Monday, September 15, 2008

Playing with Primordials

I mentioned yesterday that I wanted a conflict between the gods and more primordial powers. For the sake of tradition, and to keep things easy, I’m going to call these primordials titans. In Greek myth, the gods were the children of the titans. I’m thinking of playing with something similar.

This as-yet-unnamed world was created by a small collection of powers I’m calling the Eldest. They include a mother eldest who manifests as the sun, her first son who is the moon and commands transitions and transformations, including lycanthropy, death, and childbirth. He’s not the power of the dead or of fertility, but the eldest of moving from one state of being to another. The sun’s other children include a son who angered her and was transformed into the earth, and a daughter who is the seas. Is this daughter also being punished by her mother, or is she seeking to comfort her tormented brother?

Their children are the titans, and these titans are, as I said before, primordial powers. They’ll be the spirits of certain places, like mountains, forests, rivers and the like. Yes, that means the distinction between some of them and certain fey, like dryads, isn’t very clear, and that’s just fine with me. Ambiguity is a feature, not a bug. Some of the stronger titans might also have jurisdiction over emotions, seasons, and weather. I want an elder, wise, trickster crone titaness whom I’m calling Grandmother Spider for right now. Yep, she’s based a bit on the stories of Old Spider Woman told by Native Americans. I’m also stealing Tiamat from the Mesopotamians as the mother of monsters, now trapped within the world’s second moon, the red one. Trapped, but not destroyed, because of her influence over the powers of fertility. And yeah, I might even make her a five-headed dragon. ;)

The gods are children of the titans, but simply being a child of the titans isn’t enough to get you into that club, because that’s exactly what it is: an association of like-minded individuals. The gods are self-identified, an organization dedicated to improving the lot of those who live on the world. Some of the titans are rather indifferent to all the various creatures they share the world with, but the gods are very interested, and seek to organize the world and promote civilization. Why? Maybe because they just enjoy the creature-comforts that come with civilization. Maybe because they draw power from worship or sacrifice. Or maybe it just gives them something to do while eternity rolls on.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Playing with Campaign Design

Some people like to begin working on a new campaign with a map. They’ll start small, with a starting village and the surrounding countryside, maybe plot out where a dungeon or two can be found. Others pull way back and sketch out an entire continent or maybe even the entire world.

I prefer to start with themes. If I can come up with a theme that intrigues and inspires me, the rest tends to come rather easily. Even if the players never really interact with the theme, it serves as a seed from which inspiration for monsters, treasures, locations, and conflicts can arise.

At first, I was thinking about something a bit more high fantasy for my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack. My most successful games have been high fantasy, and that style has a lot going for it. It’s the default of not just D&D, but most fantasy RPGing in general. Everyone knows it, and they can jump right in with little effort.

But my interest in high fantasy has waned over the years. My heart lies elsewhere. A lot of my reading lately has been in the swords-and-sorcery genre, or tended in that direction. I’m less interested in knights and the Renaissance and gunpowder and more interested in barbarians and the Pliocene and magic as something dangerous and not quite tamed. More “Conan the Barbarian” and “Scorpion King” than “Excalibur” and the “Princess Bride”. More (NSFW) Frazetta and Daren Bader and (NSFW) John William Waterhouse, and less Sir Frank Dicksee and Scott Gustafson and (NSFW or your SAN score) Hieronymus Bosch. Not that I don’t like those other things (I maintain that “The Princess Bride” is one of the greatest movies ever made). I’m just not interested in running a game on those themes this time.

So I’m thinking a young world, still mostly untamed, wild and warm and in some ways unfamiliar. This opens up a lot of possibilities. For instance, a common theme in sword-and-sorcery literature is a time before Man ruled, when the great civilizations of the world were other than human. While I prefer to keep the humanocentric feel of Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord, that doesn’t mean I can’t have the remnants of those old civilizations heavily dotted across the landscape. So I’m going to have the waning lizardfolk empire still in evidence, struggling to hold on to their waning power in the face of waxing human dominance. And I’m going to steal a page from Jeff and replace horses with freakin’ giant birds and lizards like the ancient terror birds that made a cameo in “10,000 BC”. I can have (NSFW) mastodons in the north and populate my jungles with saber-toothed tigers. Dinosaurs? Probably not, or, at least, not in common profusion.

A common theme in mythology is a time of conflict among the gods, or between the gods and primal forces (the titans of Greek myth and the frost giants from the Norse myths). The gods at this time are not metaphysical abstractions, but flesh-and-blood creatures who wander the world and have their own adventures. From Isis’ quest to resurrect her beloved Osiris to Ares battling among the mortal armies clashing beneath the walls of Troy , the gods were people you could meet on the street and who took an active part in mortal affairs. Nor were they untouchable superbeings, as Diomedes driving Ares from the field proves.

The gods, then, are going to not be in some distant Outer Plane, but living and dwelling within the world. When people say that the ruler of Nius is a god-king, they’ll mean that quite literally; the ruler of the city is, in fact a god.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Light Saber Duels

Star Wars! Blaargh!

Pardon me while I geek out a moment.

I haven’t seen the new Star Wars animated movie-TV-pilot-thingie. If you’d known me back in college, or any time before the prequels were released, this would be shocking. I was an elementary school kid when the first Star Wars movie literally exploded onto the scene. There’d never been anything like it before. Hollywood was still emerging from a morose fascination with disaster movies. Star Wars was unexpected, imaginative, and sunk its hooks in my like nothing else before or since. I loved the original trilogy (even the ewoks), and the story was important to me, on many levels. I never played in a Star Wars RPG in part because I never felt I could do justice to the feel and power of the original stories.

I shouldn’t have worried so much, since apparently George Lucas can’t, either.

Ok, yeah, cheap shot, and what follows is, in part, a rant about why the prequels suck. There’s nothing directly game related here, in terms of mechanics or styles. However, I think it does have game-related significance because I will be talking about staying true to your themes, and making things cool. And I’ll be talking specifically about those coolest of military mystics, the jedi.

The lowest point of the three new movies, for me, was from “Attack of the Clones”. Chritopher Lee’s character had captured Obi-Wan. The words “jedi knights” came rolling off Lee’s lips in that incredibly rich voice of his, and a thrill ran down my spine. Jedi knights! The name evoked a fusion of ancient mysticism and the Round Table, of spiritual quests and courage and transcendent vision. I wanted to see more about these awesome jedi knights!

And then, like a dunk in cold water, I realized that the jedi knights were these G-Men in bathrobes we’d been watching through the whole movie.

The problem goes beyond midichlorians and over-exposure. It’s not so much the loss of mystery as the loss of vision and mission that reduced the jedi from mystic warrior-saints to mundane government agents from your standard Tuesday night police procedural. Consider the light saber duels. The new movies understood the importance of these as centerpieces, and each was a rousing spectacle of special effects, stage fighting, and stuntwork. But the fights were not really about anything more than fighters going mano-a-mano, trying to kill one another. Story-wise, they were no different from Amidala and her guards blasting away at droid soldiers. The duels look great, but they don’t mean anything beyond simple conflict. They remain mired in the purely physical.

What am I talking about? Ok, let’s go back to Episode IV’s light saber duel. It’s Vader vs. Obi-Wan as played by Alec Guinness, and, as the “later” fights go, it’s kinda lame. Two old guys shuffling around, banging their weapons together. But the fight works because it gives us clues to the as-yet-unknown past, and because Obi-Wan isn’t trying to kill Vader. He’s competing on a completely different plane. He knows he can’t kill Vader, and he’s not even really trying. He’s just toying with Vader, goading him on. Vader can’t see it; his only goal is to murder another jedi and push the order that much closer to oblivion.

Obi-Wan stops fighting as soon as he knows Luke is watching. He wants Luke to see Vader as a butcher and knows he’ll be in a better position to guide Luke’s development after he’s dead. Vader wins the fight but loses the duel; he doesn’t even begin to suspect that he’s been had until he’s prodding at the now empty robes of the dead Kenobi.

The next two duels of the original trilogy carry this theme even further. In “The Empire Strikes Back”, Luke wants to kill Vader. Vader, however, has something else completely in mind. Killing Luke is the last thing he wants to do. Instead, his desire is to corrupt and convert Luke. The duel is a showcase for how weak Luke is and how little he understands. Vader is constantly throwing Luke off-balance, either by chasing him through dark tunnels, using the Force to toss furniture at him, or making startling revelations about their secret history. In the end, Luke wins the fight by escaping, but loses the duel. His faith in Obi-Wan is shattered and he’s had his first taste of the seductive power of the dark side. When we next see Luke, at the beginning of “Return of the Jedi”, he’s abandoned the calm and humble earth-tones of the Alliance and jedi for a black-on-black ensemble, complete with creepy, Palpatine-style cloak.

The final battle of “Return of the Jedi” is rife with this theme. While the Alliance fights for its life around them, the Emperor, Vader, and Luke square off in a struggle unlike any other I’ve ever seen in a movie. The physical action isn’t just a metaphor for deeper struggles, but an active agent of them. Death is the least of everyone’s worries in this duel, and while the Alliance starships are dieing to keep their struggle alive, the conflict around the Emperor’s throne is for the very soul of the galaxy. Not only is Luke not interested in killing anyone, it’s his very refusal to take life that gives him victory. Only by elevating his perspective above the bestial kill-or-be-killed can he ward of the real attack of the Emperor, which has nothing to do with light sabers and warships, and everything to do with hate, love, and reason.

And it’s that which made the jedi so cool in the first three movies. Not that they could kill their foes with all sorts of neat tricks, spinning light sabers, or nifty force powers. It was that they operated on a plane above the normal, physical struggle of the conflict of the day, towards the more universal conflicts that are at the heart of every person. In the realm of the jedi, why you were doing something was vastly more important than what you did. In the mundane realm of Han Solo and Wedge Antilles, being willing to sacrifice yourself for the cause is noble, but in the plane of jedi combat, sacrificing yourself while in alignment with the natural flow of love and hope, or the light side of the Force as they call it in the movie, isn’t just noble, but an undeniable and absolute victory. And that’s something we haven’t really seen since Vader decided he’d rather be a father than a Dark Lord of the Sith.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Mysterious Magical Items

Over at the Verbing Noun, David wonders how to maintain the wonder that magical items really ought to have:

The problem is, the mage says "Ok, I'll cast Identify." Suddenly, the DM is faced with an issue. The spell tells the party what the sword is. The sword, as an item, is exactly a +2 Adamantine Longsword. The problem is, that is exactly what goes down on the loot sheet. The party fighter will take the sword you just lovingly described, and write it down exactly as a +2 Adamantine Longsword. Next week/month/whatever, when you play the next session, no one will remember what the sword looks like or feels like.

I like to tackle this issue in two ways. The first one is to make even the exact, standard description mysterious. And I do this by making the items not entirely beneficial. I wrote about this back at the beginning of August:

This is one area where most games, pen-and-paper RPGs and, most especially, computer RPGs alike, almost all stumble, and in the exact same way. By making magic predictable, reliable, and easily controllable, they drain all the color from it. Fireballs not only harm just your enemies, they don’t cause fires to break out or melt the treasure the monsters were carrying. Stored magical power doesn’t leak or cause unexpected effects. Magic is far more reliable and boring than technology; your computer might blue-screen, your light bulbs might pop, and your car may be melting the polar icecaps, but your wand of lightning bolts only ever does 6d6 points of damage to your intended targets.

When you can't trust magic, when you know in advance there will be a cost for using it, it becomes not just another stat bonus, but instead a resource to be used with caution and treated with respect.

That, however, doesn't really address the issue David is talking about here. Why should players be interested in the description of the magical items, their flavor and style? One general rule applies any time you want the players to pay attention to something: if you want them to care, you have to make it important.

History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells "Can't you remember anything I told you?" and lets fly with a club.
- John W. Campbell

If you want the players to care that the mithril blade was forged by the famed elven smith Norenvyll, then have a collector offer them more than it's market value for the blade. If you want them to care that the Battle of Kessnal Ford was won when an elven champion used this same sword to behead the orcish chieftain Chugrel, have Chugrel's half-orcish daughters assume one of the PCs was that hero when they see him with it in a tavern. Do they want vengeance? Or do they believe the sword has stolen their father's soul, and must be destroyed so his spirit can pass on to the Outer Planes? Or do they owe a debt of fealty to the wielder of the blade, for freeing their mother from the cruel warlord?

You can even have NPCs react to how things look. Even though it wasn't magical, the armour of Sturm from the Dragonlance novels got a reaction from almost everyone who saw it and recognized its significance. What sort of reaction do elves or dwarves have to someone wearing a sword crafted in the elven style? Does that reaction change if the sword was actually crafted by a human smith aping the elvish style? Does the priesthood of the Moon treat differently those who wear the sacred metal silver? Does wearing white, doeskin boots of speed before the Feastday of St. Peret of the Stonemasons get you snickered at in the courts of the High King?

Yeah, you can really go overboard with this, and it only works if your players are interested in these sorts of anthropological details. Still, I've not yet known a player to pass over even a +1 reaction bonus if all they need to do is change out their usual +2 bastard sword for the +1, +2 vs. lycanthropes they've been storing in the bag of holding.

I Taut I Taw a Dwagon...

Now this is just a damned cool idea:

TwitRPG is an experiment I accepted to do on a whim on a random Wednesday night after someone asked me semi-seriously to create a Twitter (A microblog engine that limits post to 140 characters) game world to let characters play in.

It'll never be my preferred method, falling somewhere between the immediacy of IRC gaming and the slow, forgiving play-by-post/email, but it's got a lot of potential. I could really see it working well for very abstract games. For instance, if your RPG has a strong strategic component (like Birthright, for instance) or focuses on long, slow actions (things that take a month or a week to complete), this could work very well.

- Brian