The Lord of Stone, Part 4

The battle raged hot all around Dorian, who stood amidst the dust of the fallen Walls catching his breath. His Weaving had drawn far too much energy from him, and it was a challenge to stay on his feet and not let his sword fall; if any of the enemy’s captains faced him as he was, he would surely fall. So he hung back, looking at the slaughter from a distance, and a slaughter it was; the Shining Walls had never been breached before, and as such Illaryon’s defenders had grown lax in their training and recruiting. Dorian’s army met less than one third their own number, and that of half-trained soldiers and inexperienced officers.

Breathing with difficulty, Dorian forced himself to act; a small contigent of the enemy’s soldiers had noticed him, and were closing in, hoping to strike at a hapless officer. The debris from the Walls’ destruction provided plenty of material for Dorian to work with, however, even exhausted as he was; forcing his will upon the world around him, Dorian Wove the flows of Earth on the fallen stones, and lay in waiting. The soldiers came on, unaware of his trap. As they reached striking distance, Dorian closed his fist, releasing the flows; spears of rock and stone rose from the muddy ground, impaling the majority of the small platoon and scattering those that had been lucky enough to survive.

Grimacing as his head began to throb with the effort of continued Weaving, Dorian surveyed the fallen city once more. Few citizens were on the streets – only those fool enough to think they could mount some kind of resistance would risk themselves in the middle of an invasion -, but that was for the best. Illaryon was not to be burned, and its citizens not to be killed; he was on a campaign of conquest, not destruction, no matter what everyone else thought. He had given firm orders that no citizen was to be attacked unless they resisted the invasion, and that there was to be no destruction of buildings and monuments that did not have a military purpose. The penalty for disobeying either order was death.

Sighing, he motioned for one of the War-Weavers standing nearby, “You, Weaver. The defence grid of Illaryon has already fallen, if I do not miss my mark. Enhance my voice so that it can be heard from all corners of the city.” He did not wait for the Weaver’s nod before turning back to the city, flexing his sword-arm. There would be much to do here before sailing out, but he wanted to avoid any unnecessary deaths. He felt the Weaves of Air surrounding him as a sudden tightness in his skin, but he shrugged it off.

“Citizens of Illaryon, hear me out. I am Dorian Belzess, Commander of the Armies of Dusk. Your Shinning Walls lay like rubble at my feet, and your soldiers dead at my hands. Your city has fallen. Avoid further grief and destruction by submitting yourselves to my rule and forfeiting all previous allegiances; none that do so will be harmed.”

Turning around, he walked towards his tent. The last few stragglers would be dealt with by his soldiers and his officers, as would any of the inevitable uprisings, but there was much to be done in the city yet, and much planning to be worked out if the Armies were to get back in schedule. Dorian’s head throbbed and his body felt like lead, yet he paid them no mind, as there were greater matters to be worried about; he would lead his Master’s Armies of Dusk in their hungry conquests, but there was no glory, no honour in it. He only wished to fulfill his part of the bargain, and finally be able to die in peace.

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Gaming Thoughts: Torchlight II

First, let me open this post by saying that I’m a long-time Action RPG fan, especially those games that fit the hack-and-slash build that began with the Diablo series; heck, most of my childhood and teenage years were spent playing Diablo and its successor, Diablo II, and I’ve jumped at every chance I’ve had to play other games like them (names like Fate, Titan’s Quest, and the original Torchlight come to mind). Like many other Diablo fans, I’m a bit heartbroken with Diablo III (the game’s great, but there are some major flaws in item design, in my opinion, which broke the high-level game for me), and having enjoyed the first Torchlight game, I’ve been looking forward to taking a look at its second instalment; I’ve finally had the chance to pour a couple of hours into the game, and am here to share my thoughts and opinions.

Being a hardened fan of hack-and-slash RPGs, I promptly hit the “Elite” difficulty while creating my Embermage – the game’s version of the traditional “glass cannon” wizardry character -, the hardest difficulty available, hoping to find some challenge in the game. The opening cinematic was enjoyable to see, and I liked the art style; a good start. The game opened into quality graphics that are not amazing, but not too shabby either, and which didn’t manage to cause a great impression – I’m not a player who cares too much for graphics, though, so I don’t count Tochlight II’s graphics as either a positive or negative aspect; they simply get the job done, I think.

The first few levels were incredibly easy despite my choosing of “Elite” difficulty, but that was to be expected as a new player adjusts to the new systems and explores the game and their character. As I entered the 10’s range of levels, things started to become a little bit more fun; encounters with normal monsters are still a breeze (I’m at level 14 currently), but a few types are dangerous if you become distracted, especially ranged monsters, and those elite mobs with unique names always require a bit more of caution and strategy. Boss fights so far have been incredibly fun and challenging, with the boss themselves being hard-hitting and hard to kill, and spawning tons of dangerous, usually ranged mobs. With all of this, though, I’m finding the difficulty still a bit too easy; I’ve only died once so far, and that because I got distracted with something from outside the game. This was actually something I had disliked about the first game as well, it being too easy, but at least “Elite” is giving a nice enough challenge in Torchlight II, while on the original’s hardest difficulty the game was still boringly easy.

The Embermage is a lot of fun to play, especially while dual-wielding Wands. I’ve pumped all of my attributes so far into Focus, guaranteeing some great Magic Damage and reaching almost 25% chance of “Executing”, causing the character to attack with both Wands at the same time, for combined damage, which is awesome to see on top of the mechanical bonuses. The Embermage’s skills are awesome, providing plenty of different usages and cool effects (of special note is the passive skill Wand Chaos, which creates random effects on attacks made by wands, which are cool on top of being powerful). The items so far have been diverse and interesting, with the magic jewels adding a nice touch to it all; my only problem with it so far is that I’ve encountered plenty of unique and set items… but none for my class! This isn’t a design flaw, though, just a personal problem with the random number generator. ;)

Lastly, the story of the game isn’t that great, but it is very hard to have a compelling story in a hack-and-slash RPG anyway. When you look at Diablo III’s story, for example, which could have been much better from what it was, Torchlight II isn’t that far behind.

All in all, Torchlight II has been a fun experience, and while I’m still very much at the beginning of the game, I’ve been enjoying it. Once I’ve completed it (or quit it, though I don’t think that will happen), I’ll come back to post additional, more informed, thoughts.

-JNicolini

On Karma Cores

One of the major subfields of Weaving and Karmic engineering is the study of Karma Cores, devices that, by themselves, generate, modify or apply Karma in one or more given ways. They are the true wonder behind the entire Karma-based technology, because they allow automatization of tasks and help lessen the strain on any Weaver operators that the device requires. There are three main types of Karma Cores: Engine Cores, Effect Cores and Utility Cores. No matter their type, all Cores are highly valuable, because the process of creating them has only recently been rediscovered, and is still an arduous process that only few Weavers can pull off.

Engine Cores: The most prized of the Core types, Engine Cores actually generate a specific kind of Karma, under specific circunstances, generally set by the Weaver operating or installing the Core. Simple Engine Cores only generate one specific type of Karma, in a constant flow, while more complex types can be controlled to generate different flows of different Karma types, separately or together.

Utility Cores: Another very important – and useful – type of Core, Utility Cores change the shape or quantity of Karma flowing through them, and as such are very useful tools; the ones which change the shape of the flow can be used to help even the weakest Weaver create complex effects with his Weaves, for example, and the ones which increase the flow can be used by an expert Weave to increase the power of a complex Weave. They can also be used in concert with the flows from Engine Cores, thus increasing the range of devices that can be made from Cores.

Effect Cores: Last but not least, Effect Cores produce a particular effect whenever Karma is flowing through them; the simpler versions only produce a single effect for a single type of flow, but more complex Cores can create multiple effects depending on what is flowing through them, or create multiple effects at the same time, or even produce a set of effects no matter what is flowing inside them, as long as there is Karma flowing (these are the hardest types of Effect Core to produce, despite what one would think).

-JNicolini

My GMing Philosophy: Why Saying No is a Bad Idea

Well, time for a break from writing and worldbuilding posts and some talk about RPGs – more specifically, my philosophies as a GM/DM/Storyteller. Of course, these are only my thoughts and experiences on the subject, so feel free to disagree about them – though if you do, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below!

In this post, let’s talk about why saying “No” to your players is a Bad Idea. Why? Well, let’s first get something written down: the goal of playing a RPG is for everyone to have fun together. Getting denied is not only not fun, but also uninteresting. If I come up with an awesome idea on how my character can jump through the balconies of the Great Hall, grab the curtains and use them to swing on top of the chandelier and promptly cut its ropes to fall into the Big Bad Evil Guy, why should I be denied simply because the rules don’t cover such actions? Flat out saying “no” destroys the player’s fun, and flat out closes the door for their creativity. The story being told is not the Storyteller’s alone, but rather a joint creation where all players contribute – and saying no negates the players’ contribution.

However, don’t say “Yes”, either – unless the player’s action is just too awesome and fits with your plans as well. But generally, much more interesting than either “No” or “Yes” is to say “Yes, but…” or “Yes, and…”; this way, you let the player pursue their creativity and get their moment of awesomeness, but you have some room to deny any particular point you don’t like, and better fit their ideas into your plot. For example, perhaps you will allow the stunt I described above as an example, but instead of falling directly on the Big Bad Evil Guy’s head, I only manage to hit his minions! Or, perhaps, I do manage to hit the Big Bad Evil Guy, but in the process I wound my leg as well, thus relying on my comrades to rescue me in time from the Big Bad Evil Guy’s minions! See, much more interesting than a flat “No”.

This does not mean you should always give everything to the players, of course. This philosophy is only applicable in situations where a player wants to do an action that they think is awesome, and which is not covered by the rules – or perhaps just beyond their reach by the rules. In these cases, accommodating the players’ desires is a great way to enhance the fun all around the table. In other cases, however, where the player wants something only to be better than the other players or to show off, he should be denied – but that’s not a case of stifling creativity, but of having Bad Players.

As I said above, the main goal of playing RPGs is having fun. If everyone is having fun, then the goal is achieved. The rules are only a means to achieving that fun, and whenever they get in the way they can – and should – be neglected and ignored, in favour of the group’s continued fun. It doesn’t matter if the character’s attack couldn’t have depleted the remaining 200 hit points of the enemy Ogre; if the player came up with a suitably awesome description of him climbing on a tree, giving a battle-cry and jumping on the Ogre’s back, thrusting his blade deep into the beast’s neck in the process, he should be awarded with having the Ogre dead – that’s way more fun than having his awesome thought-out attack deal 17 damage just like a bland “I swing my sword at the Ogre” would have done.

What are your own philosophies on GMing a RPG?

-JNicolini

An Introduction to the Politics of Dragonia

The political environment of Dragonia is heavily influenced by the fact that, not much more than a few thousand years ago, the entire world was a single entity under the rule and guidance of the mighty Dragons; whatever remains now is simply what humans could do to adapt and survive. There are many city-states and small nations spread across the islands of Dragonia, and by themselves no single island has enough power to extend their domination to the adjacent areas, let alone to elsewhere. As such, most nations band together in leagues and alliances, finding strength in numbers.

The League of Empires is one such alliance, and in truth the oldest and most powerful. Having emerged soon after the Fall of the Dragons, the League was the attempt of the small empires that appeared at the time to strengthen and enforce their rule, though they have since broken down in smaller nations still, and can barely be called Empires now. Each member of the League – usually a full island – is ruled by a High Lord or High Lady, and the League as a whole is led by the Grand Lord (or Grand Lady), who is first among equals and has the final say in decisions, if there is indecision – all important aspects of the League are decided by vote.

The Free Lands, also called the Harfall Alliance, named such for Herid Harfall, is the League of Empire’s major competitor and enemy. The Alliance is made up of islands and nations on the western border of the League, and their is a history of rebellion and fighting. In the early days of the rule of the League, a man named Herid Harfall stood up against the opression of the League, and carved with fire and blood a land where he and his could be free; this land has grown and held its own against the League up to the current day. Although they call themselves an alliance, the Free Lands are a collection of holds and city-states loosely related to each other, and whose only true connection is their mutual hate towards the League – a hatred that might not be entirely with reason, as there is more to Herid Harfall’s story than is widely known.

The Dragonic Uprising consists of a few islands on the eastern border of the League of Empires, and is composed by those nation who believe that the way of life taught by the Dragons should be continued, and as such the Ordo Draconis is predominant in the region. Not much is known about them, as they have closed their orders to all outside envoys, and attack any ships that come too close to their lands.

Other than these three major powers, there are also independent city-states and small nations that manage to hold their own against outside influences, if only because all of the major powers are too busy watching each other to worry about these minor powers.

-JNicolini

On Karma Pools and Karma Locii

I briefly mentioned Karma Pools and Karma Locii on my previous post about geography, and now it’s time to expand on them a bit more – something I should have done in the post about Karma and Weaving. Both are very important aspects in the natural working of the world, and in the exploitation that Weavers can do of the natural energies that course through the land, and as such are the subject of much study.

Karma Locus is a place where one or more Karma Veins manifest with exceptional strength, and they usually have a very strong Karma Scion associated with them. They are true places of power, and an expert Weaver can channel this power to fuel his own Weavings. These places of power are highly sought after by the rulers of an island, as control over them ensures their continued rule, and increases the military strength of their nation; Locii in wild islands are greatly sought by freelance adventurers and mercenaries, for the creation of strongholds and to fuel their own purposes.

Karma Pool is a rare metaphysical occurence that sometimes appears inside Karma Locii; it is a concentration of one or more Karma Veins, creating a metaphorical pool of Karma that can be tapped upon by expert Weavers. This creates an even stronger source of power than a common Locus, especially if the strength and quality of the Karma Vein is high. Locii with Karma Pools are even more sought out than their normal counterparts, and Locii with more than one Pool are frequently the cause of wars.

Just as Karma Veins have a bodily equivalent in the form of Karma Circuits, Karma Pools also have one, called Karma Centres, which are specific points in the body of a living being that have a higher concentration of Karma, and fuel the energies of the entire body. They are tightly connected to the bloodstream and the health of the living being, who will die or at least be severely injured if their Karma Centres are damaged. On humans, the three major Karma Centres are present between the eyes, in the middle of the chest, and on the genitals, but there are thousands more spread across the entire body.

-JNicolini

Musings on the Quality of Books

One of the things every writer asks himself is, “what makes a book good?”, “what makes a reader hooked in a book”? Well, I was a reader way before I became a writer, and while I cannot speak for other readers, I can at least explore what I think makes for an interesting book for myself. In short words, I believe that a book is great if it makes me angry, sad, and happy; every single book that I read that manages to make me cry, laugh, and shout out in anger, I consider it on my list of best books.

But what makes us cry, laugh and shout out? That is the real question here.

Regardless if it is sadness, happiness or anger, for a book to drive into us enough emotion for us to actually express it out loud, we have to be emotionally attached to the characters and events happening in the book, but mostly to the characters, as it is them who drive the events and the plot forward. Therein lies the secret for success in any medium of storytelling: the characters. The most memorable books I’ve read had developed characters, with strong personalities and organic qualities and flaws. Some of them, in fact, didn’t even had that good writing, or the plots where a bit lackluster… but the characters more than made up for it.

So, what makes a character a good character? Well… I know I can point my finger at many of the awesome characters in the books I’ve read – Harry Dresden in The Dresden Files, Rand al’Thor in The Wheel of Time, Tavi in Codex Alera, and many, many others -, but I cannot for the life of me pinpoint what, especifically, makes them all such awesome characters. In your opinion, what makes an awesome character?

Geography of Dragonia

I’ve talked a bit on my World of Dragonia post about how the world is shaped, the fact that it consists of several small islands and archipelagoes, and in this post I’m going to expand on that concept, especifically on the fact that the land is magical in nature (due to the Karma Veins explained on the Karma post), and as such that magic translates into specific aspects that guide the geography of the world.

Islands can be categorized in many different ways, according to their seasonal type (Summer, Winter, Spring or Autumn Islands), according to their geographical characteristics (Desert, Forest, Lake, Swamp Islands, etc), according to their Karma saturation rating (Type 0, Type 1, Type 2, etc, with the number representing the amount of Karma Veins that have a pool, sometimes called Karma Locus, on the island, ie. a place where Karma gathers and fills, ready to be used by expert Karmacists), or even according to the nature of this saturation (Fire, Water, Earth Islands, etc). Let’s talk a bit about each of these categories and what they really mean.

The Geographical Categorization and the Seasonal Categorization are the two most used categorizations, usually put together (a Summer Desert Island, or a Spring Forest Island, for example), and widely used by the people of Dragonia. They are self-explanatory, and most people don’t give them a second thought, as they are present in daily life as people refer to one island or another.

The Saturation Categorization, both the qualitative and quantitative methods, are less common, used mostly by Weavers and scholars with interest in Karma research. The number of Karma Locii in an island is not always public knowledge, since it directly correlates to the island’s military capabilities, and as such it is usually hard to apply this categorization in an effective way on developed islands, who usually want to protect their secrets and hide their true strength (or lack of).

However, even as people love to find order and categories for everything, the world is not an orderly place. There are islands which escape such categorization, be it by behaving oddly in respect to seasonal events (there are islands where it is always winter, or always summer, for example, called Everlasting Seasonal Islands), by having geographical characteristics warped by the action of strong Karma, and thus having no natural equivalent anywhere else (called Aberrant Islands), or by having a variable number of Karma Veins, or Karma Veins with variable Karma types, a much rare – and much more dangerous – occurence.

-JNicolini

The Lord of Stone, Part 3

Final part of the Lord of Stone short story. I’m not happy how it turned out, I will probably take everything and rewrite it on the weekend. Until then, any thoughts are appreciated.

Dorian’s warhorse surged forward, leading the charge; it had not been raised and trained by Dorian himself, but it was a good mount, with strong legs and a solid step, who charged fearlessly into battle at the slightest urging – perhaps sensing the mood from its rider, filled to the brim with bloodlust and aggresion as he was. Strange how a man’s mind could wander when faced with life or death situations, how the weirdest details came to his thoughts when faced with the uncertainty of battle. Dorian suppressed it all, seeking the emptiness inside that would bring utter calm, utter detachment.

The horse stepped into the invisible line marking fifty kon to the Walls, and Dorian unleashed hell.

Drawing deeply from his connection with He Who Comes From Below, Dorian Wove the flows of Earth Karma, each thick as a small tree, in intricate patterns that filled his vision, a crisscrossing network of flows and knots just so, forming together a huge and invisible net that only he could sense or see. A smile of triumph came to his lips, unbidden, even as sweat broke on his brow. The sheer power of the Karma he manipulated was enough to get a man drunk, and he could not afford mistakes, not when he and his army were already at 20 kon from the Walls, and impact would mean sure death; it was a fight for survival, his and his soldiers’, a struggle to contain and direct an amount of Karma such as had never been seen since the Fall.

Overlaying his Karma construct on the Walls, Dorian shouted out, calling for the attack, calling for the mad charge against what his soldiers still saw as a solid Wall, even when he already knew the result. They could not see, but they trusted their commander, and they complied; a giant wave of soldiers and horses, men and animals screaming in fear and challenge, exploded into the Shining Walls of Illyrion, until that day undefeated and unbroken. The Karma net actived, and the Walls, so perfect in their defence, so sure of their strenght, turned to dust, the stone melting into sand at the soldiers’ touch.

The Shining Walls turned to ash and scattered into the winds, the impenetrable fortress fell and was defeated, with one man standing in the middle of the carnage, drunk on power, impossibly victorious. All glory to the Lord of Stone, whose very touch withers the hardest rock and bends the strongest metal.

On the Nature of Karma and Weaving

As I mentioned briefly in the previous post about Theology, the natural energy of the world is called Karma, and with Weaving and magic being abundant in Dragonia, Karma has a great impact on the everyday lives of the citizens of the world. Much like other energy abstractions (“mana”, “ki”), Karma is simply the name of the energy that permeates every living being and every unliving object, lending substance and essence to everything material and immaterial. The Gods themselves are beings of Karma, and so are the Dragons; everything orbits around it.

Pure, unaltered Karma is extremely dangerous and volatile; no normal being would survive contact with it. As such, it is distilled into the several different Elements before entering Dragonia, thus making the world capable of supporting such vast amounts of energy. In addition to this distillation, the land is filled with abstract magical constructs known as “Karma Veins”, which are pathways through which Karma flows, allowing for further containment of its tremendous power. The Dragons who created Dragonia knew of the hazards that pure Karma could be, and as such planned and created these Veins so that Karma could flow through the world and maintain the natural balance. Similarly, every living being have what is called “Karma Circuits”, the same concept as the Karma Veins, but in a smaller scale, which allows the flow of Karma through the body and its manipulation, called Weaving.

When a living being tries to Weave Karma, he needs to open his Circuits and synchronize himself with the Karma he is trying to wield. This can be done in one of three ways: the person can try to use his own reserves of Karma to achieve a desired effect, which is called “drawing from the Inner Source”, he can try to use the Karma already present in the environment and in his surroundings for the desired effect, which is called “drawing from the Outer Source”, or he could channel Karma through an outside force, like a God or a Scion, which is often called “drawing from an Sponsored Source”. Each way of using Karma has its pros and cons:

Inner Source: The Inner Source is the easiest to use, since the Karma being manipulated is the person’s own Karma, and as such is completely compliant to the user’s desires. This form of manipulating Karma is generally used with martial under-tones, closely related to the performance of martial arts movements and bodily techniques to draw, mould, and direct Karma. The downside of this Source is that the Karma used is depleted from the user’s own reserve, and as such the more they use it, the more they feels physically exhausted.

Outer Source: The Outer Source is harder to use, but offers theoretically unlimited power, as the Karma being used is coming from the user’s surroundings. However, due to this, the user has to first synchronize himself with his surroundings, and force the Karma around him to leave its inertia and be shaped into the desired effect; for this reason, the user must have a strong willpower to impose his will on the natural cycle of Karma around him, and even then, effects that use the exact same amount of Karma are always weaker if used with the Outer Source, since the Karma will always have a lingering inertial resistance to being shaped. Another downside of this Source is that the user becomes mentally exhausted if they force too much Karma to be shaped.

Sponsored Source: This method combines the pros of the other two Sources, as Karma drawn this way is fully compliant to the user, and comes from an outside source other than their own reserves. However, an entity capable of sponsoring a mortal’s Weaving is generally far more powerful than the mortal itself, and thus their Karma slowly erodes the mortal’s body away if used for too long – this is, in fact, the most dangerous of the three Sources. There is also the matter of debt; if such an entity is willing to lend his power to a mortal, they certainly expect something in return.

On the matter of naming, a person who uses Weaving is generally called simply a “Karmacist” – a farmer who uses a bit of Earth Weaving to soften his planting ground, for example -, unless they have undergone formal training, in which case they are called Weavers. The example of the farmer brings us to the question of elements, which are outlined below:

Primal Elements: These are Fire, Water, Air and Earth, and their subelements, like Ice (Water), Sound (Air), Metal (Earth) and Gravity (Earth), among others, called so because they form the basis of the material world, representing the aspects of Solid, Liquid, Gaseous and Energy matter.

Dual Elements: Light and Darkness, and their subelements like Lightning (Light) and Void (Darkness), among others, called so because they are in direct opposition of each other. Sometimes they are also added to the list of Primal Elements, even though they do not translate directly into any material aspects.

Continuity Element: Spirit, which is called so because it is used as a bridge to join two or more elements together and form a new element. It has little use or power on its own, however.

Joint Elements: Elements made by the union of two or more elements, through a bridge of Spirit. Examples include Wood (Water+Earth), Magma (Fire+Earth), Radiance (Fire+Light), and Venom (Water+Darkness).

Abstract Elements: Elements that are not directly correlated to the material world, like Fate or Dreams. Just as it is possible to Weave any of the normal elements, it is also possible to Weave Fate or Weave Dreams, though it is a much rarer skill, and seldom seen anywhere since the fall of the Dragons. Also, although not an Element on its own, it is also possible to Weave Karma through blood, the own user’s or someone else’s, and this Karma taken directly from blood has a much higher potency and strength; however, Bloodweaving is outlawed in most civilized places, since Bloodweavers are usually more interested in using the blood of others than their own, generally without their consent.

Lastly, there is also the concept of Internalized Weaving. While Weaving is, in general, the use of Karma to achieve a desired effect on the world around the Karmacist or Weaver, Internalized Weaving is the manipulation of Karma within the Karmacist’s own body, to increase or change his own personal characteristics. At the basics, Internalized Weaving consists of increasing strength, speed and endurance, but at higher levels it can go as far as transfiguration of the body.

-JNicolini