Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Best Laid Plans...

Obviously, I have not kept up my recent plan of posting once a week.  Blame a combination of my son's pneumonia (all better now, thanks) and the holidays.  I hope to get back on track soon; let's say starting next week.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Magic in the Enchanted Isles, Part 1: Introductory Materials

In my initial post on Wizards, I may not have emphasized one of the key appeals to me.  Just like the name says on the box, the game is about playing a wizard.  It really doesn't take much more than that to interest me.  I see a number of posts on from people who want "historical" games with no magic.  Not me; I want magic (in it's broadest sense, which includes psychic powers and super-powers and Jedi and whatnot) in every game I play.  Two of my favourite books of all time are A Wizard of Earthsea and The Dark is Rising, both of which are about boys who find themselves to be magical (my other favourite is A Princess of Mars, which would be only that much better if Burroughs hadn't lost interest in the telepathy part of the story early on). And more than just being a wizard, in Wizards you get to choose whether to be a Wizard, a Sorcerer, or a Druid.  That plenitude of magic was just irresistible to young me and remains so to old me (also part of why I loved Stephan Michael Secchi's The Compleat Enchanter and even more loved his Arcanum).

Thus, while I could approach this project in lots of ways, working on the magic is the natural place for me to start.  My jumping off point will be what we learn from the board-game on each Magical Order and then start extrapolating from there.  I'm also going to start playing around with some ideas for mechanics.  I should mention that I'm very undecided on the system I want to use, but two are calling to me at the moment:

  1. Some iteration of Ye Auld Game (probably Spellcraft & Swordplay) + the magic of my beloved Arcanum
  2. Runequest II/Legend
The appeal of No. 1 should be fairly obvious.  The appeal of No. 2 is two-fold: not only do Combat Maneuvers rock at providing a "warrior alternative" (to quote an old article about an entirely different game), but it has great, distinct magic systems that could really handle differentiating the Orders.  So, for now at least, my thoughts on mechanics will be for both systems.

My biggest goal is to figure out a way to distinguish the various magics from each other in both cause (which the game sort of does) and effect (which it barely does at all).  Regarding the former, the game gives us some information in the Introduction, a tiny bit more in the spell lists, and some implicit suggestions via the advancement mechanic.  Regarding that last one: Wizards uses a simple, level-based advancement, in which you accumulate three different types of experience points: Knowledge, Power, and Perception.  Each of the three Orders prioritizes one of these types of XP and requires that for advancement.  These points have no other effect in the board-game, as expected, but I want them to be more meaningful in this rpg-version.

Post-script: Yeah, I said that the next post was going to be about my previous experience rping in the Enchanted Isles.  I'll probably get back to that later, but it isn't, maybe, as interesting to anyone else as I had initially thought.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

World-Building for One, or No One Cares About Your Stupid, Made-up Calendar Except You (And That's OK)

I have been thinking a lot about world-building as I work on this Wizards project.  World-building is one of those excrescences of gaming that the OSR has ruthlessly attacked.  It was a necessary thing.   There was a time when you couldn't have "proper" setting without a third-rate rip-off of Tolkien cosmology and a stupid, made-up calendar that was basically the modern calendar with silly names on all the months (I'm so looking at the Mystaran Gazetteers here, as much as I like some of them). I, myself, was an awful perpetrator of this back in the later part of my first gaming cycle (mid-to-late 80's). How I slaved to create a living, alien world and how I grew frustrated when the players refused to appreciate the beauty of my work.  They wouldn't even use the names of my stupid, made-up calendar!  So, I get the attack on the world-building.

Yet, sometimes I feel it goes too far.  A necessary corrective at one point, perhaps, but one that could be reined in a bit now.  The dirty little not-so-secret about world-building is this: it's fun. And, as Dr. Seuss tells, us, fun is good; particularly when you are playing a game.  The real problem with world-building is not the creative part, but rather knowing your audience.  And I'll set this out in bold, by itself:

World-building is fun for you, the GM, and no one else.

World-building has an audience of exactly one and as long as you remember that, there's no problem.  When I set up my Onderland Campaign, I was still a bit shy about world-building.  But after a while, I realized that I was deliberately stopping myself from having fun, just because I thought I shouldn't do it.  That's when the real magic of a wiki hit me: I could happily let loose my creative energies, as long as I made clear to the players that they are not expected to read any of it. Wait, let me set that one out too:

The Players are not expected to read any of my world-building stuff.

The setting had a simple pitch that I could explain in a few sentences and that should be sufficient to get the players going.  That's not to say that they can't read the setting materials; I'm not advocating that.  If the player like reading your Silmarilion-hack, they can go for it.  But, in my experience, very few players really do.  Thus, the wonder of a wiki, where you can make all that information available, without actually handing your players a big stack of paper and saying, "Please read Customs of the Aardvarkians by game time next Saturday so that you know what's going on."

Now, I think there are a lot of GM's out there who really don't need to do world-building. Particularly the gonzo-style settings where a new player asks to be a robot and sure, why not, let's have robots in this game.  I can admire those settings and even enjoy playing in them, but I absolutely can not run that kind of setting.  My brain is too classical and not baroque and I have to be able to tell myself why something is there in order to run it.  It's why I can't do random dungeons with all those awesome geomorphs that guys like Dyson Logos have been coming up with.  I admire the hell out of them, but I can't run a dungeon that is assembled like that and has goblins next to zombies next to dragons without knowing why those guys are there.

World-building, then, is both fun and necessary for me.  So, expect to see some world-building as I try to make sense of the Enchanted Isles, but feel under no compulsion to read it.  There will be no pop-quiz next Frizzles-day.

A Little Lyonesse in the Enchanted Isles, or There Sure Are a lot of Funky Characters Wandering Around

I've begun work on compiling the information on the Wizard's setting as gleaned from the Task and Event Cards of the board-game.  As I mentioned before, these cards have a ridiculous amount of setting material which is all useless in the board-game, but nifty from a role-playing perspective.  I haven't gotten anywhere near to finishing yet, but I have already made one surprise observation: there are a bunch of funky characters wandering around the Enchanted Isles.  A couple of selections from the Event Cards, more-or-less at random:

  • Lewmiss of the Seven Tales (who gives you understanding of Tree Spirits)
  • Hesbodel the Waywarder (who gives you the speed of eagles when traveling overland)
  • Dignol, the Serpentheaded Sage (who, in jealousy, casts you into an undefined trap)
  • Higor and Brenna (who deceive your mind with foolish intent)
  • Feliman and Regerian, the Brothers of the Time Flow (who increase your pace)

In my memory of the game, most of the people who show up are Elflords or spirits, but reading these with a fresh eye, they sure sound an awful lot like a magical crew from a Jack Vance story. I'm beginning to think that Vance's Lyonesse may play a role in this setting, right alongside Tolkien's Middle-Earth and Le Guin's Earthsea.  Hmn, I just reread A Wizard of Earthsea for this project, maybe I need to reread some Lyonesse too?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Kill the Cleric, Keep the Paladin; or Measuring Classes by Characteristic Function

Many moons ago, back when the OSR was convulsed with whether or not the Thief class had any business being in the game, I declared a policy of Keep the Thief; Kill the Cleric.  That particular debate seems to have been rather settled now, with Thieves pretty comfortably ensconced in Ye Auld Game once again and I have been pretty happy without Clerics.  And then Fr. Dave and Roger the GS have to go muddying the waters again.

First, Fr Dave points out that the concept of the Biblical Prophet makes a good model for the Cleric.  Then, Roger picks up the idea and runs with it.  And it's all sounding pretty darn good if you happen to run a game in which there is some kind of good deity who gives miracles to his chosen ones.  Which isn't appropriate for a lot of the more Sword & Sorcery approach that a lot of the OSR favours, but I think Fr. Dave has shown how you can get the two to mesh if you want.

All of this made me remember what I was doing right before I killed the poor Clerics.  I was rather down on them, but hadn't yet erased them from existence when I started the Onderland Campaign and I had a player who wanted to run one.  So, I made a rather simple little change that worked wonders for me: I changed the name from "Cleric" to "Champion" (I chose Champion, incidentally, so that I could still use the abbreviation "C").  Having made the name change, the idea followed:

Certain individuals feel the call of the Higher Powers and dedicate themselves to becoming holy warriors for their chosen cause. These people are Champions. Examples include the original Knights Templar, the historical Assassins, the literary Paladins of Charlemagne, and the more romantic notions of the Round Table Knights. Their modes of action may differ – some Champions seek to convert the unbelievers, others attempt to aid the faithful (sometimes, even the unfaithful), whiles still others see themselves as defenders of some institution or ideal. 
A 1st level Champion is a person who feels that they are called by some Higher Power to embark upon a life of crusading. Upon reaching 2nd level, their calling is verified by the acquisition of miraculous abilities (divine spells). Thus, Champions can only be aligned with Law or Chaos, the two powers of the cosmos. Only humans can become Champions; other species lack the peculiar crusading zeal of humans. 
While some Champions are ordained priests, many are not. Conversely, the vast majority of priests are Normal Men. Champions appear from all walks of life: peasants, merchants, and kings. While many Champions join an order of like-minded peers, they need not do so.

My model was obviously medieval, rather than the Biblical, but the idea of the Champion is pretty similar to that of the Prophet as Fr. Dave and Roger are discussing (which is not me claiming any precedence or anything; they have done a much better job of it anyway).  I realize now I should have mentioned Joan of Arc in my description for a variety of reasons, such as illuminating the gender opportunities and providing a great example of a Champion who is at cross-purposes with the clergy.

What I still don't like about the Champion is the matter of clerical spells.  There is something conceptually off-putting to me about clerical spells.  It feels wrong on a gut level.  But, more than that, it feels wrong on a game design level.  To illustrate that, I'm going to engage in some analysis of class design in YAG.  What I'm analyzing is characteristic function; that is, what the class does that defines it.  How I'm going to analyze it is by measuring the characteristic function in two ways: variety and frequency.

Let's start with the Fighter.  In plain language, his characteristic function is hitting things (usually with weapons, but not always); that is his raison d'être from a design perspective.  Although one may hit something in a variety of ways with a variety of means, the Fighter's function nevertheless is low on the variety scale; it's all, essentially, of a kind.

The Wizard's characteristic function is to make magic (generally, though not exclusively, by casting spells).  And the essential nature of magic in YAG is that it is totally and completely incoherent.  What I mean is that you can't reduce YAG's spell lists into any kind of neat and tidy order.  It is what frustrates every attempt I have ever seen to render the spells via an effects-based (and thus logical) mechanic.  Spells do so many different things in the game and Wizards get access to them in no logical order.  Even spell level is a kludge at most: Charm Person is a ridiculously powerful spell that remains ridiculously powerful throughout the game.  Sleep is equally, if not more effective at 1st level, but quickly loses most of its utility in an adventuring environment.

It might not be too much to say that the Wizard's function is to be varietous; in any case, we can safely say that his function measures very high in that area.

But, when we turn to frequency, the tables are turned.  Wizards are severely limited in the number of times they may use their spells; they are similarly limited by scrolls, wands, etc.  Fighters, on the other hand, can theoretically hit things all day long.  There are some common-sense limits to that, of course, and Hit Points provide a sort of practical limit (assuming the thing being hit can hit back), but, in theory, the hitting can go on forever.

So the two classes, Fighter and Wizard, measure on the extremes of the two scales being used.  This suggests that one way to design a third class would be to have one that measures near the middle on both scales.  That's not the only way to do it, but if you crave symmetry in design the way I do, it makes sense.

Traditional Clerical spells certainly fit somewhere between Wizard spells and hitting things on the variety scale, being much more limited in scope than sorcery, but wider than the Fighters options.  Still, I think they hew closer to the Wizard than is symmetrical.  And they are, depending upon the edition you play, at least as limited in frequency as Wizards.

But leaving the Cleric where I had already consigned him, we come upon his successor, the Paladin. As I wrote in that original post, "I’d argue that the role [of the Cleric] is so nebulous that even Gary and folks didn’t get it, because the Paladin came about very quickly and that class is much more aligned with Archbishop Turpin and the Knights Templar and whatnot."  When I wrote that, I was advocating dumping Clerics rather than using Paladins, but now I'm reading it differently.  The nice thing about the Paladin is that his powers are less varietous than the Wizard's spells, but can be used more often.  The bad thing about the Paladin as written, is that he has no real characteristic function, being more of a Fighter-Plus than his own thing.

But we don't have to go that way.  Look at Roger's One-Sheet for Priests and substitute "Paladin" or "Champion" or "Prophet".  And things begin to look mighty symmetrical to me.  Also, notice the beauty of Roger's Abjure Evil ability.  I think that is the best iteration of Turning that I have ever seen, being infinitely more representative of the source materials (Peter Cushing never disintegrated any vampires with his cross in the films I saw) and subtly asking the Referee to think I a bit about his world (what constitutes an "evil being"?  It will vary from campaign to campaign and that's good).

Finally, it occurs to me that all of the above may have even wider application.  Because if you are hewing to the measurements I have used above, nothing actually requires that your third class be a spiritual warrior.  On the one hand, many iterations of the Thief fit into this scheme just as well (more characteristic variety than the Fighter, but less frequency, albeit due more to practicalities than game mechanics); but, on the other hand, so could something like a Jedi (somebody posted a B/X Psychic Knight class, once; I thought it was JB, but I guess I misremembered so no link).  And nothing says you can't have all three - Thief, Champion, and Jedi - in your game.  That's still symmetrical, so it's cool.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Gaming in the Enchanted Isles, or Part Two: Why Game There?

In our first thrilling installment, I discussed some of the reasons why a person - or, at least, a gamer - might want to explore the Enchanted Isles in some way beyond the route provided by the board-game.  Although I implied that rpging would be a interesting way to do that, that isn't quite the same thing as saying why you would actually want to use Wizards as the basis of an rpg campaign.  I'm not sure that there is anything like a full answer to that, but I can explain some of the reasons why I want to game in the setting.

The first is tone.  As I discussed previously, the game has a very strong tone that makes the Isles feel distinct.  I use distinct here very deliberately rather than unique, because they are not the latter.  The borrowings from Tolkien are many and, unlike OD&D, much more than just names on which to hang monsters.  The influence from Le Guin is a bit less strong, but potent nonetheless.  Indeed, the feel of the Isles is almost the point where Middle-earth meets Earthsea.  For example, the idea that violence is not a a solution to spiritual problems comes from both sources, even if they are represented rather differently in LOTR than the Earthsea books.  

All game settings, whatever their origin, have to find some place of balance between freshness and familiarity.  There is no right point of balance, of course; it's something each group works out in each game, but it does have to be worked out.  Go too far toward the familiar and you feel as if you are just rehashing tired cliches; too far toward the fresh, and you risk losing any sense of confidence.  The former point is pretty obvious, I think; for the latter, go check out the scores of threads at in which people proclaim the brilliance of Nobilis or Transhuman Space and then say, "Now what the hell do I do with this game?"  Much like the topoi of oral-tradition poets, recognizable tropes are places for the players to hang their imaginative hats (if that metaphor isn't too wildly mixed to make sense).  

I think the tone of the Isles strikes an attractive balance point.  The spirituality of Tolkien without the concomitant baggage of both backstory and end-story is appealing i.e. it would be fun to play with Elflords, making magic with the music of stars, without knowing that this guy has 300-pages of convoluted family history and gets killed at the Battle of Dagorlad.  Le Guin's poetic magic is also great fun, but it would be nice to play it without the various constraints or the authour's occasional politics.  And the tone is broad enough - maybe with a little help from the GM - to accomodate more types of game play than the airy-fairy stuff that the above might suggest.

Alert, hypothetical readers might well wonder if this tone isn't grossly at odds with the Sword & Sorcery genre the authour frequently bathers on about.  And, of course, it is.  Wizards is Epic Fantasy in most of its glory.  It is not a setting where scoundrels plot money-making schemes from back alleys of baroque city-states.  For one thing, there is only one city in the whole setting and Torwall isn't really much of a city.  For another, you can't play a scoundrel.  Or a rogue.  Or a cut-purse.  Instead, the game is about the battle for Good and Evil in the cosmos which mirrors the internal, spiritual battle of men (or Men to use the game's fervent capitalizations).  It's about doing good deeds and learning to become something better.  It's not anywhere near S&S; when you want to play that, go visit the lands under the the Dying Sun.  ;)

Which brings me to another reason to use Wizards is the premise.  The game gives you the Big Story right up front: the Evil Spirit seeks to finally take over and corrupt the Isles; go stop it.  And it gives you some basic directions on how to get involved: stop being a schmuck, join a Magical Order, and become powerful enough to assemble the Sacred Gem.  And then it pretty much leaves you alone.  Game play on the board literally places you somewhere random and asks "what you do next?"  I don't know about you, but that sure sounds sandboxy to me.

The first rounds of the game are spent deciding (or randomly wandering and not deciding) how to join an Order.  Do you try to enter one of the forboding Sorcerer's Towers or journey to the Sacred Circle or do you randomly bump into a High Wizard and get initiated?  Nothing actually requires you to join any Orders, except that you know you can't get anywhere in the game otherwise (not necessarily true in an rpg though, he says in a bout of foreshadowing).

Subsequent rounds forming the bulk of the game involve the characters picking up various Task cards, which are, in essence, adventure hooks.  In every game I have ever played, I wind up with far more Tasks than I could ever complete and thus each game is unique in that you almost never do the same things twice.  In the board game, of course, this has a down-side in that the Tasks are really so much useless flavour, but that isn't true if you were playing an rpg (look! more foreshadowing).

The end-game is supposed to revolve around collecting the MacGuffin and thwarting evil.  But, again, nothing forces you to.  As the game goes on, Evil will begin to pick up strength and, starting on the third fortnight, will commence attacking vulnerable territories.  The assault can be staved off by completing Tasks, but Evil will keep coming back and usually with more force.  So, if you want to win, it's obvious that you ought to level up and get the MacGuffin, but if you would rather just Transport around randomly, dispelling Demons (and gaining points in the process) like a reenactment of the Gospel of Mark, then you can (I should know, since I have often done that, invariably resulting in me naming my character "the Goddam Sheriff").  And in an rpg....

Finally, one a little less rational: there's just something attractive about turning evocative board games into rpgs.  I don't really know why, unless it's the fucntional yet attractive maps, since maps are important to most gamers.  Jeff Rients at Jeff's Gameblog has written about this for the Minaria of Divine Right.  JB at B/X Blackrazor discussed it in regards to the Pern of DragonRiders of Pern.  And Aaron at A Paladin in Citadel has written more posts on Magic Realm than any other human being in history.  So, I feel I'm in good company here.

Also, I'm not just speaking hypothetically in all of this.  You see, I myself have adventured among the Enchanted Isles already.  But that is a story for our next installment.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gaming In the Enchanted Isles of Avalon Hill's Wizards (Part 1)

Avalon Hill put out the board-game Wizards in 1982, which would have been a year or two after I started gaming.  I have no idea how my Mom decided to get it for me as a Christmas present, but it was probably one of the best she ever got.  After RISK, Wizards is surely my most-played board-game (with The Awful Green Things from Outer Space and the mini-game Saga coming somewhere after).  Wizards was the first board-game I had ever played that had both cooperative and competitive play: everybody is trying to get the MacGuffin and drive off the Bad Guy, but everybody wants to be the one who does it.  

But more explanatory of it's appeal to me at the time was the flavour of the game.  That link above to BoardGameGeek has a pdf of the rules booklet; if you've never seen it, check it out and see what I mean.  The setting is a sort of combination of Tolkien Middle-Earth, Le Guin's Earthsea, and...something.  The Designer's Notes make it clear that they (a husband and wife, maybe?) thought of the game as some kind of magic, poetic ritual in-itself, which, whatever you think of that, gives the game part of it's unique charm.  It also means that the game is full of detail and colour that is absolutely unnecessary to playing it as a board game, but which tend to make the wheels in the head of a role-player start turning.

For example, the game board is composed of eighteen hex-tiles (6x6) that are randomly placed at the beginning of play.  Six of these are Common (i.e. human), six are Elven, and six are Magic.  You really don't need to know anything about these territories, by and large, and yet each one gets a paragraph write-up in the booklet, such as:

Elven Territory VI - Woodland
Here dwells the the Elflord Finrel, wisest of all Elves, with his Elflady Vawn, the Spice of the Islands.  Together, they sustain the Richness and Fertility of the land. The Wise Woman Hamdrel, who favours all woodland dwellers, keeps close ties with these Elves and encourages their Life-giving Magic.

Aside from obvious Tolkien riffs, note also that those portentous capitalizations (Richness, Magic) are as written.  Also, remember that nothing in there matters one little bit for purposes of playing the game as written.  Even the incredibly boring human places (so boring that they are officially termed "Common Territories", rather than "Human Territories", get little details:

Common Territory II - Woodswall
When these Men began to mistrust the woods, where the Elves tended to dwell, they built walls between the woods and their towns.  Due to these walls, the Men of Woodswall have been forced to look outward to the sea.  They have become great fishermen, knowing much of the waterways.

Those three sentences have a lot of compressed back-story in there that could be mined for ideas if one wanted to do something other than just play the board game.  Why did Men begin to distrust the woods?  Are there Elves in the woods near Woodswall now?  Were there then? What's the state of relations between the two today?  

Another example.  There are seven High Wizards in the game, who are definitely of the Tolkienian angelic variety and, Saruman-like, one has become evil, or, as the game terms it, a False Wizard.  I love that term, by the way; although you could take it to mean simply that he is false i.e. untruthful, I prefer to think it means that a real Wizard is, by definition, a servant of the Good Power and that the traitor has made himself a fake.  I think JRRT would approve of that. Anyway, in game-play, the High Wizards are just encounters that can do stuff for you and it really doesn't matter whether you meet Ishkatar, Aevarex, or Elekov (except in the end game it matters if you meet the False Wizard).  Yet, each High Wizard gets a unique staff design (check out the box cover above for two of them) and an evocative description in the book.  I mentioned three of them above, so here are their write-ups:

Ishkatar - Wise Lord of the High Wizards, possessor of Knowledge and Understanding, seeing and hearing hidden things, Ishkatar is the greatest of all beings who inhabit the Enchanted Isles. 
Aevarex - Righteousness, Truth, and Purity are the source of the wisdom of Aevarex, fairest of the High Wizards, Healer of Harms. 
Elekov - Elekov the Mighty.  He is unsurpassed in the wise use of magical powers and honours the strength of even the humblest objects.

Finally, I have to mention the amazing art, all by one of game's designers, which the Designer's Notes say isn't just intended as illustration, but as window into the world (pretentious, perhaps, but not inaccurate).  I don't have the useful software these days to clip out pictures from the book, but go check out that link and look at Sorcerer's Spell (p13), the Doug Henningesque Wizard in Telepthy (p15), or The Elflord's Revenge by the Power's of Finrel, Hispan, and Havor (p17).  Like the style or not (I largely do), it does, in fact, give you a window into the setting.  I love, for instance, that skull-cap on the sorcerer.

I haven't even discussed the Task Cards yet, which give a lot more information on the setting, but I think the point is clear enough: Wizards oozes a certain flavour which would go well with role-playing (the chocolate to rpging's peanut butter, perhaps).  That's certainly how it felt to me back then and is surely one of the reasons I played the game so often, because the game-as-board-game has some serious defects.  

Most notoriously, it has a very draggy end-game in which the characters, who have spent the whole game to the this point sailing all around the Isles, performing Tasks, suddenly stop moving and just pick cards and/or roll dice to try and get the MacGuffin together, then do the same to try and take the MacGuffin home.  I can recall getting very frustrated many times by having my character stuck outside the Sacred Circle, trying to roll the number I needed to get in and hand the damn WMD to the High Druid, who supposedly wanted it, but can't be bother to get off his arse and step outside to get the thing.

A less obvious deficiency, and maybe one that wouldn't exist for pure board gamers, is that the abundance of flavour is tied to mechanics which don't support it.  All that cool stuff I spoke about above, which is nifty but doesn't impact play, doesn't even work in play sometimes.  The one that always irritated me were the three Magical Orders.  Early game-play involves the characters trying to be initiated into one of the three Orders, each of which is given a very distinct origin and spin: the Wizards  learn from the angelic High Wizards and seek Knowledge; the Sorcerers learn elemental Arts originally taught by the evil Dragons and seek Power; and the Druids seek to recreate the magic of the Druidic race, a virtually extinct people born of Humans, Elves, and High Wizards who sought Perception (incidentally, this implies the High Wizards of the Enchanted Isles are not the essentially-sexless manikins of Tolkien).  

Now all that is cool, except that whatever Order you join, you still learn the same damn magics. There are three Movement spells (Boat Summoning, Swiftness, and Transporting i.e. Teleportation) and four Encounter spells (Animal Summoning, Demon Dispelling, Dragon Taming, and Escaping, which last is surely the less used spell in the game, doing nothing much of interest).  True, each Order does get one Special spell at Rank Four (the highest Rank and the beginning of the end-game), but both the Wizard's Telepathy and the Sorcerer's Gem Summoning do pretty much the same thing (give the player a chance to get a piece of the MacGuffin).  While Wizards, Sorcerers, and Druids get a little variety in when they acquire the spells and at what strength (Druids can Demon Dispel sooner, while Sorcerers get more range on Boat Summoning), it's not much and by Rank Four there isn't any real distinction left.

So, what is a poor gamer to do in such a situation?  Well, let's talk about that in our next, enthralling installment.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Blood of Belshazzar as a Sword & Sorcery RPG Premise

Sword & Sorcery is experiencing a bit of a comeback in rpging these days.  I've mentioned two very excellent games previously: Barbarians of Lemuria and Jaws of the Six Serpents.  Thulsa has done some amazing Hyborian Age conversions of classic adventures, such as Shrine of the Kuo-Toa and Vault of the Drow, as well as some well-regarded original works, such as The Spider-God's Bride and Song of the Beast-Gods (neither of which I have, but intend to rectify that soonishly).  And that's just the tip of the sword, not including the mood among the OSR that now leans toward S&S scoundrels and highjinks and away from the Epic Fantasy heroes and grand destinies.

But S&S as a literary genre does present some problems for gaming.  I'm speaking here of what might be called "the high end" of the S&S protagonist spectrum; that is, those stories that are about powerful, capable Heroes (in the original, Hellenic sense of the word).  This is as opposed to those protagonists who congregate about "the low end" of the spectrum; that motley assortment of ne'er-do-wells and crooks who populate the thieves' quarters of the imagination and who, one might say, descend from Clark Ashton Smith's Satampra Zeiros (spiritual father to D&D adventurers everywhere), rather than Robert E. Howard's King Kull of Valusia.  

It's relatively easy to find a gaming premise for this second sort and, indeed, most of the OSR has rediscovered it: a bunch of desperate chaps face magic and monsters in pursuit of loot.  The former group is trickier.  Imagine trying to play a game where you have King Conan, Elric of Melnibone, and Kane the Killer as your party.  Fascinating, yes, but what the hell do they do together?  Whatever they decide to do, they do not meet in a tavern and decide to bash the local dungeon for profit.

One solution is to drop the idea of "the party" as the part of the protagonist in the literature is more usually a one- or two-man show.  Conan never called for a cleric and Fafhrd and the Mouser are pretty-much a three's-a-crowd act (except Oort the Mingol, I guess).  That's fine but pretty much requires losing most of your players (assuming you have a regularly-sized group). And it still doesn't actually give you a premise.

Thus I was struck the other day as I read, for the first time, REH's The Blood of Belshazzar, originally published in 1931, but which I read in the excellent Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventures Stories of the Old Orient.  I consider myself a Howard fan, and have read all the Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane stories, but I had never read any of his Oriental Adventures tales; a situation which I have gladly changed.  The Blood of Belshazzar is actually one of the weaker stories in the collection; a not-too gripping murder mystery which does not even have the advantage of The God in the Bowl's giant snake.  Which may show, once again, that literary merit is not identical with gaming merit, because it seems to me a wonderful premise for a "high end" S&S game.  

Without going into too much detail, the story is set within the lair of a notorious bandit chief, who has collected together the worst of the worst as his lieutenants.  None of them trust one another, but all try to retain the good graces of the chief for one reason: the lust after the fabulous gem he owns.  Howard writes:

"How do you hold supremacy over these wolves?" asked Cormac bluntly. 
Skol laughed and drank once more. 
"I have something each wishes. They hate each other; I play them against one another. I hold the key to the plot. They do not trust each other enough to move against me. I am Skol Abdhur! Men are puppets to dance on my strings. And women"--a vagrant and curious glint stole into his eyes--"women are food for the gods," he said strangely.
The story of the gem is perhaps the high-light of the tale and the thing is described in terms startlingly reminiscent of the One Ring in Tolkien:
"Then Belshazzar's lords entreated him to throw the gem back into the sea, for it was evident that it was the treasure of the djinn of the sea, but the king was as one mad, gazing into the crimson deeps of the ruby, and he shook his head. 
"And lo, soon evil came upon him, for the Persians broke his kingdom, and Cyrus, looting the dying monarch, wrested from his bosom the great ruby which seemed so gory in the light of the burning palace that the soldiers shouted: 'Lo, it is the heart's blood of Belshazzar!' And so men came to call the gem the Blood of Belshazzar. 
"Blood followed its course. When Cyrus fell on the Jaxartes, Queen Tomyris seized the jewel and for a time it gleamed on the naked bosom of the Scythian queen. But she was despoiled of it by a rebel general; in a battle against the Persians he fell and it went into the hands of Cambyses, who carried it with him into Egypt, where a priest of Bast stole it. A Numidian mercenary murdered him for it, and by devious ways it came back to Persia once more. It gleamed on Xerxes' crown when he watched his army destroyed at Salamis. 
"Alexander took it from the corpse of Darius and on the Macedonian's corselet its gleams lighted the road to India. A chance sword blow struck it from his breastplate in a battle on the Indus and for centuries the Blood of Belshazzar was lost to sight. Somewhere far to the east, we know, its gleams shone on a road of blood and rapine, and men slew men and dishonored women for it. For it, as of old, women gave up their virtue, men their lives and kings their crowns. 
"But at last its road turned to the west once more, and I took it from the body of a Turkoman chief I slew in a raid far to the east. How he came by it, I do not know. But now it is mine!" 
Skol was drunk; his eyes blazed with inhuman passion; more and more he seemed like some foul bird of prey.
It is my balance of power! Men come to me from palace and hovel, each hoping to have the Blood of Belshazzar for his own. I play them against each other. If one should slay me for it, the others would instantly cut him to pieces to gain it. They distrust each other too much to combine against me. And who would share the gem with another?
The plot kicks into gear as our protagonist enters as a new lieutenant, the bandit chief is killed, the gem disappears, and all hell breaks lose.  

I think that this would make a fantastic starting point for a game, providing a shape of what stories could be told, but giving the players fairly free reign to take that story wherever they wish.  Do they team-up and try to keep the gang together, perhaps establishing themselves as true political powers in the region?  Do they play the other villains (including, potentially, the other PC's) off one another?  Or do they bring the whole situation crashing down in blood and fire and ride off, laughing, into the night?  And, as each PC would have his or her own reasons for being there in the first place, the players and GM both would have this great stew of motivations, both complementary and conflicting, with which to play.

You needn't be restrained by the device of the gem - anything could serve as The Most Fabulous Thing in the World.  I'd be tempted to do more with foul rituals hinted at by Skol in his likening of women to food for the gods (if this had been a Conan tale, I'm pretty sure that Howard would have done so too).  Maybe the Thing is occult knowledge and what the PC's learn might set the stage for the next phase of the campaign.

Anyway, this is the sort of thing I think could work wonderfully well for games that aren't trying to do Ye Auld Game.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Part of an Idea for a d20 Mechanic

I really, really like Greg Stafford's core mechanic for King Arthur Pendragon.  It is both a universal d20 mechanic long before such became desirable and also a brilliant simplification of his own percentile system from Runequest.  As logically intuitive as percentile is, it's also way too fiddly for me: I can't believe that I need a game system to differentitate between a 52% chance to do something and a 53% chance.  KAP's system breaks it all down into 5% which is just right for me.

There is only one drawback to going from d100 to d20, which are the neat tricks you can play with criticals and fumbles in a percentile system.  Again, the native BRP idea isn't for me; it's intensely displeasing to my aesthetic to have a mechanic where you want to roll either high or low.  But there are other, niftier methods; my favourite is Unknown Armies' one of calling doubles that roll under as crits and doubles that roll over as fumbles (I have blogged about this before).

Obviously, you can't do this with a d20.  I think KAP's native system is that you crit when you roll your score exactly (my games are all still packed away from the move, so I can't check).  That is nice in one sense, since it maintains the blackjack mechanic of wanting to roll high, but, as a flat 5% loses any distinction between someone who is barely adequate scoring a crit and one who is highly-skilled.  I was thinking of how to change the odds a bit and, to do so, found myself putting all skill ratings into one of five broad bands:

  • Poor = 1-5
  • Not Good = 6-10
  • Good = 11-15
  • Great = 16-20
  • Super-human = 21+

The ways to get a critical success would be:

  • Poor = no crits (you stink; just try not to die).
  • Not Good = crit when you roll your rank.
  • Good = same
  • Great = crit when you roll your rank-1or your rank.
  • Super-human = same (but recall that you add the amount by which your rank exceeds 20 to all rolls).

Now the crit thing is nothing earth-shaking in of itself.  But coming up with the five types sort of seems clever to me as it addresses my number one problem with Runequest, KAP, and most other skill-based games: long stat blocks.  At the sacrifice of some detail, you could actually drop the base stats and just use the average for each type, plus the actual median, like so:

  • Poor = 3
  • Not Good = 8
  • Average = 10 (or 11; both are slightly wrong so just pick one)
  • Good = 13
  • Great = 18
  • Super-human = 23

Notice two things here. First, the averages map quite nicely onto the stats for BRP or, indeed, Ye Auld Game.  3 is piss-poor and 18 is the best you can hope for as a human.  Second, and less obviously, I think what I just did was translate the Moldvay/Cook unified modifier scheme from YAG to KAP.

When writing a stat-block, you could therefore assume that any ability is at Average and only mention the others.  Getting you something like this:
Ogre (STR 18, CON 13, INT 3, Claws 13)
That's still more involved that YAG (who's simple stat-blocks remain an almost Platonic ideal), but it's a helluva lot better than you usually see.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thoughts on MY Star Wars

Like most of my fellows, I'm a Star Wars kid.  I was 5 years old when the only movie which is actually called Star Wars came out and it was a life-changing event.  Star Wars (not just the movie but the concept) was a definite First Love.  But, as is often the case with First Love, things changed.  We both grew older and began to get into different things.  Star Wars (the franchise, not the movie (of which there is just the one)) began to get into Ewoks and wuxia and Luke and Lei being siblings and I was getting into The Dark Knight and Elric and not kissing siblings.  Twenty-plus years later, we met again and - I'll admit - I was pretty excited at the prospect of getting back together.  But she had changed.  She was like some big video game with cool graphics and no soul.  Ah well; I'm sure you know the story just as well as I.

And now, my son turns 5 and, unintentionally,  I started showing Her to Him.  And seeing it through his eyes rekindles things.  I was reminded of a wonderful thought-experiment in which I took part on last year: Using Ep. IV as the only Canon.  I had some ideas which I still really like about characters and the setting, but here's the one I'm thinking of today:

No one can really say what they Force is, but we know how it manifests in Ep. IV: hypnosis (“these aren’t the droids you’re looking for”; arguably Kenobi making himself unnoticed as he sneaks around the Death Star), spatial awareness (“close your eyes, Luke”), and some kind of telepathic/empathic connection to the universe (“I feel a disturbance in the Force”).  Notice that there ain’t no telekinesis here.  Arguably, Vader’s Force Choke is TK, but, at the time, I thought that it was Vader telepathically controlling the guy’s autonomic nervous system - essentially hypnotizing the guy into not being able to breathe.  If you buy that, then we have the Force as a very subtle, though still quite powerful thing.

This remains, to me, a much more interesting Force than that the one that evolved into guys flying around and knocking over platoons of soldiers with a wave.  Jedi aren't super-heroes in my SW; they are mystical warriors.  Perhaps more importantly, this strikes me as a kind of Force that is much more playable in a game with mostly non-Jedi (like in the one and only movie Star Wars).  You can't pick up rocks and crush the big robot or absorb blaster-fire or make enemy ships smash into each other.

The Force in my SW is still a potent weapon, but it's one that requires thought and subtlety; once things goes past subtlety, it's time to draw light-sabres (e.g. Obi-Wan on the Death-Star).  Of course, the Force still helps there, since the Jedi's ESP (isn't that a great, old-fashioned-sounding term now?) is a huge boon when fighting; he knows what his opponent is doing as he is doing it.  The Jedi Knight feels his enemy's anger preparing to strike and his years of self-mastery allow him to control his own movements to an exceptional degree.  Not super-human, mind you, but think of what a true martial arts master can do with his body and you'll know that you don't need super-powers to be awesome.

Obi-Wan Kenobi Needs No Telekinesis To Be Bad-Ass!
Those hypothetical readers who are old enough might recall that great issue of the Marvel Comics version of Star Wars, which told a story of Obi-Wan in his prime (but still old enough to be gray-haired, which is part of why it's awesome).  Extra-canonical though it is, this issue is a good example of how I think a Jedi should be played: a cunning warrior with mysterious powers, but not a super-man.

Ironically, thinking in this direction led me to a nice rationale for the Droid troops we see in those movies I don't even want to name: many of the Jedi's tricks become useless against machine-foes.  A Droid's thoughts can neither be read nor controlled.  And thus a Battle-Droid becomes a much more credible threat to a Jedi, whose combat training is based, in part, on knowing his foe's mind; even more so since these Jedi can't just wave their hands and send the whole army flying away.  Indeed, a War-Robot could be something of an Anti-Jedi Device, theoretically more dangerous to him than to the regular joes in his party.  An equivalent to the various Wizard-Slayers in Ye Auld Game.

Finally, my vanity requires me to post a bit of fun from the old thread:

Yes, Emperor

PALPATINE: Vader, how is it possible that the most potent weapon in the galaxy was destroyed by a farm-boy with a defective astromech droid?

VADER: Well, Emperor, that is, of course, a most perspicacious question and, may I say, one that fully deserves to be answered in complete and unambiguous terms, with no qualifications, cover-ups, or tentativity.

PALPATINE: [Pause] Yes?  And?

VADER: [Startled] Oh, you mean you wanted an answer now?  Unfortunately, Emperor, as much as I should like to approach the entire issue with alacrity and celerity, you must understand that the Force is mysterious and not, tractable.  That is, I must align myself with the energy field that connects and binds us all together; there are also forms to fill out.  I suggest we convene a Sith Committee to really get at the heart of the matter; study it from all angles and so on.  Once we convoke that assemblage, I should think a few years of investigation and debate...

EMPEROR: A few years?!  Vader, I want answers now!  I have a Rebellion to crush.

VADER: Ah...but you don't want answers now. 

EMPEROR: No...I don't want answers now.

VADER: You want to convene a committee to fully explore the matter.

EMPEROR: You know Vader, on second-thought, I think that I want to convene a committee to fully explore the matter.

VADER: On your way, Dark Lord of the Sith.

EMPEROR: Well, on your way Dark Lord of the Sith.

VADER: Of course, Emperor.  Sound decision.

EMPEROR: [shaking his head slowly as Vader leaves the room] Curse your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader!

VADER: Yes, Emperor.

Friday, November 11, 2011

On Attributes in Game Design

Of late, my gaming thoughts (such as they are) have been turning to my old Sword & Sorcery game, Swords of Fortune.  I started working on this game an Epoch or two ago; I'm not precisely sure when, but the last play-test draft I have up is dated October 21, 2008, which, if I can still do basic arithmetic, is like 30 years ago (that draft, incidentally, can still be found here).  I was really hot on this game for some while and S&S remains one of my favourite things in the cosmos.  I abandoned it because I felt that there were at least two better S&S games that came out between my beginning work and October 2008: Simon Washbourne's Barbarians of Lemuria and Tim Gray's Jaws of the Six Serpents.  Both are excellent, excellent games that do a fantastic job at delivering the S&S experience.

And yet, here I am thinking about Swords of Fortune again.  Tentatively, to be sure, yet I think I may still have something a bit distinct to add to the ludic pot.  As time goes on, I find that my Misfortune mechanic remains interesting to me and stresses things that neither of the other games does by default.  Also, I think my discussion of the literary genre has some value.  So, I'm playing with taking up the old gauntlet again.

Yet, if some mechanics seem to retain value, others don't.  And the one that just doesn't sit well with my anymore is Attributes.  As it stood three years ago, every Hero had six Attributes: Sword, Shield, Tome, Tower, Crown and Cloak.  The first of each alliterative pair is an active attribute (physical, mental, social), while the second is reactive.  Thus, one would use the Sword attribute to attack people or lift heavy objects (active physical) and the Shield attribute to avoid getting hit or withstand the effects of drugged wine (reactive physical).  I used to think that this set-up was the bees-knees - logical, symmetrical, full of kallos -  but it no longer sits so well with me.  

Which brings me to the actual subject of the post, that is, the nature of attributes in game design. One of the oppositions in attribute-design is between Standardized and Free-Form.  The first is by far the most common and dates back to Ye Auld Game.  I'm not sure when the latter debuted (although it might have been Robin Laws' Over the Edge from 1992).  The strength of Standardized atts is that you can always compare character's relative abilities and know who is stronger, faster, or whatever.  And, in theory anyway, you know what things are important to the game: if Social Status is an att, then presumably social status is important to this game.  The strengths of Free-From atts are less easy to explain; they allow the player to create a character that more precisely meets their idea and avoid the abstraction that inevitably occurs with Standardized stats by letting you say exactly what you mean.  Practically, they seem to encourage a lot of creativity in players.

The drawbacks are the inverse of the benefits.  Standardized atts cannot measure anything that falls outside their parameters; in YAG, for example, you can measure strength and dexterity, but there is no way to measure your hatred for the Six-Fingered Man.  Free-Form atts excel at that, but it can be impossible to compare relative abilities (how do you know how strong someone is if they don't have an attribute called "strength"?).  Also, they can create a kind of paralyzation if the player doesn't have a strong idea of the character in mind from the get-go.

I think a less obvious distinction, but one of equal importance, is between what I will call Denotative and Connotative atts.  Yeah, I just made those names up because I've never seen anyone address this idea.  Denotative atts have a kind of one-to-one correspondence with the world: Strength measures active physical force which can be brought to bear, for example.  Denotative atts are suggestive: one could find all kind of uses for an att called "Tough Old Merc". Another way to look at this is that Denotative atts are statically defined by what they measure (cause), while Connotative atts are defined by what they could do and that definition is an evolving one (effect).  "Tough Old Merc" might measure professional experience, physical state, weapon's training, social status, and on and on; indeed, the nature of Connotative atts is that you keep finding new uses for them (it frequently becomes a game within the game).

Most games with Free-Form atts allow - in fact, encourage - Connotative atts.  They suggest that "Strong as a Bull" is preferable to "Strong", but "Bull of a Man" is preferable to either.  And most games with Standardized atts assume that they are Connotative; even if they allow for a relatively broad use for any att, they assume that there are some clear uses for the att and that's that. Charisma in YAG may be the poster-child for this latter case; no one has ever been sure what exactly it measures, but whatever it represents, it helps with reactions, hiring retainers, and morale.

This second distinction is thus usually lost within the first, but it need not be.  Returning to old Swords of Fortune, you might see that the atts were clearly standardized, but they seemed to drift a bit between being Denotative and Connotative.  And maybe that's were I'm finding them less satisfactory now than I did some years ago.  Or maybe it's just that no one ever put any points into the Cloak att because I could never really say what it was good for.  Either way, I feel that I might be able to add something meaningful in this area.

Does the Fiend Still Live?

Good question.  Looks like about four months since the last post (which wasn't much of a post in any sense beyond the technical).  Hmn.  So, life is still totally up in the air, I still don't have a gaming group, and my mind has been pathetically unfocused.

That's no good.

So, I'm taking the wolf by the ears (as the old Romans used to say), and deciding that I will begin posting something at least once a week for the rest of the year.  It may be gaming thoughts, some fiction, or some absolute bloody junk, but it will be my junk, and maybe I can get my brain back into some vaguely functional state again.

Oh, and this post doesn't count.  Cheers.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Soooo...slow year

Yeah, actually I still live (as my beloved Warlord of Mars might say), but you couldn't tell by reading this blog, which hasn't been updated since April (?!).  In June, we moved from our secret island base of Maui to Concord, Massachusetts, a little out from Boston.  May was consumed by prep; June by moving; and July whole lot of nothing.  Not finding work; not getting my stuff in a timely manner; not finding a place to live; and definitely not having anything worth blogging about in the gaming milieu (as my beloved St. Gary might say).  About the only thing that has happened is that wife was immediately bitten by a tick and contracted not just Lyme's disease but two additional tick-born diseases!  Welcome back to the mainland, indeed.

I hope to reassemble some kind of life at some point and maybe even think about gaming again.  I've had some incoherent thoughts about Antediluvian Sword & Sorcery gaming, occasioned by reading Joscelyn Godwin's inconsistent Atlantis and the Cycles of Time and Lin Carter's Lost Worlds. I make no secret that I am a fan of Mr. Carter's, even though he has written some awful stuff (Pirates of World's End I am definitely looking at you), in additional to committing all the sins for which S&S fans now castigate him (although I do not). In this case, the stories in this particular book set in Antillia and Atlantis were excellent and among his best (they also channelled Jack Vance to a great degree, which is no bad thing).

So, anyway, if anyone thought I had disappeared into the Seven Darks, fear not, gentle readers, I but lurk.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Head-Smack on Critical Hits!

The loyal, hypothetical reader may recall my wrestling with Critical Hits and Special Maneuvers in Under the Dying Sun.  In my last go, I decided that having an event occur on both a roll of box-cars and a roll of 15+ was all just too much and needed to pick one or the other.  In the "end" (by which I guess that I mean the end of the post), I chose box-cars as both simpler and more psychologically satisfying.  But I was sorry to give up the opportunity for better fighters to have an increased chance of special events.  There it stayed for the last few months.

Until I was prowling around on, looking at a thread about various ways of using 2d6 in FATE.  Marius B suggested in this post that when rolling 2d6 against a positive target number (as opposed to the default FATE method), you had the opportunity to allow special events when rolling doubles that beat the TN.


That was the missing piece.  I can keep the simplicity and psychological appeal of box-cars, while still opening up the opportunity for better combatants to increase their chance of a Critical Hit.  Since the target number in S&S is a "11", the odds are that only double-sixes will be a hit.  But, with a net modifier of +1, you could also get a crit from double-fives; a net modifier of +3 would add double-fours; and so on.  You could add the matching piece about fumbles when you miss with doubles, but I have decided not to use that here as it would mean that 99% of folks have a better chance of fumbling than hitting; the lands under the Dying Sun may be harsh, but not that harsh.

As I mentioned in that thread, this is a real head-smack moment for me as I have long admired the way in which Tynes and Stolze's Unknown Armies implemented this idea in a percentile system over a decade ago and blogged about using it not too long ago (while forgetting to credit UA).  Sigh.

Anyway, that makes the relevant section in UtDS as follows:

Combat Results
During each of the three Combat Phases (Melee, Missile, and Sorcery), everyone making an attack of that type makes a Combat Roll with varying results:

Roll is snake-eyes: Fumble
Roll is 10- : Miss
Roll is 11+ : Hit
Roll is box-cars or a Hit made with doubles: Critical Hit

If the attacker is using a weapon made of natural, non-metallic materials, it breaks.  The Referee should feel free to apply other results; for example, he may rule that Artifacts also break on a fumble or perhaps just run out of power.


The degree of success indicates base damage done.  This is modified by the weapon’s Damage Multiplier.

Critical Hit
A Critical Hit results in one of two effects: Automatic Hit or Special Maneuver.

Automatic Hit - if the attacker had no chance to roll 11+ due to modifiers (from Weapon vs. AC, opponent's Defense, etc.), he still hits on box-cars.  This hit counts as a Combat Roll of "12"  i.e. the degree of success is 2.  This means that everyone has at least some chance of hitting any foe.

If the attacker has no need for an Automatic Hit, then he can choose a Special Maneuver:

Break Natural Armour/Shield - if the foe’s armour and/or shield if made of natural materials, it breaks and becomes useless.  If both armour and shield are susceptible to this effect, the shield will always break first.

Extra Damage - the weapon’s Damage Multiplier increases by one.  A Tiny Weapon goes from x ½ to x1, a Small Weapon goes from x1 to x2, and so on.

Wound - the opponent must roll on the Wounds Table (which usually happens only if reduced to 0 or less HP).  This Wound is always temporary.

Knock Down/Back - the foe stumbles back a few feet or falls down.  He needs to use a Half-Move to stand up or lose all Defense.

Disarm - the foe’s weapon goes flying out of his hand.  He must use a Half-Move to draw another weapon.

Stunning Flurry - a flurry of disorienting blows that forces the foe to make an INT Throw or lose his next turn.

Deadly Display - the character's display of martial prowess is so intimidating that the foe must immediately make a Morale Throw.  This is only useful against NPC's as player characters never make Morale Throws.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Do You Need an Illusionist Spell List?

Every once in a while, someone at will post to the long-defunct thread "101 Days of RC D&D".  This was a pretty beloved thread - which is why it is frequently revived - and one that was responsible for more than one person's return to old-school gaming.  I know that I had been making moves in that direction, but participating in that thread really catalyzed a lot of my thoughts on the subject.

Anyway, I was thinking about something I had posted to that conversation regarding elven magic.  I was suggesting some ways to make elves - actually, I think that should be "Elves" - a bit distinct from human wizards - OK, "Magic-Users" - without really mussing with the rules too much.  My two ideas boiled down to making Elves nature magicians and giving them Druid spells OR making them creatures of glamour and giving them Illusionist spells.  Of those two, I was much more intrigued by the second, since the tree-hugger elf has long uninterested me, while scary-fairy-tale things still compel my attention.

I never got around to making that elven illusionist list of spells, but the idea has continued to interest me.  I might have done so for my Onderland Campaign, except nobody has played an elf so it wasn't needed.  But I was also held back by a nagging unhappiness with illusionist spells.  And the problem was basically this: when you come down to it, aren't all illusion spells just different applications of the same spell?  Unlike the MU spells, which involve all sorts of effects - from conjuring balls of flame to Jedi mind tricks to summoning demons - illusionist spells could be pretty much summarized as...well, creating illusions.

Some time later, I began to become intrigued by the second edition era Birthright setting.  Birthright had all sorts of things wrong with it, in my opinion, but it did some things right, and one of those was evoking a medieval sense of Faerie.  And the best book in the line on that topic was Blood Spawn, which was a totally inappropriate name, since it was about creatures of Faerie (called "the Shadow World" in Birthright) rather than creatures of the Blood (which was a, let's not get into it).  Anyway, Faerie is presented as place of constantly shifting appearance and every intelligent being in Faerie has an ability called "Seeming" which allows them to manipulate that reality.  At low levels, this is essentially illusion, but at higher levels the line between appearance and reality is lost and one can effectively order around the world to one's desire.

This, to me, is exactly what faerie glamour is supposed to be.  In my mind, the basic implementation in YAG would be that Elves in the mundane world have inherent powers of illusion - making straw seem to be gold, grass seem to be a feast, and goblins seem to be human babies.  As they grow more powerful, these glamours attain more reality.  And in faerie places, they are effectively total reorderings of reality.

But then I look at the various iterations of illusion spells and see that Audible Glamour is different from Phantasmal Force is different from Massmorph and so on.  And I think that maybe this really doesn't model what I'm thinking.  So here's an idea I have been playing with:

Faerie Glamour
In the mundane world, an Elf may cast one glamour per day per level, although his ability is unlimited in frequency when in Faerie (if using the standard spell-casting system.  I need to come up with alternate rules for Spellcraft & Swordplay and other games that use a casting roll).

At 1st level, the Elf can create an illusion that affects one sense.  This need not be the same sense each time; he could make an illusory light at one point (a will-o-the-wisp) and then make wholesome milk smell curdled the next.  The Elf can affect one additional sense for every three additional levels (4th, 7th, etc.)

At 13th level, the Elf can affect all five senses, at which point he is effectively reshaping reality.

Glamours do not disappear if touched or disbelieved.  Someone who touches an illusory snake and feels nothing there is free to draw his own conclusions, but the snake does not go poof.

At 1st level, the Elf's glamour last for five minutes.  The duration doubles at each additional level, so that they last for almost half-hour at 5th level (80 minutes).  At 13th level, glamours are of indefinite duration and last until the Elf dies or the glamour is dispelled.

Although the Elf can seem to injure someone with his glamours at quite low levels, these seeming can not do any actual damage.  Anyone subjected to an illusory attack makes the appropriate Save (depending on what system you are using).  If the Save succeeds, the subject believes himself to have avoided the whatever it was; if the Save fails, the subject takes damage as normal depending upon the attack (a sword, a fireball, etc.), but all of this illusory damage is recovered as soon as the glamour is dissolved and the subject has a chance to recover.

However, as the Elf advances in power, his glamour achieve more and more reality.  At 4th level, 20% of all damage done by a glamour (minimum of 1 point) acts like regular damage for purposes of recovery (however that works in your game of choice).  This increases by an additional 20% for every three additional levels (meaning 100% at 16th level if any Elf should be so fortunate as to rise to that height).

Obviously, this needs more work.  As much as I like the more laissez-faire treatment of spells in older D&D, illusions just seem to call for a bit more guidance.  For example, there may be a need to describe area of effect (I don't think a 1st level Elf should be able to make an illusory mountain).  I probably need some method of adjudicating the distraction effects of illusions.  But still, the idea appeals to me more than the standard illusion spells.  Has anyone ever done anything similar?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ability Scores in OD&D: Use 'Em or Lose 'Em

The central idea of character generation in D&D is picking up some six-siders and rolling some stats.  This act is so central to most of our thinking that it sometimes comes as a surprise how meaningless abilities are, by and large, in the original iteration of that game.  That abilities have become more and more mechanically important over later iterations only reinforces the notion that stats matter.  But when you look at the LBB's, abilities do only two things: a high score in a prime can give an experience bonus and Charisma affects the maximum number of hirelings. And that's about it.  No modifiers to melee or missile combat; no modifiers to armour class; no modifiers to Hit Points.

[The estimable Sham has rightly pointed out that I got a little carried away here.  Abilties in the LBB's do more than that.  For the record, here's what they do:

  • Low or High score in Prime Requisite modifies experienced gained (from +10% to -20%).
  • DEX 12+ gives +1 with missiles, while DEX 9- gives -1.
  • Very high (15+) or very low (6-) CON adds or subtracts 1 from each Hit Die.
  • Most interestingly: all CON scores in between those extremes affect what will later be called "survival shock", from 40% at CON 8 to 100% for CON 13+.
  • CHA establishes the maximum number of hirelings (from 1 to 12) and high or low score modify their loyalty base.  I'd note here that these later modifiers are far and away the largest in the game - CHA 18 gives a whopping +4!
  • Finally, the text suggests some other uses but does not codify or explain them.
    • STR "will aid in opening traps" (?)
    • INT allows addtional languages to be spoken (but doesn't explain how many)
    • DEX "will indicate...speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell,. etc. (but, again, no mechanics.  I assume that this is where Holmes got his initiative rule)
    • CHA (perhaps most famously and certainly most amusingly) "is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover....charisma will aid a character in attracting various monsters to his service."]

I have no idea if the original crew ever thought that was strange - why is it so important to roll CON if it doesn't do anything?  I have to assume something like that went through the minds of Gary as Supplement I: Greyhawk quickly added to the mechanical meaning of abilities.  And a scant few years later, the Player's Handbook increased the role of stats to an almost overburdensome level (I never used all the mechanics associated with abilities such as "system shock" or maximum spells per level).  As James M. discussed recently, it is rather amazing to see how far things had come in the Dungeon Master's Guide, the last piece of the AD&D trifecta, with the discussion given to various dicing methods to produce superior abilities (or, as I like to call it, "cheating").

But let's go back to the original game for a minute.  The increased importance is certainly one valid way of dealing with the largely irrelevant abilities, but it isn't the only way.  I have often considered taking the alternate route: eliminate abilities altogether.  "Heresy!", you say.  "Is it even D&D then?", you ask.  Well, maybe so and maybe not.  The very intriguing Platemail presents a strong case that rolling abilities isn't a sine qua non of Ye Aulde Game.  What have always been the really meaningful stats in D&D are Class and Level and it's perfectly reasonable to say that anything else is needless complication.

One objection to this line of thought is that all characters of like Class and Level will look too much alike i.e. have no meaningful differentiation.  That's certainly the attitude that later iterations in general - and WD&D iterations in particular - have taken, as well as one I see expressed with some frequency among what, for lack of a better name, I have to call "new schoolers".  But I don't buy it.

My experience is that no assemblage of abilities, skills, feats, talents, etc. serve to differentiate characters any better than simple, imaginative investment in the character (and often does so much less well).  I'm saying "imaginative investment" rather than "role-playing" in part because it makes me sound smarter, but also because "role-playing" is too restrictive a term, implying as it does a kind of Method Actor regime.  Imaginative investment can be that, but it doesn't need to be.  You can invest some imagination in a character even if you always refer to him in the third-person.  Imaginative investment often occurs during play in reaction to particularly notable (often absurd) events, such as when Bob the Fighter manages to miss every single shot with his bow and ends up being nicknamed "Hawkeye" and the butt of jokes for many an adventure.

I risk digressing too much here, so I'll hope I expressed my point clearly enough.  Because it was made in order to suggest that eliminating abilities might well provide even more opportunity and incentive for imaginative assessment than would otherwise be the case.   If I want to play the game, and don't just want to treat it as a war-game, moving chits around the board, there's an implicit encouragement to come up with something to distinguish "Level 1 Fighter" from every other "Level 1 Fighter".

Emphasis "might well provide" because I have never had the chance a game without abilities.  But I'm eager to give it a try.  And if any of my loyal, hypothetical readers have done so, I'd love to hear how it went.

Monday, March 28, 2011

From Hit Points to Luck Points?

It's amazing how admitting that you have nothing to say let's you think of things unsaid.  Perverse that.

I have been reviewing the rules of Under the Dying Sun as I may get a real live group to play soonish.  And I came across this: "Hit Points are an abstract measure of vitality, ability to withstand pain, defensive skill, and luck."  Nothing new or earth-shaking there, but that's actually kind of the point.  Hit Points have always been abstract, but that is one of the most overlooked parts of Ye Auld Game's system.  I mean, they are called hit point, for Gary's sake; obviously they represent how many hits you can take!  Right?  And that's why we have the crazy stuff about high-level guys shrugging off arrows, becoming immune to a knife in the throat, and easily surviving falls from high place.  Ah, the arguments in Dragon magazine back in the day; how I miss ye.

As I mull this over in my head, I think that the name may be a large part of the problem.  So what if you called them something else?  What if you called them, for example, "Fortune" or "Luck Points"?

You get this:

Luck Points are an abstract measure of vitality, ability to withstand pain, defensive skill, and good old-fashioned luck.  At the conclusion of combat, all characters who still have at least 1 Luck Point regain half of those lost in the bout (rounding down). Thus if a character takes a total of 5 points of damage, even if from different opponents, he regains 2 points once the fight ends and he can catch his breath.

Characters fall unconscious when they drop to 0 Luck Points or less and suffer from a Wound.

That's from the section on Injury & Death with the appropriate substitutions.   And I rather like it.  Instead of saying, "You are all out of hit points; you're dead", you could now say, with some brutal understatement, "Your luck has run out; you're dead."

On the other hand, that terminological shift might be a bit too much for some players.  Hit Points are a fairly intrinsic piece of the game's history.  God knows how much the shift to ascending Armour Class bothers some people.  Hmn, something to think about.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Still Alive, Actually

Not that you would know it from the blog.  Between bouts of pneumonia, back injuries, vacations, and (least importantly for purposes of blogging), nothing of much relevance to say, I have obviously been absent.  I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Hopefully, I might get this blog going again a bit, although I am unsure of its future.  I began it for a very specific purpose - to act as a design log and forum for a game of swords & psionics - and although that game isn't done, the big pieces are long since decided.  In addition, I must confess to having suffered a bit of blogger-burnout, both for my own and other's (far superior) efforts.  Not due to a lack of good material; maybe the opposite of having so much good material that I can't really sort through it anymore.

But, maybe I'll think of something else to say.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Quite Distracted By: The House on the Borderlands

Perspicacious, hypothetical readers will note that finial "s" on the last word of the title.  But what does it mean?  Mysterious, eh?  Much like the work of the authour being referenced: William Hope Hodgson.

I came to W.H. Hodgson only comparatively recently.  It might have been from seeing his name in conjunction with that of Arthur Machen, love of whom I have discussed before.  Or, it might have been the excellent use of his ideas in the great World of Thool setting.  In any case, I've only begun reading him in the last few years.

A few minutes ago, I completed The House on the Borderland.  If you have read it, you probably know the strange space-time in which my head reels.  But whatever cosmic vista lurches forward, I am a gamer.  Which means that I am thinking, "how could I use this in a game"? And the answer that occurred to me was this:

What if you combined W.H. Hodgson's The House on the Borderland with E.G. Gygax's The Keep on the Borderlands?

Well, what I get anyway, is "The House on the Borderlands".  Essentially, it's the Keep, but with the House taking the place of the fortress.  And set in the 19th century.

The set-up follows the novel right up to where the Swine-Things cease their attack.  In this version, instead of investigating the Pit and then going all 2001 about a century before 2001, the Recluse engages in the great Victorian lit tradition of sending word to London for his chums from the old College / Club / Army days.  Enter the PC's.

As with the Keep, the House serves as the (sorta) secure home-base. From there, the intrepid adventurers descend into the Pit, into the tunnel opened up by the land-slide (or land-slip as W.H. has it), and thence into - what else - the Dungeon.

Some reasons why this is so great:

1.  One of the hall-marks of Ye Auld Game is that the Dungeon, at its iconic best, makes no obvious sense.  It is, as Philotomy has so well put it, the Mythic Underworld and operates according to its own, generally obscure rules (doors close on their own; monsters can always see in the dark except when they work with the PC's).  Not only does it seem that the Pit in our story is a real Mythic Underworld, but the Fantastic in Hodgson never makes sense, by which I mean that it adamantly refuses mundane, logical explanation.  That's bloody perfect for a Dungeon.

2.  There is no clear resolution.  One of the great problems in using stories as fodder for YAG is that stories usually have an recognizable, narrative structure, while story in old-school gaming is emergent from play.  But the story of the House resolutely resists any acceptable, narrative structure.  We never learn why the Swine-Things attack or what they really are or why the House has a trap-door to Hell in the cellar or why the Floating Hog-Face wants the Recluse to open the Door or anything.  It's a story that should make your High School English teacher sob in frustration.

But that makes it great for gaming.  There may be immediate problems and solutions to them, but there isn't actually any single mystery to solve or act to be performed.  Adventures under the House could go for years; generations of explorers could come, level up, and go; and that would all be fine.

3.  Swine-Things.  Seriously, have orcs ever seemed this creepy?  W.H. seems to have had a thing about pigs (see The Hog for another great example) and, just as his fan, H.P. Lovecraft could do with his fears, old W.H. could make his fear seem totally justified.  I mean - man! - I have to think twice about eating bacon after reading this story (note: I ate it anyway).

There are lots of games that would work for this (I just realized the other day that there are a number of Victorian age adventure games in print now), but I immediately thought of Engines & Empires, of which I have written before.  As I discussed then, I would forget the whole alternate-Earth deal (at least at first), and set it securely within cozy little Britain. So no demi-humans and also no steam-punk stuff.  Just old India hands, cockney pugilists, Van Helsing-like scholars, and counter-cultural Black Magicians (what a world we gamers live in when those things can be discussed as "just such" and be seen as a limitation).  Into the Pit they go and we all see what happens from there.

I mentioned Britain above.  I know the novel is set in far western Ireland, bit that doesn't sit entirely right with me.  It may just be my own lack of Hibernophilia, but I want to place the House on an old borderland; the west Ireland isn't any kind of borderland in the same sense.  I'd prefer to use the border-countries with Scotland, Cornwall, or Wales; of those three, I favour the later.  Maybe because of Machen?  Maybe because it gives you a great excuse to bring old mines into the equation?  I don't know and it doesn't really matter that much I suppose.

My mind is definitely turning on the Swine-Things.  Obviously, they play the orcs in this scenario, but they need to keep their weird mystique to preserve the feel of the setting.  I'm focusing on the hints W.H. keeps dropping about how the Recluse never finds any corpses in the morning and his occasional wonder if the things are even mortal at all.  There's a lot of ways you could play that, but having brought up Van Helsing, my minds turns to vampires, specifically the Hammer Studious version of vampires.  What if the Swine-Things are some kind of anti-life (they are described as having corpse-like flesh)?  They can be seemingly killed as any other creature, but will also decompose in the sunlight, collapsing into dust within a matter of minutes.  This is why no evidence can ever be found.  However, should the body be kept out of the light , probably by being dragged back into the Pit - it will reform within 24 hours, good as new.  

This actually doesn't have much impact on the PC's - not at first anyway. After all, who can tell one Swine-Thing from another?  The disappearing bodies may be annoying if the characters are hoping for some kind of proof, but this isn't really that sort of game anyway.  It only really maters if the PC's begin to wonder why they can't thin out the population.  Or maybe if a particular Swine-Thing with some kind of distinguishing mark (a half-chewed off ear perhaps) seems to reappear every time it gets killed.  That's the kind of thing that sends players into paroxysms of paranoia.

One last thought for the night: it might be useful to increase the population of the House in a long-term game.  If the group is going to set-up camp here for a while, it may prove useful to have some opportunities for events to occur within the House.  Perhaps the owners has the full complement of servants he should have.  What if he had a family with his lost-love, perhaps a beautiful daughter who is initially aloof but ends up falling in love with one of the PC's (the first to reach a certain level?) just in time to get kidnapped?  What if we the inhabitants of the House slowly go wacky, as is suggested in the novel?  Is sister Mary deliberately trying to open the House to the Swine-Things before the Recluse stops her; and, if so, is she under the malevolent influence of the Floating Hog-Face?  The potential parallels to the Cult of Evil Chaos from the Keep are right there if you want to use them.

I'm not going to get to play this game any time soon and it may just remain an idea.  But, if so, it's out there if anyone wants to try it.