Sunday, May 31, 2009

Learning to Play

I suppose I shouldn't be, but I'm kinda surprised at how the Old School Renaissance is reaching folks outside the hobby. I don't mean just folks who played years ago and are rediscovering RPGs. I mean folks who have never played before. But even the lapsed players are a pleasant surprise. Mr. Raggi and Oddysey have both discussed bringing brand new gamers into the hobby, and the perils and pitfalls that await both the newcomer and those who introduce them to RPGs.

With that in mind, I read this article by John Wick. It's mostly about his disappointment that 4e doesn't strive to revolutionize RPGs. What really struck me, however, was his discussion of how he learned to “write games the way I ran them.”

One of the things I love about the older games is how little editorial direction they come with. So little, in fact, that I had no idea the focus of the mechanics was on exploration more than combat until decades after I'd started playing them. While this really leaves the games wide open for us to tinker with, it can be exceptionally difficult for newcomers to get their brains around just how these things are supposed to work. How many times have we read about the very first games of today's grognards, and how they tried to play D&D like a board game, literally laying out the map of the Caves of Chaos on the table and having their buddies move pieces across it as if it were a Tarantino version of Candyland.

My own gaming history is punctuated by moments of sudden revelation. The first came in '81 when, reading Moldvay's Basic D&D, where he discusses how to “choose a scenario.” This is on page 51 of the book, and reading the whole thing up to that point, it had never occurred to me that the PCs would need a reason for being in the dungeon.

It would be nearly another two years of playing before I'd have my next revelation. In the summer of '83, my brother bought me my first issue of Dragon magazine, #74 with it's excellent article by Ed Greenwood on seven magical swords from his Forgotten Realms campaign. The Realms wasn't an official or professionally published setting yet, so all we knew about it were hints and scraps that showed up in the pages of Dragon. The detailed histories of the swords, how they had passed from hero to hero (or villain), the wars they'd been seen in and the monsters they'd slain, showed me I could take something of that wonderfully rich history hinted at in Lord of the Rings and sprinkle it into my games. The next sudden insight wasn't until the spring of '86 when I finally played with a DM I hadn't taught the game to, which brought with it a real understanding of how subtle changes in style could really transform how the game played. And then the summer of '91 saw the formation of my college group, and the truly evolutionary revelations that came with a far more diverse set of players.

Here's the point: it probably took me six or so years of tooling and playing and arguing and frustration before I got to the point where I'd today call my young self a competent DM. And that's with all the time and insanity and boredom and daydreams of youth fueling my gaming. If I'd started that self-same journey today, I can't say I'd have kept up with it. Today's newcomers to the hobby have it a bit easier than I did, with being able to network with grognards and professionals via the intrawebs. But we can still see some of the same mistakes we made way back when, as new DMs slalom between campaigns that are deathtraps, or Monty Haul, or railroaded story time.

I wrote that article about tactics in old school D&D because there are lots of things that are not immediately obvious to folks reading those rules for the first time that lots of us who've been playing for years take for granted. And I've hardly scratched the surface on issues that probably need to be dragged into the light of day, (like what it means that magic-users roll d4 for hit points and d6 for the damage their spells cause).

Now that we've flooded the 'net with our infectious enthusiasm for these games, I think we need to give these newcomers a hand-up when it comes to playing. We can't show everyone who wants to play how to do it through personal example, especially with such a broad range of styles available. And I think we can teach people how to avoid the common pitfalls without ourselves falling into one-true-wayism.

I think it's true that most of the popularity of D&D during its heyday was due to it being a fad. But with so many returning and finding again the fun they used to have, I think a lot of people left the hobby not because they couldn't enjoy it, but because they never really figured out how. I'd hate to see that happen again.

Photo credits: Metaphox, BotheredByBees.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Feelings! Whoa-whoa-whoa, Feelings...

JoeTheLawyer kicked over the blognard anthill with his response to Grognardia's “More Than a Feeling” post. He's got a lot of interesting points, but I have to respectfully say that I disagree.

It might be nice to imagine a world with no judgments or categories, but we don't live there. More to the point, I don't have the time, treasure, or available players to play every RPG out there. In my quest for these feelings JoeTheLawyer talks about, it's helpful to me to know what sorts of games are most likely to produce them. In a broad sense, for instance, I know that modern-day special forces games don't do it. I can easily mark those games off my list for serious consideration. Sure, a friend or trusted blogger might convince me to give that sort of game a chance, but otherwise, I'm going to focus my time on those games in genres that are more likely to produce the feeling I want.

Old school isn't a genre, of course, but I think it can be usefully described in terms of mechanics and style that can help us judge the value of a game for us before we actually play it. This is the answer to JoeTheLawyer's query, “what purpose would a definition serve?” I know that games similar to BECMI D&D give me that feeling. So I'm going to go out and look for games like that, and supplements that support that style of play.

That style can be defined, and Matthew Finch's “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” is serving as the nucleus around which that definition is slowly coalescing. It's a style based on rules-lite mechanics that are more concerned with giving players and GMs tools to build their own game than they are with elegant or unified mechanics. It's a style strongly geared to exploration-style gaming. It also promotes lateral thinking by shifting more of the challenges to the players rather than the characters.

What's interesting about this definition is how it seems to be drifting away from fitting other games from that early era of RPGs. Games like GURPS, with its extensive lists of skills and rules to cover every situation, are already slipping out of the “old school” definition. Ditto for Rolemaster, which uses charts in ways that are very different from what the old-schoolers are gravitating towards.

Here's another interesting thing: the process is largely out of anyone's hands at this point. The term “old school” is now being applied by lots of folks to describe, in very vague terms, what's happening with things like Swords & Wizardry and Fight On! It's becoming a short hand for the ethos, style, and techniques that make those things what they are. James Maliszewski is trying lead the discussion to shape that definition while we still can. He may already be too late. He's commented any number of times how he doesn't really like the term “old school” and thinks it shackles us too much to the ancillary trappings of the past that don't really have anything to do with how the game is played. It's far too late on that front; I don't think even the risen ghosts of Gygax and Arneson could banish the term “old school”. We're stuck with it now, for better or worse.

While I agree that a more rigorous definition will eventually have to define some things as “not-old-school”, I don't see this as being a nasty, exclusive tragedy. All of these games and mechanics and techniques are just bits that we all pick and choose from, assembling them together to create the experience, the feeling, that we are striving for. Just because 4e is described as being antithetical to the old school doesn't limit in any way our ability to steal things from it we like. In the end, these definitions serve us. They don't create impermeable barriers. They simply allow us to better shift through the endless array of options more intelligently, and help us find and play with like-minded folks who are searching for the same feelings we are.

UPDATE: Related thoughts from Alex Shroeder.

Image credits: Jimmy Joe, Matthew Finch, and ninahale.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Old School Tactics: Counting the Cost

Oddysey, ever our canary in the mineshaft, lost a PC to a giant bat in Godless Paladin's intriguing “Mayan/Aztec/Ghost Conquistador dungeon”. Apparently, GP just wanted to break up the monotony of lots of goblins and other such critters, which is always a good thing. Unfortunately, he had no idea just how nasty an 8 HD critter could be. Not until after it had chewed poor Biffy's face off.

This is not an unusual problem for DMs running “old school” games. In 3rd edition D&D, WotC added the challenge rating system to help codify just how nasty a critter was. I judge the results to be mixed, especially at higher levels, but it was a good attempt.

Older versions of D&D don't even have that. DMs are left to “eyeball” the situation as best they can, and the only way to get a good feel for that sort of thing is experience. Things are even worse at 1st level; when most PCs have 1d6 hit points and weapons typically do 1d6 damage, every successful attack has the potential to turn into a devastating alpha strike.

So what's a new DM to do? Here are a few rules-of-thumb you can use to judge the danger of your encounters in an old school game:

  • Watch the HD: You can generally judge the toughness of a monster by its hit dice. The more hit dice a critter has, the more hit points it's likely to have, and the better chance it will have to succeed on attack rolls. As a general rule-of-thumb, a group of enemies whose total hit dice is equal to the number of total levels in the PCs and their allies is a strong challenge up until the PCs reach 5th level. (At 5th level, all sorts of wacky things happen, primarily because the PCs gain access to 3rd level spells.)

  • Beware the Power of Iteration: A single foe is not as dangerous as a mob. This is due to attack rolls being made on a single d20. Since the probability of any single number coming up is flat, including a 20, rolling more attack dice has a huge effect on combat. This is magnified if you use any sort of “critical hit” rules.

  • Save or DIE: There are lots of save-or-die powers in old school monster lists. Most spiders and snakes with venom force a life-or-death saving throw with every successful attack. However, these are not nearly as dangerous as those that force multiple characters to save. For instance, the tarantella's poison might seem a safer choice since it doesn't cause immediate death, but rather a spastic dance. However, anyone who sees someone doing this dance must then save vs. Spells or they'll start dancing, too. A single successful bite can potentially wipe out the entire party!

So, with all this in mind, what can the DM do to provide a little breathing room for both the dungeon and the players without having to worry constantly about building “killer” adventures? One trick I use are “get out of jail free” options. Things like my shields shall be splintered rule allow PCs to ignore one hit, giving them a bit more surviveability. Notice that there's a price for this, however. Squirming over these sorts of choices is part of the fun of old school gaming. The heroes in my Labyrinth Lord game recently found a potion that will restore all hit points, neutralize nearly any poison, and undo effects like paralyzation and blindness. Unfortunately, it also switches your sex if you drink it.

If you're a player, remember that the same iterative power that works for the monsters can work for you as well. Hirelings and henchmen can go a long way towards evening the odds. Don't underestimate the usefulness of clerics, either. Having a few extra hit points in your back pocket, that can be rushed to any member in the party as needed, is a powerful equalizer.

Finally, remember that there are however many of you, and only one DM. Your combined cleverness can almost always trump any idea the DM has come up with. Yeah, clever planning didn't work for Biffy, but lateral thinking is a potent force multiplier that literally has no limit in the sorts of problems it can overcome.

Photo credits: cheesy42.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Knockspell First Impressions

Matt Finch apparently took exception to the fact that I didn't mention reading Knockspell in my longer post the other day. So he gave me a free PDF copy of #2 to peruse.

Now, first off, let me say that I've never had anything against Knockspell or Swords & Wizardry. I consider myself a Labyrinth Lord guy only because I settled on that game when I was casting about for rules for my current online game, and because Moldvay was my entry to the hobby. I've known about S&W, and Knockspell, but I haven't paid them much attention because I've been busy with my game and new job and there are only so many hours in the day.

But I'll admit that word about Knockspell #2 had me intrigued. I'm looking forward to reading it. So far I've only had a chance to digitally thumb through it. My first impressions?


I was not prepared for what I saw. Understand, I love Fight On! and Green Devil Face. They're both fun and useful to my games. They've both also embraced a fun, playful, home-made feel that just oozes enthusiasm and a spirit of YES-do-try-this-at-home! I love that.

Knockspell ain't like that. Knockspell oozes professional style and production quality. That's not to say it's unfriendly. Not in the least, but it's a highly polished product that's easier to read than some national news magazines (Time, I'm lookin' at you).

I'm going to do something I hope Mr. Finch doesn't mind, but I think you really need to see this. This is a portion of the table of contents from Knockspell #2. That's right, this is a full-color magazine, all the way through. While most of the (jaw-droppingly good) art is old-school black-and-white, color is used to good effect throughout the magazine. The entire product just oozes polish, craft, and love.

Click that pic to blow it up to a readable size. Notice the use of color to block off the editor's note? And the excellent use of fonts to clearly delineate the different pieces: title, author, and page. This is pro-level work, folks.

Another thing that stood out for me is something I miss from the old days of Dragon magazine: ads! Even if I never bought the products or played the games, advertisements in RPG magazines were always neat spurs for new ideas for my games. The ones in Knockspell appear to be primarily for blogs you probably already read, but they're still a neat source for cool ideas, and since the blogs are free, I can check 'em out and make sure I'm not missing anything really good. And the ads for Age of Fable and Road of Knives were as inspiring as the ads for minis back in Dragon of the 1980s.

The art really is amazingly good. I'm not going to step on the artists' toes by posting any of it here. Trust me, get the magazine and see for yourself.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Neogi! I choose you!

Actually, it was one of those silly quiz things, so I didn't really choose.

D&D Home Page - What Monster Are You? - D&D Compendium

Where the Pros Are

Oddysey posted a very interesting piece on the necessity of the industry for the core of the RPG experience: having cool adventures with your friends. She’s right, and I’ve done the experiment; you can play 8+ hours per week for five years and have a great time without buying any additional materials for your game.

This is a horror for those who wish to make a living out of supporting those of us who game.

I’m a big fan of professional efforts in any field. People who are able to make a living out of what they love can spend more time doing it, honing their craft and improving the fruits of their labors. A purely hobbyist industry doesn’t have time to really push the envelope, or create the broadest possible range of products.
That said, it’s easy for a professional industry, especially one that’s on the verge of losing the ability to support full-time professionals, to get caught up in the money. This is an issue right now for RPGs.

We want to have cool adventures with our friends (for varying definitions of “cool” which may include romantic, tragic, scary, erotic, dramatic, etc, and varying definitions of adventure, too). Unfortunately, most of the financial investment of the industry is going towards selling us books. Books we really don’t need if our aim is to have cool adventures. I’m not going to argue that they books actively prevent us from having cool adventures, but anyone who’s enjoyed playing a retro game knows whereof I speak. I have no idea what the Moldvay/Cook boxed sets cost when they first came out, but the fact that I’m still having fun with them more than a quarter-century later can’t be good news for a folks who rely on the sale of books for their paycheck.

And that right there is everything that’s wrong with the “industry” in a nutshell. Their goals are about 90-degrees off of what their customers want. This is why I was so excited about WotC’s online tabletop. If the use of their tabletop became their largest revenue generator, that would have put their goals more in line with ours. They’d want us to have cool adventures because it would mean using their virtual gaming table. Right now, whether or not we play is immaterial to them, so long as we buy the books. (In fact, I think the argument can be made that people who wish they were playing but aren’t might actually buy more books than those who are playing. Reading and collecting and arguing about mechanics online become substitutes for play. People who are playing and having fun doing it might be too distracted to spend time shopping for your books. I know I am.)

Yes, right now, I buy Fight On! and kinda-sorta buy Green Devil Face (though my expense is the time it takes me to come up with ideas to include in it). But I do that for the neat ideas and to encourage all involved to keep doing them. They’re cool, but they’re not enough to for anyone to live on. The folks involved are producing these when they can squeeze in a bit of spare time. I’d love to see what Taichara, or Raggi, or Oddysey might come up with if they could do this sort of thing for 40 hours a week. Maybe they wouldn’t want to, but just having the chance would open up the floodgates on the imaginations of so many people.

The sticking point is, how? Is there some way to bottle the magic so that it can be shared with others? Or to spread the magic of exceptional players and GMs so that more groups can enjoy it? Can that be done in a book? Or online? Or is there another aspect of the experience that is complementary to the experience that can improved in a significant way by professional effort? Ryan Dancey’s imagined uber-website that walked groups through social contract, customizing rules, and play sounded like a neat idea, but I’m not sure it’s the lightning in a bottle I’m grasping for.

Photo credits: Benimoto, Jake of, tiffa130

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


The calendar most of us use today is called the Gregorian calender, after Pope Gregory XIII. He adjusted the Julian calendar (devised by Julius Caeser) because the drift of days was causing issues with the celebration of Easter.

Easter is a wacky thing. It's celebrated on the first Sunday after Passover, because the Last Supper (the meal reenacted by the Eucharist, the drinking of wine and the eating of bread during Mass) was the traditional Passover meal. This is why communion host tends to be flat; it was the same unleavened bread that Jews traditionally have with the Passover meal.

Anyway, the celebration of Passover is dictated by a lunar calendar, while the Julian calender is solar. The two don't sync up exactly, and because a day isn't exactly 24 hours long, things were getting kinda wacky by the time Gregory was pope. So he recreated the calender and whacked 10 days out of it (specifically Friday, October 5th to Thursday, October 14th of 1582). Adjustments to which years are leap years made the solar Gregorian calender match up a little more closely with reality.

It's possible to invest the time and energy to make your gaming calendars that complex as well, and you can get some really neat effects with multiple moons or even multiple suns. However, it's generally not a good idea to mess with days and weeks. People are used to 24 hour days and 7 day weeks, and if you muck with that, people tend to forget. It's generally more trouble than its worth.

After that, you can go crazy if you like. Months and years tend to be longer than most people need to deal with regularly. Beyond knowing how much food is in a weekly packet of iron rations and how often daily powers rejuvenate, time generally isn't terribly interesting to adventurers. Most tend to be willing to take your word for it when you tell them when the next full moon is, or the summer solstice.

Since my Labyrinth Lord campaign is an early Iron Age setting, a simpler calendar would probably work best to reinforce that. on the other hand, the dominant empires of the past were run by lizard folk, and I've slightly modeled aspects of their culture after the Mayans who had some really funky calendars.

First, I'm going to start with the basics: 24 hour days, 7 day weeks. If I say that 4 weeks (28 days) makes up the time it takes the moon to go through a complete cycle, and that there are three such cycles per season, and four seasons per year, that gives me 1 year = 4 seasons = 12 Moons = 336 days. That's noticeably shorter than our 365 day year, but I doubt anyone is going to get seriously bent out of shape over it.

Each full moon begins the Moon of 28 days (and we're using the silver moon here, of course, since the red moon is fairly new). Because this world is a tad more finely tuned than our own, the solstices and equinoxes also fall on these full moons, and different cultures have various ways of marking these occasions. The year begins and ends with the winter solstice, so the winter solstice is the first day of Winter as well as being the first day of the new year.

But which year? It's fun to come up with crazy names for your years, the Year of the Cranky Ostrich, the Year of the Inebriated Octopus, etc. My game, however, deals with a lot of history, and it's just simpler on everyone if I used numbered years. Most numbered calendars use a significant event to start the count, a sort of year zero. Right now in my campaign, most use a version of the original lizard folk calendar, but year 0 is generally agreed to be the founding of the Second Lizard Folk Empire, 612 years ago. So most describe the current year as the 612th Year of the Second Empire. Others might use other counts, such as the elves for whom it is the 703rd Year Since the Scouring, when Tiamat destroyed their empire.

Like the Mayans, however, the Lizard Folk have a Long Count as well, stretching back to the first day of Creation, and forward to the year 987,654. On the first day of the second week of the third Moon of that year will happen an event the sages of the First Empire called the Great Conjunction. Nobody knows exactly what they meant by that, but since the current year is only 126,984 in the Long Count nobody is exactly losing any sleep over it.

The current date is the 4th day of the second week of the second Moon of Autumn of the 612th year of the Second Empire, 703rd year Since the Scouring, and 126,984th year of Earth and Ocean's imprisonment.

(Woohoo! I figured out how to make it so if you click on the photos in this post, you get imbigified versions. This way you can get a much better feel for the artistry of my great photographers!)

Photo credits: timatymusic, *L*u*z*a* return to nature
, mike 23.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Whence Cometh the Ghouls?

The madness and monstrosity lay in the figures in the foreground- for Pickman's morbid art was pre-eminently one of demoniac portraiture. These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degree. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward slumping, and a vaguely canine cast. The texture of the majority was a kind of unpleasant rubberiness. Ugh! I can see them now! Their occupations - well, don't ask me to be too precise. They were usually feeding- I won't say on what. They were sometimes shown in groups in cemeteries or underground passages, and often appeared to be in battle over their prey- or rather, their treasure-trove. And what damnable expressiveness Pickman sometimes gave the sightless faces of this charnel booty! Occasionally the things were shown leaping through open windows at night, or squatting on the chests of sleepers, worrying at their throats. One canvas showed a ring of them baying about a hanged witch on Gallows Hill, whose dead face held a close kinship to theirs. - “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft

The subjects of Pickman’s art are, of course ghouls, and I’m taking much of my inspiration of what they are like from this story, but it’s their appearance in “The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath” that I’m writing about now. In that story, it’s revealed that ghouls are able to move between the waking world and the dreamscape. Exactly how they are able to do this isn’t revealed, but the existence of a massive boneyard there implies that the ghouls are moving physically between the two world and bringing things with them.

I love that idea, but I don’t have a dreamworld in my Labyrinth Lord game. However, I do have realm where the spirits of the dead go called, unimaginatively, Tartarus. I imagine packs of ghouls able to shift between the living world and Tartarus. In Tartarus, they might torment those who have died without the protections of a proper burial until the deceased soul gives up the location of its corpse. The ghouls would then travel to that place to feast.

This means ghouls are most likely to congregate at places of hidden murder or great slaughter, such as battlefields. But a proper burial might offer the dead some sort of protection against the bullying of ghouls. Maybe it’s a magical warding for the soul, or perhaps the soul is transferred closer to the seats of power in Tartarus, where civilization, such as it exists for the deceased, can protect the recently deceased.

I’m also thinking of altering slightly the source of ghoulish paralyzation. Instead of being due to fungus in their claws, I’m thinking it has to do with their link to Tartarus. Infused with the innervating energies (negative energies?) of Tartarus, the touch of a ghoul directly attacks the soul. This is how they are able to torment the already dead, and this “damage” can cause disruption between body and soul, leading to a sort of spiritual paralyzation. I’ll have to think about that idea some.

A link between ghouls and gnolls seems natural as both have a taste for carrion. But should they be allies, or competitors for the same resources? I could see good arguments for either option.

Photo credits: Juan LupiĆ³n, Stefan Karpiniec.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Warrior's Kit in Medieval Europe: Technological Revolution

Noticing a theme here?

It's not misplaced. Lots of folks will tell you that, during the Middle Ages, weapons were basically bashing tools and little more, with no real innovation or advancement, which is utter hogwash. There was quite a bit, and it's easy to see.

In Europe, anyway. Japan is a great contrast. You're certainly familiar with the kit of the samurai, the layered armour, the katana, the tall bow, etc. This equipment was pretty much standardized in the late 14th century, and wasn't changed. The Japanese felt they'd perfected the arts of arming and armouring the samurai, and felt little need for innovation.

In Europe, this sense of perfection was never achieved. Some have described what happened in Europe as a continuous battle of innovation between the spear-makers and the shield makers. As each side improved their goods, the other was forced to compensate through new designs and techniques.

The armour we'd all recognize as “knightly” was actually a fairly late invention in the middle ages, and probably didn't appear until the 15th century. (I suspect this is one of the reasons Gygax preferred to set his games in worlds with early Renaissance tech.) Before this, knights generally wore full suits of mail, or chain mail for those of you who learned about armour from D&D. ;) Significant plates were not added to the armour until the 14th century, and a breastplate and helm with visor didn't appear until maybe the end of that century.

As these armour plates began to appear, the sword underwent a radical transformation. The broad, hacking blade was replaced with longer, narrower blades, more focused on thrusting and finding weak chinks in armour rather than trying to chop through it. By the end of the 15th century, the shield had been pretty much discarded by the knight, and the sword was now a long, thin weapon, wielded with both hands in a style more reminiscent of a staff, for stabbing and clubbing. The slash had all but vanished from the knight's repertoire.

The key idea I'm trying to get across here is that every weapon and piece of armour had a purpose, a reason for existing, and that the forms these weapons took derived naturally from their function. The heater shield replaced the round shield of the Viking and Anglo-Saxon shieldwall because that triangular shape proved easier to use and more effective on horseback. The axe gave warriors a more powerful blow that might sneak around the shield, and the bearded axe could be used to hook the shield and pull it aside so that another warrior could step in and land a killing blow. (Both Richard the Lionhearted and Robert the Bruce were renowned axe fighters.) The ball-and-chain, flail, or morning star, while wild and unpredictable, were even better for getting around the shield and smacking the foe in the back of the head or shoulders. The Dark Age seax, a single-edge, chisel-tipped cutting tool that doubled as a weapon, morphed over time into the rondel dagger, a long spike on a handle usually wielded like an icepick for jabbing through the gaps in heavy armour.

Our games rarely take this sort of thing into account. They assign fairly arbitrary numbers to weapons, and then we wonder why anyone would bother to carry a dagger into combat, since they're next-to-useless in our games. The truth is, the seax was a great little tool to have around and quite good at gutting a lightly armed foe, while the rondel was perfect when two knights grappled into each other, rolling about in the mud and blood, bashing into each other while attempting to jab through the joints or eye slits. The premier weapon of AD&D, the longsword (a one-handed weapon which isn't the same as the "longswords" the guys in the video were fighting with because terminology is another thing historians like to argue about), was quite popular at the dawn of the Middle Ages, but as armour grew heavier, its utility waned, until knightly duels were more likely to be conducted with poleaxes than swords. Every weapon had its time and its place.

Photo credits: rinpoche, Gidzy.

RELATED: The Godless Paladin rants about the listed weights of weapons in D&D.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

BioWare and Green Ronin: Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together?

Two of my favorite game publishers, BioWare and Green Ronin, announced today that they have joined forces. In conjunction with BioWare's CRPG Dragon Age, Green Ronin will be publishing a pen-and-paper version of the game.

Traditionally, pen-and-paper ports of CRPGs have not been the big crossover hits everyone thinks they ought to be. This is because of a truth that RPG designers on both sides of that fence are finally waking up to: the circle of CRPG fans has only a little overlap with the PnPRPG crowd. They are not the same. CRPGs are best when they have a fairly tight focus and get certain core activities right, and then offer fun variations on that core. PnPRPGs offer impossibly expansive play and are limited in setting, tone, and activity only by the imaginations and tastes of the participants. I have, in the past, had a lot of luck convincing folks to try PnPRPGs by describing them as CRPGs without the annoying limitations.

For those of you who don't know them, BioWare has a reputation in the CRPG market that is very similar to Paizo's in pen-and-paper gaming. BioWare's games tend to enjoy excellent production values, detailed settings and characters, and to at least brush up against more “adult” themes. One of the players from my college game loves their stuff because they not only include romances for your PC, but usually give you choices as to who your character gets into a romantic relationship with. Like Paizo's Pathfinder adventures, BioWare's games tend to be a bit on the railroady side, but do give you lots of options, including “good” and “evil” paths or other meaningful philosophically motivated options and tangents either in or from the main storyline. In the past, BioWare has worked with licensed properties, including D&D (Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights) and Star Wars (Knights of the Old Republic). Dragon Age is an original setting BioWare developed in-house.

For their part, Green Ronin appears to be doing a number of interesting things. First, they're releasing the pen-and-paper game as a boxed game. If they mimic the size and shape of the computer game boxes, they could very well end up with something that looks very much like the little white box of old D&D. I think this is a great idea. A full game in a box is something the hobby has been needing for a while now, for various reasons. The other smart idea is to release the PnPRPG ahead of the CRPG. This means Green Ronin is likely to make a number of sales to the CRPG fans who just want a sneak-peak at the computer game. I don't expect many of them to convert over to pen-and-paper gaming, of course, but the sales should be very good for Green Ronin, and getting the boxes out into the public can only be good publicity for pen-and-paper gaming in general. Still, if you want to sell a PnPRPG to the CRPG crowd, at least making it look like a game instead of a text book is a huge step in the right direction.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Biggest Picture

Some people like to design their campaign settings from the top down, but when they say “top” they usually mean a continent, or possibly a whole world.

I start with the multiverse.

Yep, that's right, the whole enchilada. Granted, these “maps” tend to be fairly vague, but they're heavily based on the themes I'm playing with during design. Once I know my themes, the shape of how the various Planes hang together and the relationships of the gods tend to shake themselves out pretty quickly.

So, for my still nameless Labyrinth Lord game, this starts with the center of all things, the world the campaign will begin in. This is the union of Earth and Ocean (which I'm calling Luum Qa-nab, as that's the name the lizard folk would use) imprisoned by the Goddess in chains fashioned from the four Elemental Planes. So, clearly, there's a strong link between what folks who work on a planar level call the Nexus Realms (what 1e would call the Prime Material Planes) and the four Elemental Planes.

There are other planes that are “close” to Luum Qa-nab. One of the closest is Tartarus, the realm of the dead. Most regard it as a shadowy and grey mirror of Luum Qa-nab, though those who have actually been there will tell you that there's not an exact, one-to-one correspondence between all places in Luum Qa-nab to places in Tartarus. There are spots that look uncannily similar, though. Tartarus intersects Luum Qa-nab in a number of places, and it is possible to walk from one to the other, though most of the gates are guarded these days. In addition, Tartarus drifts closer and further away with the seasons. They are closest during Equinoxes (and during the Autumnal Equinox the gates are flung open and the dead are allowed to visit the living for one night only), and furthest apart during the Solstices.

The other plane closely tied to Luum Qa-nab is Fairey. Like Tartarus, it intersects Luum Qa-nab in a number of places. Many of those places appear fixed, but there are others that move around. Most of the fixed ones are guarded by trolls, which are fey creatures. Like Tartarus, Fairey seems to drift closer and further away from Luum Qa-nab. Some scholars say that Fairey works on an opposite pattern to Tartarus and suggest a link between the two, but most believe that if there is a pattern to Fairey's movements, it's far too complex to chart.

What about other Prime Material worlds? Yes, they exist, though there's lots of argument about what they are. Are they interdimensional shadows of Luum Qa-nab? Or is Luum Qa-nab one of the shadows? And then there are the “higher planes”. These are alien realms that do exist, and every now and then something can pass from them to Luum Qa-nab (such as the brain collectors), but these tend to be too alien to survive for long in Luum Qa-nab.

And finally there's the Outer Chaos or the Primordial Chaos, in which everything floats. It's a wild maelstrom of possibility, a soup of destruction in which everything else floats (mostly) safe in a bubble of Order. Some consider the Primordial Chaos to be the Goddess' truest face, others consider it the primal stuff from which She created everything. (The witches will tell you there's no difference.) Going there is generally not recommended, unless you've got some pretty strong protections.

And that's the multi-verse in my LL game. Have I listed everything? No, I'm keeping a few secrets for myself for now, and there are some things I've hinted about in play that I'm not discussing here, but it's more than enough to get a basic understanding of the interplanar terrain.

Photo credits: xamad, jurvetson, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Wolverine Review

Thanks to my good buddy Jesus (no, not that one), I got to see the new "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" movie at a midnight showing. I'll cut right to the chase: it's a fairly pedestrian, paint-by-the-numbers summer blockbuster. I didn't want to poke my eyes out, but I won't be lining up to see it again anytime soon.

However, if you're a lady (or gent) who is warm for Hugh Jackman's form, and you watched the scene where he's running through the tunnel in the second X-men movie with frustration (yeah, you know the scene I'm talking about), this movie has some very nice stuff for you. Just after he gets injected with the adamantium, we get to see quite a bit of Wolverine, running, jumping and all that, without any clothing or silly back-lit silhouette nonsense. For you, this movie might be worth catching on the big screen.

For the rest of us, not so much. The special effects are nice, but nothing you've not seen before. The writing is tortured, and you can feel the plot writhe in agony as it contorts itself towards an ending where Wolverine has lost his memories and both Striker and Sabertooth survive. It jumps through the expected origin's story hoops, but has real trouble making us care. If it wasn't for the residual character empathy the first two X-men movies had already generated for Logan, I'm not sure I would have cared about the outcome of this flick at all. As it is, I'll give it a solid C. Fans of the White Queen and Gambit are certain to be disappointed. Hugh Jackman fans will have fun if they keep their expectations in check.

UPDATE: Let me be clear, because apparently I wasn't. I enjoyed the 2nd X-men movie, and this one was nothing like it. Yes, it shared some characters and locations, but that's it. The second X-men movie did a wonderful job of ramping up the tension and when the X-men join forces with their foes in the Brotherhood, it made sense. (It also made sense that the Brotherhood betrayed them.)

This movie is hamstrung by being a prequel. All the tension of the second act is slowly bled away in the third, instead of being ramped up, because of the dictates of the chronologically later X-men movies. We get bizarre, clumsy exposition to explain how Wolverine will later lose his memories, for instance. The final confrontations are full of "surprise twists" that fail to build interest and suspense, and utterly undercut whatever empathy we may have felt for most of the characters.

Again, I'm left thinking that the folks writing and directing these are completely ignorant of the lessons of Greek tragedy. They wanted "Oedipus Rex" and ended up with "Meet the Thebans". :p