Author Archives: okcstephens

Starfaring Species in Really Wild West (part 3 and finale)

This is the third and final part of a series of articles looking at how to contextualize the starfaring species of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game into the world of the Really Wild West, a setting hack that uses the science-fantasy rpg for a campaign with magic, monsters, and weird science in an alternate Earth in 1891.

When looking at the Starfinder Roleplaying Game species for things I can use to tie them to a fantasy-science-fiction-pulp version of the real world, sometimes I have gone with cultural or game ability elements… and sometimes I have leaned on fantasy versions of biology, as is the case with shirren, vesk, and ysoki.

RealWildWest-Races-color-01

Shirren

Shirren are big bugs, which means they should have evolved someplace that supports larger arthropods. The largest land-dwelling arthropod currently in existence on Earth is the coconut crab, which is found on islands in the Indian and Pacific Ocean. Assuming they originated in the same regions in the timeline of the Really Wild West, shirren would have built their own island cultures (perhaps in conjunction with other species, perhaps not), and spread in Ancient times as trade blossomed throughout the Indian Ocean. This takes our ancient shirren to China, Egypt, India, Java, Somalia, and southeastern Europe. While they would have spread worldwide from there, I assume those regions along old trade routes going through the Indian Ocean still have the largest, most integrated populations of shirren. That gives me guidance on what cultures they might be drawn from, and what traditions they could have, without claiming something small-minded like “Arabs are shirren” (which erases real Arabs and eliminates numerous cultural advancements, historical figures, and real-world ethnicities from being part of RWW, and is also pretty structurally racist).

Vesk

Australia leads the world in reptile biodiversity, so that’s where I am having my vesk evolve. That has vesk populations being tightly concentrated in Australia, New Zealand, and surrounding islands. I’m guessing I’ll need to add a frontier wars or “Lizardman War” (as the colonial powers call it) between the British Empire and various vesk groups at some point, and chances are the vesk lost. But by now, they’re at least partially integrated, and some will have travelled throughout the British Empire, despite suffering a fair amount of racism. While vesk likely have a lot of native culture that impacts their fashion, those that travel abroad are likely to adopt Western clothing sensibilities when in western nations, including the Really Wild West.

Note that this is a change from my original thoughts on vesk, which was to make them the product of Doctor Moreau’s anthropomorphization of animals. I can hold on to that idea for more minor species (as I add them), but it ended up feeling too limited for a “core” species, and had some connotations I wasn’t comfortable with.

Ysoki

In the real world, rodents are populous on every continent except Antarctica. They date to the Paleocene on the supercontinent of Laurasia, spread across landmasses, crossed oceans, and pretty well got everywhere (even Australia) on their own, without human intervention.

So as much as I am tying most starfaring species to specific region of the Really Wild West? Ysoki are everywhere.

And they got there first.

With cheek pouches as built-in bags (allowing them to carry goods—even water—long distances before the invention of sacks or gourd-bottles), bonuses to Stealth and Survival, and darkvision? Ysoki were the main competition with humanity for global domination. Much as there were Neanderthals and other cousins to homo sapiens sapiens who didn’t make it, there were multiple lines of ysoki through the ages, though none of this is well understood in the RWW year of 1891.

In general, every culture has a ysoki element to it. There are sure to be exceptions—Egyptian cat-worshipers may not have taken to ysoki citizens, some ysoki clans likely existed in regions without significant human presence.

But the core assumption in Really Wild West is that ysoki are everywhere from the most remote, paleolithic cultures, to the suit-wearing bankers of New York.

Speaking of context!

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Be Your Own Brand

I’m not doing #ATTRPGMaker, but a lot of people I know are, and they all hit “What’s Your Brand?” today. And suddenly, I feel like answering.

My brand? My brand is Owen K.C. Stephens.

I love the fact that so many people are willing to employ me in one capacity or another (and honor me with the trust to all do so at once), but with 20 years of this under my belt, I know that I can’t depend on any game, trademark, or company to necessarily be around for as long as I want my career to last.

But, obviously, *I* will be here as long as I am here.

So yes, Paizo, and Green Ronin, and Rogue Genius Games, and Rite Publishing are all things I strongly promote. Starfinder, and Really Wild West, and Pathfinder, and Pathways are all lines I have staked a lot of time and effort in being part of.

But that’s all part of defining my one core brand, which is me.

My name. My professionalism. My reputation.

Hopefully, both industry folks and customers have some idea what adding me to a project means. Obviously lots of people have never heard of me, but my focus on myself as a brand is to try to make sure that when they DO hear of me, they do so in the context of the image I want to project.

And, hopefully, that makes adding me to other brands a benefit to those, as well.

The one thing you get to take with your wherever you go is your name. Things might change so the rights to games I work on get restricted, or companies that pay me might be struck by asteroids. And I think it’s *very* important I give my very best effort to everyone who hires me. I never “save something back” to promote my own brand at the expense of another.

But by making sure I do the best I can for everyone who hires me, I make THAT part of my brand.

I try to do the same in social media, on forums, and even in public. And by doing my best for everyone who hires me, and being professional in all game-related dealings with the public, I can build my brand at the same time I do my best to promote the other brands I am paid to work with.

Speaking of my brand:

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New Video: The Aftergame (episode 1)

I’ve uploaded to YouTube the very first of my gaming-and-geekery podcasts, The Aftergame… still in Beta!
This is a special episode filmed at the magnificent AFK Tavern in Washington State, with special guests Mercedes Lackey, Chris Pramas, Larry Dixon, Jacob Blackmon, and DJ Trishy!
No specific topic (not with THAT list of guests!), but a lot of Q&A, and interviews with fabulous creators, and a Crown of Bacon!
(And discussion of the Eagles from the Hobbit, and new book series, and RPG plans and products, and freelancing, and tons of other stuff!)
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Setting/Writing Prompt: Lok

The Geigamorphs can become anything, and turn anything into more of their kind, and mix with anything. No one knows where they came from, but they are destroying the world.
But every once in a rare while, when two Geigamorphs meet, the attack one another. And if one dies at another’s hand, it always turns into a weapon. No one knows why, and what random is entirely random.
That weapon never changes, and it can kill Geigamorphs, though not easily. But it can only be wielded by someone it locks onto… and that’s a one-in-a-few-million chance, apparently also at random.
And when it does? That person gains vast strength, endurance, resilience, and speed. And? Their physical form never changes again for more than a split second. If wounded, they heal. If they eat, it just goes away. If they were groggy when they were locked? They’re groggy forever.
You get a lock weapon near enough someone who it can lock onto, it’ll pull them to it.
So the last lines of defense send “loks,” people set in a single physical state forever, into zones with lots of Geigamorphs to find more lock weapons. then they take those to population zones, to lock them to someone.
And that person’s life changes forever… but their body never changes again.
They’re a Lok.
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The Evil Dragons Do (Microfiction)

“So, do you think all red dragons are evil?”

“What are you naming as ‘red’ dragons? I care not what color a dragon is, nor the color of its breath unless it is directed at me. The blazing dragons of the suns are creatures of rigid law, not evil, though crimson in color. The infernal hellfire dragons of the lower regions are no less ordered and no less flame-hued, but certainly do have the save supernatural infusion of evil as is common to their fiendish neighbors…”

“No, I mean regular red dragons. Chromatic dragons. ‘Normal” red.”

“Ah, the Ascandeth, the fire-blooded tyrants of ash and unforgiving mien. There is no doubt that their numbers are filled with those who crave power and wealth, and do not care what means must be used to gain it. Dragons, you must understand, are only barely mortal. They are descended directly from the blood of gods, and the blood of the Ascandeth is fiery and harsh.

“They are hatched already speaking two languages, filled with the cunning and knowledge nearly that of an adult human, with all the drive to meet their core needs of an infant, yet the power to fly, burn, and make demands directly. Every Ascandeth is born with all the urges to be murderous and uncaring, and the power to enforce such desires immediately.

“Does every Ascaneth then take steps down that path within hours of cracking from a shell and never varies from that increasingly-well-worn route? Surely not. They are creatures of free will, and some must—by accident, or intervention, or through the sheer internal moral fiber to sense that the rights of other creatures have value—have avoided becoming agents of pure evil.”

“But I have never met one.”

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Sigils and Sorcery

Sigils and Sorcery

And entirely random campaign setting idea.

In the Age of Achievements, the Empress of the Bhan created the Sigilbhan, a massive, complex rune that granted her and her agents the power to detect and quarantine evil outsiders and undead, so that no matter how powerful they were, they would be locked away rather than return to the outer planes and reform as new horrors.

Sadly one of the Empress’s son, Drau, believed that as a loyal agent of the empress he deserved rewards and power for working to promote good and overcome evil, and asked to be given the power she used the Sigilbhan to lock away. When she refused, telling him that the reward for doing good was a word with more good in it, and his actions did not prove true virtue if he performed them only to receive worldly rewards, Drau secretly swore to take the power by force.

Drau created his own rune, the Feldrau, which could infect the spirit of those it touched, and used it to turn many of the people of the world into drau-versions of themselves.

It is unclear if the people were once all one, but as the feldrau tainted those it touched, the became the drau-elves, drau-dwarves, drau-gnomes, dra-orcs, and drau-folk humans.

Drau lead an army against the Empress, drawing on the power of the Sigilbhan to grant his drau-forces powerful sorcerous abilities, shadowed versions of the true magic of the sigil.

He believed the Empress could not defeat Drau without shattering the Sigilbhan, which held vast planar evil within it which would be unleashed. The Empress tried to leach more power into the minor sigils of her agents, but when that did not stop Drau, she shattered he Sigilbhan, destroying or altering all Bhan and driving Drau and his most powerful agents mad with the sigilshock. Then, before the dark powers within the Siiglbhan could escape, she healed the Sigilbhan with her own soul energy—ceasing to exist in any form. The Sigilbhan now has no mistress, and it’s form is imperfect, leaking fel sorcerous power into the world.

The Bhan Empire fell. Darkness, both supernatural and just that born of fear, greed, hunger, and jealously, tore the empire apart. Lesser evils that had hidden in the edges of wastelands of the Bhan Empire rose and spread, causing wyverns, and giants, and aberrations to overrun much of the world.  And brigands, tyrants, and thief kings did much the same.

But the Sigilbhan, sigils, and sorcery continued. Nearly two centuries have passed, and scores of small kingdoms, city-states, and warlords have arisen.

The sigilbearers have inherited minor sigils, those given to agents and nobles who rules under the Empress, though such power is inherited, and while sigls have great power of light, such power *can* be used for evil.

The imperial church worships the person of the Empress in the form of the Sigilbhan–they know her sacrifice destroyed her intellect and consciousness, but believe the remaining sigilbhan, which mostly just fuels the sigls and slowly leaks the dark powers used for sorcery, is a deity and if enough belief and good will is focused into it, it shall be reborn into a true deity.

Sorcerers take the fell planar power leaking from the Sigilbhan and use it to create powerful magics. Though the source of their power is vile, the sigilshock destroyed the most powerful feldrau sorcerers, leaving Imperial agents who had studied drau as the most powerful source of sorcerous study. Most sorcerers claim they *must* convert the power of darkness leaking from the sigilbhan into other magics, or it will turn into native demons and haunts… though the imperial church generally disagrees, and sorcerers are sometimes tainted, and become drau.

Where there were once a single people, the bhan, there are now many groups—though most humanoids acknowledge they are ethnicities of a single people, and can generally interbreed. And of course, some are the drau, who appear no different than their non-drau brethren until they ingest so much fel energy their eyes, hair, or both are bleached to a uniform white. Most towns fear the drau, but it is hard to say who is and isn’t until a drau has vast powers.

The Power (And Risks) of Options over Set Abilities in Starfinder

This is something I have thought about for more than a decade, and which I want to write about in greater length someday. But a power I recently wrote up for my Starfaring Gunslinger (for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game) really drove the point home, so I thought I’d share the core idea.

Options of a set power level are more potent in making effective/overpowered PCs (depending where you are on the potency curve) than set abilities of the same power level, as long as the most effective use of those abilities is obvious.

So, what do I mean by that?

Well first, I mean that if you are building the class features of a new class (for example), and you give it +3 to a specific skill (let’s say +3 to Acrobatics), that is less potent than giving it +3 to any class skill. These have exactly the same game mechanical advantage (+3 to a bonus added to a d20 roll), but +3 to Acrobatics can only be used a single way. If a specific character build already has all the bonus to Acrobatics it needs (perhaps because a player is making a character that doesn’t rely on Acrobatics), the +3 is wasted. But the flexible +3 can be put anywhere it’s useful, making it easier to have different character builds make use of it, making it more useful to more characters.

But.

Not all skills are equally useful to all character builds. If, for example, a player thought that Acrobatics and Profession (dancer) were equally useful in a typical game, that player might place the +3 in the profession skill and assume they had made an equally-potent choice. There MAY be cases where that’s true, but not understanding the most effective use of skills makes that flexibility more likely to lead to frustration for that player.

(The skill rules, in general, do a pretty good job of telling you what each skill is used for, making the relative effectiveness of each fairly clear. But maybe it would be worth the extra complexity to either balance them better, or show why they aren’t equally weighted, despite using equal resources to access.)

In the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, this idea influences most class abilities. Rather than get a lot of flat assigned abilities, most classes have at least one variable power set you pick, and many have lists of abilities made available ever few levels. Gear boosts, envoy improvisations, magic hacks, and so on, give a range of options PCs can pick from to make a character that is effective the way they play it.

At the same time, if you don’t know when an ability is most likely to be useful, you may pick something you think will come up a lot, only to find it requires careful set-up or a play style your group does not support.

Which brings me to the ability that set all this off:

Spotter’s Observation (Ex): [1st level][Language-dependent, sense-dependent] As a standard action you can gauge the distance to a specific target you have line of sight to, and give advice to your allies on what factors may affect ranged attacks against that foe. Any ally you can communicate with (either directly or through comm units) halves any penalty from cover or range increments they take to ranged attacks against that target until the beginning of your next turn.
If you have the get ‘em or improved get ‘em envoy improvisations, you can use spotter as part of the same action you use for those abilities rather than as its own standard action.

Hopefully both the name and the way the ability is written makes it clear that this is an ability for someone who wants to play a support role, and who has allies likely to make powerful ranged attacks against foes that are far away, in cover, or both. It gives special options to the envoy, because envoys already work well in this role and have a great deal of synergy with something like this. If your group includes a technomancy who prefers status effect spells and a melee solarian and a melee soldier, this ability is a bad choice in terms of potency. If the group is playing a sniper squad who want to handle most issues from 1,000 feet away at mini8mum, it’s a great one.

Speaking of Great Choices

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Starfinder Species in Really Wild West (Part 2)

We went over why it’s worthwhile to consider where the species from the Starfinder Roleplaying Game have major population centers in the world of Really Wild West (and why we won’t be using them as stand-ins to replace the humans of any real-world culture) in the first post in this series, where we also looked at the RWW take on androids. We continue our look at this idea with the kasatha and lashunta. It’s worth repeating that these touchstones are designed as one set of options, not absolute rules. Just as humans from differing ethnic and cultural backgrounds can be found on every continent, so too can our new sentient, sapient species be found in every culture of the Really Wild West.

RealWildWest-Races-lines-02.png

Kasatha

Since one of the big defining traits of kasatha is that they have 4 arms, there’s an obvious temptation to have kasatha be linked to Hinduism, because of the prevalence of multiarmed deities in Hindu. However, Hinduism is a massive, modern religion with tens of millions of worshipers, in which things like what a deity carries in each arm can be important, and about which I am not an expert.

Looking to tie the multiarmed aspect to something less crucial than gods, Greek mythology has numerous multiarmed humanoids such as the Gegenees, and Hecatonchires. Though these are presented as giants, that just also gives me a place for Shobads. And there’s lots of ancient and closer-to-18901 history involving Greeks that is fascinating and interesting, which can help serve as context for kasatha players.

So if the Greek empires were all mix of human and kasatha, by the modern era of Really Wild West that can be expected to have large populations throughout Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. Greek ships were visiting the Americas by the early 1600s, and a significant Greek community developed in New Orleans during the 1850s. By the 1890 there were tens of thousands of Greeks in North America alone, many of them from the Ottoman Empire.

Lashunta

One of the defining traits of lashunta is their telepathy, which makes placing them in the world a bit tricky, because what westerns think of as telepathy doesn’t really have any notable real-world equivalents, even in theory or fiction, prior to the 1800s, which is too late to form a culture from that is well established by 1891. However, the Japanese idea of ishin-denshin (literally “”what the mind thinks, the heart transmits”) certainly seems similar to telepathy. That idea seems to have developed in China where it has links to traditions of Zen Buddhism.

So, having lashunta have developed in Asia, with strong populations in places where Zen Buddhism is prevalent (China, Japan, Korean, Vietnam) gives cultural texture to how the actual power of telepathy in Really Wild West might have been viewed in varying real-world cultures. It’s important to note that lashunta don’t replace any of those real-world cultures or the religious and philosophical advancements they created. But it does give context for how to view a fictional species in a historic framework. And all those nations have rich histories that include massive exploration, trade, and diplomacy as well as immigration which can place an Asian-origin lashunta anywhere in the world a player wants to be from (even before allowing for lashunta families who may have migrated from those nations centuries ago).

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Starfinder Species in Really Wild West

When running a Really Wild West game, which takes Starfinder Roleplaying Game concepts and sets them in a weird west version of the real world in 1891, one of the questions that can come up is where the nonhuman species come from. Given how much cultures and nations and lone people can interact, overlap, and move around, any individual character can obviously be from anywhere—in real-world history it’s easy to find Japanese expatriates in Manila and Mexico in the early 1600s, so ethnicity, nationality, and geography aren’t always as linked as typical examples of each might suggest.

But a question remains of where the most common cultures and ethnicities of various nonhuman species are found. It’s a bad idea to replace entire real-world ethnic groups with nonhumans, since that erases the possibilities of real-world options and may tell a player that their actual ancestry isn’t important enough to keep, but if we are presenting a world where dozens (or even hundreds) of species are sharing the planet, it makes sense to consider where our fictional species fit reasonable well with real-world culture, and key those as major cultural and population centers for kasatha and lashutna and others.

This is especially important for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game species. It’s easy to place dwarves, elves, gnomes, haflings, half-elves, and half-orcs in the European areas that inspired them and that lots of fantasy and modern games have drawn from to build fictional cultures for them. You can assume they all overlap with humanity 100%, or make the major population centers line up with the countries you think make interesting matches—perhaps dwarves are German and elves are French. Or perhaps dwarves are French, elves are Germanic, and gnomes Russian or Scandinavian, and orcs Spanish. There’s enough fiction and game material with those races to make it easy to build or match cultures to serve as backgrounds for them.

But there’s not nearly as much material to draw on for androids (especially as Really Wild West envisions them), vesk, or ysoki, and even less for kasatha and lashunta. Since the Really Wild West is set in an alternate version of the real world, if I want to place these new species somewhere I need to either think of places where I can add them to the existing populations, or add new places. I could slap a few new small continents—Atlantis. Lemuria, and Mu come to mind—in the middle of oceans to give me new space for new cultures if I wanted to, but that’d take a lot more effort than I am looking to do just to create some cultural touchstones.

It seems perfectly reasonable in a campaign setting that adds multiple new sapient, sentient species to a fantasy version of the real world to have those species be tied primarily to specific regions or cultures, so that is the approach I took here. That leaves the question of where to place each of these species primary population centers, and for that I looked at each in turn to determine what core feature or concept helps define each and how those can be integrated into existing real-world regions.

I used real-world art references for the art order representing clothing and styles for these new species. That’s not to suggest that all of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game species come from only these regions or look like the characters below, but it’s a baseline to give GM and players something to draw from.

Over the next few posts I’ll give some details where each of these new species is being centered in the world of Really Wild West, and why, beginning with the androids.

RealWildWest-Races-color-01

Android

Androids in the Really Wild West (far left) are visually and culturally notably different from androids in standard Starfinder Roelplaying Game campaigns. Given the 1890s aesthetic of the RWW, androids are presented as old-school robots, closer to Metropolis than Blade Runner. They could never pass for human. They function with the same rules, but the definition of android in this campaign is closer to “humanlike in form” than “machine that passed for human.”

Complex machines claiming to be automatons and clockworks did exist in the era, perhaps the most famous of which is the chess-playing automaton created in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen of the Hapsburg Empire, who usefully for our purposes also created a speaking machine. While von Kempelen’s chess-playing machine was not a true automaton (it hid a chess player in its integral cabinet), that looks a fine origin for our manlike machines. If the first automatons were created in 1770 in the Hapsburg empire, they can easily have spread to be much farther and wider by 1891. The Austro-Hungarian Empire that formed out of the Austrian Empire that followed the Hapsburg Empire is a European melting pot, and numerous immigrants from that region moved to  New York City, Pittsburgh, and Chicago early in the 1800s, and then were part of the century.

We can assume that older androids are from the Austria and Hungary regions, and newer ones likely constructed in the big cities of New York City, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. At some point some form of Turing Test has developed, and androids have won recognition as “people” in the United States, Mexico, and most industrialized nations of the world. But they lack strong family roots, and are often looking for opportunities to make a life for themselves.

We’ll address the kasatha, lashunta, shirren, vesk, and ysoki soon!

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More Gunslinger Abilities (for Starfinder)

To add on to yesterday’s gunslinger abilities, here are some drawn from a gunslinger archetype (one of which requires you take the Gunslinger Feat to access… at least for now). These work for normal Starfinder Roleplaying Game campaigns, or the Really Wild West setting hack.

While I’ll release full rules for these as an actual product, for now note that whether you use the archetype or feat to access these, you can only select abilities with two different possessive title forms. In other words if you take a “Gunslinger’s X” and “Ace Shooter’s X” abilities, you can’t also take an ability titled “Blatherskite’s X” (as there will be many more possessively titled abilities in the final product).

New Gunslinger Abilities:

Ace Shooter’s Resolve (Ex): [3rd level] As long as you have at least 1 Resolve Point, you can make a ranged attack as a standard action and ignore the effects of concealment (though not total concealment) and cover (other than total cover) against that shot.

Ace Shooter’s Vigilance (Ex): [7th Level] As long as you have at least 1 Resolve Point, your ranged attacks to not provoke attacks of opportunity.

Ace Shooter’s Pinning Shot (Ex): [15th level] When firing a small arm, longarm, or heavy weapon that uses darts or arrows (such as a crossbolter) you can make 1 attack as a full action to give the weapon the entangling special weapon property.

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