Medieval Urbanity

Looking back through Sword’s Edge, there are a lot of articles that might still be of interest. While I am not writing fiction or creating much these days – between my actual job, my Master’s program, and my family, I’m not getting much free time – I’ll dredge up some of those articles that might be of interest.

This time, talking about cities in RPGs and fantasy fiction.

Getting Medieval – Urbanity

Originally published 9 Mar 2008

Mike Mignola’s Lankhmar from Dark Horse Comics Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

When one talks about fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, what often comes to mind are castles. Strangely enough, for most of the games in which I’ve played, and a lot of the fantasy that I write, cities are very important. Even when the campaign takes the characters into the uncharted wilds, or to the fringes of civilization, these campaigns often begin in large cities. I like it that way.

Cities have always had a mystique to them. Great powers had big cities—think Uruk, Athens, and Rome. Those cities thrived on the lifeblood of empire, wealth and power. Wealth and power, in turn, drew people, be they merchants, craftsmen or simply labourers. As the population swelled, cities encountered problems not common to villages. Crime became a common complaint, and the stratification of society. Perhaps the two went hand in hand, I don’t know. It’s the crime and class angle that often leads me to set stories in cities. These easily offer conflict and are good gardens for rebellious characters and outsiders. Cities also offer one a concentration of another great subject of conflict—politics.

For role-playing games, cities have another draw. Those services one commonly finds in fantasy role-playing games that one might not actually find in the medieval countryside could be found in many large cities. Merchants to change large sums of coins or other objects of value to portable promissory notes were not uncommon in the urban centres of the middle and late medieval period. Large inns, rather than small public houses, existed in cities, as did establishments simply for eating and drinking, sometimes termed ordinaries, then later taverns, and now restaurants. And what adventurer hasn’t found a job or fellow adventurers in the local tavern?

In fantasy literature, cities often offer their own kind of adventure, though these rarely include dungeons and almost never dragons. Reading even a smattering of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, or some of Robert E Howard’s Conan stories and one will come across urban adventures involving magic, dangers, and treasures. Cities are quite often the centre of campaign settings, such as Greyhawk in the World of Greyhawk, Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms, and now Monte Cook’s Ptolus.

So how does one design and run games in a city? One must consider that unlike an underground labyrinth, the city cannot funnel the party down certain paths to specific destinations. City adventures tend to be wilder and woolier than dungeons. As a GM, one must be prepared to deal with whatever inclination takes the PCs. This either means a lot of preparation or a willingness to design on the fly.

I prefer the latter.

One thing a GM can do is prepare modules, such as a couple of relatively fleshed out taverns, stores, locals, etc, and be ready to plug those in whenever needed. Don’t tie down events or encounters to specific areas in the city. The PCs may never venture into the Craft Quarter, so just have a modular armour smith that you can drop into the city wherever the PCs are. The same for taverns. PCs are regularly looking for some place to drink and eat—and get jobs! A list of NPCs with names grouped into general classifications—merchants, street urchins, thugs, city watch, etc—can help the GM when the PCs accost someone on the street or meet someone in a tavern.

While cities can provide opportunities to flex one’s muscles—think of Tombstone!—they provide even more opportunities for role-playing. If your players are not interested in a lot of RP, the city may simply be their rest stop on the highway to adventure, a place to eat, sleep, and tank up before going back into that dungeon. That’s fine. In such a case, the city is there to provide support for the PCs, and this include much more than simply equipment and supplies. Rumours may offer PCs clues about the area into which they are about to adventure. Libraries may provide information on the secrets that long lost dungeon is holding. The city can also provide the chance to train and advance, if that is used in the game.

So just remember that the city is there to help move the adventure along, not apply the brakes to it. A city can provide a welcome change from dungeon delving or can be the setting for an entire campaign, as the PCs become involved in its inner political machinations. A staple of fantasy fiction can easily find a home in most fantasy games.

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The Sky Is Gray And You Are Distressed

The Sky Is Gray And You Are Distressed is a very simple game for two people focusing on the characters’ relationship and internal lives. I see it as straddling the divide between RPGs and LARPs. It reads like a quiet, independent movie, which is quite alien for someone who writes and plays stuff in which characters generally punch or shoot others in the face.

The mechanics are quite simple and elegant in their design, and the catalyst for play – one character’s secrets – is accessible and thought-provoking. I really like how the game flows and the expectations that are implied. The characters are very simple in their overt attributes but the lines which are used to motivate action hint at much more.

For me, this would need to be a very intimate game with someone with whom I have a very strong relationship. This is a game of dramatic conflict rather than physical action and I am not too ashamed to admit I am cool with the latter but intimidated by the former. I think this might be adapted to work as a great tool for actors whose characters have an implied backstory. This would allow working through that story away from the camera or audience to give added depth to performances.

I’m very impressed with how much drama is contained within a very simple package. Josh T. Jordan has always been a designer who continually surprises me with simple, thoughtful games, and The Sky Is Gray And You Are Distressed is another of his successes.

I give The Sky Is Gray And You Are Distressed 4.75 dreary days full of fears and hope out of 5. This is a very simple system that can draw out lots of depth from an RP session, but  is very specific about what it does.


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Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Cleopatra

The final lecture in the Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt series is on Cleopatra. Now, I’ve been down on Dr. Brier for including so much of the Ptolomies in this course, but I believe the inclusion of Cleopatra is apt. Like the Nubians, Cleopatra might have been from an outside culture – Greek, even though born and raised in Egypt – but she respected Egypt, respected its culture, actually learned the language and participated in its rites. She, unlike the other Ptolomies, was of Ancient Egypt.

She also has such a colourful history and is such an extraordinary individual that one must applaud her inclusion. Dr. Brier’s enthusiasm is well-served here, even though his knowledge of Roman history proves quote inferior to that of Egypt. His mention of Caesar arriving in Egypt to protect the grain supply was very odd, given that his great foe in the Civil Wars, Pompey, met his end at the instigation of Cleopatra’s young brother – of course named Ptolomy. This is kind of an important episode in the history of both regions that it seems odd for Dr. Brier to get it so wrong.

Was it shorthand, a way to avoid the complexities of the Civil Wars? I can understand that to a point, but then just say the Civil Wars brought Caesar to Egypt. An interest in grain may have been part of his motivation, but he came chasing Pompey, and to mistake this forces one to question the good professor’s other conclusions.

Then again, I think the greatest use of a series like this is to whet one’s appetite. Uncovering inconsistencies or questioning statements leads to research, discovery, and knowledge. That is an end onto itself.

The series is fantastic, even with all my little quibbles. It led me to purchase Dr. Brier’s the History of Ancient Egypt. That would be the next listen through I’d like to do, but that will have to wait until at least February, as right now I’m working on two courses and a bit overwhelmed.

One last thought. It’s interesting to me that so much of lectures on pre-modern history, especially ancient and classical history, deliver assessments as facts. We really don’t know much about the past. How many sources do we have on Cleopatra as opposed to Edward I of England or Napoleon? If one were writing a biography of George III would one be happy with three sources, one of which was written one hundred years after that monarch’s death? Yet we are fine with the same for ancient history. Think of the story of Cyrus the Great or even the Emperor Titus. How much do we really know?

I guess we know enough. We know enough to colour within the lines and provide a portrait of those periods. It just allows us to continually update our knowledge for new generations.



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Star Wars: the Force Awakens

I had Monday off, and so the whole family went to see Star Wars: the Force Awakens. This is going to be a spoiler-free review, but that also means it’s going to be full of vague mentions, so sorry for that.

My expectation was for a live-action version of Star Wars: Rebels. I got that, so I’m a very happy man. I also got to watch a new Star Wars movie with my daughters, a movie that actually had a female action hero. My daughters got their own Luke Skywalker – though I was always a Han Solo kid myself.

I’m going to start and end with the positive. Frankly, my biggest criteria in judging this movie was that it feel like a Star Wars movie. Correction: that it feel like my kind of Star Wars movie. The prequels never did that, and parts of SWRotJ didn’t either. SWtFA is Star Wars through and through. JJ Abrams got it. Or his crew got it. Somebody working on this got it. This makes me very optimistic for the Star Wars franchise going forward. We’re going to see some real, honest Star Wars movies. One a year in fact.

Now I’m going to leaven my enthusiasm with some complaints. I can’t say that I was blown away by SWtFA. It met my expectations but did not exceed them. I actually can’t really blame the filmmakers entirely for that. I do blame them for one weakness in the film: it is very obviously the first part of a series. Whereas SWANH was self-contained, much of SWtFA is setup for what is to come later. I don’t think that was really necessary. I can understand why they approached it this way, but I think they were wrong.

Also, this movie is perhaps too much of an homage to the original trilogy in general and SWANH in particular. The beats from ANH are all there, though the pacing is a bit different and there are some diversions. It’s also a very “paint by numbers” movie, in which nothing is really surprising. If you understand Star Wars storytelling, you know where this movie is going and how it gets there.

Finally, this is not a subtle movie at all. I’m not saying the original trilogy were steeped in subtext, but there was a lot that remained unsaid or which didn’t float so close to the surface. Everything in SWtFA is overt.

But I honestly don’t fault the filmmakers entirely for these shortcomings. JJ Abrams had to do a lot of things with this movie, and the main one was to reassure fans that their franchise was back. These movies were for the people who loathed the prequels. These movies had the original trilogy DNA and nothing from the prequels. The movie also had to introduce its own trio of heroes and darling droid while also bringing back the old heroes and droids, bring their history forward, filling us in on the most important aspects. The new villains also had to be fleshed out, with new paradigms and tropes set removing our expectations based on the old Empire and its terribly imprecise Stormtroopers.

Yes, there were shortcomings, but these new heroes are fantastic. I’ve heard a criticism that Rey is a bit of a “Mary Sue,” which to me is ridiculous. She is an almost perfect analogue to Luke Skywalker – purposefully so I would assume – and I didn’t hear anyone complaining about him being a “Larry Sue.” I don’t want to venture that it is because she is a female hero, but I’m not sure to what else to ascribe it. I guess she isn’t as annoying as Luke, but then I don’t believe Luke was made purposefully annoying.

Seeing the old crew back was also amazing, and I think – as many others have said – Harrison Ford gives his best performance here in a while. He seems energized, engaged, and enjoying himself. As a Han Solo fanboy, it was great getting a glimpse of grandpa Solo, and seeing that he really hadn’t matured at all.

And what a beautiful movie. There are some very amazing vistas that are part of this journey, and the cinematography does them justice. Up there, on that enormous screen that fills one’s vision – at least where I usually sit – it’s a bit breathtaking, which is a nice addition to a movie that is already exciting and kinetic.

I give Star Wars: the Force Awakens 4 light sabre hilts out of 5. This is a movie you need to see and need to see in a movie theatre. It is gorgeous, it is exhilarating, and it is fun. It gives me hope for the Star Wars franchise, but it’s a flawed movie. I can live with that.

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Santa Brought . . . Free Time!

For Christmas morning, as my girls played Minecraft on mommy’s tablet, I played some Fallout: New Vegas with a few mods that changed up the game enough to make it feel fresh. I have found that I really like a wide selection of weapons, and so I activated the Weapons of the New Millenia mod. I also have the WMX (Weapon Mods Expanded), which provides a bunch of excellent mods like scopes and silencers to all weapons. My character now has a Colt Pocket 1849 as his sidearm and a scoped and suppressed HK G3/SG1 as his longarm.

Yes, that is a wonderful thing.

A few days to enjoy, and then back to grind.

Better than not having those few days.

Off to shoot some bad guys in the face.

You can find the Weapons of the New Millenia mod here.

You can find the WMX (Weapon Mods Expanded) mod here.

The Internet Movie Firearms Database listing for the HK G3/SG1 here.

The Internet Movie Firearms Database listing for the Colt Pocket 1849 here.

And now, some pictures of my baby!

Vasily with his snappy hat and best buddy.

Vasily with his sidearm, getting ready to shoot a bad guy in the face.


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Merry Christmas!

This is posting Christmas morning, but I’m writing it on Christmas Eve while I’m on my third rum and egg nog. My post over on SEP last night came off a bit “first world problems” with my whinging about my school work. That’s being a little self-absorbed. I’m home with my wonderful family, have two great dinners planned for Xmas and then Boxing Day, I sleep in a warm bed, and eat my fill. We had a great visit with a close friend, and while I am not a fan of my present temporary position, my boss is awesome and I go back to my old team at the end of March.

I have a lot to celebrate. I hope you do too. Enjoy the holidays as best you can. Remember that you are awesome, and remember to be awesome to other people.

All the best,

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Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – The First Ptolemies

In episode 11 of Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, Dr. Brier relates the rule of the Ptolomies, descendants of Alexander’s friend and general. Now while the Ptolomies seem more like actual pharaohs than Alexander did – after all, they are living in Egypt as they rule it – it seems like at this point, Egypt isn’t really Egyptian any longer. Again, I wonder that Dr. Brier couldn’t have found a few other pharaohs whom he would consider great in the almost 3000 years leading up to the Ptolemaic Period. We get three episodes for the 300 years of the Ptolomies against the nine episodes for the 3000 years before it.

Okay, so my issues with focusing on the Greeks in an Egyptian history lecture series aside, I really did like the discussion of the what the first two Ptolomies – and all the Greek pharaohs were named Ptolomy, which both simplifies the issue but creates problems as well – brought to the table, since this was the time when both the Library at Alexandria and the Great Lighthouse were built. Dr. Brier relates that these two wonders would certainly never have been built by Greeks, as both were directed outward rather than inward. The Library gained new volumes through a requirement on visitors to Alexandria while the Lighthouse was built specifically to assist in navigation for those travelling to Egypt.

But the Ptolomies never did assimilate into Egypt. Alexandria was a city of Greeks, with a bureaucracy run by Greeks, in an administration that used Greek as the language of commerce and government. Many previous foreign rulers – specifically, the Nubians and the Libyans – were very Egyptian dynasties, either assimilated into Egypt due to service there (as with the Libyans) or culturally dominated (as with the Nubians). The Ptolomies maintained their distance and so I would argue again, were not pharaohs of Egypt even were they pharaohs in Egypt.

Later Ptolomies provide plenty of decadence and misrule, and that’s always interesting. The dynasty’s decline might very well have been due to their insistence on intermarriage within the family. You know that can’t end well. Oddly enough, it actually did, with the last Ptolomaic ruler, Cleopatra, providing another bright spot, even if she were married to her little brother.

It’s sad that there is only one episode left. I really like this series as an introduction to some high points in Egyptian history. And if you dig Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, Dr. Brier has a 36-lecture series: the History of Ancient Egypt.



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