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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Plane Speaking

Planes.  Whether you subscribe to the theory that there are Seven Planes of existence, or Fourteen (seven plus a second set of opposite shadowy planes), or Thirty-One Planes (ala Buddha: Check out this handy reference at Buddha-Net), or some other configuration based upon Nineteenth Century esotericists, Theosophists, Science fiction, Enochian magic, Neo-Platonism, quantum mechanics, Gnosticism, newage quackery, or whatever else floats your particular boat.  Seriously, you can pretty much pick a number at random and find a system out there that will support your spontaneous channeling of higher wisdom in regards to how many Planes of Existence there might be out there. 

That last sentence in particular works best if you say it all breathless and as if it were supremely meaningful, like Shatner reciting from the Yellow Pages.  It'll help you keep a healthy dose of skepticism when treading into this particular territory.  Worse than any religious components or deprecated philosophies struggling to regain prominence, this area has money attached to it, and where there be money, there be pirates (both operative and speculative), intellectual sharks out to make a buck from the gullible & vulnerable, and rentable prophets of spurious dogmas as well.  It's quite the cavalcade of human frailties, foibles and follies.  Just remember that an open mind does not mean that you need to be a suggestible moron.  As always, when exploring the realms of philosophies and related pursuits, question authorities, demand proof or at least a receipt, keep your hands inside the car at all times and Caveat Emptor!

Pointless Confession Number One: I have never liked, nor have I ever used the so-called 'standard cosmology' first promulgated by Gygax and then peddled like pseudo-esoteric crack by those who came after.  It's rubbish, pure and simple (in my personal opinion).  If you like it and have had wonderful experiences with it, that's cool, but not of any interest to me.  When I speak of Planes of Existence, I'm referring to concepts derived from sources far older than an RPG and in some cases even older than Shatner, comic books or the Yellow Pages.  Not that those sources are necessarily more credible, just more interesting to me.  It is my blog after all.
Ahem.  Back to the Planes. 

 One of my favorite phrases used to describe the nature of Planes is "...a fractal ontological spectrum of innumerable divisions..." that a wonderfully helpful author/scholar named Kheper uses on his website discussing the correlations of Blavatsky's model of the planes to Max Theon's model (and includes Gurdjieff as well).  Blavatsky is heady stuff and best taken in small doses.  Her use of Sanskrit confuses Sanskrit scholars, her references to various Eastern concepts often diverge substantially from the supposedly quoted sources so that it confuses the experts of those traditions being quoted.  This is not to say that she was any sort of a fraud, not at all. I am not inclined to judge her but rather much like H. P. Lovecraft and a number of authors before me, I like to wander about the various constructs and conundrums that good old Madame HPB tossed out there and see where they can take a story--or a game.  Kheper's analysis of the Seven Terrestrial Planes at the link above will give you a wealth of information to sift through.  Oh, and there are diagrams.  Lots of diagrams.  Gotta love weird, esoteric diagrams.  Once I get the chakra-to-attribute diagrams I am working on finished, I'll be able to expand upon them to show the next level of complexity in terms of chakra-to-planar level correlations.  Then I can plot out the portions and parts of the astral-body and some other cool stuff.  That'll be fun.  Really.  I promise.  It'll be in color, too.

Any how.  Before getting too much farther down this particular maze of madness and mysticism, we need a good definition of what a 'plane' actually is, otherwise this is all rather pointless and not of much use to anyone.  Okay.  So a 'Plane of Existence' is best summed up, at least for our purposes, as being both a location and a state of consciousness simultaneously.  Mind and matter are interconnected, just as space and time are intertwined, and as a person dwells upon certain concepts or acts out various irrational desires or rational principles, they are already aligning themselves with various and sundry planes both positive and negative.  The more 'evil' one acts/thinks, the more evil that begins to harmonize with them on the subtle levels and they become attuned to those sorts of expressions, they sink to those levels, they literally already are living on those planes in some respects.  Likewise with 'good,' however you care to define it.  One's state of mind determines which planes they have access to, and where they are drawing energy from.  There is an implicit, intrinsic moral geography or topography that comes along part and parcel with the notion of planes of existence.  Planes are states of Consciousness as well as places that can be traveled to or visited.  That makes them freaky on so many levels.  As soon as you even touch the concept you are confronted with Freewill, Meaning, Perception, Souls, Spirits, and the deep waters of philosophy, religion and the emergent doctrines of quantum psychology and so on.  The beauty is that there are no right or wrong answers aside from matters of personal conviction, established faith and a lot of conjecture that frankly amounts to so much fiction.  What it all boils down to is we really don't know all that much about Planes beyond the various (often conflicting) notions that we've inherited from (almost always) apochryphal/dubious sources.
(Philosophers are still debating just what the hell COLOR is or is not.  Check out this paper on 'Color Primitivism.')

A better question might be: "What do we want planes to be like in our setting?"  Approaching the material from that angle will convert all of the perplexing, convoluted crapulous creeds and spurious claims into grist for our respective mills.  We can pick and choose whatever sounds appropriate and cool and leave the rest for other folks to play around with later. 

For my Riskail setting, I am approaching the concept of Planes as being layered around each world-core like the sections of an onion.  Each level outwards shifts a bit farther away from the central nexus in terms of how it relates to time, space, energy and consciousness.  Each planar layer has a particular vibrational rate or frequency that can be tuned-into like with a crystal radio set, or that can have an influence upon areas or persons sensitized to its particular vibration via rituals or mechanisms.  And, as I alluded to above, I am making the Chakras as well as Attributes integral aspects of the Planar Layers which are directly related to specific chakras which can then be further refined or attuned to these energies for various sorcerous applications.  Likewise Consciousness has serious ramifications in regards to the planes, not just in terms of which ones your character has access to, but by configuring consciousness in specific ways one gains access or blocks access to / from a variety of planes, unlocking both oneiric and etheogenic approaches to exploration of realities behind / beyond the conventional, accepted facade -- and that is so frikkin' Lovecraftian it hurts.  But in a good way.  I'm also building a set of diagrams, not quite so clunky as Blavatsky's or Theon's multitude of sub-planes, at least not right off.  Pictures make things easier to understand, and hurt the brain less than an over-abundance of cryptic, obscure and polysyllabic words that quickly slide into meaninglessness due to their inherent level of abstraction. (What?)

What makes the whole thing hang together in a useful way is that it serves as a terrestrial-style system of correspondences that facilitates comparison, description and manipulation.  For example, the various layers of a character's Aura are effectively membraneous interference layers between their chakra and the plane(s) that are aligned / attuned / resonant (cognate?) with their chakras.  Thus, as a character does things to themself, or suffers various effects, their connection to various planes will shift and change, allowing for all sorts of mechanics such as invisibility, clouding people's minds, glamoury, illusions, phantasms, communing with elders of another time and pace (Kashmir), and much, much more.  On a related note, I had thought that I could jettison that hoary old chestnut Alignment, instead it appears that I might have to re-think alignment as an attribute akin to Strength, Wisdom, etc. Maybe. This idea of a moral component to space-time is not just for fantasy role-playing any more.  Scientists and other authors writing about quantum mechanics are talking a bit about this sort of thing as well.  Books are being written, fist-fights have broken out; it's fascinating stuff, and I neither accept it nor decry it, I'm just here for the free beer.  It's weird. But I like weird.  Watch your step if you decide to go exploring in those caves and waters.  It gets pretty treacherous fairly quickly.  Beware the Wandering Opinion Table.

What do I mean by 'terrestrial' which I mentioned above?  Good question.  Sometimes it is better to begin with what is known before diving into the unknown.  We awaken into an awareness of our selves, our bodies and our surroundings.  Usually in that order, but that could be debated ad nauseum as well.  When we awaken into sentience, becoming thinking / feeling personalities who can answer questions on a Myers-briggs test Instrument in order to discover our personality-type, then we are becoming cognizant of our non-physical / abstract attributes (what OD&D would refer to as WIS, INT, maybe CHAR--that one likewise gets a bit of a debate going).  When we become aware of our bodies, we start dealing with breathing, eating, pooping and the physical attributes (STR, DEX, CON...).  Then we start to figure out that there is a world beyond our own asshole, unless we're a born politician sociopath or are crippled with an acute form of narcissism (which really is its own reward when you think about it).  The world around us, our environment, affects us in numerous ways.  Think burning stove, running water, and barking dogs and you'll be on the right track.  Those three developmental steps form the basis of how we perceive, relate and express our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the immediate world.  It is also the basic set of concepts that then leads into such stuff as chakras (attributes again), auras (chakra-planar interfaces), ectoplasm / phantasm (the sticky-gooey media in-between chakras and planes), and the terrestrial forms of divination, geomancy, interior decorating, and coping with ley-lines, etc.  Then there are the celestial / astral influences such as astrology, luminiferous aethyr / astral light, the ethereal zones, and so on.  It all stacks one upon the other like a bunch of weird Legos (tm) , and it all inter-locks just like the little Danish plastic blocks.

You start out small and simple and then slowly build up the complexity as things progress.  Now the notion of seven planes tied to the colors of a rainbow sounds pretty appealing, over the thirty-one bizarre-sounding ones with all the sub-levels and crap, huh?

Nah.

Go big, or go home.

But whether there is only one plane or a billion, the scheme for explaining these things needs to be accessible, readable, something that can be grasped both conceptually and figuratively so that they can be used in a setting, story or adventure.  They make lovely furniture / backgrounds if you want to get all Zelazny-like, which is a great way to handle an infinite number of planes swirling between two primary poles, one of which is Chaos.  (scroll down to 7: Mike Says.)   Zelazny also pioneered the conceptual conceit of having physical laws shift in smallish increments from adjacent plane to adjacent plane so that what worked for gunpowder in on place might only be good for polishing shiny rocks in another.  That alone can spawn numerous random tables for handling a wide range of planar effects, or serve as a plot-twist worthy of the worst groaner of a Star Trek plot in which the PCs gain a massive load of fire-power (personal-scale Vulcan Gatling Guns ala Predator anyone?) only to find out that the dirt in their bullets isn't particularly flammable despite having gained some seriously intoxicating effects.  Of course, that only works if you're not a dick and let them find some other substance to re-load their ammo with, or you let them discover an alternative like trees that produce pods that have strange bio-crystalline cores that focus a wielder's WIS into a blade of shimmering force that cuts through titanium like a Ginsu, or something like that only actually cool.  Taking an Amber-style approach gives you those kinds of off-the-wall opportunities.

Moorcock has been developing his version of the Multiverse for decades and anyone not immediately familiar with Elric or Moorcock should probably stop reading this stuff and go read a book.  Even if you don't like the guy or his work, his fiction is very influential and worth taking a look at just to see how he handles planes if nothing else.  Consider the Vadhagh ability to shift from one to another of the Fifteen Planes: "Once it was easy to move through the Five Planes at will.  With a little more effort the Ten Planes could be contacted, though, as you know, few could visit them physically.  Now I am unable to do more than see and occasionally hear those other four planes which, with ours, form the spectrum through which our planet directly passes in its astral cycle." Corum from The Knight of Swords.

Now we're getting someplace.  A set number of basic, common-access planes (directly tied to the chakras to facilitate various forms of clairvoyance / clairaudience, etc.), that are all arranged into a spectrum (shades of Ken Wilbur!), and all part of a vast planetary-level astral cycle (HPB again).  I like this approach.  It is clean and a good place to start from, without getting too bogged down in endless reams of useless details.  It also presents a nice way to integrate mechanics into the underpinings of the setting, which makes things more integral, to borrow a Wilbur-ism.

Another fictional approach to Planes is Farmer's World of Tiers series.  This time though, the planes are synthetic and the work of super-science, not mystical mumbo-jumbo, and we all know that weird science and rocketships always trumps magic and unicorns, except when the scientists start creating unicorns like in Stasheff's stories, but that's a digression for another day.  Farmer did some fun stuff with his artificial planes, and it's too good an idea to waste, so I'm bringing my friends the Temjurri, a faction from the old Bazra campaign / stories from way back into Riskail.  The Temjurri are plane-makers, hardcore scientists every bit as weird and powerful as any wizard.  So now we have artificial planes in Riskail, planes that are designed, built and made-to-order by an elite cadre of technologists and engineers from an obscure secret society who are reputed to lock away their enemies in pocket-spaces the way that Montresor walled-away Fortunato in Poe's classic tale.  Cool.  Weird science, artificial planes, secret societies of engineers who hold the secrets to forgotten or forbidden technologies, a wonderful tie-back to Poe for the sake of atmosphere, and we're in business.

Another approach to the subject of Planes is Rudolf Steiner, not known for fiction but rather an intriguing guy in his own right. Steiner was an old school occultist who literally and truly did have run-ins with the Nazis who both feared him and hated him like no other metaphysical adept.  He was like an Austrian George Washington Carver only he was more ignored and his work tended to be less commercially applicable, except for his unique form of agriculture still in use, his unique approach to music (Eurythmy), architecture, education (ever hear of Waldorf?) -- oh just go take a look at the guy.  He wrote more books than just about anyone and when he got bored with that he started whole new schools, founded alternative economic systems, got entangled in politics and started his own band of not-secret society called Anthroposophy.  This guy's life reads like he was a real-life Doc Savage and The Shadow rolled into one, only more academically inclined and less likely to punch you or pull a Colt .45 from under his cape and blast you into kingdom come...but then again, I won't take that bet.  Maybe he donned a mask, fedora and opera cape and did just that and never got caught.  If anyone could do it, he'd be the one to pull it off.
Handy Link: Forgottenbooks.org is a good place to go snooping for weird, old out-of-print books that can be mined for all sorts of ideas and Steiner's Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment can be downloaded as a free e-book here.  Be Warned: Anyone interested in this stuff could lose many hours of their life digging through the many obscure treasures gathered at this site.  I am a big fan of this site.  Highly recommended.
Steiner offers up a lot of intriguing concepts that many a less talented and often times more venally-motivated author has gone on to present as their own revelation from the ethers.  He firmly and devoutly espoused the doctrine that any human being willing to do the work could reap the benefits of the spiritual sciences.  He was one of the earliest proponents of self-development, and in many ways could be seen as a godfather to the whole self-help movement.  The Guardian on the Threshold is one of those cool bits of esoteric lore that keeps turning up all over the place, from Alice Bailey to Joseph Campbell and on to hordes of earnest newage gurus trying to sell you on their cosmique revelations channelled directly from Sirius or wherever.  (sphincter?)

Despite the snake-oil peddlers, the Guardian of the Threshold is too good an idea to not use it, especially when planes are directly tied to both consciousness and locality.  PCs will need to learn techniques and / or rites for gaining the permission / means to cross the threshold(s) between them and the other planes, perhaps a pilgrimage to other planes is required in order to activate Arbitrary Powers or one needs to contact a plane to arrange for a sponsor on the otherside in order to gain access to the plane or planes in question.  Ancient secret societies guard antiquated devices said to awaken dormant powers of perception within a subject (victim), allowing them to negotiate with the Guardians directly and possibly giving them a way to go get strange cool powers as a result.  Sacred sites might facilitate this sort of experience, especially certain ley-line junctures / nodes, or one of those stock ruined temples with the vaguely pre-Columbian motif and cyclopean (non-Steiner) architecture could have literal thresholds constructed within them that are activated by rituals and sacrifices of silly-putty so as to allow a dedicant to shift across into other planes.  Assuming they get past the three-headed parakeet that guards the mauve portal to Ygulix, or whatever other dread form the Guardian takes.

Steiner is awesome.  You could spend decades just reading his stuff, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you're prone to insomnia.  A genius, yes, but a popularizer of his concepts suited to today's reading public?  Not hardly.  Thankfully there are scads of hacks authors who rip-off re-discover his works and foist share them with the world, or at least those enlightened souls with credit cards.

Steiner is also a good example of how something as seemingly simple at first blush as Planes can get way out there in three or less clicks.  Planes are an integral part of the magic system, at least in my setting.  They also tie directly into the core mechanics of attributes which makes the whole process of developing a ton of spell-effects and Arbitrary Powers incredibly simple and straightforward, which I will cover in a future post.

The idea is to make the magic / sorcery coherent.  I refrain from the use of a word such as 'authentic,' because after decades of intense personal study, I can tell you that there is very little of any actual authenticity in these areas beyond stuff that has lingered long after the expiration date has lapsed.  If it wasn't for inspired forgeries, conceited frauds, or conniving mountebanks a lot of this weird and wonderful stuff would never have happened in the first place.  But that doesn't discredit it any more than applying the same standards to religion would produce any other results.  We're dealing with the geography of imagination and the mechanics of mythologies.  Authenticity stems from an opinion, a particular point of view, and frankly the magic of a made-up setting either in fiction or in an RPG needs be no more authentic than the systems used to handle quasi-medieval combat, and no less.  Mayhem is an abstract thing in the OD&D-derived corpus, for the most part.  Attempts to make it more realistic are of limited utility, in my experience, as they tend to be promoted most vigorously by those who wish to super-turbo-charge their characters and who do not wish to see anything even close to what they are promulgating being done for the magic system of the game.  Somehow some schmuck waving a length of steel is supposed to be superior to someone who wields the powers of a hundred planes and can cast lightning bolts.  Sure, it's a common enough conceit in a great many of the old Sword & Sorcery stories.  Plenty of times you read about some illiterate git in a fur kilt laying the bloodiest of smack-downs on the massed ranks of the local members of the Conjurors, Sorcerers and Wizards Local 113 (a special sub-section of the union of electrical workers possibly).  Maybe that works for you, and that's wonderful if it does.  It doesn't work for me.  I want magic to be fun, usable, and not a bogus weeny-copout kind of train wreck that just makes wizards top dog.  Fighters and others get their due just as well, and the basic mechanics coming together from all this can serve the less wizardly-inclined and even the anti-psychic null-zone-emitting types as well.  But I want more than just fireballs and a list of boring spells for my magic-users.  If thieves get special skills, then so should sorcerers (and fighters, but that's another post).

There needs to be some way to prevent magic-users from taking over everything.  Just like there needs to be a way to keep the fighters from taking over everything, or any of the other classes.  No problem.  As they develop their powers (just like a warrior develops techniques with weapons, or styles of fighting...), they have to deal with repercussions and consequences that come with their decisions, initiations, attunements and actions.  Every time they resort to certain proscribed rites of nastiness, that affects their aura, contaminates their chakras, and affects which planes they have access to. In some cases they can lose the ability to contact certain planes altogether.  The other-planar entities that they decide to contact or consort with likewise affect them on this deep level.  Entering into the service of higher-order entities, be they mythic angels, synthetic archetypes, obscure demigods or the embodiment of abstract principles has a direct and very powerful effect on the character that goes beyond just what color underwear they wear or what brand of sword they prefer when looting a castle.  It closes some options off even as it opens others up.  And that is exactly the sort of approach I want in Riskail.  Your choices as a player matter, not in a punitive sense, though some actions carry penalties just like hacking off an arm might impair one's ability to play piano, but in an empowering sense.  I want options, not restrictions.  Player skill can (and should) have a direct and dramatic effect on character attributes, giving the best of both approaches in one fell swoop.  Maybe.  Depending on how well I can get the diagrams all colored in, I guess.  We'll see.

Planes.  Getting back on track.  Planes are an opportunity to provide forms of experience, adventure and even some excitement that can really enrich a game.  Being able to project psychically into a realm of strange creatures on a vision quest, or stepping across a threshold into a realm where the rules of physics are off-kilter, or learning the secret art of drawing forth the dreaded Purple Flames of Kumashton and single-handedly wiping-out the voracious swarm of link-beetles about to devour the party body and soul--that's what I want from Planes in Riskail.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Harryhausen is Old School

Over the last couple of weeks, my wife and I have been very lucky to have the opportunity to see some of Ray Harryhausen's movies on a big screen at the local micro-cinema, the Trylon, in South Minneapolis.  It's a very nice micro-cinema, with an art gallery out front and they make real popcorn with real butter, not the regurg-o-matic crap that they fob off on you at the macro-plexes.

We were able to see Jason and the Argonauts, Twenty Million Miles to Earth (Yay Ymir!), and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.  You can get a quick overview of these and the other Harryhausen classics that the wonderful people of the Take Up folks ran as part of their Titans. Will. Clash. series at this blog here.

Jason and the Argonauts.  This is the classic skeleton fight-scene.



It just doesn't get any more Old School than that!

Talos, the Harpies, the Hydra -- just the Jason and the Argonauts movie alone has some amazingly cool monsters in it that have left an indelible mark on so very many little kids who watched this stuff on late night tv, or whatever.  The influence of Harryhausen on OD&D could be a book unto itself.  Just compare Talos with the Iron Golem.  You can find your way from there. 

If you take a good look at the Ymir from Twenty Million Miles to Earth, all it needs is to have more of a beak/less of a snout, and a boney-club on the end of his tail and you've got a very well-done Shen from Empire of the Petal Throne, another Old School game. 

What I find kind of weird is that the RPG monster-makers seem to have overlooked the 4-armed snake-lady, guard-dragon, and two-headed roc from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.  Everyone remembers the cyclopes...you know the guy: he's the one-eyed giant with a horn on his forehead and looks like he's at least partially related to a satyr.  That Cyclops is absolutely one of the best versions out there, a real classic.



You can see the 4-armed snake-lady towards the end of this clip:



Now that's a cool spell for a villain, or anyone else to use!  Not exactly the best attack in the books, I grant you, but awfully useful for beguiling a local potentate, currying favor, or trying to get a ship weaseled out of the Caliph.  Of course, that would require a game in which you were doing that sort of thing from time to time.  After watching these movies, why wouldn't you want to run a game like that?

Sure, this stuff might not compare all that favorably against Avatar's 3-D mega-smurfs, and yes, it does look fairly cheesy by current standards, but keep in mind when these movies were produced and that this is still some of the best of the best when it comes to stop-motion-animation.  Harryhausen is Old School.  And I for one think that is very cool.

EDIT:
In regard to the 4-armed snake-lady mentioned above, I was perhaps too brief and not clear in my intention.  I see some serious potential in a spell-crafted entity that has heightened DEX & CHAR, even if it costs them a penalty in say WIS, INT or even STR, especially when that creature serves their master as a potential assassin, concubine or whatever, especially since the spell-caster can have them revert back to a human form later on--possibly with no memory of the perfidious or foul deeds that they might have done in the alternate form.  When you add in a hypnotic/charm ability, four arms that might be able to strike or use weapons (probably light ones), and a constriction-attack tail...possibly a bite...you get a lot of utility from this spell and the subsequent critter created by it.  Making it so that the subject loses their memories afterwards makes this a sorcerous equivalent to a plastic gun--it'll get places that otherwise you'd never be able to reach.   So no, I don't see this as a yuan-ti or a Type V demon.  Though, there is a chance that the ritual used to convert this person might have lingering after-effects.  There could be a period of time during which stress might trigger a reversion to the serpent-taur form, or in a more wicked variant the ritual might so pollute and taint the victim's cells that they end up spawning what amounts to yuan-ti...but you'd need to call them something else as last time I looked the yuan-ti are not in the SRD.  Maybe this ritual is used on male devotees of a cult that summons Type V demons so that they might mate with them and produce demonically-descended heroes and champions for the cult.  Hmmmm...that could get interesting.  Gross, but interesting from a DM viewpoint.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Obelisk Gates of Riskail

This post has been moved to the Riskail Blog and you can find it here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ten Insane Geniuses for Riskail

This is a continuation of the theme I began in the Mad Wizards post, a revised version of which you can find here.  This particular train of thought and conjecture was started off by a quote from Dungeons and Dragons, Volume One: Men & Magic, page 6:
"...the participants can then be allowed to make their first descent into the dungeons beneath the 'huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses.'"

And you can read the rest of this post over at the Riskail Blog where it has been exapnded to Twelve Insane Geniuses and you can find it here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cipher Manuscripts

Zanoni.  It's one of those novels you might hear about if you read the sorts of stuff I tend to read.  In some circles it is quite notorious.  Of course, those are some very small circles.  More like dots, really.  This novel is obscure in a way that others aspire to be forgotten.  But it's worth looking at, as far as I am concerned, as a nice bit of inspiration on how some fairly pervasive modern occult myths got started.

Zanoni is based upon the premise that a secret cipher manuscript is decoded and the novel is what comes from that deciphered cipher manuscript.  Essentially the novel is the product of some fairly astute occult code breaking.  No, it's not exactly rip-roaring.  You want that, go check out Zane Grey.  Loads of rip-roaring, almost nothing else.  Stripped to the bone and loaded for bear.  Fun stuff.  As for Zanoni, it's a quieter, more subdued and philosophical kind of story, like if a turn of the century Mason had been tasked with re-writing Twilight with a purple felt-tip marker on the walls of a tuberculosis ward in London during the WWII Blitz while he smoked second-rate hashish.  Oh, and instead of 'vampire' he had to use 'immortal,' etc.

"It is a romance, and it is not a romance. It is a truth for those who can comprehend it, and an extravagance for those who cannot." --From Zanoni

It is a romance, and it is not a romance.  It features a love story between an immortal who surrenders his immortality to die with his loyal and devoted mortal wife.  You know the story; 'He gave it all up in order to settle down and die with his loving wife.'  Drivel.  Absolute crap.  But, if you manage to overlook the many and copious failings of the plot, premise or story in general, there is one interesting thing to take away from having survived actually reading the novel.

But first, lest you think that I indulge in turgid, purple prose of the worst hyperbole in my description of the steaming pile of Victoriana which Bulwer-Lytton left on the floor for us all, hark, feast your eyes upon the following immaculate contortions of the English language:

At last there arrived the manuscripts, with a brief note from my deceased friend, reminding me of my imprudent promise.


With mournful interest, and yet with eager impatience, I opened the packet and trimmed my lamp. Conceive my dismay when I found the whole written in an unintelligible cipher. I present the reader with a specimen:
(Several strange characters.)
and so on for nine hundred and forty mortal pages in foolscap. I could scarcely believe my eyes: in fact, I began to think the lamp burned singularly blue; and sundry misgivings as to the unhallowed nature of the characters I had so unwittingly opened upon, coupled with the strange hints and mystical language of the old gentleman, crept through my disordered imagination. Certainly, to say no worse of it, the whole thing looked UNCANNY! I was about, precipitately, to hurry the papers into my desk, with a pious determination to have nothing more to do with them, when my eye fell upon a book, neatly bound in blue morocco, and which, in my eagerness, I had hitherto overlooked. I opened this volume with great precaution, not knowing what might jump out, and—guess my delight—found that it contained a key or dictionary to the hieroglyphics. Not to weary the reader with an account of my labours, I am contented with saying that at last I imagined myself capable of construing the characters, and set to work in good earnest. Still it was no easy task, and two years elapsed before I had made much progress. I then, by way of experiment on the public, obtained the insertion of a few desultory chapters, in a periodical with which, for a few months, I had the honour to be connected. They appeared to excite more curiosity than I had presumed to anticipate; and I renewed, with better heart, my laborious undertaking. But now a new misfortune befell me: I found, as I proceeded, that the author had made two copies of his work, one much more elaborate and detailed than the other; I had stumbled upon the earlier copy, and had my whole task to remodel, and the chapters I had written to retranslate. I may say then, that, exclusive of intervals devoted to more pressing occupations, my unlucky promise cost me the toil of several years before I could bring it to adequate fulfilment. The task was the more difficult, since the style in the original is written in a kind of rhythmical prose, as if the author desired that in some degree his work should be regarded as one of poetical conception and design. To this it was not possible to do justice, and in the attempt I have doubtless very often need of the reader's indulgent consideration. My natural respect for the old gentleman's vagaries, with a muse of equivocal character, must be my only excuse whenever the language, without luxuriating into verse, borrows flowers scarcely natural to prose. Truth compels me also to confess, that, with all my pains, I am by no means sure that I have invariably given the true meaning of the cipher; nay, that here and there either a gap in the narrative, or the sudden assumption of a new cipher, to which no key was afforded, has obliged me to resort to interpolations of my own, no doubt easily discernible, but which, I flatter myself, are not inharmonious to the general design. This confession leads me to the sentence with which I shall conclude: If, reader, in this book there be anything that pleases you, it is certainly mine; but whenever you come to something you dislike,—lay the blame upon the old gentleman!
That is from the introduction.  Yeah.  The introduction.  I've read a ton of old stuff, things that would give you gray hairs, quite a bit of it obtuse nonense peddled by pseudo-scholars who really ought to have known better, but through it all, this one novel really and truly just never has sat right with me, not ever.  The whole daft notion that an immortal somehow has to devolve, degenerate and abandon a higher level of spiritual development in order to show their loyalty to a lesser being that they are sleeping with strikes me as akin to an ancient Greek poem about giving up godhood to shag goats out back.  At least the old Greek poem might rhyme or maybe it's a limmerick.  A dirty limmerick.  Yeah.  That'd be tons more fun than this overly saccharine codswallop.

But it does have one thing worth noting.  Yep.  It does have that going for it.  You see the underlying premise of Zanoni is that the entire novel was acquired through decoding and decrypting a cipher.  Yeah, I know that I have already said that up above, before the big, boring quote.  But this is where it gets interesting.  You see, the story that Bulwer-Lytton passed on to the reading public about his mysterious cipher manuscript that revealed various and sundry arcane secrets with a direct connection to the Rosicrucians and their rituals, and the ongoing practice of these same rites surviving on into today...well, that is -- in a nutshell, so to speak -- the very same claim made by one Mr. Mathers.  You know him as one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  The Golden Dawn was founded on the rituals decoded from a cipher manuscript found under mysterious (some would say credulity-straining) circumstances.  The story surrounding the Golden Dawn's cipher manuscript is, in all due fairness to Bulwer-Lytton, much more interesting.  In some respects Mathers was a superior writer.  But that's an opinion, of course.

If you dig back into the histories of the various real-world (so-called) Orders and Lodges of magic, a great majority of them seem to be founded on spurious old cipher manuscripts that may or may not be forgeries or perhaps were ghostwritten by Zanoni for some under-the-table cash to support his laudanum addiction. 

So what?  Well, here's where it starts to get interesting for me.  This whole notion of spurious cipher manuscripts serving as the seeds of magical Orders is just too good to let pass.  So, in Riskail, to steal a page or two from Zanoni (possibly as an act of revenge for having actually read the thing), the various sorcerers in the cafes and salons are sometimes caught-up in an ecstatic frenzy, or they lapse into a trance and begin to recite, dictate, or transcribe freehand the contents of various received texts.  Literally, they psychically download the contents of entire books spontaneously, automatically (literally), and these books are all in strange ciphers, hieroglyphs, codes, anagrams and other forms of intellectual/literary-puzzles that must be decoded in order to figure out what the hell they are actually saying.  The sorcerers offer up their works into the Public Domain as works of art.  These manuscripts float around in the various libraries, collections and archives for years, decades, even longer, until someday some person, a bored scholar most likely, finds the received text, deciphers the thing and realizes that they have the core rituals, rules, doctrines and lore of a whole new magical Order in their hot little hands.  So these bibliophilic (they really, really love books) scholars get some trusted associates together, show them a few of the pages that they have deciphered and if all goes well, they start a conspiracy, recruit a few actors with money, blackmail some librarian in order to use their collection as a resource, add a poet or two to the mix --just so long as they mind their manners and don't get uppity or anything.  In no time the Chartreuse Assembly of the Melt-in-in-Your-Mouth Armchair has arisen from the depths of the disreputable leavings of the irrational maunderings of insane sorcerers -- but all Orders are supposedly inherently Rational.  And so they are.  But their roots are in the Irrational.  It's a nice sort of symmetry all in all.  And I owe it all to Bulwer-Lytton's Zanoni for the idea.  Thanks dude.  33fnord69(Shibboleth).  Go team.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Public Domain References for Your Game


Project Gutenberg is one of those amazingly cool things that are going on out on the web somewhere that you might have heard about once or twice, but a lot of folks never really have given it much attention.  I think that's kind of strange and so I wanted to point out a few of the very useful things that you can find over on the Gutenberg site that might be of interest to DMs in terms of really good (and really free) literary references that you can use to spice up or weird out your gaming, or just read for the hell of it.  Some of this stuff is really, really good.  If you know where to look.  Which is why I put togther this quick and easy guide to some of the stuff that I found most useful or interesting in the course of working on my setting.

 Arthur Machen
The Great God Pan
The Hill of Dreams
The Great God Pan is not as well known as The Angels of Mons, but it is a very well-done story of occult horror that really demonstrates a sense of overwhelming horror and the terrible consequences of confronting things beyond mortal ken.  It's not just something that a Call of Cthulhu fan ought to read.  The underlying premise could be retooled for any number of variations and involve any sort of entity, not just a horny old Greek god.  It's also interesting in that this story involves a woman who makes an impression on society despite being not-quite-human, instead of another spineless hick from some podunk town like Wilbur Whately.  Reading Dunwich Horror back-to-back with Great God Pan might be damaging to your sanity.

Edgar Allen Poe
The Raven
First Project Gutenberg Collection of Poe's Stories
The Masque of the Red Death is one of my all-time favorite Poe stories and a strong influence on some of the Great Houses in Riskail.  The Cask of Amontillado is a great scenario-seed.  "For the love of God Montessor!"  Then there's the Murders in the Rue Morgue; who doesn't love a monkey?  Just because it's a murderous Orang-Otang doesn't mean it doesn't need a hug.  Poe is awesome, and his works are an excellent source of ideas for all sort sof things ranging from plots, to traps (Pit & Pendulum), to setting-details, and on and on.  I am sort of surprised that there isn't a Poe RPG out there, but then maybe Marcus Rowlands did one as part of the Forgotten Futures project (which is in itself a wonderful thing to take a look at for all sorts of ideas).

Ambrose Bierce
An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge
The Damned Thing
Before M. Night Shyamaln's Sixth Sense, there was Bierce's classic Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, whih could easily be converted into an effective game scenario, if you didn't mind player character ghosts.  Of course, if you didn't read this in high school, you could always watch the Twilight Zone episode based on Bierce's story.  The Damned Thing is all about a critter that is of a color that the human eye cannot see.  Several other authors have since lifted this idea, filed-off Bierce's serial number and made it their own, and why not?  It's in the Public Domain, so this is the kind of things that people Can borrow from, lift freely, and make their own.

Jules Verne
From The Earth to the Moon
Mysterious Island
I just downloaded a copy of Verne's The Underground City as I've never run across it before.  Maybe it'll spark a few ideas as I flesh-out the subterranean regions around the Low Esplanades.  You can find a copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and quite a few other works by Verne, and his work is very much worth your time and effort because he is extremely inventive yet did his best to stick to what the science of his day considred plausible, unlike Wells who invented a substance that allowed his characters to negate gavity in order to go to to the moon.  Verne did things the hard way and it is often well worth the effort to get through the front-end of his books.  But it will require something of an attention span.

H. G. Wells
The War of the Worlds
The Island of Doctor Moreau
While I prefer Cordwainer Smith's approach to underpeople, Well's pseudo-hybrids created through surgery and torture ("The House of Pain"), are both horrific and yet exactly the sort of creatures that a mad wizard or insane genous would sped their time creating, and three-legged Martian war machines are just plain cool.  Their Public Domain, so why not use them in your game?  There is a lot of H. G. Well's stuff there at Gutenberg, including a Free copy of Little Wars, his miniatures wargaming rules, and some of his Socialist stuff, The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, and more. Morlocks are great monsters; underground-dwelling degenerate industrialists who prey upon the stupid hippies.  Now how fun is that?

Sax Rohmer
The Brood of the Witch Queen
The Insidious Doctor Fu Manchu
Far from politically correct and quite blatantly, shall we say "of it's time" in regard to racial issues, Rohmer's stuff is good pulp fiction and by that I mean a real time-waster of a book that reads like they sould ahve been made into a series of animated adventures already.  If you read Marvel comics in the Seventies, you'll recognize all sorts of stuff stolen borrowed liberally from Rohmer's work.  Fu Manchu is a bad, bad man, and a great villain who comes up with some of the most twisted forms of torture to inflict upon the forces of good and righteousness (so-called).  If you can find the 1932 movie Mask of Fu Manchu ,you get to see the one and only Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu and Myrna Loy as his daughter.  That's cool.

Algernon Blackwood
The Willows
The Wendigo
Blackwood is a real treat to read.  He knew a great deal about which he wrote and his John Silence stories are some of the best in the entire genre of Occult Detectives.  The Wendigo is a great story to read right before a skiing trip, really.  Like reading an accout of the Donner Party just before driving across the Rockies during the winter.  Um tastes like chicken.

William Hope Hodgson
The Night Land
The House on the Borderland
Lovecraft was a big fan of Hodgson's, but despite the nasty pig-people, House on the Borderland is well overdue for a re-write.  The Night Land is Olaf Stapledon style far, far future stuff that is still quite inventive and interesting, which most other stuff half as old as it are not.  Hodgson's Carnacki stories are aweome and I expect to read about Electric Pentacles in Planet Algol very soon.

Edgar Rice Burroughs
At The Earth's Core
Warlord of Mars
Most of the Barsoom books are there for the taking at Gutenberg, but the Burrough's estate still retains rights to the names of the characters, etc.  So while the stories are yours to take for free, the names are not.  Copyright gets a bit weird.  If you want something that has a lot of the same overall feel as Burrough's martian adventures, you might check out Athanor as a very well-done Swords & Wizardry-based setting that packs a really mean wallop like a certain genteman adventurer whose name is not in the Public Domain. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Lost World
The New Revelation
Besides the extremely name-recognized Sherlock Holmes, Doyle produced a lot of stuff, the Lost World having been converted into movies and a TV series might ring a bell of recognition, but did you know about Doyle's fascination with Spiritualism?  Yep.  Check out The New Revelation sometime.  Maybe Holmes wasn't the only one using a seven-percent solution?  There are some nifty things in there, but then I read Blavatsky at an early age. 

Besides all the literary (or at least genre master) heavy-hitters listed about, there is a ton of old Historical resources at Gutenberg, from Baron Acton's Lectures on the French Revolution, to an account of WWI-era airplanes and submarines, to an account of the Arts and Crafts in the Middle Ages, and more.  Those were all drawn from the section under 'A.'  You can also find translations of works by Plato, Titus, and if you want you can get a free copy of Machiavelli's The Prince.

It's worth digging around, you'll never know what you might find and it's free.  Some of the stuff is also available in audio format, if you'd prefer to listen to some of these tales instead of read them, which can be a great time-saver or life-saver depending on your situation.  They can always use donations and they need volunteer proof-readers and the like, so if you're inclined to lend a hand they'd be glad to have some more volunteers.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Of Ley-Lines and Such

In 1921 Alfred Watkins, a photographer, amateur archaeologist and antiquarian, delivered a paper to the Woolhope Club that dealt with what he termed 'Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps and Sites.' It was in this presentation that Watkins introduced the concept of 'the old straight track,' what came to be known as ley lines. Based upon actually hiking about, taking photographs and making personal observations, Watkins' theory was essentially the notion that there were prehistoric trading routes that criss-crossed the British landscape based upon a series of straight lines that connected the dots of various sighting points of specially notable landscape features that served as markers, or landmarks for geographical navigation. Being incredibly useful for the development of re-usable routes and thus something that was repeatedly used, communicated to others, and shared in common, the old straight tracks that connected the original landmarks took on a historical significance that persisted even after the older, navigational significance was lost, forgotten or destroyed. There wasn't the slightest newage puffery or nonsense regarding energies, vortexes or aliens in the mix at all. If anything, it was, and still is, fairly dry, straight-forward and not all that particularly challenging in that it makes some sense, in Watkins' original conception.
However ley lines were not destined to remain quite so straight-forward as the tracks described by Watkins originally. Early British Trackways was published in 1922 and it set things into motion, The Old Straight Track was published in 1925, Ley Hunter's Manual was published in 1927, and there were several clubs and a measure of notoriety for Watkins surrounding his life-long championing of the theory of ley lines, but for all intents and purposes it pretty much died out around the 1930s, except amongst the usual crowd of pseudo-Theosophists, pulp-fiction writers and the like.
 
You can find another version of Early British Trackways here.  It's a bit stuffy, but it is the real deal, from the first guy who published his ideas and set forth the foundational parameters of the theory we've inherited in a vastly distorted form.

In the Sixties, John Michell published The View Over Atlantis and ley lines once more floated to the top of the popular lexicon of quacks, frauds and newage peddlers of obscure revelations delivered in breathless tones of barely-hushed hyperbole.  The mystical elements that academics find so repellent, objectionable and distasteful were grafted onto Watkins' theories and what was once considered speculative became ridiculed as academia distanced itself from the mumbo-jumbo of the psychics and their oh-so-willing marks.

But Watkins' theory has survived this descent into the irrational, and alignments based upon ceremonial, astronomical, and other factors have been discovered in a variety of locales outside of Great Britain.  Whether or not the various pyramids are aligned to constellations, the ancient ruins in Guatemala or Chile were aligned to cosmic forces, the mystery scratched into the arid soil around Nazca were ceremonial or drug-induced works of hyper-art (or UFO landing strips), or they are all geographically scattered expressions of Watkins' old straight tracks, is up for grabs.  Theories abound and intellectual fist-fights break out amongst experts who can get catty and petty over what most see as incomplete trivia or the rantings of frustrated romance novelists seeking to make a buck off of the gullible.  Everyone has a theory, especially the ones who are flogging their books, but no one really, truly, knows. 

And that is perfect for the purposes of fiction and RPGs both.

Old Straight Tracks that can be used to map out prehistoric trade routes and other sorts of alignments, be they astronomical, ceremonial, or some obscure flow of Chthonic/Terrestrial Energies that can be tapped into, accessed or harnessed for technologies either sorcerous or materialst is an awesome notion and a wonderful idea to incorporate into a system of magic.  It is so cool that numerous authors are deeply committed to expounding upon this theory as part of a realworld, functional system that somehow has gotten merged into dowsing, western geomancy, and Taoist-rooted systems of Feng Shui or the less well-detailed (in the West/English-speaking market) Indian art of Vashtu which is far more susceptible to quackery and outrageous claims due to it not being quite so well-established in the US yet.   Don't get me wrong, I find outrageous claims as fun as the next guy, and they can be a lot of fun to play around with in terms of the good old 'What If...' practice of seeing where such things could lead that was a major component of the older forms of speculative fiction, back before orthodox English Majors and money-making Clarion Grads made it all about Plot, Character, and so on.  Like with most such human endeavors, there probably isn't a single answer, nor One Right And Only approach that works every time for everyone.  However you approach writing, it is an act of creation intrinsically linked to language and it partakes of the most ancient and primitive forms of magic symbolism as much as it delineates the forms of rational discourse.  But this is about ley lines, not language or writing.

Earth Mysteries, the geography of consciousness, shamanic landscapes--one of the foremost researchers and experts on this sort of thing is Paul Devereux, a true gentleman and scholar who has spent decades digging into the reality of ley lines.  Literally just about everything anyone needs to know or could want to ask about ley lines is summed up in Devereaux's summarized presentation on the subject which you can find by simply clicking on the Ley Lines link on his home-page.  It's all there.

Upon reflection, Paul Devereux, Colin Wilson and Simon Schama are three of the most significant rational influences on my work with Riskail, while Charles W. LeadbeaterJames Churchward, and Andre Breton (A, B, C) are three of the core influences that inform the more irrational aspects of my current work.  There are others, but these six form a very potent mixture of skepticism, imagination and scholarship that I find particularly engaging and useful, for now.  Tomorrow I will probably brood over the work of Goya or delve into the hyper-verbose obscurities of Madame H.P.B., but for now, for today, these are six of the giants upon whom I derive a great deal of inspiration as I discover the realms of Riskail and act as a conduit for the stories that come from this place where Surrealism forms the heart and soul of sorcery and imagination is an active component of day-to-day life, not some muzzled dog kept on a tight leash by the soulless walking-wounded enslaved by tyrant-accountants and the abstract daemons they serve blindly, unquestioningly.

In a later post, I'll share some of the ways that I have integrated ley-lines into my sorcery/magic system, and offer a couple of quick-and-easy methods for slipping them in at the last minute without disrupting an already in-progress game.  It's actually super-easy.  I just want to get some graphics done to make it more understandable, pictures being worth tons of explanation.  Take a look at Devereux's site.  Just reading through that alone can keep most people busy for a considerable amount of time.  It is sure to give you ideas.

Strategy & Tactics

I just read a really excellent post over at Trollsmyth's blog that broke down the whole non-argument surrounding Editions and D&D into a simple matter of Strategy versus Tactics, and it all comes down to a preference for one of those two poles of perspective.  An excellent and insightful piece.  You can find it here.

There is no one true and right edition for us all.  It's a game, not a ring of power or a pair of zubaz-stretchpants from the Eighties.  Ugh.  Instead of running down any other edition or whatever, how about supporting the stuff we do like?  If enough people stopped the hating and started getting creative and got more passionately involved in the Renaissance part of the OSR...who knows,,,it might even become a seriously viable market.  It is possible.  If enough people really, actually care enough to do the work involved, and enough others are motivated and persuaded (on the merits of the stuff produced), to support those efforts.  A lot of very serious progress has already taken place.  Retro-clones are showing up in retail stores.  Harness all the energy wasted in arguing and you could fly a rocket to the Moon or Mars, or at least do something worthwhile and possible even fun.

Just a thought.  I've got work to get back to.  Take care.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Underwater Caves and Beer

By chance -- perhaps the 'Guinness' (Coconut Porter from the local brew-pub actually, but I thought that would get too complicated for the non beer-inclined) offered up to Dame Fortune last night did some good after all -- as I just spotted this post on Under Water Caves at Dungeons & Digressions, a blog that I have found a lot of fun to follow, particularly as I am working on the Urban Spelunking Section of my Riskail project and doing a batch of geomorphs and other maps and more maps.  So many maps.  Maps.  Maps.  Maps.  You can head over to the floridacaves website and dig through all their cool stuff, or if you are in a hurry, or under a tight deadline, Ze Bulette has provided a wonderful pre-zipped and copyright-free set of a selection of these maps of Underwater Caves that you can download from his blog for free just by dropping by and clicking on the link provided.  That is just too damn cool.  And handy.  Thanks dude!  And I thought that Minnesota had a lot of caves and underground sites to explore.  Maybe I'll find a suitable location for the Spawn of Dagon out of Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis in one of these caves, or maybe not.  Unlike Lovecraft, Kuttner's work is still under copyright, I believe.  Though I thought I remembered them being included in one or another edition of Call of Cthulhu...

But honestly, I'd rather find a cave full Canadian liquor left-over from the days of rum-runners and of bootleggers.  Mmmmm Beeerrr, as the Great Homer of S'imp'Sahn would mutter in the throes of his unspeakable ecstasies.

IA!  (mumble mumble) FTAGN!  (mumble mumble) Something else suitably unpronounceable, etc., etc.

Why do I smell donuts?

A Shrine for the Sandbox-Saint?

Telecanter recently said something that really helped put some things into perspective for me as I am working on the various maps and more of the background for Riskail.  His excellent blog is here, and the post in particular, from which I lifted this quote (with his kind permission) is here.  The quote is this:

"I think like much of old school philosophy the secret to success lies in how we utilize randomness to our advantage but without fetishizing it. So maybe, as long as using some randomness lets me loosen up and actually create a world without needing to know every single detail in advance, that's a good thing. But it also doesn't mean I have to go completely random, with things falling onto the map without rhyme or reason."
Telecanter

I much prefer to establish a setting using broad strokes at first, blocking in the big areas of shadow and light, then adjusting it as I add colors and details, much as one paints with oils.  I am a big fan of the technique of chiaroscuro, but then I tend to approach my writing and my gaming from an artist's perspective first and as anything else that I might be or bring to the table second.  I distrust agendas, thus I have had a great deal of fun converting the Academia of Riskail into a medieval hierarchy of competing, often duelling rivals that combines the fun and naughtiest bits from Dangerous Liaisons with a dash of Carravaggio's escapades and the ever-enticing notion of a massive edifice of learning (a sort of Alexandria on crack and steroids simultaneously), where someone like George Washington Carver and/or Nikola Tesla could be found working beneath the Borgias, or something like that, only with more in-fighting (with all too real knives and swords), and back-stabbing that goes way too far more often than not, resulting in long-running academic feuds that have cost the world a great many brilliant minds that the Necrosophics diligently attempt to salvage from obscurity when they can.  Then combine that all with a long-running committee-approved and periodically censored form of revisionist history that has institutionalized the (admittedly daft) notion that the certified, educated and approved intelligentsia of the present know the past far better and far more completely than those who lived it because today's scholars possess much more cogent and well-thought-out perspectives on things than those caught up in the sturm-und-drang of then-current events.  That is Academia in Riskail, and it is also why the Fighter (or Fighting Men if you belong to the Cult of the Emperor-Wyrm of Herbertia, or some such irregular Cult, be it Blue or even if it smelleth of sacred oysters in the spiced brine of the Free Saints themselves.) Class has been rolled into the Scholar.  Everyone has some capacity for violence, all the Classes (standard or base-line or whatever) can engage in fighting, and all of those who seek to fight have to first learn the ways, means and drills of how to fight--and learning implies students or recruits, and thus by a leap of the warped logic that prevails in Riskail, Scholars are the base-level fighters, mostly because they have to defend their theses and their dissertations by force of arms as much as through their wits.  It isn't for everyone, but that's the point.  This ain't intended to be a one-size-fits-all sort of setting, nor am I at all interested in generic fantasy.  Old School is characterized by DMs/GMs developing their own settings and taking the OD&D rules as a spring-board and a tool-set to go off the deep end and see what they can do with it like mad scientists in a garage full of spare parts culled from everything they've ever read before, heard on the radio (pre-internet), or saw in the pages of a popular magazine aimed at your average teen.  (With sincere apologies to Billy Joel there, and yes that was a sarcastic reference to Dragon from back in the hey-day.  I thought it was funny.)

Lights and shadow, paint splattering onto canvas and dripping onto my shoes.  I can get messy when I get going.  Most guys do, even the ones who can't cook or don't paint, but that's another pointless digression.  I am working on the maps for Riskail.  The Solar System schematic is pretty-much completed and I plan on uploading it to our Zazzle-shop later, when I take a break from some of the other stuff that is just pouring out of my fingers like blood from the fists of a guy who just punched a vampire in the mouth.  (A less than wise choice in case you were wondering.)  As I work out the painted layers of the world and the more detailed version of the Great Rift, and the even more detailed sectional maps of Devukarsha (the primary city of the setting), I have been really contemplating the whole Sandbox approach that the Old School games advocate, and that I personally really and truly love with a passion that borders on madness and obsession.  Or is that nachos and beer?  I forget.  I am getting old you know.

Building a Sandbox setting is great fun, and I have learned and re-learned a great deal of the underlying details of my previous campaigns, settings and attempts at fiction through this process.  I have also found myself inspired by some of the Masters of the Art like Telecanter who is quoted above and the absolutely amazing Rob Conley over at Bat In The Attic.  His series on Fantasy Sandbox Design is as close to required reading for anyone interested in setting design as you can get, be it for gaming or for fiction--his wisdom applies equally well to both pursuits.  Both of them might just become Saints along the Avenue of Eidolons, if they were to ever approve of such a thing.  (I'm not in a hurry to piss off EVERYONE, just the ones that feel the sting of truth wherever it might find them.)

Randomness, as quoted above, is a powerful force for informing, supporting and enhancing the creative process--when handled like any other power tool and not used like a hammer to solve every problem.  I have a ton of tables that I've developed over the years and as I convert them over or take inspiration from them for things to plug into Riskail, I am keeping in mind the very helpful insight about not fetishizing randomness unduly.  So I pay my respects to randomness, offer up some Guiness to Dame Fate, and get back to work.  And as I get back to detailing this feature or that function, drawing out the roads and canals, outlining the different sections, districts and precincts of Devukarsha and its immediate surroundings on Riskail, I am trying to loosen up and create a world that I myself do not need to know every detail of, nor have documented every minute detail down to the geneaologies of every blade of grass for the last sixteen millennia.  That way lieth madness, and not the fun-cool Van Gogh sort of thing that gets you impressive paintings, but the clunky, perturbed and self-destructive stuff that just isn't any fun for anyone.  You can be too exotic.  Weirdness needs to be balanced, tempered with some humor and a touch of the known and knowable. Jorune and such settings have been criticised for being too incomprehensible, too unpronounceable, too clunky to play, etc.  Tekumel remains the gold standard, for my money, of a rich, vibrant and exotic setting par excellence--though it too suffers from the unpronounceable-names syndrome and it demands a vocabulary cognate with reading Clark Ashton Smith or Samuel R. Delaney.  Maybe that is more a failing of the DMs/players, which I have heard bandied about from time to time, but I do not accept that as a fact.  I think that Gygax and Arneson got it right the first time: a setting needs to be accessible, with enough of the familiar about it so as to allow a player to get up to speed, to buy into the setting, and to immerse themselves in it like fish getting their gills tangled-up in a net.  A setting needs to be more than exotic, it needs to be compelling and playable.  Just like a good Sandbox is filled with loads of opportunities for adventure and adapts itself to the interests of the players even as it expresses and plays off of the interests of its creator.  One of my favorite examples of a setting/creator that really works and is a joy to read about is Planet Algol.  Blair really gets it right just like Gygax and Arneson did all those years ago.  I really like how the Black Ziggurat all of a sudden showed up across the blogosphere at his instigation.  There are  examples of other equally good efforts, and I am sure that everyone else has their own opinions on the matter, and I will plug some of the others down the road, but for today, for right now I'm plugging Planet Algol as one of the Truly Weird settings that, in my humble opinion, and for whatever it is worth, just seems to be getting things right in a big way.

Notes Towards a New Magic System

As I am completing the work on the revised Attribute section, expanding things to include Attribute Checks for all the Attributes and mapping the various Attributes to the Chakras, there were some fiddly bits that came up that I wanted to get sorted out.  These are my rough notes and will probably go through some more modification and mutation before all is said and done.

Auras
Taking a cue from Leadbeater's book on Auras, I am drafting out a schematic that details the various basic forms of a sorcerer's or magician's auras.  A sorcerer has dozens of options and styles and modes of auric expression and manipulation including various forms of attack, defense and more.  Glamers and Glamoury are tied-into auras, so are some forms of illusion, protections and other things.  A sorcerer sometimes carries all manner of marks, signs, impressions, tutelary spirits, sigils, figments, and more within their aura, even going so far as to sculpt it or to hang spells within it like veils awaiting some triggering condition to be met.  The Orders teach disciplines that render the aura of a member of one of their august bodies a smooth, well-sealed and very much fortified egg of purest white, darkest indigo, deepest black, or in some cases other colors, sometimes with various emblems or seals of power visible within the aura identifying their authority and affiliation for those with eyes to see.

Chakras
I have mapped out the correspondences between the basic attributes and the chakras.  This sorted things out and answered a lot of questions that I didn't really know I was asking until I could see it all actually drawn out.  I am setting this up as a supplement for OD&D as well as taking it farther into my own system which I am deriving from this foundational schematic, so my efforts will be split into drafting a Supplement 9: The Preliminary Grimoire, or something like that for OD&D while proceeding with the development of a core-system for Riskail that takes things even farther.

Multiple (often overlapping) Systems of Magic/Sorcery
Sorcerers gain access to a wide variety of skills, techniques and media that they can explore, develop and personalize to their heart's content including a number of symbol-sets, vulgar apparatus, accomplice objects, constructs, exotic substances and more.  Sorcery is by nature open-ended and liberating, so new systems and approaches will be added all the time.  Faddish new approaches to psychism, obscure oneiristry practices uncovered in the course of data-excavations within one of the municipal archives, a showing at one of the more fashionable galleries may impart some arbitrary power upon a lucky few, and so on.

The more staid and discrete members of the various Orders likewise have access to numerous rituals  inherited from their founders, transmitted from their leaders, taught over the course of their training and sometimes derived from exchanges with other Lodges.  There are the common rites, of course, those fundamental rituals devoid of appropriate context and placed in the public domain as though they were no better than the social cantrips or open-source collective property that so many sorcerer's spells become.  But even amongst the Orders, there are those who experiment with the established rituals, revising outmoded or old-fashioned ones or embarking on a major project of developing new rituals, either under Order sanction and approval, or out of context and of a more individual, eccentric manner...which veers awfully close to sorcery and possible scandal or censure, even expulsion from the Order.

The notion of Arcane versus Divine magic, plus the red-headed step-child Psionics is already in the mix from the start.  Two of the Three standard classes presented in Book One: Men & Magic, the magic-user and the Cleric get separate spell-lists.  I'm taking that approach farther and expanding it out to make it more encompassing and more of an umbrella-like over-category, and hopefully more focused as a result. 

If some player wants to explore a specific approach or type of magic, say a spell-point system, or blood-fuelled vampiric spells, or a gestural methodology akin to what Roger Corman presented in The Raven, then I intend to let them at least make the attempt.  If it works out, then it gets added to the corpus of resources for other spell-casters and their character achieves a level of notoriety, fame and success very much in keeping with the already implicit rules for magic-users regading Research on Page 7 of Men & Magic"Research by magical types can be done at any level of experience, but the level of magic involved dictates the possibility of success, as well as the amount of money necessary to invest."  Any level.  I want to encourage magical research as a direct, immediate and intrinsic part of playing a 'magical type,' right off at the start.  If the sub-systems that they try to introduce or develop are totally unbalanced (those mega-cool but deadly and soul-blasting Call of Cthulhu-style spells), or over-powered (some deliberate 'Let's Screw With The DM' homebrewed nonsense), then they will have to work within the overall system and take their chances, but really with the tons of stuff I am already setting out on the table for players, this shouldn't be a problem.  In fact, some old and forgotten magical-type's records and journals regarding their experiments on a specific dismal failure of a spell-system they gave up on long ago might be discovered as part of the looting of a wizard's library, stolen from the Academy's locked repository, or be found in the false-bottom of some old piece of furniture picked up from a local antique shop on a whim.  Broken, flawed or incomplete, these sorts of things could be potentially extremely dangerous, and potentially lucrative to turn over to the right (wrong) parties.  Particularly heinous and soul-shattering spells, some literally quite a bit more intelligent that the people trying to use them could sense an opportunity and make a break for it by taking over the brain of some less-than-stellar pupil and pursue some inscrutible agenda or the resolution of a centuries-old command from its creator.  The idea is to promote creativity, encourage research and reward players making an effort to get involved in the setting, which should lead to more opportunities for adventures, rewards and fun.

Initiations and Attunements, Mysteries and Cults
Initiatory Rites are not just for the Orders, but can be uncovered amongst various Cliques, Cadres, Coteries, or Movements.  Joining a Scholar's Circle can be as initiatory--and sometimes as magical/sorcerous--as joining a more artistic Movement.  Schools, especially the numerous Invisible Colleges scattered around the Academy in Devukarsha are very initiatic and open only to suitable candidates.  The Ancient Mysteries are still observed and preserved amongst the ancient Lutherans, Jews, Pagans and other traditions that have weathered and survived the horrors and devastation of the Three Wars and their innumerable blasphemies and the corresponding backlash of civil inquisitions and terrible persecutions that drove most organized religion underground for centuries.  The Incarnate Gods of one faith do not automatically become the devils of another faith, but they are still considered a Very Bad Idea.  Outside of the Universal Church's sprawling complex, religion is not just something to avoid discussing in public, it is a deeply private thing, and so long as it remains private, all faiths are equally respected, thus it is illegal to proselytize.  But not all the old temples from before the Three Wars are necessarily deserted or abandoned, and not every faith allowed itself to be collected into the reliquary-like labyrinthine eclessiastical beaucracy of the Universal Church, and there are those who preach in deserted buildings and promulgate the old hatreds, the sickness of spoiled creeds and the seeds of vengeance for perceived wrongs sprout here and there on the fringes of Polite Society, some more obvious than others.  And some more dangerous.

Gestures Both Sacred and Profane
Some approaches to magic/sorcery will use material components and found objects, others will require specific motions, dances, katas or positions to be held in order to cast the spell involved.  There are monastic spell-casters.  Some spells only take a simple gesture, others require a dozen rituals to be performed before they can be even learned let alone attempted.  There are reflex-spells that tie directly into a sorcerer's Dex or Agility and grant them defenses they don't have to consciously cast under duress, but that cast themselves when under attack.  There are spontaneous spells that occur sometimes without anyone casting them, though this is rare outside of the halls of bizarre adepts, insane geniuses and mad wizards.  Improvisational magic is the norm, rather than the exception, amongst the street-sorcerers who include psychogravure, ambient graffiti and found object duels in their repertoires.

Spell Levels, Vancian and Otherwise
The basic spells that I am writing for Riskail are all immediately scalable to the level of the caster in terms of effect.  More advanced or ancient spells can tend to have a mind of their own and thus have correspondingly higher difficulty thresholds which is reflected in the notion that a spell can have a level independent from its caster, which is a core assumption in OD&D that I have never really liked all that much until I went back and re-read some of the source materials surrounding the so-called Vancian mechanics.  As in the above instance, I do like the idea of certain older, more established spells taking on a bit of intelligence, even a personality of their own.  Some spells writhe and twist like living things and have to be subdued, cajoled or persuaded to work for the caster, others have to be imprinted upon the caster's brain--a dangerous and risky undertaking that could lead to possession, burn-out (literally), or even progressive damage (potentially permanent Attribute Damage).  Of course, there are means of mitigating such deleterious effects through training, attunements, initiations, certain items or devices, some restorative elixirs, etc.

Difficulty Thresholds
In order to allow players and eventually other DMs who might like to explore Riskail in the future, or to convert some of Riskail's spells into a format that makes sense for another system, I came up with a strange new (I think) approach to Spell Levels.  The number given for a particular spell, say you pick something that is listed as a Third Level Spell in your source material, that spell would then have as many Difficulty Dice as it has a listed level, in this case 3.  A caster who is casting the spell cold, never having used it previously, needs to beat a roll against 3D6, in this example, to be able to memorize it, understand it, or cast it.  They get to choose the Attribute they want to roll against based on what they want to accomplish, i.e. using INT to memorize, WIS to understand/decipher it, or CHAR to gain the spell's trust and cooperation (see next entry for more on this particular approach), or to be able to express it (another fancier way to say 'cast it.'). 

Spell Loyalty
In respect to the more Vancian-style spells that have some sort of independent volition, intelligence, even personalities of their own, the existing table in Men & Magic, page 11, for Hirelings/Loyalty based upon Charisma could be adapted to handle the rather unique aspects of negotiation, rapport and loyalty required beyond their simple acquisition before they can be attempted to be used.

For Example:
I like making this process a direct extension of the function of an established attribute, in this case Charisma.  This is an example of where the OD&D rules-set actually did make a specific attribute grant specific abilities that were actually useful, or at least were intended to be useful, in the game.  By adapting the existing mechanic for handling Hirelings, we get a clean and simple mechanism for handling the more Vancian-style spells that are more akin to pseudo-creatures than items.  I also rather like the notion of having to gain the loyalty of a particular spell, or possibly blowing it and alienating a particular spell forever by rushing things or being ill-prepared, etc.  It punishes dunder-headed hubris and encourages/rewards putting your ducks in a row, such as gaining CHAR-boosting spells/items, researching possible ways to improve ones chances at making a favorable impression on the particular spell perhaps through divination, communing with entities on other planes, discussing the matter with experts and adepts, getting help, etc., etc.

Of course this would get mind-numbingly tedious if it were to be used for each and every spell, which I am most assuredly NOT suggesting or implying.  I'm merely pointing out a possible way to handle the more unqiue, interesting variant spells that are floating around out there in specific texts, journals, scrolls, etc. that are particularly well-suited to this sort of approach.  If they are going to take this level of effort to acquire and get to use them, the spells had better be worth it.  I can think of a few that will do nicely.

Public Domain Spells
There are spells that anyone can pick up easily, cheaply and often-times for free.  These are the most basic and elementary spells such as the Social Cantrips, the all-but-ubiquitous Preliminary Grimoire, certain aspects of the Vulgar Apparatus, and so on.  Anyone, from any walk of life and of any class can attempt to cast these spells and have a reasonable chance at getting some sort of result, though one's attributes do have a major influence over what is more or less likely to work for each person.

Attribute Challenges
Every spell has a particular attribute that it works in synergy with, and a low score in that attribute will diminish one's capacity to work with that spell, likewise an extraordinarily high score will result is a correspondingly better chance of getting a result and often yield much improved outcomes as well.  A very basic idea much akin to the notion that a higher Dex score can grant a PC a +1 bonus with missile weapons, only taken to serve all attributes and on into the spell-use mechanics as well. 

I am working out a method of tying as much as possible back to the Attributes so that really basic attribute-challenges can handle a lot of the sorts of things that skills, feats, etc. were originally tacked-on in order to deal with.  By reducing things down as much as possible to a streamlined Attribute-driven base and narrowing skills down into class-enhancing features, things flow better, players are in more control over their destinies, and choices matter a lot more.  It's almost a paradox, but by giving players a system that is strongly tied into their character's attributes, you can better model the sorts of stuff like a certain barbarian straining his mighty thews to overthrow a throne from its base, a gentleman-adventurer groping his way through the blackest pits below the Meta-Sultan's harem, some uppity albino princess riding roughshod over the amassed armies of her would-be suitors on her barely domesticated war-roach, or whatever.  Instead of a dozen different Improved This or That feats, or endless skill lists that make Classic Traveller look anemic, a lot of that stuff can be resolved down to a simple attribute challenge instead.  And since attributes are tied back into chakras, it dovetails right into the whole magic/psionics system(s) cleanly, seemlessly arises directly out of the attributes in fact, instead of being yet another bolted-on monstrosity.  I very much want to expand on the root principle inherent to OD&D that a player can try anything, their character may fail, but they should at least be able to make the attempt.

Arbitrary Powers: Caveat Emptor The forth-coming set of Rallu stories and vignettes get into this territory, and it is part and parcel of the Museums, Galleries, Salons and dissemination of sorcerous skills and abilities that really plays a major role in Riskail.  Arbitrary Powers are exactly what the name implies. They are strange abilities gained by way of attunements, initiations, mutations brought on by exposure to talismanic art exhibitions, the gifts of entities both bound and autonomous who are either momentarily aligned with or contractually bonded to the recipient in a pact.  The Ichthymatons of Trilb are a simple and fairly well-known example of this sort of thing.  The creation of a talismanic portrait in utmost secrecy, away from all other prying eyes, and using some of the most demanding (and not a little dangerous) techniques for combining one's own essence, soul and body with the exotic and ritually hand-crafted materials required is an arduous and costly rite of passage for many sorcerers who then gain the benefits of being bound to an object that acts as an external receptacle for the accumulated marks, scars, and effects of aging, debauchery, and casual violence.  A practice seen as a short-cut by most, and a poor return on the investment by those who haved learned the hard way what happens if their portrait is damaged or falls in the hands of an enemy.  (See Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray for the best-known example of how this fundamantal occult concept has been adapted into fiction.  You can find the Free Project Gutenberg e-Text of this classic HERE.)

Making a pilgrimage to one of the more notorious planar layers such a Shakrom or Dujeed and enacting a particular ritual in those sorts of places, under specific (hopefully) auspicious circumstances (be sure to check the astrology or visit the Interplanar Orrery first), can sometimes grant those with the courage and means to attempt such things great benefits, strange powers, peculiar gifts.  The half-fabled fountains in Jidrang (which is found on few, if any maps) are said to possess the power to restore the souls of those who have made a terrible mistake in their choice of methods for achieving longevity as the fountains are believed to wash away most forms of vampirism.  There are shrines erected by the monastic robots of various encrypted orders where some pilgrims go in order to attune themselves to the Resonant Spaces contained within or to link into a particular configuration of  ley-line junctions or nodes.  One might consider risking everything and transgressing the borders of various sites of sorcerous power such as the White Ziggurat in Devukarsha or the lines and grooves cut directly into the Etched Plateau or the Carved Mesas where the strange witchfire aurorae flicker in the twilight.

One need not do commerce with demons, daemons or one of the Twelve Devils, but they can, if they so wish.  All things have a price, even as all men and all women have theirs.  Seeking after un-earned rewards and the pursuit of over-weening ambition which outstrips good sense or morality are common-place and make for good business for the various Powers who cater to such trade. And there are plenty of beings out there who love a good trade, like the Ochemru, amongst many, many others.  There are the Mechile or their rivals the Apostates of Dilemmu who will negotiate the acquisition of various forms of cybernetic enhancement, most of which is hardened and well-suited to the needs of a sorcerer.  The Grafters can get you any body part you can design or describe--for a price.  The Maxlaang will offer you a fresh set of iron-gray eyes in order to seal your soul away and keep it safe from those who would attack it or try to possess it.  In the Open Market of the oneirically inclined, to the strange impromptu bazaars that spring up around caravans from far-away places, or even unto the secret invitation-only auctions of rare sorcerous artifacts, there are many, many deals to be made, treasure to haggle over, and opportunities to buy--or sell--just about anything if one but takes the time to look, to ask questions (discretely, of course), and to spend a few coins here and there.

Contracts, Pacts, Bonds
One of the founding principles of Polite Society is that a person's word is their bond.  Literally.  Honor, integrity and keeping one's word is no small matter.  It is the cornerstone of all civilized interaction and it influences magic and sorcery deeply and unmistakably.  The bond between a master and their familiar is both private and inviolate, being of an almost sacred intimacy.  Pacts reflect the metaphysical truth that all choices have repercussions, all decisions lead into consequences.  The contracts of sorcerers and their Patrons are founded on oaths that are ultimately and inextricably caught-up in the very essence of each party acting in good faith by doing their utmost to live up to their word. 

There will also be a very quick and easy (optional) Astrology system that forms the basis of a system of correspondences that can be used to help flesh-out spell effects, determine personality quirks, and unlock strange secrets...

Speaking of which, I think this is enough for now.
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