Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Invoking IP: Trollface

Just a short update today--work and school are killing me right now!  Yesterday, Kotaku had an excellent article about the creator of the Trollface meme and the work that he's done to protect his copyright.  This is a good demonstration of how illustrations are both the itea and the expression of the idea at the same time, and therefore highly protected.

I'm putting this up for two reasons.  First, it's a good illustration of how copyright owners can, should, and do protect their intellectual property.  Secondly, a lot of my work up to date has been of the "let's destroy all the copyrights" variety for those want to interpret it so.  That's not what I'm about, and I want to highlight a good case where a copyright holder has protected his rights while also licensing them when and where he feels it was appropriate to do so.

(c) 2008 Carlos Marcio Ramirez

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Invoking IP: Direct copies of games

For this segment of Invoking IP, we are going to talk about a very recent case, Ward v. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2015 WL765833, __ F.Supp.3d __ (2015).  The case actually concerns a dispute between Michael Ward and Sterling Publishing Co., which was later acquired by Barnes & Noble.  Michael Ward, a New Zealander, had created a new game called “Scratch Hangman.”  This was like normal hangman, but could be played by a single player.  Instead of asking letters from another player, each letter has a scratch off to inform the player whether the letter appears in the puzzle and, if so, in which spaces.  Ward went all out with these things—the two books in question are “Trivia Hangman” and “Hollywood Hangman.”

Ward started publishing the books in New Zealand, but later contacted Sterling to distribute his books in the U.S.  Sterling and Ward struck a deal in which Sterling agreed to “copyright the Work in the United States in the name of [Ward], but indicated that if Sterling supplie[d] material for the Work (such as illustrations), Sterling may copyright such material in its own name.”[1]  Eventually, things went south when Sterling started creating scratch hangman copies of its own.  Ward ended up suing Barnes & Noble (Sterling’s owner) for copyright infringement, trade dress infringement, and unfair competition.  For the copyright infringement claim, Ward claimed “that he had c[o]me up with the concept and created the unique style of the ‘Scratch-Hangman series of books’ and that the publication of additional ‘Scratch & Solve’ books under different authors’ names infringed.”[2]  We’re going to ignore the questions of trade dress and unfair competition here and focus on the copyright question: Can you exercise a copyright over a game whose concept you’ve created?

The opinion pretty quickly notes that “a copyright does not protect an idea, but only the expression of an idea.”[3]  The judge gives us a couple of caveats.  First, the scenes á faire doctrine: which excludes protection from “sequences of events that necessarily result from the choice of a setting or situation” and from “elements of an image that flow naturally and necessarily from the choice of a given concept.”[4]  Further, quoting Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Services Co., the court notes that a work must have “some minimal degree of creativity.”[5]

Does his copyright claim fail?  Boy does it ever.  First, “many of the elements of [Ward’s book] that he contends Defendants infringed are simply not copyrightable.”[6]  Well, the hangman board has existed since Victorian times and, even if the game were subject to copyright, would have passed into the public domain anyway.  As for the scratch off letters, “a plaintiff has no right to copyright…a common geometric shape.”[7]  And you also can’t copyright “variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring.”[8]

But, Ward doesn’t lose completely.  His illustrations (which normally hold a more stringent standard of protection) are knocked out as uncopyrightable scénes á faire doctrine.  But, the court holds that the instructions for the game might be copyrightable.  “And while the idea upon which a game is based cannot be copyrighted…the wording of instructions for the playing of a game is itself copyrightable so as to prevent a literal or closely paraphrased copy.”[9]  The works that Ward was suing over had copied his instructions verbatim.  The court doesn’t rule in Ward’s favor, but does say that a full trial on that count would be in order.  There was never a full trial though—the two parties settled there.

Now, let’s apply some of this to RPGs?  Here are the interesting questions:
1)      Can you stop a rival producer of a similar (identical?) RPG from using art that nearly approximates your own?  Probably not unless it’s a direct copy, under the scéne á faire doctrine.
2)      How closely can you hew to the rules of another RPG in developing your own?  Undecided.  You can’t produce a literal or closely paraphrased copy (absent a license), but how close is too close?  We’ll look at some future cases where they note that things like instructions have limited ways to be expressed, so the level of protection is lower.

[1] Ward at *2.  (internal quotations omitted).
[2] Id. at *3.
[3] Id. at *4.
[4] Id.
[5] 499 U.S. 340, 345 (1991).
[6] Ward at *5.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id. at *8 (quoting Milligan v. Worldwide Tupperware, Inc., 972 F.Supp. 158, 162 (W.D.N.Y. 1997).

Monday, April 6, 2015

Maps! Maps! Maps!

Last week, ICv2 published their interview with Paizo Publisher Erik Mona.  You can read that and the other coverage about it elsewhere.  But here's what I'm really excited about:
What’s your pace of releases in 2015 vs. 2014?
Pretty similar. If anything, a little bit more. One of the things we announced here that I’m pretty excited about is a line called Flip-Mat Classics.  It’s an accessory; basically an 18” x 24” fold-out map with a grid on it. It’s got coating so you can write on it with dry erase/wet erase and it’s scaled for miniatures combat for Pathfinder. We’ve done about 50 different ones over the years.  We do a basic one, which is just a grid, but we also do ones that are like a forest, tavern, things like that.  Almost every Pathfinder Society organized play scenario that we’ve done uses these maps. We’ve got 199 of those scenarios out as of today since the beginning.  A lot of them reference maps that have gone out of print, so Flip-Mat Classics bring eight out-of-print, very popular, very high utility maps like ship, tavern and forest back into print. That will be in addition to the monthly map products that we do, so that’s a little bit more.


Content Constitution: Inle Lake

As we expand on our country of Menas, I want to do something that will help establish that Menas is a more temperate area than the real country that inspires it.  Recently I ran across an article on io9 about a lake in Burma.  Satellite pictures of the lake over time show the lake shrinking.  But, it's not drying up.  What's happening instead is that farmers are planting crops directly on the lake's surface (see below for how) so that it appears to be shrinking, but isn't.  I like the idea of sticking a lake somewhere in the Hadria, about where the foothills transform into mountains.  A giant lake helps telegraph, "this place is not a desert," which I think goes a long way to helping us split our fictional kingdom from its real world inspiration point.

NASA satellite photo of Inle Lake, Burma
Lake itself
The lake itself is medium sized and freshwater.  It's not particularly deep.  Most places the lake floor is no deeper than a foot or two beyond the height of the tallest men.  However, in some areas the lake can be twice as deep as that.  One large patch in the southeastern part of the lake is about this deep.  Areas in the northwestern part of the lake, where its watershed feeds into it, tend to be shallower.  These depths are for the summer evaporation which can lower the water's elevation by as much as five feet before temperatures cool at the beginning of September.  At the end of spring, when runoff is highest, all points in the lake are at least five feet deeper (12-17 feet depth).  Islands dot the lake.  The lake dra"lake drains from two rivers on its southern shore.  One of these runs eastward, and forms the boundary between areas considered part of the Hadria/Menas' coastal cities and the eastern steppes.  The other, larger river runs south towards Aden, where it meets the ocean in the Gulf of Aden.

On Inle, crops are grown directly on the lake  
IMG_1568, (c) 2011 Ken Marshall
Over twenty species of snails and nine species of fish in the lake are found nowhere else in the world. Some of these, like the silver-blue scaleless Sawbwa barb, the crossbanded dwarf danio, and the Lake Inle danio, are of minor commercial importance.  The Sawbwa forms the basis for a spicy local paste made by crushing its bones and combining them with spices.  Both danio species are large, carnivorous fish.  They hunt outsiders, but avoid the native Intha for reasons unkown.

On the lake's eastern shore, about 2/3 the way northwards up the lake, lay the Tather Caverns.  The Caverns are accessible only via an underwater tunnel for most of the year.  Only during height of summer are the caves accessible due to seasonal evaporation.  Even then, most entering the caves must wade through water that's chest-deep.  There's a small shrine/temple to [insert deity here] located here.  This works as a shrine to a good or an evil deity.  If a shrine to a benevolent god, it would be cool if there were people who live in the shrine year-round and who can only access the rest of the world during the month the caves are dry.  This is also the month of the major religious festival, when the blessed shrine dwellers return to the population at large.  Additionally, some roles in the region's society (definitely priests, probably some other civil leaders) must spend apprenticeships of at least one year in the shrine purifying themselves before they can be vested with their roles.

Canal in the Inle Lake Area, (c) 2011 Exotissimo Travel

People of Lake Inle
Those who live on Lake Inle's shores are known as the Intha.  The Intha are known as living in harmony with nature.  They claim a greater share of Andaran blood than most humans, and for that reason are left in peace by the Hardan dwarves, who see them as a symbol of the blessing of [insert deity's name here] on the area.

Unfortunately, Menas civil war affects the Menas of Inle Lake as well.  There is a force loyal to Rodrick I nearby.  Pinned in by Hardan forces all around, this group has retreated to the Inle Lake area, which they are able to hold due to the difficult passes that provide the only known means to reach the area.  Unfortunately, the large military force and the Intha require more food than the lake can easily grow.  The soldiers have requisitioned food from the locals, causing strife among them.  It's a matter of time before hungry mouths among the locals spark violence, though it is anathema to the Intha's ways.  The people are waiting now, but if the priests within the sunken shrine of [insert deity's name here] proclaim war upon the invading force when their surface access returns, a bloodbath could easily ensure.
The Inthas' homes are built on stilts.  Inle Lake Mynamar, (c) 2014 Clay Gilliland

Inle Lake 06, (c) 2008 Ben Belske

The Intha live in simple houses of wood and woven bamboo on stilts; they are largely self-sufficient farmers.  Transportation on the lake is traditionally by small boats.  Local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This unique style evolved for the reason that the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds. However, the leg rowing style is only practiced by the men. Women row in the customary style, using the oar with their hands, sitting cross legged at the stern.

Floating farms
The io9 article notes "the tomatoes aren't literally floating, they're being supported by a vast network of water hyacinth roots that have grown together so tightly that they're capable of supporting another plant on top." What happens is that farmers gather up lake-bottom weeds from the deeper parts of the lake, bring them back in boats and make them into floating beds in their garden areas, anchored by bamboo poles. These gardens rise and fall with changes in the water level, and so are resistant to flooding. The constant availability of nutrient-laden water results in these gardens being incredibly fertile. Rice cultivation is also significant."
Plants on the lake grow so thick that the surface appears to be ground rather than water.  
Inle Lake, Myanmar, (c) 2014, Ken Marshall
In addition to crops grown on the lake, there are also the famous Inle Carp, a regular part of the Inthan diet.  They're popular lightly oiled and fried as well as part of htamin gyin - 'fermented' rice kneaded with fish and/or potato  Another well-known Inle dish is Htamin jin - a rice, tomato and potato or fish salad kneaded into round balls dressed and garnished with crisp fried onion in oil, tamarind sauce, coriander and spring onions often with garlic, Chives root, fried whole dried chili, grilled dried fermented beancakes and fried dried tofu are frequent side dishes or accompaniments.

Water hyacinths near tangling the gate to one of the floating
Inlé Gate, (c)2014 ALWinDigital
The water hyacinth is the plant that allows the food crops to rest on the lake without sinking.  At one time, all boats coming into Nyaung Shwe were required to bring in a specified amount of water hyacinth.  But, it's not native to the lake.  In recent years, this has created challenges.  Because the water hyacinth grows so quickly, its starting to fill in the smaller streams and large portions of the lake.  This problem is less pronounced on the lake's northern shores.  Locals believe that non-native plants grow poorly in that area due to the ruined temple's influence.  But in the other sections of the lake, water hyacinth is growing with abandon and robbing native plants and animals of nutrients and sunlight.
The Maccarian Temple is located on the western side of Lake Inle.  Like all
habitations on the Lake, it has docks for easy water access.  Unlike many
other structures, it sits on solid ground, housing the five sacred statues.

Mandaly Inle_3, (c)2007 Oriol Gascon

Maccarian Temple
The Maccarian temple is located on the western side of the lake, roughly two-thirds of the way towards the southern shore.  Its pagoda houses five small gilded images of [insert deity here], which have been covered in gold leaf to the point that their original forms cannot be seen. The gold-leaf application to such excess is relatively recent. Older Inthan remember a time when the images were unadorned. There are rumors that some of gold has been removed on occasion.  Whether this removal was for proper religious reasons or represents nefarious activity by the clergy is up to the GM.  Maybe some local bad seeds have been removing gold while the pure-hearted clergy are holed up for eleven months out of the year.

The five statues are of differing sizes and range from about nine to eighteen inches tall. Made of gold, they are extremelly heavy.  According to Inthan beliefs, the statues were placed in the temple by Inthan's mythic Andaran forebears during the time when the Andarans ruled over humans in the area, before their leader was slain by the first Nulkavii Emperor.  Although the temple is open to all, only men are permitted to place gold leaf on the images.  Such a sing of respect is believed to bring [insert name of deity here]'s blessing.  However, only women are permitted to place a small robe or other article of clothing around the images.  This article can be taken back to their houses and placed on their own altar to invoke [insert deity's name here] blessing on all that live within the home.

Local market far away in the south of the Inle Lake (Myanmar)
(c) 2009, Dieter Zirnig
A local market serves most common shopping needs and is held daily but the location of the event rotates through five different sites around the lake area, thus each of them hosting an itinerant market every fifth day. Sometimes it is held on the lake itself, and trading is conducted from small boats.   Shan-bags, a type of tote-bag, are produced in large quantities here. Silk-weaving is another very important industry, producing high-quality hand-woven silk fabrics of distinctive design called Inle longyi. A unique fabric from the lotus plant fibers is produced only at Inle lake and is used for weaving special robes for [insert deity name here]'s statues.  These are called lotus robes.  The Inthan also make handmade cigars cheroots (from tobacco, honey, rice flour, tamarind, banana, and anise).

Buddha festival at Phaungdaw Oo Paya, (c) 2013 Zniper
Locations of interest in the area include: The Gypsy Inn (boarding house), the Smiling Moon (sprawling tavern cum boardinghouse.  The main structure floats on the lake and is several stories tall.  Guestrooms are separate structures accessed via boardwalks from the main building.), the Red Mountain Winery (located in the hills on the eastern side of the Lake Inle valley and known for its spectacular sunset views), and Inle Speaks (claims to host an oracular water spirit tied to the lake which tells fortunes for those who pay a fee or perform a service to the spirit and/or its handlers).

Harvest Festival
During the festival, the statues travel the lake on barges
built to look like mythical birds.
 Inle Lake Myanmar,
(c) 2014, Clay Gilliland
The Harvest Festival begins on the night of the full moon halfway between midsummer and the autumnal equinox.  During this 18-day festival, four of the Buddha images are placed on a replica of a royal barge designed as a coatl and taken throughout Inle Lake. The elaborately decorated barge is towed by several boats of leg-rowers rowing in unison, and other accompanying boats, making an impressive procession on the water. The barge is towed from village to village along the shores of the lake in clockwise fashion, and the four images reside at the main monastery in each village for the night.  One image always remains at the temple.  Though the local story is that statue prefers not to travel, the truth is that during a particularly windy day, when the waves were high on the lake, the barge carrying the statues capsized, and they tumbled into the lake.  Divers could not recover one image.  When the priests returned to the temple, a translucent image of the missing statue glowed in its traditional place.  Those viewing the statue's outline then saw the sanctuary transformed.  Only the oldest of them recognized it as the sanctuary of the former ruined temple now in ruins on the northwestern corner of the lake.  Locals believe that the statue traveled there through [insert deity's name]'s will.  It was at this time that non-native plant life began withering near that portion of Inle Lake.

The statues travel across the region, visiting
towns as well as the four minor temples on
the lake.
  Inle Lake, (c) 2013 Christopher
The high point of the festival is on the day when the images arrive at the main town on the lake's eastern shore.  There most pilgrims from the surrounding region come to pay their respects and veneration to [insert deity's name here].  Originally, the high priest of [insert deity's name here] would personally welcome the statues to the town. They would be taken from the barge and a grand procession would take them to the palace, entering its prayer hall from the western entrance.  Unfortunately, the high priest vanished on the night that a star fell from the heavens, bringing both darkness and flame to his temple on Inle Lake's northwestern shore.  Since the temple's ruination, the priests of [insert deity's name here] spend the night before traveling to the main town with the statues on the lake in memory of the night when the statues would spend time at the former temple.

Haunted Ruined Temple
Abandoned Temples, (c) 2009, Ed Brambley
On Inle Lake's northwestern shore lies a broken temple and a nearby hot spring.  At one time, it was the largest temple to [insert deity's name here].  It's sprawling campus was the center of his/her faith.  Then, years ago a star fell from the sky (or a meteor, or there was an earthquake, or magma shot from the earth, or other apocalypse of your choice) and brought the temple low.  The accident happened on the last night of the Harvest Festival, which is traditionally a time for contemplation.  Lighting any light is forbidden on that night.  People woke abruptly to cacophonous sounds and bright lights.  The following morning the few survivors began streaming into other settlements.  The high priest was dead.  Rescue parties were sent to the temple, but none returned.  None have visited the temple since that time and returned, save those who did so in a vision when one of the traveling statues of [insert deity's name here] was presumed to have been transported from the bottom of Inle Lake to the ruined temple's sanctuary.

An artists' rendering of the haunted temple.  Magical Myanmar,
(c) 2013 Christopher Michel
Inle Lake io9:
Inle Lake Wikipedia:
Hpaung Daw U Pagoda Wikipedia:
Inle Lake Wikitravel

Friday, April 3, 2015

Content Constitution: Expanding Our News-based setting

Yesterday's post discussed creating a basic campaign setting based on a current conflict.  In this case, we are using the current conflict in Yemen.  But, yesterday's post only took materials from a single news article.  But, my research turned up so much more.  Therefore, it's time to expand!

First, a brief recap about the Kingdom of Menas...

Hadria/Hadran, The dwarven people that live within the mountains in the northwest of the country, also where its capital is located.  They are rebelling against their political leadership, King Rodrick.
Coastal cities/Aden/Coastal peoples, The people that live along the country's southern and eastern coasts.  Rodrick I was one of their leaders under the previous king, whom Rodrick succeeded through...byzantine...circumstances.  Very maritime mercantile.
Eastern Steppes: Home of nomadic tribes that birthed Rodrick I's predecessor, Sonthuk XII, who conquered the coastal cities and Hadria, establishing a mini-Empire.
Andarans: Former occupants of Menas with access to fantastic magic.  All or mostly gone now.  Have left ruins.

Nulkavit, a large Empire to the north with a powerful standing army and a history of interfering in Menas' internal political affairs.  Nominally aligned with the coastal mercantile interests in Menas.
Barnan, a maritime power, generally opposed to Nulkavit and the only nation that officially endorses a heretical religious/political view that holds the Nulkavii royalty have actually usurped [insert deity's name here]'s plan for ruling the region in a religious manner.  Nominally aligned with the northern rebellion and the tribes in Menas' Eastern steppe/desert/badlands.

Now, let's incorporate a new source:  This site is administered by the American Enterprise Institute (whose views this site does not endorse).  For Yemen, it has a regularly updated blow-by-blow analysis of what the situation on the ground is.  Each report begins with a large infographic as well as updates on other developments in the country.  I've chosen March 27, 2015 as the day I like.  Why have I made this choice?  Because that's when the situation reports start saying that President Hadi (Rodrick I) had fled Aden for Saudi Arabia.  As with yesterday's NPR report, let's draw some more information directly from the source.
Saudi Arabia and allied forces undertake air operations against al Houthis and may begin ground invasion in Yemen. Egyptian military and security officials stated on March 26 that Saudi Arabian and Egyptian forces would undertake a ground invasion in Yemen, although a Saudi Arabian military spokesman later said ground operations would only commence if needed. Fighter jets from Saudi Arabia and Arab allies bombed Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, on March 26. Targets included al Daylami Air Force Base  in Sana’a city and a military camp in the south of the city that is reportedly home to troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. There are rumors that three top al Houthi military commanders, Abdul Khaliq al Houthi, Yusuf al Madani, and Yusuf al Fishi, were killed
The Nulkavii are days away from launching a land invasion.  Perhaps troops are already massing on the border.  They might send elite units (PCs?) into Menas in an attempt to destablilize or stabilize matters.  Right now, I'm not interested in creating a third international player, so we can ignore Egypt.  But, it doesn't hurt to remember that we can have a body of water as thin as the Red Sea to the west of Menas if we want to.

The capital is clearly besieged, and there's a massing of  Hadran troops in a military camp inside the south of the city.  Let's file that away for when we think about what the state of play is inside the capital and within Aden.  For right now, we know that there's a large concentrated presence of Sunthuk's armed supporters in the southern part of the capital.  Since the news reports (and therefore our canon) differentiate Sonthuk's supporters from the Hadran, let's say that somewhere in the south of Donteen is a large encampment of nomadic warriors from Sonthuk's native eastern lands.  Finally, there are rumors that three major Hadran warlords have bitten the dust.  Are they?  We don't have to decide right now.  But, what is important to know is that the Hadran forces are split up rather than in a single large military unit.
Al Houthis vowed strong retaliation for Saudi airstrikes. Al Houthi leader Abdul Malik al Houthi condemned Saudi Arabian military operations in Yemen during a televised address on March 26. Abdul Malik accused Saudi Arabia of working in American and Israeli interests and called for a mobilization against Saudi Arabia. Al Houthi political leader Ali al Imad alleged that al Houthi fighters fired a missile into Saudi territory on March 26, although this report could not be independently verified. Another al Houthi political leader, Mohammed al Bukhaiti, stated that the Saudi intervention in Yemen will be the “end” of the Saudi regime.  It is unclear whether the al Houthis will undertake further attacks on Saudi territory. The al Houthis temporarily held positions inside Saudi Arabian territory during the 2009-2010 Sa’ada War.  Iran publicly condemned the Saudi Arabian military operations in Yemen, but it is unclear whether Iran will move additional assets to assist the al Houthis. Unverified reports state that Egyptian naval forces forced Iranian warships to retreat from the Bab al Mandeb straight, although this claim could not be verified. 
Wow!  This gives us a lot to work with.  Rather than following the order of the quoted paragraph above, let's try and make some narrative sense out of this.  First of all, during the former war that deposed Sunthuk and placed Rodrick I on the throne, the Hadran were restless and were occupying positions in southern Nulkavit.  That's a very good reason for the Nulkavii crown to be concerned about what happens in Menas.  If the violence spills over the border, Nulkavii subjects will quesetion their own leaders' ability to keep the peace within the empire.

I also like the idea that the Hadrans attacked Nulkavit territory.  One option is to decide that these were simple border raids.  But, I want the Hadrans (or at least one of their leaders) to be doing a little bit of double speak.  The Hadrans have unearthed a weapon located in an Andaran ruin.  They attempted to use it or maybe even just to test it and it went totally awry, discharging onto Nulkavii territory and killing a few country folk.  Depending on how strong and wild this weapon needs to be, it could have been unearthed near the border, transported near the border for testing, or unearthed far from the border (and therefore affecting and killing at a greater distance).  Unless we need survivors or the PCs will visit this area, we don't have to decide on the weapon's exact properties (or even if it was originally a weapon) at this time.

Of course, the Hadrans hold the Andarans in high regard that borders on worship.  Its questionable for this Hadran commander (perhaps one of the three that's now rumored to be dead--he's gone underground to do his research and no one has heard from him in weeks) to be unearthing Andaran ruins, much less putting holy relics to use as weapons of war.  Another Hadran commander (who may or may not be aware of our archaeologist commander's activities) has attempted to inflame the people on both sides of the Nulkavit-Menas border with talk of how the Nulkavii are messing with sacred matters and to their own detriment.

Finally, there are rumors that the Bardanians sent ships (to aid the Hadrans?  to attempt to sack some of the southern coastal cities? unclear) but were turned away.  This may or may not have happened.  We can decide later, but it's a great rumor for right now.
Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled Yemen as fighting continues between al Houthis and pro-Hadi forces in Aden. Hadi later arrived in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on March 26. The al Houthis also seized al Mansoura and Sheikh Othman districts in northern Aden and captured Badr Military Camp on March 26. It appears, however, that forces loyal to Hadi made gains against al Houthis on March 27 and retook al Hawta, Lahij and al Anad Airbase, which al Houthis had seized two days prior. Pro-Hadi forces also regained control of Badr Military Camp and Aden International Airport on March 27.
This is the first time I'm going to make some changes.  Rodrick I hasn't fled from Aden, but he has fled to Aden.  He still has forces skirmishing on his behalf up north (an adventure might be to try and free the largest group up north from the morass so that they can rendezvous  with Rodrick's main forces in Aden or even rescue them).  He's pinned in at Aden right now by Hadran warbands.  There's fighting going on all over the countryside as warriors take and retake land from their enemies' gains.
Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) cells are beginning to emerge in Lahij and Aden, southern Yemen. Wilayat Sana’a, an ISIS-affiliated group responsible for the March 20 mosque bombings in Sana’a, revealed the names and histories of the militants who carried out the suicide attacks. At least three of the fighters came from Ibb in central Yemen, indicating the possible presence of an ISIS recruiting cell in the governorate. ISIS supporters in Lahij, calling themselves Wilayat Lahij, posted photos of slain fighters via Twitter on March 25. Pro-ISIS Twitter accounts also started distributing photos of graphic executions of al Houthi militants in Lahij and Aden on March 25 and 26. It is possible, though unclear, that some al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants defected to ISIS. AQAP’s media presence over the past week has been limited.

Let's not forget our religious secret societies.  It appears that the Scepter of the Kingfisher is making its presence known in Aden.  It's noted as having killed only Hadran forces, so we'll assume that the Scepter's goals include placing Rodrick I back in charge--at least for the moment.  Perhaps Rodrick I is secretly a member of their faith?  But, the Scepter forces appear to have a strong presence in the foothills of the mountains halfway between Aden and Donteen.  I've decided that the Scepter's secret training camp is there.  Most residents of that valley are members of the Scepter, but Scepter members from elsewhere in Menas are only invited after proving themselves in battle and advancing up the organization's hierarchy.

The Black Bolas of [insert deity's name here] appear to have gone quiet.  Some people believe that they've been subsumed into one of the other groups.  Maybe they have joined other groups, but they haven't been subsumed.  If they are infiltrating a group en mass, it's because they have plans for later.
U.S. intelligence files may have fallen into Iranian possession. The Los Angeles Times reported on March 25 that U.S. intelligence files detailing American operations in Yemen were looted by al Houthi militants in January and are believed to have been handed to Iranian advisors. The files reportedly had the identities of local intelligence sources operating in Yemen. The loss of the information to the al Houthis indicates the severity of the damage done to U.S. intelligence networks in Yemen.
Okay, there are a couple ways to spin this one.  If you are going with a recently-vanished or mostly-gone Andaran theory, then this is information about the secret society (as yet undefined) that allows the Andarans to operate throughout Menas undetected today.  Most members of the society aren't aware of who the Andarans are, but are supportive of whatever goal the Andarans have claimed to be furthering.  Only the most senior members of the society know the identities of its Andaran leaders and that they aren't humans at all.  The information was garnered by the Hadrans (perhaps the same one testing/mishapping with the weapon, perhaps another) but they lacked information to truly understand it.  Since Hadran lore respects the Andarans and (I've now decided) their religious belief shared with the Badrans is that the Nulkavit royalty stole their crown from rightful Andaran rulers, they have fed the information back to Badran.  Maybe this is why the Badrans recently were rumored to have sent ships towards Menas.

We've learned a LOT more about the region and the fighting.  I could go back and review a week or so of previous situation reports if I wanted more, but I'm pretty happy with what we've learned thus far.  Most of the statements are also sufficiently vague that they can be tailored into rumors to keep the PCs guessing.  Further, we are fleshing out the various cultures--Hadrans hero-worship the Andarans, for instance.  Who knows what comes next?!

Invoking IP: Flickr Offers Creative Commons & Public Domain Options for Photos!

On this blog, I've talked a lot about how copyright protections for photographs are so strong.  A photograph is expression in and of itself and therefore preemptively has an intensely strong copyright.  But, as with all copyrights, the holder can choose to allow others to use the work.  On Tuesday, Flickr announced that it will give its users options to release photos under Creative Commons or public domain (no protection) licenses.  Flickr states:
The default setting on Flickr continues to be All Rights Reserved, but you can change the default for all your photos in your account settings if you’re interested in using Public Domain or CC0. You can also set the designation per individual photo in a variety of Flickr desktop and mobile experiences, such as the Photo Page, Camera Roll, Organizr, Uploadr, etc.
Creative Commons has explainers on what it means to be in the public domain and CC0 or "no rights reserved" copyrighting.  There are other licenses that give others the ability to make use of your work for non-commercial reasons or even to make commercial use of your work, provided they've built something else out of it.

Screenshot of  Everything on the site is
copyrighted but under a creative commons non-commercial
and with attribution use license.
Flickr also hosts The Commons, which exists to help people get access to useful, public domain photographs.  It's mission is "share hidden treasures from the world's public photography archives."  So, I'm going to do a search for RPG, roleplaying game, or similar and post my favorite picture at the bottom of this post.

I cheated and ended up searching "GenCon."  Photo credit: Mass Effect Costumes
at GenCon
, (c) Benny Mazur, available on flickr.

[h/t EFF]

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Content Constitution: Using the news to generate interesting campaign settings

I used to think that I wasn't a very creative person.  Perhaps I'm not and I'm just deluding myself.  But, the more and more that I see quotes like, "There are no original ideas," (Barbara Grizzuti Harrison) the more I realize that everyone has to draw inspiration from somewhere.  Also, whenever I see RPG designers talk about how something previous inspired something that they've adapted, I realize that everyone does this.  So, on that front, I want to talk about one of my favorite sources for creating campaign content: international news.

Before we jump into specific content, I want to plug The Economist.  In a single newsweekly, I can usually find 15-20 ideas that can be converted into campaign content.  I find that the best sections for this are The World This Week (specifically the politics), the Leaders, the weekly Briefing topic, the International News, the Science and technology (especially for developing spells and magic items), Books and Arts, and the Obituary (for developing NPCs).  The regionally focused news sections (US, Asia, Europe, etc.) are hit-or-miss and the finance section usually isn't worth perusing.  If there's a Technology Quarterly, you've hit pure gold.

I often get campaign ideas when I listen to NPR on my way into work in the morning.  There was an excellent piece about South Sudan that went a long way towards helping me get ideas for how my homebrew setting should be set up.  Stories from last year about the abductions from Nigerian orphanages inspired this adventure about the same topic.

The main topic in the news these days is Yemen.  First of all, let's get one thing out there--what's happening in Yemen right now is terrible and a tragedy.  Civil wars are destructive to life and to property and should in no way be celebrated.  But, RPGs are about creating opportunities for player characters to shine and to be heroes.  Absent a great tragedy, there's little for heroes to redeem.  So, the fact that the situation in Yemen is so tragic creates the opportunities to design a setting where the heroes have some wrongs to right.  We're going to go paragraph by paragraph through an NPR story from March 25 to talk about how we can flesh out our setting with inspiration from the real world.

Let's get started with a name.  I'm going to call our fictional land Menas.  Although Yemen is an area where you could draw on Islamic history for inspiration, I'm going to try and translate this into a traditional fantasy campaign.  I'm not doing this because of any anti-Islamic bias (quite the opposite), but to show how easy it is to port these ideas into anything else you'd like.  Also, here is a map of Yemen to make it easier to figure out what's where:

On to the news!
Saudi Arabia has begun airstrikes against Shiite rebels in neighboring Yemen. The Saudi ambassador to Washington announced the military action late today, saying the downfall of Yemen's government is not an option for his country. The ambassador also says the United States is not involved but has been consulted. The U.S. recently pulled out all of its personnel from Yemen, leaving it on the sidelines. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
Thus far, we know a few things about our putative campaign setting.  First of all, it has a powerful neighbor to the north, which we'll call Nulkavit.  That neighbor is powerful enough to affect violence and change within the country itself.  In fantasy terms, we could utilize spellcasters powerful enough to work magic miles and miles away (perhaps through an artifact?), flying fortresses from which troops and other weapons could be launched, or the ability to sneak forces deep within Menas.  I'm going to go with the last option, but any of them are viable.

There are also rebels operating in Menas.  We also know that those rebels are opposed by Nulkavit and that they are poised to accomplish regime change in Menas.  The Nulkavii are invested enough in Menas (trade route? source of important natural resource? simply worried about border stability?) that they are willing to project military force to keep the current ruler in power.  Is the current ruler a Nulkavii puppet?  We don't know yet.

We also know that there's another country that was operating within Menas but has since pulled out.  Trying to integrate the intense geopolitics of the modern United States into a fantasy setting could be done, but I think it's probably easier to conflate the roles of the U.S. and the Saudis/Nulkavii.  Let's move on in the article...
NABEEL KHOURY: Essentially, even though Washington will be slow to recognize this fact, the state of Yemen has failed.
This isn't useful to use for game planning terms except to note that "the state of Yemen has failed" is a good sign you've found an article with potential.  Moving on...
Houthis have gained control of much of the country, chasing out the internationally recognized president. The former president and forces loyal to him are helping the Houthis for now. Add to this mix - al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS, which claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Yemen last week. The regional context makes this all the more complicated, according to Gregory Johnsen, who's written a book about Yemen and now contributes to BuzzFeed.
 We've already learned gobs more.  First of all, our rebels have a name (in real life).  In our campaign, let's call them the Hardan.  The Hardan hail from the mountainous region in northwestern Menas.  In fact, the Hardan are dwarves.  Though Menas' capital, Donteen, is located in Hardan areas, the bulk of Menas' population hails from the coastal areas.  Among the bulk of that population is Menas' current (former?) king, Rodrick I, who's recently had to flee Donteen because of the Hardan offensive.

Rodrick I is the First because he's the first of his line.  He took over after the previous dynasty.  The previous king, Sonthuk XII had trouble keeping the various Menasii peoples' interests balanced.  Sonthuk hailed from the northeastern desert areas, which were once a separate kingdom that conquered both the areas populated by the Hardan and the coastal areas.  To cement his conquest, Sonthuk adopted his enemies' former capital, Donteen.  Rodrick Gevailes led the largest of the coastal tribes from his power base in Aden (I don't feel like changing its name).

After Sonthuk's conquest, he was more or less dealing with two rebellions: the conquered Hardan and tribes led by one of his former lieutenants in the desert slopes in Menas' northeast.  Rodrick I was a loyal backer of Sonthuk in exchange for Sonthuk channelling the gold/spice/magical mineral trade south through Aden and other coastal cities, benefiting the merchants Rodrick ruled.  Eventually, the rebellions gathered strength and destabilized the Nulkavit border.  The Nulkavii invaded in force.  It was a bloodbath made entirely of Menasi blood.  Sonthuk sued for peace.  The Nulkavii needed a new ruler for Menas and found one in Rodrick.

Now we know why the northern neighbor supports the current embattled king.  We also know that there's a former king still active in the country.  He still has forces loyal to him--the desert rebellion in the east was more over Sonthuk's original subjects repressed irridentism and anger over being denied spoils from the invasion.  Today, Sonthuk has made peace with many of his former subjects.  While he's not actively leading them in battle--that would violate the terms of his treaty with Nulkavit's Emperor and result in a new invasion--he exercises soft power over them in an attempt to portray himself as the only force that can stabilize Menas and rule it.

Thus far, our tensions have been racial and regional.  Let's add some religious tension into the mix.  We have two organizations, both of which have some similarities.  Both chafe at secular rule and the more moderate parts of the religion that endorse secular rule.  Both have had some experience in administering their lands, though they are exercising very little to no control over any Menasi territory, at least so far.  One group is called the Scepter of the Kingfisher.  They believe that the ancient ancestor of the Nulkavii Emperor (who once ruled Menas itself before his empire's power waned) slew the rightful heir to both secular and religious power in the land.  The ancient emperor drowned his victim and a giant kingfisher was seen jumping out of the river when the event occurred--at least according to legend.  The Scepter of the Kingfisher is a secret society working to undermine all types of secular leadership as well as religiously-blessed leadership through the Nulkavii Emperor.  They're active mostly in the coastal cities.

There's also the Black Bola of [Insert deity name here].  This group is dedicated to religious rule only.  However, they believe that religious rule should be direct without any human intermediary.  Effectively, they are anarchists.  It's unclear how they manage to get anything done.  Unlike the Scepter of the Kingfisher, Black Bola cells tend to be more individually motivated.  Rather than working under central power and direction, they tend to coalesce around a single, charismatic leader.  They are the ones responsible for the recent explosions in the marketplaces of Aden, Donteen, and other cities, having struck a blow against the commerce that they (rightly) believe allows secular power to flourish.
GREGORY JOHNSEN: What we're seeing is that regional rivalries, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran, are being grafted onto this local domestic conflict. And when you put all of those different elements together, it really is a witch's brew.
Now we have a second regional power.  I'm tempted to place Barnan where modern day Oman is located.  But, I like the idea of it being able to exercise power in Menas but without a direct border. Present day Oman remains an undefined quantity.  Barnan actually lies to the east across the sea.  Barnan is a major maritime power and a covert supporter of the Hardan uprising, though not necessarily of returning Sonthuk to the throne.  I like making Barnan a maritime power allied with the Hardan because that teams an international maritime power with a domestic land-based power.  On the other side of the coin, Menas's coastal cities are arguably a maritime power (we know they engage in a lot of trade, so let's go with either they have a navy or sufficiently weaponized merchant ships) and they are allied with the land power of Nulkavit.  Finally, Barnan subscribes to the same religious beliefs as the Scepter of the Kingfisher (the only country in the area that has successfully challenged Nulkavii hegemony), and covertly funds their activities in Menas.

Now things are getting interesting.  We've got three major ethnic groups in the country at loggerheads with each other and two contenders for political power.  We've got two secret societies vying to destroy the government.  They could be working together or they could be at each other's throats.  We've also got two international powers willing to interfere in Menas' affairs, one militarily and one through more covert means.  I'm also deciding that there's a merchant guild with membership across the coastal cities, the Liber Mare, that mixes politics and commerce and is a major driving force in the coastal cities' plans to dominate the Hadran to the north.

JOHNSEN: Yemen watcher Johnsen, who spoke to us before the Saudi announcement is worried that regional players could miscalculate and the U.S. doesn't have a lot of options to respond. It shuttered its embassy in February and just withdrew Special Forces.
 JOHNSEN: And the purpose of those advisors was to help coordinate drone strikes and other counterterrorism activities that the U.S. was carrying out in Yemen primarily directed against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. So those forces - those 125 individuals were evacuated last week. And today, the Houthis overran that base. And that was on their march south.
I said that the U.S. was out, but I lied.  At some point in time, another ethnic group, the Andarans (to borrow a name and a concept from another of my homebrews) lived in Menas.  They were exceedingly powerful, utilizing magic beyond the reach of most living today with ease and without training.  They built mighty cities and their civilization flourished.  Unclear why they declined (maybe they started birthing today's PC races and that's why they've declined? maybe they lost the ability to procreate at all due to some magic disaster? maybe they were called away to another place?  Insert fantasy trope of your choice here).  Depending on how distant you want their exit to be, perhaps the last of the Andarans just now left Menas.  Could be that people knew it was coming (and it was a big event) or maybe they just vanished?  Maybe nobody knew they were here, but they were the last ones keeping any sort of stability and their exit is what sparked the current conflict?  We know that they did exist and the Hadran rebels recently took one of their bases.  Maybe they discovered a long-lost military installation?  Maybe this Andaran military installation had been controlled by another group and the Hadrans wrested it from them.

KELEMEN: As for U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Khoury says he expects the Obama administration to continue to launch drone strikes from outside the country.
If you like the Andaran angle, keep this.  Maybe the Andarans are a little more involved than we thought.  Maybe they are marshalling their forces to return as scarier overlords than any of the other parties yet mentioned.  Of course, if you don't like the Andaran angle, you can ignore it.

So, we have three countries:
Menas: Our country (Yemen)
Nulkavit: Empire to the north (Saudi)
Barnan: Country to the east (Iran)

Two main political factions:
Sonthuk: Former/deposed king (former president)
Rodrick: Current, but embattled, king

Three secret societies:
The Scepter of the Kingfisher
The Black Bolas of [insert deity name here]
Liber Mare

Three (Four?  More?) Ethnic Groups:
Hadran dwarves
Coastal cities
Eastern desert dwellers
Various Barnanian people
Various Nulkavii people

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Great RPG April Fools' Jokes

I've seen two great game-related April Fools' jokes today.  Both gave me a great laugh.  Honestly, one of them I would would probably buy for real.  Gnome Stew has "announced" gamer romance novels.  These "will be a semi-interactive reading experience of Gnome and Fantasy themed romance novels. Much like Choose Your Own Adventure books, Gnomance Novels will be interactive fiction pieces released primarily as online eBooks with options to switch between story paths using simple dice mechanics and romance options."  What about this doesn't sound fantastic?  They even have a good knock off of one of my favorite plays in Gnometeenth Night.

Everything about this screams awesome...
except it's not really existing.

The other fantastic joke is Settlers of Brooklyn (prounounced "Brook-lawn").  Check out the video:

Product Review: Kobold Press' Demon Cults #5: Servants of the White Ape

Kobold Press is out with their latest Demon Cult book, Servants of the White Ape.  I backed Kobold's Southlands Kickstarter, so I've been receiving these as they come out.  I did a review of Demon Cults #1, The Emerald Order, which was a fantastic little sourcebook. I'm even more excited about this book than I was after reading The Emerald Order.

First of all, the background here takes place in the "southern jungles."  That's a part of the Southlands that we haven't heard much about or explored as of yet.  Since this gets dropped in there basically tabula rasa, the most fantastic options that I can dream of get to populate the rest of the jungle.  Also, because there's not a lot of detail here, it's easily ported away from it's intended Midgard setting to wherever else I might like to take the Servants of the White Ape.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  It's short (less than 15 pages) but it does have some very strong art.  In fact, when you find out what the giant white ape on the cover actually is, you'll want to use this even more!

Also, our climactic bad guy is a summoner.  In general, I hate the summoner class.  But, I love this character.  The fact that Kobold Press has designed a summoner that I not only like but actively want to use in my game is mind blowing.  They have completely revisioned the way the class can work and I'm pumped--I actually want to use a summoner at the table.  Admittedly, our villain here has some pretty vanilla motivations and back story, but there's a lot that can be done with where he is aiming.

The Servants of the White Ape is not a highly detailed organization.  Unlike some of the other Demon Cults, there's really only NPC who is detailed and who plays a roll.  This can be helpful for setting up a climactic battle, but it means that there aren't as many pre-generated middle of the story.  There are other monsters of course--we have the stats for a CR 5 White Ape Warrior, which is a modified dire ape.  The cult also has some allied tribes.  There are seeds for making up a larger organization to oppose here, they're just planed deeper than normal.  But, when they, this group has some potential!

I like the White Ape Warrior.  Since they are the addition of class levels and a few other things to a dire ape, you have to do a little bit of deconstruction to get down to some base level stats, well beyond the dire ape part.  But, once you do that, there are options for an endless number of white apes to fill any NPC role that you'd like them to.  I like this--it means that you can also customize the CRs on white apes very easily.

There are a couple of magic items in the book.  The Father's Staff is a necessary addition of mechanics to some flavor.  But, honestly, there's nothing that makes the Father's Staff anything more than a run of the mill spell in a can staff.  That's a shame because there was another quarter of a page on the magic items page that could have been used with something to make the Father's Staff unique.  So, it's not that the mechanics that make this thing unique got cut, they just never existed in the first place.  Fortunately, the White Ape Hide Armor completely makes up for this.  This magical armor has both cool mechanics and is tied into the overall story with some great fluff about how, exactly, the armor gets made and who it's given to.  I'd take it one step further--I'd add a requirement that the first time a PC tries to don it without the blessing of the [creature whose blessing would be necessary redacted for awesomeness], the PC would have to save or contact spellscourge fever.  That lets the item be amazing, but ups its risk and its flavor.

Finally, let's talk about spellscourge fever itself.  If you ever want to play in this, stop reading RIGHT NOW.  This is awesome--we have a disease that only targets spellcasters and which is particularly deadly against them.  The DCs to save against it are high--especially if it's contracted directly from a white ape.

And if you die from spellscourge fever?  You might come back as a spellscourged creature, which is, frankly, a terrifying template.  Avoiding spoilers, they've chosen a fantastic weakness for these creatures.  I would probably nerf their touch attack a bit--a former seventh level caster picking up a 7d6 touch attack is pretty powerful.  The template is new and weird enough that tying it to a monster will make for a great encounter the first time the PCs cross swords with a spellscourged creature.  One of these would make a fantastic boss to a major arc as the PCs make their way to find out what's really going on with the leaders of the Cult...

Overall, fantastic product with some great innovative ideas and seeds for other developments.  Unfortunately, the seeds are buried pretty deep and will require spending a lot of time creating your own material to support the ideas that are here.  Since I'm pressed for time (hello full time job and night school), I prefer that my books have a little more crunch to them.  The ideas here are really interesting though and all of the improvements that I've suggested are really just how I'd want to customize this product for my own table.  For $3, I recommend checking this out.

Three out of five stars.