Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

My favorite gaming books published in 2014 (so far)

I picked up 188 RPG products in 2014 (plus a few more than arent in RPGGeek’s database yet), 43 of which were published in 2014. Of those 43, I’ve spent enough time with enough of them to tease out a partial list of 12 favorites — partial because there are books I expect to love which aren’t included here simply because I haven’t had a chance to read them.

  • The Chained Coffin – Michael Curtis (Stonehell + DCC RPG + a setting inspired by one of the least-known authors in Appendix N, Manly Wade Wellman + a fabulously run Kickstarter that turned out a beautiful product = win. There’s a ton of stuff in this boxed set, including a killer spinning prop.
  • The Clay That Woke – From the concept to the execution, this is a fabulous book. It oozes mood, and the system — which uses tokens, not dice, drawn from the krater of lots and compared to an oracle — is fascinating. This is one of my favorite things I backed on Kickstarter in 2014.
  • Cosmic Patrol – This oddball improv game marries a genre I don’t care about (Golden Age sci-fi, robots and rayguns) and a publisher I don’t associate with weird little games (Catalyst), and the marriage is groovy. I liked the core book so much that I bought the whole line.
  • Cthonic Codex – This hand-assembled, limited edition boxed set is a buffet of peculiar, evocative goodness for any fantasy game. It’s a setting unto itself, presented in incredibly appealing . . . fragments, I guess? It’s hard to describe, but superb.
  • Dead Names: Lost Races and Forgotten Ruins – Like other Sine Nomine books (e.g., Red Tide, which is awesome), while this is a Stars Without Number supplement it’s really a toolkit for generating weird places and species that works just as well for other games and genres, and a good one at that.
  • The Dungeon Dozen – This is in my top three for the year — it’s superb. I liked it so much that I reviewed it on Gnome Stew. If you’re a fan of old school games, old school art, and/or random tables, buy it.
  • Dwimmermount – After the most painful crowdfunding roller coaster I’ve ever been involved with as a backer, I crossed my fingers that Dwimmermount would be as good as 2012 Martin hoped it would be. And it is! It’s a weird, wonderful monster of a dungeon that begs to be explored.
  • Guide to Glorantha – Moon Design’s two-volume doorstop dominates any shelf it sits on, and both books are simply stellar. I have no idea if I’ll ever need or use this much information on Glorantha, but I’m glad I own them.
  • Obscene Serpent Religion – Need a freaky serpent cult for your game? Of course you do! This is a toolkit for creating one, and for doing so cleverly with a minimum of effort and a lot of flavorful inspiration.

Despite trying to be thorough I’ve probably forgotten something, and I’m confident more favorites will emerge as I make my way through my to-read pile mountain. Happy gaming!

Categories
Board games Tabletop RPGs

My 2014 in games

After making my support payment to BoardGameGeek/RPGGeek, my 1/1 (or sometimes 1/2) tradition, I decided to write the post I meant to write last night — I was too tired to do it last night. So here’s my 2014 in games, by the numbers, and with more personal reflection than I was planning when I started writing

RPGs

I logged 31 gaming sessions in 2014 with my two gaming groups, one face-to-face and one virtual (Hangouts), and probably played another 5-10 that I forgot to log. The number of distinct RPGs I’ve played climbed to 93, which I’m happy about.

2014 was mostly the year of Fate Mass Effect, but we also wrapped up a great Hunter: The Reckoning campaign and a mediocre-to-bad Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign (run by me), and I played one-shots and short campaigns across a handful of indie RPGs, including Primetime Adventures and Dungeon World. That feels about the same as 2013 to me. I used to play more sessions, but summer is now mostly taken up by camping and hiking, and everyone in my groups has more obligations than they used to, so the numbers are down compared to a few years ago.

In hindsight, I spent too much time not feeling engaged at the gaming table. That’s happened before, and it usually teaches me some good lessons about my taste in games and gaming. I homed in more closely on what I like (player-driven stories, lighter mechanics, player agency) and don’t like (railroaded stories, filler sessions, lack of player agency, close-mindedness about games) in my gaming.

I didn’t do much GMing in 2014, and the GMing I did was almost uniformly pretty bad. I’m not sure why that is, but my GMing confidence has taken a big hit as a result. I did figure out that I don’t want to run the kinds of game my face-to-face group usually plays at the moment, though, and taking myself out of the GMing rotation for a while has reduced my stress level.

I also got some feedback about my default play style that surprised me. The whole thing was handled badly, but after a few months I’m feeling positive about the situation overall. I’ve created two PCs for 2015 that are strongly against type for me, and I’m excited to play both of them. I wish this had gone down differently, but it gave me a richer perspective on gaming as a whole and my strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots as a player, both socially and RPG-wise.

One notable high point was Google+, which has offered up a steady stream of gaming goodness and been a great outlet for me to blather about gaming stuff. I checked in several times a day most days, and enjoyed virtually all of the time I spent there.

On balance, 2014 was a mixed bag of a year unlike any other year I can remember, with higher highs and deeper lows than usual. I’m hoping 2015 has a more even and more positive vibe.

My predictions for 2015

2015 will be a lot like 2014, numbers-wise. My face-to-face group has two campaigns going, Dragon Age and Star Wars: Age of Rebellion, and my Hangouts group is playing tremulus. My Hangouts group will likely cycle through another half-dozen or so indie RPGs in 2015, and my number of sessions overall will be about the same. I won’t GM much in 2015, but I’ll try to hit 100 RPGs played.

Kickstarter and IndieGoGo

I backed 14 projects on Kickstarter (11 RPG products and 3 board games) and two on IndieGoGo (both RPG products). Compared to the combined 58 projects I backed from 2011-2013, that actually makes it a pretty average crowdfunding year for me. Which is a surprise, because I thought I’d cut way back; apparently there’s still room to trim!

Two of the board games have arrived, and I wish I hadn’t backed either of them. My track record in Kickstarted board games is 100% bad: I’ve never liked or held onto a board game I’ve backed on KS. I’m crossing my fingers that Mouse Guard: Swords & Strongholds will break that streak in 2015.

But man was it a good year for RPG stuff. The highlights were The Clay That Woke, Dwimmermount, The Chained Coffin, and a pile of fantastic stuff from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And there’s more stuff I think I’ll greatly enjoy on the horizon.

I spent zero time browsing on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo for stuff to back, relying entirely on Google+ posts to point me to interesting projects. I backed less than half of the projects I looked at overall. I saw KS and IGG becoming a problem for me in 2013 and turned them into non-problems in 2014, which feels pretty good. (I also posted less about stuff on KS, which makes sense.)

My predictions for 2015

I’ll continue using Kickstarter and IndieGoGo in 2015, but I doubt I’ll back any board games and I suspect I’ll back fewer gaming products than I did in 2014. Crowdfunding won’t quite fall off my radar, but it will come close. Most things I might back on KS/IGG I’ll just order when they come out, or not order at all.

Board games

I played 58 distinct games, with a total of 181 plays logged in 2014. The majority of games got played once or twice; the highest play count was 20. I started logging plays in 2008, and in 2014 I crossed the 1,000-play mark, making 2014 an average year in terms of plays.

My top five most-played games were Don Quixote (solo), Connect 4 (kids), Disney Dazzling Princess (kids), Ascension: Storm of Souls, and Blokus Duo. That’s a decent snapshot of my year in board gaming, which was a good one for games with my daughter, with visitors, and solo, but a light one for gaming with my wife and gaming group.

I purged 28 games from my collection in February, and another 23 yesterday, for a total of 51 sold off in 2014. I acquired about 17 games (my best guess; I don’t track this), which is light compared to the past few years — and intentionally so. That puts my core collection — the games I want to consider when I ask myself, “What do I want to play?” — at 144, which is still bigger than it needs to be.

My board gaming h-index climbed from 12 to 13, which is a bit of a bummer as I worked on that number throughout the year. But it’s only a few plays (of the “right” games) from hitting 14, and 15 isn’t terribly far off. More games saw repeat plays in 2014, though, which was my goal.

The highlight of the year for me was getting closer to my sweet spot board game-wise. I spent more of my time playing games that I deeply enjoy and rate highly, and less of my time playing new games just for the sake of it or games I wasn’t wild about, and my collection got leaner and better overall. My favorite games in 2014 included Kingdom Builder, Hanabi, K2, Ascension: Storm of Souls, Don Quixote (solo), FlowerFall, and Lords of Waterdeep.

My predictions for 2015

I think I’ll rack up fewer solo plays (that time has been taken up by bodybuilding and other stuff), more plays with my wife, and about the same number of plays with my daughter, my gaming group, and visitors. I’ll acquire fewer new games in 2015, and will do another purge. Past purges have culled everything rated 6 or lower, but dipped into 7s; now I’m eyeing the 7s. Why aren’t they 8s? More of those can probably go too. Finally, I might just make it to 500 distinct games played in 2015.

That went from a short exercise in stats to a long, reflective post. Before writing it, I’d have generically described 2014 as “good” for games, but looking at it all broken out like this I have a more nuanced picture of the year. If you made it this far, hopefully you got some mileage out of my navel-gazing.

Happy new year!

Categories
Fitness Weightlifting

The rabbit hole

Personal fitness post ahead! Flee now, or proceed at your own peril!

So two years ago I was basically a plant. I owned a shirt that said “Unathletic” in that college Athletics Department font. It was funny, but also true.

A year and a half ago I started Weight Watchers. I dropped 45 pounds in five months and started integrating physical activity into my week. I started taking my family camping, something I hadn’t done in many years.

About a year ago I started hiking up mountains. I’ve worked my way up (hah) and done some tough hikes, including some beautiful peaks over 11,000 feet. I connect with the solitude of a summit like few other things in life; it’s an awesome hobby.

Somewhere in there I also started backpacking again, although that one’s harder to make time for with all the summer camping. I’ve gone out twice now, and will be going out again next year.

Seven months ago I decided I wanted to look like Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and I started working out every day. For six months I progressed from flailing around to doing a pretty good weightlifting routine and alternating weight days with light cardio.

About three weeks ago, having seen strength gains and some definition but no real size changes in six months, I started seeing a trainer. Holy shit has that been eye-opening. One of the biggest surprises was that I wasn’t eating enough to get bigger — my body was cannibalizing the muscle I was building for calories.

Now I’m eating every two hours, eight 400-calorie meals a day, and am working on overhauling my diet completely. My workout is about to shift to four weightlifting days a week, which is going to feel nuts at first. The kitchen looks like a supplement store, and I’m still trying to figure out how to bring healthy, balanced, 400-calorie meals everywhere I go.

Looking back, if Past Martin from two years ago had read this, he’d have said, “Riiiiight. That’s never going to happen.” And maybe he wouldn’t have started Weight Watchers at all.

But step by step, the whole elephant is being eaten and digested. Which is apropos, since I feel like I eat en elephant on a daily basis. (Fun fact: Three of my favorite burgers from Five Guys, which I can’t eat anymore, would fill my daily calorie goal in one whack.)

I probably won’t ever hit the Chris Evans level (too many other commitments, realistically), but I’m going to get as close as I can. Having never been a strong person, setting aside having been born with reasonably strong legs, this is a weird feeling, and it hasn’t gotten less weird despite living it for the past few months.

TL;DR: Fitness is a rabbit hole unlike any other rabbit hole I’ve ever fallen down, but I don’t regret falling down the hole. The notion of rewiring and rewriting my own body, and seeing it happen — slowly — is totally wild.

Categories
Bleakstone Old school Tabletop RPGs

Bleakstone campaign setting

Bleakstone is my old school fantasy hexcrawl setting, parts of which have been kicking around in my brain since 2012. This post presents an overview, including an elevator pitch and all the high notes.

In August of 2014 I finally realized that I do best when I design gaming stuff in chunks, rather than trying to eat the whole elephant, and decided that the easiest way to do that with Bleakstone was also to design the setting in public. It’s been through numerous iterations (not all of them named Bleakstone), it’s full of things I like in my D&D, and it’s a work in progress.

This post is focused on presenting concise, gameable content that sparks my imagination — the bare minimum that I need to sit down and referee a Bleakstone campaign. You can jump straight to specific sections if you like: regional map, dominant intelligent species, unique features, domains, and inspiration and tools.

Spoilers for players abound

If you’re a player in Bleakstone, or think you might one day like to play in this setting, stop reading here. There’s no segregation of player and GM content below, and Bleakstone’s secrets are laid bare below.

Bleakstone elevator pitch

Strange, chaotic, and dangerous, the region known as Bleakstone has nonetheless produced pockets of stability and civilization in the past few centuries. Towns and villages dot the land, often fortified, and petty fiefdoms and principalities claim territory throughout the region. But in between, on Bleakstone’s poorly maintained roads — and beyond them — are dark, dangerous places peopled by monsters, centuries-old ruins and dungeons, scheming null slimes, the hidden domains of spider-like skurliths, the spires of imprisoned gharrudaemons, and wandering uzbardim who answer to no one.

In its golden age, a civilized skurlith empire ruled this entire region. The skurliths pacified the land by imprisoning the gharrudaemons who came before them, entombing them in vast obsidian monoliths that still stand today. Bleakstone is best known for the areas of “bleak stone” that dot the landscape: places that have been petrified in their entirety, and which are peopled by denizens of hell — and worse. These stone expanses range from a few yards in size to several miles in diameter, and within them it’s as if everything present was transformed into stone in an instant: people, animals, plants, houses — anything in contact with the ground. The bleak stone expanses began appearing a few decades ago, and new ones have appeared ever since. They’re mysterious, unpredictable, and above all dangerous places, avoided by most residents of Bleakstone.

Declared an “unholy land” by the Holy Empire of the Eleventh Lord, to the west, a decade ago (and stricken from all maps produced by the Empire), Bleakstone is largely ignored by its neighbors. Bleakstone is a weird and troubled land, a place where adventurers have many opportunities to make their mark — and many more opportunities to die trying.

Regional map

The Bleakstone region is represented by a 30×20 map composed of 6-mile hexes numbered 0000 through 2919, 600 hexes in all, with a surface area of about 19,200 miles. It’s about the size of Costa Rica, although I didn’t plan that — I picked 30×20 because it fit nicely on my monitor, offered plenty of room, wasn’t so large as to seem impossible to flesh out, and made it easy to randomly place locations with a d30 (long axis) and a d20 (short axis).

Here’s a much larger version of the map — a full-size export straight from Hexographer.

Climate

All of Bleakstone is temperate and has four distinct seasons. It’s broadly similar to western Europe.

Dominant intelligent species

There are five dominant intelligent species in Bleakstone. In order of population, most to least, they are:

  1. Humans
  2. Skurliths (“skuhr-liths”)
  3. Uzbardim (“ooze-bahr-dimm”)
  4. Null slimes
  5. Gharrudaemons (“garr-oo-day-mons”)

Elves, dwarves, and halflings are also present in Bleakstone, but they’re relatively uncommon and aren’t dominant in the region.

Humans

When the skurlith empire fell, humans moved in like rats, as they always do, and quickly became the most common species in the region. They found a strange landscape dotted with towering obsidian spires and peopled by mysterious uzbardim and the remnants of the skurlith race. Later, they learned of the null slimes and became embroiled in their intrigues (and vice versa). The more susceptible among them became cultists of the gharrudaemons. In this strange land, the strong tend to rule — those whose ambition and avarice dull their caution, and who could not rule in more civilized lands.

Most humans in Bleakstone were born in one of the three human domains that span the region: Skeldmar (feudal Germany with a Norse flavor), the Blackfang Barony (a dirtier version of medieval England), or the Theocracy of Umr (a blend of sword and sorcery, fantasy Arabia, and religious madness). People of Umr tend to be tall, with medium-brown skin and pinched features. Skeldmar folk tend to be shorter, and most often have pale skin, light-colored hair, and wide faces. The ancestors of the people of the Blackfang Barony were a mix of exiles and castoffs from other nations, and their descendants run the gamut from dark-skinned to light-skinned, with a wide variety of features. Over the centuries, wanderers from all over have found their way to Bleakstone, and people of all shapes and colors can be found in the region.

Skurliths

Once the dominant species in Bleakstone, Skurliths are now the bogeymen of the region — the savage, degenerate descendants of a once-proud species whose civilized empire spanned all of Bleakstone. About three feet tall when standing on two legs, their ungainly bodies appear to be made entirely of hairy sinews and chitinous plates. They have shiny black crab heads, two spider-like forearms tipped with pincers, and eight smaller pale, claw-tipped legs, the lower two of which are larger and thicker than the others, enabling them to walk upright. They prefer to scuttle on all of their legs, moving like a cross between a spider and a centipede.

Skurliths no longer have a formal culture or society, instead grouping along cult lines: All skurliths in a given area worship some aspect, often half-remembered, of their foul goddess, and perform dark rites in their subterranean lairs. Ruined cyclopean monuments to the Lady of a Thousand Pincers dot the wilderness, as do the towering obsidian monoliths erected by their distant ancestors, but the cults are the only aspect of old skurlith society that survive among the creatures themselves. They often make their homes near reminders of their former greatness, though they never go near the obsidian pillars.

Skurliths lair in dry warrens a few feet underground, and they hunt like trapdoor spiders. A typical skurlith lair has numerous concealed entrances, each covered by a camouflaged trapdoor, with skurliths waiting just below the trapdoors for prey to come close enough to grab. They’re also skilled trackers, capable of stalking prey across long distances.

Uzbardim

Uzbardim are expressions of chaos from another dimension, each a living cog in a great pattern designed to bring about the Third Transformation. They are bipedal, but in place of feet they have bundles of fibrous tentacles which can bunch together (when wearing shoes, for example) or separate to navigate uneven terrain. Their torso is shaped like a capital letter “T,” with two arms dangling from each end of the long ridge that forms their shoulders. Their heads are set level with their shoulders, on the front of the torso; they have one huge, red eye, but no other facial features. Uzbardim’s bodies are always stark white, and their flesh is unpleasantly spongy, but resilient.

Their actions appear unpredictable to others, but everything an uzbardim does is part of their shared grand plan. How they communicate with each other is unknown; though they can make hooting and moaning sounds, they generally communicate with non-uzbardim only through gestures. Uzbardim interact with other intelligent beings only when their agenda overlaps with the boundaries of society. In some places they live in villages, creating bizarre sculptures and crooning nonsense language; in others, they live alongside humans and work as thieves, spies, and scouts; and in still others they wander, apparently aimlessly, and attack anyone who comes near. They are birthed from giant seed-pods found near water.

Null slimes

Null slimes are greyish blobs about 8-12 feet in diameter and roughly a foot thick in their resting state. They live underground, and when in motion they “pool” against a surface and secrete a weak acid that eats through rock and dirt, enabling them to tunnel slowly but ceaselessly, honeycombing the earth. A null slime can form a vocal apparatus that enables it to make moaning noises, mimic animal speech, or — if intelligent — to speak.

Around 90% of null slimes are unintelligent — peaceful, cow-like creatures content to tunnel and follow the orders given to them by the other 10%. That 10% is composed of some of the most intelligent and devious creatures in Bleakstone: plotters, assassins, schemers, living siege-weapons, seekers of secrets, messengers, and carvers of underground byways used by even darker creatures. They’re as peaceful as their unintelligent cousins only in the sense that they rarely commit violence directly, instead manipulating others to act on their behalf.

Null slimes have no name for their own species; “null slime” is simply the moniker that stuck. The intelligent ones worship the Absence, and view voids of all kinds — the tunnels they leave behind, the absence of life caused by murder, the power vacuum created by an assassination — as sacred. Many of their sinister plans seek to bring about nothingness in some form. They’re justly feared throughout Bleakstone.

Gharrudaemons

Centuries ago, rifts in reality began to appear in what is now Bleakstone. Through these rifts came gharrudaemons, lords of hell with powerful magical abilities. The skurlith empire fought the gharrudaemons and eventually imprisoned them, and sealed the rifts, inside vast obsidian monoliths. These monoliths still stand today, towering high into the sky.

While the gharrudaemons cannot escape their monolith-prisons, nor return to hell through the rifts, they can communicate with the outside world through telepathy. Over several centuries they have preyed upon weak minds, building up cults of mortal worshipers around their monoliths. During dark rites enacted at the bases of their spires, the gharrudaemons direct their followers to do their bidding. Some gharrudaemon cults are small and relatively localized, while others are subtle and insidious; the latter have worked their way into Bleakstone society, extending their masters’ reach ever wider.

Gharrudaemons have their claws in a great many pies across Bleakstone, manipulating mortals and seeking to shatter their prison spires. If successful, they would sweep across the land like a hell-scourge.

Dwarves, elves, and halflings

Dwarves, elves, and halflings are all relative newcomers to Bleakstone. Dwarves are most often found deep in Bleakstone’s mountains, expanding their slowly growing network of tunnels and keeping largely to themselves. Several clans from neighboring regions can be found here. Dark rumors persist that Bleakstone dwarves traffic regularly with null slimes.

Elves skulk in the region’s woodlands, spying on humans and developing detailed maps of Bleakstone for their masters in the northern nation of Seven Trees. They can’t be trusted, but they know more about some aspects of Bleakstone than anyone else in the region. Elves are always after more information about the region and its inhabitants, and will often trade their knowledge for new intelligence.

Halflings tend to be adventurers or traders, and are most common in coastal communities. Most Bleakstone halflings are part of the same sprawling crime family — a literal family of siblings, cousins thrice removed, and half-uncles, as well as a Mafia-style organized crime ring. Halflings boil their dead, extract the bones, and display the skeletons of venerated elders in their homes. What they do with the meat is anyone’s guess.

Unique features

Coupled with its unusual dominant species, three major features of the Bleakstone region set the place apart as weird and dangerous.

Bleak stone expanses

A bleak stone expanse is an area that has been “flash-petrified” in its entirety. They began appearing about 30 years ago, and new expanses are still appearing today. No one knows what causes them, but they terrify the average Bleakstone resident. They’re home to devils, demons, and worse, and are the source of countless local legends.

Some are pristine, with people turned to statues mid-conversation, cows petrified in their fields, and everything untouched save by weather. Others have been vandalized, turned into refuges by desperate bandits, or even broken up so that their peculiar stone can be sold to wizards in far-off lands. The only good news is that once an expanse appears, its borders are fixed — it will never grow any larger.

Obsidian monoliths

The landscape is dotted with massive spires of obsidian, apparently solid, all at least a hundred feet tall (and some much taller; the largest is over 400 feet high). Every one of them imprisons a gharrudaemon, making the regions around them dangerous: Cults worship the daemons, the beasts themselves reach out telepathically to exert their will on the surrounding area, and spending too long near a monolith causes mutations in people and animals. The existence of gharrudaemons (and the rifts through which they came), or indeed the monoliths’ status as prisons, is unknown to the overwhelming majority of Bleakstone’s inhabitants.

Ruined skurlith monuments

No one knows why the skurlith empire fell, nor why its descendants became savage, degenerate creatures, but the skurliths’ enormous, cyclopean monuments still stand today. All venerate their foul goddess, the Lady of a Thousand Pincers, in some way, but each is unique in its loathsomeness. The largest skurlith domains are located near these monuments.

Domains

Bleakstone is divided into four domains, with their borders indicated by dotted red lines. The Blackfang Barony, extending east from the center of the map, is the largest domain; Harrowmoor, an unclaimed region that’s home to many uzbardim, is the smallest. The Theocracy of Umr occupies the northeast quadrant of the map, while Skeldmar spans the western edge and extends into the center of region.

Blackfang Barony

Map location: center and lower right | Collective noun: “Blackfangs”

Ruled with an iron fist by the self-styled Baron Dragos Blackfang, a noble from a northern kingdom exiled for his depravity, the Blackfang Barony looks like feudal England, only dirtier—and with uzbardim. For unknown reasons, uzbardim are common here, and most of them work as slave laborers alongside the barony’s human serfs. Aristocrats and notables dye their teeth black to signal their loyalty to the baron, while its peasants are forced to wear black hoods as a sign of their fealty. Some of the most fertile land in the region lies within the barony’s borders, and the baron’s power owes much to the farms tilled by his serfs. Null slimes have a significant presence as well, manipulating events in the barony and in neighboring Umr.

Harrowmoor

Map location: upper left | Collective noun: “Moorfolk”

Harrowmoor is the closest thing to a uzbardim nation anywhere in the region, as more uzbardim live here than anywhere else, pursuing their own mysterious ends. As they have no organized social structure, Harrowmoor is officially unclaimed territory, poor in natural resources but rich in brigands, dungeons, and monsters. Skurliths can be found throughout Harrowmoor, and are a constant danger to travelers. Bands of scum and exiles make their home here, striking out into neighboring Skeldmar to raid and pillage before melting back into the desert and mountains of Harrowmoor. Nomadic uzbardim also roam Harrowmoor, camping in one spot for a few days while robbing travelers, and then moving on to a new camp. Scouts, spies, and smugglers use Harrowmoor like a highway to travel between kingdoms without being detected. Both Skeldmar and the Blackfang Barony would like to annex Harrowmoor, but none has yet been able to stake and defend a claim.

Skeldmar

(“skelld-mahr”) Map location: middle and lower left | Collective noun: “Skeldmarians”

Much like feudal Germany, but with a Norse flavor, Skeldmar is a patchwork nation composed of dozens of tiny fiefdoms, each ruled by a skeld who pays obeisance to the king but in practice is largely left alone. Every community in the region has its own skeld, and every skeld wants to rule a larger area than she already does. Justice is delivered through trial by combat, and duels are commonplace. In truth, nearly all of Skeldmar is ruled by null slimes, who manipulate the skelds through control of the kingdom’s many mines (its most important resource). To outsiders, it often seems like everyone in Skeldmar is out to make a name for themselves any way they can.

Theocracy of Umr

(“oom-urr”) Map location: upper right | Collective noun: “Umrians”

The oldest human nation in the region, the theocracy is governed in the name of Umr-Khall, the One God, the Lord of Magic. For the average Umrian, that means paying at least lip service to Umr-Khall’s cult—and being constantly paranoid that you’re not doing enough, and that the Pale Wardens (Umr’s secret police) will make you disappear in the night. Few Umrians know that the theocracy is actually ruled by the gharrudaemon Nuzzurkalioth. Many of the acolytes of Umr-Khall’s cult are really worshipers of the gharrudaemon, and their ranks are always increasing. Umr is like a cross between fantasy Arabia and feudal Russia, a hard land of dark secrets, cruel nobles, and strange magic.

Background, credit, and tools

My approach to creating Bleakstone was based on three things:

  1. A randomly generated Hexographer map, with a few tweaks. I generated maps until I hit one that felt right, and that became the basis for the region.
  2. Randomly placed towns, dungeons, and other features, with some non-random additions. I didn’t use How to Make a Drop Map for this iteration of the setting, but that approach informed the simpler one that I did use: I rolled a d30 for the long axis and a d20 for the short axis, juggling the results as needed. I then added things by hand until it felt right.
  3. Random selection of dominant intelligent species based on Random Campaign Setting Major Races, mashed up with Proscriptive Campaign Creation. I used the Fiend Folio (my favorite monster book) when I rolled for dominant intelligent species, and I got denzelians, meenlocks, nycadaemons, and tiraphegs. They were the inspiration for the null slimes, skurliths, gharrudaemons, and uzbardim that are the foundation of Bleakstone.

The central idea that gave the region its name was inspired by the Lamentations of the Flame Princess module Death Frost Doom, which features an unexplained petrified area. (I no longer support LotFP, but this acknowledgement remains because I’m a big believer in acknowledgements.) Bleakstone’s other inspirations are harder to catalog because they span dozens of books, blogs, G+ posts, and a host of stuff I’ve read or bumped into over the years. A few sources stand out clearly, though:

  • Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, and its associated books. Jack Shear writes some of the tightest, most immediately gameable setting material in the business.
  • Appendix N, and my own Reading Appendix N project, most notably Robert E. Howard’s Conan yarns, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales, and H.P. Lovecraft’s yog-sothothery.
  • James Maliszewki’s Grognardia, which introduced me to so much old school awesomeness.
  • Patrick Wetmore’s Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which jams a huge amount of gonzo goodness into a cruft-free package.
  • Early Dark, from Anthropos Games, which introduced me to the idea of mashing up Earth cultures to create fantasy nations
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 1st Edition, which got me into old school British fantasy
  • Abulafia‘s fantastic random generators

The ever-awesome Steve Zieser illustrated Bleakstone’s iconic species.

Lastly, the Bleakstone logo font is CAT Hohenzollern, designed by Peter Wiegel.

Legal stuff

Bleakstone and the Bleakstone logo are trademarks of Martin Ralya. The Bleakstone campaign setting, including all artwork, is copyright 2014 by Martin Ralya. All rights reserved.

If you dig Bleakstone, I encourage you to use it in your home game, in whole or in part, provided it’s not published or distributed in any form. Happy gaming!

Categories
Fitness Hiking Peakbagging

Pfeifferhorn

Today my friend Christian and I hiked up Pfeifferhorn (Utah, 11,326 feet), my second elevener and the third-highest peak in the Wasatch range. It’s a 9-mile round trip with quite a bit of elevation gain (about 3,700 feet in 4.5 miles); my ass feels pleasantly kicked.

Pictured below is the sight that greets you when you get your first full look at the summit: the “bridge in the sky,” a knife ridge of jumbled boulders you have to traverse to reach the trail to the summit, and what I called the “wall of death” — the actual summit route, which looked impossible from here.

Neither were as bad as they looked. The boulders were actually a lot of fun, and up close there’s plenty of options to get up the final 600 feet or so. My route took me up the white line roughly in the center, the one that has green scrub just to the left of it.

Categories
Fitness Hiking Peakbagging

First summit over 10,000 feet

When I started hiking again last year, I came up with a plan: Get to the point where I could hike up Utah’s highest mountain, King’s Peak (13,534 feet and a 30-mile backcountry hike), this year. The plan was basically 1) hike up mountains, 2) keep going higher, 3) do some backcountry camping, 4) get in better shape.

I won’t bore you with the fourth one, but I’ve been doing the first one since October, with lots of lessons learned along the way. But I don’t have the expertise to hike up higher peaks in winter, so I waited for this summer to start on the second one in earnest. The tallest peak I summited last year was Mt. Olympus, 9,026 feet.

Today, over the course of a 9-mile hike, I summited my first peak above 10,000 feet: Mt. Raymond, 10,241 feet. It’s got a slightly higher neighbor, Gobblers Knob (10,246 feet), so when I got back to the pass that links them, I summited that one as well.

Prior to these two peaks, the highest I’d ever stood was 10,023 feet, the top of Haleakala in Maui. But I didn’t hike up that — I drove up with my wife, on our honeymoon. It was fun to beat that height!

Next week I’m going to hit number three, a two-day backpacking trip built around summiting Mt. Timpanogos. Mt. Timpanogos is 11,749 feet, which — assuming I make it up and back — will be my highest solo summit, the highest point I’ve ever stood, and the first time I’ve backpacked in about 22 years.

The picture above was taken at the summit of Mt. Raymond, looking west. (It’s a lot better than the tired selfie I took atop Gobblers, because I wasn’t as bushed and I didn’t take this one.)

Categories
Fitness Weightlifting

Simple activities with complex underpinnings

I hit my 90th session of meditation (zazen) tonight — I’ve missed three days in the last 93. Realizing my “Seinfeld chain” was broken when I woke up on Saturday morning was a bummer (camping; slipped my mind), as I’d done 89 days straight until then, but in the end what matters boils down to: just sit. I’ll work my way up to and past 90 straight again.

Today was also day 94 of working out daily, weight lifting MWF and doing light cardio the other four days. My routine is all dumbbells (plus crunches); I started out with 5-pounders around 9 weeks ago, and am up to 20-pounders for most exercises. A couple are at 15, a couple are at 25, and I’m going to try one at 30 this week. Spurred by lifting, I’m also working on managing my macronutrient ratios and eating healthier, which feels surprisingly good.

The benefits of both of these activities — meditation and working out — have been tangible, meaningful, and more profound than I expected. I’m not big on horn-tooting and I’m not sharing this to brag — I’m a pretty awful meditator, and no one but me can tell I’ve been working out yet. Looking like Chris Evans in Captain America is a ways off, to say the least.

I’m sharing it because of the profundity: These are simple activities with complex underpinnings, and I’m just starting to scratch away the surface and see what they’re all about. It’s a good feeling and an interesting experience.

Categories
Life

Specialization is for insects

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” — Robert A. Heinlein

This quote has intrigued since I first read it when I was younger. Back then, mostly it bothered me: I’ve generally tended to become deeply interested in just a few things, rather than exploring lots of different things. (And I did, and still do, most often play hyperspecialized RPG characters.)

Back in high school my favorite teacher said, “Everything is interesting if you look closely enough,” and in the 20 years since then I’ve found that to be true on many, many occasions.

Becoming a dad five years ago shifted a lot of things in my head, as I’m told it tends to. Dads (and moms) can’t afford to specialize; I’ve had to branch out and learn to do lots of things, to appreciate things — pony cartoons, invisible sisters, weird games — that I would never have considered on my own.

Fast forward to this past year, when I took up old interests I’d abandoned (camping, hiking, biking, target shooting) and got into things that were totally new to me (peakbagging, weightlifting, meditation), and I now realize that I see Heinlein’s quote differently than I did as a kid: I’m enjoying the hell out of not specializing.

Categories
Comics

My first CGC comic

A couple months back I sent a signed copy of Green Lantern #1 (2005) to CGC for grading, partly because I thought it would be fun to hang on the office wall and partly just to see what it was like. (I enjoy collecting things, but with vanishingly rare exceptions I don’t collect stuff and not open/use/read it.)

It’s neat! It’s kind of like freezing the comic in time. The capsule is tamper-evident; 9.6 is “near mint plus,” and with a UV frame (added by me) it should stay 9.6 for my lifetime.

What I like most, because it’s funny, is the note: “2 names written on cover in marker.” If it weren’t on the pricey side, I’d send them one with a big dong drawn on the cover and see if it came back with “1 erect male member drawn on the cover in crayon.

Categories
Miscellaneous geekery

Ultima Online ate my life

I was cleaning out the office closet today and came across this CD.

There was a good long chunk of my twenties where I played at least 40 hours of UO a week, and I still vividly remember many, many things that happened to my characters.