02 November 2011

Dull Administration

Since it's been over a month since my last post, I feel some explanation is in order. Or a series of well-intentioned excuses, depending on your perspective.

First off, campaign development continues, though it's going on in the background, and I haven't posted anything about it. The reason is essentially my gamer ADD. The pendulum swing is going from S&W back to Chimera RPG, and I'm trying to better define my direction for each. The not-surprising or even mildly clever result is that Chimera stuff will remain on The Welsh Piper site, while S&W material will go here.

This wasn't as intuitive as it surely seems. My original goal for The Bastard's Blade was to use a zero-mod version of S&W Core and concentrate only on the setting itself. But I can't do it. The urge to tweak and house-rule is too strong to resist. So this space will include my S&W variant rules as well as actual campaign stuff.

My second excuse is that I've been at a sort of RPG crossroads lately, which I suspect is merely a desire for variety clashing with a lack of direction. I like S&W and I like Chimera. I'd like to expand both, but can do only one at a time. So when gamer ADD surfaces, I bounce between them and get very little actually accomplished. Or, worse yet, I engage in a project related to neither and nothing gets done.

Either way, the end result is that the Germanic Kingdoms aren't finished.

Reason the Third: work has been really busy. Like you-gotta-be-kidding-me busy. But it's also been interesting, in a love-my-job sort of way that, frankly, has averted significantly my reliance on gaming as an escape hatch from being a grown-up.

To recap: Less time has made me prioritize my gaming; The Bastard's Blade did not make it high on the list.

But, with better direction, as defined above, I can commit to more frequent posting here. They may be shorter and backed by less research, but I'll do my best to make them interesting and fun.

Next Up, some of the Germanic Kingdoms (really)
Listening To: Richard "Groove" Holmes, Blue Groove

22 September 2011

Fake History

Against my better judgement, I provided a capsule history of 486 Europe. Why was I against it? Because I don't want to bog you folks down with a lot of blah blah. You're here for gaming stuff, not history lessons.

Still, I think it's a necessary evil, because without it, making sense of the campaign's present is difficult. With that in mind, here are some made-up bits derived (and contrived) from the Barael's Blade lyrics:

The Darkness
Deep in the Siberian wilderness lies the Frost Court, ruled by the demon Baal, the Despot of Winter. A powerful and disturbingly ubiquitous pagan god, Baal seeks to convert God's faithful into his heartless servants. Wrathful and selfish, Baal demonstrates his power by spreading the cold chaos his followers call the Radiant Desolation, but known more commonly as the Darkness.

Ice Troll [1]
Like a slow flood, the Darkness courses steadily eastward, casting the land it covers into perpetual winter, attracting all manner of fell creatures: ice trolls, remorhaz, snowbolds, frost giants, white dragons, and subverted Hunnic men who venerate Baal or one of his many demonic lieutenants.

The white areas of the Shepherd map show the extent of the Darkness. Most of it is wasteland, occupied by monsters and nomadic tribes of demon worshipers. These are rarely encountered beyond the Darkness' borders, for they cannot enter consecrated ground and are vulnerable to banishment by Christian clerics.

Silver Blood
The lifeblood of Baal and his demonic minions is a liquid silver-like substance that seems to hold traces of angelic grace. When forged into a weapon, that weapon is considered both magic and silver for purposes of striking enchanted creatures. When bottled and Blessed, the inherent grace within is magnified, such that a vial of Silver Blood acts as holy water. A thin trickle poured from a vial forms a barrier akin to Protection from Evil (10' per vial; 2 hour duration if poured by a cleric or 1 hour for everyone else).

The hero of Wotan sagas, also known as the Halfbreed, the Orphan of Torment, Spiller of the Silver Blood, Barael wielded his eponymous blade, forged by the Crow Mage, against the powers of Baal and his minions. Barael was renown for his defeat of Lor the Poisoner, Balkh of the Spider Priests, and the lesser demon Melchom. Clad in fur and ring mail, the Halfbreed wandered the world  to oppose the Darkness, though was ultimately betrayed by his sword, whose thirst for demonic blood drove its wielder into peril. Among pagan Germans, there is a strong belief that Barael will return someday to stand again against the servants of Darkness.

The Crow Mage
A Wotan of great age and wisdom who used his powers to combine shards of Darkness, bore, and meteoric steel to forge the Bastard's Blade as a weapon against the Baalites. Barael's mentor and a popular folk hero, the Crow Mage disappeared when the Romans converted to Christianity, stealthily avoiding a Catholic purge. As with Barael, many German pagans believe that the Crow Mage will return during the hour of the Germans' greatest need.

Lor the Poisoner
A Hunnic sorcerer whose spurned love for an Ostrogoth maid prompted him to pierce the girl's father with the Talon of Greed. Lor kidnapped the girl and forced her to watch her kinsmans' fate—her father sprouted covetous talons of his own, and whosoever owned what he desired were themselves likewise afflicted, and on and on. Before long, the entire town was mad with possessive envy until the inhabitants murdered each other in an orgy of violent rapacity.

With a black heart, Lor then pricked the maid with the Talon and gave it to her as a reminder of what she had "forced" him to do. But the maid's only desire was for her home and her people. Heartsick, with no hope of satisfaction or freedom, the maid went mad, took out her eyes with the Talon, then her tongue, ears, face, and womanhood until, desperate with grief, she pierced her own heart.

The maid and her people were avenged by Barael, who (with the aid of the Crow Mage) slew Lor, though why the Halfbreed's path crossed that of the sorcerer's is not known. Some versions of the tale say that the maid was Barael's betrothed. Others say that the town destroyed by greed was Barael's childhood home. Still other tales hint that the Talon was of Melchom's hand and that Barael sought to retrieve it as a trophy.

The Spider Priests
The worst of many Baalite cultists who made their way to the Germanic Kingdoms by way of invading Huns. The Spider Priests venerated an unholy creature whose true name brought sorcerous power at the price of insanity and was thus known only as "Etterclaw." At the height of their power, the Spider Priests had established no less than a dozen shrines in civilized lands, where they bound sacrificial victims in webs to later cannibalize their putrefied remains. Their hold was broken when Barael slew their high priest, Balkh.

Next up, the Germanic Kingdoms.
Listening to: Fu Manchu, The Action is Go
  1. Photo © kevindooley; used without permission.

21 September 2011

Metal Words

Zak S. just posted this little gem: http://metallizer.dk/generate-random-heavy-metal-album

It creates a metal band name, album title, and track list. In RPG parlance, these equate to antagonist, adventure name, and encounter seeds. Buzzing through a few entries, it's clear that the author of this tool deserves an Ennie. Given the inspiration for The Bastard's Blade, I can't imagine how this isn't staggeringly useful to campaign development. Consider:

There's your adventure, right there
So, the party are off to recover the Teutonic Hammer from the Spectre Patrol, minions of the Heartless King, whose fortress, the Chapel of the Forgotten Ghoul, is a twilight realm of decadent dreams.

To paraphrase Zak, if this doesn't interest you, may I suggest that you drop RPGs and go back to having tea parties with your little sister's Strawberry Shortcake dolls.

Thanks, Zak.

UPDATE: Just installed the Metallizer widget on the sidebar. You should get one, too.

18 September 2011

Sadness, then Joy

OK, this has nothing to do with the Bastard's Blade, but I thought I'd share.

Long story short, when I moved to New Jersey, I left all my AD&D 1E and 2E hardcovers in bankers boxes and stored them in the garage at our old place in Pennsylvania. Today, my wife and I went back to PA to do some work on the house, and I figured on bringing back the books.

Unfortunately, mould had claimed them, due to poor storage and about 3 Earth years (and, frankly, the fact that I'm a lazy ass who couldn't be bothered to bring them back earlier).

Sadness. These are the books I had since high school, about 25 years ago. The ones with my notes scrawled in the margins. The ones with my name dutifully written on the inside front covers of each. The ones that Noble Knight Games said were worthless because of aforementioned notes and names. Bitches.

They weren't waterlogged, they were entirely legible, and they were completely intact. But the front covers were coated with this sort of troublesome patina of white spores. As in, "Sure, you can brush it off, but now wash your hands immediately." I'm wary of bringing them home and having those spores infest my other books, my carpet, my walls, and my lungs. And, also, my wife. Because if we both got sick because of some mouldy D&D books, I'd probably feel guilty enough to quit the hobby.

So I left them in the bankers boxes. They're sitting in the garage now. I couldn't bring myself to just toss them in the trash, but all the same, I really don't think they're usable. Or safe.

Lesson learned: store your books in plastic. Unless your books are on your shelf, and you can see them daily, put 'em in a wrapper.

To whit: I was able to salvage a box worth of modules and assorted supplements, which I had stored in plastic sheet protectors. Huzzah.

Joy Part: Back in 1991, I managed to score a full set of 1E hardcovers in absolute mint condition. Like, brand-spankin' new. I've never used them, read them, or even opened them beyond a casual flip. I bought them at a gaming shop in New Hope, PA (which, sadly, is now out of business - Toys For Men, anyone?). Thinking they might someday be collectors items, I put then in a trash bag and keep them in a metal strongbox. Too much?

Not after today's discovery. While my "working" copies are lost to fungus, at least I still have access to these great books.

03 September 2011

A Brief (real world) History

I don't want to get bogged down in history, but as I'm writing up the brief area descriptions, I find it hard to resist giving backstory to explain the present. On one hand, that means I need to be more disciplined and economical as a setting author. On the other, I realise that a lot of the setting's tone is based on its historical precedent, and I don't want to gloss over it.

The single most important historical event in The Bastard's Blade is the fall of the Roman Empire. In 362 AD, Rome encompassed the entire Mediterranean and half of Europe. Little more than a century later, those borders had shrunk by almost two-thirds.

In his Atlas of Medieval History, Colin McEvedy makes a crucial point: "What has to be explained is not that the Empire fell apart, but why the bits never came together again." (McEvedy 9) That explanation has little to do with administration, politics, food supplies, Christianity, corruption, or moral decay that is so often associated with Rome's decline. Instead, it boils down to military losses and the untenable situation those losses created.

In the 4th and 5th centuries, the area shown on the Shepherd Map is like a chess board with too many pieces. You have Rome occupying about half of it, while the rest is a cluster of disparate Germanic tribes and Huns, all vying for living space. No matter who gained what territory outside Rome, it was Rome who had to deal with the victors, because its borders touched everyone.

At the end of the 4th century, the Goths (strongest of the German tribes), unable to press south and west across Roman borders, struck out east, where they clashed with the Huns. Other Germanic tribes, like the Angles and the Saxons, contented themselves with raiding Britain and Gaul. Yet the Romans held their borders, having realised that further expansion into Germania was an unproductive effort. [1]

At the beginning of the 5th century, the Huns moved westward in force, dislodging the Goths, who found themselves pressed against Roman borders, as well as those of other Germanic tribes. This was the beginning of the end for Rome, whose infantry legions were outclassed by the Goth and Hun cavalry. Having no cavalry of their own, Rome began hiring Germans and Huns to fight their battles for them, essentially paying one enemy to fight another. It was a delicate balancing act of warfare, negotiations, and bribery.

Unfortunately, it was never-ending, owing to a steady supply of roving bands of opportunistic barbarians all too ready to extort Rome for cash in exchange for good behaviour. And, of course, no matter which side won—Roman-sponsored mercenaries or external aggressors—the winners were still barbarians, and they still needed a place to live. Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before Rome found itself in control of the military situation only as far as she could pay to influence it. And the Imperial coffers were running dangerously low.

By the middle of the century, the Huns (under Attila) occupied an area stretching from the Russian steppe to the Baltic. The resulting dislocation of the Germans, and the inability of Rome to pay for its abatement, had started to tell—much of Spain, a third of Gaul, all of Britain, and a bubble of North Africa surrounding Carthage [2] was lost to ravaging Germans looking for a home.

Attila's death in 453 relieved some of the pressure on the Germans, but for Rome, it was too late. By 476 AD, the Western Empire was under the de facto control of Germanic warlords, who had expanded their beachheads along the outskirts of the Roman Empire to encompass vast territories. One German general, Odoacer, seized all of Italy simply by ceding token submission to the Eastern Emperor at Constantinople. At the same time, Spain and Gaul were under the control of the Visigoths; Britain was the target of raids by Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians; native British chieftains had fled the isle to carve out the state of Brittany in Gaul; the Vandals migrated to North Africa to effectively control trade across the Mediterranean; and a host of Germanic tribes were slowly consolidating the Frankish kingdom in continental Europe.

All the while, the Eastern Roman Empire remained highly solvent. It's not that they weren't beset upon by the same external marauders that had ravaged the West. Indeed, they had their share of headaches from the Huns, the Ostrogoths, the Alans, the Persians, and the Arabs. What kept the East intact was that it was rich: money pouring in via the Silk Road and Indian spice trade allowed it to pay its aggressors premium fees to be spared the same fate as its Western counterpart.

But there was also one other, unanticipated, card the East chose to play: By selling out the West, it could encourage the barbarians to ravage elsewhere. Whenever the Ostrogoths got ornery, the Eastern Emperor could simply hire them to raid the Germanic kingdoms, effectively killing two birds with one stone: rid the local borders of marauding bands and rid the West of barbarian warlords. Regardless of the outcome, the Eastern Emperor had one less band of troublesome heathens to deal with. [3]

Thus is the state of affairs in 486 AD. I apologise for presenting a mound of text, but I believe this summary will help me be more succinct in, and make more sense of, the area descriptions to come.

Next up, how Barael's Europe differs from the real world.
Listening to: Robert Walter's 20th Congress, Money Shot
  1. An admonishment as old as the first Roman Emperor Augustus in 14 AD. Augustus figured that the Empire was pretty much just the right size, and while its armies could expand it, expeditions beyond the borders revealed that there wasn't much out there worth fighting for. The aborted conquest of Germania is a good example: after losing 3 legions to the effort with nothing appreciable to show for it, Augustus was satisfied to fortify the frontier along the Rhine and call it a day.
  2. This wasn't just the loss of territory, it was the loss of Rome's major wheat supply. By this time, Rome was already "living from hand to mouth" (McEvedy 12) and so while the Vandals in North Africa were not an immediate military threat, the Romans nonetheless found themselves forced to pay tribute to ensure stocked granaries.
  3. In fact, this is precisely what happened in 488, when Eastern Emperor Zeno paid the Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great to invade the Kingdom of Odoacer. Theodoric did so with zeal, and by 493 was the ruler of a new kingdom consisting of his old Ostrogoth dominion, Italy, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Provence. It's worth noting that Theodoric supposedly killed Odoacer with his own hands at a banquet set to mark peaceful relations between the two. Seems Odoacer didn't see that one coming, despite having been besieged by Theodoric for just shy of 5 years straight.
Works Cited
McEvedy, Colin. The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History. Penguin, 1992.

31 August 2011

Barael's Europe

We're talking about the Shepherd Map, which shows The Germanic Kingdoms and the East Roman Empire in 486 AD. At this early stage, I'm still figuring out exactly what's what, which is code for "You're going to read about the setting as I create it." For now, that means I'll start with generalities and zero in on details later (and sporadically at that—my goal is to "seed" the setting and let individual GMs decide the on the specifics for themselves).

1 hex = 125 miles
I've applied a 125-mile hex grid, which will ultimately fit into the Welsh Piper hex grid templates when I detail individual areas. This puts the map at 2,855 x 2,232 miles, or 6,372,360 square miles. To put this in proper perspective, I'd say that's about the size of Greyhawk.

The map shows continental Europe packed with Germanic Kingdoms populated by barbarian peoples who live by might, sorcery, and cunning (and by sorcery, I mean pagan demon-stuff). With few exceptions, each Germanic Kingdom is a confederacy of petty states who cooperate only to thwart the aggression of neighbouring kingdoms. When not so engaged, they fight amongst themselves. Most are ruled by kings or sub-kings, but some are under the control of sorcerers who use demonic allies and minions to enforce their rule.

The East Roman Empire is all that remains of the Roman supremacy that once stretched west to Gibraltar, yet Christianity still holds sway there, and it is far more ordered than the Germanic Kingdoms as a result. While firmly rooted in the land of its birth, Eastern Christendom seeks to recapture the Holy Lands of Europe, where the great evil of pagan gods was once defeated. It is the hope of the Church that the Germanic warlords will again bow before the cross (else it is the task of the Christian fighting orders to make them kneel under the sword).

There are four principle areas shown on the map:
  • Germanic Kingdoms (shaded areas): "Civilised" and thus support cities, towns, agriculture, and commerce. In the absence of Roman stability, many have reverted to the pagan ways of the Germanic Paganism (Wotan). However, some are Arian Christian (West Goths, Vandals, and Lombards), having "broken" from the Catholic church adopted by Rome under Constantine. [1]
  • East Roman Empire (green shaded border): Consisting primarily of Thrace, Illyricum, Asia Minor, and Egypt. This is the seat of Christian power in the setting—any Christian found outside the Empire is either an Arian, a missionary, or a crusader.
  • Lost Colonies (British Isles): The Roman departure from the British Isles left them just as (if not more) chaotic than when they arrived. The barbarians who remained—the Celts, the Picts, and the Britons—fell alternately to warring amongst themselves and defending their borders from the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, and Frisians who turned greedy eyes toward the Isles when the Romans left. It's possible that this is the most tumultuous place on the map.
  • Wilderness (white areas): Holy crap, these are crazy places! The Darkness mentioned in Barael's Blade is creeping across these lands, encroaching upon Christian holds and pagan states alike. The wilderness is populated by nomads and barbarian horsemen, dragons, giants, demons, and worse.
Next up, a quick capsule history of How Things Came to Be.
Listening to: Marian McPartland, Marian McPartland with Dave Brubeck
  1. Fr. Dave notes that "Heretics were not killed by the Romans, they were banished to the barbarian lands outside the Empire. There, they managed to find some footholds." IOW, Arian Christians exiled from Rome no doubt found there way to Arian states. Certainly, some ended up knee-deep in the wilderness, surrounded by yapping horsemen with bows, but maybe these guys weren't Christian anyway...I like to think it all worked out for them.

25 August 2011

Source Material

An underlying goal of this campaign is to provide a framework that other GMs can build on. Not that Barael's Europe will be devoid of detail—rather, it should have just enough for GMs to expand on in whatever way feels natural to them.

I'm limiting myself to the following source material:

Swords & Wizardry Core Rules (4th Printing)
This is my first campaign setting using S&W, and to give it a fair shake, I plan to use it pretty much by-the-book (UPDATE: scratch that--I'll be including my house rules here and there, as they're developed). This will speed things along and also help me identify what areas are in need of tweaking for my next campaign (IOW, no need to preemptively "fix" anything until I decide it's "broken"). One caveat: since I'm limiting myself to the 4 Core classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief), I may inject some sort of "career paths" to help define specific character roles. There may be some minor table tweaks (e.g., the "to-hit" progression for each class, which is non-uniform and seems to give magic-users more punch than I think I like at first blush), and definitely some equipment updates (e.g., no plate mail).

Penguin Atlas of Medieval History
By Colin McEvedy, this book is a great summary of medieval European History. Each page is a map of Europe, covering topics such as language, religion, trade routes, barbarian invasions, etc. For our purposes, we need only the first 20 pages or so (i.e., up to 528 AD), but the capsule overview provides plenty of information for campaign use—at least enough of a springboard to other research if the GM desires. (affiliate link)

Shepherd's Map
The cartography that started it all. The image at right is a cropped version of the original, showing only Europe (I ditched the two maps of England, essentially because they depicted different time frames). I don't expect to do much alteration on the map. In general terms, coloured areas are "civilised," while white areas are terra incognita, populated by barbarian peoples and terrible monsters. Place names will remain, just to avoid mucking about with the map labels. Due to the detail shown, this is obviously for GMs' eyes only, and I'm sorely tempted to create a Hexographer version for players.

Zak and Jeff
Two blog posts will guide my planning:
I have some ancillary references, but they're area-specific. For example, Ian Malcomson's "Dark Ages" article from DRAGON #257 has some good period info for Anglo-Saxon Britain; Udi Levy's "The Lost Civilization of Petra" explores a great ruined city/dungeon complex, and Barnes & Noble's "Book of Saints: A Day-by-Day Illustrated Encyclopedia" will no doubt prove valuable for religious background within the campaign. I'll reference them as needed.

Next up, let's take a closer look at Shepherd's map.
Listening to: Joe Jackson, Night & Day

23 August 2011

Setting Overview and Ground Rules

If you happen to be in an elevator with me and ask, "What's this Bastard's Blade campaign about?" you'd get a reply something like this:
The Roman Empire that once dominated the civilised world has been reduced to a fraction of its former glory, and the barbarian warlords who pushed it back are the new masters of Europe. They have reawakened the old gods Christianity put to sleep, but in so doing, let loose powers they had forgotten how to control. Europe is a chaotic realm of warriors, sorcerers, and thief-kings, all vying for power and wealth in the vacuum of Roman stability. Will the PCs seek fortune as mercenaries in the service of a barbarian warlord? Or perhaps they’ll win a name by recovering the treasures of ruined Christian halls. Maybe still they’ll stem the tide of Chaos and revive the worship of the One God to bring order to an unruly land.
There's a lot potential there, so I'm going to lay down some ground rules to keep me on the beam:

The Map is Canon
I'll describe and populate the map based on what the map shows, so where there's a question about borders, cities, natural features, etc., the map is considered authoritative.

History Optional
I will neither achieve nor strive for 100% historical accuracy. This means I will misinterpret stuff, ignore important details, and reinvent in directions that real-life historical figures and events did not go. My goal is to create a setting based on history, not to follow the track of real world history in my setting.

Religious Freedom
At the time depicted by the map, Christendom consisted of Arian states, the Roman Catholic church, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Judaism exists in the Middle East, Zoroastrianism to some extent in the Persian Empire, and other various pagan states throughout Africa, and the Eastern lands. I'm bound to oversimplify the religious landscape to suit the campaign, but I do so only as an expedient to play and not, by any means, as a commentary on any religion or statement of faith. Feel free to send me a gentle reminder if you feel I've crossed this line.

Fantasy Stuff
I'll translate the S&W rules to what I hope to be intuitive historical analogues. Again, there's a lot of room for interpretation (e.g., what's does "magic-user" mean in fantasy Europe of 486?), but I'll explain myself where the need arises, and ask you to bear with me ('cause it won't all make sense).

Pick and Choose
There's every chance that I'll inject bits and pieces of historical "what-if" into the mix. It may not be practical, and it probably won't be the logical outcome of historical precedent. But, this is about making an exciting setting, so there's going to be a few mystery cults, some undead pontiffs, magical weapons like Excalibur, "real-life" golems and djinn, and white dragons on the Asian steppe. I'll try to weave them into the setting logically, but given that this is magic and the real world isn't, you'll need to suspend your disbelief here and there.

Next up, a short list of source material.
Listening to: Antibalas, Who Is This America?

21 August 2011

Starting Off

Hi. My name's Erin. You may know me from such favourites as The Welsh Piper, or The Chimera RPG.

Click for Barael's Blade
A few months ago, I stumbled upon Historical Atlas (copyright © 1911 William R. Shepherd). One particular map, The Germanic Kingdoms and the East Roman Empire in 486, really held my interest. The year 486 AD is the Year of the Consulship of Basilius and Longinus. It is the exile of Emperor Nepos to Dalmatia. It is the rise of Odoacer, the end of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, and the beginning of the Middle Ages. It is the time of a young Celtic warlord named Arthur.

At the same time, The Sword song, Barael’s Blade has been playing in my head. In the shower, on the bus, at work, while mowing the lawn. I checked out the lyrics, which practically beg to be converted into a fantasy setting.

Shepherd's map and Barael's Blade? Your cartography is in my metal. No, your metal is in my cartography.

My goal is to make this map into a comprehensive Swords & Wizardry campaign setting, incorporating the bits suggested by Barael's Blade. We'll see how it goes.

Next up, an elevator pitch and "rules of engagement."
Listening to: (what else?) The Sword, Age of Winters