18 April 2014

Mariners' Quarter II

Sign of the Melting Block:  This old time ice selling family business has recently been taken over by Shalla Luathaich, the grand-niece of the proprietor, who has retired to the countryside.  In reality, “Shalla” is the priestess Tantra, cleric of Mallia – the dread goddess of disease – who with her three acolytes sacrificed Shalla and her grand-uncle, forged the right papers, and plan to use this business to spread disease throughout the Old City and the ships leaving for foreign ports.

Venturers’ Guild Hall:  This surprisingly pedestrian (considering the importance of the maritime trades to the City) five-story building houses the professional guild for merchant sailors for those seeking a harbor pilot, a full-time navigator or able seamen to round out a crew; fishermen have their own Guild on the South Wharves and are not terribly welcome here.  Non-able seamen are discouraged from hanging around until they undergo long apprenticeships or are entrepreneurs or sea captains hiring for voyages.  Those hiring are expected to pay a fee to the Guild depending on the length of voyage and hazards anticipated. 

On the first floor of this wood-and-stucco edifice is a large office where captains and officers gather, and where a large cork board tracks known shipping.  There is a smaller administrative office, where a wall covered with cubbyholes hold messages for passing vessels.  Most of the second floor is taken up by a meeting hall where Venturers can hold rallies, and there is a separately run teahouse on the 2nd floor balcony upon which the sailors take tea and shoot the breeze.  On the third and fourth floors, low cost (and mediocre quality) food and beds for seamen are available barracks style.  Supervising the barracks hall is Leofri, a former bosun’s mate.  The fifth floor has modest “lockers” for long service mariners, with room for a bed, table, chair and seachest and not much more.  Notables include: 

Cap’n Dolan Hide is the cheerful, swarthy son of a Lohvian merchant and a veteran bladesman, well off enough that he sails because he wants to do so.  He cons the Windrose, a 70' fast schooner outfitted for the tea trade and noted for being weatherly.  The Windrose sports no visible cannon, but her swivel guns shoot lightning, not bullets.

Gwythar the Knife is Dolan’s first mate, a giant of mortalendic blood. He is a skilled helmsman, but an unbelievable knife thrower, one of the world’s best.  He is festooned with knives, several enchanted and all Very Fine quality.

Vangar and Varko are twin brothers who own the Sea Lord’s Confidence, a 250 ton roundship.  They take turns as captain and helmsman, and it is difficult to tell which is which; they are both equally humorless and taciturn.  The Connie is a once-renowned sailer that was poorly repaired following a grounding, and a good bit of rot has set in. 

Shena of Seahill captains the Black Risslaca, a shallow draft sideboard schooner with four sweeps designed for inshore and reef work.   The Risslaca is a jumpy, persnickety ship requiring an attentive, attuned helmsman, which Shena is.  She won’t do a knowingly illegal act (emphasis on the “knowingly”) such as smuggling or drug running, but she also asks few questions.

The Trefoil Herb:   Neysa is a fairly prosperous elven blood herbalist.  She has two assistants who spend their time compounding preparations in bulk for the quarter’s physicians.  She is painfully aware her husband Lodos happens to be the Commodore of the Brotherhood of Renders (the great pirate cabal); they are separated and on poor terms.

The Sisterhood of Sublime Mercy Orphanage:  This orphanage hosts several dozen children at any given time, and has a sour reputation in the neighborhood.  The Sisterhood apparently believes in hard work for their charges, claiming it will teach them useful trades and a work ethic, and operates a nearby sharpener and brickmaking factory.  They claim (not completely inaccurately) to place children in fosterage on suburban farms and in apprenticeships in the city, and hotly and persistently maintains their innocence of any wrongdoing, while maintaining (also not completely inaccurately) that they teach the children to read, write and cypher.  More sinisterly, however, Mothers Mellindra and Yhantse sell a steady percentage of the better looking or stronger children as slaves to illicit buyers.  They have onsite a half-dozen scum guards (deliberately picking handsome, innocent looking ones) to help keep the children in line and discourage questions. 

Tyraesa Square:  This large public square in the northwest of the quarter has a weathered sandstone fountain so old the features of the person memorialized are no longer discernable; it is jocularly called “Old King Log” after a notoriously inept monarch of three centuries ago.  The wide base of the fountain is the source of public drinking water for the poor.  The square is also a popular venue for minstrel performances and street theater.

Dock Square:
  This square is somewhat out of the way, and peopled by the lower-class district residents, the fishing trades, and the down and out.  Outsiders – the Town Watch included – will attract scrutiny, and may be harassed by local youths and wannabe thugs.  There are a number of pushcarts selling various ready-to-eat foods, which is ignored by troopers as long as the thoroughfare isn’t blocked. 

11 April 2014

Mariners' Quarter: Stuff You Can Use

(A previous version of this was up on another website, but I thought people might like to see it here: a few useful and occasionally quirky businesses for a hardbitten, somewhat poor seaport waterfront district.  Enjoy!)

The Sea Gate:   This gigantic and imposing gate is fashioned from carved and polished (if a bit weathered) black granite.  Open from an hour before sunrise (or high tide, whichever comes first), closes at sunset.  The guards will generally take bribes to open the Gate for known sea captains swearing that they need to set sail during the night.  No tolls are charged; incoming cargoes are tariffed by the Harbormaster’s office, outgoing wagons at the East Gate.  The Gate mounts six-pounder cannon and four swivel guns in its two towers.

Barracks, Admiralty Guard:  In case of trouble, a full company of Royal Marines is stationed at a barracks adjacent to Admiralty House, with two squads on continuous guard.  The Admiralty Guard is a much-prized post awarded only to elite Marines, and they take a great – and somewhat arrogant – pride in their posting.  The Captain of the Admiralty Guard (with the rank of Colonel) is Lady Danay Mayfern, a legendary ex-ranker knighted by the Crown for numerous deeds.  The (true) rumor is that she is secretly a Deep Grey Shadow warrior.  The Guard is under the nominal command of the High Admiral and is officially not under the Port Commandant’s authority, which has led to much friction in the past; Danay is a skilled enough politician to keep all sides as tolerably contented as may be.

North Wall General Store:  Julian Maligor runs this busy corner store built against the city wall (and for which ample monies are paid for the privilege).  He is one of Keva One-Eye’s lieutenants and runs the district’s drug smuggling business for the Thieves’ Guild; two buyers make arrangements with incoming vessels, three distributors broker the smuggled goods, and Julian has two button men who serve as muscle.  Julian himself is short and fat, and lecherous almost beyond measure – he will always find time to take a lady in the backroom to “pay down” a drug debt, and any absences he has from the front during business hours is almost certainly connected with backroom gruntings.  Opium is sold legally; illegal moondust can also be had.

The Woflo Inn:  Caters to the buccaneering and smuggling trades, and thereby watched by the Guard and under the protection of the Thieves Guild.  Funny business is not long tolerated, even if the loyal clientele permitted the same.  The innkeeper is Grace Waflo – the family name is spelled differently – a winsomely pretty redhead in her early twenties who took over the inn from her sister; she is still feeling her way around keeping the itinerant clientele in line, lacking her sister’s awesome powers.  She and her husband Artaz (a lampmaker in the Firewalkers’ District) have two small children, Daisy and Els.  The barkeep is Jurgin, an ex-adventurer with a strong lecherous streak. Notable in the district for the best stews in the Old City.  The inn has ample room for guests, as well as two separate escape tunnels from the basement into the sewers. 

Keva One-Eye, who has the district concession from the Thieves’ Guild, has a backroom set aside for her uses.  Her lieutenants are Jakaesa, who brokers smuggled goods through a cell of buyers, one of longshoremen and one to launder through legitimate businesses; Layco, who runs street crime in the district, with two loan sharks, a fence, two burglars, two pickpockets and three button men; and Julian.  Keva herself has two guards. 

The owner’s older sister, Princess Elaina Waflo Elyanwe, is a elemental wizard of tremendous renown; she married into the Vinarian Imperial Family, served a term as an Intermediate Master, and was one of the great heros of the Battle of Veredar Island in 4506.  She is fanatically devoted to her family and the well-being of the Woflo, and can bring immense resources to bear to protect it.  Her bodyguard Sir Kardo is a famous ex-pirate, and she often travels with an honor guard of Vinarian Imperial Marines. 

Temple of Manannan (St. Taria’s): This small temple of the Sea Lord caters to the fisher folk and downtrodden sailors.  The exterior is of plain wood planks with a granite foundation, topped with a modest whitewashed steeple.  The glass windows are purple with age and unadorned.  A small (but sweet toned) bronze bell tolls for services and at the loss of a ship or a congregant.  There is a modest herb garden with benches set up for meditation, and a long-ago filled cemetery.

Sanctuary:  Scallop shell sconces created from translucent alabaster add to the small passage between the doorway and the chancel.  Wistful paintings of sea scenes border the whitewashed walls of the sanctuary.  The pews are of simple woods (salvaged from derelict ships), although lovingly kept, and the dark blue wool aisle runners are new; space in the sanctuary prohibit the pews from making a complete circle around the altar, as is customary.  Streams of blue and green light inside bathe the nave from a stained glass window set behind the altar.  The altar itself is of plain oak, although it is covered with a beautifully embroidered altar cloth.

The curate, a retired lobsterwoman herself, is Mother Ginevra Harlo.  There are two teenage acolytes, and the three live in modest quarters behind the downstairs parish hall.  The hall itself is oversized, and Mother Ginevra runs a soup kitchen mid-afternoons for down-and-out locals (augmented by castoffs from the area inns, since St. Taria’s is underfunded, save for occasional donations from Princess Elaina), all of whom are known to her.  St. Taria’s is a good place to hire common sailors and fishers, if not of the quality one would get at the Venturers’ Guild.

Tavern, no sign:  Under a tenement block, Camibel and her disabled orcish-blood husband Elerek run this plain but clean tavern for the fishing folk and longshoremen.  Their tavern is unlicensed and illegal, and they are under threat to be shut down.  The Thieves’ Guild has offered to smooth their way for “consideration,” and are ramping up the pressure.

Sign of the Fuming Gate:   Incongruously enough, this is actually the local whale oil and coal seller, Dorinda the White.  The long ago hostel of a monastic order of the Fire God, this building was empty for years before becoming a flophouse, and now taken over by Dorinda, who wanted to expand her business from formerly cramped quarters.  She considers the sign a terribly funny joke, and hasn’t yet realized the consequences of poking fun at a notoriously grim fighting order; their first salvo is that she is under a Curse from an unamused priest.

Brothel, no sign:  Even in the loose Mariners’ District, the brother and sister team of Dachel and Keraera draw a great deal of fire.  Locally born to now-deceased fishermen, they are notorious for doing anything with anybody (or with any prop) in any combination, each other included.  Their sign was torn down and their establishment has been repeatedly vandalized. 

The Compass Rose: 
The faded relic of an earlier, more prosperous era, the Rose is the largest public bathhouse in the Mariners’ Quarter.  The exterior is carved sandstone, now weathered and crumbling, the interior of glazed (and chipped) azure and white blue tile.  There is a large warm water communal bath, smaller communal baths for men and women, a steam room, a salt water bath, and two private tubs (a third is damaged and out of commission) for groups of up to four.  There is a 10% chance that any given bath is out of order on any given day.

Cooper:  Domeneka Lekarsi is a dour, skilled cooper, one of the few Mistress Race trolls in the Old City.  Much of her business involves repair work for barrels (her prime location hard up against the Sea Gate as a boost); however, with an eye towards an coin, she also sells watered wine and beer for the dockworkers, drovers and Sea Gate guards, however much illegally.

Winedark Venturers’ Bank:  A modest blue granite building houses this local bank (unconnected with the Venturers’ Guild, and in a lengthy lawsuit over the name).  Winedark is the institution of choice for many of the poorer people of the district.  Drained by the lawsuit, undercapitalized and with a number of risky loans outstanding, the bank is secretly on the verge of failure.  Well-respected "Old" Aleman is still the nominal head of the institution, but his grand-nephew "Young" Aleman and his three cousins operate the bank.  They are increasingly desperate for a quick fix, but fear a bank run if word gets out of its near-insolvency.

Tea Merchant:  Mikoguchi Lanta blends and serves out bulk tea to the district’s inns, taverns and general stores, aided by her eight energetic children (all, she boasts, by different fathers).  She will sell retail, but will gouge anyone save for the apothecary Neysa, whom she credits with alchemical beautification potions.  The shop carries Golden Zorca blend tea.

04 April 2014

Do we *really* need art in gamebooks?

When we buy a gaming product, we make an investment. They cost a fair bit of money now (especially with core rules, which can run into the hundreds of dollars), and playing a game system means choices that can last decades, involve hundreds of hours of work, attract or drive away fellow gamers and affect the product lines upon which you spend money. Anyone who makes this decision based on the Ɯberkewlness of the cover art is a complete moron. This is like deciding what kind of TV to buy based on how awesomely the manufacturer's carton is painted.

Quite aside from that I've seen more published products – my own included – marred by lousy interior art than enhanced by it, the incredibly busy interior graphics of a lot of products are just plain visually jarring ... between pseudo-medieval fonts, pictorial watermarking, sepia-toned inks.  I'm 54 years old, and visual razzle-dazzle akin to Myspace page layouts just puts me off.

And the ultimate insult is they make me pay a premium for all this crap.

I would seriously respect a major publisher that went back to softbound books, two-color plain covers, no interior art ... and that they would thereby sell their stuff for three-quarters the industry standard.

Sorry, these are books. With words. 95% of the information in these game products are verbal. Using words. This isn't World of Warcraft, and it isn't a console game, where visuals are integral to gameplay and can't be divorced from it. These are printed rules which would convey pretty much the same information if they were 100% graphics- and illustration-free.

But, after all, the "non-verbal" gamers (which in terms of tabletop seems quite an oxymoron to me, but whatever) have had things all their way for quite a few years now. Gamebooks are jammed cover to cover with pretty graphics, full color interior art, lavish borders and all manner of glitz. Just on a lark, I used a converter to strip a couple PDFs down to plain text ... and got as much as a forty percent reduction in page length.

Possibly you're comfortable with paying for a hundred pages of padding in a corebook. I sure as hell am not, and in the industry these days, only one of us is getting what he wants.

Let's take one of my pet peeves, the Serenity RPG.  It uses eight pages, a 20th of its page count, on full-color production stills of the principals of the Firefly crew.  What you learn is that (for instance) the actress Gina Torres (and by inference, the character she plays) is black, the actress Summer Glau isn't (ditto) and the actress Morena Baccarin is dusky skinned and of some other racial stock (more of the same).  Its applicability to gameplay I leave to you to imagine.

Hm, I have a copy of the Star Wars RPG here.  Now each and every page has inch-plus-wide margin graphics which mimic a wristcomp or something of the sort, and represents about a seventh of the available space for text. Want to know how much space that ate up? Fifty-four pages, about.

Now I’ve been told that, for vague and poorly articulated reasons, RPG gamers “need” there to be tons of art in gamebooks.  But strangely enough, the vast number of non-RPG publications in our culture – the ones marketed to grownups, anyway – are devoid of both.  Let's look at the first five books on my bookshelf:

Shanteys of the Seven Seas, by Stan Hugill. No interior illos. The only graphics are the first bars of many of the shanteys, done up in musical notation.

The Koran - Heck, illos are downright impious as far as a Muslim goes.

Collected Verse by Rudyard Kipling. Nope, no artwork here.

The Civil War, by Shelby Foote. There are, occasionally, maps of key Civil War battles.

The Nine Nations of North America, by Joel Garreau. A center section of maps.

Shall I keep going? More of the same, and the illustration rate drops dramatically when you get to fiction books. So could someone tell me: why is it that poets, devout religious practitioners, folk musicians, Civil War historians and social scientists can manage perfectly well without a quarter of their books being taken up by pretty pictures ... and it's believed that RPG gamers no longer can?