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.