Lou's Noodle#2: Tapping the Creativity at the Table

For some time I've spent my spare hours (such as they are) on writing a toolkit to help GMs jazz their games with zingy narrative sauce. Important design principles behind this little work include:

1. GMs are very busy people.
2. Players and GMs are very creative people.
3. RPGs are better and easier to run when everyone shares their ideas and desires.
4. Good collaborative creativity is hard.

Among other things my book contains lots of little tips for running collaborative design sessions, mostly garnered from attending countless writing workshops, reading books on creative collaboration, and being lucky enough to collaborate with many talented, creatively clear and strong authors on more than one RPG project.

Recently I've begun experimenting on...er...play testing portions of "my little book" with the players in my home campaign. Twice now I've put them through the part that helps GMs and players co-author, in one sitting, the campaign setting in which their adventures will take place. Invariably a short shared setting makes life easier on the GM, long-term, and informs the player's characters with all sorts of rich, connected detail.

I thought I'd share the most recent result of the process with all of you. It's a bit long, but you might find it interesting. For the Paizo-minded among you, we'll be playing the Pathfinder RPG. I plan to convert Paizo's Legacy of Fire AP then adapt it to fit. Without further ado, may I present...


In the outrageously wealthy desert and jungle kingdom of Ashidal, aasimar rule over a numberless melange of races and peoples, many claiming to be the original inhabitants of the surrounding desert or jungle, others but recently and mysteriously arrived. Its aasimar rulers aside, Ashidal is known for the Eye of Life, an inexplicable frozen wasteland smack in the middle of the deepest desert, maintained by forces unknown against all reason, in defiance of even the greatest magical arts. From the heart of this baffling arctic zone juts the Eye: an active, slowly smoldering volcano buried to the neck in snow and ice.

The Eye of Life cornerstones Ashidal’s great wealth, as the kingdom’s merchants mine this geographic anomaly for water, selling neighboring kingdoms everything from irrigation to ice chips. Ice mining in the Eye is a dangerous occupation. Strange never-tamed tribes haunt the Eye’s frozen extent, while fearsome monsters wander from its smoking volcano to terrify caravans and mining stations alike.

Many forces threaten the kingdom of Ashidal. Shambling clan-herds of perh – ogreish and pugnacious lizard-centaurs the size of elephants – wander the border between desert and jungle, a common threat to small settlements and merchant caravans. Luckily, a perh rampage is easy to stop. Perh clans hold but one leader. Eliminate the bull perh of a herd and all the remaining monsters fall into a frenzy of killing to determine their new leader. Recently, rumors circulate of perh groups working together and ignoring this pattern. Most dismiss such rumors out of hand, but some villages now hire mercenaries or adventurers for protection, while merchant caravans have doubled their guards of late.

More than perh clans menace the trade of Ashidal. In the desert the sounds and vibrations of travel always attract sand tentacles, thorny carnivorous vegetation as thick as a human torso. Denser near oases, these mindless vines prove a constant threat to unwary travelers, even wiping out whole caravans. Legends speak of deep desert tribes who practice the “soundless step,” a way to walk through the thickest tentacle-infested zones unscathed, though this remains unconfirmed.

Dangers to trade do not end with the desert. Within the economically crucial Eye of Life giant starving reptiles, clearly ill suited to the frozen wastes, frequently attack caravans and camps. Some of these creatures, reputedly the size of small houses, even strike from the air.

However, the clockwork raiders remain the threat most pervasively feared throughout Ashidal. These strange construct war-bands sweep into villages and cities at random, wreaking destruction. Sometimes they wipe out a whole village, other times a single building. Survivors report that wounded or damaged raiders – a rare occurrence – disassemble into smaller creatures who continue either to attack or are absorbed into other damaged raiders, healing them. While the raiders' attacks are infrequent and unfocused, their very infrequency make them all the more terrifying. Clockwork raiders could strike anyone at anytime for any reason. Ashidalans attribute a wide variety of natural disasters to these uncommunicative beings. An oasis disappears in the sands? The clockworks did it. A city building catches fire or disappears? The clockworks did it. Eat your tubers or the clockworks will get you.

Recently, refugees from far away kingdoms have filtered into Ashidal. They carry tales of woe and destruction, often conflicting and inchoate. Yet according to Ashidal’s border caliphs and sultans, a pattern emerges: refugees report impossibly vast tribes of filthy, pale-skinned, axe-wielding barbarians overrunning lesser kingdoms. Of course, wiser heads note the defeated always over-report the size of their conquerors. Moreover, uncivilized skin-wearing nomads might tumble small and distant principalities, but clearly the mighty economic power of Ashidal need not fear such exaggerated tales.

Unbeknown to all but the most astute border rulers and ice merchants, the advance guard of just such a barbarian horde has begun raiding caravans traveling to and from the Eye of Life. In response, savvy rulers and merchant princes recruit mercenary armies or outright impress commoners into their armies, acts which greatly alarm the Sheik of Sheiks in Dagha. Tensions mount, somnolent aasimar rivalries intensify almost to open conflict, and civil unrest cannot lie far behind.

Ashidal is a large kingdom, strictly governed by an ethnically homogeneous oligarchy of aasimar merchant-sheiks. In theory a Sheik of Sheiks rules her fellow aasimar from the capital city of Dahga; however, the aasimar desert lords so frequently assassinate and replace the Sheik of Sheiks, it proves anyone’s guess who will sit the golden throne of Dahga month-to-month.

Despite a culture of hospitality, the aasimar rulers of Ashidal are a strict lot; perhaps because outside the boundaries of Ashidal, the world more often enslaves aasimar for their beauty than it elevates them. In Ashidal only pure aasimars may rule, carrying with them the rights of high justice wherever they go. Sworn to uphold the legal edicts issuing from Dahga, aasimar sheiks are infamous for political corruption and bribe taking. In fact, bribery among Ashidalan elites approaches an art form. Your words must prove diplomatic, courteous, and artfully filled with rationalizations designed to grant the bribed sheik plausible deniability; however there are few laws you cannot bribe a sheik to break.

There are exceptions. As a sign of their dominance only pure-blooded aasimar, clerics of the aasimar pantheon, or a non-aasimar with a specific exemption from a sheik, caliph or sultan may wield a sword openly in Ashidal. Additionally, the aasimar strictly regulate magic within urban centers: no unlicensed wizards or sorcerers and no spells above third level. Technically you must be licensed to practice magic anywhere within Ashidal. In practice everyone looks the other way when adventurers’ spells slay monsters in the dangerous desert, jungle or arctic wastes.

Moreover, almost without exception, the aasimar pverlords remain deeply concerned with keeping their bloodlines pure. Most aasimars consider breeding with non-aasimars an abomination. They treat such half-breeds with disgust, even outright persecution or enslavement. The reason behind their hate for half-breeds remains a mystery, especially considering aasimar are themselves half otherworldly.

Finally, acutely aware of the subject status of aasimar outside of Ashidal, no sheiks put their personal interests above the principle of aasimar-only rule, nor risk the strength and well-being of Ashidal as a kingdom. Beyond that, as the saying goes, “The desert dust blows as it will and no man can command the storm.”

Ashidal’s neighbor across the sea is called Cecia. Cecia is a loosely knit confederation of sea-faring island principalities, larger by sheer population than Ashidal, but not as wealthy. Cecians live their lives so enmeshed with the sea Ashidalans derogatorily nickname them “gillies,” as if they secretly had gills. By and large, the Cecians remain favorably disposed to Ashidal, their largest trading partner. Ashidalans both fear and admire Cecians for their shipbuilding and fishing skills, their far-ranging trade network, and their sharp negotiating. As the saying goes, “The only thing sharper than a gilly’s gutting knife is his nose for a trade.

On land, the deep desert to both the East and South of Ashidal harbors warlike nomadic tribes of various races. Some claim these nomads are fair in a trade when you know how to approach them, while others claim the deep desert peoples are nothing but thieves and child-stealers. By and large these tribes appear ambivalent to Ashidal, and their true numbers are unknown. As a people the nomads are famed and feared for their sword skills. Their almost legendary sword dance is a wonder of athletics and martial accomplishment.

In the largely unexplored and unclaimed jungles to the North and Northeast, along the deep and turbulent Maza River, strange tribes live among the debris of a lost and bloody civilization. On the edge of sheer barbarism, they spend their days fighting gorillions, jaguars and crocodiles for dominion of ruins far beyond their skills to maintain, let alone build. While occupying a region smaller than Ashidal as a whole, the natives of the jungle often propound at great length on the vast power and extent of their ancient civilization. They explain ad nauseum how it rightfully rules Ashidal, and how they in particular, being the only civilized beings about, rule the jungles. That they advance these claims in barely intelligible tongues even as they strip the flesh from your leg for the cooking pot, worship animal totems, and shatter each others' heads on the steps of vine-covered ziggurats seems to matter not a jot to their communal delusions. Nonetheless, the great treasures buried within the jungles haunted ruins continues to attract adventurers of all stripes. They come searching for potent artifacts, unusual spells, piles of gold, and jewels the size of eggs. Those who venture into the jungles and return speak in whispers of tribes further in, tribes more mindless and barbaric still, whom even the cannibals and blood-shamans fear.

Within Ashidal, a variety of Power Groups vie with each other and with the ruling oligarchy. The Power Groups within Ashidal are:

Aasimar sheiks and the Sheik-of-Sheiks. As discussed the aasimar merchant oligarchs of Ashidal vie constantly among each other to take the golden throne of Dahga and declare themselves Sheik of Sheiks. Outside the capital of Dahga, sheiks and the lesser caliphs and sultans rule their demenses with absolute authority – and with varying degrees of corrupt self-interest.

The Givers of Silk. A quasi-legitimate guild of courtesans, who practice the ancient arts of belly dancing and assassination. Famous for their dancing, their assassination skills are less well known and never acknowledged. Prized as advisers, entertainers and lovers by their aasimar rulers, the Givers of Silk actively enmesh themselves in the weave of Ashidal politics. They keep their headquarters at a small palace in Dahga. The aasimar elite sometimes punish their members with exile to the guild. As a result many aasimar half-breeds hide among the Givers, claiming a pure aasimar heritage or simply denying their crossed bloodlines entirely. Unsubstantiated rumors connect the Givers of Silk to the urban criminal bands known as the Little Pockets.

Church of the Benevolent Sands. The mainstream religious organization sanctioned by the aasimar sheiks. Charged with licensing and policing magicians, they derive their legitimacy directly from Dahga. The Church’s severity and power vary depending on who rules as Sheik of Sheiks. When waxing in authority the Church expresses its power through inquisitions that execute non-licensed magicians with impunity, often acting on the mere say-so of a neighbor. Under more moderate Sheiks, the Church functions as a mere bureaucracy. Irritating but non-violent they ensure that Dahga knows of each and every wizard or sorcerer within its bounds, and they collect the practitioner tax. The Church leaders are on a clandestine mission to hunt down and exterminate secret magical societies, especially the Sect of Six.

The Sect of Six. A secret society of elemental magicians. Ashidal outlawed the sect decades ago for its suspected connection with the elemental djann and djinn. Each member of the Six has an affinity for one of the six branches of elemental magic: earth, metal, air, fire or water. Supposedly exterminated long ago, belief in their existence persists. Rumors claim their unknwon leader practices all six elemental magics, while sages speculate that, if the sect exists it most assuredly plots to destroy both the aasimar oligarchy and the Church of the Benevolent Sands. They Sect of Six frequently serves as a scapegoat for Ashidal’s rulers, an excuse to attack each other or to exterminate merchant rivals.

Oasis. A secret anti-government organization that sees injustice in aasimar-only rule. They seek to aid or free those who suffer under the corrupt whimsy of sheiks, caliphs and sultans. They are especially focused on helping those half-breeds who suffer the ethnic warfare practiced by the aasimar against their kind. Rumors hold Oasis maintains an underground railroad, smuggling the half-aasimar out of Ashidal and has deep ties among the Little Pockets gangs that litter Ashidal’s urban landscape.

Little Pockets. A loose association of orphan gangs, not sufficiently developed to call an organization, but who are perhaps a thieves guild in the making. Until recently, the aasimar rulers considered the Little Pockets a fad at best and a nuisance at worst. However, in the wake of anti-aasimar violence within the Smoke Folk ghettos, some caliphs and sultans have begun to revise that opinion. Given a choice, many aasimar rulers would like to exterminate the Little Pockets, but their advisers suggest the reward is not worth the effort or, coincidentally, more determined sultans just die in their sleep.

Smoke Folk. The true underclass of Ashidal. These people are partly extra-dimensional smoke beings who have only intermittent control of their forms. Regularly – and unpredictably – random parts of their bodies turn to smoke for equally random lengths of time. Considered unreliable by the Ashidal population, who find them disturbing or disgusting by turn, Smoke Folk have a hard time holding down a job. On the other hand sages argue the Smoke Folk are the abandoned offshoot of certain djinn tribes, and this makes them objects of fear. As a result the Smoke Folk live in ghettos. Instead of exterminating them, Ashidalans hire them for only the most menial labor. Rumors connect the Smoke Folk to both Oasis and the Little Pockets.

Of these groups, the ruling aasimar elite and the Church of the Benevolent Sands – practically the same body – followed closely by the less numerous Givers of Silk wield the most power and influence. Oasis most actively opposes the ruling Sheik of Sheiks, while the Sect of Six and the Church of Benevolent Sands are always at each others' throats. By contrast, the Givers of Silk and the Little Pockets or, alternately, Oasis and the Smoke Folk frequently stand together. The Sect of Six and Oasis are the most clandestine organization(s) in Ashidal, while the people love the entertaining and glamorous Givers of Silk the most. The rulers on the other hand, most dislike Oasis, the Little Pockets, and the Smoke Folk in that order.

Magic in Ashidal is present but not prevalent, a backdrop to everyone's daily lives. Average Ashidalans see little genuine magic, although fakirs are everywhere and the markets are rife with fortunetellers. Yet no Ashidalan expresses disbelief or even much surprise when real magic comes their way. Most people in Ashidal feel magic is a matter for their betters, something that happens to rulers and merchant-sheiks, but not to them. Many citizens grow anxious when faced with magic for fear the practitioner is not licensed, and that the magic will tar them with the same illegal brush. Secret societies for the practice of magic abound, as do licensing guilds. Such guilds range in character from genuine investigators of the arcane to little more than registry and tax collection stations.

In Ashidal, deities appear only rarely, but all acknowledge their reality and many worship devoutly. As one might expect in a land so divided between the rulers and the ruled, the two classes worship differently. The aasimar revere an established pantheon of personalized gods and goddesses who take a direct, if quarrelsome, interest in mortals. While the non-aasimar citizens and subjects of Ashidal grant the aasimar pantheon its due, they also worship a dizzying array of lesser deities personifying a host of natural and otherworldly forces. Most in Ashidal recognize the supremacy of the aasimar pantheon, but not all concur. Rumors speak of dark and secret cults who spit on the aasimar pantheon as false gods. To confuse matters more, the official rulers of the aasimar pantheon seem to change depending on which Sheik of Sheiks holds Dagha and the kind of Church their rule sponsors.

Nonetheless, some clear distinctions emerge. The aasimars’ pantheon always contains:

Ahur, the god of victory in battle, of wealth, tax collectors, city building and civilization. Throughout history Ahur is sometimes confused with or supplanted by Sarif, “He Who Shapes,” god of the shifting sands, the natural world, of change and many forms.

Twin sisters mark the second pillar of the aasimar pantheon: Tasar and Daphrit, goddesses of lust and love, sexuality and beauty. Often confused for each other, never separate, temples to the Twin Goddesses cover Ashidal. The goddesses offer temple prostitution or marriage counseling, orgiastic oblivion and artful inspiration – and none doubt their power.

Lastly, Esseleth, sexless god of law and justice. Cold and distant, concerned only with principles and not persons, supplicants approach Esseleth in fear or in the absolute certainty of their rectitude. This god’s temples hide in frozen wastes, desert caves, hidden grottoes and hard to find places. They say those who surrender utterly to Esseleth’s judgment are always answered, but that most regret the asking.

Names of the folk gods worshiped by majority Ashidalans are difficult to track. They seem to change from culture to culture, almost from worshiper to worshiper, multiplying dramatically whenever one turns around. These gods are so plentiful it becomes difficult to tell who is a priest or priestess and who a mere fakir.

Yet two things remain clear: first, certain folk gods are perennial. They reappear in various forms among all the peoples of Ashidal; second, every tale of these deities aiding supplicants is matched by a tale of woe. The most prominent perennial gods and goddesses include:

Y’eohkim. The trickster god, god of whirling dervishes and the spiral. Commonly portrayed as a jackal or the desert wind.

Holhie. Fat and grinning god of luck. Frequently portrayed as a rotund and laughing, four-armed camel. Tales of Holhie often tell of abusive or hubris-burdened owners suddenly abandoned in the desert by their camel, which was not really a camel.

The Six. Goddesses of the elemental powers and of weather. Akin to the muses, but representing both the positive and negative aspect of each natural element. The peoples of Ashidal pray to the Six to deliver them from storms, disasters, and all the problems the elements can bring. They also pray to them for wealth, guidance, and good travel. Explicit connections between the Six and the Sect of Six remain unverified, but some connection seems likely.

Selaru-thastis. Goddess of the hearth and home, of plenty and of pregnant women. She is also the goddess of abortions, stillbirth, starvation and plague. Worshipers appeal to Selaru-thastis for Her favor and beg her not to visit them with Her doom.

Plevarmes. God of celebration, splendor and variety. Worshiped by those who revere the natural world in all its forms as well as by those whose arts imitate life. Plevarmes is simultaneously the god of artful revels and skilled indulgence, as well as the god of the wilds and the untamed.

Darker gods inhabit the religious world of Ashidalans, gods of monsters and destruction. Most Ashidalans deny their existence, but those who encounter their cults and survive, no longer doubt their foul reality.

The world which Ashidal inhabits and the kingdom itself possess of a number of additional noteworthy characteristics. These are:

1. By aasimar law, only aasimar rulers of the sheik, caliph or sultanate class and priests or priestess may use swords. Visiting foreigners and Ashidalan citizens may apply for or be granted formal exceptions to this rule. Wielding a sword illegally is taken as a repudiation of aasimar rule and is punishable by death.

2. Ashidal’s aasimar rulers, initiated servants of the Twin Goddesses, and many Givers of Silk train in a school of tantric sex magic. This school, sanctioned centuries ago by the first Sheik of Sheiks, teaches aasimar women to refuse conception or abort at will. It trains aasimar men to render their seed fruitless. This allows Ashidal’s aasimar rulers to indulge their huge sexual appetites without fear of birthing half-breeds. Aasimar women who chose to become pregnant and, worse, to keep their half-breed get are disgraced and placed under a death sentence only the Sheik of Sheik’s may commute. In response most either suicide, flee to foreign lands, or hide in Smoke Folk ghettos, raising their children in secrecy.


The Rudis Review: Kobold Quarterly 13

Book: Kobold Quarterly 13
Length/Type: 64 pages/magazine
System: OGL/Pathfinder, 4e, System Independent
Author(s):Phil Larwood, Aeryn Rudel, David Mallon, Matthew Hanson, Monte Cook, Adam Daigle, Maurice de Mare, Mario Podeschi, John Flemming, Hank Woon, Ryan Costello, Jr., Chris Pramas, Jonathan McAnulty, Brandon Hodge, et. al.
Publisher: Wolfgang Bauer
Licensor/Endorser: n/a

(5 of 5 rudii)

I love Kobold Quaterly. It's true. I gush with abundant gamer love for this magazine, more so every issue. Yet, as a reviewer I'm always looking for something critical to say, something to help my readers decide whether they want to buy this issue or not. Never works. It's all just varying degrees crunchy-fluffy goodness. Even the edition split fails as a sorting criteria. KQs articles are carefully crafted for use across editions, even when they are written for one. On top of that, for each edition there's always at least one article for which it's worth buying the whole magazine, while many articles work for all editions. Wolfgang and the KQ crew really hamper the critic, let me tell you.

In response, I've decided to take this approach: if you're a gamer, get yourself a subscription to KQ. Period. You won't regret it. And they don't pay me to say that; I just think it's true.

Whew. Good. That's out of the way. Now on to what's inside Issue #13. Here are some highlights:

Ecology of the Shoggoth
The articles start with Phil Larwood's Ecology of the Shoggoth. Phil is an interesting, inventive and prolific designer. Instead of trying to inject a little D&D into his Lovecraft, Larwood chose to inject a little Lovecraft into his D&D. This ecology slates the origin of the shoggoth firmly into aboleth history, explicates the relation between shoggoth and gibbering mouthers, fluffs out cults, variant shoggoths, magic items and lore. A fantastic guide to slotting some cthonic horror firmly into your D&D world. Written for 3.5/PFRPG but so rules lite as to make the distinction meaningless.

Lovecraftian Gods
Following up on the cthulu/horror theme, Aeryn Rudel gives us Lovecraftian Gods in 4e. From Azathoth to Nyarlathotep, replete with divine and horrific magic items and new abilities, this article helps GMs cement the cthonic into their campaigns. The rules might read 4e, but these are divinities. The important parts are the fluff and ability ideas. Easily adaptable to any edition.

The Arquebusier
Here I'm going to decline to comment. Conflict of interest. I've written my own take on black powder weapons in a piece titled Brace of Pistols (forthcoming) for Sinister Adventure's Razor Coast. Anything I might say would be informed by my own design work, rendering me less than partial. You'll have to find out for yourself on this one folks, but I know gunpowder is a hot topic for many so it seemed worth a mention.

Book Reviews
Swiftly becoming one of my favorite bits in KQ, the magazine follows the time-honored Lotus format to explore recent works of sci-fi and fantasy. This issue includes a review of Vandermeer's Finch, J.A. Pitts Black Blade Blues, a collection of Dying Earth short stories edited by GRRM and Gardner Dozois, and Peter Straub's Dark Matter. For reasons of my own, I've long been burnt out on urban fantasy with female heroine's - especially set in the continental Pacific Northwest. Too much Charles de Lint and Emma Bull, I suspect. That said, Janna Silverstein's review of Black Blade Blues left me excited to dip back into this sub-sub genre. I'll let you know how it goes.

The Thrill of the Unknown
What gamer doesn't love an advice column by Monte Cook? This issue covers guidelines for leaving just enough unsaid - and specific creative techniques for doing so - to add mystery and lasting terror to your campaign. Monte is always worth the read.

What issue of KQ would be complete without a monster? And who better to deliver than the winner of the KQ King of the Monsters contest, the Master of Minions himself, Adam Daigle! KQ13 presents Adam's contest winning entry, the Spark: an extraplanar, possession inclined, life burning electricity elemental. Great stuff!

Gambler's Magic
By John Flemming. This might have been my favorite piece in the whole issue, and I don't play 4e. Games of chance transformed into wondrous magical items. Four dice games, three coins of luck, and five gambling tokens plus assorted paraphernalia. I loves me some wondrous items!

This issue also includes a fantastic little 2-page interview with Green Ronin's Chris Pramas. I know a few things about interviews myself and found this one enthralling. The interview spotlights Pramas' most recent accomplishment, designing the Dragon Age RPG boxed set. And what better way to back up the interview than with an excerpt of Pramas' own work: Freeport Backgrounds for Dragon Age. Not to be missed by pirate lovers in any edition.

The Wreck of the Goodwife
Those of you who know me know I'm editing Sinister Adventures pirate campaign setting and mega-adventure, Razor Coast. So I approached the Wreck of the Goodwife by McAnulty and Hodge (sounds like a law firm in a Cthulu adventure! hmmm...) with the jaundiced eye of a self-assured pirate snob. And swiftly forgot all that nonsense in sheer wonder over this little shipwreck set piece. Hooks, new organizations, new magic items, new templates, new spells, new monsters, and an underwater encounter complemented by a gorgeously mapped, full-page shipwreck. How they fit all that in four pages plus map, I'll never know. I'm just mad I didn't hire these two to work on Razor Coast! Great stuff. Pathfinder, but (again) easily adaptable.

There is more in this issue than I've listed. All good stuff and how not with the Kobold's stamp of approval. Above are just my favorite bits, but I'm sure you can see why I'm telling you KQ #13 is just another in a long line of winners. It's starting to feel like I'm getting my Dragon back.