Monday, 30 June 2008

A Gauntlet Has Been Laid Down

So Max, of Malevolent and Benign fame, has gone and given the bee-hive a good kick.

"Tell you what, noisms," he says, "If you work on an Oz sourcebook (or whatever you see fit) [for one of the retro-clone systems] perhaps I'll put together
some notes for Dark Hollow, my own folkways heartbreaker based on Appalachian Werd setting based on tall tales, bilues and old time ballads, and Manly Wade Wellman."

Well, I'm not one to turn down a challenge, so I hereby state that I will go ahead and do just that. Within an indefinite period of time, there will be a new Labyrinth Lord Australian-Aborigines-and-Cthulu-Mythos-sourcebook out there on teh internets for your perusal, enjoyment, and/or derision. This is, I believe, what is known as putting one's money where one's mouth is - rather than just ranting about unimaginative old-schoolers from the sidelines.

But let's not let my readership off the hook. If I'm going to do this, I want to do it properly, and in order to do so I'm going to want people to read through, playtest, and offer advice on what I come up with. Even better than that, if we're talking pipe-dreams, I'd love to have some budding artists, layout people and computer-nerds to give the thing the veneer of professionalism, and turn it into something that people are really going to want to read and play. In other words: collaborators. What do you say, talented people of the role playing blogosphere?

Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Changing Face of Cyberpunk

If ever there was a chance of me ditching D&D as my favourite role playing game (there never has been a chance of that, but just for argument's sake) it would have been for Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun. Something about the cyberpunk genre just got its hooks in me at the age of about 14 and didn't let go for quite a few years; whenever I wasn't running AD&D Planescape games during that long post-adolescent nerd period, I was off in the bright lights of Night City or California Free State, haggling with Mr. Jones and hunting cyberpsychos with smartchipped 6.5mm assault rifles. It didn't matter that I didn't even really like Shadowrun (come off it - elves and Gibson?) or most of 2020 (stupidest system ever, outside of combat) but it was cyberpunk and that was all that really mattered.

(During that time I also read William Gibson's first trilogy of books and Burning Chrome at least ten times each; I didn't understand much about them at the age of 14 except that they were brilliant. Whenever anybody criticises sci-fi or fantasy as poorly written I always want to sit them down and force them to read though Burning Chrome twice - before choking them with it.)

Recently a couple of things have made me start thinking about cyberpunk again as something that I should be doing in a game. Firstly, Dr. Rotwang made a post a few days ago in which he basically spewed out a great heap of cyberpunk love into the internet ether, and it reawakened something inside me - something dark, dirty, wearing mirror shades and carrying a railgun. But then, somebody over at Story Games brought up Cyberpunk 2020 as an example of how older games didn't really 'do' their chosen genre properly, and it's only down to Ron Edwards that we are now able to play games that really get to grips with a genre's themes. Well, hey, Cyberpunk 2020 is one of the most flawed games that has ever seen wide distribution, but I'm allowed to say that because I'm a fan; I'm damned if I'm going to hear some johnny-come-lately story-gamer person level criticisms at it, no matter how valid! (And I don't really think they are valid; Cyberpunk 2020 didn't explicitly explore the themes of the literary genre, but it certainly did implicitly.) My goat has well and truly been got; I'm going to dig out my old rulebooks and give the thing another whirl, and devil take the hindmost if anybody says otherwise.

First stop, I put up a thread on entitled Cyberpunk in 2008. Cyberpunk 2020 was released in 1990, but it is 1980's concerns made real - communism, street crime, the rise of Japan, and new international Zaibatsu. Those concerns are not present these days in the same ways; what self-respecting societal reject in 2008 is motivated by incoherent hatred of global megacorporations? But cyberpunk was always about more than that, at root - its heart has always been in what Bruce Sterling called "the victims of the New"; the people who the Brave New World of the Future has left confused, damaged and trodden underfoot. From our perspective in the new millenium, what are the kind of things that will make people into outsiders, rebels, dropouts and scumbags, and what will those people - the ones with the pizazz to do anything, that is - be directing their rage against?

Well, you can always rely on the good folks at to deliver something interesting. You can read through the thread yourself - it's full of goodness - but pick of the bunch has to be this post from E. T. Smith:

IP laws keep getting more strident and more invasive until a Rights Economy dominates all. The only people who really truly own anything anymore are the Rights holders, a tiny percentage of the population who ultimately hold the IP rights to everything, absolutely everything. The shoes on your feet, the clothes on your back, your home, the food on your plate, even the process by which the food is prepared can never ultimately belong to you. Sure you still pay an initial acquisition fee but you're really only leasing it, every individual use recorded by a dusting of nanobots and leading to a incremental debit from your financial worth....

Like that? Pure cyberpunk goodness for the new millenium. But it gets better:

Then there's Inscape. Once you establish high data volume wireless networks, and personal devices receiving constant feed from them, its not too many steps to making the virtual overlay a constant supplement to normal sensory input. Directly fed into your optic and aural centers, the real world gets a virtual overlay and makeover. Data windows drifts in the periphery of your view, remodeling an apartment (or whole building) is just a matter of changing what default 'skin' observers see, and as often as not the minor functionaries (secretaries, waiters) encountered over the course of the day are really just virtual constructs. It also offers real control over personal subjective reality. Set your preference to "Aladdin" and everything around you looks like its from the "1001 Nights". Never want to hear a dirty word again? You won't. Obviously the potential for abuse is enormous. Uptight governments love to 'white-out' sensitive (or just inconvenient) sights, and if Inscape is universal enough and you've got master over-rides, you can kill a target literally in broad daylight in a crowd and be assured that no one saw or heard anything. Worst of all are the ads, they're omnipresent, diabolical both in their ubiquity and subtlety. The ads are one of the only free things in the Rights Economy; it costs to turn them off.

Gold, my friends; pure gold. Ads are the only free things in the Rights economy; it costs to turn them off. That there could be the first line of an entire cyberpunk campaign.

What I chiefly need is a Labyrinth Lord / Rules Cyclopedia based cyberpunk game...

(I'm joking about that bit. But only just.)

Saturday, 28 June 2008


One of those lazy link-and-random-blah posts.
  • Max, who seems to have similar tastes to mine, has put up a Rules Cyclopedia Changeling half-elf variant off the back of my own elf series a few posts ago, and it's a good one. I love to mix a bit of folklore with my D&D, and this does exactly that, being full of fairy-tale weirdness. On the very same subject he's also statted up both 3rd edition and Labyrinth Lord versions of a kind of fey called a Rhyme Stealer. I think it gets the malignant tone of a nasty fey creature just right.
  • I've been listening to quite a bit of Have Games, Will Travel recently. It's a one-man podcast by somebody called Paul Trevis, and is a catch all for all kinds of role playing, card and board games. As you probably know I'm very much a D&D guy, and Trevis isn't, but we have a few areas of overlapping interest (Burning Wheel, Unknown Armies) and it's always nice to hear new perspectives and to find out about new games. Of special interest to me recently has been a show he made a few years ago featuring an interview with the famous (or infamous) Ron Edwards ("Forge Midwest Gathering 2006: Special #2); I'm not a great fan of Forge theory or a lot of the games that come out of the site, but the man has some very wise and interesting things to say about independent publishing of rpgs. He's certainly inspired me to get off my backside and just go ahead and give it a shot.
  • Brian has made a reply to an old post of mine in which I waxed nostalgic about animal fantasy stories; according to him there's a role playing game, now a GURPS supplement, called Bunnies & Burrows - loosely based on Watership Down. Whatever next? I wondered. Well... how about a Risus version? Definitely time to start a thread about it on
  • I'm going to be running a first-ever Superheroes game via facebook messages soon. It'll be a solo affair for an rpg virgin, done with Mutants & Masterminds, and promises to be interesting: I'll be setting it in our shared hometown (Liverpool), which is something I've never done with a game before. The player is a reader of this blog (hey Nate - I'll try not to squish your character...too much), so I can't give anything more away, except to say that I think setting a game in one's home town could bring a whole other level to one's gaming. Let's see if it does; I may make a post about it once we're underway.

Now back to work...

Friday, 27 June 2008

4e Quotes

Well, I haven't drunk the kool-aid quite yet, but my opinion of 4e is improving. Some quotes that nicely sum up why:

From Spinachcat at the rpg site:

I love 4e because I love fantasy skirmish boardgames. I thought 3e sucked decayed donkey nuts and wails of rules lawyers as they bang their heads against the simplicity of 4e's design is pure music to my ears.

Makes sense to me; from what I've heard 4e does sound like a really good tactical combat game, and I've often thought that 3e sucked decayed donkey nuts too (although not in so many words - I actually think it sucked worse than having one's testicles flayed with a rusty scourge).

On similar lines (tactical fantasy skirmishes, that is - not flayed testicles), this post from Odyssey after finishing off a 4e encounter:

And then the whole party cheered.

First time that's ever happened in a game I ran. But their lives were on the line, in a way that isn't usual in my games. They were smart--they have the tank wall plus snipers strategy pretty much down now, are learning their powers and how to use them to help each other, and and made some really rather inspired use of readied and delayed actions.

And finally from this thread, at story-games, which you might have to register to view:

As many people have already pointed out, abilities like "I hit this guy so hard that you can heal yourself" are pretty abstract. One thing that's actually real nice about this is that you have a lot of freedom to re-theme things, as we did with our ancient-India re-theming, precisely because the connection is so tenuous. We got into doing some pretty elaborate narrations for the results of our attacks. And when the rules did something weird, we would come up with an elaborate post-hoc fictional justification for it.

For example, our paladin was a devotee of the raven queen what's-her-name, the death goddess. (Maybe we should have made this into Kali or Yama...) The player explained that the reason he can heal us by hitting enemies is because when we're wounded, invisible raven death spirits begin to crowd around us, waiting to carry our souls away if we die. When he hits the monster, he's like "Hey raven spirits! over here! This guy!" So they leave us alone (causing us to recover from the brink of death) in order to crowd around the newly wounded. Hey, that's pretty cool.

(I've noticed that Warhammer 40k players do this fictional-justification-for-weird-rules-result thing a lot, too. The rules feed into the fiction, but as a wargame, the fiction has no way to feed back into the rules, so it's just something you do to add extra color. I don't know if it's role-playing or not but it's still fun.)

I think that definitely is role playing, and it does sound fun. The fun is arguably in spite of the rules rather than because of them, but nevertheless.

Anyway, what's the conclusion of all this? Well, I'm not sure I'll ever play 4e, but it's nice to know that it isn't the horror show I was expecting.


I don't normally do memes, but Jim has challenged the role playing blogosphere to write about at least five of the media influences that impact on the campaigns and adventures they run. And who can resist an offer like that to expound at length on stuff they like?

So here are my five, plus handy links:

Jared Diamond's books, particularly Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. I know that realism and role playing games don't mix easily. And it really does depend on the campaign I'm running. But if that part of my brain which loves playing Civilization and did a degree in History is in charge, and I'm in the mood for creating a world in which things make sense, I draw on those books as inspiration.

2. The Viriconium books, by M. John Harrison. What can a person say about them? They're my favourite thing and I doubt that anybody will ever write anything half as good again. I won't be able to do them justice here so I won't even try, but just think on this: what is it like at the end of time, when even reality isn't sure what it is? Dark, surreal, baroque and incredibly moving stuff, and great inspiration for a role playing GM in their sheer ambition and imagination. Read them and never be satisfied with the old tropes in your games again.

3. Warhammer. I haven't played it in probably 10 years or more, but I love Warhammer and I love its unrestrained, madcap creativity. War machines containing demonic spirits which are constantly on the verge of a berserk frenzy. Goblins hepped-up on hallucinogenic mushrooms swinging ball-and-chains. Squigs. Orcs riding war-boars. Chaos Dwarf Bull Centaurs. Halflings flinging pots of boiling hot stew. Lizard-men carrying spaced out toad-like mage-kings on palanquins. What more can you say?

4. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis. I love the Chronicles of Narnia, and though The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is unjustly more popular, this one is the best. In fact I credit it with introducing me to the joys of the fantasy genre. The best thing about it is that it's at heart a road movie, and I love road movies. But what sets The Voyage of the Dawn Treader apart from all the other road movies is that this is set on a ship traveling across an ocean of undiscovered islands, heading for the edge of the world, and doing so for no better reason than why the hell not? Tell me that doesn't fire your imagination. I have an enduring love of long-distance journeys of exploration in RPGs, and it all stems from this book.

5. The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. These are what turned me on to the idea of role playing in the first place, in that they were the gateway drug for me and my generation. I still love the unashamed pulpiness of the titles: Space Assassin, Daggers of Darkness, Creature of Havoc, The Keep of the Lich-lord, Deathtrap Dungeon. I still love the world, Titan, that the creators came up with, and how it set off a spark in my 9-year-old mind that told me you can do this yourself. And I still love the delightfully understated art. The books don't affect my role playing these days in any sort of direct way, but they were the start of the whole thing and I suppose the reason why I like the games I like. It's thanks to those books that I'm still playing D&D, really, rather than Burning Empires or whatever - because it was they who set me off down the fantasy role playing path.

And finally, for something that is a non-influence, i.e. something that I try not to let influence my campaigns but which perhaps does anyway in some terrifying, inevitable way: the Dragonlance books. There is so much about them to hate. And yet...there's still a part of me that thinks, I would have loved to play in these books if they had been an AD&D campaign.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Further Notes

Just to expand briefly on what I wrote yesterday; I think the best way to sum up what I was trying to say is this. I don't really like the d20 system, and I'm certainly no fan of 3rd edition D&D, but there is no doubt that it has been used to do some really creative things - from Iron Heroes to Jade Dragons and Hungry Ghosts to Nyambe, African Adventures. But the thing is, we have things that are even better than the d20 system: we have OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy. These rulesets can surely be used to create products that are equally if not even more interesting and innovative than anything that the d20 market has to offer, if only we get off our backsides and do so, rather than forever referring to what has gone before.

In the comments to my previous post, the point was raised that "modern gamers" are probably hard wired not to appreciate systems like OSRIC because they are so used to a completely different set of role playing sensibilities. I think that's overstated, because we don't know what the popularity of forward-thinking OSRIC products would be given that nobody has tried making one. But even if it's just for the sake of our own hobby and our own entertainment (as self-confessed "old schoolers" or "retro gamers" or whatever label you prefer) I think it's important that we use these tools that we have to try out new things -because the alternative is stagnation.

What do I mean by "trying out new things"? Off the top of my head, here's an example: I once tried to create a setting for pre-colonization, aboriginal Australia, which mixed native legends with the Cthulu mythos. It was going to be a kind of stone-age Call of Cthulu affair of Bunyip, Star Spawn and Rainbow Snakes. To make it I was using a mixture of 1st and 2nd edition AD&D rules and had no ambitions for it as a distributable product. But this was before I knew about OSRIC; nowadays I would have used that. And if I'd been properly satisfied with what I had, I would have been able to publish it as an OSRIC-compatible OGL product. That's an amazing advance, and one I think more people should be taking advantage of.

I'm not saying my idea was particularly good or interesting or worthy of publication. But at least it would have been something different for old schoolers to play. And surely that would have been a good thing, no?

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Regarding Old School Sensibilities; A Rant

James, author of the Grognardia blog, complained in a recent post about the tendency of "Old School" products to "go beyond homage to the past and verge on fetishization" in terms of layout and design. I agree with him, and that has been one of the major turn-offs for me when it comes to accepting Older D&D clones like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord. Why do we always have to hark back to a far-off golden age that might not have been all that golden to begin with? Why does using an older ruleset always have to mean older aesthetic sensibilities? Why is 'modern' like a four-letter word to some people?

Art is a minor thing, of course. Although it goes a long way towards setting the tone for a game, players are free to ignore it. More worrying for me is the tendency of these products to fetishize a certain tone of play itself - that is, the same hotpotch of influences, trends and game settings that were popular in the mid-late 1970s and 1980s heyday of the D&D genre. I often feel that to play an adventure like The Pod Cavern of the Sinister Shroom is to look at a museum exhibit as much as it is to play a D&D module; I almost feel like these pieces would be more accurately envisioned as exercises in cultural anthropology as they would role playing games or game modules. (Speaking of course as a non-grognard myself. To those who were there at the time, I suppose the analogy would be to somebody looking at old pictures in a dusty photo album.)

I'm not talking about mechanics, please note. To me, the Rules Cyclopedia and earlier incarnations of AD&D are highly eccentric systems, but they are systems that work surprisingly well, and which make up for their lack of unified mechanics with comprehensiveness and ease of modification. (There is certainly nothing about them that is any worse than, say, the Storyteller system or the Burning Wheel engine.) No; I'm talking about the use of the old tropes of game design, and the same old expectations of what a D&D adventure should be, that were present in the 70's and 80's.

To use a cooking analogy, it's as if the Old School world is mostly interested in rehashing the same old (albeit hearty and delicious) recipes: Take 100 ml of Robert E. Howard, 3 table spoons of Fritz Lieber, a dash of Michael Moorcock, a pinch of Tekumel and a good helping of Arduin, then bring to the boil. Baste your breast of Greyhawk with the resultant sauce, bake in the Mystara oven for 40 minutes, and allow to cool before serving. It tastes good, of course, and when it comes to a Sunday roast, there's little better. But it's as if all the curries, salads, bisques and sashimis that have become popular in recent years never existed. It's like Old School players are still eating lamb shanks and bread and butter pudding in willful unawareness that they could be tucking into a mutton dhansak that tastes even better.

For one thing, I yield to nobody in my appreciation of pulp fantasy and the effects it had on shaping early D&D. But there have been leaps and bounds in the genre since then - not to mention expeditions backwards to rediscover lost influences who were writing long before the likes of Howard. Why shouldn't we be incorporating the sensibilities of the modern greats - people like George R. R. Martin, Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison and Guy Gavriel Kay - into our games? Why shouldn't we be mining the works of Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald and Edmund Spenser for inspiration? And more to the point, why on earth shouldn't we be designing and writing new products which take these sensibilities into account?

For another thing, there have been great advances in gaming since the 1980s, too. I'm not talking about 3rd or 4th edition D&D, of course, or even other game systems at all; I'm talking about the fertile settings and ideas that have been and continually are being created and which are exemplified in games like Iron Kingdoms, Ptolus, and Reign, to name but three. Such settings show what can be done by people writing with imagination, flair, and a greater awareness of what is possible within the fantasy genre. Setting aside the mechanics issue entirely, their creativity should be spurring on the Old Schoolers to put their collective money where their collective mouth is, and use their much-vaunted retro systems to create something fresh.

In OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord and the Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game we have the tools with which to do anything possible within the huge boundaries of the fantasy genre and beyond. Powerful, versatile tools. And yet still the vast majority of designers insist on using them for - oh look, a dungeon crawl in a mushroom infested cavern. I mean, don't get me wrong; I love dungeon crawls through mushroom infested caverns. But I rather think I have enough of those modules already, 99% of which I designed myself. Where's the imagination? Where's the Reign or the Ptolus - or hell even the Planescape equivalent in the Old School world?

Until somebody uses OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord to create something genuinely new, instead of churning out same-old same-old products, I don't believe the so-called Old School revival will amount to much more than pissing in the wind. You're telling me that a 16 year old player, new to the game and the mind-blowing things that fantasy has to offer, is going to be satisfied with what his Dad enjoyed playing back in his almost-forgotten youth? Well, maybe he will if he realises that though the system is the same, it doesn't matter because the system can let you create just about anything. That sure won't happen if all that's available are clones of 1980's Dungeon modules, though.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Elf Variants: III

I think I might rewrite the variants I've got so far, then bundle them up with some others and release them as a free .pdf. Brian has been posting a lot about Amagi Games recently, and I like the idea of free downloadable campaign ideas and game 'plugins'; the so-called webcomic model. It might be fun to try, and it beats just lobbing ideas out into the ether like I'm mostly doing with this blog at the moment.

Anyway, a new variant: the Woodwose.

Elf (Woodwose)

In the deepest, darkest, thickest woodland of the temperate world live the people known as Woodwoses. Tall, thin, with fierce staring eyes and thick beards, their appearance is unmistakeable when they allow themselves to be seen. This, however, they rarely do. The most anybody is likely to see of one in its natural home is a brief rustle of ivy or a shadow moving in dappled sunlight - and then nothing.

Woodlands are lords and protectors of the forest. They are as aggressive in defending it from human woodcutters as they are goblinoid invaders: None are permitted to threaten their realm. When an intruder is discovered they strike from the shadows like ghosts with their magicks and then disperse.

Woodwoses rule the forest, but it is a rule of fear, not love. All life in the wood is considered to be theirs, be it tree or beast. They view it as their right to take what they need and bend all to their will; the animals and plants of the forest are nothing more than their chattels and slaves. This tyrannical rule is tempered by wisdom, however, for the Woodwoses are careful not to abuse their power to the point that it is taken from them by revolt. A kind of freedom exists for all creatures living in the forest - but only until a Woodwose has need of them.

Individually, Woodwoses are proud and quick to anger, with wills as hard as oak; only Dwarves surpass them in determination and strength of spirit. Though tall, they are physically frail, and they disdain physical combat - their power is in magic and manipulation of natural forces. Woodwose adventurers usually leave their homelands to search for greater knowledge and hence greater power, so that they can bring it back to their people and thus strengthen them against their enemies.

Elf (Woodwose)

Prime Requisite: Intelligence and Wisdom.
Other Requirements: Intelligence and Wisdom of 9 or greater.
Experience Bonus: 5% for an Intelligence and Wisdom of greater than 13; 10% for an Intelligence and Wisdom of greater than 15.
Hit Dice: d4 per level up to 12th level.
Maximum Level: 12
Armour: Only leather armour is permitted.
Weapons: Woodwoses may only use wooden or stone weapons - e.g. clubs, staffs and slings.
Special Abilities: Woodwoses have a 90% chance of not being spotted in woodland areas - this ability works in the same way as it does for Halflings. They have the innate ability to cast Speak With Animal or Speak With Plant three times per day.
Experience Levels: Woodwoses use the Magic-User experience table for purposes of advancement.
Saving Throws: Woodwoses use the Elf saving throw table.

Elf (Woodwose) Spell List

Woodwoses use the Magic User Spell/Level table, though they prepare their spells through meditation as Druids and Clerics do. They draw their spells from the following list:

Level 1
-Charm Person (M1)
-Shield (M1)
-Sleep (M1)
-Ventriloquism (M1)
-Detect Magic (M1)
-Read Magic (M1)
-Cause Light Wounds (C1)
-Resist Cold (C1)
-Faerie Fire (D1)
-Predict Weather (D1)
-Locate (D1)
-Magic Missile (M1)

Level 2
-Warp Wood (D2)
-Hold Person (C2)
-Know Alignment (C2)
-Silence 15' Radius (C2)
-Snake Charm (C2)
-Entangle (M2)
-ESP (M2)
-Invisibility (M2)
-Knock (M2)
-Phantasmal Force (M2)
-Web (M2)
-Mirror Image (M2)

Level 3
-Clairvoyance (M3)
-Dispel Magic (M3)
-Fly (M3)
-Haste (M3)
-Invisibility, 10' Radius (M3)
-Lightning Bolt (M3)
-Protection from Missiles (M3)
-Protection from Poison (D3)
-Call Lightning (D3)
-Growth of Animal (C3)
-Curse (C3)
-Speak With the Dead (C3)

Level 4
-Sticks to Snakes (C4)
-Cause Serious Wounds (C4)
-Animate Dead (C4)
-Plant Door (D4)
-Summon Animals (D4)
-Charm Monster (M4)
-Confusion (M4)
-Growth of Plants (M4)
-Wizard Eye (M4)
-Polymorph Self (M4)

Level 5
-Woodform (M5)
-Cloudkill (M5)
-Feeblemind (M5)
-Teleport (M5)
-Wall of Stone (M5)
-Control Winds (D5)
-Anti-Plant Shell (M5)
-Cause Critical Wounds (C5)
-Insect Plague (C5)
-Raise Dead (C5)

Level 6
-Create Normal Animals (C6)
-Find the Path (C6)
-Speak with Monsters (C6)
-Transport Through Plants (D6)
-Turn Wood (D6)
-Anti-Animal Shell (D6)

Monday, 23 June 2008

Elf Variants: II

I'll be editing the Curupira entry below to deal with some questions that cropped up, but let's push on and get another Elf variant out there into internet land. This time it's the Basque Faerie, the Basajaun.

Elf (Basajaun)

The Basajaunak inhabit hill and mountain heaths and forests. The most ancient of all peoples, they believe that they sprung from the earth itself, after it was struck by lightning. Legend has it that it was they who taught humankind the secret of farming, and they who taught the dwarves how to burrow and toil for silver. They see themselves as the older brothers of the other races, and try to help them when they can.

A Basajaun is taller and stronger than a human, with long, powerful arms and legs. Their men grow thick red beards, and their women wear their red hair long and loose. They live in small clan-groups of less than 100 - but each band is in contact with all the other bands in a wide area, allowing them to group together for mutual assistance in times of need.

They prize the simple life above all else: To them there is nothing of greater importance than freedom from care. Herding sheep, lying in beds of heather on warm summer days, and feeling the first autumn rain and wind on one's face; these are worth more than any treasure for a Basajaun. And yet their fraternal instinct towards their human, dwarf and halfling charges continually causes them to involve themselves in the world's affairs. This involvement can be as little as warning human shepherds about coming storms, or as much as joining together with local dwarves to fight off a goblin invasion.

Basajaunak identify most strongly with three animals: the wolf, the bear, and above all the lynx. These creatures share their rugged home, and are looked upon as kindred; Basajaunak cooperate with such beasts when hunting, and band together with them for mutual defence.

Basajaunak are powerful fighters, though they prefer to solve conflict through diplomacy. Their magic is simple, functional, and rarely used.

Elf (Basajaun)

Prime Requisite: Strength and Wisdom.
Other Requirements: Strength and Wisdom of 9 or greater.
Experience Bonus: 5% for a Strength and Wisdom of greater than 13; 10% for a Strength and Wisdom of greater than 15.
Hit Dice: d8 per level up to 12th level.
Maximum Level: 12
Armour: All armour and shields are permitted.
Weapons: All weapons permitted.
Special Abilities: Basajaunak have infravision to 120'. They begin the game with the standard Fighter abilities (Lance Attack and Set Spear vs. Charge at 1st level; Fighter Combat Options at 660,000 XP), and also with the ability to Speak With Bears, Wolves and Lynx at will.
Experience Levels: Basajaunak use the Dwarf experience table for purposes of advancement.
Saving Throws: Basajaunak use the Halfling saving throw table.

Elf (Basajaun) Spell List

Basajaunak prepare spells through meditation in a similar manner to druids and clerics. They gain spells as they advance in levels according to the Cleric spell/level table; however, beyond 8th level they gain no new spells (and thus cannot cast spells of higher than 4th level).

Level 1
-Detect Danger (D1)
-Remove Fear (C1)
-Sleep (M1)
-Shield (M1)
-Detect Evil (C1)
-Resist Cold (C1)

Level 2
-Resist Fire (C2)
-Speak With Animal (C2)
-Know Alignment (C2)
-Hold Person (C2)
-Produce Fire (D2)
-Knock (M2)

Level 3
-Call Lightning (D3)
-Growth of Animal (C3)
-Cure Blindness (C3)
-Cure Disease (C3)
-Protection From Evil, 10' Radius (M3)
-Haste (M3)

Level 4
-Charm Monster (M4)
-Summon Animals (D4)
-Speak With Plants (C4)
-Sticks to Snakes (C4)
-Confusion (M4)
-Ice Storm/Wall of Ice (M4)

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Doing Things With Elves (Double Entendre Optional) Part 1

So, here's the first of my Rules Cyclopedia Elf variants. It's based roughly on the Tupi mythological creature, the Curupira. For each variant, I'm not going to mention ordinary elves except in reference to mechanics - the implication being that the variant can completely replace elves in a given setting or game.

Elf (Curupira)

The Curupira are a race of humanoids who inhabit the thickest equatorial, tropical and semi-tropical forests. They are looked upon as a primitive ancestral remnant by those who are aware of them, but the majority of 'civilized' races know little, if anything, about them.

Their appearance is humanoid, with delicate features and pointed ears, although they are smaller and weaker than most humans. Their hair is almost always a bright flaming red, and their teeth and nails are green. Their most unusual feature is their feet, which face backwards. This makes them extremely difficult to track when they are in their forest home, and it gives them a loping gait which other humanoid races find disturbing and unnatural.

To other peoples, the Curupira are inscrutable. Their motivations are neither treasure nor power. Rather, their pleasure comes from the forest itself - the vibrancy of life around them, the thrill of the hunt, the noises and colours and smells. Like the forest, their character is mercurial and capricious: at times they can appear as implacable and as phlegmatic as a wall of trees; at others they can be warm and welcoming; and at others they are highly dangerous. These changes in mood do not have reasons or motivations which other humanoids can easily discern.

Curupira are strong with magic and make moderately good fighters, especially with missile weapons. They primarily use magic that allows them to manipulate their natural surroundings, and to beguile and confuse their enemies.

Elf (Curupira)

Prime Requisite: Wisdom and Dexterity.
Other Requirements: Dexterity, Wisdom and Intelligence of 9 or greater.
Experience Bonus: 5% for a Dexterity and Wisdom of greater than 13; 10% for a Dexterity and Wisdom of greater than 15.
Hit Dice: d6 per level up to 10th level.
Maximum Level: 10
Armour: Natural armours and shields.
Weapons: Spear, bow, sling, club, axe, javelin, bola, blowpipe.
Special Abilities: Infravision; Never surprised in wilderness areas; Impossible to track in wilderness areas; Bonus Skill (Stealth: Forest); +1 to hit when using missile weapons.
Experience Levels: As standard Elves. Upon reaching level 10 they gain fighter abilities as per standard Elves; note however that Curupira do not gain fighter abilities at first level.

Elf (Curupira) Spell List

Curupira progress in magical power as do standard Elves.

Level 1
-Detect Danger (D1)
-Faerie Fire (D1)
-Locate (D1)
-Purify Food and Water (C1)

Level 2
-Warp Wood (D2)
-Produce Fire (D2)
-Speak With Animals (C2)
-Snake Charm (C2)
-Entangle (M2)

Level 3
-Water Breathing (M3)
-Call Lightning (D3)
-Hold Animal (D3)
-Protection From Poison (D3)
-Growth of Animal (C3)
-Hold Person (M3)

Level 4
-Growth of Plants (M4)
-Hallucinatory Terrain (M4)
-Dimension Door (M4)
-Summon Animals (D4)
-Plant Door (D4)
-Speak With Plants (C4)
-Sticks to Snakes (C4)
-Neutralize Poison (C4)

Level 5
-Insect Plague (C5)
-Anti-Plant Shell (D5)
-Control Winds (D5)
-Hold Monster (M5)
-Woodform (M5)
-Teleport (M5)
-Wall of Stone (M5)
I'm not sure if, as it stands, the Curupira is overpowered or not, but my main concern is that it might step on the toes of the Druid too much. Any feedback would be appreciated.

Friday, 20 June 2008

On Elvishness

My 2nd edition Monstrous Manual thread has reached 'E', and Elves.

As I wrote over there, I'm not into Elves. When it comes to demihuman races, it's Dwarves for me every day of the week and twice on Sunday. In fact, I usually try to gloss Elves over entirely when running games, so as to imply that they don't exist or are incredibly rare. It's always my hope that by doing so I can subtly persuade my players not to take on Elf characters. One of them usually does, though, and as I don't want to be one of those DMs who says "No such-and-such in this campaign!" I usually have to grin and bear it. No Orlando Bloom-like antics, though. I liked the LOTR films, but what they did with Legolas was one of the most ridiculous episodes of masturbatory nonsense that I think I've yet seen in a movie. The character was almost like Peter Jackson's very own Mary Sue.

But! I've been doing some thinking.
It seems unfair to dismiss the race if I'm not prepared to do my bit to make them interesting. I like Elves in Birthright and Dark Sun, after all; maybe all I need is a fresh perspective. Meanwhile, over at RPG Corner, Sirlarkins has been posting up some Rules Cyclopedia D&D versions of character classes from one of his favourite settings, Uresia. I love the simplicity of Rules Cyclopedia D&D and how easily modifiable the rules are, and Sirlarkins's recent posts have inspired me to play around a little bit with them myself. So I'm struck by the thought: Hey, why don't I come up with some 'Elf' variants for RC D&D, so as to spice them up a little bit? I can't think up a good reason why not.

So watch this space. I may post some of what I come up with over the next few days.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

My Secret Obsession

I recently came across a new blog while I was supposed to be at work trawling the internet. It's called RPG Diehard, and it's interesting reading so far. One of the authors set out his favourite kind of fantasy recently, and while our likings differ somewhat, I couldn't agree more when he writes:

I don't really care [much] about setting. In general, rpg setting materials don't inspire me all that much (I know this isn't the case for....probably many other gamers out there). So, I'd rather create a setting for myself that contains the elements I find interesting. I mean, if you've been playing rpgs for long enough, can't you just spout out "desert world" or "cities floating in a gas giant", start drinking a cup of coffee, and write down a page worth of ideas come out by the time you get to the bottom of the cup?

While my love of Planescape is well documented, and I've been known to dabble in Dark Sun, I've never cared much for published settings either - or published adventures, for that matter. I'm a great believer in what Gary Gygax once said: Why let us (i.e. the designers) do your imagining for you? I really like the RPG Diehard author's comment that "If you've been playing RPGs for long enough, can't you just....start drinking a cup of coffee, and write down a page worth of the time you get to the bottom of the cup?" That's more or less my philosophy too. And once you have that page of ideas, the others naturally follow.

I'll let you in on a secret. I have a secret obsession with coming up with settings, and I estimate I've only ever used about 2% of what I've ever come up with in actual games. Some of my recent ideas, jotted down in a notepad while sitting in McDonald's, include:

  • A game set in an area something like Southern Africa, ruled by Dwarves with an isiZulu-like culture.
  • A game where the player characters are the advance scouts of a vast armada of settlers and explorers who are expanding across an island-strewn stretch of ocean, as with the first wave of South Pacific colonisation.
  • A game set on a mountain so high that it is connected to the moon.
  • A game set on a planet which is almost entirely land - the 2% or so of surface area covered in water is situated in one lake/sea on the equator, around which are clustered all the planet's civilisation. The rest of the world is almost completely unexplored because nobody can get further than a few days ride from the lake/sea and its surrounding rivers. All anybody knows is that there is a lot of life out there, because every so often bizarre monsters come in from the vast, arid plains, seeking food, slaves or something else...
  • A game set in a city made entirely out of grid-iron, built up into a vast tall structure, like a supersized version of the Blackpool tower with houses and other buildings clustered on the struts.

I find wikipedia a great source of inspiration, because as well as being the world's most eccentric source of information, it is also a fantastic source of photos. Take a look at this picture of Mount Everest; can't you just imagine those mountains being the home of something alien, mysterious and terrible?:

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

RPG Theory - Thanks, but No Thanks

So, as you'll be aware if you're a regular reader, I'm currently playing around with designing my own game. I've had quite a lot of fun so far, and I'm moving more and more towards a refined version of whist as my main mechanic.

As a corollary of this, I've started getting slightly more interested in RPG theory, something I've mainly brushed off as so much blather before but which I think I should spend a little more time on if I'm going to do this properly. Problem is, GNS Theory leaves me stone cold: I don't buy the terms Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist to describe players (I constantly flip between G, N and S, often within the same session), and I only think they work in the most banal sense as descriptors of styles of play. (Was there ever a time when it wasn't obvious that some people like RPGs purely as games, some like them as ways to tell stories, and some like them as simulations?) I much prefer Jeff Rients' Retro-Stupid-Pretentious threefold model - if only because that seems like the best way to sum up the hobby itself: it's retro, it's stupid, and it's pretentious.

I've also discovered that I don't really like the indie-rpg scene. There's nothing wrong with indie games per se, but I generally feel the same way about them as I do "indie music" and "independent cinema" - they are good, bad or indifferent in exactly the same proportions as are non-indie games (whatever they may be). So while I like Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard and Risus, for instance, I don't really enjoy or see the point of Sorcerer, Polaris: The Tragic Chivalric Thingummy Whatsit, or Carry. They're just games, for good or ill, and whether they're indie or not doesn't and shouldn't make a difference.

More than that, while I respect the urge to get to the bottom of how game design can improve, I don't accept a lot of the ideas which self-declared "indie designers" seem to have taken as axioms. There are too many of those to go into detail here (I recommend listening to the two recent recordings from the Game Design Round Table at Dreamation 2008, available on the Sons of Kryos podcast, to find out), but one example is the idea that it is intrinsically good for a game to have a very narrow scope which its mechanics are specifically designed to support. It is this kind of thinking which has led to the creation of games like The Mountain Witch. That game incorporates some fantastic, innovative ideas (dark fates and trust points), and yet, bizarrely, it restricts its purview to the tiny limits of a group of samurai climbing Mt. Fuji to kill a witch at the top. I just don't understand the point of artificially limiting yourself that way as a designer when you could create something so much bigger and broader: Why create a game which only allows players to do essentially one thing (climb a mountain, kill a witch), when you could create a huge canvas on which they can paint whatever they want (a la 2nd edition AD&D)? Yet the philosophy behind that thinking seems to have been accepted as The Way Forward for RPGs. (See Carry, and Polaris: The Thingummy Whatsit, as other products of it.)

So the conclusion to this unfocused rambling? I'm enjoying creating my own system, but if I can come up with a mechanic which I think is very elegant and powerful, I want to use it to facilitate something big, not something small. I want it to be a tool through which players and DMs can have vast, sweeping adventures - not just a way to do one thing very well. And I won't be paying much attention to what RPG theorists have to say.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Of The Astral Knights of the Prophesied Shield, and Others

Dave, the owner/curator of Abulafia, has put me onto one of his own favourites, the Secret Society Title Generator - and through it, the Secret Society Name Generator. I love this kind of stuff: the names alone that these programmes generate are enough of a spark for somebody to base an entire campaign around. Because how can you resist a game centering on a sinister cult called The Military Alliance of the Radiant Game? Or The Celestial Students of the Vile Winter? Or The Brazen Kinship of the Second Legend?

I think it's because such names immediately give you a whole set of ready-made hooks, which in turn proliferate into other hooks and from there into an entire campaign concept. The Celestial Students of the Vile Winter, for example: Who are these students and why are they 'celestial'? What is the Vile Winter? Do the students study the Vile Winter, or are they merely of the Vile Winter? If they are studying it, why are they doing so? And so on.

I like to think of the Celestial Students of the Vile Winter as a cult of worshipers of a long forgotten family of demigods. These ancient, faded evils inhabit the far North Pole, living deep beneath the pack ice and the glaciers, waiting for their chance to extend their cold fingers back over the globe.

By studying the stars and other celestial bodies, the Students hope to predict the onset of the next ice age, when their gods will return to usher in a new reign of frost across the earth. For various reasons they expect that the time is coming soon - some say within 13 years, others within 27, others within 101 - and they have to bring about a state of readiness in the lands of men for this second coming - by whatever means necessary...

Jasper De Verne
Questor of the Unfathomable Tides and the Arcane Bloodline
Sergeant-at-arms of the Community of the Mind
Celestial Student of the Vile Winter

Level 12 Magic-User

STR: 9
INT: 17
WIS: 13
DEX: 8
CON: 13
CHR: 15

Jasper De Verne is one of the most powerful and influential members of the order of Celestial Students; he is one of only eight Sergeant-at-arms of the Community of the Mind, and one of only two Questors of the Unfathomable Tides and the Arcane Bloodline. This makes him privy to some of the most closely guarded secrets of the group.

He is chief amongst that clique of Students who believe that the Vile Winter is coming sooner rather than later. By his predictions and observations of the star fields, he thinks it may only be three years away. He believes that quick and decisive action must be taken so that the order can be in the proper position to welcome in the new era. What this decisive action is, nobody knows except for Jasper and his coterie of followers.

Monday, 16 June 2008

My New Favourite Thing

My New Favourite Thing: Abulafia's Random Generators. A site devoted to, well, Random Generators. Particular highlights include the spookily believable Anime Series Generator:

Masterful Falcon Utopia ~Magic the Butler~
Fate BeBop: Blood Crisis
War Detective Tank
Oh! Mobile Quest
Panda Tokyo Nya!: Triangle Shadow
Oh! Alchemist-chama Gakuen Dream: First Digamma

The Chuck Norris Fact Generator:

Chuck Norris once ate three 72 oz. steaks in one hour. He spent the first 45 minutes having sex with his waitress.

There are no weapons of mass destruction. Just Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris knows how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop, but if he told you, he'd have to kill you.

Chuck Norris originally appeared in the "Street Fighter II" video game, but was removed by Beta Testers because every button caused him to do a roundhouse kick. When asked bout this "glitch," Norris replied, "That's no glitch."

Chuck Norris invented black. In fact, he invented the entire spectrum of visible light. Except pink. Tom Cruise invented pink.

And my own particular favourite, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, Bad Year in Bear Lake, which generates eerie, semi-incoherent old-guy-in-the-bar reminiscences:

It was 1948...

I remember Paul Weatherby had this hand-me-down doll, and frankly, it made everybody sick.

We shot him in the face at the Capital and he tried to make it right. As if he could. That's all I have to say about that.

That thing that happened down at the old tumble-down farmstead - that was bad. Sherrif Johnston and the damned manuscript. He just let it all go to hell.

That thing with Dr. Hines and the piece of jewelry - who the hell knew? He just picked at it like a scab until he went crazy.

He pushed and pushed and pushed. Makes me ashamed. That's all I have to say about that. I saw it all.

We strung his ass up down at Szucha street. I still get uncomfortable when I think about it.

You can bet that if I ever ran Delta Green or Unknown Armies games I would be using that generator every single session.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

3d6 - What True Heroes Are Made Of

Sham recently made a post on the idea of rolling 3d6 in order for stats in D&D. Apparently later in life he has come to see the attraction in it after having generally used the nefarious 4d6-and-drop method in the past. My thoughts on the matter have already been written about; suffice to say that I've pretty much always used the 3d6-in-order method, and agree wholeheartedly with Sham when he says:

I understand that in modern D&D, it is assumed that the player characters are indeed supposed to be superhuman. I don’t like it, I don’t buy it. I think pretty much everyone involved in my games appreciates the fallible hero theory, that true heroes are those that we as readers or players can relate to, who overcome the odds and along the way become heroes in their own right, regardless of shortcomings. Those very shortcomings that make them ultimately identifiable.

I shouldn't be too self-congratulatory though: I had no such high-minded reasons for sticking with the 3d6-in-order path right the way through my gaming career. Actually the main reason why I've always used that method is because my first DM (my friend's big brother) insisted on it - it generated pathetic characters who were easier for him to squash. Nevertheless, I'm glad I've sticked by "The Method", as I like to call it, because without it I never would have had the chance to play some truly memorable characters - like Hog the Dwarf with his Wisdom of 4 but Strength of 18/00, or Durkin the Mage with a Dexterity of 3: these were the stats dreams were made of. Without The Method I probably would also have never felt the genuine shock and awe that I did on the first (and only) occasion I ever fairly rolled up a set of stats to make a Ranger; Christ, that was a sweet moment. (Goose, the character in question, died in his first session - I'm not sure what that goes to show, but it definitely goes to show something.)

Thinking back on those characters calls to mind an odd period in my old gaming crew when we developed a penchant for naming characters after un-adventurer-like animals. Hog the Dwarf and Goose the Ranger were two; I wish I could remember some of the others. I think the process started because one of use made a character with a cheesy name like Wolf or Raven and the rest of us thought it would be fun to take the piss out of him. Which we did, mercilessly.

Anyway, in tribute, meet:

Walrus, the Dwarf Fighter!

STR: 18/67
INT: 8
WIS: 9
DEX: 13
CON: 11
CHR: 10

Not bad, eh? My dice mojo is strong today. Must be all that buttering-up of The Method earlier on. If only I had a game in which to trot out Walrus and see how much of a survivor he is. Sniffle.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Get Back in Your Pit, You Fiend!

I've already harped on about Tony DiTerlizzi's Planescape retrospective, but I think this deserves a special mention:

It's only a black and white sketch, but it is hands down my favourite ever picture of a Pit Fiend. The way he's clinging to the mountain like that, and the baleful look in his eyes - he's the picture of malevolent, twisted cruelty.

DiTerlizzi has, in a previous entry, already said that he wishes he had had more maturity as an artist when drawing for Planescape, so he could have made an even better job of the Baatezu and Tanar'ri. He now looks to Bosch for inspiration, as the above picture shows. I especially like his comment that:

The most obvious flaw in the PS illus. is that they are all perfect specimens. After eons of fighting off adventurers, good guys from Mt. Celestia, and each other - well, they would show the effects of such a battered existence, and I think these wounds would add greatly to their grotesqueness.

He then illustrates what he means.

I'm sure I'm not the only one out there looking at those pictures and thinking, "I need to make demons and devils more like that in my games."

Duelling Whist (II)

A duel example, following on from yesterday's post:

Genghis Khan and Michael Jackson sit down for a good, old-fashioned arm-wrestle. The loser will lose his head. It's a five-hand game, with the DM ruling that Genghis gets first pick at the trump.

Round 1
Genghis: JD, 10C, 6C, 5C, 5S
Michael Jackson: KC, 7C, 4C, 2C, 2S
Genghis picks Clubs as the trump.
Genghis plays 5C. Michael beats it with his 7C.
Michael plays KC. Genghis plays 6C, loses.
Michael plays 2C. Genghis plays 10C, wins.
Genghis plays JD. Michael plays 4C, wins.
Michael plays 2S, Genghis plays 5S, wins.

Michael won three tricks to Genghis' two, so Michael gets the pick of the next trump.

Round 2
Genghis: QD, 10D, 7S, 6C
Michael: JH, 9H, 5C, 3S
Michael picks hearts as the trump.
M's JH beats Genghis' 6C.
M's 9H beats Genghis' 7S.
M's 5C beats Genghis' 10D.
M's 3S beats Genghis' QD.

Michael Jackson wins. Genghis loses his head, and Michael is now the Great Khan of the Mongol Horde.

I like this. Admittedly it's rather unrealistic for Michael Jackson to beat Genghis Khan in an arm-wrestle, but not outside the realms of possibility if Michael is exceptionally lucky - as he was with the cards he was dealt and the fact that he won the trump in the second round. Maybe Genghis was distracted by a passing young mare.

What is needed now is a way of using the cards when there is only a very slim chance of one side prevailing. Like if Genghis challenged me to a beard-grooming competition.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Duelling Whist (I)

Let's talk about duels.

I've been thinking about this in re: my Sir Gawain and the Green Knight game (see posts here and here). One of the best and most interesting aspects of the kind of storytelling I want to base the thing around is the Duel - whether it be two knights jousting, an extended sword-fight as in that between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood, or a battle of wills as with Nimue's tricking of Merlin. What I want is a mechanic that deals with such one-on-one struggles in a simple and intuitive way, and which will work whether it's two people with quarterstaffs trying to knock each other off a log bridge, or a woman trying to seduce a chaste knight in order to steal his secrets.

For some reason, my mind keeps going back to a game we used to play for 20p pieces back in school, which we called knock-out whist. Knock-out whist is deceptively simple. Seven cards are dealt out to each player. Then the deck is cut to decide which suit is the 'trump'. After that, the player on the dealer's left plays a card and the other players put a card down in turn; players must follow suit if they can, but if they can't they can play any card. The highest 'trump' card wins the trick - or if there isn't a trump card played, the highest card of the suit which led. The player who wins the trick then leads the next.

Once seven tricks have been played and nobody has any cards left, the cards are re-dealt - but this time only six are given to each player. The one who won the most tricks in the previous round chooses the trump suit. The process continues until seven rounds have been played, with the number of cards in a hand reducing each time down to one.

If any player fails to win any tricks in a given hand, he is knocked out of the game.

I feel like something can be done with this. Knock-out whist has the back-and-forth, unpredictable nature of a duel; it is possible for a player to survive by the skin of his teeth for six rounds and then win the seventh and the game, purely by luck of the draw - but it also incorporates a fair amount of skill and strategy when it comes to choosing which cards to play (it is rather like the game Hearts in that respect).

There are problems, though. Knock-out whist can be played by two people, but it works better with four or more. Also, success comes down purely to two things - luck and player skill. It wouldn't be a test of character skill if it was used as a mechanic to determine success in a duel in a role playing game. Finally, some 'Duels' are more serious than others; is it really appropriate to use the same method to work out who wins an arm wrestling match and who wins a life-or-death fight by hitting each other in the face with axes? How best to get around these problems? It strikes me that there are two ways:

  1. The length of the whist-game can be altered, so that a minor, unimportant struggle would use three or even two hands, whereas an epic sword fight like the Robin Hood/Guy of Gisborne one could be nine or ten hands long.
  2. Bonuses could be given to the stronger of the two characters in the given skill being tested by allowing them to start off by choosing the trump, giving them a one-trick head-start, or something else.

Let's try out an example to see if what I'm talking about makes sense:

Bert the Turnipeater and Fred Hogfatbreath are going to have a competition to see who can draw their sword fast enough, with the loser having to drink a pitcher of ale from the dregs of the barrel. The DM judges that this is a very minor incident, and it relies on speed, so it will only be one hand of three tricks in length. Bert is a trained swordsman, but Fred is an upstart journeyman, so the DM lets Bert decide on the trump. Then he deals out three cards:

Bert gets an Ace of Hearts, a Six of Clubs, and a Four of Clubs. He chooses clubs as the trump.
Fred gets a King of Diamonds, a Seven of Clubs, and an Ace of Spades.

Thinking strategically, Bert plays his Four of Clubs first, in order to 'flush out' any Clubs his opponent might have. Fred has to follow suit and plays his Seven of Clubs. He wins the trick. The DM says, "Fred gets his hand to his sword hilt a fraction earlier and begins to draw..."

Fred won the last trick so he leads. He has no trumps left so he decides he might as well play his Ace of Spades. Bert doesn't have a Spade so he can play either of his cards; seizing his chance he plays his remaining trump, the Six of Clubs, and wins the trick. The DM says, "Bert has a better grip on his sword hilt, allowing him to draw more quickly and match Fred's speed..."

The final hand. Bert won the last trick so he leads and plays his Ace of Hearts. All Fred can play is his King of Diamonds, so he loses. The DM says, "Bert swings his sword from his scabbard a fraction earlier than Fred. He wins." Fred has to drink the flat ale, while Bert wins the affection of the barmaid.

I think I'm going to go and play through a few scenarios and see how the whole thing works. More tomorrow, maybe; any advice appreciated.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Lucas the Loved

Apropos of this post, and also this, I've dreamed up an NPC character.

Lucas the Loved

Lucas the Loved was once known as Lucas the Lover - the scourge of many a married woman's bed. With thick long hair, dark smouldering eyes and a dangerous smile, he was renowned all through the hills and valleys of Gavrost as the Lady Killer to end all Lady Killers.

Until he took a walk in the forest one day, and disappeared.

He came back two years later a very different man. He claims that a dryad took him in the forest and kept him as her lover and slave, only to release him once he had outlived his interest - though others suspect he was punished by the spirits for his wicked ways. Perhaps both are true. Whatever the truth is, where once he was a smooth-talking charmer he is now a bleary-eyed dreamer; where once his smile was quick and seductive it is now rare and mournful; and where once his eyes flicked from woman to woman across a crowded room they now gaze up at the stars or into the trees of the forest with indescribable longing. He keeps himself to himself these days, wandering in the forest and hoping to meet his sylvan mistress again, but when he is in his cups he can sometimes be tempted to tell the story of the dryad in the woods and how much he loves her, and how if only she would take him back his broken soul would be mended.

Lucas the Loved

Level 3 Human Bard, Chaotic Neutral

STR: 13
INT: 14
WIS: 9
DEX: 12
CON: 13
CHR: 16

Lucas is usually unarmed except for a short bow and knife. He has all the abilities of a 3rd level Bard, and can still sometimes be heard singing in his light, alto tones - although the songs he sings these days are only ever in a minor key.

He has wandered far and wide in the forests of Gavrost searching for his mistress, so he knows the woodland better than any other. If he can be persuaded out of his melancholy for a time, he is a very useful contact for anybody traveling through the area.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

d12s and a Statement of Intent

d12s never get the love, do they? d20s have a whole system named after them; d10s are the weapon of choice for the World of Darkness games, ORE, Chaosium's Basic Role Playing and many others; even d8s have some uses in AD&D, but for some reason all d12s ever get is the dregs from the table. You want to work out the damage of a two-handed sword? Okay, the d12 is your man, but that's about all he's good for.

I was thinking about this today, while more generally mulling over dice and their many virtues. I don't think it's remarked upon often enough just how fun rolling dice is. For starters, there is a real tactile pleasure in picking up a fistful of them - d10s are my favourite for this, which is one of the reasons I like ORE - and just chucking them across the table. The weight of them, and the noise they make, patterpatterpatter - it's great. Secondly, as we all know, pleasure is really all about anticipation, whether it's looking forward to a nice big slap-up meal, kick-off at a football match, or building up to "the big night" after the first couple of dates with a new girl- or boy-friend. Now, rolling eight d10s isn't quite as good as the build up to sex, I admit, but it almost is: those few moments from the time the dice have left your hand to the time they come to rest flip all the same sorts of buttons. They just don't flip them quite as hard. Even the potential for disappointment is accurately emulated.

I seem to have digressed. I was talking about d12s, wasn't I? So anyway, yes, I was thinking about rolling dice today and decided, what the heck, I was in Shinjuku, so why not swing by The Yellow Submarine and get a handful? So get them I did; I am now the proud owner of ten new d12s, all sparkling and smelling of newness. The next question is what to do with them.

As you know if you've been keeping up, my new idea is a project I've taken to calling "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." It's basically a fantasy campaign which takes Mallory, MacDonald, Dunsany, White and Wolfe as its starting points rather than Tolkien and Moorcock; "fantastical fantasy," as I like to put it. I'd basically been thinking about running it in using a bastardized form of Risus, but this new brood of baby d12s I'm now parent to have started whispering "Use us! Use us!" in very insistent tones, and I don't think I'll be able to resist them much longer.

So here it is: a Statement of Intent. I'm going to write a new game system entirely based on d12s, for use with my Sir Gawain and the Green Knight setting. If I'm feeling lazy I'll probably just rewire Risus for use with d12s rather than d6s. But if my creative juices are pumping I might very well take a crack at coming up with something Brand New. Watch this space.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Caterpillar List

You know how you sometimes have a few caterpillars of ideas crawling around the empty space inside your head, but none of them has yet matured into the butterfly of a proper blog entry? Today is one of those days. So, I bring you, A Short List of Things That Have Caught My Attention:

  • Max has picked up his own idea and run much further with it than I did when I ripped him off a few entries ago. Borges and D&D are clearly more a match made in heaven than anybody has previously realised.
  • There is a new blog out there called The RPG Corner, which judging by its first few entries is going to be good reading. The blogger is tentatively working his way through the 4e books from the perspective of, I think it's fair to say, a relative skeptic.
  • Tony DiTerlizzi, who together with John Howe and Donato Giancola is top of the list for me when it comes to fantasy art, is running a Planescape retrospective at his blog. Planescape is my favourite setting ever, so I'm paging through the one or two Planescape books I have here with me in Japan and getting all bleary-eyed and nostalgic about it.
  • I'm going to see if I can get a group together to run real-life, tabletop Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Risus, and/or the Burning Wheel. And 2nd edition AD&D Planescape!

A proper entry tomorrow, perhaps.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Genre Emulating Mechanics: Risus and Burning Wheel

There's some fascinating stuff here about genre emulation.

I'm all about genre in the sense that I like my games to have a clearly defined one - be it Sword & Sorcery or Space Opera or Cyberpunk - and to remain within its bounds. (Genre-busting has never interested me in the slightest.) But until now I've never given a huge amount of thought to how mechanics support genre - there have just been mechanics I've liked and mechanics I haven't, and I've taken the ones I've liked and tried to crowbar them into different genres depending on my mood. To wit: I once ran a game, for example, which mixed Lovecraftian horror with Australian Aboriginal mythology, but used 1st edition AD&D mechanics to do so.

Needless to say that sort of thing is pretty unsatisfactory, and if it is to work it requires a lot of effort that I frankly don't have time or inclination for anymore. Risus - and I suppose other games like FATE and SOTC - strike me as a better alternative, because their core mechanics (Cliche in Risus, Aspects in FATE and SOTC) are so amenable to genre and to what genre is trying to do. This is especially true of Risus. That is to say: genre is cliche, and as that game's mechanics revolve entirely around cliche it should be a perfect fit.

(For example, if you want to play a Superhero game with Risus, you can emulate the genre very easily by giving characters cliches such as "Evil Genius", "Stronger than 10 tigers", "Well brought up small-town boy", "Snazzy suit", or "Reluctant hero." (Hooks also help you do this.) If on the other hand you want a swashbuckling pirate game, you can come up with cliches like "Rope-swinger par excellence", "Looks good in a cod piece" or "Bloodthirsty maniac".)

But then you read a post like this and you think, hang on, these fellows could be
onto something:

An example [of how Risus isn't perfect for genre emulation] could be Cold War spying - you could use Risus and cliches would help create a specific mood of betrayal and cloak-and-dagger, but you're still not getting the direct mechanical oomph that a Trust mechanic like Cold City uses supplies - in that game, the more Trust in each other you have, the more effective you are, but at the same time the more vulnerable to betrayal. Everyone also has Hidden Agendas which give bonus dice too, so you have a system-supported tension between trusting one another and betraying one another to achieve your agendas.

You could end up with exactly the same amount of double-dealing and subterfuge in a Risus game, complete with secret agendas, but with Cold City you not only have player expectation and the flavour of the traits/cliches pointing you in that direction, you've also got the system nudging you towards those kinds of outcomes and stories.

Coincidentally, I was listening to an old Godzilla Gaming Podcast today in which the guys interviewed Luke Crane, creator of the highly successful Burning Wheel family of games. He spoke very forcefully about the future of RPGs and made it clear that he believes (to paraphrase) that said future will involve games "which do a specific thing, but do it very well" - i.e. games that take a rather narrow concept (politicking in Heian era Japan, to use the example of his new game, Blossoms are falling) but which allow you to do that concept to the max. (He said at one point in the interview that Blossoms are falling allows you to be, say, a Regent trying to manipulate a child emperor and competing for influence against a retired emperor, and that such a situation won't come about by accident or in spite of the rules - it will come about because that sort of thing is what the game is designed for.)

This is heady stuff, and makes me wonder about the value of my relentless attempts to fit the square peg of AD&D/Classic D&D into the round holes of Aboriginal Lovecraft, Amazon Exploration, Pacific Island Myth and Arthurian Legend. Should I not be designing specific rulesets to support those 'genres' rather than relying on existent but unsuitable mechanics?

Probably. And yet there's still a part of me that keeps whispering, "It isn't about the system, it's about the setting, the DM and the players," because broadly speaking that is what I think, fundamentally. What does the system matter, at the end of the day, if the DM and players are all singing from the same hymn sheet regarding what they want the game to be? And I worry that increased genre-emulating-mechanics will result in greater balkanization in the role playing community - because who wants to learn a brand new set of mechanics every time they take up a slightly different game?

Still, food for thought. Let's get those Risus rules whirring into action and see what we can come up with vis-a-vis Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and go from there.

A Word on Art and Awesomeness

I usually try to stay away from the word 'awesome'. Partly it's because whenever I hear it I always think of Bill and Ted ("Dude....awesome!"). But mostly it's because things the word is used to describe aren't actually ever awesome. This painting is, though, so I'm going to use the word this one time only. Awesome:

This is what fantasy art should be. I promised myself I wouldn't bag on 4th edition anymore, or even really mention it again. But nothing makes me feel more alienated from the new edition than the fact that I'd rather see a book with one picture in it like the John Howe above than fifty like the one below:

Am I alone in this?

Friday, 6 June 2008

Risus! Or: Knights! And Wizards!

Why is it that nobody has ever told me about Risus before? I've seen the name bandied about on the internet, of course, mostly at therpgsite and on Jeff Rients' blog, but why is it that none of my gaming friends has ever grabbed me physically, by the lapels, and yelled in my face "You've never played Risus before? What are you, stark raving mental or something!?"? With their veins sticking out on their forehead. And slobbering a little.

I've just downloaded it, and it puts the very phrase "insanely brilliant" into a whole new light.

Of course, comedy gaming isn't my thing, but as you're probably aware, pseudo-intellectual literary wankiness most certainly is. So as soon as I started leafing through the .pdf my brain got to working and came out with: The Wizard Knight, but ROLE PLAYING.

I love The Wizard Knight, and I love Gene Wolfe. First things first, if you haven't read that book but have read a lot of Gene Wolfe, it's important to say that it isn't anything like The Book of the New Sun apart from being brilliantly good. The Wizard Knight is fantastical fantasy in the finest tradition of Lord Dunsany, T. H. White, Thomas Malory, Chaucer and George MacDonald, but with a very Wolfeian twist and a fine smattering of Norse mythology. There are no orcs here; it's all about knights who fall in love with faeries, fight giants and dragons, and never refuse a challenge to a duel or a request to rescue a fair maiden - just like Gawain and Lancelot. It's all larger than life, and concieved of in a universe of seven realms, from the pits of hell where the dragons and giants come from, to the heavens themselves where the Valfather lives.

This is just made for a Risus game, I feel. Not entirely the same as The Wizard Knight, of course. But a game where all the characters are writ large and their challenges are rogue knights, evil enchantresses, giants, ogres, gryphons, dryad temptresses and vile dragons. Travel to hell to fight wyverns! Outwit villainous hags who've charmed you with their magick! Swear oaths to never rest until the manticore is slain! Fight hour-long duels knee deep in the icy waters of mountain rivers, only stopping to trade insults! Seduce elven queens! Quest for the love of maidens!

You get the idea. Possibly. If you don't, I really feel this picture just sums it up:

A Treant with Bewbs....Not So Much (II)

Apropos of my post yesterday, a short Monster Idea:


The Knocker is a subterranean spirit which inhabits the deepest parts of mine shafts and dungeons. In appearance it resembles a very small, beardless dwarf, but it is never seen - only heard. The only contact an adventurer is likely to have with a Knocker is with its scampering footsteps and the repetitive tapping in the darkness which gives it its name.

Knockers' behaviour is impossible to predict. Half of the time they are a mysterious but benign force, alerting dungeon delvers and miners to the danger of a tunnel collapse with their tapping. But half of the time they are a malevolent haunting who deliberately cause tunnel collapses to crush those they take against. The DM should roll a percentage die whenever Knockers are encountered to determine whether they are in a helpful or malicious frame of mind. If the former, they will appear and begin tapping to warn the PCs of the presence of a randomly determined trap. If the latter, they will cause a tunnel collapse.

Alignment: Chaotic Neutral
Intelligence: Very (11-12)
No. Appearing: 1d12+1
Hit Dice: 2
THAC0: 18
No. of Attacks: 2
Damage/Attack: 2d2
Special Attacks: See below
Special Defenses: See below

Knockers never engage in physical combat unless they are somehow cornered - which is nigh-on impossible as the creatures are incorporeal and can pass through (and remain inside) walls at will. They are never surprised, and can be hit only by magical or cold iron weapons.

A group of one or more Knockers can collectively use a special ability, Cause Tunnel Collapse, once per day. They can knock for as many rounds as they wish, during which time the potential collapse will gradually grow in size; as soon as they have stopped knocking the collapse occurs, causing 8d6 hit points of damage over an area 15' in size per round knocked, although a successful save vs. breath weapon will half the damage caused. Those caught in the collapse must also save vs. paralyzation - if they fail they become trapped under rubble and suffer 1d6 per round in crushing damage until they are freed (takes 1d6 rounds). A tunnel collapse generally destroys a section of the tunnel equivalent in size to the 'knocked' area and cannot generally be cleared without magic such as pass wall or stoneshape.