Saturday, July 31, 2021

Masters of the Trollyverse!

I am not the target audience for this new Masters of the Universe series helmed by Kevin Smith.  The series came out in ’83, by which point I was already trading in my action figures for RPG minis.  And it was late coming out in my town; by the time MotU and Transformers replaced Tom & Jerry and Bugs Bunny in the afterschool cartoon lineup, I was in 8th grade.  At that point, I’d fully replaced going “pew-pew” through the imaginary jungles of my back yard to swimming in real lakes and hiking in real wilderness and shooting real guns and bows-and-arrows with the Boy Scouts.  We had a computer at home as well, an Apple IIe.  When I wasn’t out-of-doors, I was likely discovering new (to me) fantasy and sci-fi authors like Barbara Hambly and Steven Brust, or traveling through space-and-time in Ultima or kitting out my ship in Elite. 


So I never owned any of the MotU toys.  I was aware of them, but that was mostly thanks to the cartoon.  And the cartoon was fascinating to me because it was this insane world where science and sorcery lived and fought side-by-side.  The world of Eternia drew me in because it was so bizarre and alien, with its strange peoples and iconic locations (Snake Mountain being high on that list with its river of lava being vomited from the mouth of a giant snake statue).  Where GI Joe couldn’t hold a candle to movies like Zulu and Tora, Tora, Tora, and the Transformers real-world setting failed to inspire, Masters of the Universe was this bonkers, no-holds-barred candyland of inspiration seeds. 


But I can kinda see where Smith is coming from.  A full-on assault on Castle Greyskull wasn’t something that happened in the cartoon, but I’ll bet it happened a lot in backyards and den floors across the country in the mid-‘80s.  So I can totally see this as a wonderful nostalgia trip for those who are not quite yet staring down the barrel of their 50th birthday.


The non-spoiler TL;DR: overall entertaining and a fun binge on a night where I wasn’t feeling energetic enough to do anything much more than plop in front of some passive entertainment.  Individual bits disappoint by being cliché and/or rushed, but there’s some fun inspiration, especially with stuff that’s glossed over with a hackneyed brush but could be really fun if you dug into it.


Spoilers below!


The only voice I recognized was Mark Hamill hamming it up delightfully as Skeletor.  Skeletor manages to both be in on the joke and an even scarier threat than he ever was in the original cartoon.  So far, he’s not called anyone a boob, which makes me sad.


Teela and her engineer bud (whose name I will never remember and who I keep wanting to call Fannie after a materials engineer I knew when I was a kid) are clearly embarrassed to find themselves in a MotU cartoon.  They’re self-aware with that ironic distance that is sooo Gen X.  But then, Kevin Smith, so I guess we should feel ourselves lucky it’s mostly relegated to two characters. 


Orco’s got a nice tragic thread going, Evil Lynn is fun (especially as a not-very-trustworthy ally), and of course Beastman has a crush on her.  (Did he in the ‘80’s cartoon?  I don’t recall.  In one of my worlds, he’d have a crush on the shape-shifting Sorceress, but that would be a bit too creepy for a children’s cartoon, no?)  But the real break-out is Duncan (no longer Man-at-Arms because that’s some sort of general/super engineer-nerd position in the royal court) who finally gets to be the total bad-ass we always knew he was.


Skeletor and He-man get sidelined in the first episode, which gives enough space for all these great secondary characters room to take the spotlight.  It’s like they took all those single-episode stories that focused on a secondary character and expanded them into a full series, which is a lot of fun.  And the slow-motion cataclysm the provides the urgency not only forces heroes and villains to unite (always fun), but also allows the writers to really shake up the world and do some fun things with it.


Cyclops’ Motherboard religion is one of those lame glosses that could really go places with a GM willing to put some time into it.  A merging of goddess myth with a 40k-style machine god?  Yes, please, sign me up!  The secrets of Greyskull were not as epic as I wish they were, but they were not a complete disappointment, either.  The idea that all magic in the universe emanates from Eternia is an interesting one, and could be used to create a very interesting setting for RPGing in.  Making a crystal sea actually have floating crystals in it is a fun bit of literal “duh” that I look forward to tossing it into a game (but, again, it needs more done with it than just a pretty background for a fight scene). 


The only thing that kept me going through the so-been-there-and-done-that face-your-ultimate-fear episode was the interactions between Orco and Lynn.  Otherwise, it felt like the weakest episode of the bunch.  While I thought Orco’s transformation wasn’t really earned, I do look forward to seeing him in his final form as Oracle, ruler of the Land of the Dead. 


The cliffhanger was appropriately epic, and they’ve done a good job with actually killing and scaring characters that (some) of the peril feels (kinda) real.  Though I’m sure we’ll see a whole slew of resurrections as we work towards our finale.


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Neo-classical Gaming Revisited

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed neo-classical gaming.  The basic idea is made up of two components:

  1. -        The core activity of playing games is making decisions, primarily about how you’re going to use your limited resources to achieve victory (however that’s defined).
  2. -       Thus, when you’re rolling dice, you’re not playing the game; you’ve paused the game while you wait for random chance to tell you what the new situation is going to be.

So while lots of RPG design theory says, “If your game is about exploration and danger, you should have an Exploration and Danger stat,” neo-classical gaming is more about building mechanics around exploration and danger so the players are making decisions that lead to exploration and danger.  (To see a good modern example of a neo-classical game built around exploration, check out Numenera.) 


What’s brought this to mind recently is discussion around WotC new upcoming book, Strixhaven.  The book is odd, to say the least.  Strixhaven is a wizard’s school, and the adventures revolve around the PCs being students.  There are no villains, but your characters might find an NPC classmate is a “frenemie.” 


It’s a far cry from crossing wits with Count Strahd or banishing kaiju-sized demon-princes back to the Abyss.  Even Hogwarts had its Voldemort.  Still, I think the idea is that you’ll drop Strixhaven into existing campaign worlds that already have their own epic villains.  The ad copy certainly implies that one suggested use of Strixhaven is as a level 1-to-10 prequel to a full-blown campaign. 


But what would a darker, more adventurous version of Strixhaven look like?  I ran a campaign using 2e D&D where all magic-users got their powers from pacts with demons and devils, and the school where these pacts were made was a recurring element.  Starting from that, what would a neo-classical game about such a place look like?


The classic tropes of the pact-with-a-devil genre, from Dr. Faustus to Elric of Melniboné, include the tug of temptation to give more and more to the devil and the dangers associated with that.  Slippery slopes and dangerous assumptions abound, as well as pitcher-plant style traps that are pleasing to fall into but difficult to escape from.  (Now that I think on it, these stories have a lot in common with the American gangster genre.)


So what springs to mind is something akin to Numenera’s mechanics, which use a death-spiral to push the characters to use their Cyphers.  But instead of Cyphers, the students of the Shadow University would instead be tempted by sweet-but-poisoned deals. 


Our stats are going to be the sort that define college students: Athleticism (to cover everything from physical combat to how much you can drink without passing out), Wits (native intelligence, book-learning, and cleverness), Intuition (seeing beyond the surface of things and ferreting out lies and half-truths), and Charisma (charm and deception).  There will also be a class-ranking number which measures both your academic standing versus your classmates and social position in campus culture. 


The bulk of the game would be opportunities to raise your Ranking or threats to it.  If it ever falls too low, you’ll likely end up being sacrificed by one of your classmates to a devil.

The Eyes of Satan are Upon You...


The stats are represented with a die; d6 is average, d8 is noteworthy while d12 is exceptional.  (We’re skipping the d10 here.)  There’s one lower, the d4, which represents an impaired stat.  When you try to use one of your stats to overcome a challenge, you roll you die and try to beat a target number:


2+ : a routine challenge; you’ll succeed unless luck, exhaustion, or some other outside influence trips you up.


4+ : an educational challenge; this one might stretch you a bit.  It’s akin to a pop-quiz in a class or a game versus an equally-skilled opponent.


6+ : a daunting challenge; for most, it’s possible to succeed, but only with a lot of hard work and maybe a little luck.  This is the final exam from that prof who brags about how many students fail his class every year. 


8+ : crushing!  Native talent is unlikely to be enough, and you’ll have to exert yourself to even have a chance at success.


10+ : harrowing!  Only the most gifted or foolish will tackle this challenge with out prep and support. 


The higher the challenge, the better the chance that success will move your Ranking. 


If you roll and fail, your character can exert themselves to put in extra effort.  This causes your stat to reduce to the next smaller die, but you get to add the max roll possible on that smaller die to what you rolled.  So if your character’s Athleticism is d6, and you roll a 5, your character can exert themselves, lowering their Athleticism to a d4, but also automatically adding +4 to the 5 for a final score of 9. 


If your stat is down to d4 already, your character is too spent in that area to exert themselves effectively. 


Replenishing your stats involves wallowing in vice.  Wrath might involve smashing something expensive or useful, Pride might require you to abuse a hireling or sacrifice a relationship, etc. 


And thus our death-spiral trap makes you exert your character’s stats to keep from falling in the Rankings, and then engage in self-destructive behavior to replenish those exerted stats. 


Or you can make a pact and sell your soul for power. 


And just to twist the knife, the longer you can go without making a deal, the better a deal you can make.  It’s push-your-luck all across the board.


Then we just sprinkle the calendar with all those school-fun events, from freshman initiation streaking to midterms to dances.  And all will be twisted to either challenge the PCs or give them chances to indulge their vices. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

D&D 6e Predictions

Ok, it’s really too early to be talking about this.  Barring a precipitous drop in sales, 6e is probably still at least two years away.  At least.  And the cultural landscape around D&D will likely change between now and then. 


However, there’s been a lot of chatter about what people want to see in 6e over in the AV end of the D&D blog-o-sphere.  And of course I have thoughts.


However, these are not the things I want to see.  These are the things I expect to see.  Keeping in mind that “harebrained speculation” is not a synonym for “data,” let’s dive in to the nightmare-fueled world that is Trollsmyth’s predictions for 6e!


The Low-hanging Fruit

First, the easy stuff.  The word “race” is replaced with something like “ancestry”.  Frankly, I’d fall on the ground and nearly die from fits of laughter if they use “folk” instead.  But I wouldn’t be terribly surprised, either.


Alignment is seriously nerfed.  The nine-fold is gone.  It might just be reduced to the old Order-Neutrality-Chaos spectrum.  It might go completely, but I doubt it.


The GURPS-ification of D&D

There’s going to be a lot more build-your-own in 6e, along the lines of the race-building stuff in Tasha’s.  This may (and likely will) extend to classes, looking a bit like 4e’s trees of abilities stuff for both race and class. 


Remember, Mearls is out.  His mantra of simplification has probably gone with him.  The new crew will likely feel that 5e was too simple.  They’ll try to make the game more robust.  That means more than two pages on multiclassing and a LOT more options for character customization.  Don’t be surprised if the levels listed in the PHB go up to 36 or so now.


The Digital-ification of D&D

Mearls was replaced by Ray Winninger.  Winninger has a long and storied history in the gaming industry.  He’s best known to me for being the executive producer of Golem Arcana, a tabletop minis game that came with a digital app to manage the rules for you.


This might be how they counter charges of making the game more complicated.  Yes, it is, but now you have a digital app to help you manage your character.  The bare-bones will be free, but we will likely see the return of the subscription service to D&D here.  There probably won’t be a brand-new virtual tabletop, but there probably will be direct integration with Roll20, and possibly other virtual tabletops.


The Critical Role-ification of D&D

Of course, about the time it launches, the biggest live-play troupes will be paid to run at least some sessions, if not an entire campaign, with 6e.  And there will almost certainly be features included to make that sort of thing easier.  I’m expecting a full-on stunt system in 6e, akin Green Ronin’s AGE system, but probably a lot more flexible.  We’ll likely also see 5e’s action economy replaced with something more flexible, like Pathfinder 2e’s three generic actions.


I’m also expecting pets to be a fully integrated part of the game for nearly all classes.  Expect a full-court press on these things, with adorable plushies and Drizzt’s Guenhwyvar everywhere.  (Frankly, this more than anything will be what tempts me to play 6e.) 


The Return of the Splatbook Flood  

WotC’s model still revolves around selling books.  There will be strong pressure on WotC to create the sort of sales numbers 5e had with 6e.  The smart money says it won’t (much of 5e’s success can be laid at the feet of Mearl’s being willing to break with conventional wisdom as well as the surprise popularity of Critical Role).   


So I doubt the subscription service alone will reach those numbers. Whether WotC thinks it’s a bad idea or not, we will, sooner or later, see a flood of splatbooks for 6e.  This will lead to power-creep.  Smart money says 6e doesn’t last much longer than four years. 

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Using the Real World to Create Post-apocalyptic Maps


1. Pick a city with a cool downtown, museum district, or shopping mall.

2. Print out a Google Map of the area.  You don't need (or want) the whole town, just the place with the coolest buildings.

3. Decide who the local power factions are and how they've split up the buildings.  Who is where, what do they have, and what do they want?  Double-plus good if some of those wants are mutually exclusive and are causing a low level of conflict.  (See Bartertown from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome for inspiration.)

4. With colored pencils, draw in fortifications.  Maybe the whole area is inside a wall, or maybe the different factions hate each other so much that they have individual fortifications for each area.

5. Go to the web pages for the cool buildings and see if they have maps of the interiors.  (This is almost a certainty for museums and shopping malls, though you'll have to go to city records or just make it up for behind-the-scenes areas.)  Outline how these buildings have been repurposed by the current residents.

6. Draw out a shanty town and farms to supply your post-apocalyptic city-state around the fortified areas.  

7. Mark down important resources the players will want to take advantage of in town: shops, skilled artisans, inns and taverns, etc.

8. Go back to Google maps and find some other cool areas that you can turn into encounter sites/dungeons.  Find out what treasures and dangers are there.  Write up a list of rumors that folks in your city might know about these places, and who might pay your PCs to go there and do things.

9. Profit!

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Does it Feel Like the Walls are Closing in to You?

Over on the Book of Faces, someone asked about adding a sort of madness mechanic to an OSR game like B/X D&D that would give you the sorts of character attributes that you see in Darkest Dungeons, like becoming selfish, irrational, or hopeless.  And of course I thunked some thoughts on this.

I'd make it a resource like hit points.  Give bonuses to it based on Wisdom and maybe also Constitution.  Like hit points, you roll for them and what you roll is based on your class.  Spell-slingers like magic-users, clerics, and elves roll the lowest dice, and expert/rogues and halflings roll the highest dice.

I'd rename it Reason.  Taking damage, witnessing horific events (like things happening to your companions), etc. lowers it, just like attacks and traps lower your hit points.  If Reason reaches zero, you roll on a table of afflictions like those in Darkest Dungeons, but you'd absolutely use this part to flavor to your group's taste.  I'd make the list have the least affecting afflictions on the low end and the most impactful at the high end.  Then, every time you roll again on the table, you add another +1, or maybe you roll more dice, starting with a single d4 or d6, but adding another d4 every time you roll.  Once you'd acquired an affliction in a session (or possibly location), you couldn't acquire another one until next session (or after you'd left the location for more than a day).  

I'd give spell-slingers a bonus on the power of their spells based on how low their Reason is.  The lower the better for those who seek to warp reality with eldritch sorceries!

You could have a lot of fun with how Reason is replenished.  Rest, sure, but the quality of that rest should be taken into account.  Sleeping in the dungeon in your armour?  Maybe a point if that much.  Sleeping in a ditch?  Maybe 2 points.  But if you've got a nice cozy room at an inn and had a good hot meal, you get lots of points back.  Halflings might replenish just from eating.  

Maybe you can replenish reason by telling in-game jokes, listening to music, attending religious ceremonies dedicated to gods of goodness, or carousing.  Sex and intimacy might be healing along these lines.  Having a deep emotional bond with someone might have a protective effect, but if something happens to your special someone, it might hit you just as hard as it hits them.  There are all sorts of neat directions you can take this.  

Friday, June 04, 2021

Trash Witches

The Trash Witches dwell in the refuse pits beyond the city walls. They are immune to fires and poison, and can eat damn near anything; however, clean water and soap burns them. 

They know all the secrets of the city, but they trade only in objects that hold sentimental value; nothing else is of value to them. Those who mock or cheat a Trash Witch will constantly be losing items that are important to them.

In combat, they take half damage from any attack that doesn't involve something the attacker has loved or does love. Every time you attack a Trash Witch, there's a 5% chance you'll lose your weapon in the grand pile of objects Trash Witches wear on their backs like hermit crabs wear their shells.

Art by the incomparable Brian Froud.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Quantum D&D

A funny thing happened to D&D in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: it got popular.  It went from a game everyone learned from someone whose knowledge of the game could be traced back to Arneson or Gygax, to a game people were trying to learn how to play from the three different boxed sets released between ’77 and ’83.  And we got a lot wrong.


I fully and heartily mean to include myself among them.  I made all the classic blunders, from only giving EXP for kills and ignoring henchmen, to treating AD&D as a set of add-on rules for B/X.  And I fully blame the books we read.


Fantasy exploded as a genre in the late ‘60s and by the ‘70s was, with sci-fi, a sizeable portion of your local bookstore and frequently dominated the spin-racks of paperbacks you’d find in newspaper shops and drugstores at the time.  And between the heyday of reading for Gygax and Arneson and my personal Golden Age of sci-fi/fantasy, things had drifted.  A lot!


Here’s the thing: when I started playing D&D, the only author from Appendix N I’d read was Tolkien.  The authors who informed what fantasy was to me were C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, combined with a collection of Robin Hood stories, the Young Boy’s King Arthur, some historical fiction like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, and a collection of fairy tales my grandmother owned that still had the creepy bits like Cinderalla’s sisters cutting off parts of their feet to try and get them to fit into the glass slipper. I’d read all the Greek and Norse mythology in my elementary school library.  I’d poured over the sections on knights, Vikings, Roman legions, and ancient Greece in the illustrated encyclopedias in my classrooms.  I’d seen a handful of Harryhausen flicks, the Rankin-Bass Hobbit and Return of the King, and I had the Marvel comic book versions of the movies Dragonslayer and Clash of the Titans (which I’d failed to see in the theater). 


And later reading didn’t help matters.  I read Dune and Le Guin’s Earthsea and a few of the Xanth books and Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger, as well as Kurtz’ Deryni novels, The Once and Future King, The Crystal Cave, and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series.  I read a handful of novels that modernized the legends of the ancient Celts.  Much of the ‘80s fantasy was of the epic quest sort, and fantasy authors openly wrestled with the fact that pretty much everything they were making (at the time) could be accused of being a pastiche of Tolkien.  Even the stuff that made some passing attempts to deconstruct the sub-genre of quest-fantasy, like Hambly’s Dragonsbane and McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, didn’t deviate much from the formulae. 


And I did read some books that harkened back to the pulp traditions.  Brust’s stuff, for instance, was much more Leiber than Tolkien.  But the point stands; I was reading fantasy that fit poorly into D&D’s mold. 


It looked like it should fit great; pretty much all of it was some flavor of bildungsroman set to an epic backdrop of clashing kingdoms and fantastical monsters. 


But there was a lot missing.  For instance, nearly all the heroes in these stories were some flavor of reluctant; they didn’t choose a life of adventure, but got chosen.  Many were from our world and got tossed into the fantasy world.  Even the locals were not looking for wealth or power, or to topple the status quo, but rather to secure or restore the status quo threatened by a great evil.  It was all very World War II.


And these heroes didn’t hire help.  There were no trains of porters and native guides, no link-boys or stevedores.  They rarely even had bands like Robin Hood’s Merry Men.  It was usually the hero plus a handful of others facing all the evil in the world, and often in the final confrontation, the hero stood alone. 


So as much as I loved D&D, it also frustrated me. 


D&D wanted to give me The Tower of the Elephant; I wanted the adventures of Sir Gareth or Bilbo’s travels through Mirkwood.  D&D gave me Cudgel the Clever and Captain Kronos; I wanted Gandalf and Morgan la Fey and Circe.  I wanted an epic quest against the forces of evil; the closest D&D came to that was grubbing through the catacombs of the Temple of Elemental Evil. 


And I wasn’t alone in this, and that gave us first Dragonlance, and then the bizarre pseudo-adventures of DUNGEON magazine during the 2e era, and finally 4e, where D&D really was about combat just like everyone had accused it of being. 

Because if you stare at D&D hard enough, and play it enough and talk about it enough, you can warp it into something different.  Every new edition of every RPG likes to boast that many of their changes are just things people have houseruled for years. 


Unfortunately, it never did become the game I was looking for (which was probably Pendragon, but I was too cheap back then to find that out).  Which is mostly my fault; B/X just begged for the type of kit-bashing that could turn it into an epic quest game.  But back then, I barely understood what I had my hands on as it was.  Warping it to my own desires was beyond my (literally) elementary skills.


It took 3rd edition to make me realize that what I thought I wanted wasn’t what I really wanted.

UPDATE: Grognardia chases a different thought up the same tree.  Also: Monopoly is always right! ;)