20 May, 2018

Walkabout: Songlines



This article from the Australian Broadcasting Commission, reinforces and draws on a lot of the ideas I've previously heard. Ideas that have been confirmed by the elders I've been speaking to, but it also doesn't quite go far enough. 

As Australia's first city, the pathways of Indigenous people were certainly used as the basic method to get from place to place, and those paths eventually became the accepted methods used by settlers, then paved for use by carriages and cars.

But in addition to the Sydney basin, this occured across the whole country. Explorers typically followed the paths linking different communities of Indigenous nations, often aided by native guides. When later leading surveyors across the land, the explorers took the paths they knew, and the Aboriginal pathways became locked into the settlers maps as the roads between towns.

Often the Aboriginal settlements were located on strategic waterholes, places where paths crossed rivers, or trading paths crossed each other, so naturally these became the places where settlers established their own towns to take advantage of the same strategic geographic elements. The Aboriginal communities were driven off, or killed, or otherwise had their connection to the land removed. Their marked trees were torn up, so that evidence of their sacred sites could be denied, but the placement of the old camps and settlements lies embedded in the current maps of the continent.

This basically means that in Walkabout, the Nomads roaming the highways uphold the sacred journeys of the Indigenous wanderers. They don't do it deliberately, but the travels along tarred motorways follow the same tracks that have been trodden for dozens of millennia (at least). The communities they meet are settled on places where the spirits have watched and influenced humanity since before recorded history, some home to those who have tried to reclaim the old ways of industrialization, some home to those who have tried to claim even older tribal ways.

Descendants of the Australian Aboriginals can be found in all these groups. 

19 May, 2018

Dispatch Guide

A bit of time to get some page layout done.


It also helps that I've finally got a computer that can handle stuff like this again.

Hopefully the second book for The Law will go live (at least as a PDF) some time this week.

18 May, 2018

200 word RPG 2018: The Wanderer


The Wanderer


As she strides the Bonelands toward the Citadel of Onyx, the last obstacles in her lifelong quest of vengeance await. A small group of companions guide her destiny.

Three questions define you.
How do you know her?
What did you teach her? She gains advantage
What haven’t you taught her? You gain advantage

Everyone starts with 1 black and 1 white token (hidden), blank page and pencil. A bag contains six more tokens of each colour.

Each act, everyone takes turns posing a situation, then asking another player how the Wanderer faces it. Everyone contributes one of their two tokens to resolve the situation, one more is drawn from the bag.

<1 failure="" full="" o:p="" white:="">
<1 black:="" full="" o:p="" success="">
Otherwise both apply

Describe what happens. Everyone replenishes their spent token by drawing a random token from the bag. Spent tokens are returned to the bag.

Act One: Flashbacks (What challenge was faced?)
Success: She gains an advantage
Failure: Someone loses an advantage

Act Two: Bonelands (menaces confronted)
Success: Menace neutralised
Failure: Someone loses an advantage (or their life).

Act Three: Citadel (citadel’s defences)
Success: Defence overcome
Failure: Someone lose their life, or she dies (game over, you lose)

17 May, 2018

Walkabout: People of the Outback

Going through some of my old notes, I found a few things that felt a little problematic at the time, but now seem far more so.

In the last round of playtests for the game (which echo back to 2012/2013), I defined a character by a series of template stereotypes in a mix-and-match system. I still like this idea, but it's the nature of those templates that will need to change in the rewrite. Three template fragments were combined in that system. Each template came in a general form, with a specialty that could be used to refine what it means specifically to the character.


First were the "people", where these are the culture the character grew up with and those who they consider their family. The people might be considered a "race" in some games, but not quite. I basically categorised the various types of people by the culture and technology they shared rather than any genetic heritage. The "Nomads" were those who roamed the highways in mobile towns built on the backs of trucks and assorted vehicles. The "Cultivators" lived settled lived in the old farming areas, trying to live a pastoral life again. The "Scavengers" lived in the ruins of the old cities, trying to piece together a new life from the remnants left behind of the past. The "Tribalists" thought that the ways of technology were the wrong path to spiritual harmony, and deliberately chose to live their interpretation of a life with nature (noting that the Indigenous communities of Australia didn't have to be tribalists, and it was just as likely that an Indigenous Elder might see these Tribalists as fools misunderstanding and misappropriating their culture). The "Arcologists" were the descendents of the wealthy upper classes who had hidden themselves in bunkers and fortresses to weather the apocalypse. The "Outlanders" were those who embraced the chaos of the post-apocalypse, including mutants, bandits and those who deliberately opposed any attempt to return the world to the tyranny of the past and the darkness of capitalism. Then there were the "Skyborne" who lived in balloons drifting high above the surface of the world, who retained the most technology from the old world, but who had become insular, inbred, and vaguely xenophobic toward the ground dwellers. Within each group there were specific castes, such as the nomads having drivers, mechanics, traders and navigators. I still like these ideas, they can stay.

Second came an "edge", where different types of people would pay different amounts for various edges, or might have access to specific edges reflecting their people's culture and technology. I had a wide variety of these, from pets to special vehicles and equipment, from mystic insight to mutations. One of the "edge" types was a reputation, which gave a character access to a range of skills based on the kinds of things they were known for in the wider community. For example, an "honourable" character would gain access to a bunch of social skills and advantages, while a "vicious" character would gain access to a range of violent and combative skills. I think that the reputation is actually more important, and I'm actually going to pull that out of the edges because everyone should have a reputation for something in this setting. Especially the player characters. The last edge type was a connection to another "people", for example a nomad might have an "Arcologist" connection indicating that her family regularly did trade with the old wealthy underground elite. This is also something that I think shouldn't be limited to a binary where some characters have it and some don't. As I was writing settlements for the game all those years ago I started to realise that almost every settlement had a range of cultures in it, and while there might often be one particular group that is predominant in the community, it was virtually impossible to find one that was completely homogeneous. I had also created an edge where a character had the option to belong to a specific subculture of their people (where some subcultures might function as links between various types of people). One of those subcultures was the New Koori Nation, which was a subset of tribalists and cultivators, divided into males and females with different areas of advantage based on "mens knowledge" and "womens knowledge". This is leaving me at a dilemma, it's accurate, but the presentation of it is culturally problematic.

Finally came the "dance". This is getting tossed in the bin. The dance was based on the idea that almost every group of Indigenous people in Australia shares their knowledge through the ritual corroboree, and this involves dancing. It also came a bit from the Rippers in Tank Girl, and a few other sources that functioned as inspiration for the early incarnations of the game. Don't get me wrong, Tank Girl is still a huge inspiration, but the idea that every character has to dance feels a bit problematic. Most of the Indigenous Elders I know wouldn't dance, but they all have their own methods for sharing news and knowledge. making every Walkabout Wayfarer character dance feels a bit like reducing them to a caricature of the culture rather than a representative of it.

One of these things I did like in the system as it was presented was the idea that no character was too much of a unique and special snowflake. While all template fragments were balanced against one another, those that should have been the most common had a low cost (1-2 points), those that should have been less common had a higher cost (3-4 points, but possibly reduced in cost if you bought a pair of template fragments that had a tendency to be found together), and some fragments that would have been quite rare in the setting had the highest cost range (5-6 points). Everyone had 8 points to spend, and all characters needed three base template fragments to build their character. This basically meant that a character could have a single super rare thing about them (at 6 cost), but the two other template fragments would have to be run-of-the-mill to balance against this special factor. Another character could have two uncommon elements to them (3 cost each), but the third element would be pretty common (2pts). Players could opt to not spend the whole 8 points, and if they did this, they might gain a minor XP bonus for every unspent point, or maybe an extra piece of equipment from those available to them. part of this idea was that character's weren't necessarily super special heroes at the start of their journey, but their paths had already been started. It was only through interaction with the spirit world and coming to understand the balance of the holistic world that characters become truly heroic and memorable. This idea is staying.

16 May, 2018

Walkabout: Magic of the Dreaming

I've been digging through my old Walkabout notes, some of them almost a decade old. I had at least two versions of the game, drawing on different clusters of inspiration.

In the original version of the game, magic was a fairly static affair. At the end of each game, a player could ask another player to inscribe a tattoo or marking on the characters body. The player would literally give their character sheet to another player, and that second player would literally draw on the character sheet in pencil, and fill in a couple of words. This would be related to some deed that the character had performed during the course of the story. If the player liked the idea, they could find a shaman, or do some kind of "quest of permanence" to integrate that marking into their soul. If the player didn't like it, they could erase it during a later game. Characters would have a limited number of these marking slots on their body, and if they suffered a permanent injury like a loss of a limb, then naturally there would be less "marking slots" to play with.

The whole idea here was that characters would be dedicating their body to the spirits and showing that dedication in the physical world through those markings. As a benefit for this dedication, characters would gain an automatic success on actions associated with the marking and the keywords written with it. One wedge-tailed eagle glyph might provide benefits to perception checks, a different wedge-tailed eagle glyph might provide a sense of presence and majesty to it's bearer... a character truly dedicated to this spirit, with multiple markings on their body dedicated to wedge-tailed eagle might get both. It was a very freeform system, and when the success bonus from the glyph was used, the character would either need to re-inscribe the glyph, rest and allow it to recharge, or perform some deed for the affiliated spirit.


A variant magic system linked into the elemental concept I've had in many of my other games. It basically works of a cubic cosmology. Air on one side of the cube opposes earth on the other, water opposes fire, and wood opposes metal. If you cross section the cube in one way, you get a square with the Western Hermetic pattern of elemental forces (Air-Earth-Fire-Water and mysterious quintessential life forces in the middle)...and if you cross section it another way, you get a square with the Eastern Taoist pattern (Fire-Metal-Water-Wood...with a balanced earth in the middle). But it didn't seem to fit the paradigm of Indigenous mysticism as I understood it. I felt like I could reskin it in some way, perhaps renaming "Earth" as "Wombat", "Air" as "Eagle"...but it was getting tricky to do some of the others and this was really starting to feel like the hollow cultural appropriation I was trying to avoid in this project. That obstacle was actually one of the things that brought the project to a standstill.

But recently I heard a talk by an Indigenous elder about certain redgum trees. He said that a sacred life like this required the elements to come into play. Seeds from the plant are eaten by birds and are thus infused by the air in their journey, then they are dropped to the ground in the bird's shit where they become buried and infused with earth. Next, they can wait for years or even decades until a bushfire sweeps through the area, and the energy of the fire invigorates the seed. Finally, with rain, the energy of water completes the cycle and the plant begins to grow. This struck me as a hybrid of the Hermetic wisdom, channelled through an Indigenous lens to give a perspective of the world. So maybe the elemental concept might have been valid after all.

I still like the idea of the marked wayfarer, where the first marking is an indication of the character's status as a wandering balancer of nature.

So my next idea is to unite those concepts. Similar to some of the ideas that I've been having for magic under the banner of "Familiar" or "The Law".

If I'm running with 4 attributes... those 4 can be combined in six pairings.

Physical-Social
Physical-Mental
Physical-Paranormal
Social-Mental
Social-Paranormal
Mental-Paranormal

Now it's a case of meshing those pairings to one of the elemental affinities.

Physical-Social : Air
Physical-Mental : Metal
Physical-Paranormal : Fire
Social-Mental : Water
Social-Paranormal : Wood
Mental-Paranormal : Earth

In the non-magical version of "The Law" a characters rank die can never be the highest die they possess... they always need to have one of the attributes higher. Under this magical system, a character might be limited to having a magical die no higher than the corresponding attributes.     

To use a magical effect, the character needs to be using one of the attributes linked to the element. But the two attributes have slightly different manifestations of the elemental energy.

Air (using Physical): This is about movement and speed
Air (using Social): This is about surface appearances of things, fleeting thoughts and illusion
Earth (using Mental): This is about science and the immutable laws of the universe
Earth (using Paranormal): This is about resilience and permanence
Fire (using Physical): This is about strength and raw power
Fire (using Paranormal): This is about destruction of body, mind and soul
Metal (using Physical): This is about death and decay
Metal (using Mental): This is about the darker thoughts, and knowledge of spirits or technology as an antithesis of the living world.
Water (using Social): This is about clarity of purpose and leadership
Water (using Mental): This is about higher conceptual thoughts, and the cycles of nature
Wood (using Social): This is about emotional energy and community
Wood (using Paranormal): This is about health, growth, renewal and regeneration

When I was thinking about this paradigm of magical thought for "Familiar", I was working with the theory that different schools of magic would fall into a specific elemental pattern. A character could spend XP to understand the framework of a specific school of magic (theurgy, illusionism, conjuring, alchemy, divination, etc.). This would give them a natural bonus when trying to perform mystic effects relating to that school, and would let them boost the associated elemental die by one step. There would be dozens of these magical schools, and to gain the maximum die in a certain element they'd have to understand the framework of five different schools each contributing their knowledge to a holistic understanding of the element (one school = d4, two schools = d6, three = d8, four = d10, five = d12).

Under the Walkabout version of the system, each of your body markings would provide a natural bonus when attempting to perform specific subtle actions, an a boosted die of the relevant element. For example, a marking of the Gecko might provide an automatic bonus success when climbing walls (a Physical action), and since this is a movement related effect it would increase the Air elemental die by a degree. If the character is engaged in subtle magic, they simply gain the success. If they want to climb a sheer surface that requires multiple successes, they might invoke full air magic by rolling their physical attribute and their air elemental die.

Here's where my thoughts earlier today seem to have reached a conclusion I'm happy with.

In Mage: the Ascension, the power of magic(k) is limited by the mage's Arete, their one-ness with the universe. The more enlightened they are, the more powerful the effect they can manifest. This system has a bit of that in it as well.

I like the idea of having rote magic, and that's linked into the markings on the character's body, but could just as easily be linked to artifacts, fetishes, magical items and rituals that require outside forces to achieve. The game could go that way, but it doesn't need to. 


When a character invokes one of their elemental dice, they are effectively casting "vulgar magick" (from the parlance of Mage). Elemental dice always apply to the success column of the table, this reduces the chances of rolling a 1 (and failing), but there is also a chance that the elemental die will be the highest rolled. A character who opens themselves up to mystic forces doesn't necessarily know how to control them all the time. If the elemental die is the highest rolled, it represents uncontrolled magic flowing through the character and into the world...an effect based on the elemental force will manifest in the world at the discretion of the GM (maybe filtered through a random table and translated into the story by the GM). Such effects could be powerfully positive, or powerfully negative. Magic is always dangerous to someone, and the spirits are always watching. Familiars like it when uncontrolled elemental energy flows into the world, some feed on it, some absorb it into themselves for their own manifestations, some redirect it to their own ends as it is unleashed.

Within the dreaming, characters might gain automatic bonuses or penalties to their elemental dice depending on where in the cosmological geography they currently stand. 

14 May, 2018

Walkabout: The Bower Bird


The Bower Bird is found in Australia and New Guinea. It is a collector of stuff. Among the bower birds found locally, the males predominantly collect blue stuff. They line their nests with blue trinkets, bits of plastic, coloured paper, flowers, feathers from other birds, anything that's blue. I'm no ornithologist, but I generally understand that this is done to lure potential mates. The more stuff collected, the more vibrant the male's nest appears to the female bower birds. It doesn't matter where the stuff comes from, I don't know if the specific shade of blue matters, but I'm sure some kind of though process goes through the male bird's head as it ccumulates the stuff.

Modern Indigenous Australian culture feels a bit like that in a lot of ways. Where the male bower bird represents the members of the Indigenous community, and the female bower bird represents government funding bodies, non-indigenous outsiders, and anyone who might have anything to say about anything Indigenous.

When local artists indicate that they might be Indigenous, they are instantly expected to produce dot paintings, because that's what "Australian Aboriginal Art" is.

Much of the folklore of various groups involves animals with distinctive character traits. These traits function as a shorthand so that listeners will know what to expect from different character's with regards to their personalities and traits. A similar tradition can be seen back as far as Aesop's fables in the Western Canon, but "primitive tribal groups" can't presume to stand at the level of the great philosophers, so they draw terminology from other tribal groups and call the animals "totems". This also fits basically with the complex system of familial moiety, and is a quick way to explain how groups are interconnected to colonial anthropologists who have no similar notion in their own culture, so it seems to work multiple ways. This gives us individuals who claim their own totem based on the character traits of animal spirits in the stories they identify with, then a family totem based on what their people can remember of the past, and finally a people linked to a specific ancestral land (where I live in Tharawal land, but most of the Indigenous elders I know identify as Wiradjuri, Gamilaroi, or Dharug...and most will go back to that land when they die).

Australian English words derived from Indigenous terms often reflect a very specific time and place. Such as the urban legend that when a colonist asked what a certain animal was, their Indigenous companion responded "Kangaroo", meaning "I don't understand you". Other terms were drawn from a specific local dialect, and they were considered "Aboriginal" by ethnocentric invaders who couldn't be bothered to learn the local ways, and didn't understand that English farming techniques weren't suitable to this part of the world. 

But there's more to the Bower Bird analogy than this.

Just as I said the word "totem" had basically been appropriated by the community, because it was a close enough fit to what they were trying to say, various Indigenous groups have no problem absorbing other concepts into their cultural melting pot. It is said that Islam came to Australia before Christianity along the northern coastline via the Malaccan traders across Malaysia and Indonesia. Some groups have added to the roster of characters in their animal fables by adding introduced species like cats and foxes (with their traditional European traits). An elder told me the appropriate procedure to curse someone by "pointing the bone", but I don't know if this was a real belief, a joke on the outsider white guy, or just him playing "the role of the mysterious elder with hidden knowledge" because that's just what he was expected to do in the type of social situation where we were talking. I've watched in more public settings when elders told cocky white student teachers that they wouldn't know how to track a goanna through light scrub, only to then explain tactics that I've seen repeated on several nature documentaries. I've seen elders tell white people things they wanted to hear, even though I'd corroborated through several other sources that something else seemed to be the more likely truth.

When so much has been systematically destroyed and lost, the only way to maintain a sense of identity is to cling onto the pieces that are left, and paste them together with anything else that can give them a bit of context. The fact that Indigenous Australian communities have been doing this for so long could easily be their greatest strength in this setting. 

Walkabout: Fragmented Spiritualism

Ethnocentrism is a bit like racism, and is often a concept confused with it. Technically, where racism focuses on the physical appearances and differences between people on the surface, ethnocentrism is about the customs and mannerisms of people. Ethnocentrism covers times when someone has prejudice against another person due to them speaking a different language, or having religious differences. It's the Imperial British "bringing order" to the Indian Subcontinent, it's the Spanish conquistadors converting the natives to Catholicism at the point of sword and musket, it's the Han Chinese in Beijing imposing their customs across the other ethnic minorities in China, it's the Jews driving out the Palestinians under the belief that Yahweh is the rightful god of the region, it's the ongoing pogrom by Australian governments against the Aboriginal people over generations.



Ethnocentrism has led to many problems in the world. Each culture has it's own stories, defines itself according to those stories, and builds an identity based on them. Even if those stories began as allegory and metaphor, once they become a part of a people's culture, few want to admit that those stories might not be true, and that their cultural identity might be built on a faulty foundation. This manifests in effects like confirmation bias (where an individual will have a stronger tendency to accept things that match their existing worldview), and cognitive dissonance (where new input conflicting with an existing worldview is ignored, or considered a "test of faith"). This can be seen in the polarity of opinions in the US between progressives and conservatives, neither wanting to back down...but this isn't a game about America.



In Australia, the central enthnocentrism comes from the British descended dominant discourse. The White Australia policy ensured non-White immigrants did not come to our shores for the majority of the 20th century, meanwhile the Indigenous population had no rights of their own and no way to control their own destiny under Australian law until a 1967 referendum. For generations it was expected that they would die off, be "bred white" over time, and be converted from their savage ways to a more civilised existence as servants of the wealthy. Young children, if they were white enough, were systematically removed from their families; though ironically most of these lighter skinned children were born from the rape of Indigenous mothers by farmers, landowners, and white authority figures who wanted their sins hidden in the regulatory systems they controlled. Regardless of whether they lived in missions, on reserves, or in urban communities, Aboriginal Australians were banned from their religious practices and lore if they wanted to receive any benefits from the predominantly church-based welfare organisations, and in many cases they were banned from speaking their native languages if they were to be treated as anything other than subhuman by the communities that were claiming their lands and dispossessing them from the territories their people had held custodianship over for millennia.

Yes, this game is political. It doesn't hide the fact that it's political, I'm going to be sending a regular percentage of the profits to local Aboriginal groups.

The local Tharawal people southwest of Sydney have completely lost their language. The only evidence of it lies in certain words unearthed through linguistic archaeology. A few dozen words have been identified in neighbouring languages where phonetic conventions didn't quite match other words in the lexicon. And just as the languages were lost, the rituals and folklore were similarly lost, this happened to numerous groups across the continent. And just as the spiritualism was lost, the ethnocentrism and hubris of the colonial groups and settlers destroyed knowledge on how to look after the land. In turn, this has led to rivers drying out (due to decades of dams and corrupt water allocation policies from government departments getting paid off by corporate interests), severe bushfires (due to not understanding Indigenous firestick procedures that kept dry wood fuel in check and constantly revitalising the bushland with regular controlled burning...although this is changing), loss of animal habitats (again from corrupt government practices where clear cutting and monoculture farming are devastating the land), open cut mining, ripping apart chunks of the Great Barrier Reef (to allow passage of ships bearing the loads from generally unwanted coal mines).

This has always been a part of Walkabout.

The custodians of the land have been removed, their knowledge suppressed, and their ritual cycles broken. The land has been desecrated. Any way to restore the natural balance has been lost, and the spirits who would make short work of it...no one knows how to contact them any more because that knowledge was outlawed by the church. That's why the apocalypse occurs. 


Australian Aboriginal characters in this setting aren't magical shamans able to fix the problems of environmental holocaust, they're just as screwed as everyone else. The only advantage they have over the Europeans and other newcomers to the land is that fact that they don't need to apologise to the spirits for the devastation that has been dealt to the land, or for their loss of the rituals. They could have lost their rituals or their lives...and if they lost their lives the rituals would have been lost anyway. The spirits were always watching.

I guess it's a bit Werewolf: the Apocalypse in it's outlook, except that it's more Werewolf: the Post Apocalypse. The shit has already hit the fan, and now it's a case of placating the spirits and cleaning up the mess to start again, all the while there are individuals and groups in the setting who refuse to make apologies, who are still in a position of power even though the world has gone to hell around them, and who actively resist anyone who might want to bring balance.