Thursday, September 30, 2010

New Monster: Merochi


AC: 6 (+4 if using ascending AC) for males, 8 (+2) for females
Hit Dice: 3
Move: 120’
Attacks: 1
Damage: by weapon type, or 1-3 for claws and 1d6 for bite
Number Appearing: special
Save As: Fighter 3 or as a witch, when applicable
Morale: special
Treasure Type: A
Alignment: Neutral

Merochi are lion-like humanoids who inhabit tropical and sub-tropical plains and jungles, though some prides have been known to stake claim to lands in more temperate zones. The males stand near 7’ tall with the females rarely more than half-a-foot shorter.

The leonine merochi lay claim to broad territories far beyond what would normally be expected of their limited numbers. This is largely due to the structure of their civilization. With an economy based heavily on hunting, and only supplemented by agriculture and herds, the merochi require large territories which are jealously guarded. Poaching on merochi territory carries the most severe penalties, especially if those poachers are male.

Gender roles are strictly observed among the merochi. The principal, some say singular, duty of the males is warfare. There are only three acceptable professions for males: warriors, sorcerers, and the craftsmen who make weapons and armor. They'll spend the majority of their time training, caring for the youngest cubs, teaching the next generation of males, and overseeing the slaves that care for their fields and herds. When necessary, they also spend a considerable amount of time patrolling the borders of the territories claimed by their pride.

The duties of the female are to hunt and bear young. Indeed, they are even expected to do both at once; until the final stages of her pregnancy, females continue to bring in their share of the meat. Females may also be priestesses or witches, overseeing and caring for those spots within their territory deemed sacred.

This is probably due in large part to the fact that only females may own land. The males patrol and defend it, but it actually belongs to the females of the pride. Females born into a pride tend to stay with the pride their entire lives, and so inherit their land from their mothers and bequeath it to their daughters. Hunting grounds, fields, water, and the structures built upon the land remain the property of the pride, for as many generations as the pride lasts. The only thing a male may bequeath to his sons, and very few do even this much, is his weapons.

Young males who survive the arduous rites of passage to adulthood are ceremonially ejected from the pride. Those who would not live as landless brigands or mercenaries in distant lands must claim a pride for their own. The traditional method for doing this is to drive or slay current males of an existing pride. Warfare among the merochi is in the heroic style. The only ranged weapon allowed is the spear and the javelin. Indeed, so strict is the adherence to gender roles, the male will not touch bows, arrows or slings, since those are traditionally weapons of the females. Likewise, the female will not touch a shield or a sword as those are strictly weapons of war. The favored weapon of the merochi warrior is the spear. They usually also carry a shield, and will often wear breastplates of hide sometimes reinforced with metal. Ambushes and subterfuge are allowed, as are potions and spells to increase the vigor and strength of a warrior, but poison is forbidden. Among wealthier warriors, chariots are common, but only to transport the warrior to the battle. Once he has arrived, the warrior dismounts and fights on foot.

Poaching in the pride’s territory is seen as a challenge to their control of it. It is also seen as a direct challenge to the males whose duty it is to protect these territories. For their part, females rarely involve themselves beyond tracking poachers and pointing them out to the males. Should the males in the pride be slain the females will engage in the traditional three-day period of mourning, after which they will engage in a traditional seven-day period of celebration and revelry, welcoming the victors as the new males of the pride. Even though they may not be able to mate successfully with victorious males who are not of their race, they will still expect such males to take up the traditional duties, since "furless" protectors are better than none at all. Males who refuse will be viciously hunted by the females, and if caught, will be butchered and their meat spoiled and ruined, then scattered along the edge of their border as a warning to others.

Merochi align themselves into loose nations based around large ceremonial sites. These religious complexes are dominated by ziggurats and pyramids and include broad courtyards, arenas for sporting events, granaries and storehouses, and long, low dwellings. Most of these latter remain empty for most of the year, but fill up during important religious festivals. Males are forbidden to linger longer than a week in these places; those who remain longer will have their manes shorn, and may even be castrated or have their thumbs cut off.
Merochi huntresses encountered in the wild will almost certainly be hunting. Roll a d6 to see how many are encountered; if a 6 is rolled, roll the d6 one more time and add the two rolls together to see how many are encountered. A group of eight or more will include two young huntresses recently elevated to adulthood who have but two hit dice. A group of ten or more will include one witch between 3rd and 6th level. There is a 1-in-20 chance that any group of huntresses encountered will include an apprentice witch (2nd level), though there will never be more than one any group of huntresses encountered.

Huntresses hunting for game have a morale of 6 when facing organized opponents. However, they will never flee when defending their homes and sacred sites, and all fight as if one hit die higher when defending their young.

Merochi males on patrol are encountered in small groups of one or two, but will be accompanied by a slave shieldbearer (who does not fight) 25% of the time. There’s a 1-in-10 chance that the merochi will be mounted on chariots, in which case the chance of a slave to drive the chariot is 75%. Merochi warriors have a morale of 8 which rises to 10 if their females are in sight.

A merochi warband includes 2-8 individuals. In groups larger than four, half of them will have 1-2 healing potions, and two will possess potions that provide +2 on attack and damage rolls due to strength enhancement.

Art by Wilhelm Kuhnert and Johann Jakob Frey.

Some Quick Pathfinder News

A bit late to the game, Paizo decides to jump on the intro-set (and possibly boxed-set) bandwagon. That could be huge for them, since they appear to be really popular already. Unfortunately, the general consensus appears to be that selling rules promotes the sale of adventures, and the last thing Pathfinder needs is more rules. Here's hoping the market doesn't push them into a ditch on this front.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

4e Schadenfreude

Old conventional wisdom: old school games are nothing but a string of combats in rooms just large enough to host a fight in.  Newer games have skills and social mechanics that allow for more role playing and less tactical-minis play.

New conventional wisdom: 4e adventures are strings of combats in featureless rooms just large enough to host a fight.  Meanwhile, Raggi's Tower of the Stargazer barely has any combat in it at all, but is thick with mood and atmosphere.

There's a lot of interesting thinking and tinkering going on in regards to 4e these days, brought on, I suspect, in part through the release of the Essentials line. As some have pointed out, a lot of the issues may be due to what the game rewards, specifically combat. EXP are not everything, however. There's the relationship between resting and recharging powers which is central to the mechanics of 4e. The game has a number of systems that interact in complex ways which give rise to all kinds of unintended play styles.

I'll grant you, I saw a bit of this resting-in-the-dungeon-after-every-second-or-third-encounter stuff in the 2e games I played in college, so these issues aren't new. I do think there's a cautionary tale in there for those of us who like to kit-bash various incarnations of D&D into our own games. The urge towards modeling everything and building greater complexity brings with it the greater chance of really skewing things in weird directions. It's why I'm not a huge fan of adding lots of new classes to the game (even though I can't seem to stop doing it myself ;p ).

Common sense and a few good rules of thumb seem to work pretty well. Honestly, the game I'm playing is probably a lot more complex than I need; there are huge swaths of rules in Labyrinth Lord I don't really use. This is why I keep harping on understanding what the rules do, and how they aid or inhibit getting what you want out of a game. Some of the poking at 4e is exactly the sort of thing I do with Moldvay/Cook D&D: tweaks to optimize the game for the way we play. In other cases, I can't help but think they'd be having more fun with a different game. In either case, there's a lot to learn, and it's always fascinating to see what folks who are working from a completely different set of principles and goals do with a hobby I spend so much time poking at myself.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Story vs. Railroad - A Reaction

Jason, over at the excellent Wasted Lands, doesn’t like people dissing on his story-based RPing style:

There seems to be this attitude that's become more prevalent over the past few years, which says that any GM who wishes to have a plot or story arc for his campaign is a shit GM and is just railroading his players…

I find this attitude from old-schoolers, who tend to champion concepts like the megadungeon, baffling. Let's look at the megadungeon concept. A dungeon is completely scripted out in advance, unless you're using a random dungeon generator as you go (and let's face it; random dungeon generators as a general rule don't work well on the fly). Every room in the dungeon is mapped out. Wandering monster tables are set. Key rooms with monsters and treasure are placed with care and detailed. Players are deposited in the dungeon and their meaningful choices amount to not much more than up, down, left, right, forward, and backward. They can choose to sally forth or leave, parlay, flee or fight.

That's...really about it. And every one of those choices exists in a story-based game as well. A plot hook is not a railroad, because you can always choose not to follow it, in which case the GM has to come up with a new hook (and a good GM will do so, even if on the fly).
Of course, not everyone agrees with Jason’s views on dungeons. For instance, pages 104-15 of Gygax’s DMG details suggested responses monsters might take, both when they are first attacked by the PCs, and then after the PCs retreat and regroup. These responses include fleeing the area before they can be attacked again, laying traps to cover weak points in their defenses, and even joining in alliances with other nearby monster groups for mutual defense.

So what gives here? The issue really comes down to definitions. Railroads don't just constrain choices; railroads dictate the end-point. The problem with Dragonlance wasn't that it was “too… Tolkien, and not enough Vance and Howard” but rather that at the end of every module the PCs must have accomplished certain goals and be in a particular place, and that they then must move on to the next module in the series. There was no option for jumping off the tracks. Paizo's Pathfinder adventures are the same way (though Kingmaker has been described as a "sandbox" so maybe it's different? Anyone who's played it want to give an opinion?). When you finish an adventure, you must have achieved certain goals and be in a particular geographic location, and you must begin the next adventure.

Yes, there are occasionally side quests. But those side quests, and the players choices to pursue them or ignore them, do not change the important fact that the PCs must finish the adventure in a particular way at a particular endpoint, and then move onto the next adventure in the series. There is no other alternative.

Here's where the issues of storytelling come in. Stories are structured to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In computer gaming, RPGs typically have a single story with a few branching options which will eventually feed back into the main trunk. Therefore, it is very easy to give them a beginning, middle, and end. Dragonlance did the same thing with pen-and-paper RPG's. The adventures of the PCs had set beginnings, middle, and a single end, and all were pre-scripted before the players even rolled their first die. This is incredibly useful for somebody who wants to tell stories. It allows for such techniques as foreshadowing and the use of a rising and falling action to set a certain pace to the story or adventures. It does so, however, at the cost of freedom; if the Dark Lord is to be present at the grand climax in Chapter 10, it really makes a hash of things if the players kill him in Chapter 3. It also means that if the players decide they don't give a hoot about the Dark Lord, well where's your story now?

This isn’t exactly how Jason is using the term “story.” Jason is talking about something a little more complex. Jason is talking about creating a living, breathing world that reacts and takes the initiative every now and then. Or, I think in Jason's case, takes the initiative every chance it can get. This is not the same as railroading. In Jason's version of storytelling, the end is not predetermined. Certain things are going to happen, unless the PCs get involved. They might choose not to, in which case the Dark Lord’s evil will sweep across the land! Or, they might fight the Dark Lord and be victorious, in which case happiness and butterflies for everybody. Or, they could decide that the Dark Lord's offer of six figures, four weeks vacation a year, and generous dental plan sound pretty darn good. These are extreme (and extremely silly) examples, of course. I suspect what actually happens in Jason's games is that sometimes the heroes win, sometimes the heroes lose, and sometimes the heroes are just in the absolute wrong place to get involved at all. The map becomes a patchwork of victory, defeat, and detente for both sides. And since nobody knows what that that's going to look like when the game starts, this is not railroading. Technically, I'm not sure I would use the term story telling either. But that's just me being anal; my battle cry in college was, “Situation, not story!” I offer players the opportunity to tell their story based on the situations I hand them, or those that resulted from what they had done in previous sessions, but if anyone was crafting stories, it was the players. Not me.

I like this sort of play because it keeps everything fresh and surprising and I don't know what's going to happen next. I suspect this is very much what Jason is doing, and what happens in Dwimmermount and at Raggi’s table as well. The give-and-take and back-and-forth between the PCs and the world is what makes these games fun for many of us. And I think it’s exactly what A Paladin in Citadel is talking about when he describes implied narrative as:

No writer-defined (or Dungeon Master defined) narrative. I think this is the key (or what we imagine to be the key) to the appeal of Trampier's artwork, and the appeal of old-school gaming. The lack of agenda on the part of the Dungeon Master when it comes to what story will be told.

Like a good Dungeon Master, Tramp wasn't necessarily rooting for the good guys. Heck, we don't even know that characters in his illustrations, or the player characters in our games, are the good guys! That is up to the players themselves, or the art-viewers, to decide.

Just like the ending to their story is up to the players.

Art by Friedrich Stahl and Charles Marion Russell.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Images of D&D

Mr. Maliszweski has posed a fun question over at Grognardia: what cover art "encapsulates... 'D&D' in a single image"?

Having really gotten into D&D in the Silver Age, Elmore, of course, springs first to mind, and I think I'd have to go with this one. It's from the cover not of a rule book, but one of the early Endless Quest books TSR put out way back when. In this one, Return to Brookmere, you're an elf returning to your family's ancestral home after it's been overrun by monsters. The story is fun, and mostly consists of you sneaking about, trying to find your way out after a bad cave-in nearly crushes you.

There's a lot to like in this picture. The humanoids with their horned helmets, banners and skull-topped standards, the sinister wererat on his throne, the subterranean locale, and the bar of gold caught in the decorative border.

But most of all, I really like the hero. He (She? It's appropriately androgynous for a first-person choose-your-own-adventure style protagonist) has stolen a humanoid helmet and cloak to hide the finer garb of an elf warrior, including bright mail and soft boots. As decorative as his crenelated cuffs and purple tabard might be, his notched shield and long blade certainly look all business.

But if I'm willing to follow the lead of my fellow bloggers and not limit myself to simply covers, I'll have to go with this image. Yep, that's Elmore again, and I think it was originally released as a promotional poster at Sears (buy a certain amount of TSR stuff at Sears and get this cool poster type thing). I love the stories this one tells. Does the dragon know she's down there? Is he only distracting the dragon to give her a chance to get away, or to set up a back-stab? Clearly, an attempt to steal some gold without attracting the dragon's notice has gone awry. Do our heroes have any other tricks up their sleeves?

And I love the little details: the mountainous background, the clearly functional but not historical armour, the expressive faces of everyone in the painting, including the horse. This is a great painting, and has, for quite some time, been the picture that epitomizes D&D to me, and the you-are-there feeling I've always tried to evoke in my games.

But if we're not going to limit ourselves to just D&D and the clones, I'd probably have to say that this (NSFW!) painting by Keith Parkinson comes closest to encapsulating my gaming these days.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Podcasting Part Two: Weird Finnish Boogaloo!

Hot off the success of our first podcast, Oddysey and I return with a second.  Since we've run out of things to say (Ha!  Not!), we're joined this time by James Edward Raggi IV to discuss his newly released (and soon-to-be-sold-out-in-its-first-printing) boxed set, Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying.  It was a very fun interview, in large part because Raggi is a great guest.

A few words of warning: James asked us at the beginning of the interview what our language policy was.  We told him the truth: we don't have one.  So the interview is liberally sprinkled with the occasional four-letter word.  We also (briefly) discuss the whole "Spokesmodel of the OSR" thing.  So don't say you weren't warned.

Links of interesting stuff we talk about:

The Infamous Spokesmodel Image (WARNING: not safe for your SAN score, forget viewing at work!)

James (have you noticed just how many of us Jameses there are in the OSR) Maliszewski discusses his theories on the different Ages of D&D.  And more on the Silver Age in particular.

Elmore and the "you are there" school of fantasy art.

Cynthia Sheppard's art page.

The Patty Duke Show.  (No, really, this is a vital part of Raggi's design process.  O.o )

In related news, Oddysey has tracked down an option for proper podcast posting, and I'm still trying to figure out how to make it work.  (Utter troll fail! D:< )  The plan is to have it properly set up before the next part of the interview is posted.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Power to the People

I’ve ranted about capitalism before, and so far as that goes, I have to disagree with JB on this score. Capitalism has made our country great, but greatness isn’t measured in the philanthropy of our wealthiest. It’s measured in the breadth of our wealth, and in the fact that a truck-driver and factory worker can pool their money, buy a nice home to raise their daughters in, and give those daughters dance lessons and horseback riding lessons and send them both to college, while still having enough left over for when the Red Cross calls for donations in response to disasters around the world. Granted, most of that happened midway through the previous century, but it did happen and it did happen in America, and it happened because of capitalism.

But I’m not writing now to disagree with JB, but to agree with him. Capitalism works best when buyers and sellers send clear signals to one another. Unfortunately, advertising is frequently a murky business. But when you buy something, especially when you buy a lot of it, that’s a signal that’s heard loud and clear. You’re saying you value that thing, you’re saying you want more of it. You’re making it possible for the people who made it to spend more time (time they might otherwise need to spend keeping the lights on and putting food on the table) making more of whatever it is you liked so much before.

This gives you power as a consumer, power you need to wield responsibly because, yeah, it really is voting. And, at the end of the day, what products rise or fall is entirely up to what you buy and what you pass up.

I used to love reading DRAGON magazine. I never had a subscription, but I probably should have through my junior high years, when I purchased three of every four issues published. It was a fun read, with a wide range of articles, some of which had nothing to do with D&D, and saw me through brief periods of gamelessness. But, as time went on, I read it less and less. During my college years, it was an occasional read, and I was down to probably buying two a year. By the time 3.5 came out, I was buying maybe one every two or three years.

And here’s where things get interesting. I was still playing a lot of D&D back then (usually two games per week, and rarely as few as one), but I wasn’t buying much of anything. So far as the market was concerned, I was invisible. TSR and the others couldn’t tell what I wanted because I wasn’t buying anything they were selling. So far as they could tell, I (and, apparently, many others like me) simply vanished. In response, TSR flailed around; they tried making a CCG thinking maybe we’d left to play Magic, they tried converting Ravenloft into a gothic setting to lure us away from White Wolf, they made new game systems thinking maybe we were just tired of same-old D&D.

Nobody seemed to know much of anything about this hidden market, lurking about playing old games and having fun, until the OSR popped up. And then, as if from nowhere, there were magazines like Fight On! and games like Labyrinth Lord seeming to spring up out of nowhere. Only it wasn’t “nowhere” really; we’d been here all along. We’d just been ignored.

And that brings up another aspect of capitalism most folks miss: there’s very little preventing a buyer from becoming a seller. That’s why I bridle a bit at the “we don’t need no stinkin’ industry” talk that sweeps through the blogosphere every now and then. The truth is, we are the industry. Or we can be. The barriers to entry are pretty low these days in RPGs. There’s nothing stopping any of you from throwing together a module, a supplement, heck, even your very own boxed set. Raggi’s shown that you can push pretty damned close to industry-standard visuals and production values. He’s about sold out of his original run on his box. Swords & Wizardry did damned well with their box sets, too.

You think WotC hasn’t noticed?

Seriously, where do you think the idea for a nostalgia-focused boxed set came from? Sure, they may have come up with it on their own, might have realized the conventional wisdom about boxed sets was flawed without having watched what’s happened with Mythmere and LotFP, but you really think they haven’t noticed? You really think our enthusiasm and productivity didn’t plant a few idea-seeds?
So WotC’s come out with their boxed set. I’m pretty sure we’re not the target audience; it may have Elmore on the cover, but it’s 4e inside, and we all know that. Sure I could have bought it, but instead bought the LotFP boxed set which costs more than three times as much. Why? Because the WotC box isn’t much use to me, but I’ll play with the stuff in the LotFP box.

Really, how much more of a “duh” decision could it be? ;)

And I’ll likely also buy the more-than-double-the-cost-of-WotC’s-box Pathfinder GameMastery Guide because it looks like a great companion to Gygax’s DMG, the most used and abused book in my gaming collection. And I’ll almost certainly be getting JB’s B/X Companion because my players may be using Labyrinth Lord’s rules, but I’ve got Moldvay’s and Cook’s books sitting on my desk right now, and I reference them nearly every game.

So now the ball’s in your court. This is a golden age for RPGs. There’s never been such a wide array of products out there. The reviews are being posted all over the ‘net. It’s up to you to vote with your dollars, either by buying products that improve your gaming, or in making products you haven’t seen yet but would love to have. What happens next, as in all good RPGing, is entirely up to you.

Tracking Down the Flame Princess

Raggi is trying to find out where his Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying box set has shown up. I've been busier than a one-armed paper-hanger this week, so I haven't even been by Tribe or Dragon's Lair this week. Any fellow Austinites been in either store recently? I'd be surprised if either had it, but I've seen Dogs in the Vineyard at Dragon's Lair and bought Savage Worlds at Tribe, so it's not entirely out of the question.