Wednesday, December 30, 2009

State of the Campaign II

Waaaaay back in February of this year, I wrote a quick "State of the Campaign" post, discussing the Labyrinth Lord game I was running with OpenRPG. A lot has happened in the intervening eleven months, and while it may be a touch premature to write a year-in-review (since it's not quite 2010 yet), a critical inventory is long overdue. So here are my thoughts, not quite a year on into the campaign. Er, campaigns...

Yeah, multiple campaigns. See, when I started, one player was there every week, but for a while we had new "costar" every other session, a player who'd last a game or two, and then drop out. Such things happen, due to scheduling conflicts, tragedy, the shifting nature of life, and the fact that I run a not-quite-normal campaign that isn't a perfect fit (or even a good fit) for everyone. I don't take it personally, and so far almost everyone has been incredibly polite about it when an issue has come up.

Anyway, when a new group was coming together, the character my regular player was playing had developed in interesting ways and we were experimenting with some neat ideas that we didn't want to have deflected by bringing in new players. So that game turned into a solo campaign, the player created a second character, and now I'm running two games in the campaign in kinda-sorta parallel. That means more gaming for me, and gives the campaign a cool Westmarches vibe, with the two groups hearing about each other's exploits. Luckily, the player who is in both is awesome when it comes to keeping player and character knowledge separate. In fact, she seems to really enjoy it when her two characters learn things and fashion opinions about each other that are not quite accurate or true.

Labyrinth Lord
So far, the rules continue to deliver. The gaps have been especially useful in the solo game, where things have taken a strong social turn. Dungeon delving isn't just in the back seat to more social and cultural aspects of play; right now, it's in the trunk, with duct tape over its mouth and a blanket thrown over it. I'm certain that won't last, but the flexibility of the system is really serving us well.

Primarily, what's really working great is what Labyrinth Lord doesn't do. It doesn't dictate how romance should work, or give us mechanics for "social combat" or anything like that. It gets out of the way and allows us to RP that stuff the way we want it. So far, it's working great, and entire sessions can pass without anybody rolling any dice.

When I do need rules, Labyrinth Lord doesn't suffocate. When a character got swallowed by a chaos creature and transformed in its gullet, it was a matter of maybe an hour to create a nixie class. [Note to self: post this to the blog.] I've also completely thrown off my original, self-imposed limit of only using stuff from Labyrinth Lord and have embraced monsters and magic from the full range of D&D, from the little brown books all the way into 2e. There's some 3e stuff that might show up later, specifically from The Book of Vile Darkness, but that's going to take a bit more tweaking to get right. Best of all, I can use stuff from Taichara's Hamsterish Hoard without any tweaking at all. I'm also looking forward to including stuff from JB's Companion addition to the Moldvay/Cook line.

There are a few nits that I've been picking at, though. First, the addition of more armour classes seems unnecessary. Leather, mail and lamellar, and plate would probably serve our needs just fine. Maybe, maybe a separation between mail and lamellar. Maybe.

Also, things have been moving veeeeeeeery sloooooowly when it come to leveling up. It's taken about six months of steady, weekly play to get character from 1st to 2nd level. That seems a bit too slow to me. I'm not sure if the problem is me, or the players, or what. I need to investigate this more closely and make certain that I'm giving enough treasure. I suspect the real culprit is a lackadaisical attitude towards tracking the treasure. Everyone's having fun with the social and exploration aspects of the game, but nobody is really into tracking every coin or jade disk they lug out of the ruins. Part of me is tempted to just let things go as they have been, and let the players take a more proactive attitude about it, but I suspect that this path leads to frustration and social friction that I'd probably better head off before it becomes an issue.

The setting continues to delight and thrill me. The players seem to really enjoy it as well, and people repeatedly tell me that I have got a fun world to explore and play in. I'm not sure it's quite as flavorful as I wanted it to be, but that may be because my original conception of it was kinda out there, and it's best to let player settle slowly into the aspects of the world that are most unfamiliar, to avoid any "Tekumel-shock syndrome."

Most of the action has taken place on the island of Dreng Bdan, and that hasn't changed much yet, but I know that won't last. The solo campaign has already shifted its focus to the Elemental Planes. There are opportunities for such a shift in the group campaign right now as well, including the potential for a move into an Underground Wilderness campaign.

Efficiency and Pacing
We're still not communicating between sessions as much as I'd like us to be, and this is causing some social friction in the group game. I'm hoping we've got most of that behind us, but frankly, I suspect there are some issues in play style that will continue to trouble us off-and-on. On the one hand, these issues have interrupted valuable playing time and have flared up into open animosity between the players on occasion. On the other hand, having players with divergent styles has pushed the game in interesting directions. So far, I think it's been worth the added stress.

In-character, however, things have been awesome! One of the players is practically brand-new to RPGs and he has done an amazing job of really getting "stuck in" to the world and his character. Honestly, if you want to really improve your RP, the best thing you can do is forget how these games are "supposed to be" played and go back to that little kid who waved a stick in the air, called it a sword, and just had adventures. The magic of Labyrinth Lord is that it makes this very possible, giving us just enough to keep the world consistent and to adjudicate exactly who shot who when it becomes an issue.

In the solo game, things have really gotten to an amazing level where the RP so overshadows the rules we hardly ever roll dice much anymore. I think we're more comfortable with a level of free-form play than many, and we're wallowing in that right now. The RP in both campaigns has me really jazzed to get back to playing as soon as our short break for the holidays is over.

If there's one thing I'm not happy about, it's the state of my blogging. The honest truth is, I'm having so much fun actually playing, and prepping to play, that I haven't felt a strong desire to blog. I'm also a bit at a loss for what to blog about; the deeper down the rabbit hole both campaigns go, the harder it is to talk about them. I'm sure you've experienced something similar, where the experiences and assumptions of a campaign become so particular to that campaign, that it takes hours of back-story and explanation just to describe the simplest things. That's a triumph for any campaign, because it means you've really made the game your own. But it sucks for creating bloggable material.

I'm not sure what to do about that. I'll probably start by being less hesitant to throw up some stuff from the campaign and see what you, the readers, respond to. There was a far stronger response to the post about noble hierarchies among efreet than I was expecting. It's likely that I'm thinking too hard about what is fun and useful for you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar Review: OUCH!

"Avatar" is an incredibly lazy movie. I don't mean you'll fall asleep during it. It's got a good number of action beats and they're filmed in a competent manner. But still...

I have amazing amounts of respect for folks who make movies. I'm the sort who enjoys watching the commentaries on DVDs, and my favorites to date are those that go with the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings Movies. Just seeing all the effort that went into the writing, filming, costuming, prop-making and management... Frankly, it was an amazing undertaking that leaves me in awe.

You don't really see that in Avatar. Ok, sure the effects and the world are amazing, but haven't we seen all this before? The critters with multiple eyes and fan-like projects that wave like palm-fronds when they are startled, the floating mountains, the combat walkers, the glow-in-the-dark plants, etc, etc... Haven't we seen all of this before in various incarnations of the Final Fantasy franchise? Sure, it looks great, but I couldn't help but feel that, as gorgeous as it all is, it felt horribly derivative.

And that's the high point of the flick. The writing is probably the nadir. I should warn you at this point that spoilers follow, but seriously, after the first five minutes you could outline the rest of the flick in perfect safety. You've seen this film a dozen times at least.

This film has a blatant "as you already know" speech in the first act. While the words "as you already know" are never spoken, it is a conversation between two people who know everything that's being said. And the coup de grace is that they word "unobtanium" is used, blatantly, to describe the mysterious super-mineral that has brought humans to the planet. At that point, it became impossible to take the movie seriously.

What follows is stuff you've all seen before. The science fiction elements exist solely to justify the tropes you expect, once you know you're watching a kiddy-fare environmentalism film: the amoral corporate geeks, the hard-ass military guys who can't wait to unleash their toys and hapless soldiers on the noble defenders of nature, and the attack of the animals that shifts the momentum of the climactic battle. It even ends with a mano-y-mano duel between our hero and the bloodthirsty colonel. At least Cameron had the writing chops to give his military maniac a plausible excuse for wanting to drop a nuke in "The Abyss." Here, the colonel's desire to kill and destroy is simply who he is. It's almost too bad he didn't have a mustache he could twirl.

Much has been said about how the blue-skinned, vaguely feline natives are pseudo-Native Americans. Even that's giving the film too much credit. These are tree-hugging noble savages from Rousseau. If you want to seen Native Americans, rent "Apocalypto" or "Dances with Wolves." What you see in Avatar is milk-toast pap that Native Americans are rightly insulted to feel attached to. It is a white man's delusions of what he wishes Native American's were, without any respect for or even knowledge of their traditions, history, or culture.

Things just get worse as the film unspools. Laziness abounds: the amazing secret of the natives is never really exploited or played with, because that would mean deviating from the model. The final battle involves a military force attacking with short-ranged weapons, in spite of being written and directed by the man who gave nerds the phrase, "Nuke 'em from orbit; it's the only way to be sure." Both sides use ground forces in the battle without a tactical explanation as to why. The infantry and ground-cavalry units on both sides seem to have no reason for their involvement beyond a bloodthirsty need to kill each other (all to a heroic but forgettable Horner soundtrack). Or hero has to be rescued in the mano-y-mano fight with the colonel because he momentarily forgets that he has arms and legs.

Lazy, lazy, lazy... Sure, fun spectacle, but of the sort that demands you turn off your brain before things begin. It's hard to not feel the effort is half-assed in a world where you can rent far better films with great spectacle, excellent writing, compelling, complex characters and far more respect for the beauty, danger, and power of the natural world such as "Princess Mononoke." That's the film Avatar should be compared to, and it's one that it can't help but look wanting next to.

AICN offers an interesting look at the science of Avatar. And I just noticed that this is my 666th post.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

For Taichara: Historical Settings

Taichara's asked for some input on what people want from an historic setting for RPGs, in her case specifically Red Box D&D. Again, I find myself pressed for time, so instead of writing something pithy and quick for her comments, y'all get a whole blog post. ;p

My chief interest is in how this setting can shake up my game. Whether I'm going to use it as a brief jaunt for a change-of-pace in an existing campaign, or the setting for an entire campaign in itself, I want to know pretty early on how this will be noticeably different (and, hopefully, better) than your bog-standard Middle Earth clone.

This really is the bedrock, from whence all the rest should flow. Who are the folks that live here? What's important to them? Where do their assumptions differ from ours?

Granted, this is the area most likely to be ignored in the heat of a game. Players often bring their cultural baggage to the table, and that's fine. But there's a good chance I'll want to let them play strangers in this strange land. So show me how these folks are different from the people I know. At the very least, let me know what they eat, what they wear, what they love, and what they fear. I'd like to know how they celebrate the stages of life, and if their ideas are different from ours on that score.

Politics would be useful as well. Who wields supreme executive power and upon what mandate? Who is likely to hire the PCs, and what are they likely to want done? Who might try to thwart the PCs? Who's in charge of maintaining law and order, and what are their methods and tools?

If you give me nothing else on their culture, I do want this. How do they measure time? What days are special to them, and how do they celebrate them?

What do the people of this setting worship and how? This is where you can really shine and be useful to the DM, since D&D generally gives you next-to-nothing on playing and adjudicating clerics. Let us know how clerics interact with the temples and the gods. What worldly and organizational resources does the cleric have to draw on? What sort of behavior is likely to get a god's nose out of joint? Does the religion of this setting necessitate changes to the clerical class, or the creation of entirely new classes?

The D&D equipment lists tend to be a bit anemic as it is. Feel free to flesh them out with all sorts of setting-specific goodies.

I'd not go on too long about weapons. Yeah, they can be cool, but D&D's combat is so vague it really can't tell the difference between a viking's broadsword and the pharaoh's khopesh. If it's important, go into metals and materials and how they make a difference, but most things can be mentioned briefly (“they make their shields from woven wicker” or “their helms are fashioned from the tusks of boars fixed to leather caps”) and then you can move on.

You'll probably find it's more interesting, especially for folks who enjoy hex-crawling, to talk about mounts and beasts of burden. Ancient India has elephants, and ancient Egypt will have the camel. Such beasts can make a big difference in combat, logistics, and wilderness exploration.

Normally, I'm not a huge fan of additional magical goodies, but they can be evocative and this is Taichara we're talking about here. ;) If you are going to give us new magical items, make sure they are both new and evocative. A bag of holding with feathers stitched to it is still a bag of holding.

Architecture and Maps
Most historical time-periods have evocative architecture that immediately brings them to mind. The Egyptians, of course, have the pyramids and their great, giant columns in post-and-lintel architecture erected on a grand scale. The Romans had their arches and the Colosseum. The Japanese have their sliding paper walls and nightingale floors. Show us how these things work and give us some context for them.

Give us maps of the homes and shops of the average folk, and at least one tavern, inn or similar place where adventurers are likely to congregate. Maps of temples would be useful, especially if there are competing faiths in this setting. A map of a village or a city where adventures can start or take place wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

Think also about common locations for adventures. Tombs, forts, jails, palaces, temples, houses-of-ill-repute, seedy taverns, and inns are all places where adventurers might practice their trade. Maps are something we don't often see enough of in books like this.

You can do a lot to make a setting feel special by changing the rules for how magic works or creating new magic. One place D&D is historically lacking is in daily-use spells, the sorts of magic people used in their homes or in their work, and yet it's the what we have the most examples of from real history.

Again, normally I'd say don't go crazy here, but we're talking about Taichara, and such things don't apply to her. :D Some creatures just scream to be made over (the mummy, for instance) while some are missing all together. Keep it flavorful and remember that this is D&D, so we don't need giant stat-blocks or great whopping lists of powers.

I'd rather not see amazing re-imaginings of the traditional monsters. The scarab-swarm lamia of 4e, for instance, does nothing for me. I'm quite happy with the traditional monsters as we see them in folklore.

Sample Adventures
Please include at least one which highlights how adventures in this setting can be different. I'm just as capable as the next guy of replacing the King's daughter with the Pharoah's daughter. Give me something that really highlights, for me and my players, the possibilities of the setting. Give me something that only this setting and no other can deliver.

And heck, if you want to give me a book of adventure locations that, over its pages, reveals a setting to me, that'd be great. It doesn't necessarily have to be a tightly-linked adventure path, but maybe five “locations” that include an introductory adventure, some tomb-like areas to plunder, a city or town that can supply both a base-of-operations as well as adventures in its own right, the headquarters of a powerful antagonist, and maybe a wilderness area suitable for exploring and building a stronghold on.

Player Handouts
Finally, steal a page from Monte Cook and do a player's PDF. This should help explain the setting, lay out the basics of the culture and any rules changes the players will need to know to make a character in it. If you're going to spend money on art, it should show up here. Art is a great way to make a setting come alive, and to communicate the style, themes, and feel quickly. If at all possible, it should help the DM sell the setting to the players.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thoughts on Game Design: 7th Sea

As I mentioned earlier, I've gotten involved in a 7th Sea game. So far, due to things like finals and the general vicissitudes of life, we've only just built our characters. Still, that's given me some insights into how the game's mechanics work, and there's some interesting stuff to see there.

First, 7th Sea is very modern in its design. It's a point-buy, skill-based system which uses a lot of dice-tricks in its mechanics. It only uses 10-sided dice. The basic mechanic is fairly simple: the GM gives you a target number, you roll your 10-siders and try to come up with a sum that's equal-to or higher than the target number. Simple enough, but 7th Sea throws in an interesting quirk: some of the 10-siders you rolled you get to keep, and some you don't count.

When you try to do something, the number of dice you roll is based on a Trait (just like the stats in D&D, only there are five of them) and a Knack (which is basically an ability or bit of knowledge your character has). For instance, if you're trying to parry an attack, you add your Wit score to your Parry Knack, and that would tell you how many dice you roll.

However, when you're counting up those dice, you only count a number of dice equal to your Trait, in this case your Wit score. So, for instance, if your Wit is 3 and your Parry is 1, you roll four dice, but only count the score on three of them. Since you're trying to get a high score, obviously, you count the highest three. So if you rolled a 7, 4, 3, and 2, you'd drop the 2 and your score would be 7+4+3=14.

So that's the basic mechanic: roll as many 10-sided dice as your Trait + your Knack, but only keep a number of dice equal to your trait. Obviously, this makes your Traits very important.

(When explaining how many dice to roll, 7th Sea uses the following nomenclature: xky, where x = the full number of dice you roll and y = the number of dice you keep. So in the above example, it would be described as 4k3, and you'd describe the roll as “four-keep-three.” So when the game says the damage your musket does is 5k3, that means you roll five 10-siders and add up the highest three to see how much damage your shot did.)

Here's another interesting bit: like in most modern games, the folks in 7th Sea worked very hard to make certain that all the Traits are useful. In combat, for instance, you use Finesse when trying to hit your opponent and Brawn when calculating how badly you hurt them. When you're on defense, you use Wit to avoid the attack, and if they do hit you, Resolve to limit the damage from the attack. That means the skilled warrior is going to need good scores all across the board in all four of those stats. Since the average target number is 15, you want 3s in all your important Traits. And 3 is the max starting score characters can have.

As you might guess, most characters are only going to have a few 3s and a lot of 2s. Which means you need more dice. Luckily, 7th Sea dice “explode,” meaning if you roll a 10, you count that as a ten, then roll again and add the next number to that 10. If that roll again is a 10, you add it and roll again. So if you roll a 10 on a die, then roll a second 10 on it, and then roll a 7, the total score of that one die is 27.

However, you can't always count on rolling a 10. If you fail to meet the target number, you can choose to roll extra bonus dice called Drama Dice. The really cool thing about Drama Dice is they count as kept dice. Here's the other cool thing: while you only start with as many Drama Dice as your lowest Trait, you can earn more by being dramatic or cool or doing something very much in the spirit and theme of the game.

Obviously, starting characters are going to need those Drama Dice to survive and overcome, especially in combat situations. Good players are going to be looking for every opportunity they can find to earn some Drama Dice.

This puts a heavy burden on the GM, however. The GM can make or break a game based on how they hand out Drama Dice. Too few, and the players will get eaten alive. But the Drama Dice are the GM's best way to reward excellent play that fits into the themes and style of the game, so it best for the GM not to give them out too often and certainly not for actions she doesn't want to see repeatedly frequently in the game. By rewarding Drama Dice, the GM has a powerful influence on the tone and shape of the game.

Art by Howard Pyle.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Review of Captain Blood

I've recently gotten involved in a 7th Sea campaign, and I've been poking around for proper inspiriation. "Captain Blood" released in 1935, is a classic of the pirate movie genre. Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and Olivia de Havilland in all their black-and-white glory with a soundtrack provided by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Unlike movies in the current uptight and pretentious age we live in, a fun flick like "Captain Blood" could be, and was, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

The story is based on a romantic action novel in the style of Dumas. Our hero, Peter Blood, a man in the prime of his life whose done a bit of everything, has finally settled down to practice medicine in the sleepy English countryside. Unfortunately, that countryside boils over into open rebellion against James II, the last hurrah for Catholicism in England. Dr. Blood is caught doing what he sees as his christian duty for one of the wounded rebels. Narrowly escaping the hangman's noose, the king's justice ships him and other rebels to Port Royal to work as slaves in the sugar plantations. He and the other rebels escape, capture a ship, and set to wreaking havoc on English shipping throughout the Caribbean.

"Captain Blood" is the sort of movie that filled my lazy summer afternoons: a pre-70's flick with larger-than-life heroes, exotic locales, a dash of romance, and a lot of swashbuckling action. It lures young men in with the promise of action and adventure, and then proceeds to give them a sermon on proper manly behavior in the person of the nearly flawless hero. That sort of thing can be cloying after a while, but Blood's thirst for vengeance and his openly thieving ways keep it from getting too thick. The action is very much of its time, with the clash of epees and the back-and-forth swish-swish-clatter-swish of old-style movie swordplay.

The pirates don't show up until nearly halfway through the movie, but they arrive with a vengeance, storming into Port Royal in-mass, overwhelming the garrison and demanding two-hundred thousand pieces-of-eight from the governor. Flynn gets to square off against Rathbone's beastly French pirate in a duel on a beach over Ms. de Havilland's character, of course, and stirring speeches are made about the value of freedom. Dr.-turned-slave-turned-Captain Blood and Ms. Bishop spar and scratch at each other throughout the film, only finally confessing their love in the final moments, to nobody's surprise.

All in all, a fun little flick if you can look past the 1930's era special effects, costuming, and plotting. It does what it does very, very well, but what it does isn't quite what you and I today might ask for in a pirate movie. If you're in the mood for a light little bit of playful fun, with excellent acting, good music, and stirring speeches, you could do far worse than the movie that launched Errol Flynn's career as a leading man.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Phasors! They Burns Us!

This... looks less than promising.

This isn't the whole game; they promise you'll have away missions where you lead a team of up to five NPCs, plus you can join together with friends on joint missions. Still, the emphasis seems to heavily be weighted towards combat and shooting things. When all you have is a hammer...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

For Zak S.

Mr. S asked a handful of questions over at his blog. I wrote up a response but blogger or my computer won't let me paste the answers into the "Comment" field, so they're going up here. (Computers sometimes make trolls very CRANKY!!! @|{ )

Chad: This would fly like a lead brick in my campaigns, but that's because my games are very thematic and verisimilitude is my highest good. But I've been in games where that would be cool and add to the wacky fun.

AC: Typically, what it means is that low-level PCs are hard to hit, but have glass jaws. It means they can take some risks, but once they start taking damage it's time to panic. I rather like that. It works well for my games.

Spells: Er, never have had this problem. Not sure what to tell you. The tables on how many spells a PC can cast in a given day seem pretty clear to me: a single first level spell when at level 1, two first level spells at class level 2, etc. There are bonus spells for clerics in older versions of AD&D.

If you're using 3rd edition, I think even magic-users, er, I mean wizards, get bonus spells they can cast for high intelligence.

As for how many spells you can know, for magic-users, that is based on intelligence, and always seemed fairly clear-cut to me, but I usually ignored it. If the PC found it, and rolled well enough to add it to their book, I let them have it.

Which version are you playing now? Maybe we can help you puzzle it out.

Hexcrawl: Yeah, I usually have a few notes about what's in each hex, though most hexes are empty other than their terrain. If a wandering monster roll turns up something interesting, I'll add it to my notes. But for the most part, I have maybe only one hex worthy of notes for every ten or twelve, I think. I make it fairly easy for the PCs to know which hexes are points of interest, and rather difficult to find out details about what, exactly is in those hexes. Rumors and local knowledge tend to be full of half-truths and misleading gossip. True info is available, but costs. Sometimes coin is enough, sometimes it requires a small quest to earn what you want to know.

Anachro-anarcho-anachrids: Hmmm... noted, and thanks. ;)

Vampires/Medusa: I think you did just fine. I routinely throw monsters at my players that they have no hope of defeating... in a fair fight. So my players don't fight fair. Figuring out how to defeat a foe is a lot more fun, to my way of thinking, than going toe-to-toe in a flurry of dice-tossing dueling spreadsheets. ;p

Monty Haul becomes an issue when the players can simply banish, disspel, eviscerate, decapitate, or otherwise discombobulate whatever stands in their way with little effort on their part. When the players can stop thinking and can expect to win just by tossing dice and modifiers at a problem, you're in Monty Haul territory.

Fear of Death: Yes! Yes-yes-yes-YES! Fear of death focuses the players, makes them be clever and sneaky, and just improves the game all around. Though I honestly think that death is kinda boring, especially when you consider all the other wonderful things you can do to the PCs, like curse them in imaginative ways, saddle them with quests, smear their reputations, transform them into cute, fluffy animals, etc...

Stick: Mostly, yes. Part of the problem is that some GMs will simply not let their players be awesome. They'll shoot down any good idea, ruin any plan, and rain on any moment of glory the players try to create. There's a fine line between challenging the players and being a dick.

That said, just about every plan has some flaw in it, and no plan survives contact with the enemy. Adjusting on the fly, overcoming unexpected obstacles, and sometimes narrowly escaping are lots of fun for the players and prevent combats from turning anti-climactic.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Masques & Machinations: Building a Neo-classical RPG About Social Interactions

On Twitter, Oddysey asks:

D&D is a game about exploration with no mechanics for exploration, just success (XP, treasure) or failure (traps, combat, hireling loyalty).

Taken from that perspective, what mechanics would you want in a game about social interaction?

It's an intriguing question and feeds directly into some of my personal interests. I also don't currently have the time and discipline to compose a Twitter-appropriate answer. So y'all get a blog post.

I'm going to talk about two sorts of mechanics here: randomized and inventory mechanics. D&D uses both, as do most of the games that came after. Randomized mechanics are the ones most folks think of when they discuss mechanics specifically, as opposed to rules. They're good when you want to introduce risk and uncertainty. Success usually yields a small reward (in classic D&D it opens up new areas for exploration and grants a few drips of treasure and EXP), but even success drains resources.

These resources are the basis for inventory mechanics. They basically are anything the party keeps track of that can be spent in the course of engaging in the game's primary activity. In classic D&D, we're talking about things like rations, light sources, rope, spells, and potions. Combined with the threat of combat and other randomized mechanics that threaten uncertain levels of resource drain, they serve as the (usually) soft limits on the amount of exploring the PCs can do. The game largely consists of the players judging the amount of risk vs. reward on further exploration based on the amount of resources they have left.

So, in a game of social interaction, we need rewards for successful interactions, and if we use classic D&D as our model, resources that are spent in social interaction and randomized events which could unexpected cause a greater drain on these resources.

First, let's take a look at the rewards. One of the interesting things about the rewards in classic D&D is that they primarily allow for more exploration. Higher levels, more magic, and large piles of coins give the PCs greater resources, which allow them to dare bigger risks. This creates an interesting feedback loop where the players are not only encouraged by success to do more exploring, but also given the wherewithal to do that exploring.

Taking this to our social interaction RPG, we can easily port over money as a reward for social interaction. It might be hard currency, as in D&D, or goods offered by clients who need our PCs to intercede on their behalf. (And these clients could also spur the game as a potential source of “adventures.”) On the other hand, the “currency” might be something more like credit. The more well-known you become, the more likely people are to loan you things, loan you money, or even give you things or do things for you for free, simply so they can get exposure to a larger pool of potential customers and have their work associated with you.

Experience levels also map over quite well. If the culture of the game includes hierarchical levels (and most do), going up a level might correspond to achieving a level of social fame that allows you to elevate yourself to the next hierarchical category: from commoner to noble, from layperson to clergy, from apprentice to master. Cultures with varied layers of social hierarchy and interaction would lend themselves well to this sort of gaming.

So these are your rewards. But how do you earn them? By engaging in social activities and interactions. Some of these may require very little risk for the PCs, but the greatest rewards should go to those who dare the most or find clever ways to minimize their risks, just as in classic D&D. What sort of activities are we talking about? I imagine they might be things like putting on events and spectacles (parties, circuses, the military defeat of a hated or threatening enemy, the publication of memoirs), attempts to forge personal alliances (marriages, blood-brotherhood, partnerships, friendships, romances, treaties, commerce), and overcoming social rivals or triumphing in social contests (court battles, legislation, duels, arguing policy points before a voting assembly or a monarch).

And these offer other suggestions for more personal, but probably more potent rewards: reputation, trust, and respect. Risking these, along with personal fortune, social standing and perhaps even life and limb (“...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”), the players would engage in acts designed to increase their social standing and collective influence. There may be some risk involved (Are the barbarians crushed before they breach the gates? Is the gala rained out? Does the Duchess attend our party or go to the opera instead?) and dice may be rolled. But all of these only set the stage for what such a game would be about: taking on a persona and interacting with each other and the NPCs. Just as classic D&D was about exploring but had no rules about exploring, so this social game would leave the actual interactions up to the players of the game. How the players approached the NPCs, engaged with them, and created the web of relationships the game is about should be left to them and their GM, not the whim of dice.

This, honestly, is what I think should be at the core of a game based on properties like Babylon 5. As for Oddysey's game, I suspect she wants a bit more swashbuckling and derring-do than I've implied above, and a bit less high society. But this sort of game is a ton of fun to think about.

Art by Raffaele Giannetti, José Benlliure y Gil, and Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Give Them What They Want...

Over at, Old Geezer asks:

One of the things computer games have going for them is QUICK rewards. In an interview about Diablo, one of the designers said they swiped the reinforcement schedule from Las Vegas slot machines; small, frequent, irregular reinforcements...

How do we translate this into table top gaming? How can we incorporate small, frequent, irregular reinforcement -- which Skinner clearly demonstrated is the strongest kind.

The discussion generated deals almost exclusively with mechanical tricks to give table-top play the “ding” of MMOGs. I think this mistakes the symptom for the disease.

Yes, you need to give your players little shots of happiness on a regular basis. That's the core of all games, whether we're talking about WoW or Monopoly or bingo or poker. Different games deliver this jolt of happy-happy endorphins in different ways. For WoW and slot machines, it's the randomly delivered reward for simple, repetitive action. In chess and poker, however, it's the head-to-head cerebral duel between players. WoW kinda combines the two where it incorporates player-vs.-player play, but doesn't do it nearly as well as the card game Munchkin.

RPGs are different from these other games in that they are infinitely flexible. Yes, I used the word “infinitely” and I meant it. As a GM (or a player, though that sometimes takes a bit more cleverness) you can reproduce the quick rewards by giving your players what they want.

No, I'm not talking about Monty Haul campaigns full of +5 dancing vorpal swords and characters with stats in the 20s (or whatever is amazing for your game de jour). I'm not talking about numbers at all.

If it's got a number or rule attached to it, it's completely useless for what I'm talking about. Numbers are only short term, one-time goodies. Sure, they're fun to get, but less fun to have, and you can only push them so far before you start to bump into the limits of your game's mechanics. This is why Old Geezer's thread is full of notions for mini-bonuses and short-term power-ups. Offering longer-term bonuses and such throws the mechanics out of whack and accelerates the power creep that is central to the reward mechanics of most games.

Those little mini-rewards, however, are a lot of book-keeping headaches. Honestly, do you track all the numbers you want to right now? Do you really want to shepherd more? And doesn't this just play to the strengths of computerized entertainment, while ignoring the strengths of pen-and-paper play?

Your players don't want mini-power-ups. They don't want to keep track of more numbers. They don't want more paperwork.

They want to be heroes. And being a hero has nothing to do with numbers.

Ok, I'm guessing here. Maybe they don't really want to be heroes. Maybe they want to be villains. Or they want to be sparkly vampires engaged in blushing teen romance. Or they want heart-tugging drama. Or they want to do things they'll never be able to do in their real lives. Or they want to misbehave. Or they want to fight the good fight. Or they want to evade the fiendish traps while trading verbal jabs with each other.

I can't tell you what your players want. Sometimes they can't (or won't) tell you themselves. You can tease it out, sometimes, through play. What's going on when they become most animated? What do they ask questions about, especially between sessions? When do they tune out? What does their body-language tell you?

Once you know, you can give it to them. If they seem to really enjoying chatting and deal-making with powerful beings, include more monsters that outclass them, but who are willing to deal for the right offer. If they really enjoy outfoxing fiendish traps or turning those traps against their foes, get a few issues of Green Devil Face and sprinkle the contents liberally through your dungeons. If they thrive on Red Harvest/Yojimbo/For a Fistful of Dollars -style cross and double-cross, give them warring factions to play off against each other. If they want romance, toss a handful of potential partners their way and see which ones stick. If they relish overcoming impossible odds, give them adversity. If they're really about exploring, give them free rein to wander where they will, but tease them with places they can't reach, knowledge that is forbidden, and secrets that are dangerous.

This is where games that follow modern design styles paint themselves into corners. When there's a rule for everything, everything is reduced to a roll of the dice. In spite of what some Old Schoolers will tell you, rolling dice isn't fun. It's boring.

Games are about making choices, not rolling dice. It's not the dice that separate pen-and-paper RPGs from computer games, it's the infinite latitude in the choices you can make. It's the ability of a real, live person to riff on your choices, and for the interactions of all involved to make the game something more intriguing than stat modifiers and dice mechanics. RPGs are not, after all, overly-complex, baroque versions of craps.

So when everything has a rule associated with it, you move away from the fun and towards rolling dice. Your elven sorcerer's knowledge of ancient cultures becomes a +6 bonus instead of knowing that winged serpents were associated with planar travel. Your rogue's charm and etiquette are reduced to bonus dice in a pool, rather than scouring the wine-cellar for just the right vintage and learning what her favorite books are.

These details make the game come alive, organically generate new adventures, and draw the players in. They make worlds feel real, they make NPCs seem three-dimensional and multi-faceted, and they make pen-and-paper RPGs something that computer games may never be able to touch.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

"The Gods Have a Plan for You"

Words that would certainly strike fear into the hearts of most of my players over the years. Luckily for them, I'm just quoting this movie trailer:

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in HD

Trailer Park | MySpace Video

I'm not getting as much of a fun vibe off this as I got from the "Pirates" movies or "The Scorpion King". Still, it'll be great fun for the visuals and, I suspect, another Hans "ATTACK!" Zimmer soundtrack, even if the rest of the movie is only so-so.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Daisy Chains of Death and Destruction

I regularly read Roleplaying Tips Weekly, and while it's not chock full of gold every week, there's usually one or two bright nuggets in most issues. This in spite of the fact that the styles of play assumed by the authors and contributors tend to be a bit removed from my own.

This week, there was a question to the readership that caught my eye:

Dear Johnn,

Just wondering if you have any tips on large-scale battles
where the PCs can influence the outcome. My entire campaign
has been to get to the point where my players can be part of
a battle that they could possibly do different things where
the outcome is not pre-scripted. It's theirs to win or lose.

I GM a Star Wars Saga game, so it's likely to contain big
starships and starfighters, as well as ground forces with
blasters and Jedi. What's the best way I can manage this
without going insane? Splitting the party is bad enough.

- Melissa

I'm answering this question in my blog, instead of emailing it in, because this poor corner of the 'net has been languishing and needs some love.

Actually, while that's true, I also think the answer I have isn't one Melissa or her group would enjoy. It will probably feel like cheating. But it's perfect for folks who play in a style more similar to mine.

First, don't even think about fighting the battle with dice. That way does, indeed, lie madness, or at least the risk of a few failed SAN checks. Don't think of the battle as a giant combat. Think of it, instead, as a puzzle. A nasty puzzle with a timer that kills more people the longer the PCs take to solve it.

Duking it Out

The Battle of Endor at the end of “Return of the Jedi” is probably the best example from all six movies. It includes both ground and space forces, as well as a clash between jedi, all happening simultaneously, and interacting in interesting ways.

On the planet, Han, Leia, Chewbacca and company need to knock out the shield generator. They are not there to kill stormtroopers, to blow up war machines, or assassinate the commander of the imperial ground troops.

They have one mission, and that is to take out the shield generator so the rebel fleet can destroy Death Star 2.0.

What ends up happening is a disaster of epic proportions. They stumble right into the trap that's laid for them, without any indication they're even aware of it. Luckily, because they befriended the Ewoks, they get a second chance.

Here's where things get interesting for us as gamers. Yes, they're in the middle of a battle. Yes, people are shooting all around them, and yes, people are getting shot and killed, equipment is getting destroyed, and all of that. But the goal remains taking out the shield generator. The combat is a complication to the goal, not the primary focus of our heroes. The troops they have with them are basically told, “Hey, hold these guys off long enough for us to get inside this bunker.” Bodycount is hardly a consideration; the only thing that matters is getting into the bunker before the rebel fleet gets destroyed.

No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy

Because of the utter lack of success on the parts of Han, Leia, and Chewie, Ackbar and Lando have to improvise a new plan. Their original strategy was to smash through any defending fleet, get to the Death Star 2.0 as quickly as possible, destroy it, and then get the hell out. Because the deflector shield is still up, they have to quickly change tactics. The new plan: stay alive long enough for the folks on Endor to destroy the shield generator.

Again, as a GM, there's no need for much dice rolling here. The battle is huge and you have exact specifics on every piece of hardware in the sky. You know how many rebel ships the imperial fleet can destroy in a round, and vice versa. The trick is to find ways to minimize the damage done to the rebel fleet at all costs. “Accelerate to attack speed,” says the general. “Draw their fire away from the cruisers.” At this level of abstraction, it's more like chess then traditional RPG combat. The pieces (squadrons, attack groups, capital ships) maneuver to support one another, deny movement to the enemy, or move to threaten enemy resources. (Lando's solution to the “fully armed and operational battle station” is, I think, an especially gamist one; the Death Star 2.0 will destroy one rebel capital ship a round, but the star destroyers take four rounds to destroy a ship. Therefore, fight the star destroyers where the Death Star can't safely attack.)

Dice Rolls and Lateral Thinking

How long the fleet must endure the punishment of the trap is largely up to the folks on the ground. R2-D2 and Han both horribly botch their “pick locks” rolls. The most important fight on the ground involves Chewie and some Ewoks taking over an AT-ST. (Notice that the poor guys piloting the thing can hardly fight back. The fight is horribly one-sided, with the imperial drivers trapped without weapons in an enclosed space with flesh-eating, midget hunter-gatherers who are brutally adept at butchering far tougher game with their stone-age weapons). Since the bulk of the imperial troops have been led off into the forest, Han is able to use subterfuge to get into the bunker and destroy the shield generator. This finally allows the rebel fleet to execute their original plan of attack.

Daisy Chains of Death and Destruction

The key to making this work is the cascade of consequences in each part of the battle. The effectiveness of Han and Leia and Chewie on Endor has immediate consequences for the fleet action (which affects Luke's confrontation with Vader and the Emperor). This means that, even though the party might be split up all over the place, the players still have a vital interest in what the others are doing. It also gives the GM clues on when to cut between groups.

Han's Player: Oh, crap! It's a trap.

GM: And the shield generator is still up when the fleet arrives. Lando, when the fleet drops out of hyperspace, you're ambushed from behind by a bunch of enemy fighters, and you're not getting any reading on those shields.

Lando's Player: Ok, we'll use our fighters to screen our capital ships. We get right into their teeth and give them something more important to worry about than destroying our big ships.

(Maybe some dice rolls to take out enemy leaders or some such here, but only things that will have a direct impact on the tactical situation as a whole.)

GM: Ok, the TIE fighters are stuck in swirling furballs with the rebel fighters. Meanwhile, back on the moon, as you're marched out of the bunker by the stormtroopers, the Ewoks attack!

Han's Player: Ok, I try to get back into the bunker. We'll have R2 pick the lock.

(He rolls some dice.)

Han's Player: Crap! My dice are cursed. (He scowls at Chewie's player.) Did you touch my dice while I was ordering the pizza?

Chewie's Player: Hey, don't look at me. Uh, I try to find the leaders of the Ewoks and see if we can't get them to draw the stormtroopers away from the bunker. That should give you more time and breathing space to find another way in.

GM: Ok, while the Ewoks battle the stormtroopers, in orbit over the planet, Lando, you can see the imperial capital ships are not driving home the attack, but spreading out to keep you from escaping. Why becomes abundantly clear when the Death Star 2.0 fires it's giant, planet-killing gun to destroy your cruiser Escargot.

All Players: CRAP!

As one group finishes an action that will have an effect (or lack of an effect) on the chances the other, you switch. When one group says, “Ok, change of plans...” or needs a minute to react to a change in the situation, you switch to the other group.

Note that this is why the combined space-and-ground battle in “Phantom Menace” doesn't work as well as the Battle at Endor. In “Phantom Menace,” what happens on the ground has very little bearing on the success of the overall mission. The only thing that really matters is destroying the ship that controls the 'droids. Once that's done, the battle is over. And there's nothing the ground forces can do to make that easier or harder for the ships in the fleet action. If you're playing a battle like that, try to avoid having any PCs involved in the unimportant ground battle. If players have to be there, try to make it interesting by giving them a chance to face a hated nemesis or achieve some ancillary goal that's important to the group as a whole. Otherwise, the folks in the fleet battle are going to tune out and get bored when you cut back to ground battle.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Nerds: the New Wanted Demographic

Granted, this ad was linked to from Libertarian Nerd Central, and granted also that they'd already put a foot down this path by hiring Mr. Fillion. But how many nerd-references can you cram into a single preview spot?

Buffy, Firefly (with a kinda-sorta sideling reference to "Millenium" and "Space: Above and Beyond"?), Underworld... Am I missing anything? Is Elizabeth Dryden a name I should know?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Laser Weapon Kills Truck

Fascinating, but less-than-thrilling, video and analysis here.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Sticking My Nose In...

Ok, I'm posting this here because I couldn't get Blogger to allow me to post a comment over there.

“Over there,” in this case, is David's great blog “Tower of the Archmage.” And he's having some trouble with getting a solo game started with his wife. As he puts it:

We both want to have fun, but our ideas of fun are light years apart... I was looking for a good naturally developed dungeon ecosystem, and maybe even a back story for the megadungeon. Virginia's priorities leaned more toward having a fun excuse to draw things like worms in sweaters, flying hamsters, and dwarven ghosts!

And that's a tough divide to bridge. You're thinking Tolkein's Middle Earth, and she's thinking Asprin's Myth Adventures.

Now, normally, I'm not a huge fan of Forge-style gaming. They've got very different goals than I do when we sit down and start rolling dice. But in this case, I think you need to take a page out of their book and work out what sort of game you want in advance. You might be able to wed the drama of High Fantasy with her fields of hungry venus flytraps and flying hamster aviaries. But it you do, it's going to take work from both of you.

As much as you can, outline what you want from the game ahead of time. Dungeon delving? Romance? Slapstick comedy? Funny accents? Ancient terrors that will rise when the stars are right? Make a list and organize in a vague way how you want these included in the game, and to what degree.

Prepare to compromise, and to stand fast where it's necessary. And then honestly adhere to this social contract. Don't try to cheat by sneaking things in around the edges. Don't suddenly spring the thing you agreed wouldn't be in the game on her about midway through the dungeon.

Then, tear the roof off D&D (or whatever game you're playing). Demolish all the boundaries you've created in your minds about what the game “must” be about. If managing a flying hamster aviary and catching rare and exotic hamsters to add to your collection is fun for you, wallow in it. If y'all are enjoying the awkward and forbidden romance between the daughter of a venus flytrap farmer and an elven rogue who always lives on the edge of oblivion, wallow in it. Obviously, you both love the fantastical, so there's some strong overlap there. Find those points of interests in the movies and shows and books you both enjoy and mine them for ideas.

Finally, allow me to scoot even further out on this limb and suggest you try reading Digger. It may give you something of a handle on how you can merge your seemingly unmergeable interests.

Of Caddies and Spartans

Fascinating interview with the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire here. Discussions of the warrior ethos, Bronze Age Greeks, the tribes of Afghanistan, and porn. What more could you ask for?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Who's Your Deity?

Over at RPG Blog II, Zachary Houghton is pondering clerics. In this case, it's less the age-old cognitive dissonance we've all experienced, where the pseudo-christian cleric mashes up against the pseudo-pagan, polytheistic worlds we game in. Instead, the cleric seems not medieval Catholic enough for Mr. Houghton, which is an interesting perspective on the problem.

It seems to me that it's just the other side of the same coin, however. Pretty much all the other character classes come ready to play right out of the box. The thief needs stuff to steal, the fighter needs things to kill and weapons and armor to do it with, and the magic-user needs spells. All of these can be found in the box.

But the cleric needs a god, and those don't always come in the box. Even when they do, it's rarely more than a list of powers or approved spells and equipment. It isn't enough. It's not what we expect when we're talking about religion.

Part of that is the modern perspective. We assume religion is a personal thing, a one-on-one relationship between worshiper and deity. This was not always the case. In the city-states of the Bronze Age, religion was a civic matter, and worship was a duty you owed your community, just like paying taxes and jury duty. It certainly wasn't a matter of personal choice, and thinking that you could have personal relationship with a god, like Odysseus or Perseus, was the height of hubris. Besides, most folks who ended up in personal relationships with the gods usually came to regret it.

The assumption in D&D tends to be more of the modern, personal relationship model that most of us who grew up in the West are familiar with. The cleric loses access to spells and powers if that individual deviates from the deity's dictates and interests, not if the god's favorite city gets sacked or the priests at the holiest of temples stop making sacrifices. The cleric is often expected to proselytize and bring more worshipers to their deity. Zeus didn't need folks wandering in barbarian lands spreading his word, and he didn't get his nose bent out of shape if you worshiped other gods, just so long as you kept the sacrifices and adulation coming. The Romans even made sacrifices to “the Unknown God” just to be sure they didn't offend some deity they'd never heard of due to ignorance.

But if you're expected to adhere to a set of divine strictures and spread the word of your god's greatness, you kinda need to know what those strictures are and what makes your god so great. The vague guidelines provided by the rules typically result in goody-two-shoes characters who make vague pronouncements on those rare occasions when they can address a crowd and must be conveniently facing the other way when the party decides they have to do something that the cleric's god disapproves of. (Or, even more bizarrely, tree-hugging, vegan druids who will starve the wolf's cubs by saving cute little lambs.)

It's traditionally been the campaign settings that have filled in the gaps, with varying levels of success (Planescape has probably provided the most fun with this idea). Frankly, if I had the power to remake D&D, I'd probably dump the cleric class entirely, give anyone and everyone the opportunity to earn powers from the various deities based on their level of service to said divinity, and moving healing powers to rangers, elves, and sage-type characters.

Art by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and William Shakespeare Burton

Madonna's "Die Another Day"

I got a hankerin' to hear this song yesterday, so I tracked it down on YouTube and found the official video. It starts off appearing to be what you'd expect: the usual intercuts between the singer performing the tune on a minimalist backdrop and scenes from the movie. It then goes into a wierd collision of traditional Madonna, the opening credits montage from the movie (but with Madonna instead of Brosnan being the one tortured), Spy vs. Spy, and kabbalah. Lots of glass gets broken, we've got a battleaxe vs. halberd fight, and my favorite bit is when Madonna steal's Oddjob's hat.

(Kimm, you don't want to watch this. Trust me. Other cat-lovers may also want to give this one a pass.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In Over My Head

And it sure feels nice!

I have a few friends and acquaintances who are serious artists. I mean they do art for living. They don't putz around with it in their spare hours or sneak it in during their lunchbreak. I mean they are full-time, to-the-hilt, paying-the-bills-with-their-creative-skills artists.

Being creative types, they live their lives outside the boundaries that most of us take for granted. They're a quirky bunch, given to deep emotions and a devil-may-care attitude towards things most of us lie awake at night fretting about. Being outsiders, they have something of a kinship with other artists, though like bloodline kinships they can be fraught with animosities and rivalries and out-and-out feuding.

But the one thing they all seem to save their deepest, most venomous hatred for are people who settle into a rut with their art. Sure, going for the low-hanging fruit is understandable; sometimes you just need to pay the bills. But falling into a niche and just stagnating there, never pushing your talent, your assumptions, or your craft is the ultimate blasphemy. I have seen an artist I greatly admire, a man with amazing people skills who always makes you feel special and appreciated and remembered, no matter who you are, erupt into a torrent of blazingly acidic contempt for another artist who was clearly just aping the style of a former star.

Now, I don't consider what I do with my RPGing to be “Art” and I do only dabble in it during my spare time. I'm not a professional, and I don't really see myself pushing the hobby's collective envelope or anything. But it is fun to push my own, and I'm deep into that now.

It's most noticeable in the solo game. It's gone from very traditional dungeon-delving into something dominated by interpersonal relationships and the like. I've dipped my toe into these waters before, and usually with less-then-exemplary results. When I've had games sputter out in the past, it's sometimes been because the game has gone to similar places, but we've never really found our groove there.

This time, things seem to be catching. Time will tell, of course, and as always it's more about what the players want than my own skills, but I'm feeling traction where before the wheels just slipped and spun. There's no strong sense of momentum in the game, but there's still a sense of motion, of texture and depth.

It's hard to describe, honestly. But it's fun. I'm starting the game sessions with a sense of real trepidation. I know what it feels like when a game is beginning to falter and I can feel that nipping at our heels, but it's not caught up to us yet. Are we on the verge of a breakthrough? Will we come through to see vast new expanses of gaming possibilities that have eluded us before now, or that we never even expected were available?

The group game isn't quite treading the same territory, but it's had it's own excitements, primarily in how the group is trying to come together. That, combined with some traditional dungeon delving but with distinctly untraditional themes woven through, has given the game a unique character in my mind. I'm not just going through the motions with this one; the players keep challenging my assumptions and I hope I'm challenging theirs. Again, only time will tell how successful this actually is. I'm having fun, and getting reports back that fun is being had. As always, that's the most important thing.

Monday, September 28, 2009

What's the Buzz?

I've been away from the net a lot this past week, but I haven't entirely forgotten about y'all. Unfortunately, it's meant less posting than I'd intended to do. However, I did manage to write up a review of Labyrinth Lord for

Monday, September 21, 2009

"The Holy Inquisition finds you guilty... of HERESY!"

"The dark night of fascism is always descending on America,” said Tom Wolfe, “but it always seems to land in Europe."

So we keep hearing about how the OSR is all closing ranks and imposing purity tests on folks to make sure they're not engaging in “deviant behavior.” Only I have yet to see it happen. Maybe I'm not reading the “right” forums (I'm actually pretty much out of the forums thing, but for a some brief passes through, these days). Maybe I'm not reading the right blogs. But I just don't see it.

Jameses Maliszewski and Raggi seem to be leading the charge into the future, but it sure ain't a strictly regimented one. Mr. Maliszewski keeps swinging back and forth on thieves and gives us four-armed martian PCs while Mr. Raggi is apparently creating unique adventures the likes of which nobody has seen before, and only avoiding controversy of Carcossian proportions because, hey, it's Raggi, and what else would you expect?

I can't find anyone of any significant standing in the OSR telling anyone they're doing it wrong. I see a lot of “this is the way I do it” and “hey, this worked really well at the table last night.” I see a lot of people playing games and building dungeons and starting magazines. Folks are tossing out rules and building new games and making houserules. They're embracing Vancian magic, or rejecting it for something else, or creating their versions of books which were promised by never published, or playing with alternative experience systems, or creating emo-devouring monsters based on pre-raphaelite nightmares, or...

I don't see purity flamewars or inquisitions or blacklists. People keep talking about how the long dark night of fascism is all ready to smother the OSR in its shadowy tentacles, but I couldn't tell you where it's actually landing.

Art by Jean-Paul Laurens.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Two Variations on a Theme

I started today reading this at Grognardia:

Well, MY players loved to roleplay (acting), and so do I, so I played the NPCs to the hilt, and prepared for hours beforehand and afterwards, knowing my players wanted to find out which NPC was related to which other NPC, what scandals had gone on in this village thirty years back, and so on and on and on . . . so I gave it to them. They always wanted to TALK to everyone, and there were nights (six or seven hours of play, with a tea-and-chips-and-chip-dip break in the middle) when no player character even drew a weapon; it was ALL intrigue and roleplaying conversations, confrontations, investigations, trade dickering, and so on.

This doesn't surprise me much. Greenwood had a profound influence on my gaming, especially his "Seven Swords" article.

And over at I Fly by Night, we have this:

This situation is set up by looking at what the NPCs are trying to do and their resources, and with them creating a situation which the PCs must in some way react to. The PCs react to this situation with energy, pushing it out into an action. I see how the NPCs will react to the PCs' action, and apply resources and organization in the way they would, based on their goals, motivations, and personalities. This back and forth act, react, and react to the reaction process can last a good many sessions.

You can sum up a lot of the way I GM with these two articles. A lot of knowing Who and Why, with the What primarily being inspired by the actions of the PCs.

UPDATE: Even Carl "Mutagenic Substances" Nash has been wallowing in this sort of play. He adds this thought:

One thing that has come of all these combat-less sessions is that I have completely abandoned the experience tables in the Mutant Future rulebook and have gone to free form experience awarding. I wouldn't feel right to not award experience for all these sessions of brilliant role playing. The party could easily have been killing things left and right but that would have accomplished very little and I want to reward role playing, not discourage it. I now evaluate what the party accomplished last session and give out a reward that I feel is in keeping with what happened, whether or not any monsters were killed or any treasure was found.

Yeah, I've been facing similar issues myself. Not sure yet how I'm going to jump, but I think I'll dig up an old article by Katherine Kerr on this subject, as I recall it went pretty far towards creating the EXP system I used during my college games, and it was viewed pretty favorably by the players.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Potions in Pitsh

Here are a few more things you can spend your ill-gotten, er, I mean, hard-won loot on while you're in Pitsh.

Extra-healing Potion – 300 gp: There are two doses in this potion that heal 6-12 points of damage each.

Giant's Strength Potion – 600 gp: This potion gives you the strength of a giant for a half-hour.

Healing Potion – 100 gp: There are two doses in this potion that heal 3-6 points of damage each.

Love Potion – variable prices: There are lots of these floating around town. Most are probably just slightly-past-the-freshness-date fruit juice. Reputable alchemists won't touch this one with a ten-foot-pole, and warn customers that the real thing can be shockingly potent with unpredictable results.

Night Vision Potion – 50 gp: This potion gives you the low-light vision of elves for six hours.

Water Breathing – 300 gp: This potion will grant the ability to breath underwater for up to 24 hours. It can be split up among multiple people. For instance, 24 people could drink it and breath underwater for a single hour, or six people could share one potion to breath underwater for 4 hours each.

Art by John William Waterhouse

Friday, September 11, 2009

Magic Item: Wayedge

A few days ago, when I posted a comment over at the “Hamsterish Hoard of Dungeons & Dragons”, the verification word that popped up was “wayedge”. I commented that it sounded like the name of a magic item I'd expect to see on that page, and Taichara agreed. So, today, we're both posting our versions of what Wayedge is. This is mine:

Wayedge appears to be a rather unremarkable, heavy-bladed, large kitchen knife. The blade is made of a dark grey, glossy material which tapers to a sharp point, is not quite a foot in length, with a triangular cross-section and only one sharp edge. The handle is fashioned of bone with odd marks carved into it that are easily mistaken as an attempt to make the grip less slippery, and the parts are joined by fittings of orichalcum.

In truth, the blade is a single piece of magically shaped diamond and the handle is fashioned from the phalanx bone of a grey slaad. The blade can, with enough force, cut through nearly anything short of adamantium. While somewhat clumsy for combat, the blade's cutting ability translates to a non-magical +3 “to hit” bonus (meaning that it doesn't count as magical for harming lycanthropes, non-corporeal foes, etc.).

Wayedge wasn't designed to be a weapon, however. It was fashioned with the ability to slice holes in Planes, allowing passage from one Plane to another. The Plane on the other side of such a cut is randomly determined, but is always a Plane which is adjacent to the one the where the cutter currently is. (If you're using the traditional multi-verse wheel, a person cutting a hole in their Prime Material Plane might open a way to a neighboring Prime Material, the Ethereal , the Astral, one the Elemental Planes, or the Planes of Positive or Negative Energy, as all of those are “adjacent” to and “touch” the Plane of the cutter.)

In order to make this cut in a Plane, the edge must be coated in the blood of a single creature. Then the cutter recites a chant three times while stabbing at the air and pulling downward with the blade. (The chant is actually carved into the handle, in the letters that make up the strange markings carved into the handle.) Whatever Plane the cut opens into, it will have everything necessary for the survival of the creature whose blood is on the edge of the blade. That means, there will be air to breath, the temperature will not be so hot or so cold as to pose a serious danger, and it won't be in the middle of rock or the bottom of the ocean, if such things would be an immediate threat to the creature whose blood is used in the ritual. The blade will not, however, insure a lack of enemies on the other side of the rift.

The cutter can usually make a rift as long as they are tall every round. These cuts heal at a rate of roughly 6 feet per turn.

The blade is assumed to be of sshian manufacture, as the runes carved into the handle are a simplified version of that race's courtly script. Legend puts it in the hands of their most famous assassin, the infamous Washak-lum, who personally saw to the deaths of three empresses and nine sorcerers, as well as murdering the dragon Grangom and severing the hand of a river titan. Washak-lum met his end, according to legend, at the hands of a yakfolk sorcerer inhabiting the body of one of the assassin's favorite hierodules.

The knife falls out of legend for thousands of years but it is shows up in the hands of Tecolotliztac, a sorcerer of great renown among the lizardfolk at the height of their second empire. He is known to have been personally slain by the Necromancer at the Battle of Atlyei. Rumor then says that the Necromancer had the knife on his person during the sack of the pleasure gardens of Amocampa. The blade is never mentioned again, and some wonder if the Necromancer used it to escape the destruction of his armies, taking it with him to some unknown Plane.

UPDATE: Here's Taichara's. It's interesting that our minds seemed to orbit the same idea.

And here's David's version over at "Tower of the Archmage". Anybody else do one?

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: Here's Oddysey's vaugely creepy version.

AND YET ANOTHER: Here's JB's bloody version.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Left or Right?

I think I've touched on this before, but Stuart brings up a good point in the comments to my last post. I'm not going to address that directly, but instead look at something tangential. Specifically, how do you create meaningful choice in the dungeon?

It can be difficult. Players assume certain things between staying on a certain level or going deeper. (Whether or not they should is another matter entirely.) Beyond that, typically the passage east is pretty much identical to the passage west. There's typically little reason to choose one over the other.

How to fix that? Generally, folks will tell you to hit the other senses: are there smells, or hot drafts of air, or sounds one way or the other? More to the point, however, is what you might be trying to communicate by these clues. What, beyond the inhabitants, is there that makes one part of the dungeon different from another?

When I'm sitting down to beat on a dungeon, I try to break the place up into zones. Typically, these zones are based on what the original builders had in mind for the location. The passage to the left has ornamental carvings on the arched doorway, while the passage to the right is narrower and without ornamentation. The left leads to the living quarters of the owners of the place, while the passage on the right was an access hallway for the servants. That sort of thing gives players all sorts of information to play with. To the left, the hallways will be broader, the rooms bigger. That's where the best treasure and bigger monsters are likely to be found still. The narrower hallways and smaller rooms of servants' territory, however, probably go everywhere and might provide ways to get around things and creatures best avoided, or offer tactical possibilities.

Just like your home is divided into zones, so too can you divide your dungeon. Your home probably has a kitchen and dining area, a sleeping area, and a working and living area. You might have nice rooms that you don't use unless you have company coming over, and you might have a workshop that you're in a lot but company doesn't visit much. The critters living in your dungeons have the same needs and interests. Where do they sleep? Where do they work? Where do they get their drinking water and where do they get their food? They also have other issues to keep in mind. How do they protect themselves against the bigger, nastier critters that live deeper down in the dungeon? These sorts of things might map directly on to the intentions of the original builders, or may have been altered by the new inhabitants. What was a bedroom is now a storeroom. The great hall is now a barracks. Regardless, this new habitation is going to leave clues. Kitchens and latrines broadcast odors that sharp-nosed adventurers might sniff out. Smithies will make lots of noise, as will makeshift taverns or barracks or dining halls, kennels, and nurseries. The most "important" rooms will be guarded. Vaults where loot is stored might be guarded with monsters, traps, or both. The locations where slaves are kept will likely be cruder and less well-maintained.

Finally, don't hesitate to give your players opportunities for reconaissance, either via rumors before they enter the dungeon, or from captives or spells once they are inside. The essence of all games is making meaningful choices; the more information the players have, the more fun they can have doing things with the neat dungeon-toy you've given them to play with.

Art by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Simmulationism vs. Immersionism

It's not the great gulfs of distance between people that cause the real problems. It's the tiny differences that really get people riled up. D&D vs. Dogs in the Vineyard doesn't cause nearly the sort of angst and anger as D&D 3.5e vs. 4e.

Which explains why sometimes "Tao of D&D" rubs me the wrong way. He's a simulationist. He's all about building as complete and real a world as he can, and then letting the players run wild through it.

I'm an immersionist. What the heck is the difference? Tao works very hard to have all his ducks in a row from day one. He uses the real world as his template to make the work easier, investigates and designs appropriate weather patterns and economic systems and biologically sound ecosystems.

I, on the other hand, create the illusion via smoke and mirrors. To use a literary allusion, Tao is to alternative history authors like Harry Turtledove and Bruce Sterling, who work very hard to dig into the depths of history to make sure their alternative versions hold together, as I am to Robert Howard and Lovecraft, who create the illusion of complete worlds with a few words and a wave of their hand.

Verisimilitude is vital to both styles of play. Tao achieves it by creating amazing, intricate clockwork worlds where everything hangs together perfectly. I achieve it by allusion and suggestion, and trusting my players will pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, pulling on levers and rattling sheets of metal to create the sound of thunder.

How do you create the illusion? One or two well-placed and unexpected details will usually do the trick. What do I mean by unexpected? Here's a sentence from Lovecraft's “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” that illustrates it perfectly: “In the morning Carter joined a caravan of merchants bound for Dylath-Leen with the spun wool of Ulthar and the cabbages of Ulthar's busy farms. “

Where's the magic? Cabbages. In the middle of this tale of diabolical alien gods, ghouls, and darkly twisted woods, the people of Ulthar grow cabbages. These cabbages have nothing to do with Carter's quest, or with much of anything for that matter. They're a bit of seemingly random local color.

The truth is, the players expect a tavern or inn, and they expect a general store where they can buy more 50' lengths of rope. Even jazzing these up won't really stick in their minds. But they'll remember the way everyone in town has stained their teeth and tongue black chewing on licorice root. The odd way everyone ends any sentence including a personal pronoun by spitting in the dust, or how all magic-users are made to wear purple hats will stick in their minds. These sorts of things don't have to make sense (and, in fact, it helps if they don't sometimes) but they should be small and fairly inconsequential.

The Dream Quest is a great resource for this sort of thing, being a travelogue in miniature, where dozens of tiny places, people, and races are described briefly and then passed over. It's a surreal story, very much a thing of feverdream. It's the tiny details, like Ulthar's cabbages, the yellow silken mask of “that High-Priest Not To Be Described”, the tickling night-gaunts, and the “jasper terraces of Kiran which slope down to the river's edge and bear that temple of loveliness wherein the King of Ilek-Vad comes from his far realm on the twilight sea once a year in a golden palanquin to pray to the god of Oukianos, who sang to him in youth when he dwelt in a cottage by its banks.“

UPDATE: Alexis has posted on his blog with more detail on his technique. Be sure to check it out.

Art credits: James Campbell and David the Younger Teniers

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Yes They Could!

For some people, learning the facts sucks all the joy and excitement out of life. I don't understand those folks at all.

I used to think that people from ye olden days couldn't do much that was as cool as the stuff we did now-a-days. I would limit the size and scope of things in my medieval fantasy campaigns to keep them "realistic." They hardly had nails, so how could they do anything that impressive?

That, of course, ignores the cathedrals. But it's even worse than that. If you visit The Cloisters, you can see prayer beads the size of a jawbreaker with massive crowd scenes carved into them, with every individual figure distinct and unique. It's the sort of work nobody can do today. Those skills have been lost.

When you really dig into things, you realize just how much you can achieve with ingenuity and a professional attitude. Learning a bit of cabinetmaking, for instance, I discovered that nails are a cheap and lousy short-cut; the best furniture is made with dovetails and biscuit joining. (And heck, you'll find folks who say even biscuit-joining is a cheap short-cut.)

So this, I suppose, shouldn't come as any surprise:

But it's still damned cool.