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In many ways, 2018 was a year of terrible things for me.
I began the year in full burnout.
I suffered a still undiagnosed medical issue causing hormone imbalances that lead to sudden and sometimes debilitating fatigue.
I tackled one of the toughest projects ever, and saw the conditions it was done under damage the morale and happiness of my collaborators.
I went to more conventions then any previous year… having agreed to them before my fatigue issues developed.
I stepped back from several industry positions I took great pride in.
I suffered direct, personal, untrue defaming attacks in several online venues.
Despite ALL that, I can’t call this a bad year. TOUGH yes, heck yes, but not BAD. I did a lot of things I am very proud of, including wrapping some projects that have been in the works literally for years. I survived conditions being stacked against me. I learned just how much support and love the community and my various employers and coworkers are willing to surround me with.
I made mistakes. There are things I still haven’t dealt with. There are things I haven’t even *started* to deal with.
But I leave the year full of hope and optimism, and it’s hard not to think of that as a sign of a good year.
Seriously, this is nothing more than a character history for a Pathfinder game I’m playing tonight. I wrote it yesterday, and decided to post it. There’s nothing particularly special here, it’s just a quick look at what I consider a typical character history for a d20 game PC.
Velor was born to the warrior-hero Varri in a yurt belonging to the Wildtusk following of the realm of the Mammoth Lords during the depth of winter. She passed him to a shaman within minutes of birth, saying the infant would carry her name but in no other way be a child of hers. She left the following within a day, and though her name and deeds echoed back to Velor many times, he never again laid eyes on her.
Her words were repeated to him many times, “In no other way a child of mine.” Velor knew Varri had great deeds to perform, and did not begrudge her wishing to do it without the responsibility of raising a child. At the same time, the two married women shamans who did the work of raising him took the duty of his upbringing seriously, though they owed him no debt of blood or kinship. Velor came to believe that responsibility could not be forced upon you, but once you took on some duty it could not be put down until fulfilled or another is found to replace it. Raising a child was a sacred duty, but the childless are more free to take risks and struggle to end the evils of the world without needing to worry about their need to care for a younger being.
Velor sought to follow in his birth-mother’s footsteps, to be strong and able to defeat evil. But his two mothers also ensured he was well-educated, by Mammoth Lord standards, and taught him the basics of the spiritual world and the gods. In particular, he was struck by tales of ancient Thassilon, an empire that had long since ended but the evils of which insisted on lingering to the modern day. Obsessed with the idea that the rightful time of Thassilon and all its works had passed, Velor learned the ancient language and considered becoming a shaman so he could use spirts to seek out and remove the evils of Thassilon. Following in his adoptive mothers’ footsteps, he began spending nights deep in the dark snow, alone, meditating and seeking to make contact with a spirit of his own, a creature to guide and serve him. Weeks passed. Then months. Then years.
Then something answered.
As Velor knelt in darkness, so far from the Wildtusk camp that its fires were little more than points of light, a great black rose grew from the ice before him. It spoke to him, a quiet whisper in the wind he could barely hear, but which also filled his mind with every word. But this was not a spirit, and what it offered was not to serve Velor but to burden him with responsibility.
Some things, it said, must end. And if they continue on past their time, they must be destroyed. Velor could become an agent of those endings, to shoulder the holy duty of annihilating those things that should no longer exist. It would cost him everything. He would have no child to carry on his name, would have no place within his following. He would be forever struggling, with no home to call his own and no rest or reward in this life for constant toil. He would suffer, and fail, and watch friends fall, and someday die, in abject failure, with blood on his lips.
And in the next life, he would be reforged as an even greater tool of rightful ends. He would continue to struggle, and destroy, and act as an agent of the sunset of evil, eternally. His path would not be that of his birth-mother, or his life-mothers, but the path of a weapon of the gods. A bringer of destruction, for those evils that could only be ended through violence. There would be no paradise for Velor. Only an eternal existence of bloody service, for the greater good. But Velor felt the righteousness of the Black Rose’s cause, and knew it sought only to destroy those things that were blights on the world, wicked forces that, like boils, could only be cured with a sharp blade.
Velor did not hesitate. He swore his service to the Black Rose, to become the executioner of those things that must be stopped. He took up arms, naming his javelins the Black Thorns, and the specially-forged curved two-handed blade Woundgiver. He stayed with his following long enough to ensure he was capable, that he could survive on his own and be useful to the Black Rose, rather than immediately placing himself in situations where others would have to risk themselves to save him.
But before he was sure he was ready, word came from a fur trader, that Thassilon’s name was spoken more and more to the South and West, in the lands of Varisia.
Within a week Velor left his home, to fulfil the responsibility he had undertaken.
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OGL Declaration: This post is not released under the OGL. No part of it is open content.
If you want to find me, here are your best bets (and what metaphysical hat I’ll be wearing at each event). If you want to set up a time to meet or hang… better do it fast! My schedule it already pretty full!
I arrive just before dinnertime. I have a SMOG (secret master’s of gaming) event around 8pm into the evening. If you are a friend or a SMOG and you’re interested in knowing more, ping me. 😊
Seminar: Starfinder 101
Room: ICC 212
A seminar with the amazingly talented Amanda Kunz, Joe Pasini, and Rob McCreary! We’ll have some things to say you haven’t heard before!
Plus, this will be streamed!
Seminar: Starfinder RPG Rules Q&A
Room: ICC 212
You have question about Starfinder? We have answers! Myself, and the spectacularly smart Jason Keeley and Joe Pasini.
Plus, this will be streamed!
I’ll be at a SMOG invitational event.
I’ve got lunches and meetings until 2:30-3.
Green Ronin/Paizo Hat!
8pm to ??
Ceremony: The ENnnies!
Room: Union Station
Industry folks gather in a ceremony to see who wins what. Plus, this will be streamed!
Seminar: Starfinder RPG Design Workshop
Room: ICC 212
Myself, and some brilliant games folk—Amanda Kunz, Joe Pasinsi, and Rob McCreary, will talk Starfinder RPG design with the audience. Ticketed. NDAs. Not streamed. No one in after start time.
Event: GAMERS LIVE: Rise of the Worldbuilders
Room: ICC 500/Ballroom
I have no idea what I am doing here. Come watch the hilarity that brings!
Seminar: Digital Tools – Game System Diversity
Room: Lucas Oil : Mtg Rm 2
Curious about the future of leading tech tools such as Hero Lab, Fantasy Grounds, & D20 Pro? Join me and those company’s founders to learn about the many systems they support & their future plans.
7:30-ish to the wee hours
I’ll be at a Secret Masters of Gaming event. If you are a friend, or a SMOG, and you’d like to know more, ping me. 😊
Seminar: Designing Planets for Starfinder
Room: ICC 212
Myself and the stellar creative talents Lacy Pellazar and Chris Sims! We did this one at paizoCon, and it was a big hit!
Plus, it’s going to be streamed!
I’ll be sequestered until 10 or 11. 😊
My flight isn’t until 6, but I already have a 1pm lunch, and I need to be at the airport by 3 or so.
This isn’t a fun post. This is a mental health post, for me, and I don’t blame anyone for skipping it. The neat game rules and industry observations are still all available, this just isn’t one of those. And it’s going to meander.
Sometimes, my desire to write and publish posts for therapeutic reasons is put at odds with my internal censorship rules.
Some of those rules are based on ethical concerns–when I know and am bothered by something I’m not in an ethical position to reveal, whether than be the result of an NDA, or something I learned in confidence, or that I have reason to believe revealing would result in the harm of someone who doesn’t have harm coming to them over it.
Others are the chain of mental iron forged by my introversion, or family ties, or appropriateness, or common decency.
Sometimes I am just too mentally and physical exhausted to face the inevitable backlash of revealing my raw feelings on some contentious topic.
Sometimes I am ashamed. Those hurt the most, I think.
Sometimes I don’ feel like my opinion is on a firm enough footing of being well-informed and rational a topic. this is especially true when it touches on an area where I have significant advantages over other people who might be impacted by either the issue, or my thoughts on it.
Sometimes I don’t want to worry people, because it sounds worse than it is.
Of course it is the perversity of life that these topics, ones I don’t think I should share due to good and reasoned personal guidelines, are the ones which are most likely to infest my mind. Venomous thoughts I am ill-equipped to tackle on my own, and that seem similar to things I have defused with the coping mechanism of writing about them.
The more it’s something I have good reason not to talk about, the more it can be a relief to talk about it.
Of course therapy can help with that. And sometimes therapy can bring me to a new place where I can talk about an issue, either because I am better informed or because it has less ability to hurt me and others. This is what lead to my being able to discuss the fact I was sexually abused by someone I thought was my friend as a child.
Or to discuss the memory of kids in the Boy Scouts digging a pit as Scout-A-Rama, and having a young woman lure me out to it, and as a group encircling me and shoving me over and over until I fell into it. How they jumped on my back, and held me in place, and began to shovel dirt down around me. How, during this time, several of them laughed that I was stupid enough to think anyone would actually want to spend time with me.
I have nightmares about that still, sometimes. It feels like the worst bullying I ever received. It’s given me trust issues my whole life. I was almost never bullied in school, as a result of some unusual circumstances, but scouts was different. My troop was never involved—I think the troop fathers were too good at monitoring the group as a whole, and being strong role models. But when we gathered with other troops, and I was separated from the people I knew, it was different. It’s the main reason I gave up on scouts.
But sometimes it’s not something I can’t share because it hurts too much. It just wouldn’t be fair or appropriate to talk about it, and I want the relief I get from using writing as a coping mechanism.
So sometimes, I write about something else. And that can help, too.
At the Starfinder Delve today, I had a group both have a TPK… and beat the scenario.
Their mission was to close and seal both doors, to prevent Swarm warriors from overrunning a space station before it could be evacuated.
They couldn’t manage to get the far door before the door that was their way out was being rushed.
So they sealed it from the inside, and fought to the death to close the second door.
Obozaya died right after this, detonating a grenade at point zero so Iseph would live long enough to seal the last door.
From the inside.
As I have considered the Really Wild West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, I’ve begun to consider what kind of “Western” setting you end up with if you mix six guns and sorcery and steamtech and fantasy cosmology all into one stewpot. It’s easy to implement new rules the setting needs, such as more advanced mounted combat and shotguns, but what do the existing rules say about the universe this campaign takes place in? For example, if all the magic from the game is allowed in, including the summoning spells from Starfinder Alien Archive, that means this is a Weird West setting where at least some people can summon devils.
I’ve tried to let that sink in a bit. Somehow spellcasting elven sheriffs, steampunk cyborg half-orc bandits, and mechanics with automatons built out of leftover Martian technology suddenly feel like the minor changes to the Old West setting. Theosophy allows us to skin the supernatural in a specific flavor in this game, and of course this is an era of unmitigated flummery on stages and in sideshows and snake-oil stands, so some people will assume conjuring a dancing imp out of thin air is done with smoke and mirrors.
But some people will know. The Devil is real. Hell is real. And there lies power.
How does THAT get translated into a Western? Here’s the end result of my first foray into these ideas.
No one is sure who is responsible for Badlands City. The reasons why it might have been created are clear enough—the route between Sioux Falls and Rapid City is both heavily travelled and traditionally dangerous. Gold in the Black Hills still draws prospectors, investors, and brigands thought the main gold rush is long since over. Trains cover short distances, but are often attacked. Bandits have hideouts deep in the badlands that are hard to find, and almost as hard to clear out once located. The reservations given to the Lakota have been illegally reclaimed by force by the US government multiple times, and now answer a call to Ghost Dance and refuse to be pushed any further, even as rich wheat crops bring new settlers from the East. Though South Dakota is recently a state, so far this has done little to quell a land that has seen Indian wars, Martian tripods, and robber barons in armored trains.
It’s obvious that someone wanted a respite of civilization, following the laws of the United States, smack between the two major cities of Sioux Falls and Rapid City.
And they were willing to sell their soul to get it.
Badlands City sits in the South Dakota badlands, roughly 2/3 of the way from Sioux Falls to Rapid City. It is the major stop on the Good Intentions double-track rail-line between the two, which is open to any train willing to follow the rules. It has banks, hotels, shops, brothels, stables, a courthouse, and every other convenience a citizen of the nation might desire. And it is literally the work of the Devil.
Someone, or many someones, sold their souls to Hell to make Badlands City happen just a few years ago, and it (and it’s train service) arrived almost overnight. At first all its stores and venues were manned by lesser devils in service to the Great One, but as those devils found humans willing to sign a contract and follow strict rules on how each business was to be run, the devils left. Very few remain now, though the city’s mayor, old Harry Squarefoot, is certainly one of them. He looks human enough of course, except for the slight red tinge to his skin, and the fire in his eyes. Neither of those things show up well in lithographs, so most folks Back East think the “City of Hell” and “Devil’s Own as Mayor” stories are colorful advertising and analogies.
The few major theosophists and priests who have studied the place loudly confirm this is not the case. It’s a city build by Hell and run by a devil. Many ban their followers from ever going there.
However, Badlands City is safe, as long as you follow the law. Famously safe. Old Harry is happy to explain why. Badlands City is the Devil’s end of a bargain, and that bargain was specific.
1.The city will strictly enforce the laws of the United States, and no others, (Of course when it arrived the city was in Dakota Territory rather than the state of South Dakota that didn’t exist yet, so Badlands City recognizes the state, but doesn’t enforce its local laws. Only federal statutes).
2. It will train and support a band of law enforcers who will seek to bring criminals to justice and avenge victims of crimes.
3. Badlands City will be protected by the infernal from famine, drought, war, plague, and any other such mass misery as might weaken or destroy a city or its people.
4. No devil in Badlands City may ever speak an untruth. (Of course, this does not require them to answer questions they choose not to, or deceive in other ways.)
5. If another city as successful is ever built within 100 miles of Badlands City, the devils and their influence will leave the place forever, never to return.
While the territorial government was wary of Badlands City at first, its existence is simply too convenient for them to refuse to work with its city council. Badlands City gathers and pays its taxes, but needs no state funds in return. It provides a courthouse, but allows official federal judges and bailiffs to operate it. It creates an anchor point of absolute security, and anyone who has been badly treated there has always been proven to be a lawbreaker. Badlands City makes transport between the two biggest cities in South Dakota faster and safer, and acts as a jumping off point for all sorts of settlers and entrepreneurs. Even the massive Martian tripods were unable to threaten the city, and old Harry has hinted the disease that destroyed them all may have come from Badlands City.
The state government now simply shrugs and calls is a massively successful landstead, and the federal government takes the state government’s lead.
And then, there are the Dread Templars.
Badlands City is required to train and support a band of law enforcers who will seek to bring criminals to justice and avenge victims of crimes. To fulfill this obligation the city has created the Dread Templars, who carry goats-head badges of tarnished silver and, if technically lacking legal standing outside of the city limits, are acknowledged along with the U.S. Martials, Canadian Mounties, Texas Rangers, Mexican Science Agents, Pinkertons and Justiciers as among the great peacekeepers and detectives of North America. Badlands City has a quota, though it never reveals what its minimum numbers are, of how many Dread Templars it must produce every 5 years, and how many it must keep active.
But it’s not required to do it for free.
So long as the city hits its secret minimum, it can pick and train Dread Templar candidates however it chooses. There are currently two known methods. First, anyone who wishes to can join the Acadamance, within the city, where devils train cadets about how evil thinks, and how evil can be foiled. Cadets may be of any race, creed, or gender, as long as they follow the rules and dedicate their lives to the twin goals of bringing criminals to justice and avenging victims of crimes, and swear to never act to threaten Badlands City itself. For each class it is a two year process and at the end of that time, as all candidates note they are aware before joining, the most average candidate (the one furthest from being the best, or the worst) will die in a gruesome, painful accident and their soul will go to Hell.
This is, as old Harry has noted, perfectly legal. No one at Acadamance has anything to do with the accident, which they can’t predict or stop and have no idea how it’ll happen or who is behind it, and no laws govern ownership of souls.
The alternate method is that the Devil will make anyone willing to abide by the code of the Dread Templars one of their number immediately, in return for a human soul. It need not be the soul of the Dread Templar. Stories claim that sometimes, when a victim of foul play is about to succumb to their last breath, they promise the Devil their soul in return for a Dread Templar to avenge them. The Devil considers this a good deal, and a new Dread Templar is born.
Thus one of the safest places in the Really Wild West sits in the shadow of Hell, and among the most effective lawbringers are its implacable agents who carry punishment and vengeance with them.
In the next couple of days, we’ll take a look at some tie-in rules that bring Badlands Citizens and Dread Templars to a Starfinder Really Wild West campaign.
Worldbuilding can often get bogged down in big-picture questions and large-scale issues. Yes, there’s use to knowing how rivers flow from mountains to sea level, what kinds of natural barriers are likely to become borders, and how socio-economic statuses can form political lines. But those questions still just outline nations and factions. At the scale that most players are interacting with your world, it doesn’t really matter in play if the border between Heroton and Badlandia is a river, a mountain range, or a big blue dotted line that runs through a flat plain. What DOES matter to players is how those places feel and act differently while you are within them.
And for that, it’s often useful to throw in just a few little details.
If the common drink for a culturally-interlinked area is a tea just known as Steeps, maybe the people in Heroton like it strong and bitter, while the peasants of Badlandia make it weak and sweetened with honeysuckle. Elves prefer red Steeps, while human throw away the red stems as tasteless. The dwarves of Ironbeard make Steeps with weak beer to ensure no diseases remain in the local water, while the gnomes of Rillridge ferment it until foam forms on the surface which is then skimmed off.
None of that *matters*, but those kinds of tiny details, when used in sparing moderation, can help bring regions and cultures alive. Players who don’t care can wave it off, but those who enjoy engaging in fictional cultures have the option of paying attention, and offering the Big Bad of Badlandia honeysuckle-sweetened Steeps at the peace conference. And maybe he smiles, and notes he actually always preferred it strong and bitter, like his parents made it… suddenly given a new context into his background, based on how he takes his tea.
Nearly anything can be made into this kind of cultural detail and, as long as you don’t load ever city with 27 things you expect players to keep track of. Adding just one or two tiny differences can help immerse players, and make regions distinctive.
Nearly anything can be made into this kind of detail, but it helps if it’s something publicly noticeable (how the Halfling war bakers of Gnabysko bless their battle muffins in secret ceremonies isn’t going to impact player perception much, unless someone is playing a Halfling war baker), minor (so players don’t feel they must remember the detail or get into cultural trouble, which can feel like homework), and relatable (details that tie into activities players understand are more easily understood and remembered—the fact there are 17 “proper” foot stances for fighting with an orroc gutting axe is interesting… but for players with no melee combat training experience it doesn’t connect to anything they’ve done).
You can also build off a detail, creating slang and cultural notes that play off the detail. This can help the detail be memorable, but it also invites the players to dream up such phrases and ideas as well.
For example, let’s say you have decided that in the Free City of Campaign, street performers put out a boot for people to toss coins into, rather than a hat or other collection device. That’s easy to work into a campaign as an observed behavior, unlikely to make any player feel they have to memorize it, and replaces a common occurrence in a way players are likely to understand.
Once you’ve done that, it’s easy to see how some local slang might develop around the tradition. “Giving you the boot” could mean firing someone, so they now have to earn money on the street, while “Earning your boot” might indicate you are good enough at some performance to make a living as a busker. Having a “hole in your boot” could indicate someone is stealing from you, and “looking in the toe” could mean you’re scrounging for every last coin (like checking the cushions of your sofa).
If players show interest in a detail, and explore it, you can build on it. Maybe the boot tradition dates back to when soldier came back from a war, and without enough work used their hard military boots to gather coins as beggars, and the tradition grew from there. Maybe there was a tax on all labor performed ‘without boots” that was designed to exclude hard workers, but street performers used this to get around it. You don’t HAVE to do that kind of background work, but if players dig around it shows they have an interest in that element of your world.
Tiny details like this should be sparing, to ensure a world remains familiar enough for players to be comfortable with it. These are seasoning for the main course of your world, rather than the entrée itself. But used properly, that kind of seasoning can elevate the flavor of your creations, and make them much more memorable.
Putting My Boot Out
I have a Patreon. Feel free to throw a few coins in as I sing and dance. 🙂
Kong: Skull Island was, for me, a delight. It knows it’s a giant monster movie with roots in grindhouse and pulp, and it isn’t embarrassed about that at all. But it also sees the benefit in things like characterization, story, pacing, and development.
I clapped with childhood glee, laughed, cried, and gasped. I am exactly the target audience for this.
In my binary digit-based review system, it gets a thumbs up.