that’s all.

When a game designer sends out a broken rule or overpowered combo for playtesting, that doesn’t mean the designer sucks. It means that they’re a game designer, that’s all. Look at Steve Jackson’s OGRE, one of the tightest little sci-fi board games of all time. It’s currently viewed as a classic. It also had stat changes between the first and second printing because the “G.E.V.” hovercraft unit proved to be overpowered with its published stats.

There’s also the issue of some designers not being the smoothest intermediaries for their companies. Sadly, the pen-and-paper gaming industry is run on a shoestring budget, which means there’s no cash for dedicated public relations specialists. So it’s either designers untrained in PR interacting with the fans, or dead air. And the Exalted community has certainly dealt with the latter before, when 1e lead developer Geoff Grabowski completely stopped communicating with fans after the vicious reception met by the original Lunars splatbook.

The time we spend talking online about games is time we don’t spend writing those games. We talk to you guys because we really want to share the cool stuff we’re working on. So while it’s cool to politely point out that we’re saying something that comes across as dumb or offensive, please don’t lash out in anger over disagreements; we’re doing the best we can with a very limited time budget.

And then there’s blog posts. If a designer is really excited about a topic, he or she might put a lot of time and energy into brainstorming, researching, writing, and editing a post. But aside from the vanishingly few designers who work on games full-time, we don’t get paid for blogging. So we squeeze in a few paragraphs here and there, and we try to do a good job of making our posts coherent and useful, but hours spent on researching and revising blog posts are hours we’re not spending on the games we’re trying to publish.

Game designers aren’t wizards. We can’t wave our magic wands to turn out perfect material. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to produce quality work, and many of us are already sweated out from our day jobs. Posting online is a third job—essentially a second unpaid job—and it has the lowest priority, as without either of the first two, there’ll be no game to comment on.

Status Report: June 28, 2014

Right now I’m busy prepping for a Werewolf game I’m joining, which means boning up on motorcycle terminology so I can properly play out my character’s interests. I’m also moving from prepping for yesterday’s Exalted session to prepping for next week’s session, which is less turnaround time than usual. So the parts of my brain normally dedicated to blogging are otherwise in use.

As to upcoming material for the blog:

  • I’ll be writing up and posting playtest reports from yesterday’s Zhaojun game and last weekend’s Rock’s Fall game;
  • Currently getting approval for two separate 2e/2.5e Infernals posts, one from me and the other a Robert Vance guest post;
  • Either more Magic: The Gathering, more of Creation’s beverages, or thoughts on language groups or imperial militaries.

Anyway, got to run—the mail won’t pick itself up from the post office box—but I’ll be reading the comments. Given the usual restrictions on content, in that I can’t post anything that might otherwise be turned into paying 3e work, please let me know what you’d like to see!

MTG in Great Forks: The Godblood Mechanic

Each new Magic: The Gathering set has one or more new mechanics; these bridge the set’s setting and narrative with gameplay, and help define the set in the minds of the players

Great Forks, the setting of our new Magic block, is a city where spirits and mortals coexist. It is ruled by a trinity of gods; lesser divinities and elementals walk the streets; temples rise on every street corner, while festivals and processions pack its plazas and avenues. (It’s also a city supported by the drug trade, but one thing at a time.)

With spirits and mortals living in such close proximity, it’s no surprise that they occasionally do such things as result in half-mortal, half-divine children. Though mostly mortal, these god-blooded offspring often possess magical talents passed down to them from their spirit bloodline.

Flavorwise, a god-blooded mechanic should express the connection between the mortals and spirits of Great Forks. But the last time we saw a major mechanic related to the Spirit creature subtype, it was in Kamigawa block—a watchword nowadays for underpowered, parasitic mechanics. This is something we want to avoid!

(A “parasitic” mechanic in Magic is one that requires other cards of the same type to do its thing. This means that building a deck around the parasitic mechanic provides a very narrow range of deck design options. The poster child for parasitic mechanics, Splice onto Arcane, also appeared in Kamigawa, and is part of why that block is so maligned today.)

How do we express a creature’s god-blooded nature? Auras are a good mechanism to represent individual magical knacks. If the god-blood has an Aura attached to it as it enters the battlefield, it gives us the feel of a person born with some magical boon.

Let’s look at two existing cards that have provide a similar effect:

auratouched-mage

Auratouched Mage has a genuinely flavorful and potent ability, allowing us to tutor up an appropriate Aura from our library. However, the mechanic is complex and requires a lot of text on the card. Since we’ll want to add even more text to tie the effect to a Spirit “parent,” the result will be much longer and more complicated than we’d want in a keyword. (Compare this to other keywords. They tend to be 100 characters or less, and modern keywords rarely go over 150. As a keyword, Auratouched Mage’s ability would be well over 200.)

academy-researchers

Academy Researchers has a much more limited power. It doesn’t provide card advantage, and it’s only as useful as the selection of Auras you have in your hand right now; you might not have a useful Aura in hand, or indeed any at all. It’s also a bit harder to balance than Auratouched Mage’s tutoring ability, which is costed to account for the fact that you’ll always have a really powerful and expensive Aura in your deck to attach to it.

Despite these issues, the Academy Researchers’ power looks like a good template to start from:

Godblood (When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may put an Aura card from your hand onto the battlefield attached to CARDNAME.)

Now, let’s tweak it to match the flavor of Exalted’s god-bloods:

Godblood (When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, if you control a Spirit creature that shares a color with it, you may put an Aura card of that color from your hand onto the battlefield attached to CARDNAME.)

That’s a little long for a keyword, but not dramatically so. The Spirit restriction provides some linear guidance to deck design without being parasitic; you need a good mix of Spirits, creatures with Godblood, and Auras to make best use of the keyword ability.

The color limitation provides flavor, but it also discourages its use in multicolor decks. There are a few ways around this if it turns out to be a problem for the block metagame; we can explore these later.

And now, let’s see what the mechanic might look like on an actual card:

Wind Dancer

Given the nature of the Magic design process, there’s no guarantee that this mechanic would survive the design process unchanged—or at all; many new mechanics are simply abandoned during design or development. As I lack a design team, a development team, and playtesters, this is kind of moot, but I’m going to stick to the principles as best I can for the purpose of the exercise.

Next time, more new mechanics. Stay tuned!

Ink Monkey Bones #7: The City God of Damanara

Here’s the remainder of the Ink Monkeys writeup on the city of Damanara, detailing the city god and her divine steed. I hope this will be of some small value to people playing Exalted 2e/2.5e, if only to provide a couple of additional prewritten stat blocks. (Third edition stat blocks will be much easier to generate.)


Yava-Chernya

City Goddess of Damanara

Formerly a Celestial goddess of shepherds and shearing, Yava-Chernya suffered political reversals in the decades that followed the Great Contagion. Thwarted by more ambitious rivals and disgusted by the actions of the hard-liners in the Gods War, she turned her back on her post and abandoned the Heavenly City of Yu-Shan. After a few years spent walking the Northern hills, she decided to settle down—to settle for an island of security in Creation rather than the tumultuous glory of Heaven. That decision made, the rest was easy.

It took Yava-Chernya no time at all to establish herself as the city god of the newly established town of Damanara. The town’s own god, Marema-Brusa, was small and weak; he had little fight in him. But instead of driving him out, she suborned him, taking him on as her right hand. This has been her modus operandi ever since: cajole and persuade, drawing in allies rather than opposing with threats and force. It does not always work, but it has served her well so far.

The goddess and the city have adapted well to one another. Damanara has grown as a mercantile hub, but its heart is in the wool trade. She has become a city goddess, but a city that is tied inextricably to the sheep and goats that flock in the nearby hills. Even the city’s aristocracy is dominated by spinners and weavers—an oddity indeed, yet entirely in line with her nature.

Yava-Chernya does not rule her city, nor does she aim for Damanara to conquer its neighbors. She demonstrates far less ambition than the typical city god. But this comes as no surprise, for she has already dabbled in political advancement and paid the price. Her place in the Heavenly City is lost to her, and she lacks the strength and the connections to win it back. What would she do for an Exalt who could promise her reinstatement in the Celestial Bureaucracy?

Yava-Chernya’s long, curly hair is as white as a lamb’s fleece. Her skin is black as night, her eyes blue as sapphires. All of her garments are woven from her own hair. When she chooses to leave her palace, she does so on the back of a great black ram.

Sanctum: The goddess dwells in the Air-aspected manse called the House of a Thousand Pennants. Her sanctum overlays the manse and resembles it in most respects. It is there she keeps the finest tapestries and garments woven by the artisans of Damanara.

Motivation: To protect the city of Damanara and maintain its social stability.

Attributes: Strength 4, Dexterity 6, Stamina 5; Charisma 5, Manipulation 4, Appearance 5; Perception 6, Intelligence 4, Wits 3

Virtues: Compassion 4, Conviction 3, Temperance 3, Valor 2

Abilities: Athletics 2, Awareness 4, Bureaucracy 6 (Damanara +2), Craft (Earth) 2, Craft (Water) 3 (Dyeing +3), Craft (Wood) 3 (Weaving +3), Dodge 4, Integrity 5, Linguistics 3 (Native: Old Realm; Others: High Realm, Riverspeak, Skytongue), Lore 3 (Damanara +3), Martial Arts 3, Medicine 2, Melee 4, Occult 4 (Thaumaturgy +2), Performance 4, Presence 5, Resistance 4, Ride 2 (Raasay +2), Sail 1 (River Barges +2), Socialize 5, Survival 3

Backgrounds: Allies 3, Artifact 1, Contacts 5, Cult 2, Influence 3, Manse 2, Resources 4, Sanctum 3

Charms:

Banish—Can expel any creature attacking any of Damanara’s citizens or domesticated animals
Dreamscape—Can enter the dreams of those who sleep either out of doors or within her city’s walls
Essence Plethora (x1)
Eye of Inspiration—Awareness, Craft, Survival
Form Reduction Technique—She becomes a sheep or a goat
Hurry Home—Returns to her sanctum
Materialize—Costs 55 motes
Measure the Wind—Scents power on the wind
Plague of Menaces—Biting flies and ticks
Principle of Motion—Seven banked actions
Regalia of Authority—Only affects sheep, goats and the citizens of Damanara
Sense Domain—Perceives the city’s condition
Signet of Authority—Marks her agent with unseen ram’s horns
Spice of Custodial Delectation—Sheep being sheared or cloth being woven
Stoke the Flame—Induces others to follow the herd
Tracking—May trace any citizen or animal native to Damanara or its environs
First (Ability) Excellency—Awareness, Melee, Performance, Presence
Second (Ability) Excellency—Bureaucracy, Craft, Lore, Integrity, Socialize, Survival

Thaumaturgy:

The Art of Alchemy—Adept degree, all Procedures
The Art of Astrology—Adept degree, all Procedures
The Art of Enchantment—Adept degree, all Procedures
The Art of Geomancy—Adept degree, all Procedures
The Art of Husbandry—Adept degree, all Procedures

Join Battle: 7

Attacks:
Punch: Speed 5, Accuracy 10, Damage 4B, Parry DV 6, Rate 3
Kick: Speed 5, Accuracy 9, Damage 7B, Parry DV 4, Rate 2
Clinch: Speed 6, Accuracy 9, Damage 4B (P), Parry DV —, Rate 1
Starmetal Blade Shears (Shivering Edge) Speed 4, Accuracy 14, Damage 8L, Parry DV 6, Rate 2

Soak: 8L/11B (Robes of enchanted wool, 6L/6B)

Health Levels: -0/-1/-1/-1/-1/-1/-2/-2/-2/-2/-4/Incap

Dodge DV: 7    Willpower: 7

Essence: 4    Essence Pool: 85

Other Notes: Yava-Chernya understands and speaks the tongue of mundane sheep and goats. These creatures are scarcely intelligent, but they adore her and insofar as they can understand her instructions they will obey her in all things.


Raasay, the Black Ram

Formerly a little god concerned only with the flocks of sheep in the hills to the southwest, Raasay pledged his service to Yava-Chernya in exchange for the luxuries of city life. He travels to and fro at his mistress’s bidding, roaming the lands around the city and reporting back with what he has seen. His off-time is spent in the House of a Thousand Pennants. There, he dines off golden plates and enjoys having his fleece groomed by the hands of three sacral virgins.

Raasay appears as a black ram the size of a draft horse. The tips of his obsidian horns point upward, and they are very sharp.

Motivation: To serve and protect Yava-Chernya.

Attributes: Strength 6, Dexterity 5, Stamina 6; Charisma 3, Manipulation 1, Appearance 3; Perception 4, Intelligence 2, Wits 4

Virtues: Compassion 2, Conviction 3, Temperance 2, Valor 4

Abilities: Athletics 5, Awareness 4, Dodge 4, Integrity 3 (Loyalty to Yava-Chernya +3), Linguistics 1 (Native: Old Realm; Others: Skytongue), Lore 1 (Damanara +2), Martial Arts 5, Occult 1, Presence 3, Resistance 4, Stealth 2, Survival 5, War 2
Backgrounds: Cult 2

Charms:

Host of Spirits—Creates a flock of identical black rams
Hurry Home—Travel to Yava-Chernya’s side
Intrusion-Sensing Method—Sees through the eyes of sheep or shepherds
Landscape Travel—+1 to all Dexterity rolls for maintaining balance
Materialize—Costs 45 motes
Measure the Wind—Scents power on the wind
Possession—Inhabits sheep or shepherds
Ox-Body Technique (x1)
Principle of Motion—Seven banked actions
Possession—Merges with a shepherd or a Damanaran warrior
Sheathing the Material Form—His fleece bunches up in the path of attacks, protecting against fire and blunt weapons
First (Ability) Excellency—Martial Arts
Second (Ability) Excellency—Athletics, Awareness, Resistance, Survival
Third (Ability) Excellency—Dodge, Integrity

Join Battle: 8

Attacks:
Kick: Speed 5, Accuracy 10, Damage 9B, Parry DV 4, Rate 2
Gore: Speed 6, Accuracy 9, Damage 10L, Parry DV 4, Rate 1

Soak: 10L/16B (Black jade fleece, 7L/10B; Hardness: 5L/5B)

Health Levels: -0/-1/-1/-1/-1/-1/-1/-2/-2/-2/-2/-2/-4/Incap

Dodge DV: 7    Willpower: 7

Essence: 2    Essence Pool: 55

Marst Chronicle: Session #4

Here’s the latest from the Marst playtest group. This session covered both the social influence rules and the combat system. This time they played around with battle groups, and they seem pretty happy with how Exalted 3e handles mass combat. But I’ll let the playtest group’s Storyteller speak for himself:


When we last left our heroes they were about to enter the secluded glen of the nymph who had absconded with a villager’s daughter.

1) Social Influence System – Social Influence remains one of my favorites rules pieces I have seen thus far. The way Intimacies change the strength and power of your arguments and the way you can manipulate certain Intimacies or emotions into being so that they become useful is just awesome. I find it is very much like a warrior and his weapon. A skilled warrior with a sword is deadly, but a warrior with a daiklave is a thing of legend. The same thing goes for a courtier who knows or does not know an intimacy for the target,

As Bending Sky approached the glen, he struck up a tune on his flute. It was a light and happy melody meant to soothe and to remind its listeners of home. His music was so beautiful that it made even the nymph, a creature of beauty herself, stop and admire the minstrel’s skill. The small girl stopped her play-dance and instead grew wistful, her thoughts turning toward home and the family she had forgotten while in the nymph’s care. (The [REDACTED] action here was used to set the stage for further arguments and move the characters emotionally to a place where they were amenable to going home or finding a new home.)

From here, words spilled from Bending’s Sky’s mouth like rain from the clouds. Some of these words were spoken honestly, and others were less then truthful, but no matter their validity, each word was convincing. He presented a scheme that played on both the nymph’s loathing of the Eldest and her love of trickery. He said the great Wood King wished to wed her, for there were none more beautiful in all of his realm. He said that the King would offer her all the spoils of his kingdom, and that she could walk and play among his people to her heart’s desire. Under all this, though, was an undercurrent of slyness that the Nymph picked up on. This would put her in a position to cause him immense grief, while also getting her the things she wanted—and all for the price of a simple yes.

(The body language system was used here. It worked nicely as a way to underline words, and a combination of [REDACTED], [REDACTED] and a sort of [REDACTED] did the rest. The social back and forth was tense as both participants were skilled, and it was only the slightly better rolling by Bending Sky’s player that let him eke this one out. Stunts also played a big part here as the player did several [REDACTED] stunts in a row, which really pushed him over the top and got him back the Willpower that he needed to keep spending. It was nice, as it really made stunts feel like they were helping to define the hero and letting him accomplish difficult tasks, rather then just being a resource battery.)

Karis and White Ink both were transfixed by the nymph’s beauty. It was all they could do to not go to her. The old man in particular could only stare at her on their entire long walk home.

When finally they arrived back in Elder Pine, after many hours of traveling and Bending Sky’s persistent attempts at wooing the nymph, they went to the Eldest’s priest—and finally to the Eldest tree itself—to show what they had accomplished. It was here that Bending Sky made his boldest (and almost his most foolish) move yet. When the Eldest himself came at their call, Bending Sky presented him with the small girl who had been taken, but also with the nymph, saying that she was in awe of his might and wished to be with him for all time. The nymph—now mildly annoyed, but worried about what revealing the lie would cause—kept her mouth shut and her features smooth. Bending Sky, for his part, called upon the Eldest’s hubris to aid him in persuading the mighty Wood King of this bold lie. Thankfully for Bending Sky, the Eldest’s hubris was as large as his tree home, and with clever words and the nymph as a fine gift, Bending Sky managed to pull off his greatest lie yet.

([REDACTED] are awesome and a wonderful way to handle these types of things. I was all ready to have the Wood King laugh off Bending Sky’s attempts to sway him, when all of a sudden he didn’t have any applicable Intimacy to [REDACTED] as he had used it to [REDACTED] already. It was a tense but amazing moment as the future of the PC hung in the balance.)

With their victory achieved, the caravan received the Eldest’s blessing, and off it rolled toward its next destination, with Bending Sky singing the praises of his new friends for their fantastic deeds, which were almost as amazing as his own. A few weeks of uneventful travel later, the caravan pulled up to the city of Shimmering Blossom. Through campfire talk and some rumor-gathering, Karis found out that many of the common folk viewed the city with mistrust, for it was said that the elders of the city built it with the use of wishes and could do whatever they wished inside of it. They said it was because of this that the city needed no walls and seemed almost ethereally beautiful; that it contained many things that simply cannot exist, like trees with flowers of supple and fragrant gemstones. They also said to never wish for anything in the city, lest you become cursed and turn into one of the very blossoms for which the city gains its name.

Brimming with curiosity, though, our brave men and women did indeed go inside, both under their own volition and because they were summoned there one evening to attend a dinner held by the city elders. It seemed Master Telev had spoken highly of them and their deeds, and the elders would love to listen to their stories.

2) Investigation and Larceny Systems – We continue to use both of these subsystems, but have been unable to make them anything but awesome and fun, so nothing new to report here.

3) Combat – I introduced battle groups into the mix tonight. White Ink, Bending Sky and Karis had to fight two [REDACTED] battle groups and two more elite leaders. The combat was fun and brisk, and through Bending Sky we got to try out some Martial Arts Techniques related to Tiger Style.

The fight started out with an elite spearman absolutely crushing his [REDACTED] roll and using that combat momentum to simply murder one of the NPC guards in his path. White Ink and Bending Sky were not far behind, though. White Ink charged the small battle group of men, his greatsword rending the air. He charged because he knew he needed to disband this group as quickly as possible, for they had attacked at night and he, like his friends, was without his armor. This strategy seemed to work great, as the battle group was torn and cut by the old man. Things turned sour when, a few moments later, the battle group—not yet dispersed—counterattacked and, using its numbers to its advantage, did away with almost all of White Ink’s combat momentum in one ferocious blow.

Bending Sky joined Karis on top of a caravan and began to launch arrow after arrow at the huntmaster who was leading a battle group of trained mastiffs. His arrows struck true and the huntsman was forced off-balance, which was fortuitous for Bending Sky as this less-than-sure footing caused the huntsman’s thrown knives to score no more than a glancing blow, from which Bending Sky could easily recover. Karis, for her part, spent the first two rounds hiding her rather hefty amount of illicit monies and goods so that they could not be stolen by these bandits.

The enemy spearman continued to dance through the NPC guards, driving them back or killing them with ease. Sadly, White Ink was finding things much harder then he had expected. This group of men was well-trained, and on their next actions they both [REDACTED] together. (We all adore this mechanic, by the way. It has worked well every time it has come up, and really gives certain moments in the fight a cool feel.) Once again, the result was that the weight of numbers was too much for the old man to overcome, and without his armor to deflect their blows, steel bit deeply into his sides and arms. (“Armor is seriously useless”? LOL. Do not leave home without it, or you will end up like White Ink here—or worse. I personally think this is a cool feature that adds diversity to the game, as an armor guy without his armor should be in bad shape).

Seeing the huntmaster quickly approaching, Bending Sky flipped off the top of the caravan and, in a surprisingly quick motion, drove straight into his opponent, knocking him down and knocking the wind out of him. (Techniques are so cool, and yet again they add another layer to combat, and as will be shown, even this basic knockdown technique truly threw a pretty powerful opponent completely out of tactic and rhythm.)

The huntmaster, now badly out of position and looking like he was a few solid blows away from death, began to run back to his battle group of dogs for protection. As he did so, though, a hail of arrows came out of the darkness, seeming to materialize around him and rush forward toward his beloved hounds. Karis had finally entered the fray, and so well hidden was she while concealing her loot that the great mastiffs stood no chance of evading her, and such was the force of her attack that many hounds were slain on the spot. The rest scattered into the forest, leaving the huntmaster all alone and with Bending Sky bearing down on him.

Meanwhile, the bandit group had laid into White Ink once more and driven the old man to one knee, blood cascading down his sides from several grisly wounds. Things did not look good for the old man, and that’s when Bending Sky changed his mind. Instead of chasing down and slaughtering his huntmaster prey, he leaped over him to land amid the bandit group and, with slicing claw and ferocious rending kicks, he scattered the battle group before they could send White Ink to Lethe.

This left only the spearman and the huntmaster. White Ink, realizing he was in no shape to fight such a skilled master of the spear, grinned at Bending Sky and shot off toward the huntmaster, his typical limp seemingly gone. Aided by several arrows launched by a still-hidden Karis to guide him in certain directions, the huntmaster finally met his end pinned to a tree by White Ink’s greatsword. Bending Sky and the spearman battled back and forth, each trading blows, their place in the fight sliding back and forth several times in the span of a heartbeat. Finally a moment came, one upon which the outcome of the fight would be decided. The great combatants clashed, the spearman twirling and lunging forward, Bending Sky attempting to deflect the blow and slip inside his opponents guard. Sparks flew, heads turned, and silence took center stage for just a brief moment as all around wished to see the outcome of this final clash. When the moment passed, both men stood slightly past one another, tired yet proud. But it was the spearman who fell, his torso badly gutted by the claws of Bending Sky.

(Again, I love [REDACTED], and just the whole thing was fun. Stunts are so much more fun and integral now, as I mentioned before. A brilliant stunt at the end was the difference here, as Bending Sky only won the [REDACTED] by a success or two. I would definitely be able to just play heroic mortals in this game and have a lot of fun.)

However, this game is not just about playing heroic mortals. It is about playing the Exalted, and as such this game will soon have them. Next game, the players will be tasked with tracking down an item that was taken from the caravan during the fight. And at their task’s culmination, if their hearts are brave enough and their spirits strong enough, they will join the ranks of the Exalted.

Exalted: Alcoholic Beverages in Creation

Yesterday, I finished the second day of a three-day copy editing temp job. The office has a cappuccino machine. It’s obviously not the best cappuccino I’ve ever had, but I’ve never before been able to have as much cappuccino as I want, whenever I want. I’ve had to make them using decaf to avoid spending the entire day with the jitters.

This has gotten me thinking about beverages in Creation and other fantasy worlds.

One might divvy up beverages (or any foodstuffs, really, but we’ll stick with drinks here) in fantasy settings into the following categories:

  1. Those with unnatural effects, such as Ent-draught or the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, made from unnamed or invented raw materials. These are basically magic potions and are typically used as plot devices.
  2. The merely imaginary, such as Blue Ruin or Slurm. An exotically named mystery beverage can add a touch of the fantastical to a scene. The disadvantage of imaginary drinks is that they lack context; the reader doesn’t actually know what they taste like, and if you spell out the flavor you’re probably describing something similar to a real drink.
  3. Placeholders such as punge (the Archonate‘s version of coffee) or scumble (the Discworld’s take on applejack). These fill in for real drinks when you want your setting to feel alien or otherwise detached from the real world, where you feel that just saying “coffee” will snap your readers out of your imaginary panorama.
  4. Real drinks consumed on Earth, or at least made from real Earth substances. The advantage here is that the reader or player is familiar with the beverages in question, or at least can easily imagine what they’re like.

Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster recipe

“Take the juice from one bottle of that Ol’ Janx Spirit. Pour into it one measure of water from the seas of Santraginus V. Allow three cubes of Arcturan Mega-gin to melt into the mixture (it must be properly iced or the benzene is lost). Allow four litres of Fallian marsh gas to bubble through it (in memory of all those happy Hikers who have died of pleasure in the Marshes of Fallia). Over the back of a silver spoon float a measure of Qualactin Hypermint extract, redolent of all the heady odours of the dark Qualactin Zones. Drop in the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger. Watch it dissolve, spreading the fires of the Algolian suns deep into the heart of the drink. Sprinkle Zamphour. Add an olive. Drink… but very carefully.”

— Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Like most fictional settings, Creation draws primarily from the last category.

Note that our modern world gives us unprecedented access to foodstuffs from the four corners of the globe. Even now, Westerners are learning the flavors of formerly inaccessible foodstuffs like açaí berries. In a fantasy setting, you’ll often have a world or a written-up section of the world that’s based on a particular real-world culture and time period. For such places you’ll want to limit what’s available to its Earthly equivalent.

Creation is a bit different in that it’s a vast setting meant to encompass pretty much everything that a given Storyeller might find interesting from Earth’s history. Moreover, it’s set after the fall of a world-spanning hegemonic culture which had access to every corner of the world—and proceeded to shape new ecologies from the chaos at world’s edge. Thus, foodstuffs and their raw materials need not be limited to specific parts of the world, as the folk of the First Age transplanted such things everywhere they might be capable of growing, much as travelers on Earth have done for millennia (and with increasing effectiveness in recent decades).

That said, instead of saying what people drink here or there, it’s probably better to look at various types of beverage and suggest what parts of the world they are consumed in, and how preparation and consumption might differ from region to region. For today, I’ll stick to alcoholic beverages; this post is long enough as it is and I’d like to get it posted before dinner. (If this post interests you, dear reader, I’ll work up a second post about non-alcoholic drinks at a later time.)

But first, a note on water. While many cultures historically favored various alcoholic beverages for reasons of flavor, health, or tradition, societies that had access to clean water drank more of it than anything else. It’s cheap and easy to obtain, and so it’s drunk to some extent nearly everywhere. But pure water isn’t always easily available in sufficient quantities, and contaminated water can result in all manner of diseases—cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever. This calls for purification methods such as boiling, filtration, or the use of various additives or apparatus. But the most common way to avoid harm from tainted water is to drink some other beverage.

Beer: Historically, beer was critically important to early Bronze Age societies in the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean. Thick and heavy to the point that it’s been compared with gruel, it required the use of reeds as drinking straws to get past a heavy layer of floating grain debris. It also spoiled relatively quickly. Such beers likely appear in Near Southern societies. The bitter flavoring in modern beers comes from hops, which is only known to have been put to this purpose for about a millennium. Creation’s beers, like real-world beers predating the use of hops, are likely to use a broader range of roots, leaves, and flowers as flavoring and bittering agents. These most likely appear in the North and East, where you can find societies drawing on a range of medieval European cultural elements.

Wine: Traditionally made in warm climates conducive to viticulture, the real-world history of grape wine in the Mediterranean maps best to the near South, the southern Blessed Isle, and parts of the Scavenger Lands. Wine appellations (geographic designations of wine types, like our modern champagnes and burgundies) can be traced back as far as imperial Rome, so I’d expect the Realm to have a similar system. This includes the possibility of extirpated appellations like the famous Caecuban, such that the last remaining barrels or amphorae are worth a queen’s ransom. Lower-quality wine, to be consumed by the poor and by slaves, was squeezed out through additional pressings. Wine could be flavored with herbs and spices, stored in resinous containers to produce retsina, or sweetened with honey, boiled must, or lead(!). Overall, wines tended to be sweet and strong—often to the point that they were watered down when served—and could be aged for years or even decades.

IK_Drunken_Noah_woodcut_1539

Sake: Likely most common on the Blessed Isle, in the Southwest, and in the Scavenger Lands, where rice production is common and where cultural tropes coincide with those of real-world societies that made and consumed rice wine.

Mead: We normally think of this as a Norse beverage, but while it’s especially important in climates that don’t support grapes, it can be created anywhere that bees can be found, and indeed by semi-nomadic peoples gathering honey from wild hives. Historically it was made and consumed in places from China to Rome, Ethiopia to South Africa. Mead most likely dominates the alcoholic palates of many Northern cultures, some far Eastern tribes, and even the occasional Western island lacking in fruits and grains.

Distilled spirits: Fortified beverages such as whiskey and brandy only go back about a thousand years, but that’s early enough to fit into certain parts of Creation. You can doubtless find shochu in Lookshy, whisky in Whitewall, and coconut arrack in Abalone.

Other alcoholic beverages: There’s a broad range of real-world alcoholic drinks that you won’t find at your corner liquor store. In the West and Southwest, sap from coconut palm flowers is fermented into “palm wine,” its milky hue often reddened by steeped tree bark. The horse-tribes of Marukan ferment mare’s milk to make kumiss, while apothecaries in Nexus steep venomous snakes in rice wine. Lychee wine is drunk in the Imperial City, perry in Chanos, cider in Whitewall, pulque in Ember, chicha in Ixcoatli, and banana beer in Faxai-on-the-Caul.

Monk_sneaking_a_drinkLocal variations: “Beer” and “wine” and “mead” and their ilk are merely broad categories, each of which encompasses an enormous range of variants. Each culture puts its own spin on its beverages with distinctive ingredients and brewing techniques. Think of the differences between ales and lagers, or the innumerable distinct species and terroirs of wine grapes, coffee beans, and tea leaves, or the endless possibilities for adding spices and other flavoring agents, or aging in different sorts of containers. Sometimes the result may be hard to categorize—would the ancient Chinese beverage made from rice, honey, grapes, and hawberry best be described as a beer, mead, or wine? I recommend that interested players and Storytellers perform their own research.

Finally, a quick note on beverage-making and religion. Alcoholic beverages such as beer don’t always turn out as intended due to the interaction with yeasts and other biological agents in the fermentation process; as such, brewing in Creation doubtless involves a range of prayers to ensure that the beverage comes out as intended, without spoilage or unpleasant flavors. As in Mesopotamia or certain medieval European localities, some places will combine the two roles outright by putting priests or monks in charge of brewing.

The Bull’s Circle: Intimacies

Today’s post will be brief, as I’ve spent most of the day at the office and boy, are my brains tired. It covers something that came up while discussing the references to the Bull of the North in yesterday’s post.

When I submitted the write-ups for the Bull of the North’s circlemates for The Compass of Terrestrial Directions, Vol. 5—The North, their Intimacies didn’t make it into print. I assume this was a matter of consistency, as published NPCs in other 2e material typically didn’t list Intimacies. Now I will abuse my meager powers of blogging to present these snippets of NPC personal information to you, the reader!


Samea: Her Intimacies include the icewalker tribes, the ice plains, her priestesses, the Mother’s Hearth, Autumn Frost, and Yurgen Kaneko.

Raneth: His Intimacies include cities, his students, First Age relics, craftsmanship, inventions, and discoveries.

Nalla Bloodaxe: His Intimacies include Whitewall, Karn, battles, adventures, the adulation of crowds, and all of the men and women that he has taken as lovers over the years.

Ink Monkey Bones #6: Damanara of the Azure Banners

The city of Damanara of the Azure Banners is mentioned in passing in The Compass of Terrestrial Directions, Vol. 5—The North. After fleshing out the city for a game I was running at the time, I began writing it out for publication in the Ink Monkeys blog. The blog closed up shop before I finished, so the writeup remains incomplete. More recently, during Exalted 3e development, I cannibalized the city for setting elements that I incorporated into the Western city-state of Randan. This makes Damanara supernumerary for 3e publication, so I’m presenting it here (minus certain of those cannibalized elements) instead.


Damanara of the Azure Banners

Damanara’s most notable peculiarities—her demon-repelling banners, her cloistered princes, and even her fall to the armies of the Bull of the North—can be laid at the feet of one Anathema who died 200 years ago. And he never even entered the city.

History

Damanara is a new city for a new Age. During the Fair Folk invasion that followed the Contagion, one of the Amber River’s tributaries, the River Maliskancha, shifted in its bed so that the two rivers met several miles south of their previous confluence. This new juncture proved a good spot for businesses serving the river trade. As the town grew, it also became the focal point for the local wool trade—a lucrative industry, given the rich pasturage of the nearby hill country.

Roughly 200 years ago, the Anathema Jochim began his rampage through the satrapies of the North. The Realm’s forces were overextended in dealing with the demon prince and his forces. Jochim himself could not be everywhere, of course, but he had called up demon lieutenants to command his battalions and packs of lesser demons to serve as shock troops.

The city of Damanara lay in the path of his forces. Though rich, it had only a small standing army and no support from the Realm. Even with military backing from such of its neighbors as remained independent, the city would surely fall when Jochim’s troops arrived.

But one of the city’s savants, one gifted in the thaumaturgical arts, concocted a plan. He knew from his studies that the inhabitants of Hell were forbidden to look upon a certain shade of blue—the “sacred azure.” So he prevailed upon the city leaders to seize all the undyed fabric in the city, and the dyers were set to work day and night.

On the day when Damanara’s forces sallied forth to meet the invaders, just before the two lines clashed, the ashigaru unfurled war-banners of the sacred azure, while the archers on the battlements hung vast sheets of blue from the city walls. Some demons reeled in shock; others fled. Most, of course, remained unfazed; but the defenders won the field that day, and mortals are all too eager to credit miracles for their salvation.

Thaumaturges and sorcerers flocked to the city, as did charlatans of all stripes, for Damanara garnered an unearned reputation for sorcery that day. Several of the city guilds—fullers, weavers, dyers, alchemists—leveraged the prestige earned from the victory to win concessions from the city that would make Damanara the heart of the Northern cloth trade. And the city leaders themselves negotiated better terms from the Realm in exchange for not raising a fuss about being abandoned by the Realm to whom they had paid tribute for centuries. The Immaculate Order’s influence was minimized; the people worshiped their old gods openly instead of in secret.

Now, of course, the city has fallen to the Bull of the North, its gates having been opened to his forces by the very priesthoods that gained power in the wake of Jochim’s aggression. Such is the turnabout of history.

Society

Set in a marshy area at the juncture of two rivers, nestled in a valley among rolling hills whose woods are slowly being denuded by mortal industry, Damanara is a rich nexus for the northern wool trade. Sheep and goats live in great numbers here. The city itself is surrounded by a many-towered wall. Its banners are a featureless blue.

Several major guilds control Damanara—these include fullers, weavers, dyers and mercers, as well as some guilds unrelated to the wool trade, such as masons, blacksmiths and thaumaturges. The city’s titular ruler, Princess Dove White Sky, has little real authority.

She is a figurehead for the guilds, whose guildmasters choose a First Master Elect from among their number. The First Master Elect serves as regent to the royal line and holds a great deal of political power.

The city goddess is named Yava-Chernya. She appears as a proud and refined woman who is not quite young anymore, clad in blue robes adorned with lapis and sapphires. She rides a black ram draped with cloth-of-gold in honor of the city’s old coat of arms, a black ram on a golden field. She lives in an Air-aspected manse, the House of a Thousand Pennants, which lies at the heart of the city. The manse’s hearthstone is a Stone of Mending Flaws (Oadenol’s Codex, p. 99).

Other gods worshiped in Damanara include Akana, Matriarch of the Ivory Robe (a regional goddess of winter); Saula-Nieida, the Lady of the Shining Loom (a regional goddess of weaving); and Grand Kinnaku, the Raven Avatar (a god of corvids who has been a friend to mortals since the Time of Glory). Each has its own temple.

Four outcaste households live in Damanara, having been given wealth and respect for their aid against Jochim two centuries ago. Foremost among these households is that of Naviga Baral, who traveled to the Blessed Isle to negotiate new terms for the satrapy after Jochim’s defeat. She still lives here, as do her sons and daughters. Her home, an elegant wooden manor encircled by a hedge of chokecherry, is a one-dot Wood manse that produces a Stone of Healing.

Damanara fell by surprise to the forces of the Bull in the middle of the night last month, when forces affiliated with the city’s temples seized and opened some of the city gates just as Samea brought in half a legion’s worth of icewalkers via Stormwind Rider. The defenders fought well, but the icewalkers were led by Lunar Exalted and backed by powerful beastmen. By morning, the First Master Elect, Ladim Sesla, had ordered the guild troops to stand down, leaving the city in the hands of the Bull.

Homebrew Mashup: Exalted and Magic The Gathering

I’ve been asked to write up some Exalted-themed cards for Magic: The Gathering. This could be fun! But I’m not just going to write up some random cards for random Exalts and call it a day. I’m working to develop my game design skills, and building cards piecemeal does little to hone my abilities.

So! I’m going to build a whole card set, with the intent of making it playable in Limited format if someone felt like printing up the cards and playing with them. This is a useful experiment that should hopefully give some insight into the game design and development process. (It also means there won’t be any actual cards in this post. Design needs time! And I’m heading off to run D&D after dinner, so, priorities.)

To start with, I’m going to set some parameters:

  • Few Exalts. It’s difficult to effectively translate the mechanics of the Celestial Exaltation into M:TG, and the Dragon-Blooded elemental synergies don’t fit neatly into the color pie (40% blue, 40% red, and 20% green), making it difficult to incorporate them into a set. I’ll throw in a couple here or there, but they won’t form the backbone of the set.
  • Focus on a small part of Creation. It’s a huge world full of countless unique societies, and throwing them together like gumbo only serves to muddy all that interesting detail.
  • Set it in an existing 1e/2e location. Picking a location that’s being added in 3e would require breaking my non-disclosure agreement to provide any kind of meaningful detail, while inventing a brand-new locale would miss the point of working with an existing setting.

Given these parameters, I’m going to design the set around Great Forks. Its plethora of gods and other supernatural creatures will provide a range of cool creature cards, its independence from the Realm justifies the absence of large number of Dragon-Blooded, and if I feel like it I can design a few Exigents. (Since I don’t know much more about Exigent design than you do, I can do this without worrying about spoilers.)

Now, there are lots of other parameters that go into an actual M:TG set. I’ll treat this as though I were actually working for Wizards of the Coast and design it as such. (Of course, I’m limited by lack of personnel and funds—I don’t have a playtesting team, for example—but I’ll do what’s within my capabilities as a guy who’s designing stuff in his spare time for no pay.)

These parameters include:

  • Build the set as part of a cohesive block of three sets for drafting purposes, bookended by other blocks and basic sets for purposes of Standard format design. Obviously I’m not going to design all of those too, so I’ll just swap it in for a previous block.
  • Build around a narrative. A real block would come with tie-in novels; I’m not planning on writing any, but a homebrewed block should have a narrative that a fiction writer could work with for this purpose.
  • Planeswalker characters, some old and some new. Yeah, this means we have to have Liliana or Jace or whoever else show up in Creation. Cope.
  • Multiple new mechanics and one recurring mechanic in the first set of the block. Later sets will have a new mechanic or two apiece; we can plan ahead for this if something really exciting pops up, but we can just as easily leave it for later—assuming this homebrew project gets that far.

(I wanted to put in some links to Mark Rosewater’s Magic: The Gathering design articles, but the Wizards of the Coast website is down. I’ll edit the links in later.)

That’s all for now, as I have to finish dinner and head out to D&D. Later I’ll start work on the mechanics and design skeleton for the Great Forks set. Till then!

Status Report: June 16, 2014

Hey there, dear readers! Here’s a quick list of what I’m up to, slanted toward the Exalted audience:

  • The next Rock’s Fall playtest game—the one I said I was planning to play in yesterday—has been postponed, again. Bummer.
  • The second Zhaojun Chronicle playtest game has also been postponed yet again. We’re hoping we can make it happen next week, assuming that we can get everyone’s schedules to align.
  • I have the playtester feedback and session notes for the fourth Marst Chronicle playtest game. Expect to see an edited version later this week.
  • Later this week I’ll be booked up with an editing assignment, so my availability to post and respond to comments may be limited.

Due to the playtesting lull, my ability to post Exalted material will be somewhat limited in the immediate future. As much as I’d enjoy posting homebrew material, I prefer to focus my energies on material that can actually be published. Right now I’m practicing Solar Charm design to sharpen my mechanical chops, in hopes of getting good enough that the developers will allow me to design Charms for upcoming 3e supplements. (My work is getting better; Vance’s reply to my latest Socialize Charm was “THIS IS RAD.”) Obviously I can’t post any of those Charms, both because I might cannibalize them for elements of later publishable material and because the 3e mechanics are under NDA.

That means what you’re most likely to see are either posts on random Exalted-related subjects that catch my attention (or ire!) on various Internet fora, or posts about other games. I could always review some casual iPad/iPhone games, or maybe post some homebrew Magic: The Gathering cards. Please comment to let me know what you might like to see!