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!