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.