Friday, July 31, 2009

To the Death? No, to the Pain.

Talking to Akrasia about his S&W House Rules reminded me of some thoughts I keep meaning to put down on...well, not paper. Electrons, maybe?

Among some grognards, Save-or-Die has a certain totemic power, not unlike Descending Armour Class. It loudly proclaims that the player characters do not possess Plot Immunity on account of being the protagonists of some Games Master-authored story. It trumpets out the fact that player's need to use their own skill or they will find their characters stone cold dead quicker than they can say 'Bree-Yark".

However, I have a significant problem with Save-or-Die: it's boring. It actually fails to generate significant tension in the game.

"What's that?", yell my illusory audience. "The threat of death is the principal means of creating tension. It's exactly this lack that makes newer iterations of the game less than satisfactory" (Note how polite my imaginary readers are towards later versions of the game. No name-calling among these hypothetical gentle-folk).

But I'll dispute that. The very ease with which OD&D characters die and are replaced, combined with the presumed availability of Resurrection spells, mitigates much of the sting of death and robs the grave of it's victory. What players really fear, what gamers will avoid at all cost, is being hurt where it counts. I'm talking, of course, about character effectiveness (What? You thought I was talking about something else?).

Notice how level-draining Undead create a terror all out of proportion to their lethality. I've known many a player who would much rather have his beloved character enter a room full of Red Dragons with nothing to defend himself with other than a dull spoon, than fight a Wraith with all their collected gizmos and gadgets. The Dragons, at least, offer the opportunity for an heroic (or, at least, comical) death. But even though the character's chance of defeating the Wraith is much greater, the character is also very likely to end up losing a level or two.

And that's just the worst.

You lose Hit Points, combat or spell-ability, maybe even a cool trick or two depending upon your class. Suddenly, you suck and your companions don't. Well, maybe not suck, but rather than having a memorable death having been eaten by a family of Dragons while gallantly fighting with less-than-optimal flatware, you now can just do less than you used to do. You are literally less than you used to be.

That's tension. That's a negative incentive. And that's why I don't use Save-or-Die. Instead, I use either level-drains or attribute damage. The former is well-known because of the Undead. The latter is less common which is probably why I prefer it (I also find it easier to rationalize). For example, in my Onderland Campaign, Grave Wights (my version of Barrow Wights) don't drain levels; they inflict Constitution damage. The cold from beyond the grave emanates from these unnatural abominations and it weakens those who feel it. They cannot be warmed, they cannot rest at ease, they cannot heal naturally. Slowly, their Constitution withers away.

Other dangers affect other attributes. I like poisons that intoxicate the mind (damaging Intelligence or Wisdom) and curses that sap one's Strength. To me, those sorts of threats are just so much more interesting than, "Oops. You're dead."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

New Old-School Thief: Take...Oh, Who Can Keep Count?

I was rereading Knockspell #2 and the rather intensive article on Thieves, which commences with James M.'s (of Grognardia) definition of the problem; some of which can be found here so I won't rehearse the whole argument. To be brief, the usual argument is that Thieves introduce some kind of “skill system” and/or have special abilities which imply that other Classes do not have those abilities. Something like that, at any rate. In KS#2, this argument is then followed by numerous attempts to rectify the Thief, so to speak, because, despite all the hullabaloo, a lot of people like having Thieves in their games.

My problem with Thieves is rather different: they are boring. Incredibly boring. I have never found Thief abilities to overwhelm other classes; rather I have consistently found over many years that Thieves are overwhelmed by everyone else. I’ll hasten to add that this is my experience and may not reflect yours. In my games, anyone can look for traps and try and describe disarming them. Anyone can try and sneak. So what the hell is the Thief for?

And yet....

And yet the archetype of The Cunning Rogue is a strong one and Ye Auld Game (YEG) is built upon strong archetypes. Here’s where I found my problem: when I try and come up with archetypal characters who match the D&D Thief, I don’t get anyone. The only one I have ever come up with is the Grey Mouser, but he really doesn’t fit the class as written. Then, while walking, it dawned upon me that I was an idiot for forgetting about Cugel the Clever.

That’s when the wheel started turning. What is common to the Mouser and Cugel in terms of abilities described in the texts? It certainly isn’t Hiding in Shadows or Picking Pockets. The one really common thing that jumps out at me is that they are both jacks-of-all-trades who know a little bit about about a lot of things, including a familiarity with magic. The Mouser was, of course, a magician’s apprentice and “counters” a lighting spell at one point with that knowledge. In the Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel finds himself in possession of Incounnu’s spellbook and learns some powerful spells, albeit poorly.

Now Ye Auld Game sort of kind of addresses this by letting higher level Thieves read magic and use Scrolls, but that really doesn’t work for me. So, here’s the idea: Thieves gain limited spell-casting and can use all magical items, however they will always face the possibility of misfiring, as Cugel finding himself upon Cutz Strand a second time learns to his dismay. My system of choice right now is Spellcraft & Swordplay which uses the Chainmail idea of a Casting Roll, unlike D&D proper. In S&S, I think I would give Thieves a blanket penalty to their Casting Rolls (minus 2 or 3). This wouldn’t work for D&D proper obviously; maybe import one of the miscasting rules from AD&D or just drag in a Saving Throw.

After coming up with this idea, I was both horrified and pleased to discover that someone else had already done the heavy-lifting for me: the QuinTerra Campaign.

Related to that, I'm thinking about a Thief ability something like Legend Lore. Thieves pick up a lot of weird knowledge as they go along, and might therefore have chance of recognizing certain magical items based on stories and rumours.

Returning to KS#2 for moment, one of the arguments against Thieves is the way in which they introduce and codify mechanics for doing thiefy things like sneaking and climbing. This creates a number of perceived problems. First and foremost being that, since other classes do not have mechanics for doing the same things, this tends to imply that they cannot. That is, since only a Thief has an ability called "Hide in Shadows", therefore a Fighter cannot hide in shadows. This was a real issue historically, but I think most of us have been able to see beyond this perceptual blind-spot.

Still, it opens onto another, namely: how does the Fighter then hide in shadows? The good old stand-by Ability Check might seem relevant here, but logically, a Fighter shouldn't be better at this than a Thief (who's chances start pretty bad at 1st level).

Another issue here is that the old-school aesthetic wants to have those activities be open to Referee decisions on probability and what not and not bound into the rules. Some Refs might like to have your hiding chance be determined purely on the basis of role-playing, while another might squint at the situation and think you probably have a 2-in-6 chance (I'll be damned if I can find a link to Jeff Rient's blog where he talks about using a d6 for everything. So pretend this is the link).

Among the various Thief idea in KS#2 (you knew we'd get back there eventually didn't you, clever hypothetical reader?), the estimable Akrasia took a unique path. He laid out a scheme for using the Saving Throw in Swords & Wizardy (there's only one in that game, unlike all other flavours of YEG) as a universal resolution mechanic. From there, he could then sidestep a lot of the above-issues and simply say that Thieves get a +3 bonus on Saves when appropriate.

There are a lot of things to like in that idea. It's elegant as all get-out. My only real problem is that I can't accept the lone S&W Saving Throw as a universal mechanic. That single Save was actually one of the things that prompted me to make Spellcraft & Swordplay my base system. And I don't believe that it's pure Old Man Grumpiness behind my dislike for it, as Ye Old Game's weird panoply of Saves, while exotic and intriguing, isn't that beloved by me. I like S&S recasting of them as Ability Checks, an idea derived from Castles & Crusades. In both C&C and S&S (geez, this Alphabet Soup gets annoying after a while), the Saving Throw-cum-Ability Check really is a universal mechanic. But the Save is totally unrelated to anything else in S&W. The former two games (I'm not typing the letters again) use the Saving Throw to determine who hits and who resists the Polymorph spell and everything else, while the latter just uses it for avoiding damage.

But, and here's the important part for me, that objection doesn't really stand if I'm using (ah nuts) S&S. It would be very easy to say that Thieves just get a numeral bonus to whatever Check you are using when doing theify things. In fact, that's exactly what Jason Vey did in the Revised version of the game and I salute him again for doing so.

However, that doesn't necessarily work as a generic "old school" solution. But the idea does. Why not say that Thieves get a bonus of +1/3 levels. End stop.

So, monsters get surprised on a 1-2 on a d6? A Thief operating alone surprises on a 1-3.

So, the Referee thinks that you might have a 3-in-8 chance to climb up that embankment? Thieves have a 4-in-8.

And so on.

Haven't decided what you would do if one of your players wants to pick a pocket or two? Decide when and if it comes up and remember that Thieves will do it at +1 whatever die you are rolling.

I have received one alternate idea that I find intriguing: allow Thieves to make two rolls and take the higher. I do quite like that. It's much like the hallowed Philotomy's rule for using two-handed weapons. It keeps the addition down and gives a feel somewhat like outrageous luck. However, my concern is that this doesn't really increase as a Thief levels up.

What's the point of all this? I don't know really. I feel like I have almost found my ideal Thief, or, at least, as close as I am going to come.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

An Introduction to the Enochian Age

Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha — There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. (Doctrine & Covenants 91:1-6)

The history of the Enochian Age has been all but obliterated in our times. Scholars scoff at the idea of a true civilization--working metal, building great cities--during the Pleistocene Epoch. All traces of their mighty towers have been lost to the sea after the cataclysmic rise of sea levels during the Flandrian stage 12,000 years ago. The only records that survive are the muddled oral reminiscences which became part of the religio-historical heritage of the Ancient Near East. Therefore, no one really knows the story of the Enochian Age

And Cain knew his wife in those days, and she conceived and bare a son, and he called his name Enoch, saying, In that time the Lord began to give him rest and quiet in the earth.

And at that time Cain also began to build a city: and he built the city and he called the name of the city Enoch, according to the name of his son; for in those days the Lord had given him rest upon the earth, and he did not move about and wander as in the beginning. (Book of Jasher, 1:34-35)

Some 15,000 years ago, humanity began it's long ascent to mastery over the Earth.This was due to the Children of Cain, the Kaiyinim. This strange tribe wandered east of Eden and came to rest in the Riverlands of Senaar. In their wanderings, the Kaiyinim had acquired terrible secrets and become the wards of the Demons of the Earth, the Watchers. And not just wards, for it was said that the Children of Cain lay with the Fallen of Heaven and produced a race of monsters. Under the tutelage of their eldritch patrons, the Kaiyinim learned the Arts ands Sciences, which were unknown to the rest of humanity. And, so, it was a simple matter for them to conquer and enslaved the natives of Senaar.

Flush with conquest, the Kainyim built a fantastic city, the first city in the history of the world, and named it after Cain's firstborn: Khanok. There, atop the Carnelian Throne reputed to be a gift from the arch-demon Semyaza, the Overlord of the Kaiyim ruled the lands of Senaar. They taught some part of their arts, such as bronze-working and writing, to their subjects who, in time, began to fashion cities for themselves.

But the blood-thirsty success of Cain's Children was also their undoing. Whether they explored darker and darker corners of knowledge or simply basked in the opulent hedonism availble to them, the Kaiyim became isolated, insular, and decadent beyond imagining. The Armies of the Carnelian Throne seldom left the City of Khanok, tribute went uncollected, and infrations upon the Enichian social order went unpunished. Eventually, the fearsome Children of Cain began to pass into legend. The people of Senaar were left with an advanced civilization, powerful sorceries, and a culture of conquest, without any force to contain them.

The end of the Enochian Age wasn't pretty.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Back to the Enochian Age

My hypothetical readers may be wondering where I've been all this time.  It may look as if I have been slack, but such an assumption would be most terribly wrong.  I've been pretty busy with gaming, but not with Hypernotus.  Why?  Well, it looks as if James M. has dropped his Psionics attempt.  I could finish it myself, and maybe I shall, but the dropping of Hypernotus has had me pick up the creative slack with something else.

As some of you imaginary folks may be aware, I have been writing a Sword & Sorcery game for...well, way too long.  I am making a real effort to try and finish this thing at long last.  One of the things that stumped me for a while was whether or not to put a setting into the game.  I'm more interested in making a game that plays the genre than I am in making yet another gaming world.  But I've come around to the idea that I need at least a little setting in the game; people just seem to expect it.  It will not take up much space and will be more a series of suggestive brush-strokes than another exercise in sub-Tolkienian world-building. 

I'm now at the end of grappling about what this setting will be.  I was strongly playing with the idea of doing a version of Atlantis, based on Kuttner's Elak and SM Secchi's Antediluvian Age.  But I am now leaning strongly toward continuing the Age of Cain setting that barely peaks it's head out of the current rules-draft.  I think I can hit all the delightful S&S tropes with it--bronze swords, decadent city-states, demons, demons,and more demons--while also having something just a little distinct.

So, for now, this blog is going to turn from Hypernotus to the Enochian Age.  I should be posting some thoughts soon.