Sunday, January 31, 2010

Nixie Class

Following on the heels of my pixie class, here's a writeup for nixies as PCs. This one was actually done a while ago, after one of the PCs in Doom & Tea Parties got transformed by a chaos critter. She's going to be stuck as nixie for a while, but so far she doesn't have any serious complaints.


Nixies (and nox, as the males are called) are aquatic fey who dwell underground. They rarely adventure, but as the guardians of the pathways between Water and the other realms, some are called to journey far from their subterranean communities. They resemble elves, being slight and short (both sexes tend not to grow taller than 5.5') with pointed ears, and almond shaped eyes. However, they also have blueish tint to their skin and green hair.

The prime requisites for nixies are are Intelligence and Charisma. If an nixie has a score of 13 or greater in both Intelligence and Charisma, the character will gain a 5% bonus on earned experience points. If the nixies Intelligence is 13 or greater and her Charisma is is 16 or greater, she will earn a 10% bonus on earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Nixies use six-sided dice (d6) to determine their hit points. They may advance to a maximum of 10th level of experience. They may use any shields or weapons, but suffer a -1 to saving throws when wearing ferrous (iron or steel) armour. They may wear armour of other metals (such as bronze, orichalcum, or adamantium) without suffering this penalty. They cast magic user spells as well. They roll saving throws and fight as elves. A character must have an intelligence of 9 or greater to be a nixie.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: Nixies are able to see in low-light conditions as if it were early evening illumination. Nixies can speak with all aquatic creatures and may summon fish to perform simple tasks. They may cast a water breathing spell that lasts for one full day. A group of 10 nixies can cast a powerful charm spell on humanoid creatures. They perform underwater as if under the influence of free movement magics, being completely unhindered by the water around them.

Art by John William Waterhouse, because when it comes to nixies, nymphs, sirens, and sorceresses, he is the man.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying is Dead

Long live D&D RP. Hyperbole? Depends on your definition of “roleplaying.” I just today had someone tell me that BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 isn’t an RPG because it doesn’t include inventory management. So, if you like, you can happily disagree with what I’m about to write by arguing the semantics.

And honestly, I’m not here to rail against WotC’s new “D&D Encounters” because it sounds like a great idea to me. It’s just not RPGing as I enjoy the hobby, or as it was defined in previous versions of the game.

But then, I’m a horrible customer for WotC. The OSR is proving that I can buy new books and games, but I don’t do it regularly or often, and it appears there are not enough of us to support an industry in the style WotC has become accustomed to. Even worse are the members of the “Lost Generation,” the kids who grew up reading Harry Potter and watching the LotR flicks, now grown up to be “the masses of tweeting, texting, facebooking teens” who are quite happy to free-form RP online with their favorite IPs, without a single rulebook, character sheet, or d20 in sight.

It’s quite clear that WotC is embracing the decline of the RPG industry and leaping to the model of the high-achiever in the wargames industry: Games Workshop. The new focus will be on promoting playing at your local game store, cool toys with a strong tactile factor, and rules based on exceptions that make your character stand out. You could see the groundwork for this as far back as the PHB. Flipping through it, I had the same thoughts I did when building an army for 40k; it was less, “I want to play a ranger like Aragorn” and more “I want to combine these cool powers into an awesome double-play.”

This makes perfect sense, from a business standpoint. WotC is not in the business of selling the fantasy of playing a ranger; they are in the business of selling books, miniatures, and, in the very near future I suspect, scale model diorama and dungeon parts. (Is this, perhaps, one of the reasons the virtual tabletop continues to linger in development purgatory? People are used to getting virtual scenery for free, but will eagerly pay large sums of cash for physical scenery they can use at the table. This may be how they snatch victory from the jaws of failure on that score.) Dark Sun is a great fit for this because it’s chock-full of new races and classes (and thus, nifty new powers and synergies) that can be added to any campaign, even ones that don’t take place on Athas (which strongly fits into their “all books are core now” theme). It means new hero and monster miniatures, and desert-themed diorama bits if they decide to go that route.

There are two big challenges for WotC going forward. The first is maintaining the RPG status of D&D. This is the primary differentiator between themselves and Games Workshop’s products, and they do not want to start a head-to-head fight with that 500 lbs gorilla. The second is avoiding a class and character combo that results in an iron gnome. Note this isn’t the same as creating multi-character combos that are extremely powerful. Those will actually promote people playing in groups and building characters based around synergies. This is good, because it encourages people to come to the store every Wednesday to play, and to invite their friends so they can put together more synergistic combos. This is something even Games Workshop doesn’t have, and could be a real winner for 4e.

It also represents a huge opportunity for the Neo-classical movement. WotC has slowly been yielding the roleplaying field to any and all who would claim it. (Don’t believe me? Google “roleplaying,” which is the preferred formulation of WotC and appears on the cover of the 4e books. Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t show up until page 3, entry 27. They should be on the first page at least, if not the first entry, but they appear after Eve Online, GURPS, an “adult” site, and Furcadia.) There’s not much room in this new business model for the moody atmospherics of Raggi or Jeff’s retro-stupid fun, and Oddysey’s tinkerings with a game based on social dynamics is about as opposite a direction as you can go in.

The reason the OSR is still chugging along, and may even be gathering steam, is because the competition is fading from the field. WotC could crush a Raggi or a Goblinoid Games without even being aware they were doing it. But they won’t, because they’re not even remotely interested in the same audiences. There may be some overlap, but it’s not a natural thing, just like there are overlaps between people who enjoy painting watercolor landscapes and listening to country western music. The “industry,” so far as it is defined by WotC and their ilk, are, as Oddysey says, irrelevant, and growing more so, to the sort of gaming enjoyed in neo-classical circles. Or, to put it another, and I think more accurate way, Raggi and company are the industry now. What WotC does is interesting, but the DMG 3 is less likely to affect my gaming than Raggi’s box set, even if I don’t ever buy either of them.

UPDATE: Oddysey is, of course, a bit faster on the draw than an old fart like me.

Art from MoToMo, pasukaru76, and Luca Giordano.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Town and Country

Back on my post “Romance, Sex, and D&D: the College Years,” Ben asks:

So how did you weave the plotlines between urban/social settings and the wilderness necessary for many dungeon encounters-- or did you keep your dungeon urban as well?

I’m very glad he asked that, because it’s a topic that never would have occurred to me. I really don’t see a strong separation between the urban/social settings and the wilderness. The two wove into each other naturally.

An early adventure in the college game involved foiling a plot by wererats to infect the town guard of a large city with their brand of lycanthropy through the brothels favored by the guardsmen. The adventure started in the city, then moved into the wilderness roughly a day’s march from the city, where the leadership of the wererats had their secret hideout, then back to the city to root out the wererat infestation. So this was an example of having dungeon-esque elements inside an urban environment which were tied to a traditional dungeon out in the wilderness.

In the Doom & Tea Parties game, the action has primarily focused on the ruin-infested island of Dreng Bdan. The only outpost of civilization on the island (that the players know about, anyway) is the city of Pitsh, founded by the priests of Uban for the purpose of exploring the ruins and cataloguing their history as well as securing anything of significant power that might be found there. The governance, economy, and focus of the city is so heavily tied to the activity of dungeon-delving that what happens out in the wilderness has a strong effect on the town. In the solo game, that meant working closely with the Ubanites. In the group game, the players have been trying to hide their activities from the Ubanites. In both cases, these choices have had a strong impact on what the PCs do when in town: how they fence their loot, where they stay, where they shop, and who they go to for information on the things they have found and the places they’ve explored.

In both the college game and the Doom & Tea Parties games, the separation between wilderness and civilization has been fluid at best. Sometimes, the monsters chase the PCs back into the city and cause them trouble there. Sometimes the town does something that has a strong effect on which dungeons the PCs investigate, or how they go about it. This sort of fluid web of interconnections is the core of my style. I basically let the players do and go where they wish. I create adventures for them primarily by asking how what they’ve done has affected those with the reach and power to affect whatever place they end up next.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rules and Rewards

Over at B/X Blackrazor, JB has recently discussed what he calls his third principle of good game design:
Good game design rewards behavior meeting the objectives of play.

By which he means, an effective game rewards the sort of play that the game is intended to create. To whit, if you make the Tarantino Cinematic RPG, it should involve lots of people sitting around and communicating who they are as people by using pop culture references when discussing matters of morality and psychology, or invoking the creative process, punctuated by periods of horrendous and blood-spattering violence. A Star Wars RPG should be able to handle swashbuckling action between individuals ranging from tiny droids to giant monsters as well as the clash of large armies and massive fleets, while encompassing not just the physical results of such conflicts, but also their spiritual implications as well.

So far, so good, and I’m in completely agreement with JB. He chose as his example the Elf Quest RPG, and I’ll admit that while I’m a fan of the comics, especially the original series as collected in the first four TPBs, I’m going to take his words as an excuse to leap off into areas that I think he only brushed up tangentially against. So this should not be seen necessarily as a criticism of what JB wrote. As I said, I’m largely in agreement with his theme, and believe that a mere character creation and combat system do not an RPG make.

JB is primarily talking about reward systems, but too often people conflate rewards with mechanics. It’s easy to do, because once you’ve mechanized an aspect of an RPG, you’ve made it quantifiable and thus easy to handle in terms of rewards and difficulties. If you have rules that quantify a character’s chi, for instance, it’s then easy to use those numbers in other aspects of the game and control the level of a character’s chi. You can know what amount of chi a character should have at certain points in the game, and you can easily see what sort of obstacles are appropriate for a character who has that much chi.

Life, however, is full of messy things that are difficult to quantify. Measurements of status and prestige, as JB suggests, would have been an excellent addition to the Elf Quest game, but things are very fluid and somewhat chaotic among the Wolf Riders. Cutter is the chief, but that doesn’t stop Strongbow from challenging him constantly. And that, contrary to how things might appear on the surface, is a source of strength for Cutter.

Even worse, however, is that once you quantify something, you stop playing the fuzzy, human aspects of the thing and start playing the numbers. As much as I love BioWare’s games, they tend to boil romance and respect down to a system of potlatch, and while there are certainly historical precedents for such things (like the relationship between a chief and his warriors among the ancient celts), bribing someone to be my girlfriend doesn’t exactly feel like romance to me. Making your romance system more complex only helps if that complexity serves to hide the numbers from the players; taking my lady out for a night at the opera because she happens to be a classical music lover is a far cry from spending $150 (probably the cheapest you can get away with for a night at the opera and a decent dinner) for a +4 bonus on my “Get Lucky” roll. ;p

In short, throwing bonuses at players for going through the motions isn’t the goal. Rewarding and encouraging the sort of play we want should be the goal, and this must often be done obliquely. Old school D&D is about exploration, but it doesn’t reward you for every 10’ of dungeon corridor mapped or unusual geological formation found. It rewards you for gathering treasure and penalizes you for being inefficient about how you gather it.

So in our Tarantino game, maybe every character starts with an artistic obsession and a secret existential crisis that is referenced by those obsessions and a pile of poker chips. Getting another character (that is, the player, in this case) to agree with your argument as to the worthiness of your obsession earns you a poker chip, and two if you can turn their argument towards promoting the worth of one of your obsessions. However, if they guess your existential crisis, you have to surrender most of your chips to them, and those chips are the only things that will keep you alive in the extremely brutal combat that is always threatening to erupt. In our Star Wars game, every strategic-level conflict can include a spiritual goal that might actually be served by losing in the physical realm (“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”). And in our Elf Quest game, perhaps the resolution of individual conflict results in stronger cohesion between an entire group.

The one thing I would stress, however, is that how the game is played is more important than the rules. In the solo Labyrinth Lord game Oddysey is playing in, there was this past year a near TPK. It was, by every measure, a disaster for her character and that character’s companions. However, the end result has been the creation of a very potent and powerful association. Friendship isn’t anything like the right word, but this relationship is one that Oddysey’s character knows she can rely on. There are no rules to cover this situation, no way to measure its worth in terms of EXPs or gold pieces, and yet it has been a large part of the transformation of the campaign. Oddysey’s character is no longer a single, lone individual in a large, uncaring world. She’s now “plugged in,” with all the privileges and responsibilities that go along with it. Neither of us knew the game could go where it’s gone when we started, but by playing off each other, things have taken some very interesting turns. In short, sometimes the best reward of all is to let the chips fall where they will, and give the players something interesting to play with.

UPDATE: E.G. Palmer (aka Mr. Green) riffs off Tarantino gaming to come up with an intriguing way to use music in your game.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Year Ahead for WotC

Thought y'all might find this interesting. Some will look at this and see it as a good sign for the OSR. I suppose it is. I'm still not entirely certain, however, how you make an entire campaign out of "Tomb of Horrors." I suspect that you build a bunch of dungeons and other such out of a backstory for Acererak. I just can't help but feel it will widely miss the major point. ToH was written with a certain mindset, one that becomes clear to players who are careful and observant and who take their play seriously. Like "Vault of the Drow" and "Shrine of the Kuo-toa," ToH is a blatant repudiation of the stereotypical kill-and-loot style of play. Can you build an entire campaign out of that theme? Especially in 4e? Is the skill challenges system now robust enough to take the strain of supporting a campaign? Hell, is it strong enough to support an entire adventure? Especially considering that, last I heard, they're still built around the assumption that the players will fail more than half of them?

Of course, that still misses the point, since ToH embraces not rolling dice. Heck, even its most infamous trap doesn't invoke dice, even for a saving throw. I doubt WotC has the cojones to build a D&D campaign that is focused on not rolling dice. But I'll be first in line to buy it if they are, just to see what it looks like.

The world of Hard Fun, er, I mean, "Dark Sun" is, of course, not considered something "classic" in the strictist sense, being very much a product of the era of 2e. It is, however, quite pulpish and pleasantly twisted, and a very fitting contribution to our Year of Science Fantasy. I still regret not picking up the original, and I'm curious to see what WotC does with the setting.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pixie Class

Another class for my Labyrinth Lord game. We're getting a new player and she made the request to play a pixie. Should be interesting, as the fey have been largely on the sidelines so far, though looming large in the calculations of all sides in the current situation. The numbers were largely generated via Paul Montgomery Crabaugh's Customized Classes article from DRAGON magazine of May, 1986.

Pixies are tiny (1.5 feet tall on average) fey with sleek, elf-like bodies, almond-shaped eyes, pointed ears, and butterfly-like wings. They have no issues with nudity, though most tend to wear jewelry and clothing as decoration, so long as it doesn't interfere with their flying.

Most assume pixies are shy, but the truth is they are just cautious, especially around “clumsy big-folk.” In truth, pixies are socially and sexually promiscuous. They live in large communities based around a tree or trees in which they hang their woven-basket homes. While it's fairly common for young pixies to leave the Tree they grew up in to form a new Tree or join another existing one, it's not common for pixies to head out into the wild in search of adventure alone. Still, the rare restless spirit does strike out from time to time, driven by curiosity, thrills, or for more urgent reasons.

Dexterity and Intelligence are the primary attributes of pixies. A pixie who has a score of 15 or more in either attribute gets a 5% bonus to earned experience. A pixie who has a score of 12 or more in both stats gets a bonus of 10% to earned experience points.

RESTRICTIONS: Pixies use six-sided dice (d6) to determine their hit points. They may not wear armour or use shields, and pixie weapons are so tiny that single-handed arms do only 1d2 damage while two-handed weapons do 1d4 damage. So long as they are flying, however, their initiative is 8. A grounded pixie has an initiative of only 2. Because of their tiny size, any equipment tailored for them costs 50% of the normal price. They must have a score of at least 12 in Dexterity and may not have a score greater than 9 in Strength. They stop advancing at 9th level.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: Pixies save as Elves. Because of their tiny size, all foes suffer a -1 penalty to hit them. They can also turn invisible once per day, as per the third-level magic-user spell. Their wings allow them to fly in all but the fiercest of gales. They fight using the Rogue's to-hit tables and have access to magic-user spells. Like elves, they are able to see by mere starlight nearly as well as humans may at dusk.

Art by Luis Ricardo Falero.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Play, Creativity, and Authentic Experiences

For those of you who missed it at Lord of the Green Dragons. There's some themes starting around 19:40 I'll likely touch on here later.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Anatomy of a Campaign

Over at B/X Blackrazor, JB was wondering:

hmm… I wonder how Oddysey and Trollsmyth’s current on-going campaign developed. Odd has said this is the first time she’s played in a campaign that took things to this particular depth of character interaction…were her former games played in the mini-campaign or forced plot setting? Or is their current gaming style simply built on mutual rapport and understanding of narrative agenda needs?

The answer is, not quickly. That's not the sort of play you can start cold. You have to build up to it.

It would be nice if you could just say, "Hey, we're building a social campaign and it's going to deal with x, y, and z." You could, I suppose, pull it off if the DM was willing to give the players extreme amounts of narrative control, and I've done that in the past with a few players I knew very well and had played with a lot before. If you don't do that, however, you end up in a situation where the players don't have anything to talk about. Even if they've read voluminous amounts of campaign material, they don't really understand the setting well enough to interact with it. (Unless that setting is based on a well-known IP, like Harry Potter or some such, which is why such are the most popular themes for free-form RPing, I'm sure.) The background gives players something to talk about, and knowing and being comfortable with the style gives them ways to talk about those things. If either is missing, they're reduced to talking about the weather in the safest and most boring of tones.

My preferred style is open sandbox and very laissez-faire. But such games need a bit of impetus, and if the players are to be comfortable enough to stretch themselves a bit, they need some limitations. There's nothing more intimidating to a lot of people than a completely blank canvas.

In Oddysey's case, I started off with a very open-ended problem for her to solve: being shipwrecked on a strange coast. This got her used to my rather loose, the-DM-doesn't-have-a-plan-so-do-what-makes-sense-or-is-fun-for-you style. When she returned to civilization and was able to choose her own path, she latched on to dungeon-delving. This was great because it was a style she'd not had much experience with, but comes with its own set of very focused goals and geographical limitations. As Oddysey recently commented, however, it wasn't raw monster-slaying and trap-finding. Since it was a solo game, there were hirelings and such to fill out the party, mostly chosen by her. Whenever she mentioned interest in hiring a particular class to join her group, I'd gin up at least three examples (it's so easy in LL that three take maybe a half-hour or so to roll up and write down) with a brief description of their personalities, reputations, and competencies beyond their class. Because there was no one else to interact with (most of the time) there was a lot of interaction with these NPCs. And that's really where we got things rolling.

Up until that point, I wasn't really sure what sort of play Oddysey was interested in. As she points out, most of the traditional assumptions of Old School play, like dungeons, were not very well known to her, so even she wasn't sure what sort of play she wanted, other than something new that she hadn't tried before. So leaving things open and not forcing a certain agenda left it open for us to explore, and we built the playstyle together out of mutual interests.

(And yes, this did mean that certain dungeon complexes were left "uncleared" but that's fine with me. Like Mr. Maliszewski, I've never assumed that clearing the entire locale was the goal, and my players have generally been happy with focused, surgical operations rather than genocidal invasions. ;p )

The one thing I did rigorously enforce was the verisimilitude. I think that really helps, because it gives players things they can rely on, things they can trust. With that bedrock, they can begin to invest in their characters' interests and goals, and from that comes engagement with the world. And once they do that, it's easy to build an entire session around chatting with a rakshasa and a priestess about boys, because the players know who their characters are, how they relate to the rakshasa and the priestess, and why boys would be fun to talk about.

Art by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward Moran

Friday, January 01, 2010

2010 Resolutions

I'm not a resolutions kinda guy. I hardly ever make them, and when I do, I rarely share them. However, between Christmas and New Years, I also got a year older. As I slowly drift towards another magic-number age (40!!!), it seems like a good idea to get certain aspects of my life streamlined, lest things I've always wanted to do get left undone for another decade. So, going to try the resolutions thing this year. It certainly seemed to work well for Oddysey.

Hold Fast on Gaming
This one may seem a bit odd, but I'm going to not add any new games to my schedule this next year. Last year, I ended up adding four. The original Labyrinth Lord campaign bifurcated into two groups playing in the same world. There's also a Sword-and-Planet campaign being run with 2e, and I just started playing in Erin's 7th Sea Wave game. That's four games, meaning I've got a solid night of gaming nearly every other evening. If I add any more, it'll not just dominate my social life, it'll be my social life.

While that might be kinda nice in the short term, it's not a good idea in the long run. Variety is the spice of life and the raw fuel for creativity. A wide range of experiences is necessary to keep things fresh and new, and to keep me from falling into any ruts. So, apart from one other game, which I'm already promised to (and anticipating with more than a little impatience ;) ), my RPG dance card is now officially full.

Get Fit for GenCon
The second is like unto my first resolution. 2008 was probably the worst year of my life. Too much of 2009 was spent recovering. I didn't go camping once the whole year, didn't get out as much as I'd wanted, and ate way too much comfort food. Granted, record heat over the summer didn't help much, but still, I've breached the 200 lbs mark. Not a good thing.

There are state parks within driving distance that I haven't explored yet, and familiar ones I've not been to in some time. The green belts are looking better, now that the rains have returned. Nature has always been my best muse, and now that I'm doing a lot more creative work than ever before in my life, I need to be certain I keep those batteries fresh, and my body healthy. The brain is an organ, just like the heart and liver and lungs; being healthy is a good start towards being "mentally awake."

Give This Blog Some Love

Partly, this just means making time for it, but more than that, it means working out a plan for its improvement. It needs some original art, it needs a bit of reorganization, and it needs a bit more SEO. No, I don't plan to turn it into a money-making venture. I have, however, noticed that I get hits from wide-ranging interests: art, archeology, history, anthropology, and, of course, porn. Getting the word out that RPGs are still alive and kicking via the blog probably won't change the world, but it might add a bit of fun to the lives of a handful of folks. That certainly seems worth a bit of effort.

This last year's seen some serious improvements. Probably the biggest is adding art to most of the articles. Most has come from the excellent Art Renewal Center online galleries. I've also gotten more rigorous about linking, which is always for the good. There's still much work to be done, however. I've hardly scratched the surface on getting old posts properly labeled.

I've also done a lot less of attempting to second-guess my readers. The truth is, I have no idea what you'd find interesting. I've been really surprised at the feedback some posts have gotten, and still get, long after their original publication. My style of play is odd, but apparently not so odd that there are no overlaps of interest. I need to post more, and let you tell me what you like and what is just meh.

Finally, I want to get listed on the RPG Bloggers Network. I should have done this last year, but I really wanted to get something more logo-ish on this page first. I've let myself get bottlenecked by that for too long.

Art by John Byam Liston Shaw.