Severing the Edge

It may seem odd to illustrate a comment on Takuan Soho's The Unfettered Mind with an image painted by Miyamoto Musashi, given that Soho is billed on the front cover of this Wilson translation as "Writing to Yagyu Munenori, Musashi's great rival", but when I read Soho's piece on "Sever the Edge between Before and After" I immediately thought of this image.

Steph also brought this piece to mind in a discussion recently about taking action, recalling the decisive stroke that forms the body of the branch the shrike here is sitting on. That stroke is so full of boldness and uncompromising direction, giving life to the concept of "severing the edge" as I understand it. Soho writes:

This [severing the edge] means one should cut right through the interval between previous and present. Its significance is in cutting off the edge between before and after, between now and then. It means not detaining the mind.

Soho's text echoes with meaning for me, even knowing as I do how the English translation must necessarily strip layers of richness and allusion from the original. But this idea, of severing the connection between past and present, resonates especially.

Musashi's line in this image admits no indecisiveness, no clinging to possibilities. Because it seems to me that indecisiveness is just that -- an inability to let go of past truths and untruths, to choose a single present and commit to it fully. If we sever the past from our present, we are left with only the present moment, and we can act with full intention and focus.

In Katori Shinto Ryu, when I practice maku-uchi men, it is this total presence that I am trying to achieve. My aikido instructor Sensei Skoyles used to say that iai practice was all about "cutting away at ourselves", ridding ourselves of weaknesses or failures to seek victory over ourselves. Every cut is an opportunity to loose failure, to let fears and anxieties fall away. Every cut is a chance for perfection, but perfection can only exist in this moment, never in the past where we are powerless to act.

When I raise my sword over my head, I try to release all thoughts, to let my mind move as it must and simply make the cut, fully present and fully engaged, holding nothing back.

It is very very difficult, but not nearly as difficult as doing it WITHOUT the sword. For the true value of this practice is learning to act with such presence and focus in my day-to-day life. Katori shows me a way to be but it is up to me to use that vision and apply it to the rest of my life.

For the Modern Megalomaniac

Note: If your maniacal bent-on-world-domination supervillain is NOT driving around in one of THESE, well...

Seriously, this is a piece of insanity that's either an utterly reprehensible use of resources and energy to provide a charming living space for ultra-wealthy wanna-hide-from-the-world-and-pretend-it's-not-my-problem types, or else it's totally awesome. I really can't decide.

It's beautiful, and imagine the state of mind of living in a place like this. Imagine paying full-time salaries for 20 people just to make your house operate. And I'm thinking whatever ocean you start in, you're going to stay in -- imagine taking this thing around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn.

I mean, I don't know, maybe it weathers storms without a tremor, but it sure doesn't LOOK like something that will be at its best plunging through hurricanes or dodging stormy reefs.

But as the lair of a criminal mastermind and location for a final shoot-out? Yeah, baby. So many great possibilities in this space.

Welcome to my brain -- whenever I see a new place, I immediately evaluate its potential as a climactic location in a game. It's a gift.
A recent proto-discussion on Twitter about the struggle in the RPG industry between amateurs willing to work for basically nothing and professionals who depend on a certain level of income for the running of their lives got me thinking.

The barrier to entry in this industry is pretty close to zero these days, and there's no sign it's ever going to go up. The tools to produce and distribute a PDF game product are available to pretty much everyone (at least, everyone who's even in the market for RPG materials), and so what happens? The price of RPG materials is getting driven downwards. Well, maybe it is. That's the theor

I Screen, You Screen

One of the things I love about RPGs is all the paraphernalia. Of course the polyhedral dice, rattling across tabletops, and on occasion miniatures (though I lack the patience/time to paint my own), but folders, charts, maps and especially screens.

DM screens are a staple of many game systems, and even though I rarely have papers or anything I want to hide from my players, I love those folding cardstock thingummies. One of my favourites of recent years is Green Ronin's Narrator's Screen for True20. It's attractive (without goofy illustrations on the front (although I'll admit, the illos on the old-school screen (at left) impressed twelve-year-old me)), and the design is well-laid-out and it's made from extra-sturdy cardboard so it doesn't get as flabby and useless as some other screens I've made use of over the years.

But as I pointed out a while ago, it lacks at least one basic necessary for smoothly running True20 (damage conditions). And as a screen for running the rambunctious sort of game DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is meant to be, it's missing a whole pile of stuff.

So I've created a bodgery of a document that you can print off and use to update your True20 Narrator's Screen. It includes tables for the revised rules around Stunts, Reputation, Scenes, Minions and more! Just cut out the little boxes and tape them over the boxes indicated on your Narrator's Screen, and hey presto! You've got your own perfectly-arranged DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND Narrator's Screen.

Download now!

The Mind of the Form

I'm getting a lot of mileage out of The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts. I was re-reading this lovely book recently and found yet another pearl that has stuck with me.

In the tale of "The Transformation of the Sparrow and the Butterfly" we read about how the sparrow envies the butterfly, for the butterfly has transformed from a lowly worm into a beautiful, free-flying butterfly, while the sparrow expects to transform from its current free-flying state into a clam, with no power of movement and forced to exist in the mud and filth of the ocean floor.

Predictably, the butterfly scoffs at such worries, and chides the sparrow for trying to project its current mind into its future form. The butterfly says:

"The mind of the form follows that form. When the form is extinguished, the mind of the form disappears, too."

When I read this most recently, I thought of how the kata we study are composed of a series of forms -- postures or actions. And how often I will have my mind in either the form ahead or the form behind the form I am currently presenting. If I make a mistake, I berate myself through the next several forms, paying little attention to the forms I carry on with. Likewise, if I know a difficult move is coming up, I will anticipate it several steps ahead, reminding myself to get ready, and often moving too soon or without proper mindfulness.

But this is why I practice. The "mind of the form" will come, if I learn to correctly take the form. If I practice my body, my mind will follow. I cannot practice Katori by imagining, or by reasoning, or by any mental process whatsoever. Only practice will bring my mind to the correct place. And once the form is completed, spending any further mental energy on that form is futile. The mind of the form has disappeared.

This is why questions in the dojo are so often unhelpful. It is rarely the case that new information will improve a student's form. Practice is what is required. Until the form is correct, the mind of the form cannot be grasped.

Photo by Lida Rose

Attack of the Mad Scientists!

Those of you who know me know that the bulk of my work is for those crazy Canucks at Fiery Dragon. For the past two months I've been doing work for their line of boardgames, the latest of which is the sure-to-become-a-classic "Attack of the Mad Scientists!

AotMS's author, David Cuatt, posted on the Nerdabout New York blog some looks at the different stages of the game's production, from sketch to cover. And what a cool game to work on!

The map has an old parchment texture, while the cover was made to resemble some of those old horror movies (with a name like "Attack of the Mad Scientists", how could it be anything else?).

So head over to Nerdabout New York and enjoy!

RPG Theory: Memorable villains

Someone recently asked; what makes a great villain? While the context around the question was in a roleplaying game mileu, I think it makes some sense to talk first about what makes several fictional villains great from movies and books, and examine a few of the most iconic ones and what their appeal is. Partly because that's my own personal favorite mileu, and partly because it's one that's ideally suited to roleplaying games, I'm going to focus on villains that would fit in a pulp, serial, or comic book mileu in particular. Then, after I talk a bit about why some of these really memorable villains were memorable, let's talk about how to adapt those ideas into a gaming context.

Here's a few examples of what I consider really iconic villains; the kind that I'd love to emulate in my campaigns.

1. Often credited as the first "supervillain", Professor Moriarty is a great place to start. The first thing that made Moriarty compelling is that the superhuman Sherlock Holmes himself has met is match in the man. He's a prodigious intellect, and is a criminal mastermind, with his manipulative paws on all kinds of things that Holmes has to thwart. But that doesn't mean that he's a patsy to Holmes; what Holmes thwarts are some of his minor minions, not the greater schemes. Only in "The Final Problem" in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle meant to kill Holmes off and finish writing about him, does Moriarty himself put in a personal appearance. Despite that, Moriarty recurs at least as a shadowy name in the background. Keep this in mind. It's going to be my advice, actually, to not have your villains make a last minute first appearance just in time to be defeated. But certainly there needs to be their mark, their sign, evidence of their handiwork in all kinds of problems that the PCs thwart.

2. Comic books are in many ways the successors to the pulp aesthetic, and they've given us some of the most iconic villains of all time. Doctor Doom is a good one to start with. Doctor Doom's appeal is in large part due to his charisma. He's got a very iconic and unusual visual image; instantly recognizable, sinister, and melodramatically villainous. Perhaps most importantly, Doctor Doom gets seen. A lot. A big part of the reason folks love to hate Dr. Doom is because they feel like they know him. He's not a mysterious shadowy figure who only gets seen occasionally; he's always showing up.

3. Along those same lines, I give you Magneto of X-men fame. Magneto's got everything Doctor Doom's got and more... he's also sympathetic. Especially since the early 90s, Magneto has been presented as a very reasonable, charismatic and personable villain, and sometimes you don't wonder if maybe he's on the right track and Professor Xavier is just a hopelessly naive hippy with his dreams of humans and mutants living together harmoniously.

4. Also building off of Doctor Doom but going a different direction, I give you Darth Vader. Just to be clear, I mean Darth Vader before the badly concieved prequel trilogy. Darth Vader only had about six minutes of screentime in the original Star Wars movie, but he made every second count. He was one of the first characters to be introduced, and he appeared throughout the movie. His notable traits include a very sinister, iconic and unique get-up, very casual evil (further built upon when he kills officer after officer in Empire Strikes Back for minor tactical failures). And as the series progressed, we can see the evolution of an iconic villain for the ages. We saw more of him. He became sympathetic. His fall from grace into villainy was shown as a mistake that in many ways he regretted, even though he could hardly undo it. Of course, Darth Vader is rehabilitated and repents (fatally) at the end, but that's not what made him so iconic. He was already iconic before he did that. Part of what makes him so appealing as a villain is that he represents temptation. When he springs the horrible surprise on Luke that he is his father, he makes him the offer to join him, overthrow the emperor themselves, "end this ruinous conflict" and rule the galaxy side by side as father and son.

So what can we learn from looking at a snapshot of a few iconic villains? First of all, the best ones are not one-dimensional. Even Professor Moriarty and Doctor Doom are given tragic, sympathetic traits along with their evil. Secondly, very few memorable villains only appear in the background. By that same token, Sauron himself isn't memorable; it's his war machine and his Ring specifically that represent Sauron's evil. Rather; get your villains up on center stage. Make sure the PCs have to interact with them in ways other than simply a big fight in which only they (or the PCs themselves) are left standing. Take a page from the X-men/Magneto relationship---sometimes, as much as it pains them both, they even have to join forces temporarily or find themselves on the same side of some other conflict.

Like Moriarty, make sure that they're at the center of lots of shadowy things going on. Sometimes random evilness is good, but more often than not, you should be able to tie a string back from that random evil to the villain at the center of the web like a fat spider, pulling strings.

Maybe we can get barsoomcore to chime in on his success with his Barsoom campaign's villains; all folks I think are very memorable.

A Silly, Silly Galaxy, Far, Far Away

Did anyone think, when this whole "Internet" thing started, that what it would REALLY do is allow geeky science-fiction fans to share their fetishes so quickly and so broadly that they would start creating whole new media of their own?

Who foresaw fanfic? Or slash? I mean, in hindsight it seems so obvious, that if you design a set of interlocking protocols so that computers can pass data around in discrete packets, people will use that to share home-made pornographic stories about television characters. Duh. What was that Vinton Cerf guy thinking?

But it has to be said, the feverish energy of fandom, when harnessed properly, is capable of truly amazing things. It's a little bit old news, but still, this trailer for "Star Wars: Uncut" is pretty awesome. Hundreds of total strangers collaborating to produce a feature-length film (granted, they already had a script and a built-in audience, but still.

Star Wars: Uncut Trailer from Casey Pugh on Vimeo.

I've talked before about the essential silliness of the future, and this is more evidence that I am, as always, correct. Technology that enables silliness is technology that has a future. Note that "technology enabling silly" is different from "silly technology". Put Microsoft Bob back on the shelf, Bill.

The best part has to be the final high-speed montage, when you really get a sense of how wild people are being with the concept and how many creative solutions people are coming up with solve the problem of "how do we film our OWN version of Star Wars?" I remember plotting with my friends on how WE would film our own version of Star Wars, but the project was just too daunting, too long. Chopping it into 15-second clips is genius -- and generous. People WANT to do this sort of thing. They're DYING for opportunities like this.

Because it's silly.

Bad science fiction

While barsoomcore has just told us about what makes good science fiction, I have to admit to a fondness for bad science fiction. For fun, I've read a few books on science fiction authorship and writing over the years, and most "real" science fiction writers are somewhat disparaging of the concept of a space opera; a science fiction story in which the science is nothing more than the trappings. If the same story could rather easily be transplanted into the Western genre with a few superficial amendments, in other words, it's not "true" science fiction. True science fiction has, at its heart, the science, and the plot resolution, and in fact the main conflict and thrust of the story should be dependent on it. In their words.

Of course, a lot of these books were written in the 60s and 70s. Post Star Wars people are not nearly so disparaging of space opera anymore for obvious reasons. Even writers of books about authorship are not immune to the siren call of financial success over integrity to a tightly defined artistic ideal.

And yet, even so, in the most apparently transient and vacuous adventure story, the fact that the work has characters means that at some level, there's an exploration of what it means to be human. In fact, in some of the worst of these novels, there's something salvageable along the lines of "what exactly is going on between the lines here where these completely wooden and bizarre characters are put forward as supposedly reasonable people?"

Some of the better pulp adventure stories "back in the day" were fairly obvious metaphor's for situations in our world... Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore's native Martians and Venusians were much like the inhabitants of colonial Africa, Asia, or the indigenous Americans as the nation pushed westward.

Really, I think any science fiction (even the bad stuff) succeeds on some level, because by divorcing concepts from the reality to which they're so intimately tied in our perception, we can stop and have a look at these concepts in a more abstract way, a more objective way, and see where that gets us. I recently read Gardner F. Fox's Warrior of Llarn and Thief of Llarn, a somewhat lackluster Barsoom rip-offs (although the first book had a Frazetta cover and frontspiece, so it's worth it for that at least. I've attached the frontspiece for fun here). Llarn is superficially Barsoom-like as a setting, but one key difference is that it got that way after a devastating nuclear war. The heroic Barsoom-like state is actually a post-apocalyptic Dark Age for Fox. His hero, Alan Morgan, is a callous, dumb jock (written a little tongue-in-cheek, I presume, although the parody is subtle) which calls into question what kind of person succeeds at these types of ventures, really. And although he's certainly a very capable fighter, his greatest trait is his unbelieveably good luck. The nuclear war metaphor was a bit thick at times, but hey... it was the mid-60s. Hardly any science fiction from those times didn't touch on it in some fashion or another.

I can't exactly recommend the Llarn books... they barrel along without much in the way of character development, deus ex machina is a perfectly acceptable tool to keep the plot moving when a good explanation and exploration of character motives would take too long, and it occasionally pauses and does a tour-guide like monolog of some setting element or other that Fox wants to showcase or highlight. On the other hand, it's a very subtle dig at the Burroughs tropes and, like I said, there's a potentially interesting discussion to be had about why the book might have been written the way it was.

Sun, Not Rising

Great science fiction asks us to think about the very concept of being human, of the human experience. Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein all took their readers on investigations of what being human really meant, by asking unsettling questions of the type "What if (insert basic assumption about life here) were no longer true?" Asimov's Robot stories ask us to consider if our biology is central to our humanity. Clarke's amazing Childhood's End challenges us to imagine a humanity no longer limited by our need to live on this planet.

Karl Schroeder's remarkable "Virga" novels are asking some very unsettling questions, and providing very few settly-type answers.

His latest book, The Sunless Countries, his fourth set in the bizarre landscape of Virga, pretty much asks the question, "What if animals could use physics simulators? What if a dog or a wildebeest could provide itself with artificial augmentations? What the heck would THAT look like?"

Which is just a pretty nutty question to even ASK in the first place. I mean, what?

So there's characters appearing in this story who can talk, who can make use of completely over-the-top technology, but who aren't sentient. It's a bizarre conceit, made possible only by Schroeder's vision of where technology is leading us: towards the capacity to perfectly model natural processes. When this capacity is trivial to provide, argues Schroeder, we no longer need reasoning to provide us with advancements -- we can simply model natural selection, accelerate it even, and the improvements we desire will be made apparent to us. Once this technology becomes all-pervasive, then any entity capable of desire becomes capable of transforming itself, of developing whole new forms of technological marvels. Entities do not need to realise this is what they're doing. They don't need to possess awareness, just desire. Just hunger. Science itself becomes obsolete when the model's predictive power is faster, more reliable and more available to all.

(that'll really piss off Glenn -- I hope he reads this)

Except of course that reasoning, coupled with imagination (and perhaps given structure via constraints) can always envision solutions BEYOND what the model is capable of predicting, of making leaps the model cannot make. And it's becoming clear that the story of Virga is the story of the last enclave of life that is directed by scientific reasoning and human imagination. Everywhere else, we are learning, has been overtaken by this "artificial nature" that provides everything to everyone according to their desires. Only in Virga do people still puzzle out solutions to their problems. And because of this, Virga is both desired and suspected. How this will all play out is yet to be learned, but Schroeder is telling a fast, compelling story that only reveals its secrets in small doses. Just enough to keep you dying for more.

Perhaps Schroeder is preparing an elegy for science, or a last desperate plea for a beleaguered mode of thought. It's been forty years since the Moon missions. Creationism gets argued for in international media. And science fiction has been struggling without a great visionary voice for decades.

Now it seems we have writers like Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow championing a new, positive vision of the world ahead, something at last tearing down the cyberpunk dystopia that overtook everything in the 80's and erecting in its place a bizarre new world, crazier than the craziest Amazing Stories cover from the days of Hugo Gernsback. Karl Schroeder is staking out bold new territory in this space with giant bubbles of wine, flying icebergs and balloons orbiting distant stars.

And a creepy yet compelling discussion of what "human" means -- even more, what does "sentience" mean and why should we worry about it?

The DINO-PIRATES Manifesto!

Stuff is slowly but surely coming together. And by "stuff" I mean "awesome stuff".

People are coming on board. The RIGHT people. You know who you are. You, for example. Yes, you.

And so I'm thinking about what this thing is all about. I mean, of course there's dinosaurs, pirates, ninjas, monkeys and robots, and those pretty much speak for themselves, but really, what's in it for me?

Or perhaps even more importantly, what's in it for EVERYONE? Why bother?

So I'm working on a sort of MANIFESTO. A "What's the point of all this?" kind of document. Because as silly as the name is, and as ridiculous as the concept is, I really believe in DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND. I think this is a new sort of thing, a sort of thing the world could use. It's still a work in progress, but here's what I think I'm trying to do:

Create a fully-realised setting -- a fantastic imaginary world filled with fascinating characters and evocative places for storytellers to build from -- shared through a Creative Commons model that allows anyone to contribute to and use DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND in their own work.

So what does this do? Why would anyone want this? Well, it gives you:

  • Open and free access to a fun and reasonably consistent stable of characters and places.

  • A chance to show off one's creative chops in a variety of formats.

  • The chance to provide an example of an entirely new model for content development and collaboration.

But I can't possibly do it alone. I can do some writing here and there, design some game mechanics and maybe throw in an idea or two, but other people have to get involved for this to get anywhere. We'll need folks to pitch in on character development (art and writing), setting development (landscapes, cities, organizations, all that good stuff), editing, illustration, even programming and technology as we adapt tools like wikis and whatnot to our needs...

I'm reading Jono Bacon's "The Art of Community" which is helping concretize my ideas around what needs doing, and it's just getting me all the more excited.

Mad, am I?

I'll show them! I'll show them all!





Here's a cool (and weird) image, of part of the Maldives from space. The Maldives are a chain of islands in the Indian Ocean, a little to the southwest of the tip of the subcontinent. On the other side of India, past the Sunda shelf (which incorporates the Malay peninsula and the large islands just off the coast; there is a gigantic flooded landbridge that connects southeast Asia and Australia) in the South Pacific, there are a lot of these kinds of islands too, called atolls. Atolls are formerly much larger volcanic islands, not unlike the Hawaiian islands, which have coral reefs build up around them, while the volcanic peaks, over millions of years, erode down and eventually disappear under the water. The coral reefs are a self-renewing resource, since corals continue to grow on top of other corals; after a while, the circumerence of the island is all that is left as a kind of hollow ring of low beaches and reefs, with a shallow lagoon in the center, which can often encompass many, many square miles.

Many of these kinds of atolls also feature dense vegetation, and some of the larger ones are inhabited in Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and elsewhere. Many of them, of course, are not inhabitated, as they are too small to support a population. In fact, the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away (not sure why that's two words, but it is) was filmed on an uninhabited island not unlike this (although it did still have a bit of a volcanic peak) from the Mamanuca island group in Fiji. The Mamanuca islands are about twenty islands, seven of which disappear completely under the surface during high tide.

A number of bizarre adventure ideas and sites for DINO-PIRATES suggest themselves by the idea of atolls. The Bikini atoll lagoon, for instance, was a ship graveyard prior to World War II, and now that the radiation levels from the old Bikini Island nuclear testing has faded enough, it's a kinda sorta popular diver attraction now.

Creatures lurking in the shallow lagoons, atavistic cultures isolated and marooned on shrinking islands over time... these are all great elements that could have a prominent place in a DINO-PIRATES adventure, if you wanted them to.

Just A Little Taste

Okay, I don't want to say too much about this just now, and I CAN tell you that certain details here are already due to change, but look, there's a piece of the puzzle, okay?

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is going places. Some of the most amazing people I know are involved in this, and they're outdoing themselves. And it's going to be shared. I think I know how to handle the licensing so that this crazy setting can belong to everyone, and still provide sustainable revenue.

I've discovered something in my life: the more you share, the more you have to give. Generosity rewards with abundance. When you hoard and snarl and struggle to hold onto every little scrap, little scraps are all you get. But when you share your ideas and your time with others, they respond with THEIR ideas and THEIR time.

It can be nerve-wracking at times -- other people's ideas are often intimidating to me. What if they're not as good as mine? What if they're BETTER? What if they take over and everyone forgets about me? Forgets that it was my idea in the first place? What if somebody takes my idea and makes all the money, and I have never have another good idea ever again?

But what if I do? What if I'm a FACTORY of ideas? What if everytime I share an idea with someone, they share back half-a-dozen ideas? Great ideas?

What if I operate from a basis of confidence and trust? If I have trust in myself and the others around me, faith in our ability to generate great stuff, then sharing my ideas freely becomes the only reasonable choice.

I'm not talking about abandoning copyright or giving away money or business opportunities. But SHARING isn't about giving away. It doesn't mean I don't value my own labour -- it's the opposite. I value my ability to create, and so I have faith that what I create is worth something to others. I don't have to operate from a basis of fear and suspicion.

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is an imaginary world full of imaginary people. But it's worth something. I don't know exactly what, but I have faith. Wait and see.

A Moment Of...

This one's been sitting on the burner for quite a while but I think it's done. I was overwhelmed by the preacher's speech in Lars von Trier's Breaking The Waves, and when casting around for something to contrast it with, came up with the soothing yet seductive tones of Monica Bellucci's discussion of ecstasy and pain. Once that pattern was in place, coming up with a simple piano riff and some string chords was pretty straightforward. I kept trying to dress it up a little but that never really worked. It feels delicate, like it needs room to breathe.

The simplest composition I think I've created so far. Steph says it sounds the most like me. You'll have to decide if that's a good thing.

A Moment Of...

Photo by somebody. License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Oh, Ed.

Dear lord, how I wish I'd thought of this. What a perfect opportunity, sitting there all these decades until some genius realised what could be accomplished.

Will it suck? Well, the odds aren't great, I guess. But will they make their money back? Oh how they will. My hat is off to these folks. Well done.

Via The Mad Pulp Bastard, of course.

Conspiracy Mashups!

I can't quite recall WHY I read Illuminatus! (or more properly, The Illuminatus! Trilogy).

Steven King may have referenced it in Danse Macabre (still my favourite of his books). It may have gotten mention in Dragon magazine way back in the day.

In any event, my 1984 Dell printing was pretty much brand-new when I got it, so it was a good healthy number of years ago. It was like reading a nuclear explosion. I was sixteen years old, and the most challenging stuff I'd read up to that point was probably A Tale of Two Cities. I didn't know anything about drugs, about hippie culture -- I barely knew anything about politics and certainly didn't get more than the barest number of the thousands of references scattered through this bewildering -- but hilarious -- novel. Shea and Wilson basically invent the conspiracy theory tale in these 800-some pages (and apparently that's with 500 or so pages cut out) and none of their imitators in the decades since has even approached the invention and audacity that makes this book so overwhelming.

Geez, was that all one sentence? Whoa.

"It was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton." What kind of opening sentence is that? The constant switching of narrator voice -- at points it's actually impossible to tell anymore who's speaking, and what point of view we're supposed to think they're presenting. Which is of course half the point. The book itself is a mammoth conspiracy tale, and like any good conspiracy, includes plenty of truths and half-truths in amongst the outrageous lies. And on page 722, the greatest joke of it all, the fourth wall gets blown away (is there a fourth wall in books?), and I the reader get pulled right in on the whole joke and it still works.

Like most genre-defining works, I think Illuminatus! actually reaches and even exceeds all the boundaries it creates. This book goes as far as any conspiracy book can possibly go, and then goes farther. There's really nothing left to write here - the spawning point is also the graveyard.

But there's something else that this mad tale has left us: the mashup. Because a conspiracy theory always has to be a mashup. The whole point of a conspiracy theory is to assert the connection between elements that otherwise do not appear to share anything. When George Dorn gets told that Abdul Alhazared, George Washington and the assassination of John F. Kennedy are all related to the ancient rulers of Atlantis, THAT'S mashup happening. The more elements you can tie together, the less probable your whole edifice becomes, the BETTER. And sometimes it seems like the mashup has become the default genre. From Kill Bill to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to, um DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, everywhere the mashing together of genres and massive "referentiality" are making up wholly new paradigms. Nowadays everyone knows what "steampunk" is, but fifteen years ago? Not so much. But it hasn't taken very long. Only five years back, the suggestion to "Define some genres" resulted in creative hilarity, and all of the genres defined therein count as mashups -- from "Trucker: The Cavalcade" to "Lovecraftian Ringwaldpunk".

I think all this fun stuff really does owe a big debt to Shea and Wilson's mad, psychedelic vision of the late 60's. Reading those dense paragraphs of lurid sex, violence, drugs and utter insanity (I'm making it sound pretty awesome, aren't I?) was and remains an absolute trip. This book is amazingly smart, amazingly well-informed and structured so beautifully it's almost impossible to see it -- the whole thing just flows from start to finish in a single uninterruptible stream. Crazy.

And the book remains one of those books that EVERYONE has heard of (or at least is familiar with the concepts it invented), but surprisingly few people have actually read. I don't think it quite qualifies as A One Nobody Knows, but sometimes it seems that way. But regardless, the idea of mashing together random references from history, pop culture and science has become an entire field of genres. Practically every comic book published nowadays owes a debt to this book, and plenty of Hollywood's output, too. It's definitely, in the words of Nuclear Platypus, "a real slobberknocker".

And if you don't get that, you haven't followed enough of the links I've so thoughtfully provided for you in this post. C'mon, start connecting some references here! Everyone's doing it!

Speaking of maps...

... the mapping project I mentioned last time is open for business. It's a bit light on content, but it's useable now.

I still need to make a better map, though.

The Modular Fantasy Campaign Elements wiki was conceived, by me, when I realized that I was often running D&D-like games, but that I was re-using elements of them over and over again. Same languages, same pantheon of gods, a hobgoblin empire, etc. I decided to throw them up on a wiki as modular elements so I could reference them whenever I needed to. They're light in detail; my hobgoblin empire isn't really sufficient to, for example, have a campaign set there without some significant work done by a potential GM, but as an area on the side, away from the main action but influencing it, it's pretty nice as is.

Anyway, I'm "officially" opening for business with this announcement, and I'll be adding more modular elements over time. In fact, the next project is the vampire kingdom I mentioned previously.


Ever since I first cracked open a copy of The Hobbit and The Book of Three (probably my two first real forays into fantasy fiction) I've been impressed with the power of a good map to deliver an important part of the experience. I used to spend hours looking over the large, fold-out map that came with my first copy (now lost, sadly) of Unfinished Tales, and wondering what those other, obscure places that Tolkien never really mentions in the narrative were like. Sea of Rhûn? Huh? Khand? What kind of place is that? Minhiriath? Tharbad? Cardolan?

When I started drawing my own maps in junior high, I followed a somewhat isometric, stylized version of map-making, inherited and inspired by Christopher Tolkien's masterful map, I'm sure. Most fantasy novels that include maps do, it seems. And I used to draw them all the time. I drew dozens, if not hundreds, of maps. That's how I doodled during class. I didn't do anything with most of them; simply making the map itself was the fun part of the exercise. I started roleplaying games in a time when most everyone was playing D&D (I didn't really start until the Basic box in 1983 or so, but I think my very first session may have been a lingering OD&D game. It didn't click for me at the time) and playing D&D back then quite often meant "homebrewing." This was before any significant or serious attempt had ever been made to present a coherent setting for anyone to use, so it was expected that GM's would do most of that work themselves.

I've since had second thoughts about the advisability of starting the job of GMing by drawing a map. I'm a fan of the Ray Winninger methodology, the gist of which is: don't create more than you have to, or you'll risk burning out. He advises only mapping a very small local area to start with. I've even run games with no map whatsoever before, and that's certainly doable. The methodology makes some sense; if you're going to be playing in the geographical equivalent of the British Isles, do you need to be mapping the geographical equivalent of the Ottoman Empire?

However, I think that---to a certain point---maps are a useful and fun artifact in their own right. I've found that making maps really helps to stimulate adventure ideas, and even campaign ideas. There's nothing quite like the implicit mystery of mapmaking: what does that name over there mean? What are people like over there; what kinds of interesting things are happening over there, etc.?

Game designers will tell you that the desire to explore is a compelling motivator for many gamers, and I believe it. I personally love that aspect of gaming myself, and nothing motivates me to explore more than a good map.

That said; I'm in the middle of a couple of mapping projects right now, for my "modular fantasy campaign setting elements" wiki. I've got a very sketchy one for my hobgoblin empire already posted (but I'll want to do a "prettier" and possibly slightly more detailed one in the future), and I'm turning my attention soon to the concept of a "vampire kingdom"... one of the first things I'll need to do for that is, of course, draw the map.

Okay, So I'm Not Crazy

This writer for Xark is contemplating opening up the setting of his unpublished novel. (thanks to @profpope for the link)

He's largely talking about doing what I'm planning with DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, only around a novel rather than a game. The idea of setting up a foundation to support the open setting is interesting, though, along with the proposed requirement that folks who make money off the setting be required to contribute some portion of that money to support it.

It's an idea.

Copyright is getting munged in all sorts of ways. As maybe some of you know, I'm in favour of lighter, leaner definitions of copyright and what it protects or doesn't protect. I got into a discussion with Ed the Sock a couple of months back about use of one's intellectual property. Ed's point was that if folks get to re-use your work, they can make it look like you said something you didn't. I argued that this isn't a copyright issue, it's a slander/libel issue. I remember when Raincoast Press used copyright to silence people who had received the new Harry Potter book early (because of Raincoast's error) -- as though the right to control the copying and distribution of a work granted the right to muzzle people who have received it legally!

Of course, I've probably mis-represented Ed's views here and will get a copyright lawsuit slapped on me. Great.

Anyway, my point with Ed (and I failed to convince him, and he's pretty smart, so keep that in mind) was that copyright is best handled as a purely economic law -- controlling the right to profit from distribution of an artistic work. Not a generalized control over the work and its presentation.

Well, so anyway, the idea with DINO-PIRATES is that the creation of the setting is open to all, and anyone who cares to can profit from the setting if they can come up with a marketable product based on it. It would please me immensely if somebody got rich off this. I ain't greedy that way.

In other news, some really dedicated fellow (Christopher was his name) sent me a whole list of dead links on the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND site but email server hijinks deleted his emails. Christopher, if you're reading this, can you send those again? Or at least know I really appreciated your efforts...

The Right Place To Be

This past August, I was fortunate to be able to join with Weins Sensei and others at his dojo in St Catherines, to practice and study with Sozen Larsen Kusano Sensei, of Kakudokan Norway.

Sozen Sensei is a 5th-dan practitioner of Katori Shinto Ryu, under Sugino Sensei. He is a big man, affable and energetic, with a passion for the art that comes across in all his demonstrations and instructions. Spending a couple of days under Sozen Sensei's expert eye is worth years of practicing alone or with one's peers.

Last year Sozen Sensei emphasized the importance of Responding, as opposed to blindly following the dictates of the kata. This year he spoke about how our practice should not be about trying to "reach" our opponent, but rather training ourselves to end up in the right position.

When one performs the kata with a partner, and has to make a cut, there is a very strong temptation to try and actually reach one's opponent's body as they retreat. Indeed at times I know I myself feel like I've failed if I haven't made contact.

Sozen Sensei emphasized that what's much more important than making that contact is to ensure that one comes to rest in the correct position, ready and balanced, available to make whatever move might be appropriate. Actually connecting with the blow is of lesser importance, and certainly one should never REACH out, extend oneself, in the hope of scoring a "touch". The swordfighting game is not about touching, it is about cutting, cutting deeply, cutting one's opponent down in a decisive blow. If the blow does not come naturally, then one should not reach out in the hopes of making it. Instead, finish the cut, maintain awareness, and adapt to the ongoing situation.

Miyamoto Musashi touches on this with his description of the Chinese Monkey's Body -- "the spirit of not reaching out your arms. Get in quickly, without extending your arms, before your opponent strikes." Sozen Sensei demonstrated how, once the urge to extend is eliminated, the swordsman can move in for a cut or keep a respectful distance, by stepping forward or back. The motion of the cut and the attitude of the body and arms are identical whether stepping in or staying back -- it is only through positioning that we choose between contact and distance.

"Chance favours the prepared mind," said Louis Pasteur. One might suggest that in mortal combat, chance likewise favours the prepared body. In our emotional and social interactions, we could say that chance favours the prepared spirit. In all our affairs, there is a correct manner of conduct, one that brings us to a balanced, stable stance, regardless of how we position ourselves. We may step in deeply, or we may stay clear of entanglement, but either way, the correct conduct remains the same. Acting decisively is a matter of conduct; acting effectively is a matter of position.

Photo by Leia Mendes Cook

We Begin With

Bill Cunningham, Agent of Pulp, comes through with one of the most amazing things I've ever seen:

If I'd been there, my brain would have exploded with sheer delight. People are just so awesome. I mean, these folks went to a LOT of trouble to do something that serves no purpose other than to amuse and delight their fellow humans. That is the Angel of Joy, at work right there.

Now it was Justin who turned me on to 2D Goggles: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, which you MUST read and slaver over. As I'm basically a drooling fanboy for all things Ada Lovelace, this actually DID cause my brain to explode. Thanks, Justin.

But look: Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage invent the computer and FIGHT CRIME. Ada's the smart, sassy one who crawls around in the depths of the ginormous Analytical Engine, fixing bugs (with a wrench), while Babbage is completely insane. It's brilliant, it's hilarious, and you should go read it right now.

The world is getting positively crowded with folks who do great things and don't try to squeeze every possible cent out of their audiences. Not that dancers and comic-book artists shouldn't get paid -- Cunningham has all sorts of links, thoughts and advice to creative types on how to GET PAID. But at the same time, if you're not having fun with it, if you aren't able to sometimes just do something because you LOVE IT, what the hell? Go get a job, kid.

Look there on the right. That's Yumi. Yumi's crazy, and she talks to ghosts. You're going to meet Yumi and her friends in the near future, but Claudio did that picture of Yumi because he likes her. DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is meant to create opportunities to get paid, but it's also meant to be fun, and if all it ever does is provide delight to others, I'll be well-satisfied, I can tell you that.

Although I'll still wish I'd seen that dance number in the train station. That was brilliant.

Sharing the DINO-PIRATE Love

I got involved in a bit of a conversation with the clever and oh-so-talented Philip J Reed (best known to me as Ronin Arts, but also a reviewer of toys. Not such a bad gig, I reckon).

It started when folks on Twitter started talking about the Creative Commons license for an upcoming game (not by Philip, as far as I know) called Eclipse Phase. Philip asked:
I can accept the idea that opening a game to fans will generate more sales but does that really work with small fan bases?

I responded with
on the other hand, when the amounts of money are so friggin' low to begin with, why not?

Philip said
If I was looking at building an IP, and not just a game, I would not go with CC.

I suggested
I think there's a model around CC-based development

Philip asked
But how do you then sell the IP to a studio or large publisher?

To which I responded:
well, clearly, you don't. THAT model doesn't fly. But you CAN sell material based on the IP.

Philip disagreed
I feel that creating any IP should keep in mind the possibility that someone may come along and want to make an offer.

My final statement on the issue:
that's fair. I'm more interested in how do I create as many fans as possible. Heard of "1,000 True Fans"?

(if you don't know, THIS is "1,000 True Fans")

So I quote all this not to send you trawling through the detrius of Twitter, but to throw up the fact that DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is in fact going to be an open setting. I'm still sorting out how that's exactly going to happen, but this is the plan.

And we'll do it with TECHNOLOGY.

No, I'm serious. The whole world is going to be able to help create this setting, and anyone who cares to will be able to profit from it (or at least try to). I didn't want to turn a private conversation into an ad, but it did get me thinking about the model here. It's a model of generosity.

The idea is that the more creativity I GIVE, the more opportunities I GET. Giving isn't the same as surrendering. It isn't about being ripped off, or not caring about money. But I do my best work in partnership with others, in community. And it's not always straightforward to build a community around the idea that DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is worth building (I know, I don't understand it either). But the broader the scope, the lower the barrier to entry, the more likely I think I am to find collaborators who will help build a mutually profitable enterprise. The more opportunities I am able to provide for other people's creativity, the more likely I am to find opportunities to generate value -- for myself and for my community.

Exactly how this is going to roll out is not 100% fleshed out but the teams are in place and things are moving along. I think I've figured out how to maintain consistency and yet allow free contributions. To let everyone who engages with the setting to make it their own. And it's happening. It feels real to me in a way it never has before. I've been working on this concept for some five years now, and it's very exciting to see it lumbering towards completion.

I should probably call it "The Rough Beast", huh?

DPoNI: The Playing Cards!

Okay, feast your eyes on these babies. Hypersmurf, better known as That Insanely Awesome Guy From New Zealand, put together a deck of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND playing cards! And you can buy them RIGHT NOW!

For the low low price of $10, you can buy a deck of Official DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND playing cards, and bring the likes of Victoria, Nobuhiro and Imperial Sorcerer Pak Siu Ming along on your games of Texas Hold 'Em, or Bridge, or Go Fish, depending on your preferred play style (I like Hearts, actually).

The cards use the soon-to-be-discussed "Factions" in DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND (well, four of them): Imperials, Ninjas, Pirates and Natives. These replace the old suits of Diamonds, Spades, Clubs and Hearts. This of course makes sweet little Narasaki into the feared Queen of Spades, but that's amusing.

You also get two Jokers in the deck -- the terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex and the fetching but even more terrifying SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY.

This is such a deal you should really be buying eight or twelve decks. Seriously. All monies raised will be going to help needy artists in Brazil. We're not even kidding about that.

But beyond the relentless salesmanship here, it's pretty cool to see that DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is beginning to spread. The idea was always that this setting would take on a life of its own, and inspire creativity in different venues, through different media. It started life as a setting for a fantasy role-playing game, but over the next year or so you'll be seeing these characters and their world getting developed on multiple fronts.

This deck of cards wasn't commissioned or even designed by me -- it was an enthusiastic fan of the setting who put this together. And there's more where that came from. There's other expressions of this enthusiasm coming down the pipe. My job is going to be trying to create a structure or an environment where this sort of creative energy can be directed, and build upon what's already been done.

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is an experiment, one that I hope enables creative engagement on many levels. Playing cards is just one expression of that.


YAAMV: Yet Another Amazing Music Video

Look at this. I mean, seriously, look at this.

Flaming Coward Challenge

Once again, Art Order's Jon Schindehette gets the illustration community to play in one of his Concept Tuesday challenges. This time it's to create a creature named "Flaming Coward". Click here to read the Flaming Coward's description, and see my entry below (with commentaries!). If you like it, swing by the contest's post and vote for me! And enjoy the many cool entries there, as well!

  • It is a subterranean creature that hunts in the dark. As such, it doesn't really *need* camouflage, so I gave it a pale, almost albino look. It is hairless, with lots of folds in its skin, like a bald rat or cat.
  • The eyes are enormous, allowing the Coward to see even the tiniest light (and hide from it). So much so that it is almost blind by bright light (hence the tiny pupils in the picture). Of course, with those ears it has no problem navigating by sound.
  • The Coward's claws are small in relation to its size, serving mostly to hold a victim while it bites (preferably from behind). With such big fangs, a bite is often all it takes.
  • Of course the Coward prefers to attack lone prey (like the hapless drow in the picture). But if it is found as it feasts, the bulging glands on its back pour a red-hot substance into the Coward's circulatory system. So hot, in fact, that the Coward's veins begin to glow in the dark! When the time comes to cool down, excessive body heat is radiated out through the bony spurs on the Coward's back and through the giant ears (like a desert fox).

If We Can't Pin Down the Medium, What Happens to the Message?

So the story of how DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND came about is interesting enough, but the story of where it's going is starting to get even more interesting.

The whole thing started when super-genius JPL commented that he'd missed out on a competition for the best fantasy setting. In his words, his entry would have been:

fantasy Asia, filled with warring island nations. Samurai mounted on domesticated raptors. Bigger dinosaurs hunted by quasi-Polynesian tribesmen. Dueling factions of shadow warriors. Privateers and bucaneers battling the servants of the Imperial Navy. Fallen kingdoms deep in forgotten jungles. And I call it...


Thus was born the legend, which turned into a couple of sprawling discussion threads and eventually culminated in me writing and running the adventure SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY, the first official DINO-PIRATES adventure. There was a short-lived campaign as well, and an online play-by-post game, but the DINO-PIRATES setting is starting to find a little traction in places outside the curious world of pen and paper role-playing games.

Story Hours

Re-edited, revised and re-posted from another blog, where I originally made this post before.

"Story Hours" are an interesting phenomena, particular to ENWorld, the premiere website and discussion forum for Dungeons & Dragons. It's an interesting concept; the whole "let me tell you about my campaign" writ large. Because the web as a forum is only semi-sensitive to audience reaction, it's possible for people to say an awful lot about stuff that you wouldn't be able to in regular conversation. Huge info-dumps, even.

This is how the "story hour" idea started; people wrote and posted logs of their games; what happened, in blow by blow detail. This later "multifurcated", if that's a word, into a number of styles. Some people use story hours as fairly sparse shorthand for what happened. Some people elaborate with recitations of dialogue, NPC vignettes, and other things that make the form more closely resemble "regular" literature. Some people are very strict about only including exactly what happened in game. Others are writing long after the fact, and are recreating from vague memories the details of the game in broad strokes.

In any case, a "market" for "story hours" developed at ENWorld to the point where a subforum was created specifically to cater to them, and some story hours have become big draws for the site.

One that I've always enjoyed is drnuncheon's Freeport Story Hour, a recitation of a playthrough of the original third edition Freeport Trilogy, and an interesting exploration of the setting, and urban fantasy gaming in general. In fact, when I've been asked (and it's come up a few times) how to do a successful urban fantasy campaign, one of the first things I do is point them to this story hour. It's a great example of a successful campaign set in a fantasy urban environment, where the adventures take place (often) within the city itself, instead of out in a "dungeon" somewhere. Since I strongly dislike the dungeon environment, this story hour piqued my interest more than most; urban intrigue is my personal bread and butter.

The story hour is also very breezily written; it settles into a more of a "semi-novel" style after a short stint as more of a "players log", with dialogue and good descriptions of action, and relatively few intrusive "gameisms" in the narrative. The author then does go on in other "out of narration" posts to give some interesting game info too. I could recommend a number of story hours---I've always been partial to barsoomcore's various efforts (of local fame, here on this very blog) for instance, and I've yet to meet anyone who didn't like jonrog1's or PirateCat's story hours---but for today, drnuncheon gets the honors of being recommended. I strongly suggest you check out the Dr.'s efforts.

In any case, I find the concept and phenomena of Story Hours fascinating; it's a new kind of writing that probably doesn't appeal to everyone, but to its target audience, it offers a genuinely unique experience. It also converges with some fantasy writing. A number of fantasy writers over the years have hinted that their novels and stories have evolved out of a gaming milieu (Raymond Feist, Steven Erikson, etc. I'm sure there's more that I can't think of off the top of my head) and this more direct tie to the hobby is, as I said, a very interesting phenomena.

Galaxy sky 2: Electric Bugaloo

I found the artist's homepage, who did the galaxy in the sky painting. Turns out he's updated the concept. This is a smallish thumbnail, but it's the best he's got. On the edge of a sea shortly after sunset.

Nice, huh?

Homebrew: galaxy sky and skull moon?

I've always been a guy who's imagination is sparked by vivid images. There's an image that's been in my head for over twenty years now, after first seeing it in a children's book about astronomy... when I was a child, appropriately enough. After looking for years for this book, the artist, or an online version of this picture, I stumbled across a good condition copy of the book in a used bookstore a coupla years ago, completely by accident. I scanned the one image in question, and I'll be posting it shortly, but my question is: if you were to integrate this image into your fantasy setting, what would you do with it?

Clearly, the image is a view from a planet outside of a large spiral galaxy more or less like the Milky Way. Perhaps the planet belongs to a solar system in a satellite minor galaxy, like one of the Magellanic Clouds, or perhaps it's merely a rogue star traveling through space completely on its own, yet close enough to a large spiral that on some evenings, when the moon is below the horizon or new, allowing for little light pollution in the sky, the spiral arms of a giant whirlpool galaxy fills the night sky.

Contrary to what you sometimes see in the movies, it's absurd to suggest you could actually see this rotating; the Milky Way, for example, has a radius of approximately 50,000 light years. The speed at which the outer arms would have to be moving in order to show visible rotation to someone outside is absolutely staggering... not to mention physically impossible. That doesn't mean that this would necessarily be a welcome sight in the sky. I imagine that folks would see this like the whirlpool that it resembles; they would fear the galaxy in the sky, and see it as evidence of the inevitable destruction of their world, it's final days to be sucked into the Void.

Anyway, I'm asking directly; any other ideas? Please post 'em!

Meanwhile, I've got another idea for a sign in the sky. Our own moon, at least on the side that's visible to Earth (the moon is tidally locked, so we only ever see one side of the moon... but you already knew that, I'm sure) is covered with the remnants of vast, prehistoric lava flows. These lava flows stand out as darker gray "seas", or maria against the silvery color of the rest of the moon. If you look at the full moon long enough, and have a little imagination, you might be able to think that you see images in the pattern of the maria. This is the so-called man in the moon.

But what if it wasn't a question of being imaginative? What if the pattern of the moon's "seas" made a very obvious design that anyone could see and interpret? And what if this pattern were a symbol of death?

This picture was posted on the Paizo blog (or somewhere on Paizo anyway; I did a google image search to find it) is what I mean; a fantasy moon that looks like a gigantic silvery skull. What would happen in such a world when the moon is full?

Another direct question: any ideas? I kinda imagine what the ancient druids and later medieval peasants thought Halloween was; a night when spirits ran unfettered through the night, could be not just a yearly event, but a monthly one. The full moon is the night of the undead. But, that's a bit obvious. Any better notions? Post 'em!

I should offer some kind of prize to the person with the best ideas here or something, because otherwise I probably won't get any comments, but y'know what? I'm really cheap. So I'm not gonna. But seriously; please post your ideas here.

DPoNI Characters: Victoria

Last week we met Shugo the disappearing ninja. This week we at last we meet a full-on DINO-PIRATE: Victoria!

Victoria has been part of the crew of the “Black Lady” for several years now, but feels it’s time to strike out on her own, explore the world, and maybe one day find a crew and a ship of her own.

Or just have a really good time. Either way.

Victoria is a DINO-PIRATE -- in particular, she's part of the Raptor clan of DINO-PIRATES. See, the DINO-PIRATES all take their names from various dinosaurs. There's not much actual organization to these groups; not like the ninja clans, which have all their ninja rules and ninja traditions and what not. The DINO-PIRATES aren't that interested in tradition and rules anyway. So Victoria is a Raptor DINO-PIRATE, so if she meets other Raptors (possibly there's a secret handshake), she'll probably help them out if they, say, get into a fight (pirates: fighting a lot).

Anyway, as a character build, Victoria is another Warrior like Chen, but unlike that worthy fellow, Victoria is more of a swashbuckler than a tank. She's nimble, with her +4 Dexterity, and charming, with her +2 Charisma, and not all that bright, with her -1 Intelligence. We'll see why the investment in Charisma pays off for Victoria below.

Dexterity of course is important because it powers both her attack bonus and her Dodge, meaning she's going to connect a lot more often than she's going to get connected with. It also combines with her Improved Initiative feat to give her a +8 on Initiative, meaning she's almost always going to get the drop on others. She's fast, is Victoria.

She'll need to be, since the absence of a Toughness bonus means any blows that do connect can hurt her seriously. Victoria doesn't want to stand toe-to-toe with big bruisers and dish out -- she needs to jump and bounce around the battlefield.

Which her skills will definitely help her out with. She gets Acrobatics and Bluff as bonus skills for being a Raptor DINO-PIRATE, and to that she adds another four plus her Intelligence -- which adds up to three. She takes Diplomacy since it builds off her Charisma (and we want her to be very charming), Jump for obvious reasons, and Knowledge (sea lore) since after all, she IS a pirate (plus her low Intelligence makes her especially bad at it, and we like the idea of Victoria confidently getting her shipmates lost time and again). Acrobatics, Jump and Bluff are all great candidates for combat stunts, and shipboard fights will probably allow a Knowledge (sea lore) stunt here and there, too. Despite so few skills, we're certain Victoria will get a lot of use out of them.

Her feats are pretty straightforward, too. As a Raptor DINO-PIRATE she gets Improved Acrobatic Charge and Lucky, both of which go great with her build (high Acrobatics and Charisma), and as a Warrior she gets Martial Weapon Training. That leaves her with three choices -- she picks Improved Initiative and Reckless Abandon (which allows her to add that high Charisma to her Dodge), and finally Reknown, which gives her a bonus to Reputation.

Reputation is a special quality of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND characters that provides them with a bonus on their interaction skills -- but can also render them vulnerable to people who know them a little TOO well. In any encounter, Victoria can make a Reputation check. If successful, she adds her Reputation score to her Bluff and Diplomacy checks (because everyone's so impressed with this famous pirate lady in their midst). Of course, if she fails her check she takes a penalty on those checks since everyone's all "we've never heard of you, self-important pirate lady." As characters adventure, they can gain Reputation awards just like Wealth awards, and so a character's Reputation fluctuates just like Wealth does. For a first-level character, Victoria is reasonably well-known -- most first-level characters have a Reputation of 0.

Victoria's future (assuming she has one), is most likely going to stay with straight Warrior levels. If something wacky happens there might be some Generalist or Adept, but with that limited Intelligence she won't get all that much use out of Expert levels. She'll probably want to take some Attack Focus/Specialization feats to amp up her skill with one or the other of her weapons (and she'll probably want to get a masterwork weapon as well). Maneuver Finesse would get more use out of that Dexterity, and Improved Critical is always a good choice for anyone with a rapier. Move-By Action would also be handy for staying out of trouble. With lots of choices for feinting, stunting and generally leaping about, along with a potent combat ability, Victoria's got an exciting future ahead of her. If not a long one.

DINO-PIRATES Characters: Shugo

At last, the ninja make an appearance. The DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND setting includes four major character groups: Pirates (such as Chen), Natives (like Kana and Mbungo), Imperials (our friend Ming-Wa), and Ninjas, who have so far been unrepresented.

No longer: meet Shugo.

Raised within the fog-shrouded enclave of Ninja Island itself as part of the Gathering Cloud Clan, Shugo works to cloud men’s minds and conquer the enemies of all the clans through stealth and deception.

He is quiet, serious, and extraordinarily pessismistic for somebody who’s a ninja.

Shugo is the classic ninja: stealthy, skilled and deadly. Well, one day, maybe, he'll be deadly. Right now he's going to have to settle for two out of three. As our first example of the Generalist role, Shugo shows the wide range of this role with a broad array of skills, supernatural powers and the promise of real combat expertise.

His ability scores line him up with his powers more than anything, but a +4 Wisdom comes in handy in a number of skills, too. The +1 Dexterity gives him some advantage in combat, and a +2 Intelligence gives him an extensive Skills list. The -1 on Charisma just means Shugo is kind of shy.

His Will save is exceptionally high (as a Generalist he gets to choose his best save, which in this case is Wisdom), so Shugo's hard to enchant or confuzzle by magical means. A Toughness save of +0, though, is good incentive to stay out of combat, although that high Dodge (15, to be explained below), does mean he'll be hard to hit.

Now as a ninja, he gets the Escape Artist and Stealth skills for free, and as a first-level Generalist with a +2 Intelligence, he gets an additional 8 skills. He focuses on a few Wisdom-related ones (Concentration, Medicine and Notice), a few Intelligence ones (Disable Device, Knowledge and Search), and then Climb -- because ninjas need to be able to climb up walls. All these skills will give him plenty of opportunities to stunt and gain bonuses, so he's got more potential than it might at first seem.

Of course a ninja ought to be able to disappear practically at will, even a low-ranking one like Shugo, so he's used the Generalist's Ultimate Trait ability to that end. Where Warriors get the ability to shake off wounds, Experts the ability to suddenly understand skills they didn't before, and Adepts the ability to use sudden powers they hadn't considered before, Generalists get to pick ONE THING they can do really, really well. Whenever the character spends a Conviction point, they automatically receive a roll of 20 for that one thing. Shugo chooses Stealth for that -- which means that at any moment Shugo can guarantee a 26 Stealth check, which is pretty fantastic at first level.

Shugo can do even better than that with his supernatural powers, as we'll see. But first, we see he has the bonus feats for a ninja, Improved Strike and Ninja Weapon Training, and the additional feat Canny Dodge, which lets him apply either his Wisdom or his Intelligence to his Dodge. This is why Shugo is so hard to hit -- because he's always WATCHING.

Only three feats? Indeed, because as a Generalist, Shugo can choose from a limited number of powers. He takes Cloud Minds, Light Shaping and Phase. The first one allows him to just disappear from anyone of weak mind (those who fail a Will save, that is). Minions, watch out. The second allows him to, among other things, create a sudden darkness wherever he likes, or visual illusions or blurring. All very useful stuff. The last one allows him to literally walk through walls, so no prison can hold Shugo of the Gathering Cloud!

As a Generalist, Shugo won't advance in these powers all that quickly, and his available list is very restricted, but as his combat ability ramps up, with all those useful skills, there's no doubt Shugo is a capable character who as he rises in level, may become the most deadly member of the party.

His options for growth are limitless -- staying as a Generalist gives him access to Expert feats, like Sneak Attack, which seems like an obvious one to pick. Attack Focus on the ninja-to wouldn't go amiss, of course, nor would Defensive Roll to boost his Toughness save. He could take a level of Adept and choose the Supernatural Focus feat to really oomph up that Cloud Minds ability. There's a lot of ninja gear that could help amplify his natural skills — in particular a natty ninja suit to give him a bonus on that Stealth skill would come in handy. The many uses of his ninja-to won't go unused, either, one imagines.

D&D Shoe Competition!

Wizards of the Coast and RYZ are holding a D&D-themed shoe design contest. There are lots of amazing entires, and this is where I try and pimp my designs (such as "Red Dragon", which you can see to the left). You can see them all in my contest portfolio page: .

In order to vote, you have to register at RYZ (which is free!). You can then assign your notes to each shoe design (marked by the number of "ticks" you assign, from 1 ("No Way") to 5 ("Love") or Pass ("No Opinion").

So run, don't walk, to the RYZ website and cast your vote! Help me, Obi-Wan, you're my only hope!

DINO-PIRATES Characters: Ming-Wa

We looked at one type of adept two weeks ago: Kana, She Who Talks To Dinosaurs. This week we're taking a look at someone a little more direct in their application of magic to problem: Imperial Sorceress Ming-Wa.

Ming-Wa's an escapee from one of the fearsome eunuch sorcerers now ruling the great Empire to the north. The magic she learned from her terrible master is unsubtle and potent. Her build is an interesting one, pointing out some of the big differences between this game and other games you might be more familiar with.

Ming-Wa learned the art of Imperial Sorcery as the protegee of one of the East Chamber’s feared eunuch sorcerers. When her master turned on her, Ming-Wa had to flee into the lawless depths of the Dino-Pirate Islands. Her contempt for the rogues who now surround her wars with her desire to find a home.

Her ability choices are not what you'd expect in an Intelligence-based adept — while she has the requisite high Intelligence, she's also put into Charisma, Constitution and Dexterity, at the cost of a point of Strength. We built up her Dexterity because her primary power is going to rely on her attack roll, so some help here is going to be necessary. Her Charisma is really due to her concept (she's an imperious and contemptuous aristocrat), but it's helped to make this character a fun one to play with lots of options even at first level.

With only one level in Adept, Ming-Wa is not very formidable in combat. She's pretty easy to hit and isn't likely to land many blows herself. Even if she does, she's not likely to do much damage. However, her Constitution gives her an above-average Toughness save, so she needn't run for cover at the first sign of a punch-up. And as we'll see, she can actually be quite useful in such affairs.

Her skill choice is wide due to her high Intelligence. In addition to the bonus skills of Intimidate and Concentration she gets for being Imperial, she selects Bluff and Gather Information in order to play off her high Charisma (which Intimidate does likewise), and then she picks up an array of Intelligence-based skills: Disable Device (surprising but helpful — maybe this is how she escaped her Imperial master), Knowledge (history), Knowledge (supernatural) (necessary for anyone pursuing Imperial Sorcery), and Search. A few ranks in Notice never went astray, just to finish the whole thing off.

Such a broad array of skills gives Ming-Wa ample opportunities for stunting, making her more formidable than she appears. Coming up with stunts around Bluff and Intimidate is easy, and with a little creative thought things like Concentration, Disable Device and Knowledge can all get in on the fun. I'd like to see somebody come up with a way to stunt off Gather Information, I have to say.

In addition, both Bluff and Intimidate can be used to feint in combat, which makes Ming-Wa an effective support combatant. She can set up bad guys, leave them vulnerable, and then let her more combat-oriented friends polish them off.

Ming-Wa's weapon helps her out with this tactic — it has the masterwork property "Flashy". In DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, masterwork weapons can have benefits other than bonuses to attack. A masterwork weapon can have the Flashy property, which means it is tasseled or has noisy rings or whatnot on it, so that when used for feinting, it supplies a +2 bonus to the skill check involved. This gives Ming-Wa a whopping +11 on a feint attempt with her Intimidate -- not many 1st-level enemies will be able to avoid being flat-footed for a round. If she's got a friend with Sneak Attack it's going to be a bad day for the bad guys.

It really speaks to Ming-Wa's personality, too — she just dazzles them, and then lets others handle the tedious business of actually killing them to death.

As an Imperial, Ming-Wa gets the Great Fortitude and Tireless feats for free. She adds Skill Focus (Intimidate) for obvious reasons, and then takes Supernatural Focus on her core power, Wind Shaping. This is why her Power ranks and other numbers have two values -- the higher number applies to Wind Shaping only, because of the bonus granted by Supernatural Focus. To that power she adds Elemental Blast, so she can knock out bad guys with blasts of air, in addition to just creating hurricanes. Wind Shaping promises to be helpful in all sorts of situations, especially in a pirate-themed game where sailing might just feature strongly.

She needs to make a ranged attack to use the Elemental Blast, which will continue to be her weak point. Two ways for her to compensate for that are to either start taking some Warrior levels to boost her combat bonus, or to take the Widen Power feat and dispense with the attack roll altogether. She'll probably want to continue to max out her Intimidate, Bluff and Knowledge skills, but depending on how the game goes that Disable Device skill might become a focus -- she might pick up the Manipulate Object power so she can use it at a distance (even though it's not a canonical Imperial Sorcery power).

She uses her Knowledge (history) skill as her Professional skill, meaning each level she gains she makes a check with that skill to see if her Wealth increases. We imagine Ming-Wa assessing artifacts or researching useful bits of information -- sort of a mercenary librarian, if you will. Regardless, this is a character with a lot of potential directions to go in, and with her Virtue and Vice of "Fearless" and "Arrogant", she's sure to get into no end of trouble, no matter where she goes.