N is for Nia MacGavan #atozchallenge

English: Belgian Congo Postage stamp, 1925 iss...

English: Belgian Congo Postage stamp, 1925 issue, 50c (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Way back in 2002, my husband Thomas ran a GURPS Call of Cthulhu game for us. It was one of the creepiest and most entertaining games I’ve played, and I think he made up most of it as he went along. We started out in Massachusetts (of course), ended up in Louisiana fighting Deep Old Ones, “died” and woke up in giant clay jars in a landscape from Dante’s Inferno—literally. After a particularly harrowing experience summoning somethin’ they had’n’t oughta summoned, Drs. MacGavan and Nelson consummated their relationship. Nia got pregnant, and when Danny found out, he punched Kent in the mouth. Nia had morning sickness along the way. Great way to fight monsters. We ended up completely off track in Africa (and my dear husband allowed us to do so), traveling all the way to the Belgian Congo for no good reason. To this day, we refer to “going to the Belgian Congo” when characters are off track or in danger of becoming so.

Here’s Nia’s starting biography (see I is for Intricate Backstories). She and Kent married and had a baby girl (if memory serves). No, the baby did not have tentacles.

Nia [Niamh] Áine MacGavan, Ph.D, was born May 1, 1900, in Mulranny, County Mayo, Ireland to a devout Catholic couple named Caoilte and Áine MacGavan.  Her sister Caitlin was born two years later, and Brenna came along in 1904.  Caoilte’s mother Medb also lived with them until her death in 1912, but Medb’s tales of the Fair Folk and her superstitions stayed with Niamh the rest of her life.  She gave her granddaughter a locket with a four-leaf clover in it that she always wears, believing it to help her see through faerie glamour.

Niamh’s life was chaotic.  Her father, a day laborer, was passionately involved in the fight for Irish independence.  Toward this end, he moved the family frequently to wherever there was trouble or the possibility of stirring up more.  He taught his daughters to fire a rifle in self-defense—or offense, if necessary.  Niamh’s light sleeping tendencies and milder nightmares grew out of this constant uncertainty and risk.  Caoilte also believed strongly in women’s education, and he and Áine made certain that Niamh and her sisters studied.  Niamh had a flare for languages and an interest in ancient cultures that took her mind away from the terrors of daily life.

Caoilte successfully eluded the authorities despite his terrorist activities until 1916, when they moved to Dublin.  He was preparing a bomb in the kitchen of their home during the fighting that followed the Easter Uprising.  It exploded unexpectedly, killing him and his youngest daughter instantly; the ensuing fire took the lives of his middle daughter and wife.  Niamh was away at the time and returned just as the fire was being put out.  The terrifying nightmares about fire began shortly thereafter.

Caoilte’s older brother Arthur, who lived with his wife Muriel in London, took Niamh in.  Arthur and Muriel worked at the University of London and, with very little convincing necessary, persuaded Niamh to enroll in the School of Oriental Studies, where she studied Near Eastern languages and linguistics.  Her aunt and uncle were infinitely more liberal in their outlook on life than Niamh’s parents, and introduced their niece to a social scene unlike any she had ever experienced.  She gradually came to view her parents’ religion with scorn, contrasting the teachings they supposedly espoused with Caoilte’s love of violence and chaos.

Innately superstitious (she leaves cream out for brownies as she has since she was a child and really believes in the power of her necklace), Niamh became interested in the occult through acquaintances of Aunt Muriel’s.  One frequent guest of the MacGavans was Phillip Parnell, a medium who offered to teach Niamh about the occult.  The intensity of their year-long relationship alarmed Niamh’s aunt and uncle, who, after she graduated with honors in 1924, strongly urged her to apply for positions in America.  Arthur called in a favor and soon Niamh was hired by Blackstock College in Massachusetts to teach linguistics.

Despite Prohibition, in America Nia, as she is now known, has explored the taste for carousing she developed in England, although she does it discreetly to avoid censure by the school administration.  Her beauty has caused one scandal, when the dean cornered her in the cloakroom at the Christmas party and his wife walked in on them kissing.  As she finishes her first year of teaching at Blackstock, Nia has begun to use her beauty to her advantage and has become something of a tease.  She has become friends with a student, an aspiring movie stuntman named Danny, who accompanies her to speakeasies and roadhouses to indulge her desire for carousing.

Nia teaches Introduction to the Study of Language, Introduction to Linguistic Analysis, and Elementary Akkadian.  Her research interests include Akkadian and Sumerian literature, particularly incantations and magic.  She has developed a crush on Kent Nelson, the serious archaeology professor ten years her senior, and has made it her mission in life to encourage him to loosen up and relax.  She is somewhat in awe of him and his accomplishments, and would love nothing better than to go on a dig with him.

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L is for Leviathan: Adventures in the World Sea #AtoZChallenge

One of my favorite games of all time has to be the Leviathan campaign, run by my friend Scott. It’s probably one of the longest campaigns we played as well. As Scott described it in his original document from 2003, “Adventure in a world of merchant princes, pirate treasure, ancient ruins, noble orders, and the all too ready death that lurks below the surface of the world sea.” The campaign had a swashbuckling, Renaissance feel to it, personified by my character, a bard named Rafael Ceurdepyr (about whom more in R is for Rafael).

The rules we used included action points, a number of points usable to reroll low dice results or perform amazing stunts; low magic; starting backgrounds, such as aristocrat, criminal, rascal, soldier, street rat or student; lives, meaning each player began with 1d4+2 “lives,” representing “your chances to cheat death and recover from wounds that would otherwise be fatal,” although only the gamemaster knew how many lives the character has; and gunpowder weapons. Races allowed were humans, the predominant race; half-elves; goblins; paragoblins, which was Rafael’s race, resulting from a human-goblin interbreeding; and ogrun, somewhat similar to half-orcs.

House Rayale

House Rayale

Here’s Scott’s description of the present world, 2500 years after the great Cataclysm:

Seven Great Houses and the Parliament govern the Archipelago Concord States.  The Seven Great Houses are more businesses than aristocratic dynasties, although they are that as well.   A merchant patriarch, who speaks for the House and sets policy, rules each.  The House Rayale is the largest and most powerful, being the house that successfully crossed the Sundering Sea, it now enjoys a near monopoly on trade in Dwarven made goods.  The House Merlyean is the next most powerful, and the primary maker of ships in the Human-Goblin controlled States.  The House Grumalaniakin is the only Goblin Great House, it is the primary source of chemical substances, dyes, medicines, and plant based oils.  The Sunrod House controls the few mining operations in the Shallow Sea, as well as most of the heavy industry, it is the arch-rival of the House Rayale.  The most peaceful house is the Granmar.  The Granmar House controls the most land, and manages the vast agricultural lands of the larger islands.  The House Hienter specializes in fishing and harvesting the sea while its major ally,the smallest house, House Ferinne deals in light industry and various types of trade. 

The houses are a constantly shifting battleground.  Rarely does it come to outright war, but each house maintains its own militias and armed fleets.  They vie for power over the lesser houses, the city-states they do not control out right, and the Trade Guilds.  Espionage, assassination, betrayal, and subversion are the common tools of the merchant patriarchs.

The Parliament serves as a check on the Great Houses, although a small one.  Given the power to tax and regulate trade the Parliament sets tariffs and grants rights to shipping lanes, new islands, and various other resources.  These various sets of licenses and taxes serve as fertile ground for pirating and smuggling, for there is always profit to be had in skirting tariffs.  This is a trade and tactic well known to the Major Houses.  The Parliament is made of the Lesser Houses, most of whom rule the city-states or various subsidiary industries for the Great Houses, the major guild representatives, and officials from the Faith of Alyander.  The Elven Fleets also send representatives, always human in their hire, to Parliament to speak on their behalf, but they have no formal vote.   The Parliament meets once every three years, at which time it elects a Prime Minister and a Cabinet who do most of the business of Parliament.  Admission to Parliament is made by petition to Parliament based on societal influence and must be ratified by a majority vote.  That rarely happens

The main islands of the ACS are the Six Sons, a chain of large islands all but completely dominated by the Great Houses.  At any given time there are as many as 100 smaller islands, some equaling the smaller of the Six Sons down to a few miles across, that are also nominally controlled by the ACS, its companies, houses, or members.

Outside the ACS, within the Shallow Sea, are several Freeholds, the largest of which is Nan.  It, and others like it, are seen as pirates and outlaws by the Great Houses, but are often employed in their schemes. In reality Nan and its fellows are haven for free enterprise of one sort or another, at best, and petty slaver kingdoms at worst.

The Dead Isles are the remains of the Gnome Republic.  For generations no one lived there. In the last 100 years they have been colonized, but little is known about them in the ACS.

The Elf Fleets travel the world, never allowing a member of another race to travel beyond the Shallow Sea with them.  Occasionally large fortress-towns enter the Shallow Sea, and rumors of larger ones remain.  The elves are on friendly terms with many of the freeholds as well as the ACS.  Captains and Admirals govern them, in a semi-informal military structure.  They never set foot on land voluntarily.  When elves set foot on lnad involuntarily it usually precipitates into suicide, both of the elf in question and the town or ship that harbored his tormenters.  Elves are as fierce as any when it comes to dealing with pirates, but they will in no wise tolerate being taken to land. To force an elf to land is to invite the wrath of every elf in the Shallow Sea, and perhaps beyond.  Many wise men know to leave the elves alone if they wish it, but only fools ignore them.

The Dwavenholms across the Sundering Sea are dug into the Last Land and are vast and ancient.  Their rule, customs, and laws are largely unknown to the human culture, and only speculations are possible.  Some form of clan and guild hybrid rules, dominated by great Patriarchs and Keepers of Tradition.

There are many small islands that are home to tribal cultures at the edges of the Shallow Sea.  Most of the races there are Human, Orc, or Goblinoid.

What’s your favorite campaign of all time? Comment below.

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J is for Just Do It! #AtoZChallenge

I’m sure many other people chose “Just do it!” as their blog subject for the day, but probably none of them mean it in the context of gaming.

Yes, you can game and hold a baby at the same time!

Yes, you can game and hold a baby at the same time!

Before I proceed, though, I have a confession. I was really stuck on a topic for “J,” so I crowd-sourced. My brother Rick helpfully contributed with, “J is for June–the month Roger Dungeon and Darryl (not that one) Dragon sat down in their basement one fateful rainy Saturday and invented their famous fantasy game.” This revelation would come as a surprise to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, but I felt it deserved sharing. Thanks, bro!

Scott gave me the title for this post. It’s my plea for you to try out gaming just once. I’ve greatly enjoyed hearing from those of you stopping by for the A to Z Blogging Challenge, and so many of you say that you’ve never gamed (in the sense I’m talking about). So why would you take it up now? Here’s some reasons:

  1. It’s a great way to relax with friends. (If your gaming group doesn’t break out in laughter frequently, you probably need new friends.)
  2. If you’re a frustrated, wanna-be or closet actor, roleplaying is a fun way to submerge yourself into the part of another character. For an hour or two once a week, you can be the hot Asian chick wielding dual katanas or the dour yet fierce dwarf whose axe is the downfall of many a bandit or the dashing singer who doesn’t need a weapon to intimidate or charm her opponents.
  3. Through gaming you can blow off steam in a socially acceptable way, especially after a tough week at work.
  4. You can find an outlet for your creativity. Paint miniatures (more about that on M is for Minis), write an intricate backstory, draw a picture of your character, knit a scarf just like your character would wear.

I’m sure I’ve left out some reasons. If you game or have played in the past, why do you enjoy it? Comment below!

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I is for Intricate Backstories #AtoZChallenge

Brand Hammerlock

Brand Hammerlock

You might wonder, if you’ve read my previous posts, why it’s called “roleplaying” if all you do is kill monsters and take their stuff. Ah, but there’s more to it than that. Much more.

I enjoy the interplay between characters. I love to create intricate backstories. As a writer, I’m fond of torturing my characters, and I’m no less fond of it in gaming. The classic stereotype is that everyone’s character has parents who were killed by orcs. Not mine. Oh, no, that’s too simple.

Examples? Thought you’d never ask.

Mordecai Shadebane (Mosaic Campaign) is a Glimmerfolk (a sort of fae humanoid with small glowing balls of light orbiting their heads). He was born into a Puritanical society at just about the time their entire settlement was relocated (part of the conceit of the campaign). His parents were horrified to find the orbs were the color of shadow, and he had a scrollwork mark on his upper back. Mordecai’s father pronounced it evidence of the taint, possibly a consequence of his mother’s years of scouting out Enemy positions. If the elders of his settlement had known, Mordecai would have been drowned at birth. When he came of age, he became the apprentice of an aasimar sorcerer, leaving his settlement just ahead of a mob intent on stoning him for his own sorcerous abilities.

Brand Hammerlock (Ptolus Campaign) is a dwarf, an urban druid with a dragon pistol and a stone dog for a companion. He had been a journeyman in his uncle’s gun smithy, but he had no magic of the kind expected. He roamed the great city of Ptolus, sleeping in doorways, eating whatever the city provided (even it was rats and rainwater), and listening to the Voice of the City.

“What do you plan on doing?” the master asked when he said he was leaving his service.

“I don’t know,” Brand said with an unconcerned shrug. “Learn the City, I guess.”

Master Strikeflint frowned and stroked his braided beard. “Learn the City. Where will you sleep? What will you eat?”

“The City will provide.”

And one last, mentioned already in E is for En Arcadia Est:

(Francis) Drake Corrigan was born in 1900 in Rivercrest, a small factory town near Chicago, Illinois. His father Francis worked in a factory. In her spare time, his mother, the former Lyra Drake, dabbled in drawing and taught her son to love art, something Francis scorned and discouraged. “The boy’s already too much of a daydreamer,” was a frequent accusation heard from Francis.

Lyra died in an influenza epidemic when Drake was 13. She had always acted as a buffer between the two, and her death drove them further apart. Drake was often in trouble at school for drawing or daydreaming instead of listening to his teachers. When he drew, he often felt he was on the verge of discerning some larger Truth about his artwork altering reality, although at that time he never thought of it in those terms.

Finally, when Drake turned 16, Francis decided his boy had had enough schooling and that he’d been too soft on him since Lyra’s death. He signed him up for the Army.

War had already raged in Europe for three years when Drake’s military training was complete, and he was shipped over to France as part of the American Expeditionary Force. Through a series of strange coincidences and serendipities that Drake could never explain afterwards, the young man ended up as a sketch artist working for military intelligence. The horrors he saw and drew renewed and intensified in him the old desire to alter reality as a way of helping others and holding those horrors at bay.

Early in 1918, he received a letter from home that his father had died. Drake knew he had no reason to go back to Illinois and pondered his next course of action. When the war ended several months later, an older soldier who had befriended Drake and shepherded him through the war came to him and confessed that he had shown Drake’s work to a professor at an art school in Paris. On the basis of the sketches, Drake secured a scholarship to the school from the Zenith Foundation, an American-based organization.

Not long after Drake began his studies, a battered old trunk was delivered to him from back home. It is mostly filled with junk that he recognized from his boyhood home. Among the detritus, however, was the large art book filled with color plates his mother would pore over for hours and read to him. Tucked between the pages, he found two sketches by his mother, one of herself and one of him as a child.

Over the next few years, Drake immersed himself in the world of art, especially art of the Renaissance, learning French and Latin along the way. The turning point came when he discovered the journals of a group of wildly flamboyant Renaissance painters known the Rue d’Obscurité, after the street in Paris where they lived and worked. These four men and one woman used their art in occult ways, exploring illusion and reality and how to alter their nature. Drake devoured their works, deeply affected by the writings that struck a chord in his soul. He knew this was what he had been seeking all his life.

The fact that they died in some mysterious disaster that destroyed their home and most of the surrounding street daunted him not at all, and hints of the cause being demonic entities made him aware that the world may hold even worse horrors than what he witnessed on the battlefield. He began experimenting with the spells he found in their works, hesitant and tentative first steps into the world of the occult.

He has continued to study magik through the creation of runes, sigils and other icons, guided by the concepts of the Rue d’Obscurité, but adapting them in his own way. He even acquired a familiar, a gray tabby he named Henri after one of the Rue d’Obscurité members. Drake tends bar part time at an ex-pat bar called Chicago to make ends meet, studying art and magik and accepting commissions along the way. He has no particular plans for the future, keeping his eye open for opportunities as they present themselves.

Yeah, that last one was the most detailed. Have you ever created such detailed backstory for a character in a game, or am I the only one so obsessive? Comment below.

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H is for Horror Gaming #AtoZchallenge

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey (Photo credit: Jon Pinder)

“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”― Clive Barker

Fantasy is not the only genre represented in roleplaying. Probably my favorite genre is horror gaming, as you know if you read my post C is for Call of Cthulhu.

Any game can have elements of horror. In fact, it could be argued that by definition Dungeons and Dragons is a horror game, because of the presence of the classic monster tropes such as vampires, ghosts, specters, werewolves, ghouls, skeletons and zombies.

But a horror game is distinguished by its tone. The typical D&D game is about wading in and dispatching the monsters as quickly as possible, without any sense of fear and trepidation. A gamemaster running a horror-flavored game sets the tone by emphasizing the atmosphere, by engendering uncertainty in his players about the outcome of their characters. If he knows his players well (and depending on the level of trust in the group), he can prey on their fears by including certain triggers in the gameplay.

Many of the horror games in which I’ve played have been set in modern times: Call of Cthulhu, The Dresden Files (maybe not entirely horror), and Unknown Armies come immediately to mind. In these games, the character doesn’t usually have amazing strength or dexterity. Although she may have a limited power or ability, she’s more vulnerable and thus more susceptible to the loss of control mentioned in the Clive Barker quote.

What do you find scary in a roleplaying game? Did I leave out your favorite? Comment below!

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