Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Trade, commerce and the merchant guild in Itza

The pochtecatl is a strong person indeed, a long distance trader, a wealthy man, sometimes a warrior, sometimes a priest and at other times a spy. He will travel the vast expanse of Itza, going from one city to another and bringing back wealth and information to his king, taking his fair share of the deal and enlarging his wealth and power in the process. He is part of the pochteca class and member of one of the most powerful guilds in the empire. This is his story.

The pochteca are a very elite class of merchants in the realms of Itza. They travel to distant lands, take great risks in the thick jungles and high mountains to obtain the wealth of distant realms so these may increase the might of their emperor and lord. They bring gold and jade artwork and jewelry, beautiful and sometimes magical animals from distant lands, strange and exotic magic components, strange artifacts of power and why not, slaves and prisoners as well.

They are a social class composed of many character classes, these may be warriors, priests, magic users, scribes, and even thieves and spies. Many times they are multiclassed, since more than one skill set is sometimes needed to survive in the demanding wilderness of Itza. They all know how to read and write as well as do numbers, and aside from this they will know two to three additional languages. Many or their porters or tameme are experienced fighters, some are hired mercenaries and some are enslaved men defeated in battle. The pochteca should not be confused with the tlanecuilo, or local traders, the later being traders of lesser social standing and considerably lesser wealth and power.

There are various types of pochteca:

The Oztomeca, the oztomecatl (singular of oztomeca) is the typical long distance trader working to bring great wealth from far away lands and explore new commercial routes.

The Tlaquixtiani, these are the wholesalers. They arrange trade between the travelling caravans and the local markets in a city-state.

The Tlanecuilo, the retailers. They handle the day to day business of selling goods to the locals in the tianquiztli or local markets.

The Teucnehnenqueh, these pochteca specialized in trading on behalf of nobility. They quest for goods of greater value and power.

The Teyahualonime, these are a warrior type pochteca whose caravans are led by a merchant-general known as the Acxotecatl. Usually the arrival of the teyahualonime meant only one thing, invasion.

The Tecouanime, the slave merchants and quite often the riches of their class due to their direct links to priests, rituals and sacrifice.

The Iyahqueh, pochteca stationed in very distant and outlying trade stations. The help open new trade routes as well as warn of impending danger that might close in on the empire's borders.

The Tlanamacani, representatives of a pochteca guild. These are usually scribes and lawmakers that see matters of price, justice, theft, and taxation.

The Naualoztomeca, the disguised-merchant, or spies. They traveled with great wealth and resources to obtain the best products of foreign lands and bring the best possible information about distant city-states.

The patron god of the pochteca is Yacatecuhtli "The Lord Who Guides", also the lord of the nose or lord of the long nose. He is the god of commerce, trade and travel and his symbol is a bundle of sticks. Usually seen with his walking stick, Yacatecuhtli paints his face black and white and wears great blue quetzal feather tassels on his head. He wears a matching blue coat beautifully decorated with feathers and covered with a black mesh. He wears gold cactlis (sandals) and adorns his ankles with small sea shells made out of gold and his ears with gold ear gauges. The image to the left depicts Yacatecuhtli with a pochteca.

The pochteca priests are proficient in all types of protection magic. As you can imagine travelling long trade routes in Itza is extremely dangerous and requires all the protection magic one can obtain. A very common spell cast nightly when travelling is the kauitlojtli, the "calmed path" or "calm road" spell. This is performed by bundling all the pochteca's walking sticks (otatl) at night and sprinkling them with blood from their tongues, ears and noses as copal (ceremonial resin) is burned at its center. This spell will grant the traveling caravan a protection from wandering creatures and thieves, reducing the odds of such encounters by one half and also making them less dangerous if they do happen to occur.  It is not uncommon for the pochteca to have annual celebrations and rituals which will further protect them during the year as well as ceremonies upon their safe arrival back home. A very common home welcoming ceremony is the "feet washing" ritual. During this ceremony the pochteca place their walking sticks (otatl) in the guilds temple, offer flowers, food and acayetl (incense) to the god Yacatecuhtli, and they have their feet ceremoniously washed by the priests. This is meant to please the god as well as ward off evil collected on the travel so this may not enter the city nor "build up" for future trips.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Money and trade in Itza

As you probably guessed by now the currency is cacao beans. So yes, your character pays for things with chocolate.

Cacao beans is the common everyday currency with which things are paid for in Itza. Things from basic items like corn, chile, avocado and beans, to services like farm hand and porter. The average fee for a porter to carry goods to a neighboring kingdom is in the order of 20 to 30 cacao beans.

There are other currencies as well. Currencies which allow for the carry of higher sums of "money" in a more compact form. These are the quachtli, or cotton mantle or cape, copper axe head and gold filled quill.
There were various qualities of quachtli, ranging from poor at 65 cacao beans per mantle, good at 100 cacao beans per mangle (this is the standard game exchange rate) and then exceptional quality at 300 beans per mantle. As a reference the average yearly income of a commoner is 20 good quality quachtli. The following table gives a reference of exchange values. It is important to note that these values are not "written in stone" and fluctuate from city to city, market to market and even week to week.

Cacao Bean
Copper axe head
Gold powder quill
Cacao Bean 1 1/100 1/1000 1/5000
Quachtli 100 1 1/10 1/50
Copper axe head 1000 10 1 1/5
Gold powder quill 5000 50 5 1

Alongside quachtli, copper axe heads and gold powder filled quills are also used as currency. Jewelry and common gold items found in other cultures are an exclusive right of the noble class in Itza and getting caught with such items can mean imperial punishment to the transgresor.
This has lead to the rise the pochteca, a social class specialized in trade, commerce and spying, the later performed by a group close to the tlatoani (emperor or king) know as the naualoztomeca. These traders lead caravans of tamemes (porters  who carried goods on their backs ) to distant lands to bring exotic goods and items desired by the nobility. Except for Coamixtitlan, the cloud city and home of the a feathered lizard race, no city state has burden animals such as horses, mules or donkeys. They simply do not exist.

The pochteca trade in huge markets known as tianguis. A tianguis in a large city can have as much as 60,000 people doing business on any given day. Large cities usually have a tianguis move across town day after day. Moving from district to district depending on the day of the 13 day week called trecena.

Modern day tianguis in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Image sources


Monday, December 26, 2016

Roleplaying Rogue One

So I finally got around to watching Rogue One and if you haven't seen it you might as well stop reading here. Take this as a spoiler alert.

Ok, so you're still here. Good. First thing I have to say is that I loved it. And yes, I got chills during the last scene seeing Princes Leia Organa take the Death Star blueprints and jumping away into what becomes the start of A New Hope.

I must comment though that I was falling asleep during a few brief moments. Thought it was the age or lack of exercise, or maybe I was just expecting a movie with a lot of CGI and a happy deus ex machina ending in which the rebels are saved. But then it began to happen, things begun to get really tough. Main characters begun to die. First is Saw, which might go by like some NPC, but then Bodhi (the imperial pilot) also gets blown away. The grenade drops in and it's all over with just a brief "oh shit" moment. Same for Baze after his heroic dash after Chirrut's death. K-2SO also goes down holding the line against what seems like an interminable barrage of Stormtroopers. Finally Jyn and Cassian also perish in an inescapable situation. Oh and then there were all those Tie fighters, so many of them, like a swarm of bees. And the rebel ships crashing into Darth Vader's ship as they rush to light speed just as his ship drops out of hyperspace. Boy that's got to have hurt. Oh and Darth Vader was actually kicking ass with his light lightsaber in the last scenes. It was all awesome and I was jumping around in my seat like a 7 year old, which I am, but nobody seems to notice anymore, lol.

Anyway, back to the point and question I want to raise. Can we roleplay something like Rogue One? It is technically a TPK. All our characters die. Imagine you've been roleplaying Cassian for the last 5 sessions and he's a real good covert ops character by now. A new friend you invited to learn what roleplaying is takes Bodhi, the imperial pilot. Jyn is a character that a friend played a way back and is now "in prison", but she's freed so she can join in the game. K-2SO is run by another player who's shared many adventures with Cassian's player. Baze's and Chirrut's players rolled these characters up for the session, taking a long time to fill up the high skills and stats of such a character.

And then they all die.

Over the last few years I've heard endless ramblings about fairness, balance, equal participation, etc., all so players get to participate, all so players don't get upset by character death, all so players don't leave the hobby after their first session with only a TPK game on their belt. Simply put, ramblings that make roleplaying Rogue One near to impossible. Yet Rogue One is a great movie. A movie that left me with a great admiration of the sacrifice done by everyone of the characters involved. It really gave weight to the statement in A New Hope about the sacrifice made to "obtain those plans". Some of the characters died in "normal" battle related injuries, just like any other rebel soldier, also raising the value of everyone involved and not leaving the common rebel soldier as just some background prop.

How do you handle your games so they don't become a boring succession of "stat increasing" successes?

Saturday, September 03, 2016


The wayob is the animal spirit inside every character in Itza. As a character you are born with it, and you can learn to tap into the immense power it can grant you, but such power also poses great risk. Tapping too much or tapping recklessly can make your character succumb to the animal nature of the wayob.

Wayob powers are tempting as the game mechanics allow you to succeed while failing. This presents a great temptation as you can try to tap into powers way beyond your character's reach and preparation, and still succeed in triggering them. As a player I can deliberately try to tap into a power far too strong for my character's skill level, a power so strong I'll certainly fail in invoking. Yet it will succeed. How is this? Simply put, it's the animal within your character taking over and turning a success into a failure. My character isn't very skilled, but wants to grow bat wings and fly out. Such a task is beyond the character's current skill, I roll and get a terrible outcome and my character grows wings and flies out. What happens is that it's the bat within my character flying out and taking temporary control over my character.

This control can affect the character physically and mentally as well as affect fellow party members. There is nothing stopping the bat within turning against party members and draining a fellow player's character dry. Your character may also start to develop permanent physical changes such as fangs, leathery skin, strange eyes, etc., changes that may pose risks in towns and cities afraid of such creatures.

Overall, the final result is a grey zone of failure bordered on both sides by a zone of success when the character can control the wayob and a zone of success when the character can not control the wayob. Yielding control to the wayob can be tempting for a short term benefit with a superb and uncontrollable power.

How much are you willing to pay to gain such an advantage? As a player it may be seem ok to tap into such immense power once to save the character, but if you know there's this "safety net" wouldn't you be tempted to run greater risks in the adventure which may corner you to tap into uncontrollable wayob powers more and more often? Can you, as a player, roleplay the wayob against your own character's interest?


Image source

Sunday, August 28, 2016

You're on a need to know basis

The hardest part of writing Itza was boiling the player's handbook into two sheets of paper. That's it! Four pages going from 1 to 4.

Get your stats, write your character out, understand the skill system and get down to playing. You're on a need to know basis, and the less you know the better off you are.

That is the basics of old school gaming I grew up with and the basics of the games I want to design from now one (at least for the foreseeable future). The less you know about the rules the more creative you'll be as a player.

As a GM I want you to tell me what your character is and how such description will lead to a kick ass scene.

A few points:

  • Less rules means you get down to playing the game sooner.
  • Less rules means you get to play your game rather than the "rule's games".
  • Less rules means there's a lesser divide between the "rules savvy" and the "noob players" (more fun for everyone)
  • Less rules means a lot more burden on the GM or person running the game. Trust and communication is a must (which of course is a must in any situation involving many humans).
Of course all this goes against the intuitive business logic of selling more shit. So how do things unfold?


Friday, November 20, 2015

Firearms, cover and damage in Weapons Free

As a modern warfare game you can imagine firearms and damage take a center roll. Yet surprisingly damage is something that's rolled less often than you might expect. You and your opponents will take a lot of precaution in not getting hit. Actually achieving a hit should be an uncommon event. Suppression and rolling for damage on armor and cover, well that's quite another thing. Suppression plays an important roll in the game and is something you need to learn how to leverage as a player and use it to move around the battlefield and obtain a better position against your enemy. As a GM you should see few deaths and should remember that your NPCs don't want to die. They will seek to retreat if they can and surrender if they can't do anything against an advancing force. Of course history is full of cases in which troops fought to the end, but aside from a one shot session it is highly discouraged that you engage in these types of style of play. NPCs should not stand up fearlessly to take that shot that would kill the characters. Play it out as if you want to live through the campaign and get back home or at least live to fight another day. Now without further delay let me jump into the actual example.

First of all the thing to remember is that combat and attacks is just a more specialized version of a skill check. As such it is resolved by two die rolls just like skill checks, one for the attacking party (skill roll) and one for the defender (task roll). The outcome is determined by the difference between the rolls. The character's skill determines the skill roll and the distance to the target determines the difficulty of the attack and thus the task roll. The possible outcomes are: critical miss, miss, suppression, hit cover, hit, or critical hit.

Unlike normal skill checks with just four outcomes: critical failure, failure, success and critical success; combat has two more outcomes and a deeper interpretation of each. Suppression is the outcome of an attack that misses the target but comes close enough to scare or hits the target's cover without actually penetrating through. Thus a hit to cover also produces suppression as we'll see below. The second additional outcome is hit cover. This is when the attack would actually hit the target but something stands in between, be this an obstacle or body armor.

Simple attack

Lets take for example an attacker who rolls 3d8 and a target that rolls 3d8.

For this simple attack example if the result of subtracting the target roll (difficulty) from the attacker roll (skill) is less than -4 the attack totally misses(cyan area). If the roll falls between -4 and -1 (yellow) it generates suppression. If the roll falls between 0 and 5 it hits cover (green) and also generates suppression. Depending on type of cover and damage it may penetrate and hit the target. If the roll is 6 or better (orange) it hits the exposed parts of the target. If it rolls 10 or above additional effects will be experienced due to a critical hit and if the roll is -10 or worse the inverse happens due to a critical miss.

The image visually represents the example mentioned above.

The values for cover and suppression depend on the degree of cover (obviously) and the weapon being used. Higher rate of fire will lead to better suppression. Thus heavy machineguns and Gatling guns can generate suppression on a -6 or better.

Complex Attack

Now let me analyze a more complex real life situation as shown in this diorama. A group of GIs are protecting a point from an Axis advance. We've got men in the open, prone, behind sandbags and in the trees. This presents varying degrees of cover and targets with different cross sections to the advancing Axis soldiers. Needless to say the smaller the cross-section the harder it is to hit the target.

Let's take a look at what the German soldiers see from their point of view (POV).

As you can see from this photo the same targets that were easily visible from the eagle eye view shown before are now very hard to distinguish. Cover, cross-section and camouflage make them hard to spot and even harder to hit, and I'm not even adding movement to the equation.

In the following image I'm overlapping the eagle eye view and the Axis POV and labeling targets so I can work out the mechanics for each in this and upcoming posts.

A is the rifleman kneeling behind a tree. His cover is so good it hard to distinguish from the German POV. Instead, from the German point of view you see the GI throwing the grenade from behind.

B is the rifleman prone by the tree. This target isn't even visible from the German POV.

C is the bazooka kneeling in the middle of the road getting ready to zap the tank.

D is a rifleman prone in front of the sandbags.

E is the rifleman standing behind the sandbags.

F is the MG crew kneeling behind the sandbags.

G is the rifleman running toward the Germans.

The Germans are in turn armed with MG-42 by the looks of it, some rifles, submachine guns and of course a StuG IV, a formidable armored vehicle with a 7,5cm (StuK 40 L/48) cannon and a MG-34. With this the Germans can attack point targets, attack an area or shell a target.

The German riflemen and the MG in the ruins have a clear view of the treeline and the man with the bazooka, but the tank blocks the view of the Allied MG and most of the men behind the sandbags. The Germans at the other side of the tank have a clear view of both, but their weapons have shorter range and the Allied treeline is much further away. You're the attacking German force, what do you do?

As the Germans in the ruins you have two clear targets the bazooka GI and the grenade GI. Initiative aside, which I'll cover in another article, lets say the MG goes for the bazooka and the rifleman for the grenade GI. 

Basic Example Rifleman vs Grenade GI

The basic rules are simple:
  • Get a result of 0 or better and you hit.
  • Skill determines attack roll and distance determines difficulty roll.
  • Skill and difficulty determine the value on which your d8 dice get to explode. The least skilled and easy tasks explode no dice at all, novice characters explode on 1, experienced characters explode on 1 and 2 and so forth up to legendary, and the same for difficulties.
Lets say for the sake of this example that the targets are at short range for the weapons at hand. This means the difficulty roll is easy 3d8(1) (the value in parenthesis indicates up to what value to explode on). The German soldiers are experienced and roll with 3d8(2) and thus explode 1s and 2s.

Rolling for the difficulty I get 18 (6, 4 & 8) and rolling for the grenade soldier I get 18 (7, 1, 2, 4, 1, 3). Since I got ones and twos I added that value and rolled the dice again until I stopped getting 1s and 2s.

Now this gives a result of 0 (18-18) which hits the target and damage should be dealt with now.The rifle's ammunition does 2d8 points of damage and I get 5 & 7. It is important to keep the values separate for now as damage depends on the point of the body hit. Since I just barely achieved success (got a 0), the success is marginal and the GM dictates its a hit to the arm or lower leg. This provides a -2 modifier to the damage (we'll get back to damage by body area later) and the result is 3 and 5 points (5-2 & 7-2) for a total of 8 points. The hit soldier has a pain threshold of 3 which acts as a buffer and subtracts from the damage leaving only 5 points to be dealt with to hit points. This is one third of the total hit points and the character suffers a serious wound and drops to the ground. It was nonetheless a good shot. Had it been a better roll, say for example a 22 vs 18 the GM could have dictated a hit to the torso with no -2 modifier. This would have produced a total of 10 points of damage and left the GI in a very delicate situation.

Revisiting Range and Modifiers

In the previous example I skipped a lot of modifiers to get the example through and through covering damage as well. In a real life situation the target isn't static and movement adds to the difficulty of the attack. There is also the element of visual range. The same rifle is more effective if optics are added. The quality doesn't change, just the ability to spot the target better. An iron sight is not as good as a scope and although the rifle is good at such short range the soldiers visual precision is not.

So at such a range the attacker suffers a -2 due to movement and a -2 due to visual range which  turns the 18 into a 14. This in turn produces a -4 outcome (14 - 18) which is not good enough to hit the target, but good enough to have the character suppresses and looking for cover. The GM can dictate that characters close to this GI can also come under the effect of suppression even if they're not the target of the attack roll.

Counter Attack

The GI prone on the ground sees the German firing and shoots back. For simplicity's sake let's say the M1 has the same performance as the K98. The difficulty roll is 3d8(1) and the skill roll is 3d8(3), the GI has been on since Normandy and is quite an expert by now. His rolls explode up to a 3.

I roll for the task (7, 3, 1, 8) getting 19, and then for the GI (5, 5, 2, 3, 5) getting a 20. Notice how I rerolled the 2 and 3 for the GI but only the 1 for the task.

The result is a 1 (20 - 19), certainly a hit, but the German is behind cover 50% this gives a 4 cover modifier which means I need a 4 or better to hit the German directly. The shot hits the wall and stops there but it generates suppression which will have the German running for cover unless it can be overcome it through a mettle attribute check.

Now, lets imagine for a moment that the wall is some material the bullet could get through, like wood or thin metal. I'll roll damage and apply the stopping power of armor. 

The damage is once again 2d8 and I get 3 and 7. The wood has an armor 2d4 and I roll getting 4 and 3. The dice are compared linearly against the damage from highest to lowest. The 7 vs the 4 and the 3 vs the 3. Since 7 beats the 4 it goes through leaving 3 points of damage (7-4) and the other 3 totally stops the bullet's 3. A total of 3 points make it through to the target and since the shot was marginally successful (only a 1) the GM dictates once again that it hit a non vital body part like the lower leg. The body part modifier of -2 is adding dropping the damage down to 1. With a pain threshold of 3 the German absorbs it all with no damage going to hit points. It's just a simple scratch not even worth calling a flesh wound.  Notice that if the shot had hit the torso which has no -2 modifier the full 3 points would be delivered to the character. Nonetheless this is still not a wound as it is easily absorbed by the character's paint threshold and stamina.

Damage and Pain

Before closing this post I'd like to comment on the damage mechanism. Characters have two pools of points: stamina and hit points. Stamina is a buffer that represents lesser damage and can be replenished quicker than hit points (in a matter of hours). Hit points is serious physical damage that can take days, weeks or even months to heal. The amount of damage that can be absorbed by stamina at any one point is determined by the pain threshold. This is a window below which all damage goes to stamina and above it goes to hit points. This article covers the mechanics in full detail.

In the next post I'll go over the scenario in which the MG is used against the tree line and the rifle is used against the bazooka.

Diorama source

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Metal is so, uh, un-cyber-punkish

Plastics, polymers, and ceramics. These are all the future materials. What are all these metal borgs, androids and air-filter-for-eye-wear things on my sci-fi episodes?

Ridley Scott nailed it. Ash has no metal parts showing. The future is plastic. Metals are out and organics are in.

Terminator? Blhahhh!

Skynet? Double blhahahhaahh!

When the shit really hits the fan with DNA manipulation, oh you're going to be in for a great surprise!

Just take a moment to think how much we've moved forward in 3D printing when it comes to roleplaying stuff: figures, tabletop items such as dungeon passage, etc.

Just imagine 3D printing on a molecular level?

What will the conventional weapons race look like in the near future as complex armor counteracts weapon systems?

A metal robot requires a factory and facilities to repair itself. A molecular printable cyborg only needs to touch a tree big enough to supply enough organic material to repair all battle damage.

The challenge in creating a cyberpunk setting is making today's fears inconsequential and tomorrow's horrors very, very real.