Sunday, October 21, 2012

Upcoming DCC Constant Con Game: The Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad

It's been a little bit since I posted, so I thought I'd update. I've been working on an adventure for my upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign, which I'll be co-running with Adam from Dispatches from Kickassistan, using his Ur-Hadad city setting mixed with a little bit of stuff from Purple Sorcerer, a bit of Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and a lot of other stuff.

The aesthetic we're going for is both a bit grim and a bit gonzo. We're aiming for something very much in the vein of R. E. Howard, but with admixture of other Appendix N sources, and some other elements that influence us. I, for example, am a huge fan of Glen Cook, among others. Here's a bit more of the stuff we've got worked out. This is an actual ongoing conversation about the setting, from the google doc we've been working on. It'll give you a better sense of where we might be heading with this, if you are interested in joining us for the game (which will run on Thursdays, 7:30 to 10 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time). I'll be running it for two straight weeks, and then Adam with do two weeks, and then back to me. Should be fun. 

Below, my original ideas are in white, Adam's follow-ups in green, and my follow-ups in orange.

Some Assumptions about The Game World

·         This is low fantasy (a la R. E. Howard's Conan). It is somewhat human-centered. The other races exist, but tend to glom together in their own places and way.
Other authors to strongly look to for inspiration are Clark Ashton Smith, HP Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock. I look at the setting as mostly (rather than somewhat) humanocentric. I personally do not plan on trips to hobbity shires or elfy forests. Maybe a dwarven mine or two,  but not many. 

I can see this. This works great. Add Harlan Ellison and Glen Cook to this. Two of my influences.

·         Humans threw off the rule of the Elves only 500 years ago. The elder races (elves and dwarves) view humans as upstarts, and only the weirdoes among them tend to associate with humans (roughly 10%).
I can get behind the 500 years thing. For my home game, this might be a little too soon (there it’s at least 1k years, if not more, kind of murky in a “that shit happened a long ass time ago” way), but I think this works well for making the point of how far mankind has come in a relatively short period... and has managed to completely fuck it all up. I like the idea of “elder races,” those races being the masters of the world that held humanity in chains. I do think that it’s important that serpent men and lizardfolk are categorized as elder races, possibly along with races that are even more alien that mankind has managed to forget in 500 years.

1,000 years is a good number, too. Also it sounds a lot cooler than 500 when you say it or write it. It has gravitas. Let’s go with this. Here’s maybe a good continuum of The Struggle. Various avatars of Law and Chaos are playing a long, long game. They created the Old Ones. The Old Ones created the Fae, including the elves, the dwarves, the lizardmen, as well as various other races. We’ll maybe have to figure some of this out. The Elves raised up the Humans (from apes) to be their slaves. These are the Dark Elf/Melibonean types who did this. The Dwarves had nothing to do with humans for the most part, and didn’t go in for much sorcerous experimentation of this sort. The Halflings were created out of human stock, but enhanced (see below) in various ways, and made to be wee little creatures, because... CUTE! BUT DEADLY! (say the Elven freaks who made them.) Humans finally went all Planet of the Apes on their Elven oppressors, oh it must have been 1,000 years ago.

·         The Halflings are a constructed race, made by conjoined twin wizards. The halflings came on the scene shortly after humans, through the tampering of mages. They were bred for stealth, ambushes, and pack fighting. They are not inclined to fight, but perilous when roused. They live about 150 years, and do not suffer from normal diseases, though magical ones can affect them. They are exceptionally lucky.
I’m not really sure what to make of halfings. I like the idea of halfling adventurers being anomalous to their society and thus outcasts (rather than just eccentric normal folk); I like them being dissidents, the disaffected youth, the castoffs of society. Normal halflings can have their hobbitholes and roaring fires and “charming” local scenery, but these adventurer halflings don’t care for any of that and want to LIVE damnit! This is the primary reason that I identify adventuring halflings with the second-wave ska & rude boy movement of the 70’s & early 80’s; I imagine young, disaffected haflings stealing bottles of ale, breaking into old tombs and mingling with other peoples just for the thrill of it and that, in and of itself, is enough to get their community in an uproar. I tend to think of halflings as Thatcher-era British conservatives and adventuring halflings as the subversive element that would become the punk and ska scenes of the time. I just have a hard time picturing punk halflings, so they end up rude boy halflings. I think it’s the suspenders. That and your typical concept of a halfling (the Tolkein one) doesn’t fit in my conception of a Metal world.

Oh, I love this conception so much. I can totally get behind it. The odd reference I’m making here is to my post about halflings. I think both of these could be worked in, though. Just make the twin wizards Dark Elf types, and assume that they were simply bored with normal humans and wanted to play with something new. Here’s my take:

·         Halflings and Humans: Halflings get along better than any of the other races, and often are well-represented in human towns and villages.
Could it be that, early on in their racial friendship, humans and halflings banded together, even in their smaller communities, due to an external threat? Maybe it’s the threat/apocalypse that recently ended the human domain of Ur-Hadad’s influence over much of the world. (Still not sure what that should be... ravening Chaos hordes?)

I think it may be more that to the Elves, Lizardmen, and Dwarves that halflings are as close to human as you can get. The elves resent them particularly because of their lucky nature, and this violates their presumption to be favored among the Fae. Oh, shit! Not another upstart race! Really? Weren’t men bad enough? Who ordered these? Elric did you do this? Oh, it was The Twins? Shit. They are so trite sometimes, I swear.

·         Elves: They are members of the Fae. Beyond that fact, don’t make any assumptions about how that works, or who else might be included in that group, or their politics. This is not lifted from another model.
I very much like the idea of the elves being otherworldly, ancient and far more sophisticated than humans. Perhaps they came to the planet from a different dimension and that’s why they're so alien? Here’s what I see as a rough outline of elfiness: Elves come to the world from some other dimension or plane of existence (this is the “Elfland” that the patron the King of Elfland is from; humans don’t know what it’s really called) and carve out an empire for themselves. Their major competitors are the elder races, and the different factions often war against each other, enslave other races with impunity and largely do whatever the fuck they want to whomever they want. Chaos, what? The elves -- who might have originally come to the planet to save it but instead become corrupted by it (Old Ones’ influence? Chaos Lords?) -- enslave man much like humans enslave apes in that one Planet of the Apes movie (Return to the Planet of the Apes?) because they seem so similar to elves themselves and therefore feed the elves’ vanity. As for general flavor of the elven empires at their height, I think of Melnibone from Moorcock’s Elric novels. Vast, powerful, sorcerous, decadent, Rome on magical steroids and so fucking high that it doesn’t care if the empire burns around it. So, at some point, the humans revolt (taught how to do so by the dwarves), and cast the elven empire down. In fact, a large group of elves led by the King of Elfland (who had been basically holding down the home front while the magic and slavery orgy was raging on The Planet [until we name the damned planet, if we ever do, I’m just going to call it The Planet or something like that when talking to you]), turns on his brother elves and sides with the humans, realizing that the elven empires have gotten it all wrong and have been corrupted by something. Some of the Empire Elves survive and call themselves something to that effect to this day but everyone else calls them Dark Elves (again, more Warhammer dark elves, not drow, I fucking hate drow). Modern elves don’t hold the stigma that imperial elves would have, since most of the ones around today stem from Elfland or, if they were imperial, switched sides at some point.

I can get behind all of this. I think, though, that I’d like to go more with the Old Ones than with the Chaos Gods (too Warhammer-ish for my taste). The Elric model helps us get to Dark Eldar, but doesn’t require that we embrace the rest of it, I think. I particularly like your idea about Planet of the Apes. That’s golden, and helps to explain why humans were enslaved. How about this?

When the Old Ones disappeared (they sleep, it is said, and will return one day) from The Planet (what’s the Elven word for “dirt,” anyway? That could be the name.), it created an imbalance of some kind. The original Elves and the other fae, their retainers and henchmen, came in to address this problem with magic and technology and whatever else, but became trapped here after their war with the lizardmen who were the original inhabitants, and the first Elder Race. The gate is still open, but the Elves cannot cross back, nor can they communicate with their home. They can only receive messages, messages that seem increasingly alien as the millenia pass.. As a result of being cut off from their people, they began to experience cultural drift away from their traditions. Factions among them have gained influence, and championed the darker influences of those traditions--the ones exalting the Elven race. This alienated them from the other Fae to some extent, at least the ones who are less likely to kill and enslave, but gave free rein to the Elves’ darkest impulses. The enslavement of the humans, the wars with the Dwarves, and the descent of the Elves into an empire of savagery and Elven supremacy, among other historical events, spring from this cultural drift and the reactionary politics that became supreme after The Separation.

·         Elves and Humans: To many elves, humans are the merely dangerous savages, to be tolerated (at best) and more likely useful for cruel sport.
Yes. The thing is, elves do not give a shit at all about humans. They did not side with the humans out of respect or brotherhood or anything like that. They would have sided with anyone who was against the imperial elves because the imperials were WRONG and CORRUPT. Touched by something unnatural and not-elfy, in that “Elfland is another dimension that our mortal minds cannot comprehend” sort of way. Humans generally distrust elves because, well, they’re elves. Mysterious. Superior/arrogant. Likely traitors to civilization itself. 

This is something that certainly can be added to the stuff I noted immediately above. I think this is good. I like that they are divided. However, i think being trapped here on The Planet is a good reason for their division.

·         Dwarves: Dwarves are reclusive and territorial. They are exceptional miners, engineers, and crafters. They dislike open spaces for the most part. They do not like the Elves overly much, but they haven’t warred with them in recent memory. They reproduce through crafting copies of themselves (Stolen from James Mal:
Okay, let me pause this train of thought right here. I have never been one of the “dwarf ladies gotta have beards” group, and I do think that there’s a strong place for females in dwarven society. And so, I want to keep dwarven ladies and normal-type reproduction in. That having been said, I LOVE the idea of “created” dwarves. Forgeborn? Stoneborn? Something like that. Right, here we go. Although now considered one of the elder races (humans and halflings being the young races), dwarves were once the slaves of the elder races, just as humans were. Their cruel masters made the dwarves toil under the earth in mines and forges; while much of the wealth that they wrested from the deeps adorned serpent man palaces, elven spires, lizardfolk ziggurats and the dens of fouler, more bizarre races, so too did the dwarves keep much for themselves, including ancient technologies and magics from bygone races that were old when the universe was still young. In this manner did dwarves first construct their original automata and gradually developed the forge-magics to turn these automata into proper, living dwarves. Deep beneath the surface of The Planet, the dwarves built the first Soul Engine, a method for recycling (“resmelting,” they call it), the souls of fallen dwarves into new bodies. The souls resmelted in such a manner do not stay intact and, as such, retain no memories or skills from their previous lives; they are as if born anew. When the dwarves had built several Soul Engines and placed them -- along with attendant automata -- in key positions around the globe, they struck out against their masters, casting off their chains. Or something like this. 

Thus, dwarves quickly sided with rebellious humans against the elder races. 

Oh, this is the best. Seconded!

·         Dwarves and Humans: Dwarves and humans have some connection through the Metal Gods, but very few humans are considered "real people." Usually, the these humans also are morose, bearded, and tend to work with metal or stone in some way, and are considered (by humans) to be exceptionally skilled.
While technically allies, dwarf-human relations benefit the most from a certain amount of distance. Though they certainly agree on particular parts of common culture (booze, singing, booze), dwarves regard humans as being too flighty and tempestuous, whereas humans regard dwarves as far too serious and gruff. One sticking point could be a vast difference in political structure. I really liked 3e’s Chainmail reboot where the dwarves were communists. Or maybe the dwarves don’t respect political power that isn’t won through martial or craft skill and thus piss off human nobles. One thing I think can be a sticking point is the traditional “dwarven greediness;” I think that it’s largely pointless and doesn’t serve much of a point other than to make humans feel superior to Tolkeinesque caricatures. 

I agree with all of this. I’d also add that the eternal questions (among the other races) about the nature of Dwarven reproduction and the status of Dwarven females, is an incredibly sore point, and makes the dwarves incredibly secretive and suspicious of others’ motives, even of their allies.

·         This world is post-Apocalyptic: The Elder Races are not the first to walk the planet. The First City and the Sunken City are examples of the Old Ones' architecture, though they have been built on top of by the Elves and Humans in the last several tens of thousands of years.

Not just post-apocalyptic, but cyclically post-apocalyptic: every few thousand years, some huge disaster happens that destroys the dominant cultures on the planet. Man is the most recent of these disasters... OOOOOOHHHH! Mankind as a weapon of the apocalypse! Old Ones using mankind to destroy the world? Or Chaos Lords out to shake up existing power structures? Or Gods of Law trying to bring about the destruction of the Chaotic and decadent societies that existed before Man? Anyway, mankind is only the latest disaster. Countless civilizations of every sort that our sick little brains can come up with have existed and crumbled into dust from their own personal armageddons

How about factions of mankind being used as pawns in this eternal struggle, sort of like they were by the Vorlon (forces of law) and the Shadows (forces of chaos) in Babylon 5. In fact, that might be something to mine for some of the sci-fi aspects of this world. We might also want to throw Harlan Ellison in as a literary touchstone in our first part, about the Appendix N stuff. Further, the Old Ones may just be their pawns as well, remnants of the struggle during other cycles. So were the Elder races. There are always leftovers from those struggles, and they form the sources of much that is weird and alien in this world. They also tend to produce other struggles, between those remnants of the previous cycles.

·         The world consists of howling wilderness, punctuated by different definitions of civilization (kingdoms and a very few city-states), none of them particularly influential outside of their spheres.

·         Societies tend to be feudal in some ways, though mercantilism, religion, and rebellion have sowed many seeds in the old human order.
“Feudal in some ways,” is key. There is no systematized order of feudal caste, even if we use typical feudal titles. I king in one place might have no more clout than a baron in another or a Grand Voivode in yet another. Usually, peasants will have someone to protects them, but that someone isn’t always a feudal lord. In fact, something that I was going to write up about Ur-Hadad is that the nobles of the city, while usually having traditional title to lands beyond the city itself, often have no domains in those lands to enforce their title; no fortresses, no encampments, no towns, no villages. For now, their interests lie no further than the city walls. Why would they want to leave? There’s nothing out there for them! A lot of how I envision the world strips a LOT of the traditional Medieval-ness out of the fantasy milieu. No kings in castles, no knights in big ass armors, no maidens on unicorns. Instead, it’s barbarian khans in hide yurts, savage cataphracts in bronze cuirasses (I hate pronouncing that word, sounds like I’m a homophobe), and spear-sisters on shaggy mountain rams. Or pashas in palaces, cossacks in leathers and harem girl assassins on camels. 

I can also get behind this. I think there should be *attempts* to impose feudalism, here and there, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. I also like the idea of their being mercenary companies like The Black Company, who become influential, and, because of that, get embroiled in the politics of whereever they happen to be working at the time. Add Glen Cook to Appendix N stuff. Oh, and unicorns are evil and carnivorous and hate everyone. Gotta have that.

·         Slavery is common, though more in the form of indentured servants than bondsmen. Slavers are a danger to travelers. Some tribes and groups take slaves and wives and children in raids.
A-yup. Furthermore, I would suggest that selling other people into slavery is a common practice to settle debts, such as one’s spouse or children. It sounds icky, I know, but it was, at one point or another in real history, common enough. Remembering that this is a world where life is cheap, slaves are slightly more valuable than worthless, particularly since no person of merit in society would want to do any manual labor himself. 

On top of that, escaped slaves often become the source of rebellion in this world, and are the source of many mercenary companies’ and pirate crews’ recruits. They get new names and new lives, and some of them harbor in their hearts the lust for vengeance.

·         Merchants are increasing influential in the towns and cities. This is troubling to the nobility and priesthoods.
I would add, :”and thus often subject to terrible sanctions and crushing fatwahs.” These adverse conditions easily foster the corrupt atmosphere needed for thieves guilds to prosper. 

Perfecto! Merchants also are largely mistrusted by the people (many of them are foreigners, you know!), and demonized by the entrenched powers as upstart pretenders to nobility  and dangerous, corrupting influences on society, culture, religion, and, of course... the children. And gypsies are even worse, but that’s another matter entirely. (kidding)

·         Other, less savory, powers exist (organized criminals of all stripes, associations of sorcerers, and so forth).
Let me change that to “associations of cultists of dark powers” or something like that. I’m making a clear division (if only in my head) between those who truly command arcane power (sorcerers, wizards and the like) and those who derive their power from an outside source (cultists and even clerics). The way I’m looking at things, the self-empowered wielders (wizards, et al.) are not likely to work together at all unless under extreme duress. Cultists, on the other hand, band together to worship their masters and earn favor. Tiny detail, I know, but it’s a point I feel I have to make. To me, it makes the “mad wizard in the dark tower” trope much more feasible than “and he goes over to Steve’s house for bridge club every second Tuesday.” Jealously guarded secrets and insane cackling into the night is essential to me for some reason. 

Add in the lizardmen, and we’re in business.

·         Mercenary companies are fairly plentiful, and will take able bodies of all professions.
And often can’t afford to argue with clients. That said, successful merecenary companies often face the temptation of rebellion and/or conquest, as they gain power and influence. This of course leads to their brutal suppression, but the cycle repeats itself frequently, and sometimes the mercenaries win and become warlords and rulers (King Conan, Croaker of the Black Company, etc.)

·         Nobility is grasping, venal, and jealous of their status, power, and prerogatives. It is dangerous to affront them. In most towns and cities, they control the local law enforcement.
Spoiled fucking brats with no right to command anyone’s respect. Joffrey Baratheon from Song of Ice and Fire. 


·         Piracy and raiding are problems.
And typical careers for adventurers. 

Hard not to pass up the opportunity when there are so few chances to raise one’s place in normal society. Add to this the ever-presence of thieves and assassins guilds and societies of various stripes.

Poverty is the common condition. Not being poor is exceptional.
A+ for brevity and precision. 


If you've made it this far, and this sounds at all interesting to you, leave me comment. I'm eager to get people involved with this campaign on Google+, and eager to make it as awesome as possible. Given all of the discussions Adam and I have had so far, I think it's going to be quite a ride.