January 22, 2017

Like Dropping Coins Into an Arcade Machine

Eureka! I’ve been wrestling with the way I’ve written my contest mechanics for Hari Ragat for some time now. I think I have it.

The most basic structure of a contest is to declare actions, roll, compare to find the winner, and narrate the results.

But there are also many contests where you don't want to just give up if you lose the roll. Specially if it means your character got killed. So to continue the contest, you have to pay a cost.

Basically it's like feeding coins into an arcade machine. Game over? Not yet, not as long as you have coins and are willing to spend them. As long as you can pay the cost to continue, you can continue the contest, or try to negotiate, or try to turn the contest into another kind of contest where you're more likely to win.

Different resources can be used to pay the continue cost for different types of contests. Say you lose an exchange in lethal combat. Rather than let your character die, you pay points from your shield or armor, trading the usable life of those items for another chance to be the victor. Say you lose an attempt to resist a diwata's seduction. Rather than let your character do as the diwata wishes, you pay points from your willpower.

The GM's characters also have similar resources. The more important the character, the greater these resources, so contests against them will be harder to win.

January 21, 2017

Tattoos of Mystery

You woke up one morning with fresh tattoos on your body that had never been applied by human hands. You never felt anything during the night.

No one is familiar with the style of the tattooing, nor can anyone make out what the strange symbols mean.

Perhaps somewhere there is a Baylan who can tell you what they mean, what powers they confer, and what price, eventually, you will have to pay for them.

Hari Ragat: GM Code on NPC Ties

Finally, have an opportunity to work on Hari Ragat again after a long real-life imposed hiatus.

As I was musing on how to refine my Ties mechanic for the game, I recalled a discussion with other gamers about player reluctance to define relationships for their characters. The argument was that creating or implying an NPC important to the player’s character gave the GM practically infinite power to screw with that PC’s life.

Quite a few of these players on the other hand were eager to explore relationships; they added depth to their experience of the game. I still vividly remember Tommy’s reaction to his Red Branch character finding out from the chief druid that he was to be a dad. (His wife had concealed it from him.)

This got me thinking. Players can get a lot from relationships – and not just romantic ones – if they can trust the GM with them. So I’m thinking of writing in a little bit of GM’s ‘code’ on handling Ties. These are still rough ideas, but basically, they’re to help the GM and players build trust while empowering both to create more interesting stories.

  • The purpose of Ties is to make the character’s life more interesting by adding relationship-driven possibilities, opportunities, and challenges. Ties can be to family members, love interests, rivals, debtors, allies, enemies, and so on.
  • Player-defined NPCs are considered player property. Similarly, GM-defined NPCs are considered GM property. You have authors’ rights over the NPCs that you defined.
  • The GM may not kill off a character to which any player has defined a Tie unless that player consents. Similarly, the GM may not change the details of any NPC to which a player character has a Tie, without that player’s consent.
  • The GM may endanger any character to which a player has defined a Tie at any time; part of the challenge in having a (desirable) Tie is to preserve them so you can continue enjoying their benefits.
  • The GM may cancel a Tie if the player knowingly plays their character in such a way that the NPC involved would have strong reason to break the relationship. For example, if you insult an allied datu, don’t expect him to remain your ally for much longer.
  • The GM may award new Ties on the spot as rewards for good role playing. In fact they’re meant to be one of the ‘trophies’ of the game. If you’re playing to become or to set up the Hari Ragat (High King), you’ll want to collect as many allies as you can.

November 29, 2016

Of Battle Cats and Saddle Birds


One of the coolest ways to say ‘You’re not in Kansas anymore’ is to have flying mounts in your world. Or if not a flying mount, some bad-ass horse-alternative like a giant flightless bird, or giant canine, or even a giant feline; in short, badass often means carnivore.

Done carelessly though, this can shoot a conworld’s believability full of holes. Let’s leave the questions of gravity and aeronautics aside for now, but focus instead on the factor that has the greatest impact on the rest of the setting; fuel. What does your big, badass, carnivorous, maybe flying mount eat? How much, and how often? And where do you get it?

An animal large and strong enough to carry a human in flight is certain to require lots of food. If it’s a carnivore, it needs a lot of meat; if a herbivore, it needs a lot of fodder, an even greater mass of it since plant matter contains a lower calorie concentration than meat. There’s also the issue of a herbivorous digestion requiring a larger stomach or constant feeding, or both. It’s why a cow spends more time eating than a tiger does.

Carnivorousness creates another problem: territoriality. Eagles, which weigh far less than a dog and would have difficulty carrying even a small child any distance, require huge hunting ranges just to feed themselves. This makes them highly territorial, and thus, rather antisocial among their own kind. How can we then keep giant eagles or the like in a stable?

In Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, the pastoral economy of Pern revolves around providing the dragon-weyrs with a tribute of livestock. The dragonriders are few, but their mounts consume a large proportion of their world’s food production. The weyrs’ requirements are so high, that in Dragonriders of Pern one of the lord holders threatens to rebel against the system.

In James Cameron’s Avatar, the Na’Vi tame giant raptors for hunting. Their entire planet is a jungle, and the Na’Vi are few, so as long as they keep their planet a jungle, there will be enough meat to go around. Avatar also offers a solution to the eagles-in-a-stable conundrum: the mountain banshees nest in rookeries like seabirds. They’re already social by nature, despite their carnivorousness.

In S.M. Stirling’s In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, a few elite Martians keep stables of genetically engineered giant eagles, Paiteng. At first I found this really odd by the lights of the setting – how do you get enough feed on a  dying planet? But then you remember that the Martians are master biotechnologists, and their main source of meat is renewable; their domesticated, or rather genetically engineered Rooz bird grows a neck-flap of meat that regrows after harvesting. The Paiteng are very few, reserved only for the elites. As for their territoriality, again they’ve likely been genetically engineered to be social.

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel offers a very valuable insight for world-builders in the section where he compares animal domestication patterns worldwide. Why, of all the animals large enough to carry a human being, did the horse end up our main carrier by such a huge margin? Diamond cites a host of factors that all came together in the horse that were lacking in other ungulates, even in its close relatives the zebra and the wild ass.

The horse had just the right mix of anatomical build, sociability and disposition, genetics (which allowed the development of different breeds for different purposes), dietary requirements, hardiness and adaptability to suit our needs. Zebras, donkeys, antelope, the South American camelids, buffaloes and oxen did not. Charles Saunders’ vision of African tribal cavalry on Cape Buffalos kicks ass, but it’s very unlikely; the Cape Buffalo is simply too badass to be tamed that way.

Finding the right balance between Rule of Cool and plausibility is always a challenge. I’m currently mulling over a new sword-and-planet novel, and yes, I want flying mounts in it; but coming up with a believable premise that hasn’t been done before is not easy.

Giant, social flying piscivores won’t work because the setting is a desert planet. The genetic engineering/advanced biotech angle doesn’t work for me either, because the setting is post-apocalyptic. That environmental premise also knocks out the Avatar-style notion that there’s simply enough to be hunted.

I think I have my idea down for the terrestrial riding animal though: A fleet desert-dweller, warm-blooded dinosauroid, lives in small herds, scratches insects and roots from the desert floor with its big foreclaws rather like a meerkat. Rears up into bipedal stance to fight with those same claws, thus battle mounts are fitted with thoracic armor.

Since I’ve a fascination with Asian history and war elephants, I couldn’t resist coming up with a giant-size war beast: A big ape-like creature, normally walks on four limbs but switches to bipedal mode to fight. Its hands are often armored in steel, because its favorite attack is to smash down with doubled fists, a la the Hulk. In sieges, it throws big stones and tears gates from their hinges. A living tank, catapult, and wrecking machine all in one … and yes, it’s a herbivore because otherwise it’d be too much to feed.

PS. I started writing meaning to say something about Tolkien’s wargs and He-Man’s Battle Cat, but I guess I said all I needed to about predators as riding animals already.

November 6, 2016

Hari Ragat Art Previewed in Wellington NZ!


Thanks to Ambassador Jesus Gary Domingo, Philippine envoy to New Zealand, for including Hari Ragat art posters in his recent Diwata-themed exhibit at the Pistang Pilipino in Wellington!

Some of you may have been wondering if I’m dead. I’m not, heh. But a bad back has kept me from writing at all the past few weeks, so progress on readying Hari Ragat for release has slowed.

September 19, 2016

The Shield from Across the Sea


Round shields are far less common in the Philippines, most tribes from back to the arrival of the Spaniards being recorded as carrying the tall, narrow kalasag instead. The round shield is called Tamin in parts of Mindanao, but elsewhere it is also known as Palisay.


Now I’d always thought that Palisay was a local word, until while browsing an article on Sinhalese arms and armor I came across a very surprising detail: they called their round shields Palisa. Further research revealed a bunch of other very similar names: Phari in Northern India, Paliha in South India, Perisai in Sumatra. They all referred to a round shield, often of wicker, with a central boss; as one goes south, additional bosses are added around the center to form the pattern you see at top.


I’ve seen shields both with and without the bosses here. The boss-less shields are usually of carved wood coming from the Sulu and Maguindanao areas. There are also wicker ones, both with and without brass bosses; and a few entirely of brass, with very ornamental bosses in the form of six- or eight-pointed stars, or other symmetrical polygons often seen in Islamic art.


I think this gives a clue as to where the Palisa came from. The word itself is very likely Indian, given the spread of the term across various Indian languages down to Ceylon. The predominance of Islamic motifs and the almost exclusive use by Muslim tribes tells me the most likely source of this shield design: it came from our west, that is across the Indian Ocean, brought by Indian and Arab traders, likely adopted in Malacca, and from there to Mindanao.

September 8, 2016

Beer-Braised Chicken

It’s been a while since I posted a fire-n-forget cooking recipe, but tonight’s dinner reminded me that it was perfect for this topic. The whole point of this ongoing series is to give gamers who like to cook something quick and easy to make for game night, and what could be easier than dicing a few ingredients and popping them into an oven?


  • 1/2kg chicken, preferably thighs
  • 1/2 can strong-ish beer (pilsen)
  • 1 medium red onion
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 2-3 tomatoes
  • bay leaf
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • chili powder, to taste
  • 2-3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce


Combine brown sugar and seasonings with all the liquid ingredients. Arrange the chicken in a deep baking dish and pour the mixture over it. Mix well; if you have the time, it’ll be good to let the chicken marinade in this for about an hour. I didn’t, but it still turned out good.

Bake at 240-250 C for 45 minutes. Serves 3-4 people, just multiply the recipe as needed for your group. And remember, whenever you cook with beer you’ll get the best results by pouring half into the cook.

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