Saturday, April 30, 2011

Capitalism, Bitches!

“Money is the sincerest of all flattery.”
– Robert Heinlein

The prolific –C has decided he’s not going to give it away for free anymore. I can’t say I blame him, and I wish him luck with his foray into for-pay game development. I hope more follow his lead.

I don't have any problem with anyone who wants to give away their work for free. Heck, I've given away lots of stuff for free: shields shall be splintered, the table of Death & Dismemberment, and all of my Labyrinth Lord/B/X classes. But I didn't expect anything in return for any of these. Not even comments. If you want feedback, you have to make it as easy as possible for people to let you know what they think. It doesn't get any easier than asking them to pay for it. It may not be very detailed feedback, and it's possible to misunderstand exactly why people are paying for your stuff. But that doesn't change the fact that it is exceptionally easy.

Even better, getting a little scratch makes it easier to offer more. Let's be honest here; we are only getting Vornheim because Raggi made money on previous projects that he had could then spend on Vornheim. Vornheim could not be made on the cheap. Even if Zak had wanted to give it away for free (I'm sure he could make a lot more money if he'd spent the time on painting) it wouldn't have worked. It had to be a hardback that you could take to the table with a dust jacket and interior covers and all of that. Vornheim simply could not have worked as a PDF or a Lulu POD project.

The other cool thing about money is that it doesn't suffer bullshit. The web is full of all sorts of nonsense about RPG publishing that simply isn't so. Three years ago, everybody knew that boxed sets didn't work. It was boxed sets which had killed TSR. Everybody knew this as an indisputable fact. Nobody was going to invest in a boxed set project.

I don't need to tell you how things changed since then.

Time and effort and care and stress and dedication cost money. We all need to keep a roof over our heads. We all need to pay our bills. We all need to put food on the table. Compensating people for the time and effort and the blood and sweat and tears they put into gaming allows them to put more into gaming. It means artists can spend more time drawing dragons and sorcerers and paladins instead of illustrating instruction manuals for electronics. It means designers can spend more time testing and tweaking and thinking of new ways to do things. It means writers can give us more adventure instead of having to spend all their time describing real estate opportunities and VOIP telephony. It means publishers can experiment with new forms of publication, and can spend more time letting us know about the cool things they've got coming down the pipe. The more we give them, the more they can give us.

And besides, it's a very easy way to show your heartfelt appreciation.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wizards' Towers From a Fallen World

Yeah, I've gotten bitten by the post-apocalypse bug, as well, though my thoughts are straying more towards the far, far, dying world end of the spectrum.

A Facebook friend pointed me towards this collection of photos, "25 Abandoned Yugoslavian Monuments that Look Like they are from the Future." These are soviet-era monuments commemorating battles from WWII, I think. There's some very evocative stuff here for your post-apocalypse, sci-fi, or dying world inspiration.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Whence Magic?

If you’re building a fantasy world, crafting the system by which magic will work is one of the earliest tasks to tackle. Anthony, over at of Pedantry, believes that magic and science don’t mix. He’s usually right, but it’s not always so. Magic, being utterly fictitious, can work in all sorts of ways, some of which are very compatible with science and others which are extremely not compatible science. Here follow a few broad categorizations of magic that I was able to think of off the top of my head.

The small man had tightened the slipknot around the pommel of his rapier and let the wire trail behind him, flexible as a whip. “I’ve grounded my sword,” he said. “Now any death-spell launched against me, striking my drawn sword first, will be discharged into the ground.“
- Fritz Leiber
Magic as science by other means: this is what most of us assume D&D magic is like. Wizards exert their exceptional intellects to understanding, binding, and commanding mysterious forces. This is magic as a sort of engineering of the mystical. It is easily compatible with science, and, in fact, will obviously overlap with that in many ways. Magic is just another force in the universe to be studied, like gravity, heat, or magnetism. It may retard science in some areas, since necessity is the mother of invention, but what science is done will almost certainly be practiced by wizards.

I learned—even before my waking self had studied the parallel cases or the old myths from which the dreams doubtless sprang—that the entities around me were of the world’s greatest race, which had conquered time and had sent exploring minds into every age. I knew, too, that I had been snatched from my age while another used my body in that age, and that a few of the other strange forms housed similarly captured minds.
- H.P. Lovecraft
Magic as super-science: it would seem that super-science would be most compatible with science as a magical system. That is true only if the culture at large grasps the principles behind your super-science. If instead you have a fallen culture, or a culture that has stumbled across the artifacts of super-science but doesn't really understand how they work, science and super-science can clash horribly. History is full of sound scientific principles that were just plain wrong. In the age of steam, it was assumed that the human body could not withstand speeds greater than 40 mph. Concepts that we today take for granted (the existence of germs, the principles of magnetism and the flow of electrons, the mechanics of combustion) were all at one point anathema to the cutting-edge science of previous days. The greatest wizards in such a setting would be those with the most rigid of minds, slaves to dogma and ritual which would yield predictable and consistent results.

“And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
- J.R.R. Tolkien

Magic as language: in Tolkien's middle earth the key to wizardly power is knowing how to speak the languages of the elements. Gandalf and Sauroman cajole mountains and rivers, beasts and insects to do their bidding. In this world, power is based on relationships and the natural world is not a thing to manipulate but an entity. As such, science must be practiced with delicate care and respect. Too close an inspection of any natural phenomenon risks invasive rudeness, and the last thing you want to do is cause offense to something as potent as the West Wind or Mount Doom.

”Sir Gareth, do not sound your challenge yet. Until noon the Red Knight’s strength increases, after then it wanes, so if you will wait for a little the advantage will be yours.”
- Mallory

Magic as fairy-tale logic: simple, declarative statements that are true. I love this sort of thing, because it gives players all sorts of hand-holds to fiddle with, as well as interesting challenges to overcome. The troll cannot be killed unless you stab him in the heart, and he keeps his heart locked in a chest hidden inside his tower. The prince will remain a frog until kissed by a beautiful maiden. The ring can only be destroyed by the fires of the volcano in which it was forged. While such magic is internally consistent, as Zak points out, it’s inherently unscientific. There is no why; the rules simply are. The best wizards have a bard’s ability to recall detail and a lawyer’s instinct for finding the loopholes. There’s some overlap with engineers in these skills, but it lacks the universal underpinnings of science entirely.

And Ouphaloc, seeing the great craft and evil in the starveling boy, gave succor to Narthos and sheltered him. He dwelt for years with Ouphaloc, becoming the wizard's pupil and the heir of his demon-wrested lore. Strange things he learned in that hermitage, being fed on fruits and grain that had sprung not from the watered earth, and wine that was not the juice of terrene grapes. And like Ouphaloc, he became a master in devildom and drove his own bond with the archfiend Thasaidon. When Ouphaloc died, he took the name of Namirrha, and went forth as a mighty sorcerer among the wandering peoples and the deep-buried mummies of Tasuun.
-Clark Ashton Smith

Magic as alien knowledge: sometimes, knowing too much is dangerous. If we assume that the human mind developed as a specialized tool for understanding the three-dimensional world which our hands and bodies can most readily manipulate, it stands to reason that truly alien realms might utterly confound it. Indeed, thinking in terms such worlds require might even damage our minds in the same way that using a socket wrench as a hammer could break the tool. This is the magic Lovecraft writes about. Intellect, science, and knowledge are all counterproductive; the greatest wizard is the one who is already mad. The study of magic is aided by the use of hallucinogenic drugs, mind-numbing rituals, and physical deformations. Sometimes, this magic comes from outside our world. The sorcery of those who make pacts with demons is an example of this. However, in a Lovecraftian universe, the natural world explained by human science is but a thin and friendly veneer over deeper and hideously alien truths. The relationship between science and magic is complex; eventually, the two will overlap and at that point science and the civilization it supports will be obliterated.

Art by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Anthony Frederick Sandys, and Francisco de Goya.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Dragons of Doom & Tea Parties

Rules Magis at Gamers Closet wants to know:

So I have a question. Not sure if it is that fact that I have been playing WOW, the book I am reading or the current campaign I am playing in. But dragons seem to be vastly different from one setting to another. Some are the King Arthur type of a foul beast to be slain by a knight on a quest; some are the invincible all knowing creatures of legend like in the Raymond Fiest books and others are the mounts and servants of Dragon Lords.
Dragons have been important to me for a very long time. I can certainly see the benefit in treating them as just another monster on the list. However, in what I assume is a similar way in which some folks believe that fighting the gods is anathema, I really can't treat dragons as just more fodder for higher-level combats.

So dragons hold a central place in my Doom & Tea Parties campaign. Their nature is something that has been building in my campaigns over time, drawing from many sources, some literary, some mythological, with a pinch of pop-culture. As the eldest children of Tiamat, they are chthonian creatures, almost forces of nature. They are sadistically playful in the manner of cats, primal in their instincts and assumptions, and extremely self-centered. They are scions of primal chaos, and, as such, unpredictable, unreliable, and untamable in the long run.

Each is unique; there is not a race of blue dragons, but a blue dragon. They come in a wide variety of colors and combinations, and no, they are not coded for player convenience. To slay a dragon, which is sometimes necessary, is to destroy something that the world will never see again.

There is a spiritual aspect to this as well. There is a conservation of souls at work in my current campaign. Even without spells, a soul will eventually reincarnate (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with my own personal beliefs, but works really well with the spiritual geography of my campaign). Myth says that the first life of every soul is as a dragon. While they are certainly not on any endangered species list, there are noticeably fewer now than there were in the past. The death of the last dragon will mark the beginning of the end of Creation.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Optimized for iPad and Smartphones?

Today is a shockingly golden age for dead-tree, table-top RPG stuff. Sure, Lulu is a pain in the neck at times, but the opportunities these POD services create have lifted us out of the era of netbooks and into a world of incredibly high-quality gaming materials for a broadly diverse range of sensibilities and tastes. And do I have to mention Vornheim, and how it's pushing the envelope in terms of squeezing new utility out of the dead-tree format?

But the rest of the publishing world is moving more and more towards electronic formats. Kindles, iPads, and smart phones are likewise opening new, and very different, opportunities. So that's got me wondering: what would a table-top RPG optimized for these sorts of devices look like?

Hyperlinks, naturally, with some going to different pages and others just opening small boxes with definitions or other info in them. Interactive character sheets that help you fill in the blanks or do calculations for you, as well as full-on character generators. What about interactive maps (click on the hex to pull up its writeup in the key, or roll for wondering monsters)? Animation? Music? Minigames as part of the game?

I think those last few are getting a bit far from what most of us want at the table, and even the first few make it harder to tweak the game to your own personal preferences. Still, there's clearly a lot of territory to be explored and exploited usefully in the electronic media of today.

For those of not driving 27 year-old cars and who have fully embraced the 21st century, I'm curious what sorts of things you'd like to see, or have already seen that would improve your prep and play.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Working Buttons


Got the buttons working on my blog. You can now turn any Trollsmyth post into a pdf and/or print it out for easier use at your table. Here are some suggestions from the posts I use a lot:




Weapons, Damage, and Initiative Table
Shields Shall be Splintered!
The Table of Death & Dismemberment


Secondary Powers and Residual Effects


Bloodthirsty Sword
Brian's Satyrical Poetry

Potions on the Open Market

ANTHROPOLOGY (and the Doom & Tea Parties Campaign)

Timeline and Random Dungeon Room Table
The Devil's in the Details: the Slaves of Shkeen
Drugs and Herbs
Genie Corsairs
Noble Titles Among the Efreet
Gods of the Doom & Tea Parties Campaign

Let me know if you think I missed anything.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hobbit Begins Shooting

Ok, so I can't get Jeff's awesome one-button printable blog thingy to work. So while I argue with that, here's Peter Jackson talking about shooting the Hobbit:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Your Highness

It's every bit as juvenile as the trailers would have you believe. And a bit more; I don't think I've seen a movie with more dick jokes. Or pedophilia jokes. And it's more than a little homophobic.

If certain people are right about the general makeup of the computer gaming population, then this movie is for them, and if they find it, then Universal should make out like bandits at the box office. In general, however, I can't recommend it unless your fondest childhood memories involve cracking jokes after gym in the locker room in junior high.

However, I do have to give the production props in a number of areas. The cinematography is surprisingly good, as are the costumes, sets, and props. There are touches of painfully silly here and there, but I'd hold up all these areas against the second Conan flick or any of the Deathstalker movies. Sure, I expect special effects to look better, but set design and costumes?

The soundtrack is not bad, but it's clearly designed to invoke memories of music from computer games, with a heavily synthesized sound in parts that makes you think of the soundtrack to old 8-bit RPGs and such. It doesn't quite clash with the full-on orchestra and choral work we get at the more exciting moments, and those might be good for mining for game-time music; like the surprisingly good soundtrack for "Van Helsing," I'll bet it sets the right mood without invoking images from a movie most people won't remember much of a few years later. In its quieter moments it's clearly channeling Basil Poledouris' "Conan" soundtrack, and at other times, it's got some really solid action beats.

So yeah, maybe catch this one on the cheap as you can, or if you're really in the mood for what it's offering. You'll get a few laughs, and be reminded at least once of jokes or situations that came up around the table. And if that's what you want, it's spot-on.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Naked Warrior

I’m going to pick on Brad over at Skull Crushing for Great Justice a little bit. Yeah, I know, he’s mostly complaining about cheesecake pin-up babes, but he also brings up bare midriffs, halter tops, and generally scantily-clad warriors.

Who’d go into a fight without even, at bare minimum, a shirt and pants?

Oh, I dunno… maybe these guys. Or these guys. Or maybe even these guys (NSFW).

Seriously, we in the west have an equipment fetish. We can’t imagine going into a fight without 40+ lbs of gear. The average US GI goes into combat today carrying more weight than the medieval knights did, and those guys expected horses to do most of the heavy-lifting.

On the other hand, nothing looks dumber than two warriors who are supposed to be from the same culture, but one is so heavily armoured that not an inch of flesh and showing, and the other is wearing a bikini. (Which is my pet peeve with Red Sonja of the comics. Wearing a chainmail bikini in a fight only makes sense if everyone else is dressed similarly. If you’re the only one doing it, it looks as insane as tights in bright, primary colors. Xp ) Frankly, I think this says more about male body issues than female ones, but that’s a post for another day. What turns on thee may not turn on me. So let’s focus on scantily clad warriors in RPGs, shall we?

Ohio Metal Militia is poking at this question for his Antediluvian Witchery setting. Fact is, your players probably share in the common equipment fetish, and it drives them to outfit their characters with the most effective equipment they can get, and to the Abyss with looking cool. That’s only reasonable, which means if you want the PCs to dress “appropriately “ (and to not pwn everyone who does), you have to make these sartorial decisions make sense in your mechanics. How to do that?

1) Class Limits: this is the classic from the earliest days of the hobby. Magic-users can’t wear armour of any sort and still cast spells. Druids can’t wear metallic armours. Quick, easy, and to-the-point, though it can feel a bit “game-y” if you don’t work to justify it somehow.

2) Encumbrance: not only does the LotFP Weird Fantasy RPG include an easy way to track encumbrance, it makes it important, especially to thief characters. Most of the thiefy skills can’t be used if much encumbered, meaning your thief is either not going to be doing much other than searching for traps, or they’re not going to be wearing much armour.

3) Humidity: the panoply of the ancient Greek hoplite shrank a lot. By the time of Alexander’s march into Persia, the helmet had shrunk to expose the face, the shield was smaller, and the heavy bronze breastplate had been replaced with lighter Kevlar-like linen armour. Why? Because they were fighting on the shores of the freakin’ Mediterranean and didn’t want to get heat stroke. To simulate this in your RPG, say that folks in chain mail or heavier armour can fight for a number of rounds equal to their CON hit-point bonus without ill effect. After that, they suffer a -2 to all dice rolls. If the fight continues another equal number of rounds, they lose a hit point, and another for every additional equal number of rounds. Keep in mind that in most old school games, a round is a full minute. That’s a long time to be fighting in heavy armour in 80%+ humidity.

4) Buffs in the Buff: it’s been written that the Gaul warriors fought in the nude because they believed their sun god would give them strength and courage through the beams of the sun. These solar-powered scrappers exposed every inch of flesh to the invigorating sun beams to take full advantage of this gift. Unfortunately, in the real world, naked gaulish virility was no match for the Roman gladius. Fortunately, in your fantasy worlds, it actually can be. Combine a naked +2 to-hit and damage bonus with the humidity penalty above and folks will be shedding armour like they’re adventuring at Club Med.

5) Defensive Bonuses: you saw this first in the 1e monk, and later in 3e. In one version of WotC’s Star Wars RPG, things got “screwy” when high level characters were better protected by being nude than they were when wearing armour. Yeah, that makes no sense, but it does model what we see in the movies. Not my favorite option, but it works.

6) There is no Armour: your setting doesn’t have it. You’ll have to explain why, or your players or going to try to invent it.

7) Guns: the big plus with guns was that they punched holes through armour pretty handily. When I use firearms in my games, they do modest amounts of damage (1d6 to 2d8, more than enough to kill the average human in a single shot) but give big bonuses to hit or ignore armour. If there are enough of these in your setting, and you use any sort of encumbrance rule, people will ditch the armour as too much fuss and bother, just as they did in the real world. Again, not my favorite way to go, but perfectly fitting for a Sword-and-Planet world. Though now you might have to justify why anyone bothers with a sword.

UPDATE: Bree Yark! suggests:
Here are a couple of options in addition to what you've listed:

#1. Limit the kinds of armor available based upon the law of the land. For example, it could be the case that only members of the nobility are allowed to wear plate armor. Anyone else found wearing or even in possession of plate armor will face the wrath of the king.

#2. Change armor to damage reduction. D&D uses AC as an abstract composite of how hard you are to hit, and how hard it is to inflict damage on a successful blow. You could separate these two things.

The less you are encumbered & the better your DEX score, the better your AC is (making you harder to hit). On the other hand, armor increases your encumbrance, making you easier to hit (weakens your AC), but you subtract a certain number of points from each hit, meaning weaker hits do no damage.

For example: Leather could provide 1 point of damage reduction, chain mail 2 pts, and plate 3 pts.

Yeah, sumptuary laws should have been on my list. Thanks for the reminder! As for option 2, that's a lot more involved than I think I want to get on this, but I'm considering it. Just how far do I want to stray from B/X/Labyrinth Lord? Well, I'm not going to be running a game like this anytime soon myself, so that's probably a question for another day.

And be sure to treat yourself to Bree Yark's treading in the artistic footsteps of a master (arguably the master) on his own blog.

Art by John Singer Sargent and Hendrick Goltzius.

Genie Corsairs

Genies make for unpleasant neighbors. Their command of their respective elements means they can suddenly, and radically, rearrange the landscape and climate. They tend to congregate into large households comprising not only more of their own kind, but also slaves and pets of numerous other races that most sane folk consider dangerous in the extreme. And many enjoy adding to their collections by raiding far and wide across the multiverse.

All four races of geniekind use a similar design for their corsairs. Generally, there are two habitable ellipsoids connected end-to-end. These are encased in a cage-like frame of orichalcum (around an adamantium core) in a long football shape. The spaces inside the frame not filled by the ellipsoids (on either pointed end and a ring around the middle, surrounding where the ellipsoids meet) cage the elementals that pull (or push or lift, as the case may be) the corsair. Typically, air elementals of massive size are preferred, as they allow the corsair to fly, and nearly anyone the genies would be thinking to raid would live within a bubble of Air. Air-drawn corsairs can also travel through water. Water-drawn corsairs can generally only travel through water, though, like fire-drawn corsairs (which can travel through fire, naturally) they can crawl across the ground, though at speeds barley faster than a human’s walk. Earth elementals can travel across the top of the ground much more quickly, but can also pass through earth and solid stone at a surprising clip (lead slows them considerably, and they cannot breach adamantium).

The habitable portions of corsairs vary in design, but typically the forward portion contains the command deck, work quarters, chirurgeon’s studio and hospital facilities, sparring and drilling rooms, alchemical and magical labs, smithies or other factory facilities, and cargo hold. The aft portion is typically decorated more to the usual sumptuous tastes of genie-kind and houses the living quarters for the genies and their favored slaves, feasting halls, kitchens, vaults, armories, as well as quarters for living animals that will be harvested for food along the way.

What these sections are made from depends on the ship’s origin. Efreet corsairs tend to be of brass or bronze, sheathed in adamantium. Corsairs from Earth tend to replace the brass and bronze with wood. Ships from Water are constructed with bulbous, glistening pastel shells similar to the glass-like towers merfolk grow from specially cultivated corral. Djinn often build theirs from crystals, sometimes replacing even the orichalcum and adamantium framework with an enchanted crystal matrix.

A corsair on a raiding expedition will often house a dozen to a score or more genies, plus twice to five times the number of attendant slaves, at least half of whom will be combatants, whether simple warriors or even enslaved sorcerers and other spell-slingers. Even a corsair heading out to a raid is filled with fabulous treasures. Treat it as holding about a quarter of the expected wealth for the typical lair of genies of the appropriate type. And corsairs returning from a successful raid will hold even greater treasure, with types and quantities depending on where it’s returning from.

The corsair pictured here, the Firecat, is a smaller one, being only 320 feet in length. It’s owned by Bey Asad ibn Rumha. As the Bey used to travel with most of his harem, more space than normal was given over for his own personal quarters as well as for his mamluks and their gear, and the pair of firecats kept by his concubines. The large, two-level cargo hold and cisterns allow the Firecat to stay out for extended periods, either on pleasure-cruises or raids. The short, domed dorsal observation tower would slow the corsair down when traveling through Earth or Water, but Bey Asad prefers raids on the Prime Material and Faerie realms.

Like most corsairs, the Firecat includes an ethereal spindle which allows the ship to shift between the physical and ethereal planes. As the ethereal touches both all the Elemental Planes as well as the Prime Materials, it makes an excellent conduit by which corsairs can travel from one realm to another. However, as ethereal travel is dangerous, most raiders keep their time in the ethereal to a minimum. Special savants are used to navigate between worlds, and to find the places most auspicious to translate between the planes. While the ship is traveling through the ethereal plane, these savants guide it from meditation cells buried deep inside the ship, where they can pilot the craft without distraction. When outside the ethereal plane, the enslaved elementals that move the ship can be psychically commanded by anyone sitting on the pilot’s throne.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

When is D&D?

Over at the Hill Cantons blog, ckutalik wants to know:
…what really is the historically-analogous period implied in the garden variety D&D?
It's an interesting question. The clues lead us all sorts of contradictory directions.

For instance, the argument for a late Renaissance to Early Modern dating is largely based on equipment. Plate armor, halberds, and two-handed swords primarily date from this time period. Ditto for such things as the widespread use of coins, glass for windows, lanterns, and spyglasses, carriages, theaters, harpsichords and pipe organs, standing armies and navies, clockworks, and even potatoes and tomatoes and pasta. Likewise, Mr. Gygax himself is quoted as setting his games in a Renaissance analog.

Which is all well and good, until you start talking about druids, large and unexplored frontiers within walking distance of the civilized world, feudalism, and the absence of gunpowder. These aren't even the trappings of the high Middle Ages of the 12th century. Most of these belong to the dark ages between the fall of Rome and the rise of Charlemagne.

It gets even worse when you start poking at all sorts of assumptions that the players have. Private rooms at the inn? Even as late as the American Revolution you're more likely to end up with up to eight people, mostly strangers, in a single room and in a single bed! Homes with glass windows, wooden floors, fireplaces, and separate, private bedrooms are also completely modern. The attitudes of most, especially in "good" lands, directly adhere to what we expect to find in suburbia, except with less football and a greater reverence for monarchy.

So what's going on here, and when is bog-standard D&D set? The answer is: neverwhen. It is a crazy stew of common assumptions, misunderstandings, and outright laziness of the sort that gives us Sir Lancelot in gleaming plate armor and allows Xena Warrior Princess to both rescue the Ark of the Covenant from Babylonians and meet Julius Caesar.

And why the heck not? Rigorous historical play can be fun, but that's usually not what we're about in these games. Letting our cleric of Bast and her kung-fu monk best friend go mano-y-mano with a high priest of Cthulhu for the broken shards of Excalibur in a back alley of Sanctuary while the city is under siege by an army of Barsoomian apes under the sorcerous command of Yyrkoon of Melnibone is just fun! Sometimes, what you really want is the no-time that is every time implied by the old Deities & Demigods book. If D&D truly has a default setting this is most assuredly it.

Art by Vittore Carpaccio and Frank Dicksee.

Monday, April 04, 2011

"Wipe them out. All of them!"

Some friends have been talking about getting into BioWare’s MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic (henceforth SWTOR) so I’ve been giving the game a more serious look-see. I found this walk-through of a “Flashpoint” (which is apparently a showcase multiplayer mission) with commentary from Dallas Dickinson, Director of Production. There’s some very interesting stuff to note here, if you’re wearing your designer/tweaker/house-ruler cap.

First off, let me just point out that I have no inside access or anything like that to BioWare Austin, so just about everything I’m telling you comes from this little video, plus a few others I’ve seen scattered around the web. They haven't finished making the game yet, and I certainly haven't had a chance to play any of it yet. A lot of what follows is guesswork, and I'm using this more as a jumping-off point to discuss design matters more than SWTOR.

Second, it may sound like I'm beating up on the game. That's not the point either; it is what it is, and some of what I'm going to be talking about here specifically points out what SWTOR isn't. There's some stuff here that confuses me, and some stuff that looks suboptimal based on what it appears they are doing. But, all in all, it looks like it'll be a fun game. It certainly sounds like a Star Wars game. The soundtrack, sound effects, and even the corny dialogue fit just about perfectly with the original trilogy. As Oddysey pointed out to me recently, Star Wars has an audible signature that is unique and immediately recognizable. BioWare has certainly captured that. In addition, I'm not seeing much in the way of disassociative mechanics. (Rifles pull your target closer: seriously, Guild Wars 2?)

The first point of interest comes shortly after 6:45, when Mr. Dallas points out that just sitting back and watching the Imperial troopers fight the river lurker means missing out on experience points. This is one of those ideas that's counterintuitive to anybody who is not steeped in game culture. The smart thing would appear to be to lay low and let the river lurker and the imperials wear each other out. This is actually a bad idea, because it means passing up on valuable experience; the smart gamer knows that the proper response is to wipe them out, all of them!

This won't shock most gamers in the audience, but it sure doesn't look like Star Wars. Even when going after the shield generator on Endor, it was never Han’s plan to slaughter all the storm troopers in order to duke it out with their big-boss commander. If the plan had gone like it was supposed to, there hardly would have been any fighting at all.

But in most MMOs, combat serves as the primary activity because it is an infinitely flexible puzzle that comes preloaded with lots of drama. Pick a fight with a PC, and the players know exactly what the stakes are and what the rules are without really having to be told anything. SWTOR has clearly embraced this design philosophy. Therefore, while it might be very like the movies for PCs to avoid combat, it would be counterproductive to the game. You'll notice, also, that there doesn't seem to be much exploration involved in this mission. Other than the occasional option to engage in additional combats, like blowing up the science console, it looks very much like a linear string of fights. Since the game is built around fighting, this makes sense, and allows the designers to concentrate on varying the combat experience and how the different fights lead into one another.

You can see the same sort of dynamic in 4e D&D: as the focus of the fun is in the actual combat, simple, linear adventures with very detailed encounters make sense. In contrast, in TSR-era D&D it can be argued that a straight-up fight is the least interesting part of the game. Greater complexity in the adventures and environments allow players to pick their fights and engage with obstacles in non-mechanical ways.

I do like the way they've used Star Wars trappings to justify typical MMO abilities, like freezing or moving opponents and healing. I'm really not sure why they've kept death in the game. Near as I can tell, the only real consequence from death is having to fight through the mission all over again (Mr. Dallas mentions this specifically during the Big Boss fight). This seems counterintuitive, as it makes death both a non-issue in terms of story, but very annoying in gameplay. It's even worse if, as I suspect, you must complete certain, if not all, missions in a particular order. Story wise, it's boring. For the player, it means gameplay that will almost certainly turn both repetitive and frustrating at some point. Include too many of these, and your game will hemorrhage players. Conversely, without enough challenge, players will zip through your content and get bored. Squaring this circle will almost certainly require more development time and resources, as well as potentially creating content that some players will never see. However, I’m firmly of the opinion that the first MMO to successfully tackle this issue will set the standard for the industry.