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.