Sunday, August 30, 2009

Otherworldly Geography

I've not really given much thought to how other planes would be dealt with in my "folkloric" concept of setting design. But I did have an insight this morning that I thought might be interesting to play around with.

What if the "other planes" were, in terms of their geography, shadows of our world? That is, the Fairy Realms would have mountains, rivers, oceans, etc. in roughly the same configuration as they are on Earth, but with differences in composition. A forest on Earth might be home to normal animals and such. But it would exist as a sort of "parallel universe" with a nearly identical forest in which dwelt satyrs, elves, and dryads. Unknowing travelers might slip from one dimension to the other without even realizing it, and thus we have encounters with the supernatural in what they think is the normal world.

Other worlds would exist similarly; Hell would have rivers of fire in place of normal rivers on our world, Heaven would have its gleaming cities in the same locales as they exist here, etc. Even political boundaries could be dimly echoed in the alternate worlds; where King Roderick rules a realm on Earth, so the fairy king Oberon might rule a parallel kingdom. (Another thought; what if there were a fairy counterpart to every person? Or a demonic and angelic one?) And, as one moved from one kingdom to another in the "real" world, and the legends and lore concerning the Unseen Folk (or demons, or angels, etc.) changed according to culture, so too would the nature of the other worlds change accordingly. What works against a demonic presence in one land might be completely useless against one a thousand miles away, although naturally the local sorcerers would know what was and was not effective.

Magics could be used to create portals between the worlds, charms and incantations used to contact beings in the other realms, etc. Heck, with a little massaging, this could possibly be turned into a coherent basis for the magical system itself.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Taking Stock of the Recent Discussions

I will be offline pretty much from now until Monday, off camping in the woods with a couple hundred other drunken Heathens.

Please take the opportunity to read through the posts thusfar, and expound on your reactions to the various topics I've posted on in the last week and a half. My intention is to make a second pass on the various topics, and hopefully come up with a synthesis based on the feedback, and a more refined look at each of the topics.

Also, I am forced to wonder... Have my musings taken me beyond the very pale of D&D itself? No PC demi-humans, non-Vancian magic (well... sorta), a new combat system, no alignment, and so forth? Are the changes I'm pondering taking me outside the D&D umbrella, or can it stretch in the direction I'm moving? Bearing in mind that I'm just musing on these topics, and trying to suss out the depth underlying the common wisdom.

Thoughts on Alignment

Ah, alignment, the bane of every player who wanted his character to be "chaotic greedy".

The inital spectrum of alignment, Law-Neutrality-Chaos, probably stems from Moorcock's Elric books, although Zelazny's Amber novels came out starting in the early 1970's, so it's entirely possible that Gygax et al were influenced by that as well. (I don't recall ever seeing him asked where the idea of an alignment system came from; if he answered it on a Q&A message board thread, I'd love to see it.) From there, of course, it was a natural step to expand the system along another axis, thus giving us the familiar good/evil law/chaos grid seen in AD&D. The notion that the Outer Planes follow the same system, seems to flow naturally (at least in retrospect).

From the standpoint of a wargame, whence the original D&D game comes, having "law" and "chaos" makes perfect sense. One side of the battle represented the forces of law, the other the forces of chaos. They could just as easily be "red" and "blue". But in an RPG setting, what purpose does alignment serve?

On one level, alignment is a quick-and-dirty way of encouraging role-playing. It gives an instant motivation and the beginnings of a sense of morality and ethics for a character who might otherwise be nothing more than six stats and a name. When that same character has an alignment, he has guidelines. Goals. A modus operandi. When you don't have a ton of time (or motivation) to develop a full-blown history and personality for a character, alignment is a convenient way of doing so, albeit in a very perfunctory manner. The same goes, of course for NPCs; alignment makes the game master's job a lot easier.

On the level of the campaign, alignment can be used to create conflict on a metaphysical level. This is best seen in Gary Gygax's "Gord the Rogue" novels, where the forces of the Lower Planes are very clearly delineated by their (AD&D) alignments. It is also possible to use alignment as a shorthand for the behavior of entire kingdoms, as when we see in the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting that, for instance, the Theocracy of the Pale is predominantly Lawful Neutral. Personally, in my own AD&D campaign, I use alignment to influence the general types of tactics that different types of humanoids employ. Orcs, being lawful evil, attack and defend in very well-ordered ranks, deploying pole-arms, using shield walls, orderly retreats, etc. to great effect. Others of chaotic evil alignment attack in less organized fashion, tending to attack in hordes.

However, there are downsides to alignment as well. It is all too easy to turn alignment into a straight-jacket. "You can't do that, you're lawful good" is something that we heard all too much of in my younger days, and in retrospect it was the worst possible way alignment could be interpreted. That said, if one can simply trip merrily from one alignment to another without consequences, then what's the point in having an alignment system in the first place? (This doesn't include the obvious cases such as paladins etc. for whom specific behaviors are required to maintain certain powers and status.)

AD&D did have a system for such consequences. Training to The original AD&D rules regarding alignment and its impact on training and level advancement are a logistical nightmare, and I've never heard of anyone actually using them (photocopy the alignment chart and plot each player's behavior in each adventure???).

In some ways, even the ninefold alignment system is too simplistic to accurately plot behavior. Each individual approaches the sorts of moral questions covered by alignment from a standpoint of relativity. It is entirely possible to self-consistently behave "evilly" (in game terms) to outsiders and "good" (in game terms) to members of one's family, clan, tribe, or species. From the standpoint of defining objective behaviors, the alignment system seems doomed to faiure.

That said, is there a way to capture the handy shorthands that alignment gives in terms of being able to paint PC and NPC behavior with a broad brush where needed, while at the same time allowing for a more realistic portrayal of human behavior? Your thoughts on the subject are welcome.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Character Archetypes

Following up on my earlier thoughts on character classes and skills, I've been trying to come up with a list of character archetypes that a game would absolutely need, and I'm coming up against a wall. There either seem to be way too many such archetypes (in which case I suspect I'm defining the term too broadly and letting in too many specific sub-types) or I end up narrowing it down to two (in which case I am certain I am not allowing enough specificity).

A bit on sources might be appropriate before delving in too deeply. D&D naturally draws on swords-and-sorcery style fiction as a chief source of inspiration. That genre has its own set of archetypical characters that a game could (and should) draw on. We have Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric, Prince Vakar, Thongor, Cudgel the Clever, Rhialto the Marvelous, etc.

An interesting point; looking back at that list of names, all but one is a warrior-type (and I might argue that Rhialto was deliberately written to invert the trope of warrior-as-hero). Wizards-as-heroes seem to be very much under-represented in the genre. The Gray Mouser dabbles slightly in such stuff, but his real claim to fame is as one of Lankhmar's greatest swordsmen and burglers. Elric, too, is much more often seen with sword in hand rather than conjuring some awful magic. I'm doubtless missing a few counter-examples, but I think it's safe to say that in terms of archetypes, the warrior is much more often the protagonist, and the wizard is most often cast as the villain. (Even in Tolkien, the Fellowship is, essentially, a warrior-band; Gandalf, while present, hardly uses his magical powers throughout the entirety of the LotR).

Mythology (and mythologized history) also has quite a bit of influence on D&D. Arthur, Lancelot, Robin Hood, Rolland, Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, Hercules, El Cid, Merlin... Again, the warriors are vastly over-represented compared to the magicians. I might go so far as to say that there are indeed only two archetypes within this broad spectrum; the wizard and the warrior (although there are vibrational echoes within the warrior archetype; the warrior-as-thief, the warrior-as-king, the warrior-as-pirate, the warrior-as-mercenary, etc.), and the wizard-as-hero is a theme seen so rarely as to be remarkable when it does appear.

However, it should be noted that fantasy RPGs have, over the last thirty years or so, developed into a literary field of their own. And as such they have developed their own internal archetypes. The thief, the cleric, and the bard have, simply by virtue of being included as "primary classes" (in the case of the bard, as of 2nd edition AD&D), have become archetypes alongside the warrior and the wizard. At least within the sub-sub-genre of fantasy RPGs.

But I wonder if this doesn't work out after all. What is a thief, but a lightly armed warrior who can pick locks? What is a cleric, but a warrior with healing magic? The bard is a warrior with magical powers of a different sort. In fact, the only class that doesn't qualify, at least on some level, as a warrior... is the magic-user.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ampersand required?

When coming up with a name for a fantasy RPG, does there really have to be an & in there? There does seem to be something of a pattern:

  • Dungeons & Dragons
  • Tunnels & Trolls
  • Swords & Wizardry
  • Chivalry & Sorcery (the best game I wish I had ever actually played, btw)
  • Mazes & Monsters
  • Castles & Crusades
  • Aces & Eights
  • Bunnies & Burrows
  • Lace & Steel

The question is... if I'm aiming for a new game, which will have a retro feel, do I need to bow to the naming conventions to the extent that I go with an "X & Y" name? Or would I do better simply going with something unique?

Castle of the Mad Archmage Update

You have spoken, and I have heard you.

I confess I did not expect the outpouring of support and love for my humble attempt at creating a mega-dungeon that followed my announcement last Tuesday that the Castle of the Mad Archmage project would be suspended. Both in the comments and in private emails, folks have expressed not only their love of the product itself, but a willingness to actually support the effort financially.

I am honestly, truly, overwhelmed. Thank you, my friends, for the vote of confidence and support.

So, I'm willing to reverse myself and complete at least the initially-planned levels 2-12. However, there is a catch. You will note a "donate" button is now firmly ensconsed in the upper-right corner of the blog. As donations come in, levels will go out. I don't want to tie things to a specific dollar amount per level, because I have absolutely no idea what the response will be to this experiment, but rest assured that if there is donation activity, I will most definitely be spurred on to keep writing.

So if the spirit moves you to do so, please consider making a donation to keep the Castle of the Mad Archmage project alive. Details to come once I see how this experiment plays itself out. And thanks again; this development is beyond my expectations.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Thoughts on Setting

Most RPG fantasy settings resemble, at least to one extent or another, medieval/Renaissance Europe. This isn't by accident; most of the literary antecedents of the genre are similarly set (think the Hyborean Age, or Tolkien's Middle Earth), and doing so allows the designer to rely on standard tropes so as to not need to explain each and every little thing in terms of culture and technology. Players are going to universally understand what a sword is, and can picture in their minds' eye what mail looks like. A European-based setting is just easier.

There have been exceptions throughout the years, of course. Skyrealms of Jorune (mentioned in a previous post) went out of its way to shake off the European-ish expectations of its audience by creating an entirely alien world out of whole cloth. Some settings are deliberately modeled on Asian or African cultures (the excellent game Bushido comes to mind), but are usually set historically (even if it's a "fantasy history"), rather than a brand-new locale that merely resembles an Asian culture (TSR's Oriental Adventures being an exception; it's pseudo-Asian Kara-Tur was indeed analogous to the various pseudo-European settings out there).

Especially given the fact that I want to do a more folkloric treatment of setting, I find a pseudo-European approach to be perfectly in line with my needs. However, as a student of history, I find that many settings are missing what I would consider to be unique and necessary elements that made the Middle Ages what they were. These are Rome, Christianity, and the Threat From Outside.

A central theme of the Middle Ages was the attempt to recover the glory of the Roman Empire. It has been said that Medieval Europe suffered from a collective inferiority complex because they were unable to match the achievements of the Romans in architecture, military prowess, political achievement, and art. Some fantasy settings have expectations of lost civilizations, but they are often too remote from the "present" to have a cultural impact (in fairness, this is often deliberate, to allow for a sufficient sense of mystery when exploring the ruins of such civilizations). But in Medieval Europe, Rome was imminent. From Scotland to the ends of the Mediterranean, examples of Roman buildings, roads, aqueducts, etc. abounded. Classical literature was well-known to most people who were at all educated (one reason the neo-Classical nature of the Renaissance was able to express itself so thoroughly was that it wasn't unknown to the culture-at-large). The largest cities in the world were founded and in large part built by the Romans. Even Charlemagne's coronation was an attempt to re-establish the Roman Empire on a political level.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the very ancestors of the Europeans were the ones who had caused the downfall of the Roman Empire in the first place, and suddenly found themselves squatting in the middle of an Imperial infrastructure they had no idea how to maintain. The Franks, the Anglo-Saxons, the Goths, Vandals, etc. were all, to a large degree, the founders of Medieval Europe. The Gauls, Romans, Britons, etc. were pushed to the sidelines. So in addition to their collective inferiority complex, the more educated amongst the people had a nagging sense of guilt about having caused it all in the first place.

The second defining characteristic of the Middle Ages was Christianity. In the context of a fantasy RPG setting, it is not the specifics of Christian doctrine that are important (although, if one were inclined, a very credible "fantasy version" of a Catholic Church could certainly be designed), but rather its overall role vis-a-vis the culture and history of the region. Christianity presented a break with both the religion and culture of the pagan peoples. Starting in the Roman Empire, Christianity soon spread to the invading Germanic tribes, causing them to abandon their hereditary faith in favor of the new one. As each tribe had originally practiced a variation on Germanic (or Slavic) religion unique to their particular tribe, the effect was a certain homogenization. Where the Saxons had their Woden, and the Goths their Weodon, and the Vandals their Wotan, and so forth, now they all had "God". But the conversion, at least up until the time of the Protestant Reformation and even beyond, was never complete. Folk-customs and the practice of witchcraft maintained at least some of the pre-Christian beliefs in the living memory of the common folk, and created a dynamic tension between the "official" Christian Church and the impossible-to-kill memories of the ancient faiths. As late as the seventeenth century, Bishops were posting laws against various pagan practices.

It should be pointed out that monotheism is by no means required for such a thing. It is entirely possible that one, more organized, form of polytheism, could perform the same function. It's a subtle point, sometimes lost in the stories, but in REH's Conan novels, the faith of Mitra is said to have done much the same thing among the Hyborean kingdoms, but never completely. Ashura, Set, and other gods are still around, even if the faith of Mitra frowns on and opposes them.

Lastly, Europe viewed itself as a land beseiged. The designation of "Christendom" was a way to define the problem of us-vs.-them, where "them" was first the Muslims, and then the Vikings, and then turned to an internal problem which eventually erupted into the witch-hunts. Even though Europe itself was beset with internal struggles for power, wealth, and prestige, it was also the target of invasions from the Moors in Spain (penetrating as far as southeastern France until Charles Martel stopped them), Turks in the Balkans, and Vikings in northern Europe. The Popes responded against the Muslims with crusades and counter-attacks, and the Vikings eventually were victims of their own success, founding kingdoms in England and Ireland that were eventually absorbed wholesale by the locals (but not before re-energizing the same with their pagan beliefs, which were of course related to those practiced by those whose lands they were invading; the Anglo-Saxons' religion wasn't too far removed from that of the Vikings).

These are, of course, sweeping statements, and as such represent only the broadest themes that a European-themed campaign might entail. There were many other factors involved in European history; dynastic, cultural, economic, etc. But in terms of designing an RPG fantasy setting, three central themes I would include would be:
  1. Ancient civilization. A fallen civilization, with a higher level of culture and technology (or, at least, which is perceived to have had such) than the present, existed and the dream of re-attaining it fires the imagination of at least some.
  2. Cultural upheval. A religious or cultural schism with the past has caused a break with ancient traditions, and is striving to establish itself as a worthy replacement for those traditions. It need not necessarily be religious in nature; it could be the conversion from monarchy to democracy, for example.
  3. External existential threat. There exists a threat (or threats) to the entire society that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to pose a mortal threat to civilization itself. This forces a certain level of unity which probably is at odds with the normal workings of politics.

In game terms, any of these themes presents a practical impetus for adventuring. Exploring the ruins of the vanished civilization, with an eye not only to plunder but to discovering and recovering some of their wondrous knowledge. Dealing with the practical implications of the conversion to the New Faith (or New Dynasty, or whatever the New is that is replacing the old). Fighting against the External Threat, joining a crusade or fighting a defensive action against an invasion.

I like the idea that these sorts of rationales for adventuring are implicit in the setting itself and stem from its own internal history and the implications that stem therefrom.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Thoughts on Magic

Well, as long as I'm covering all the bases, I might as well delve into the concept of magic in the RPG into the bargain.

The "Vancian" magic system, so well-known to A/D&D players, was of course the staple up until the most recent version of the game. And players, on the whole, hated it. Why? Because it limited their characters, of course. Other games worked with other systems. Spell points were the most-seen option on the other end of the spectrum. Where the Vancian system said you could only cram a given number of spells into your brain, and those spells had to be pre-selected, the spell point system pretty much agreed with the basic idea that magic was somehow limited. It simply did away with the idea that the spells needed to be pre-memorized. If you had enough "mana" (or whatever), you could call upon the arcane energies and *BOMF* goes the spell.

Gary Gygax once famously quipped that he had never seen a modern practitioner of magic be so much as able as to cast a first-level magic-user spell (to which I might reply that I've never heard of any priest being able to so much as pray to receive the effect of a first-level cleric spell outside of a charlatan at a tent revival, but I digress). It's a fair point, as far as it goes, but I think the "real world" system of ceremonial magic (and other forms of magic from classical, Medieval, and other periods) might actually be able to be used to form a workable system for a fantasy RPG. I do want the thing to be more rooted in folklore, and magic is a big part of that tradition.

How does European folklore deal with magic? Before the ascension of Christianity, magic was a part of everyday life. Necromancy was well-known to the Greeks and Romans. Romans would put little spells onto pieces of lead sheeting, and stuff them into graves, asking the dead to intervene on their behalf (some graves were even specifically designed to accommodate such work, complete with tubes to accept the prayer-sheets). The Germans had their runes, which were more than mere letters, but a whole esoteric key of magical practices. Charms and spells abound from early Medieval Europe, and the whole realm of fairy-lore could be considered a branch of magic, involved in beseeching the Hidden Folk to grant boons for onesself, or curses on one's enemies. Ceremonial magic dealt with summoning angels and demons through elaborate conjurations based, supposedly, on the work of Moses, Solomon, Hermes (whence the name "Hermetics"), or other famous magi from history. England had its cunning men, and witches were known throughout Europe. And alchemy. The Norse had their rune masters and their seid-workers. And in all cases, we have at least the broad outline of how their magical practices operated. Whether or not you believe it actually worked (or works), what a fruitful field from which to draw ideas!

I like Vancian magic. I think it has a vital role to play in game balance, offering a break on the power of the wizard vis-a-vis other character classes (or, in a skills-based system, those characters who choose skills related to magic-use). But based on my knowledge and studies of how "magic" works and worked in the real-world, I'm not going to be using it.

That said, I'm not going to be using any sort of "spell point" system, either. I find neither the Vancian "the mystic energies imprint themselves on my brain, and are let loose at a moment of my choosing" nor the spell-points-based "I have a limited amount of magical energy to expend in a given time period, and each time I cast a spell it diminishes that supply" to work for my conception of how magic was conceived to work in the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance worlds. How about just "if you know how to do a thing, you can do a thing." Magic as cause-and-effect, just as sure and true as swinging a sword or riding a horse. Can it be done without ruining game balance?

And that's the whole key to such a scheme. If anyone can get a bonus to attack by carving a tyr-rune on their sword, eventually everyone will know the trick and everyone will do it. If everyone with access to the Black Book of Cyprianus can summon a demon or ensure a successful hunt, how could it help but become ubiquitous? In the sense of the campaign setting, it could be done through cultural mores, but player characters are famed far and wide for not paying too much attention to such things, unless there's a real penalty (in game terms) for doing so. Game balance isn't about non-player characters in the setting; it's about players out to (legitimately) try to make their characters as successful as possible.

There is also the question of types of magic. Who's to say that all different types of magic always work the same way? Ceremonial magic, as presented historically, is really pretty dull, time-intensive, and nit-picky. Spending nine months crafting your "tools of arte" to cast a particular spell is hardly a riveting gaming experience. Rune magic, on the other hand, as given in the Icelandic Sagas, can be quite dynamic. You carve a few staves on a piece of wood, touch it to the target (or contrive to get him to touch it) and voila! But the effects are usually subtle. No lightning bolts. No holes opening in the ground to swallow up an opponent. (Although there is a tradition of literal shape-changing.) Charms are just sung or spoken, and the effect is supposed to be immediate. And any peasant's son would know a couple of efficacious charms. No need to spend years studying under some hedge-witch. How would that translate into a game?

I don't claim to have all the answers yet, but it does seem doable.

Maybe the Vancian aspect of preparing spells beforehand could be done with some sort of talismanic system (as mentioned above in connection with the runes). The mage prepares the talismans, and then unleashes them as needed. But how to keep the talisman-maker from just making thousands of them, sort of the equivalent of an old-time D&D character having a golf bag full of wands, staves, and rods? Ease of access? You can only keep track of so many talismans for so many situations? ("Where did I put that 'blast goblins into flinders' amulet? Damnit, no! That's the 'breathe underwater' amulet!") Hmmm... wouldn't THAT be an interesting mechanic? Prepare as many spells as you want. Just try to find them under pressure...

The same would work for potions, of course (or, potions could operate the same way, mechanically, sort of like how they work on "Charmed"; you smash the potion, and the effect happens).

And bear in mind, just because someone puts a cake on the plough and carries it around the field, didn't guarantee there'd be a good harvest in the coming season.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Thoughts on Combat

One of the chief activities in most role-playing games is combat. Whether battling a horde of orcs in a deep dungeon corridor, or slaying a dragon in the skies above the ruins of a jungle city, or even the humble barroom brawl in a waterfront dive, battle often forms the high-point of an adventuring game.

There is a spectrum among RPGs when it comes to combat. Some, such as A/D&D, go for a more abstract system. Roll to hit, roll points of damage, continue. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some games aim for much more versimilitude when it comes to fighting; there are modifiers for a dizzying array of variables, aiming where blows will land, and of course lots and lots of "critical hit" tables, the most entertaining of which have results both humorous and gruesome. Arms Law, I'm looking at you. While most systems use random chance for at least part of the combat system, there are a few out there that are based entirely on players' choices (the old Lost Worlds books, come to mind).

As an old-schooler myself, I lean on the side of the abstract, but I wonder if a re-examination of some of the assumptions underlying real-world combat might not yield an abstraction that is at the same time more realistic while not getting bogged down in endless tables and modifiers. Who knows; we might even be able to win the Holy Grail of all role-playing games into the bargain-- a workable grappling system (yes, I do have a streak of hopeless optimism in me at times).

Melee combat, to my mind, consists of three distinct elements. Inflicting damage, avoiding damage, and taking damage. All combat activities can be set into one or more of these three broad categories. Weapon types? Mostly inflicting, sometimes avoiding. Shields? The reverse. Armor? Avoiding. Movement? Both inflicting and avoiding. Taking damage is what happens when one side does a better job of inflicting than the other side does of avoiding.

Speaking of armor, it should be pointed out that the way armor works in A/D&D is just a bit too abstract for me. Armor does not make one harder to hit. It makes one harder to damage, and, paradoxically, easier to hit, because it makes the wearer slower; but when both combatants are wearing roughly the same type of armor, that factor cancels itself out. Don't believe me? See the scene from Excalibur where the young Arthur is running around in padded cloth, dancing all around the lumbering knights in their field-plate. Or just try splitting logs while wearing a real riveted mail hauberk for a few hours. That could be married to a damage system that was equally abstract in the same direction, where hit points were more akin to fatigue, but the way it was originally designed has always bugged me. But I digress.

And, speaking of fatigue, I like the idea of a split damage/ fatigue system. Damage would be actual blood loss and broken bones, and would take a long time to heal (sans magic, of course). Fatigue would be a short-term thing, and could be regained with just a little rest. The interesting thing about fatigue is that it could be worked so that if you're more aggressive in attempting to do damage, you increase your own rate of fatigue. Do you want to fight like Clubber Lang, or Rocky Balboa? You could make a conscious choice, with a real impact on the outcome. But I digress once more.

So in its simplest (most abstract) form, combat could go something like this:
  1. Combatants A and B each choose to either inflict or avoid damage (running away or parrying), or both (parry-riposte, etc.).
  2. Determine which combatant's attack attempt goes first.
  3. Determine if that attack succeeds in doing damage.
  4. Inflict damage, if needed.
  5. Determine if second combatant's attack succeeds in doing damage.
  6. Inflict damage, if needed.
  7. Repeat until one or the other successfully flees or is killed/knocked unconscious/etc.
When you're dealing with a one-on-one melee situation, the process of resolving combat can be relatively simple. However, when there are many-on-one or many-on-many, the problems (both of abstract and realistic systems) multiply exponentially. Abstract systems can get too abstract (a la Battlesystem) and lose all flavor of combat ("Our side rolls a 4; we all attack at once" regardless of what each person might be doing, or where they are). Realistic systems can break down when there are just too many variables to have to keep track of ("orc #5 is flanking me on the right, but I've got an attack of opportunity on orc #8, who's currently in melee with the thief, but he gets a +5.6 because he's using his short sword in his off hand..."). Plus there's missile fire. And grappling.

And we haven't even dealt with the question of monsters and animals. The same system that works for guys with spears and mail needs to work seamlessly with lions and giant spiders too. Way back when Arms Law first came out, the problem was solved... sort of... by saying the lion's claws attacked just like a dagger, etc. That fortunately only lasted until ICE came out with Claw Law (and thence the whole Rolemaster line). It's not perfect, but it is an option.

In my own mind, I keep coming back to those Lost Worlds books. If the question of how one could deal with other than a one-on-one combat situation could be solved, I think that would be a nifty basis for an RPG combat system (if they managed it somehow in the intervening years, I'm not aware of it). But maybe I could do something similar, and get around the problem, by using some other mechanism. It's just an idea I've got rolling around in my head, but maybe cards.

I picture each player with a deck of combat cards. High swipe, kick, shield bash, guard, turn, parry, dodge, spin, thrust (*SMACK*), etc. The game master as as many decks as there are enemy combatants. In each "round" of combat, they pick one or more actions and lay them down. As combat continues, the cards get turned over (in whatever order; I haven't gotten that far yet). The cards would, ideally, have some way to easily see how one action interfaces with a counter-action. You played a slash? The game master's "raise shield" card protects against that, and says so (maybe with a small "slash" icon with a line through it). The game master would have special cards that would only apply to certain monsters; wing buffet, toothy bite, etc. For those who've played the board game Robo Rally, I'm envisioning something kindasortasimilar, but not quite as programmed so many actions in advance.

Players would definitely have a "special action" card for that player whose action would be "knock the oil lamp onto the floor to set fire to the inn". Got to keep it flexible; one of the real dangers in this sort of system is the potential to stifle creativity by implying you're only allowed to do what you have a card for. The cards would be intended as an aid, not a straitjacket.

What does this accomplish? It allows players to quickly choose specific actions in combat, more than just picking a weapon and a target and rolling a die. If done correctly, it could serve as a visual aid to allow quick calculation of many (most?) combat variables; if they are somehow built into the design of the cards themselves, that is. It solves the problem of many-on-one or many-on-many combat, because multiple cards could be played against the same foe in a melee (with some restrictions, of course; maybe something else that could be designed into the cards themselves). Then again, I might be placing way too much faith in my ability to design all these limits and variables into easy-to-follow design elements on a card. That stubborn optimism again, I suppose.

And grappling. The cards will make grappling work like a charm.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thoughts on Character Races

To follow up yesterday's post with the flip-side of character creation, I'd like to discuss the question of character races.

Way back when, the races available to the A/D&D game were, despite Gygax's later (and possibly lawsuit-derived) comments to the contrary, clearly gotten from Tolkien. Humans, Dwarves, Elves (and Half-Elves!), Hobbits (...err... Halflings). There was lip service in the original 3LBB's to allowing player-character monster races, but precious little guidance in how to do so without letting that 2nd level Balrog thief dominate the game. That meager menu was later added to with Half-Orcs and Gnomes, and there the stable pretty much remained until around the time of Unearthed Arcana, and then 2E opened up the flood gates.

That's not to say that there weren't moves to push the boundaries early on. The pages of The Dragon were stuffed with alternative PC races (the Winged Folk being a personal favorite), Arduin took a flamethrower to the fences surrounding what was and was not acceptable. Other games introduced other races, ranging from the weird-as-hell to elves-with-different-colored-skin. But the human-elf-dwarf triad seemed to be a constant throughout (there were naturally exceptions; Skyrealms of Jorune being the example that jumps out of my memory jumping up and down demanding attention on this point. Thriddle fool!).

From a literary standpoint, given the pulp fantasy origins for the original game, Tolkien's influence cannot be denied. Simply put, one of the hallmarks of pulp fantasy is a human-centric world. Conan knew no Elves. No caravans of Dwarves showed up at the gates of Lankhmar (to be fair, Nehwon does have its Ghouls, but they're pretty much just transparent humans). The Dying Earth was free of whatever Gnome population it might once have sported. No, the standard fantasy world mirepoix came from Tolkien. (I'll deal with the Norse mythology claim in a bit.)

So that's one of the first things I'm inclined not only to question, but to jettison wholesale. I want my world to have a unique feel and flavor, and neo-Tolkien is not the way I want to do it. But neither do I want to go the Dragonlance route and simply pluck out a couple of interesting monster races and elevate them to the status of "replacement demi-humans", like they did later on with Minotaurs. On the other hand, simply having an all-human campaign setting would be dull, if only from a character generation standpoint, even if it would be more consistent with a pulp-fantasy mindset.

Functionally, though, what do character races bring to the table? Choice of race most often reflects in adjustments to character statistics; Elves, being more lithe, get a bonus to their dexterity. Dwarves, being burly, get a constitution bonus. Etc. Some games also give non-human races unique abilities (being able to see in the dark, resistence to poison or magic, etc.). And sometimes the choice of race will also have an impact on day-to-day game mechanics, either in terms of level advancement (as with AD&D's class level advancement limits) or in adjustments to skills (and that applies to both class- and skill- based systems).

This is what often causes a bit of a wrench in terms of play balance. After all, who wants to play a human fighter when you can play a dwarf and get some special powers and resistences thrown into the bargain? Different games attempt to balance this out in different ways, but rarely, to my mind, successfully. Unless you're planning on playing a years-long campaign where your elf wizard will really run up against that glass ceiling, a demi-human is still the best choice for a character in A/D&D. Naturally, that's what most gamers aspire to (at least I and my gaming buddies do), but realistically, the game-balance mechanic doesn't come into play often enough to truly function.

And that brings us back to the pulp fantasy roots of the genre. I mentioned before that Conan never met an Elf. True enough, but he did meet Hyborians, and Turanians, and Stygians, and Shemites, and Kushites. Aesir and Vanir, Picts and Hyperboreans... And each race (and by that I mean "race of men") was not merely a nationality. The Hyborians were a dynamic race, ruling a dozen kingdoms including Aquilonia and Nemedia. There was a Turanian Empire, but there were also outposts of Turanian society in different realms as well. Gygax caught a little of this in his World of Greyhawk when he had Suel, Flan, Baklunish, and Oeridian humans. But while choice of sub-race was possible, there really wasn't any sort of reason to be one or another, other than if one wanted one's character to wear checked pants instead of plaid.

I would like to see a human-only game, but one in which there are a number of different human races, each of which has real consequences for choice. Just to take a couple of examples from history, a character of Mongol stock might well begin with bonuses to skills relating to horsemanship. A Norseman might well get some sort of bonus for physical attributes, owing to their larger average stature. A Roman might automatically be literate. And so forth. In the fantasy world, of course, I'd be freer to indulge in some stereotyping, and make the bonuses have a little more impact on character design and play. And if there is no "baseline option", and every race of men has its own set of bonuses, then the problem of game balance goes away, assuming each has some sort of roughly-equivalent impact. No need for a downside if everyone has an upside (at least from a game balance perspective).

This is not to say that I would like to see Elves and Dwarves and such banished from the game. While this seems like a contradiction, I would point out that I had earlier said that I want the game to incorporate more folkloric elements. Elves and Dwarves, for example, exist in Norse mythology (and endured in various capacities far after the Norse were converted to Christianity), but as supernatural beings, not the sort of living side-by-side with men as just another sentient race as they are depicted in Tolkien and Gygax. Eventually, these figures were ensconsed in the folklore of northern Europe as the "hidden folk", fairies, etc. Goblins, kobolds, and the like were similarly originally diminutive spirits rather than being seen alongside humans on the street (or at least in everyday life).

I'd like to return to that sort of conception; the waking world is dominated by humans, with real differences among the human races, but there exists a "hidden world" of fairies, sprites, dwarves, elves, kobolds, etc. that can be dealt with on different terms. Don't accept the cup of wine from the elves, lest you sleep for a hundred years...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Thoughts on Character Classes and Skills

Fighter, Wizard, Thief, Priest. These, of course, represent the "core" character classes found across the spectrum of many FRPGs, and has been a staple since very early on in the hobby. Not everyone agrees with these choices, of course. James Maliszewski is famed far and wide for his low opinion of the thief class, and I myself have questioned the inclusion of the cleric/priest as an archetype. Some games add more, some few trim down the list, still others expand them greatly through sub-classes, prestige classes, kits, etc.

There is another school of thought that says that classes as a concept are flawed and limiting. These are the designers who give us systems built on skills, or skill bundles. By careful choice, using such rules, one is able to come up with the precise "character concept" that one desires, whether it be a demon-summoning swordsman or a wizard who's a gourmet chef and wields a pair of pistol-crossbows. Some systems attempt to split the baby by having both classes and skills.

I make no claim as to one method being more "old school" than the other; the one was used by A/D&D for many years, and the other was used at least as early as the first edition of RuneQuest, and I for one would be the last person to question the old-school "chops" of RQ. I think it ultimately boils down to personal preference.

As the skill system was introduced as a reaction to the class system (by the nature of the timeline of development of RPGs), it stands to reason to discuss why character classes were considered the standard in the first place. Coming from the world of miniatures wargaming, a "wizard" or "hero" was just another unit type. A single figure represented only a single individual, but that individual was worth the same as a squad of normal soldiers, or had special abilities akin to a catapult or cannon. An "arch-mage" or "super-hero" was merely one such special unit writ large (thence the notion of level advancement, but I anticipate myself).

When the Great Leap Forward came, and players took on those single characters as their own, it made sense that they would not want to play one of the "grunts", but rather one of the special types. This makes sense on a practical level as well; stick a sword in a grunt, and he dies. Stick a sword in a super-hero-type, and he has at least a chance of surviving. Long-term character survival makes for more enjoyable games, as it reduces the need to play a new character every one or two games just because an orc rolled a hit with an arrow.

Not wanting to get all Joe Campbell-esque, I should point out that three of the four archetypes named at the beginning of this post are to be found in Tolkien. They cover the three bases by which most games describe the abilities of any character; physicality, mentality, and nimbleness, thus covering in a broad sense most of the threats they are likely to encounter in the game. (These are, by design and necessity, generalizations of course.) I am halfway tempted to add bard as an archetype, and pursuasiveness as a fundamental base, but I resist for a variety of reasons, chief of which will be touched on below.

In a very real sense, character classes represent a intentional break on the creativity and boundary-pushing of the player, allowing the designer to build in implicit limitations and assumptions about the campaign setting by limiting such choices. In a campaign loosely based on medieval Europe, for instance, allowing players to choose to play a Japanese Ninja or an Aztec Jaguar Warrior might prove problematical. (Of course some settings are deliberately "wild and woolly" in such regards, but that's a little beyond the scope of this post

A skill-based system, on the other hand, is a bit harder for the designer to "reign in" the creative impulses of the player. Much more scrutiny is required on the part of the game master, who is placed in the position of at least having a cursory examination of all the characters' chosen skills so that nothing potentially setting-bending is within. And this need not be intentional on the part of the player, or even an example of min/maxing; it's impossible to fully explain all of the implications of any setting at the time of character creation, thus leading to inadvertently inappropriate choices of skills. For example, if I have a vaguely Polynesian-based setting where short island-hopping is the norm, a character taking Oceanic Navigation is going to throw a monkey-wrench into the works if long cross-ocean trips are the purview of chiefs and the sons of chiefs and I didn't happen to mention it (or did, and the player took the skill anyway).

The concept of skill-bundles is an interesting one, and represents a sort of cross between the two concepts. That is, skills aren't taken a la carte, but rather in, well, bundles of related skills. A warrior-type might take a skill bundle including swordsmanship, archery, forced marching, and mounted combat. A wizard-type might take a skill bundle including ancient languages, basic alchemy, and thaumaturgy. And so forth. That gives some control to the game designer, who can craft the skill bundles into appropriate groupings, while giving some more flexibility to the players, who could choose several skill bundles to create their character

I confess I find the concept of specific skills limiting in another way, however. By defining every single skill a character possesses, everything that is not permitted becomes forbidden. For example, I might have a thief character who grew up in a lakefront community. But unless I specifically take the swimming skill, I can't swim. Compare this to the situation in a class-based game, where that same character might either a) reasonably be assumed to be able to swim based on his background or, b) at least be given the chance to have such knowledge by the game master. But where swimming is a skill that must be deliberately chosen, it can't just be assumed.

There is another qualm I have about over-statisticating* character abilities. That is the elimination or restriction of actual player actions. This has been a tension inherent in the very concept of "charisma" as an attribute in A/D&D since the beginning. If my character has a charisma of 17, and I'm trying to convince the bandit chief to let me and my party go, how does the game master adjudicate my success? Do I just roll a die based on my statistic? Do we role-play out the situation, and if I as a player am convincing, we go free? Is it perhaps a mix of the two, with the game master either rolling with a modifier based on my performance, or being more lenient with my hemming and hawing because my character has a high charisma? I use charisma as an example, but the principle applies to skills as well as statistics. If I, as a player, know enough about sailing to build a raft, should my character be denied that same knowledge? Is that meta-gaming, or common knowledge? In a game with skills, it's meta-gaming. In a game without them, where secondary knowledge is either assumed or left to common sense, it becomes more murky.

* I'm quite sure that's not a real word. Well, it is now.

Future of the Castle of the Mad Archmage

With the change of direction my online gaming work has taken, a couple of folks have asked about my intentions vis-a-vis the Castle of the Mad Archmage, my extension/ continuation of "Castle Zagyg" as originally published by Troll Lord Games.

The way I see it, I've got three options. One, continue on with it as it is currently envisioned, detail the the remaining six levels, and then put it up for folks to use as they will. Two, retool (or cannibalize) it for whatever new system and setting I eventually come up with. Three, leave it as-is. Of the three options, I'm pretty much ruling out the first unless there's a vast push-back and the prospect of actually making money on it. It does take an enormous amount of work.

I did mention that my new sandbox setting will have a tentpole. However, given that everything is in such an embryonic state, I can't foresee whether the "classic random megadungeon" is going to be a good fit as that tentpole. I've got some other ideas which might, I think, be both fresher and more exciting, and yet quite in keeping with the structural function of the classic megadungeon.

So, for now, work on CotMA is officially halted, with one possible exception. Joe B. is in the process of working on the maps for level 7. What I might do is produce a final version with those maps included, but the whole being unkeyed, allowing the DM to develop the level and then move on to the deeper depths full-blown. Sort of a "soft take-off". We shall see if that works out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Returning to First Principles

Back in the earliest days of role-playing, everything was "D&D". It didn't matter that you were playing with the magic system from the 3 LBB's, an alternative experience point system from Alarums & Excursions, a couple of character classes from Arduin, and a home-made combat system based on your experience as a white belt in the SCA. It was all just "D&D".

Then other games started to come out, like Runequest, the Fantasy Trip, Arm's Law/Claw Law, and so forth. But even then, it was only the hard-core fans of specific games that actually used them in the generic sense. "D&D" was the "coke" of its day. It didn't matter if it was really RC or Pepsi; it was still "coke".

Homebrew campaign settings were not just the norm-- they were pretty much the only game in town. Judges Guild's City-State setting had its fans (myself numbered among them, I might add), but the World of Greyhawk was little more than a few names in the DMG and a handful of articles in The Dragon. (Note the "the" in the title.) Sure, Runequest had Gloranthia, and I'm sure there were some others I'm forgetting right now, but that was just what you did. You created your own campaign, what we today would call "homebrew".

I find myself yearning for those days. Homebrewed rules cobbled together or invented out of whole cloth. Putting together a truly homebrewed setting.

I think the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting, although it has been a favorite of mine for years, has finally passed me by. Sure, I own all the material that's ever been published, but I pretty much close my personal interest after the "From the Ashes" material. I deal myself a hand where I choose between revisiting the oldest material published, studiously ignoring the new, and go on to create my own campaign material based on those earliest products. So why not just go back to what I've done before, and create a world of my own, out of whole cloth? I've plumbed the depths of Greyhawk as far as I'm inclined to do. I'm moving on to something new. It'll be more folklore-ey, and less Tolkein-ish, with a lot of swords-n-sorcery, but no Earth-saving epic quests. It'll be a sandbox with a tentpole.

As far as system goes, even though I play with the 1st edition AD&D books by my side, the truth is that I don't play it as written. Nobody does, or ever did, Gygax included. So why not put together a game of my own, that works exactly the way I think it should work? Not to publish-- I think the OSR has enough games in the mix right now, and I fear to add to the dilution-- but for my own edification and use in play. Get rid of the ridiculously cumbersome stuff. Streamline the slightly-clunky stuff. Beef up the ridiculously under-developed stuff. Not a retro-clone, but a completely new game that plays the way I think D&D should play. Will that put it under the OSR umbrella, just because of who I am and how I play? I think so, but who can say for sure?

So, the news is; the Greyhawk Grognard blog is closed. I will leave it up as a resource for those who found my Greyhawk-specific material of interest and use, but new posts will be reserved for my new blog, which will cover my efforts to put together this monstrosity I've envisioned, as well as whatever more general thoughts I come up with on fandom, the gaming industry, the OSR, and so forth. Thanks to all who've supported the blog over the last couple of years; I hope you find the new one to your liking as well.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Two New Wicker Man Sequels?

Wow... just... wow.

Not connected with the truly awful remake from a couple of years ago, it turns out that octogenarian Robin Hardy, who was responsible for the original brilliant Christopher Lee version of The Wicker Man from 1973, is in the midst of making a sequel, called The Wicker Tree, and has plans for a third in the "pagan trilogy" called Twilight of the Gods (set in Iceland). A synopsis of the plot:

Young Christians Beth and Steve, a gospel singer and her cowboy boyfriend, leave Texas to preach door-to-door in Scotland . When, after initial abuse, they are welcomed with joy and elation to Tressock, the border fiefdom of Sir Lachlan Morrison, they assume their hosts simply want to hear more about Jesus. How innocent and wrong they are.
Awww, yeah.

I am a huge fan of the original film for a variety of reasons, and this article gives me all sorts of reasons to smile and hope that the new film(s) will live up to the original. The true original.

All the juicy details here.

A Bullet is Dodged

Zachary over at RPG Blog II reports live from the convention floor that the gaming setting that will be getting the 4E treatment in 2010 is Dark Sun.


I was really fearing that WOTC would turn their maleficient eye once more towards Greyhawk, and screw it up the way they screwed up the Forgotten Realms. Well, there's always 2011.

In fact, I'm contemplating something, but it's still only the germ of an idea. Let's give it a little time to marinate.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Is a Rules Lite, Generic, Sci-Fi RPG impossible?

I was thinking about why it was that generic scifi games don't really work. The problem is only compounded in games that purport to be rules-light. When compared to the success of generic fantasy games, the question becomes positively glaring.

Why can't there be a scifi game that's both light on rules and not tied to a particular setting? Oh, and that doesn't suck.

I recall when the original 3BB version of Traveler came out, and I occasionally see that mentioned as a "generic" scifi game. But no; it still has a bunch of assumptions built into it about the setting. The "vaguely Imperial" setting. The races. The technology. FTL drive. Social structure. Economics.

Is it perhaps a function of the fantasy genre that designing a game that is broad enough to incorporate all of the fantasy tropes is relatively easy, compared to scifi? After all, fantasy has its basis-- at least broadly-- in real history.

Everybody knows what a sword is, and a sword in Lankhmar is the same as one in Aquilonia, or Furyondy, or Waterdeep. But what is a blaster? A blaster in Star Wars might be very different than a blaster in Flash Gordon. So a scifi game must, perforce, define what a blaster is and how it works, and in doing so might cut out a particular use of the term in some other milieu, unless one resorts to endless variations encompassing every possibility, or resorts to sticking with a specific setting. In the former case, it's no longer "rules-light" as far as I'm concerned, and in the latter, it's no longer generic.

Consider, for example, the problem of designing a game that could cover Conan, Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser, Elric, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. The original D&D game could, I would argue, do that. A few tweaks here and there, adjust some spell lists, and voila! It would work. Hell, they had rules for Conan, Elric, and Nehwon in the original A/D&D rules!

Imagine a game, though, that could cover Dune, Star Trek, Star Wars, Terminator, and the Foundation Trilogy. GURPS might manage it, with a separate world-book for each setting. But there goes the "rules light" idea, and probably the "generic" idea as well, since it would turn each into it's own sub-game with its own special rules. Even Star Trek, arguably a genre unto itself, needed separate games for different time periods, as Unicorn Games ended up doing it (a fine game line, I might add). But it was all very setting-dependent. You couldn't use it in a "generic imperial" setting without completely reworking it. You might as well make a new game. But whatever you came up with wouldn't work in a post-apocalyptic setting, or a Transhumanist near-future setting, or Babylon 5.

I would argue that science fiction is simply too broad to allow a single game system to encompass it all. Fantasy (pulp, high, or swords-and-sorcery), which by its nature is based at least somewhat in history, has a coherent and somewhat well-known background upon which to draw. Science fiction, which is much more speculative by nature, doesn't afford that same comfort. What's a blaster? What's FTL drive? How do psionics work? Do they even exist?

I've long looked for a rules-lite scifi game that didn't come with any pre-prepared background. I'm coming to the conclusion that it's just not possible. You either have a background that limits your options, or you are forced to accommodate so many options that it's no longer rules-lite.

Or am I just missing something completely basic?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Film Review: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

This movie was supposed to suck.

Wooden performances, a complete lack of characterization, unintelligible action sequences, nonsensical plot elements, it was supposed to be the "Mansquito" of our day.

Well, I've got to say, it absolutely doesn't suck. It was quite enjoyable.

The special effects and action sequences were, as might be assumed, impeccable. Planes, missiles, armor, subs, huge honkin' underwater cities... wow. Rendered beautifully.

There were a lot of nods to the old cartoon show. I won't put in lots of spoilers, but there were references to the old 12" action figures, G.I. Joe: The Movie opening credits, and of course the staples of the show itself like Zartan. Listen to the names; you'll hear lots that's familiar. And the vehicles. And the balloons. I can't help but think the balloons were deliberate.

There was also the pacing and setting. I don't think there were six consecutive minutes where someone wasn't being shot, blown up, pushed through a window, chased, or something. It felt like the cartoon; action-action-action. I liked that. I especially liked the nod to the MASS Device and Weather Dominator multi-part stories. Each featured distinct environments, and the movie doesn't disapp0int. There's mountains, glaciers, underwater, etc. Just like I would have expected to see in a big cartoon episode. Well done.

All in all, a well done film. I'd rate it better than Star Trek, which I also liked. Don't expect Olivier, but it's not the crap-fest that some seem to be portraying it as. It's all action, and has suitable nods to the original. I just hope in the sequel they change Cobra Commander's helmet (which was sucktactular), and give the Cobra troops a blue uniform. Then I would be in hog heaven.

EDIT: For Lance, who asked the question in the comments, I give you:

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Yet More Minifigs Pics

Over the last couple of months, I've found more pictures of those old Minifigs World of Greyhawk miniatures blisters. I've integrated them into my constantly-updated list found here, and have also had a chance to update some of my personal textual comments. I'll keep updating it as time goes by until I've got pictures of all of them, and will send out periodic announcements when I've uploaded a few. Enjoy!