Jadetech Fiction #1: Breakout

From the pages of Jadetech: Green Jade.

By Benjamin Feehan

Shen poured a bit of murky, green fluid into the rusted tin cups. The calloused hands holding each cup were hard, their fingers black with grit beneath thick and jagged nails. Some of them were missing fingers entirely, the penance of a Kaiyu gangster or a bloody offering to the grinding gears of some deep shaft-digging machine. On his left, a scowling Aerum seaman was still nursing the place where the guards had burned out his red jade knuckle tattoos. Shen doubted that the man’s fingers would ever be the same again. Not that anyone was ever the same after a stint in the Diyu Mountain Labor Camp.

Shen’s own hands were relatively clean next to those of these hard-bitten men. He was skinny and bespectacled, and the warden had immediately dismissed the little Túyangan to latrine duty with a sneer. “I need men with muscle. Nobody has time for reading on my mountain. Too bad you didn’t grow up on a farm.”

Foul smelling as it was, Shen could not have picked a better job for what he had planned. Surprise inspections and hawk-eyed Captain Jora ensured that anything vaguely resembling contraband was fairly distributed among the guards. However, nobody bothered to check the reeking wooden sheds at the edge of the camp where Shen spent his days, pail in hand.

It had taken three months, but the men had finally gotten him a suitable teapot. It was another month before quick-fingered Alistair had been able to sneak out a bottle of the night sergeant’s eye-watering Kinardbal whiskey. And then the herbs. These he acquired himself. Goat’s foot was plentiful on the mountain, but yellow tea grass only grew near clear water in the spring time. Convincing Corporal Kai that a few properly prepared handfuls would save his marriage solved that problem. After that it was a matter of getting enough of the pale green dust the men sometimes found in shallower diggings. A pinch here, an unexpected handshake there—Shen even found some in a rolled-up leaf beneath his blanket one night.

Sacrificing his only sock to contain the dust, Shen combined the ingredients over a tiny flame. Those months of waiting had given him the time he needed to construct a rudimentary system of chambers and vents beneath the latrines, with which he siphoned off the reeking, flammable gas produced by years of rotting sewage. For seven days he tended the fire, keeping the dust and whiskey and herbs as close to simmering as possible. On the eighth day it was finished.

Shen swirled the liquid in his cup. “Remember, this isn’t going to last long. As soon as you feel it starting, go.”

The sailor winced as he sniffed the contents of his mug. “This better work.”

There was a chorus of wheezing and gagging as they forced it down. Then, in the dark of the sagging bunkhouse, they waited. A minute later the thrumming started. Somewhere at the back of his skull, Shen felt it surging. It was primal and alive, like the smell of his father’s rice field in spring. He could feel it creeping down his spine, slow and strong like the ancient oak in the village shrine, its roots pushing up the granite slabs of the courtyard.

Match light flared. Shen turned toward it just in time to see a Naramel trader’s black eyes flicker, then change to a livid green. There was a crack as someone smashed a foot through the floor. Next to him the sailor growled. “Oh yeah…”

Moving like a jungle cat, Alistair was the first one out the door. A guardsman with a lantern blinked then died as the sailor put a fist through his chest. Shen bolted around the corner, making a beeline for the warden’s office and the camp armory. This would only last so long. Halfway across the field a guard threw up a revolver. There had always been a shoot first policy at Diyu Mountain. Shen took four rounds to the chest, looking down just in time to see them glance off his skin like thrown pebbles from a tree trunk. He sent a bone-crunching chop to the man’s neck as he went past. A moment later he kicked down the iron-banded command post door.

The warden was in his nightshirt, but the long, curved commander’s saber was already in hand, and it met Shen’s forearm with a clang. Shen wrapped both hands around the blade and twisted. The steel gave way with a groan, and a second later the warden was flung across his desk, kicked with the force of an angry qixiniu. The warden groaned. “What is this? What did you do?”

Shen scooped the warden’s keyring off of the desk. “Green jade, you ignorant ass. Too bad you didn’t grow up on a farm.”

Shadowcraft: The Glamour War Launches!

It’s here. Shadowcraft: The Glamour War, the newest game from my imprint, Reroll Productions, launched this morning at DTRPG.

This game is unlike any other I’ve designed – mostly because I didn’t design it. Like the introduction of the book says, the idea began in my mind, but it was fleshed out by the creative team. John-Matthew DeFoggi drafted an incredible setting from our initial conversations, and Christopher Ruthenbeck took my idea of using the Apocalypse World conversation engine and porting it to Fate Core, along with many other alterations we were eager to make to Fate, like using ranked aspects instead of skills and removing the attack action.

I’m very happy with how Shadowcraft turned out, and look forward to putting out some fiction about the setting at some point. There’s still some work to do to get the print edition, player’s and missions guides created, etc., but the digital edition of Shadowcraft: The Glamour War is available now!

The Ashwick Chronicles: Magic Concept

I’ve been working on a setting for several years, which is coming together as serialized fiction (first issue hits June 1st). Here’s a flash fiction I wrote to help me figure out how magic works in the paranormal setting of The Ashwick Chronicles.

The Nature of Magic

“Master, how does magic work?”

The master considered for a long moment before speaking. “Casting magic is like creating art from chaos. It is the reason we work with sand gardens. They are similar in concept.”

The student didn’t hide his confusion. The master knew he would have to explain further.

“The first step in spellcraft is the casting of a hex, which we have been working on. Hexes are a pinprick of chaos in reality, which we call ‘creation’. And how does creation work? How do you create something?”

“By bringing order to chaos, like we do in the sand garden?”

“That’s right. Chaos cannot exist for long, else it will destroy itself and everything it comes into contact with; understanding that will make it easier to explain the reasoning behind our enmity with some of the other arcane orders. So a hex creates a single point of chaos, and your job as a sorcerer is to bring order to that chaos.”

“Is that why our spells backlash, because there is no established order?”

It was still early, and the student had not yet begun his chores. The master cast his gaze out over the unkempt sand garden. “If you do not bring order to chaos, creation will do it for you. Order cannot abide chaos, so creation will bring order to your hex, but you may not like the result.”

The student lowered his gaze. “You mean how I turned my sword into a flower.”

The master chuckled. “Creation doesn’t care what form chaos takes, only that it takes a form; it cares that order is restored. Skill in sorcery is not the ability to cast a bigger, more powerful hex; that’s part of it; it is the ability to impart your will on the outcome, to convince creation that your order is the right one.”

“But how do you convince order to follow your will?”

“It’s difficult,” the master looked compassionately at his student. He understood his struggle. Magic is a hard thing to master. “You have to shape your hex, give it a form; and I don’t just mean a physical form, there are many kinds of forms, but it must have rules, you see.”

“You have to know the rules of reality? That’s impossible,” the student threw his hands up in frustration, slapping them down on the wooden fence that outlined the sand garden.

The master knew the student was having a hard time. His final exam was pending, and it would determine if he could continue to practice magic at the academy next year, and he was falling behind. “It’s not impossible. In fact, there are those who find it quite easy.”

“So I’m just a failure then?”

“That is not what I said. Those who are best at bringing order to chaos don’t know any hexes at all; or, at least, most of them don’t.”

The student looked perplexed.

“Arbiters, my dear boy. They are experts at convincing creation to accept changes, but instead of hexes, they work with contracts, agreements.”

“Lawyers are better at manipulating reality than sorcerers?” The student was incredulous now.

The master chuckled. “More like judges. Arbiters see the chaos in the agreement, the reasons that it won’t work, and they bring it to an orderly resolution. They know what kind of order creation is looking for, and what it won’t accept. It’s not an exact science, as creation wants different things at different times, and in different places — have you ever wondered why a shadow spell won’t work in daylight — and arbiters know these things. They know what the agreement needs for creation to accept it, and once those requirements are met they cast a spell to impart the will of the parties involved on creation.”

The student looked like he was beginning to understand. “So an arbiter convinces creation to accept a contract the same way we convince it to accept our hexes?”

“Not to accept a hex, that would be like asking order to accept chaos,” the master corrected. “Arbiters convince creation to accept the terms of a contract the arbiter has already determined creation is likely to accept. After we cast a hex, we must give it a form that we know creation will accept.”

“And how do we know what creation will accept?”

The master pointed at the unkempt sand garden. “Practice. Hours and hours of practice.”

The Knights Templar: New Discoveries and Story Seeds

When I was in high school, I voraciously studied the Knights Templar. They were basically paladins, and paladins were my second favorite D&D class (after Ranger).

During that study, I discovered the horrible fall of the Knights Templar: that they were allegedly not all that pious and honorable. The crimes and blasphemous activities they supposedly took part in tarnished their “cool factor” for me back then. So when Assassin’s Creed came out, I had no trouble buying into the idea that the Templars were some terrible villains.

Enter Time Magazine

I posted an idea on Google+ last month regarding secret societies as a source for paranormal fiction. The premise was that each society in the story would have command of a different type of magic, and the “secret” that they kept was the knowledge of that specific brand of sorcery.

Naturally, if I’m going to begin a work on secret societies, I’m going to try and get reacquainted with them. It was fortuitous, then, that the bookstore had a new magazine out on their shelves.

The first article in the magazine is on the Knights Templar, and since they were already a society I was considering for my story, it was a great place to start.

But then I was blown away by what I found. Apparently, there has been some new discoveries regarding the Knights Templar since I was in high school: that they were possibly framed for their terrible deeds by the pope, who was under the political control of King Philip IV.

According to Time, an Italian scholar by the name of Barbara Frale found a document known as the Parchment of Chinon in 2001 that had been misfiled in the Vatican Secret Archives. “The document indicates that Pope  Clement V secretly absolved the Templars of the false charges against them but was forced by Philip and popular frenzy to disband the order in 1312…”

If the Parchment of Chinon is real (and not some rip off of a Dan Brown novel), then this makes the story of the Templars fall remarkably similar to the rise and fall of the Jedi Order.

Here’s how Time depicts the Templar’s rise and downfall:

1095: In the aftermath of the successful First Crusade, pilgrims began streaming across Europe into the Middle East.

1118: The Knights Templar are founded by a group of nine French knights to protect European pilgrims from brigands and angry locals as they journeyed to the Holy Land.

1187: The Templars win a great victory over Saladin at the Battle of Montgisard (1117), but that is only a setback for Saladin, who manages to take Jerusalem back from the Europeans.

1314: After a series of failed Crusades, the Templars were driven from their fortresses in the Middle East and King Philip IV ordered a mass arrest of Templars, torturing their leaders into false confessions of blasphemy.

2007: After seven centuries of believing that the Templars were blasphemous, evil men, the Vatican released the Parchment of Chinon, which records the Templars’ trials and appears to absolve them of many of their alleged transgressions.

Using this in Fiction

My story is to be set in the modern day, where the Templars use water as their foci for divination and purification spells. For my history of them, they used this divination in the 11th and 12th century to know when and where pilgrims would need their help. The fact that they always arrived on time and with sufficient numbers drove their reputation to the heights that they were. Some believed it was God telling them where to go,  and maybe it was…only the first nine Templars know where they learned their spells, and even they may not know the source of their spells’ power.

When they were betrayed by Philip (whom I’m thinking deserves a villainous legacy in modern times), a large part of their number fled the public eye. They were Templars in legacy only, but they carried on the good fight. Seven centuries later, they are still fighting the good fight, but their immortal enemies (there’s clearly an Assassin’s Creed thing going on here) have perpetuated the damage to the Templars’ reputation that keeps them underground.

But they aren’t the only two societies around with magical secrets. The Time article talks about how the Freemasons think they can trace their origins back to the builders of Solomon’s Temple, where the Templars resided while in Jerusalem. I say why not…but not the original builders (not for my fiction). The Freemasons likely trace back to masons who reinforced the temple for the Templars’ military needs.

There’s a certain symmetry to having all the secret societies in the first season of my series tracing their roots back to the Crusades.

Flash Fiction: Old Man Lang (Jadepunk)

From the Fate-based roleplaying game: Jadepunk: Tales from Kausao City

“Laddies – that’s Aerish for ‘friend’ by the way – I visited the Kaiyumi islands for the first time when I was your age.” The children rolled their eyes at Old Man Lang, always sitting on the same corner telling anyone who would listen some fantastic tale of his supposed past. He was a bum, not worth anyone’s time. The children listened only to poke fun at him.

“The islands, riiiight…” one of the older children mocked.

Old Man Lang smacked the child upside the head with his cane. “It’s true, you insolent brat! When I was your age, I was already traveling the world, learning the martial arts of faraway lands so that I could better defend myself and the people of this fair city.”

The insolent brat rubbed the top of his head, angry but mindful of who might be watching. “You don’t know martial arts, you old fool, and we’ve got the city guard to protect us. What could you do?”

“You think the city guard is…” Old Man Lang began before being interrupted.

“What are you doing?” A woman wearing a fine dress yelled as she walked up and coddled her son’s head, carefully inspecting where Lang’s cane had struck it. “Hitting children, are you?”

“I wouldn’t have to if parents these days would teach children to respect their elders.”

“Maybe their ‘elders’ should give a reason to be worthy of respect,” she chided the old man. “Let’s go, dear.”

The mother and her son turned to walk away but their path was blocked by two large men. Behind Old Man Lang stood another, all three grinning at the woman.

“That dress is a little too nice for this neighborhood, lady,” one of the men in front of her said. She gasped as he grabbed her purse. “What else ya’ got?”

The child gaped at the large man taking his mother’s things. If only dad were… His thought was cut off by a dull thud, like the sound of something soft hitting stone. He turned to see Old Man Lang standing over the crumpled form of one of their assailants.

“I think it’s best you were on your way,” Lang said to the men in a calm, demanding voice. He was standing straighter than usual. The child suddenly felt guilty for making fun of him.

“Old man,” one of the thugs said as he pushed past the mother and her child, the other following close behind, “you’re gonna regret that.”

He reached for the old man, but was too slow. Lang’s cane was a blur. In less than a second the man’s hand was broken. Then, with well-practiced footwork, the old man side-stepped a blow from the other thug and spun to strike the ruffian behind the knee with his cane, sending him to the ground.

Old Man Lang rested his cane on the thug’s throat, ignoring his gurgled cries. “I learned that move from a Naramel nomad,” he said while giving a wink to the awestruck children watching nearby.

They never made fun of Old Man Lang again.

Roleplaying by Seasons

This is a concept that was presented to me some time ago that stuck with me, and has proven to be a kick at the table.

Most groups play RPGs as consistent games from week-to-week, progressing through various levels a bit at a time. Problem is, things can get old in a game like that – the story can begin to drag or the characters get too powerful for common villains (ever played a Ranger in epic levels and get much use out of that Favored Enemy: Goblin?).

Playing by Seasons

One thing that kicked in my mind as a player of Fate Core was the idea that a major milestone is something akin to the finale of a television season. If it helps (as it does me) you can equate this idea to the comic book story arcs that become trade paperbacks. They’re part of the ongoing tale, but have a beginning and ending with a full arc between. That’s the way I enjoy my roleplaying now, and what the Perpetual Motion Engine is being developed to accommodate.

Implementing This Play Style

The idea is that the GM tells you what the situation (the problem the PC’s exist to resolve) is before character creation begins. This serves two purposes: to give everyone the same goal by the end of the story, and allow players to create relevant characters. The game can go off on tangents here and there (filler episodes) but resolving the situation should be the focus of play (getting the required objects/power to become powerful enough to resolve the situation).

Once the situation is finally resolved (whether that takes a single session or 10) the game ends. That’s it. Over. That doesn’t mean the characters can’t continue on in another season (a new situation), but when you do come back, create the characters all new.