My God, it’s full of stories

More good news. The contract has now been signed for The Sugar House and Other Stories, a collection of my short stories about Sasha Witchblood. Everyone calls Baba Yaga “grandmother,” but for Sasha, that’s actually the case. She travels through European forests that never were, raising hell in one dark fairy tale and then another.1 The stories are heavily inspired by German and Russian folklore, with more than a little Robert E. Howard and Roy Thomas in the mix.

I’ll hype the collection a bit more in the future. Today, I just wanted to share the news that it’s been contracted and that the story is with the editor. The publisher will be Flames Rising Press.

Flames Rising also recently published Slices of Fate, a collection of fiction by my good friend Eddy Webb. I haven’t read the entire collection yet, but the pieces I have read are gems. Keep an eye out for more of Eddy’s work in the Far West anthology, coming next year from Adamant.

  1. Is there really any point in saying “dark” fairy tale? Does anyone write any other kind these days?

Turn and face the strain

Since I was let go from CCP, my efforts have been focused on getting another job. Being unemployed takes up a surprising amount of one’s time. Fortunately, I’ve found a place at another MMO studio. Hopefully I’ll be able to say which one in the next week or so.

I haven’t followed through with the announced Cavaliers of Mars updates, but I think I’ve got a pretty good reason.

Cavaliers of Mars is being considered by a publisher. That’s another name I can’t say right now, but I will say that working with this particular publisher lets me work with some valued friends. We’re discussing plans for the book and potential accompanying line right now. When there’s a firm commitment, I’ll post here.

In the meantime, please enjoy an extremely un-Christmas-y installment of “The Apprentice’s Tale.”

Warfare on Mars

This continues “The Apprentice’s Tale,” a serial exploration of the world of Cavaliers of Mars.

Warfare

My master was not alone in living by the sword. Indeed, he was slower to draw it in anger than many of those he associated with. In this world, everything of value must be protected with force, whether by fending off desert raiders and canal pirates, or marching across the desert to defend an oasis town. While we are not by nature murderous, we are often driven to violence to protect what is ours and take what we need from others.

Most warfare is conducted at little greater than arms’ length. Knives and spearpoints are made from bone. When I was fifteen, I offended the honor of a young gentleman. Or, rather, I refused both his advances and his demands for my food. Ringed by his friends, we fought a traditional duel. I slew him. After all, I was hungrier. But afterwards, I retched for hours.

We left town under something of a cloud, but when we next reached civilization, my master gave me my first steel dagger. Metal weapons are valuable indeed, for quality steel comes only from Surtur or the forges of far Deimos.

Our most common firearm is the flintlaser, which is slow to reload but deadly and reliable. My master insisted that I carry at least one flintlaser ready to fire at all times, a practice I have not abandoned.

Many sorts of beast are employed as cavalry mounts. Flying terros and their landbound cousins, the ostoros, are difficult to tame but highly prized. My master was a peculiar breed of cutthroat, a cavalier who could ride all manner of beast. Cavaliers keep their methods close to their chests, but more than one has found employment training the army of a city-state or hill-tribe in the mastery of a particular mount. I learned riding from my master as I grew to womanhood and we spent more and more time on the road. Someday, I think, I shall teach another, provided the world lives that long.

Illium and Zodiac both possess flying ships, based upon a secret anti-gravity element. When I was fifteen, my master and I were caught in a bombardment by Illium’s forces. We spent the entire night lying flat on the floor, hoping that no bombs would fall upon the hovel we had commandeered. I didn’t sleep a wink, between the explosions outside and the cooling body of the homeowner lying next to me.

The capability to unleash such horrors make most cities afraid to challenge Illium or Zodiac on the field of battle. Fortunately for the rest of us, the long enmity between the two states prevents either from reaching too far.

Wars between the city states are sudden and short. At nineteen, I fought alongside my master in one of Vance’s mercenary companies. In that year as a soldier, I probably learned as much of the world as I did in the entire six previous. When the war ended, we were once again unemployed, and took to guarding caravans for a while. Truthfully, we rarely had to draw steel. Most of the bandits were people we had fought beside in the war.

Still, from time to time, we were forced to kill former comrades. He never told me aloud, but I believe that is why we soon left the caravans to seek our fortunes in the lost places.

Medicine

The other reason we left guard duty was that I took a nasty cut to my sword arm. My master always told me that he needed me to watch his back. By the time I was 21 this was actually true, and I needed a good arm to do it.

Our physicians are well educated in anatomy, and skilled at the ugly art of surgery. Like most drugs, their anesthetics are dangerously strong, and difficult to dose safely. However, they are well-known and widely available, provided the physician’s price can be met.

My cut was treated with a peculiar gum derived from trees in the canyon-forest of Wyeth. Wyeth gum is antiseptic, and firms quickly when applied to a wound. It acts as a coagulant, stopping bleeding, yet is porous enough to allow drainage. Wounds treated this way heal quickly and leave only light scars. My arm recovered swiftly, though it still aches from time to time.

If a wounded person is treated quickly enough, they can often return to at least light physical labor within hours. I have heard soldiers boast that with a vial of Wyeth gum and a pitcher of liquor, they can fight until the end of days.

Next: Our story concludes in the Lost Places!

The Power of Anything

Lucifer

Lucifer

This was originally an e-mail to one of my regular brainstorming partners, but I thought I’d kick it to the group.

As part of my angel kick, I re-read Vertigo’s LuciferLucifer is the adventures of the former devil as he tries to escape the predestination he believes has been inflicted on him by his father. It’s a neat combination of grand mythology, bastardly trickery, and street level stories about ordinary people getting mixed up in the supernatural.
Reading got me to thinking about one of the problems in roleplaying games that I’ve never been able to solve: how to handle characters whose powers are only loosely defined, like a lot of the characters in Lucifer and Sandman. In Sandman, Dream himself is well-modeled by Nobilis. He has the power to shape, create, and destroy dreams, and he has absolute control over reality within his own realm. Other characters are a little harder.
In his own series, Lucifer demonstrates the following abilities:
  • The ability to bind and bring back anything he kills.
  • The ability to conjure or control fire in any context.
  • The ability to kill mortals without physical action, including at a distance or in vast numbers.
  • The ability to grant souls to the soulless.
  • The ability to use sympathetic magic for a variety of minor effects.
  • The ability to travel anywhere, inside or outside of Creation.
  • The ability to shape the raw energy of Creation into a multiverse.
  • The ability to permanently remove someone’s sexual potency.
And others. The general problem with modeling him in a system is that these abilities seem to occur to Lucifer’s “player” on the spur of the moment. If one were running a game of grand mythology, it would work against the spirit of the thing to have made an absolute list in advance. It’s one of the problems with most games about gods and angels… the powers don’t allow enough on-the-spot effects.
Really, it seems like a game of higher powers should be defined in terms of two things:
  • The general character of the power. For example, Lucifer is the Lightbringer and the Morningstar. As the firstborn son of God, he possesses lesser versions of many of God’s abilities. (God’s abilities being “everything.”)
  • The amount of effort involved in the act. It seems to be possible to exhaust gods and such. But what’s the scale?
So it seems like a game about higher powers needs some system for characterizing those powers without specifying individual abilities. The mechanics need to keep characters on theme more than provide a strict palette of options. And then some kind of a resource system that tells you how much you can do in the way of miracles and how much a given miracle costs.
Nobilis 3e, despite not being quite the right system for the task, seems to point the way.
In Nobilis, the area of reality a character has influence over has a list of Properties. For example, fire:
  • Fire destroys.
  • Fire rages.
  • Fire spreads.
  • Time is the fire in which we burn.
So the Power of Fire can destroy, has influence over rage, and so on. A list of properties for Lucifer as a character might include:
  • Lucifer is proud.
  • Lucifer seeks freedom.
  • Lucifer was God’s lamplighter.
  • Lucifer was the Devil.
So from freedom, one might get the powers of flight and cosmic travel. From being God’s lamplighter, fire and shaping. From the Devil, the ability to levy small curses.
That leaves the question of how you do things. I like the idea that you have a large pool of dice per session, but there are two problems:
  • How do you model the tendency of fictional characters to pull off their biggest feats towards the end?
  • What are the points of reference on the scale?
Perhaps:
  • 0: Make something happen that could have happened anyway. You don’t have to roll for it.
  • 1: Perform a miracle that only affects an individual person or something small.
  • 2: Perform a miracle that affects many people or a large area.
  • 3: Perform a miracle that changes the nature of reality outside the parameters of cause and effect.
  • 4: Perform a miracle that affects an entire world.
Additional difficulty would apply if the effect you’re trying to cause doesn’t relate to one of your Properties.
And then there would also have to be physical combat, because what are angels if you can’t wrestle with them?
What do you think?

Changes

And he was alright. The band was all together.

A week ago, I was laid off by CCP, along with about 120 other employees. I’m very sorry to leave — the White Wolf crew have been my friends and family for four years now. But it seems it’s finally time for us to go our separate ways.

As far as White Wolf itself is concerned, Rich Thomas and Eddy Webb remain with the company. I’m expecting to continue developing Vampire: The Requiem as a freelancer. The World of Darkness will go on.

As for my own future, I’m not sure what comes next. I’m already interviewing with other video game companies. I’m also lining up some freelance RPG work outside of White Wolf. And I’m working on a deal to publish some of my short fiction.

However, if any of you have any leads, whether for salaried or freelance game design work, I’d be interested in hearing about them. My e-mail address is russell at saberpunk dot net.

“The Apprentice’s Tale” from Cavaliers of Mars resumes next week, with a piece on Martian warfare. And a little bit after that, I’ll be showing the next piece of art from the book with an article on the Lost Places.

Cavaliers of Mars: The Peoples of Mars

Mars

A world of strange peoples and stranger vistas

Mars is home to many peoples. The most numerous are the Red Martians, of which I am one. We are the common people of the Red Cities, and I suppose I must admit that our rulers are of the same descent.

We share our history with the Greens, though you’d hardly know it to see them. They are giants, of whom my master fought not a few. The Greens stand over a dozen feet, with four arms. I would not have believed that every one of those hands could hold a sword, but I have seen it with my own eyes –and been lucky to survive. Their eyes are large, their hair black and spare, and their mouths sport two small tusks.

Like us, they are the descendants of desert nomads who survived the drying of the seas and the fall of the cities of the First Martians. Unlike us, they choose to reclaim these cities. Of course, there are not many of them anymore – the First Cities are dangerous places, as is the open desert – yet they live in small settlements among rebuilt ruins. I have heard them called a savage race, but my master often said that we are no less savage. For, if we were not, how could we survive in a world which also contains them?

We Reds and Greens are not alone, of course. The Zaius, sought after as physicians and wise men, resemble the apes even more than we. The women of Wyeth are as much plant as animal, and much-feared as warriors. The Skarrans have survived where most other lizards have died, evolving to generate heat within their own bodies. And there are others, smaller, stranger peoples who might be found in the bazaars of Vance or their own lost cities.

Whence came so many peoples and the fragments of culture we share is unknown to me. I’ve heard it said that we were created by the First Martians, each with some purpose in a grand design. Some astrologers claim that we were seeded from distant stars, that the First Martians themselves were survivors of some earlier, more beautiful world. My master, though he could wax philosophical given enough drink, dismissed these questions as the domain of scholars hunched over books and bones. I myself think that when our world truly lived, it was simply abundant in all things, thinking creatures included.

During my apprenticeship and in the years beyond, I have never met a man quite like my master… yet I have met many who share the same wanderlust, the same greed, and the same passion for reckless adventure. I have met these among all the people I have encountered on our Red World. For some, there is no place in life but that carved with the point of a sword.

Next: Warfare!

You can read previous installments of “The Apprentice’s Tale” here.

Cavaliers of Mars: The Red Cities

The City of Vance, by Chris Huth

The City of Vance, illustrated by Chris Huth

What to say of the cities? After he bought me, my master brought me to Vance, where we lived modestly in a room above his favorite tavern. Despite his occasional protestations, I can think of no better place to have grown up. In Vance, the canals divide into a spiderweb of streams which serve as the city’s streets. At night, a thousand colored lanterns light the channels. The city refuses to sleep. In those late hours, a handful of chits can buy almost anything, though one must watch one’s purse closely. My master would often say that Vance is a city of thieves, yet I could say the same of any other city we visited. Perhaps it was the company we kept.

The Red Cities number some two dozen. Every one is located near some source of water. Thus, most are located along the canals, as Vance is. Yet there are a few outliers. Star-ruled Zodiac is an oasis within a great bowl of rock, which somehow traps the water from the pole with no need of canals. There, it even rains. In Ziggur, a place I shall shun and curse all my days, the people are rationed water that condenses within the atmosphere processor.

In any city, the majority of construction is stone and mud brick. Sometimes, this construction can be quite shoddy… my master told the story of being thrown through a third story wall in Chiaro.

Daily life is a struggle for all. No one is well-heeled enough to be certain where their next skin of water will come from. Every hand toils to earn food and water, whether attached to the arm of a laborer, a scribe or a sellsword. Still, better the cities than the sort of town I grew up in.

Traveling between cities can be difficult. Hire a boat down the canals, and you risk pirates. Desert thieves say the water pirates are soft; the two missing fingers on my master’s left hand put the lie to that. Travel overland, and you risk the desert thieves, not to mention the desert itself.

Yet for all that, the journeys are worth it. Few of the city-states are truly self-sufficient, and anyone who can trade or steal commodities in one to sell in another stands to earn more than their share of water.

Ah, but how to buy that water, or the knife you need to earn it? Each city manufactures its own money, backed at some level or another by rations of food or water. Most use ceramic coins or chits, treated in some way as to challenge the skills of counterfeiters. In Vance, for example, an iridescent glaze is applied; a similar technique is used in Zodiac. Illium’s coins give off a radium glow; I’ve used one to lure a mark down an alley on a dark, cold night.

The greatest quantities of both money and resources are naturally controlled by the upper classes, our supposed betters. Different cities have different aristocracies, ranging from Vance with its nobility of merchants and thieves to the theocracy of cursed Ziggur. Yet the divide between rich and poor is razor-thin, a fact of which every one of us is keenly aware. Thus, some of the wealthy are given to acts of extreme generosity, in the hopes that we will visit the same upon them should their fortunes turn.

In general, the people of Mars are given to grand gestures. We are keenly aware that we live in our planet’s last days, and so we weep and curse and love openly and with abandon.

This is true of no one more than the rogues of the Red Cities, a fraternity of which I have sometimes been a member. Gamblers curse their luck with the names of forgotten gods, while bravos seek satisfaction of one another in the streets and taverns. A slight against a hired sword can find a man with a handspan of steel protruding from his back. These rough characters inhabit the lower class portions of town, but are sometimes hired by the upper crust as bodyguards and assassins. Many times my master was hired by a young noble to fight a duel in his place.

Next: The Peoples of Mars

Today’s lovely illustration comes courtesy of the incomparable Chris Huth. Chris is doing a couple of pieces for Cavaliers, of which this is the first. You can find previous installments of “The Apprentice’s Tale” here.

Cavaliers of Mars: Swashbuckling Combat

Alright, started testing out a new conflict system for Cavaliers of Mars last night.

I want conflict in Cavaliers to be a swashbuckling game of rapid back and forth exchanges, as well as a process of making choices about how much to commit to attack or defense.

To that end, the system I’m testing is based on a bidding mechanic.

At the start of a round, everybody rolls their combat dice. (In my mock-duels, I’ve been giving everyone 4 d6s.) These “hands” of dice are concealed.

On your turn, you can bid a die and narrate your attack. The target can bid a die of equal or greater value and narrate a parry or a dodge or the like. In turn, you can narrate an attempt to get past that defense, again bidding a die of equal or greater value. And so on.

If you, as attacker, bid the last die, you deal your damage.

You can also bid your dice for other actions. An attempt to disengage and retreat, for example, might use a dice bid, as might an attempt to force your opponent to move. Extra dice to your initial roll can be gained by picking up “terrain dice” from around the map; manipulating a standing brazier might be worth 1 die, where knocking around the throne of the Princess Invincible might be worth 2 or 3.

In the final system, someone who loses the bidding process might have options other than taking “damage”… for example, it might be possible to give ground, or accept a condition which hampers you.

Thoughts?

Grand Masquerade

I’ll be attending White Wolf’s Grand Masquerade in New Orleans this week. I’m planning to devote a lot of my time to talking to players, so, please, come and find me. I’ll be the guy with bright red hair talking about vampires as horrible lizard-brain boyfriends.

When I get back, I’ll be releasing the third part of “The Apprentice’s Tale” for Cavaliers of Mars.

Cavaliers of Mars: Sand and Sky

Mars

A world of fading sunlight and haunted storms

Continuing “The Apprentice’s Tale,” for Cavaliers of Mars.

We live upon an old world, and you can find that in every aspect of life and death. My master often spoke of the world dying. As a child I imagined I could hear its groaning sighs on the wind. As a grown woman, that is not a fancy I have entirely left behind.

My first voyage across the desert began the day after my master bought me. Or, as I’ve come to think, bought my freedom. Clad in long desert robes and silk breathing masks, we set out beyond the borders of the square mile in which I had lived all my life. The desert, then as now, was temperate by day, frigid by night, and extended forever in all directions. Though we followed an ancient track, no one could have seen it who had not learned it by heart. Master to apprentice, as it was with me.

My master often said that the sun no longer looms as large as once it did. Certainly, it no longer warms the planet with the same intensity. While the air itself is thin, it is thick with dust, creating the strange scarlet skies. As the sun rises or sets, the dust gives it an eerie blue halo. Like many, my master was superstitious about night and the color blue. Twilight lasts an hour or more at both at sunrise and sunset, and at that time you can clearly see the blue star called Earth.

Dust storms are common, and can cover huge regions. We were fortunate not to encounter any during my first desert crossing. A few times a century, a storm will rise out of Hell’s Basin and engulf the entire world. A planet-wide dust storm can leave behind an epidemic of the maddened and possessed. It had fallen to my master sometimes to put such people to the sword.

Bodies of water are few, and rain is rare and precious. Some parts of Mars have not seen a drop in thousands of years. Sometimes I’ve seen ice clouds in the coldest, highest parts of the sky, giving it a violet hue. This ice can be harvested by intrepid flyers – one of the thousand ways Illium maintains its flowing fountains and generous water rations. Other water comes from ancient wells, or is processed from layers of ice beneath the sand. The marsh people of the old sea beds distill their water from the muck. Indeed, I have been forced to do so myself, and can say that the results are musty and unpleasant, but as life-giving as a drink from any other source

Yet Mars’ greatest waterworks, those which sustain our remaining societies, are the canals. The canals are the final legacy of the First Martians, miraculous channels which melt water from the polar cap and irrigate large sections of the planet. Nearly all of the Red Cities depend on the canals for water and trade, and repairs to the canal network are one of the few subjects which can bring our feuding rulers together in cooperation.

What travel and survival rules do you enjoy in RPGs? I’m just starting to design these for Cavaliers of Mars.

Next: The Cities of Mars!