Archive Page 2

16
Sep
13

Logic and the Mythic Underworld

The logic of the dungeon is something that used to bother me when I was in my teens. Even in a world featuring magic, gods, and other inexplicables the idea of an underground fortress filled with random traps, tricks, and puzzles, well, sometimes I would get distracted by disbelief. Other than “mad wizards and insane geniuses” or their close relations, inscrutable deities, who would bother to build such a thing, for any reason? I spent time trying create dungeons that would make “sense” and be designed according to some purpose.

As I got older I simply shrugged, suspended any disbelief, and was happy with how fun the game is to play. Who cares? I am content to think of it in terms of Philotomy Juraments’s “mythic underworld.” But every once in a while I would still catch myself thinking about the logic of it all…

But I have been cured of that now. Now I know that any sufficiently powerful intelligence able to casually play with the weft and warp of reality will create haphazard environments as a matter of course. There will be dead ends, half-completed projects, empty rooms, traps, traps that don’t work, random features in random places.

Oh, there will be some completed projects, certain things that make obvious sense. But around them will be forgotten or incomplete efforts, prototypes, projects that make sense to no one but the creator. Little of it will make any sense to an observer exploring the results.

I know this because I have seen my six-year-old play Minecraft.

And I have played Minecraft too. Given the opportunity to randomly create stuff in a sandbox environment it is easy to see how a dungeon created by a magical power would end up unexplained by architect’s benchmarks of usability, engineering, and cost-per-square foot.

If you have the resources to create, you will be creative. The process is messy. And I believe dungeons I create in the future will be more interesting and fun if I can imagine like I am six again.

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11
Sep
13

Some random treasures

When playing as a DM I like having random lists to hand for commonly needed things like treasures, wandering monsters, names, etc. For some of these things I want the random aspect of rolling on a table, but want to have prepared a bit more flavor and detail.

Below is one such random list of treasures that may be substituted on the fly for a given pile of coins (simply assign the item the value of the coin hoard).  In addition to variety unique treasures provide opportunities for mischief and world building. 

Hopefully some of you will find this potentially useful and tuck a copy away for future use.

  1. Long scroll illustrated with valuable inks and gold leaf. The scroll lists all the official visitors during a six month period to an unnamed border fortress. Several names in the middle have been carefully obscured.
  2. Quilt sewn with gold and silver threads and depicting a complicated geometric design. Any dwarf will recognize the design serves as a map of the corridors and intersections of an ancient dwarven city whose location has been lost for centuries.
  3. 31 sheets of fine parchment wrapped in a leather skin and tied with cord. If a magic-user or scribe carefully examines the bundle they will notice that one of the sheets in the middle of the stack has been writ on and then clumsily scraped clean. Careful restoration (taking a week of game time) will reveal a scroll of dimension door.
  4. Finely carved diorama depicting several fops paying court to a noble. It is entirely carved from one piece of bone. The slightest of blows will shatter it.
  5. A beautifully glazed porcelain sake set with gold rims. Set includes a serving flask and three cups.
  6. Finely made doll with parts carved of ivory and wood, real elf hair, crystal eyes. Clothed in valuable silks and includes clever features like eyes that open and close, mouth full of bone teeth, and articulated posturing so it can be sat or stood up. A fit plaything for the child of a King or Empress. [Optionally this doll may prove to be animated. If so it will take the single most valuable item it can carry and disappear the next time the characters sleep or are otherwise distracted.]
  7. Stone carving of a round birdbath, about three inches across, with small, ruby-encrusted bird-of-paradise perched on its edge.
  8. Ornate lantern. It will only burn fine oil, but has a clever reservoir and metal siphon that acts as a permanent wick. The sides are formed of silver wire twisted to cast the shadows of people and a castle. Shadows cast by the lantern will occasionally act out scenes from Macbeth.
  9. Gloves made of an odd, scaled skin. They are made of cockatrice and a sage or druid who examines the gloves will identify them as such. Will allow the wearer to touch a cockatrice without effect.
  10. Bag of 20 flawless crystal spheres, 1” diameter each.
  11. Ornate bronze torc made for a human-sized creature. The runes and sigils inscribed on it authorize access to the stacks of an ancient library in a far-away city. Of great interest to certain scribes and clerics.
  12. Wooden box containing a writing set including ink-jar, small knife, sealing wax, sander, and six quills. If carefully examined, players will discover that five of the quills are sharp but the third is blunt and plugged with wax. It contains 1 dose of the drug mnophka.
  13. 16” by 12” oil painting depicting a fantastical beast in combat with several men. (Show players the bulette portrayed on the title page of the Monster Manual.)
  14. 12” section of ivory horn about 3 inches in diameter and carved to to resemble a wizard’s tower. 1 in 6 chance anyone examining closely will discover it to have several rotating seams: it is a puzzle box. Requires 1d4 turns to open (less a turn for INT over 13). Currently empty.
  15. Knight’s campaign bed consisting of interlocking wooden poles and canvas stretcher. When assembled it forms a comfortable cot about a foot off the ground and six feet long. Likely made for a noble, as the four corner posts feature mother-of-pearl inlay. Disassembled it forms a bundle three feet long and about 8” in diameter.
  16. Small wooden chest 18” by 12” by 8”. Opens to reveal eight padded compartments, each containing a small, stoppered bottle of fine liquor. This is someone’s traveling liquor cabinet; three bottles are full.
  17. Silver snuff box with image of laughing cow on the lid. The greyish, ash-like substance within is not tobacco. (It is grave dust).
  18. Beautiful hand-tooled leather belt with bronze buckle. Careful examination by a thief will reveal a lockpick concealed in the buckle. No one else would notice.
  19. Crystal decanter with a copper pouring spout. Exceptionally fine work; the lack of any adornment only highlights how skilled the maker must have been. Bottom is encrusted with the dried remains of a bottle of red wine.
  20. Seal featuring crest of minor royal family from the west marches. Polished walnut handle is fastened to the brass seal with a solid gold screw, giving the seal a pleasant balance.
  21. Iron egg filigreed with gold. The egg can be opened and is held shut by a clever clasp formed of two small rubies. If an actual egg is placed within and the lid is shut, the egg will be transformed to a pinch of sulpher. (Note sulpher is cited as a material component for the spells flame strike, resist cold, fireball, fire trap, conjure (fire) elemental, guards and wards, and cacodemon.)
  22. Lapis lazuli conductor’s baton with a gold knob. Looks like a wand to a non-musician…
  23. Small crystal bottle, approx. 2 oz. with a glass stopper. Full of extraordinarily fine perfume.
  24. 8” high soapstone statue. Depicts a petty god of foolishness wearing a baggy tunic that says “college.”
  25. Three-foot folding tripod with hanging incense censer. Tripod is made of telescoping wood legs with brass feet and hinge. Chain is silver and the censer is made of brass chased with gold.
  26. Leather case containing rolled-up skin of a basilisk, the petrified antenna of a rust monster, a dried bull pizzle, and 7 withered orc ears. It will not be obvious what these items are.
  27. Water-stained codex written in common. It describes the deadly exploration of an isle far off the coast. The author relates encountering fearsome giant lizards, flying monkeys, and frighteningly intelligent giant spiders. There is description of how the author hid a large cache of gold on the island. Unfortunately the first signature of the book is missing: references throughout the rest of the volume indicate the first chapter included maps and a description of how to navigate to the isle.
  28. Set of 6 silver knitting needles in leather sack with several rotting skeins of wool.
  29. Wooden box containing 20 vials, each with a tablespoon dose of Eli’s Evident Elixir. (The elixir is molasses mixed with clove oil and brandy. It will soothe a teething baby).
  30. Treatise on the herbs and flowers of an island to the north. If carefully studied will reveal an easy brew-your-own recipe for a potion of healing requiring two of the herbs depicted in the volume.
  31. Bag of ten bandages individually wrapped in silk pouches. These gauzy pads are made of woven spiderweb. Use of one immediately after being wounded will stop bleeding and prevent shock. Packaging indicates they were issued to some forgotten army.
  32. Small pouch containing a collection of silver spoons. They have clearly been “collected” from great houses through the land since each features the crest, sigil, or stamp of a different regal family, guild, or personage. Crumpled at the bottom of the bag is a torn handbill advertising a reward for a missing spoon from the house of “His Magical Eminence Guichard Snabe.” There is a spoon inscribed with a stylized GS.
  33. Huge tome bound in gold-edged ivory plates. Difficult for the layman to make sense of, but it seems to be a treatise debating alternate ways to determine who acts first in a given turn of an obscure game under different conditions of play. Virtues of several different systems are debated and re-debated at length. There is no definitive conclusion.
  34. Set of copper tweezers, picks, clamps, and probes. Exquisite workmanship and quality of metal, purpose unknown. Would serve as thief’s tools or be useful for a jeweler or horologist.
  35. Set of two well-made leather fire buckets. They are filled with sand (a pouch containing 5 p.p. is buried in one).
  36. Silver fife inscribed with flowing elvish-looking script. The writing is fake and says nothing.
  37. Fine goblet carved from a single piece of translucent, blood-red stone.
  38. Well-preserved velvet hood and cloak. It is deepest black and may not be noticed if it is hanging in shadow. Fit for nobility.
  39. Book that tells a fanciful story of two children who accidentally discover the secret to operating a powerful magical artifact (in form of a tree house that can travel through time and space). The children have many adventures but always return home safe and sound.
  40. Set of four sturdy lead goblets studded with semi-precious stones.
07
Jun
13

eating out with renfield

what’s he building in there? a slow cooker no doubt

I was at a holiday party with some folks at Tor a long while back, and the editors were telling me that (at that time) the big thing was the Supernatural Romance sub-genre, with Supernatural Tourism, Supernatural Buddy Comedy, and Superntural C++ Programming Manuals as close runners-up.  I guess this must have been around the time that Twilight hit the shelves and every book with a vampire on its cover was flying off the shelves.

With my recent interest in the 2004 game Vampire: the Requiem (haven’t hit half-life yet, unfortunately) I think I have invented THE BEST COOKING CHANNEL SHOW EVER.  Do you remember how in Dracula there was crazy old Renfield, who somehow concluded:

  1. Count Dracula eats humans
  2. Count Dracula lives forever
  3. If I eat humans, I will live forever
  4. Therefore I shall eat bugs

I propose a cooking show where “Renfield” travels to various picturesque cultures and eats their Scary Magic Food like a maniac – like a strict diet of nothing but this thing, whatever it may be – and at the end of the week reports whether he has gained magic powers.  ANTHONY BOURDAIN meets GHOST HUNTERS.

This is fucking bank.

05
Jun
13

the pulsating heart of AD&D

Skidoo, one of the regulars in our on-going Pendragon epic, wrote insanely awesome combat charts for how to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e) “by the book,” near as he can figure out.  Everything is explained in flowcharts.  Because Skidoo has done this, and has spent session after session watching his knight’s agenda go down in flames before the titanic incompetence of my own Sir Carabad, I must conclude that Skidoo is a masochist.  But a devilishly handsome one.

But the files are right here (36 meg PDF), and this is Skidoo’s explanation for what he’s done:

skidoo’s explanation for spending time away from his family

Hi.This is a combat flowchart for AD&D 1st Edition, by the book.  It attempts to include all the rules in the three core rule books (PHB, DMG, MM).Everybody playing AD&D 1E ignores some of these rules.  I wondered if it was possible to include all of them in a game, when I joined a campaign that attempted to play AD&D strictly by-the-book.  I created this flowchart to see how all the combat rules fit together, to see if it’s possible to play through combat with all the rules, and what that might look like.I admit it looks nuts.
This is not:
How to play AD&D.
How I play AD&D.
How you must play AD&D to play it right.
One other point:
Because a flowchart gives as much space to a rule that’s used 2% of the time as one that’s used 98% of the time, the format makes it look like there’s a lot of rules to deal with in every combat, when there aren’t.  Many of the rules would only come into play at higher levels.  Multiple attack routines are not an issue at low levels.  BtB psionics will hardly ever happen.
In a way, it reminds me of a heavily house-ruled Basic D&D game.  I imagine many DM’s combat resolution systems would actually look just as crazy if you laid them out like this.  It’s just that the decision points and sequences are so ingrained from years of play that they don’t have to think, “Okay now I’m noting all of the spells in order of # of segments” or whatever.
I don’t have a big philosophical purpose for doing this.  I did it just so I could get my head around how it (might) work.  Kind of like dissecting a frog.  Or drawing what I think the dissected frog looks like.  Use it as you will.  Please leave a message in the comments if you have a different reading of a rule, or know one that I missed.

Special thanks to DM Prata for his ADDICT document, to which this project owes a lot, especially the chart illustrating how multiple attack routines work.  And to the makers of the game.

when you meet the buddha, kill him and take his flower sermon

(These are my opinions, not Skidoo’s.)

What I fucking love about this chart is that, at least for me, it ends the OSR as a rabbinical quest for The True Game Text.  (I suppose the rabbinical quest to play the game “as Gary actually played it in the year ______” can go on indefinitely, until we get a bunch of people with Gygax Number 1 together to thrash out that beast.)  This is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Everything else is just monster descriptions, maps, and character classes, all of which are simply inputs to the engine which Skidoo has exploded out for study.  And, uh, frankly it looks kind of un-fun.

This chart also ends the Edition Wars, at least for me.  I never cared about that stuff as an adult, but as a kid, even though I was playing a game called “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” it was the Second Edition.  I had this sneaking suspicion key things from 1e, such as demon tits, had been left out.  But dugs of darkness aside, I think Skidoo has pretty much demonstrated why creating 2e was a good idea, even if you don’t like the specific game that emerged from that redesign process.  It probably explains why the OSR seems to love Labyrinth Lord / BX and games derived from it so much.

Also, for me, this document kind of ends the OSR as an outlook.  My earliest interest in the OSR came from the puzzling realization that, despite mucking around with it for years as a child and teenager, I had never actually played Dungeons & Dragons, to the extent that “playing Dungeons & Dragons” meant playing by the rules.  But what these charts show is that, very likely, nobody has ever played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons by the rules.  Back in 2008-2009, there was a lot of reminding ourselves about “rulings not rules” and “if the rules have gaps, fill them in yourself,” and that kind of thing, as a rebellion against the comparatively rigid styles of 3e and 4e play.  But damn, man: the same problem of rigidity existed in 1979!  And people solved it the way people always solve it: by making up their own stuff to route around the bullshit: the hell with level caps and encumbrance rules.

In other words, no one has played 1e, 2e, 3e, 4e, or (likely) 5e by the rules.  Gaming didn’t need to be saved.  It had been saved the whole time. (“Saved” here of course isn’t meant to be taken seriously.)

The other thing I wonder about, when looking at these charts, is about the design process in RPG’s.  I am, despite playing D&D almost exclusively for 5 years, a Forge guy at heart, and I do believe that game design is important: it’s why I love B/X so much, for example.  But these charts, man!  When I was 9 years old, we had the super-simple Mentzer Basic rules, and we couldn’t be bothered to actually understand the text, or even read it.  We made up our own rules as we needed them, and then broke them.  Years earlier, however, poor Gary or Dave or Larry Schick or Mike Carr or Zeb Cook or whoever else, was slaving away on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e, with a zillion times more rules.  What’s the ratio of design effort in Lake Geneva to fun at your table?  I think us kids had a far better labor-to-fun payoff.  No matter how old you are, nothing beats Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time.  And maybe that’s what, in practice, the players of 1e figured out too.

05
Jun
13

you must be this lucky to play, part 2

“I’ll work up how to do the math for 4d6 drop lowest arranged, but not today.”  Well, that was more than a year ago, and I can’t say I’ve really devoted myself to the project.  Frankly, I have failed you, dear trio of readers: it was much easier to re-learn Java to solve this problem by brute programming force rather than to re-learn probability.  The University of Illinois Math Department will probably come ’round demanding that I return my diploma…

Anyhow, I worked up a crappy little program to handle 4d6 arranged to taste for one million characters.  Surprisingly, even with that many data points there’s a lot of random noise in the second decimal place and a moderate amount of wobble in the first decimal place.  But I ain’t running this beyond a million characters.

Here are PDF’s of the charts below, in case, like me, you have trouble reading the way WordPress formatted the diagrams below.

advanced dungeons & dragons, 1979

As was pointed out in comments to the earlier blog post, 1e apparently uses 4d6 Drop Lowest Arranged to Taste as its default method of creating a character.

Several of these stat requirements are not specifically identified in the class description, but rather called out in the ability score charts. For example, if you have a Strength of 3-5, you can only play a Magic-User. Thanks to Olivier Fanton for pointing this out.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Dr. Low, Arr.
Cleric Str 6, Int 6, Wis 9, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Druid Str 6, Int 6, Wis 12, Dex 6, Con 6, Cha 15 2.87% 73.51%
Fighter Str 9, Wis 6, Dex 6, Con 7, Cha 6 58.30% 99.80%
Paladin Str 12, Int 9, Wis 13, Dex 6, Con 9, Cha 17 0.10% 24.19%
Ranger Str 13, Int 13, Wis 14, Dex 6, Con 14, Cha 6 0.16% 29.46%
Magic-User Int 9, Wis 6, Dex 6, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Illusionist Str 6, Int 15, Wis 6, Dex 16, Cha 6 0.37% 35.82%
Thief Str 6, Int 6, Dex 9, Con 6, Cha 6 61.28% 99.80%
Assassin Str 12, Int 11, Wis 6, Dex 12, Con 6 6.39% 93.51%
Monk Str 15, Int 6, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 11, Cha 6 0.04% 13.15%
Bard Str 15, Int 12, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 10, Cha 15; Fighter 5, Thief 5* 0.00%** 1.59%

 

* = Before becoming a Bard, characters would have to survive through 5 levels of Fighter and then 5 levels of Thief, totalling around 28,000 XP, before beginning Bard training. From our five years of weekly play, that would require about three years, assuming the character didn’t get killed or super-killed in the meantime.

 

** = The odds of the 1e Appendix II: Bard is actually 0.0017%. That is, if you rolled 1 million AD&D 1e characters using 3d6, you could expect to see 17 Bards occurring in nature using 3d6 in order.  

unearthed arcana, 1985

Unearthed Arcana has a lot of alternate ways to generate character stats. I have ignored these alternate methods, as I have ignored everything else in this book. I leave rolling 9d6 or whatever as an exercise for severely bored readers.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Barbarian Str 15, (Wis 16), Dex 14, Con 15 0.14% 28.23%
Cavalier Str 15, Int 10, Wis 10, Dex 15, Con 15 0.03% 12.52%
UA Paladin Str 15, Int 10, Wis 13, Dex 15, Con 15, Cha 17 0.00%* 0.89%
Thief-Acrobat Str 15, Dex 16; Thief 5** 0.43% 35.74%

 

* = The actual number is 0.0002%, which means out of 1 million characters rolled up using 3d6 in order, a full 2 of them might expect to qualify for Paladin status in Unearthed Arcana rules.

 

** = Thief-Acrobat has to accumulate 10,000 XP as a Thief first. I don’t know how to assess how hard that is, but several players in the Glantri campaign have hit similar numbers after three years of play (and leaving many corpses of less-fortunate PC’s in their wake). 

 

dragonlance adventures, 1985

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Knight of the Crown Str 10, Int 7, Wis 10, Dex 8, Con 10 18.56% 97.94%
Knight of the Sword Str 12, Int 9, Wis 13, Dex 9, Con 10; Crown Knight 2 3.33% 84.90%
Knight of the Rose Str 15, Int 10, Wis 13, Dex 12, Con 15; Sword Knight 4 0.05% 27.60%
Tinker Gnome Gnome only*; Int 10, Dex 12 23.12% 99.90%

 

Note that, like the 1e Bard and the Thief-Acrobat, the Knights of the Sword or the Rose require you to advance in level to qualify.

 

* = The Tinker Gnome must first qualify to play a Gnome: Strength 6, Constitution 8, and a Wisdom no higher than 12; they also get a +2 to their Dexterity. These stat requirements and adjustments have been factored into the “Odds to Qualify” columns.

oriental adventures, 1985

Oriental Adventures explicitly says to roll 4d6 Drop Lowest Arranged to Taste as the way to create characters.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Barbarian Str 15, (Wis 16), Dex 14, Con 15 0.14% 28.28%
Bushi Str 9, Dex 8, Con 8 52.02% 99.98%
Kensai Str 12, Wis 12, Dex 14 2.28% 80.91%
Monk Str 15, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 11 0.04% 13.63%
Ninja-Bushi Str 9, Int 15, Dex 14, Con 8, Cha 14 0.15% 34.54%
Ninja-Sohei Str 13, Int 15, Wis 12, Dex 14, Con 10, Cha 14 0.01% 10.07%
Ninja-Wu Jen Int 15, Dex 14, Cha 14 0.24% 35.16%
Ninja-Yakuza Str 11, Int 15, Dex 15, Cha 16 0.02% 12.63%
Samurai Str 13, Int 14, Wis 13, Con 13 0.28% 31.98%
Shukenja Str 9, Wis 12, Con 9 20.57% 99.54%
Sohei Str 13, Wis 12, Con 10 6.08% 95.23%
Wu Jen Int 13 25.93% 35.16%
Yakuza Str 11, Int 15, Dex 15, Cha 16 0.02% 12.63%

 

 advanced dungeons & dragons, second edition, 1989

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition uses 3d6 in order as its default method to roll character attributes, but 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged to Taste, was listed as an alternate method that a lot of people seem to have used.

 

Class Min Stats 3d6 Straight 4d6 Drop Low, Arr.
Fighter Str 9 74.07% 100.00%
Paladin Str 12, Con 9, Wis 13, Cha 17 0.13% 27.05%
Ranger Str 13, Dex 13, Con 14, Wis 14 0.18% 30.55%
Mage Int 9 74.07% 100.00%
Hard Specialist Stat 16 *, Int 9 4.63% 56.76%
Easy Specialist Stat 15 **, Int 9 9.26% 79.43%
Cleric Wis 9 74.07% 100.00%
Druid Wis 12, Cha 15 3.47% 78.28%
Thief Dex 9 74.07% 100.00%
Bard Dex 12, Int 13, Cha 15 0.90% 68.90%

 

* = The “Hard Specialists” are the Diviner, Enchanter, Illusionist, Invoker, and Necromancer.

 

** = The “Easy Specialists” are the Abjurer, Summoner, and Transmuter.

 

what have we learned?

First: that knowledge of calculus does not survive fifteen years of total disuse.

Second: wow, no wonder people like 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged!  The odds of playing a 2e Paladin jump from barely one-in-a-thousand to about one-in-four.

Third: 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged works on a “generosity curve,” for lack of a better term.  Slightly less than 60% of characters using 3d6 in order qualify to play a Fighter in 1e, but using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged this basically hits 100%.  That’s a 66% improvement in the odds to qualify.  But the 2e Bard, who occurs just under 1% of the time using 3d6 straight, is about 7000% more likely using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged.  And the freakish Unearthed Arcana Paladin, who occurs in 2 out of a million characters using 3d6 straight, occurs roughly 8900 times in a million using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged–becoming 445,000% more likely.  There’s a reason for this!  But I am now too dumb about math to understand why!

Fourth: the UA Paladin is still the hardest class to qualify for in terms of straight-up stats, but the 1e Bard is only twice as likely, and requires you to earn 28,000 XP before you can even show up for Bard College.  I think that’s got to be a huge filter, easily making the class 10 to 20 times harder to qualify for than stats alone would suggest.

Fifth: in the earlier blog post, it really looked like people back in the day had to cheat like crazy to qualify for some of those hard-to-reach classes.  That’s much less likely using 4d6 Drop Lowest, Arranged.  Whether people still cheated on stat rolls or not, who can say. I sure did as a  kid, but we were using 3d6 in order.

 

22
May
13

half-life of gaming lust

After flirting with several different game systems lately, I am now conducting a scientific experiment: how long will it take for me to get sick of Vampire: the Requiem, and by implication, other games that I get momentarily infatuated with?  (The answer: I was fed up with the presentation and authorial voice instantly.  But maaaaaaybe there’s a game worth playing hidden in between the schlocky writing?)  I ask this because I was recently enamored of Star Frontiers and then Gamma World, only to have those feelings quickly dissolve within a few days.

star frontiers: what am I doing here, captain

Our group has been wrestling with science-fiction games for quite some time.  By New York State Law I am forbidden from playing Traveller, but it doesn’t quite seem to get a critical mass of interest from the other Red Boxers.  I know the Alternity system pretty well, but its spaceship combat rules are awful, character design takes forever, and I’m a perfectionist about designing a scenario in these types of system-is-everything games.  A friend wrote a beautiful hack of Starships & Spacemen that some of us used to play a joyous Star Trek rip-off, but he doesn’t want to run it any more.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I figured I’d check out Star Frontiers, given its TSR pedigree and remembering incomprehensible adds in Marvel Comics.  Frankly, I am not sure what Star Frontiers is about.  Apparently you’re like, the Away Team sent down to hex-crawl across alien worlds and zap things. Several of the modules take this approach, and the game’s tagline, “Exciting adventures on alien worlds!” seems to bear that out.

Somewhat awesomely, all of human knowledge has collapsed into thirteen fields of study, of which a full seven (54%) directly involve killing things.  (This amazes me mainly because in Alternity, the sci-fi game I’ve played most, there are like 109 skills, of which like 25 directly involve killing things.)  Also, the aliens aren’t described in much detail, but they’re fairly non-human, which is a plus in my mind.

Part of the problem with Star Frontiers, maybe, is that it is deliberately non-political science-fiction: that is, science-fiction that’s designed to be bland.  Star Trek‘s original series is infused with mid-1950’s techno-utopian thinking, Cold War tension, and late-60’s cultural concerns; the later iterations of the show tended to veer toward the police procedural genre, albeit ones where the police get trapped in caves a lot or date women who are actually disguised space-monsters.  Star Wars (the watchable movies, at least) is an admixture of Zen platitudes, anti-fascism, and perhaps a qualified rejection of the Industrial Revolution.  But those two are only the big sci-fi franchises in hindsight.  In the early 1980’s, there was also Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica and many other things besides, and it feels like Star Frontiers was just trying to fit in with the crowd rather than stake out new territory.

Certainly some people love the hell out of this game, enough to create a deluxe, high-quality remix of the rules with better art.  I do find it curious, though, that a company like TSR / Wizards has never tried to squeeze more juice out of this game.  Maybe the Williamses wanted the company to start fresh with Buck Rogers XXVc or something.

gamma world: that’ll do, pig

After quickly growing bored with Star Frontiers, I got into Gamma World very briefly after Tavis was kind enough to run me through a goofy little half-scenario in which my twice-super-intelligent pig, Boss Hogg, who I imagine is the Samuel L. Delany of post-apocalyptic Hazzard County, helped some benighted villagers understand the mystery of witch-fruit (“it’s really a tuber”), found them a robot-obstetrician to help with their appalling infant mortality rate, and fed pig-slops to a smelly toothless hobo, just like the real Samuel L. Delany would.

Gamma World 2e (which is kinda the Moldvay equivalent of the 1e rules) looks like a lot of fun, precisely because it’s what disappointed me about Star Frontiers: you’re some weird freak rollin’ around in an “alien” world.  Why this appeals to me in Gamma World but disappoints me in Star Frontiers is a mystery, and probably unfair.

I mainly fell out of love with Gamma World when I realized it seemed to be D&D with a facelift: modern-day ruins instead of medieval ones, tons more hit points, and an unchanging list of magic spells mutations.  To whatever extent D&D is a game about managing your resources wisely, this seems less true Gamma World in the main (though I guess you’d have to ration your D batteries pretty carefully).

I still wanna play that pig, though.  Boss Hogg, Edible Consultant, has a lot more adventures left in him.

i hope vampires are not too stupid

Over the weekend I got hopped up on old Tomb of Dracula comics, and took down my old unplayed copy of Vampire: the Requiem down from the shelf.  So my experiment started on Sunday night and I’m waiting to see when I get tired of this thing.  That way, whenever I fall into the grip of some new gaming passion, I will know to wait _____ days before taking it seriously.

I am not, and probably never was, part of the target audience for Vampire: the Requiem.  I don’t like horror movies, LARPing, or freeform role-play twiddle-twaddle.  I hate the book’s padding and fake-ass lingo.  I strongly doubt that whoever called it “Modern Gothic role-playing” had read The Castle of Otranto.  This book is not meant for me.

On the other hand, I really, really dig the idea of what a pain in the ass it would be to only be active at night.  I can barely get my shit done in 18 hours; now I’ve only got 12?  Man, what if I want to check out some Isaac Asimov book from the library and it closes at 5 p.m.?  Can’t see no animals at the zoo.  Can’t see no kids on the playground while strolling around.  Can’t renew my drivers license at the DMV; can’t pick up Amazon boxes at the post office.  Plus, every night you gotta drink blood instead of having a toasted cheese sandwich or whatever.  This is not enough to make me all emo and mopey, but it would be an interesting problem to have for few sessions.

Stripping down the game to the basics, it seems that what you’ve got is a game about extremely territorial cannibal-folks with magic blood-powers, who more or less hate each other but any big move would set off a gang war apocalypse.  There’s also some stuff about enslavement and addiction, and a risk of growing insanity, which has to be carefully managed to avoid being disabled for years or decades.  It looks like there’s a playable game lurking in there, if you can avoid the pretentious nonsense.

I expect my interest will fade by the end of the Memorial Day, but we’ll see.

17
May
13

Playing Domains at War and Papers & Paychecks

As a blogger and a signatory to the Joesky Accords I have a responsibility to talk about play. As a publisher I need to let you know that if you want to back the Domains at War Kickstarter but haven’t yet, you should do so soon because it closes tomorrow, May 18th at 3:32 pm.

These may boil down to the same thing. I’m helping create Domains at War because I enjoy playing it. If you’re also excited about what having a wargame integrated with a RPG system for mass combat and strategic campaigns will mean for your gaming, your Kickstarter pledge is part of that process of creation. Sharing excitement about D@W is good for Autarch as a publisher because it’s in our interests for people to get into the games we make, and it’s good for me as a gamer to learn from what other people are doing with the systems I’m interested in.

You might not share either of these interests, but as a reader of blogs I often find something of value even in reading posts about games that I feel no urge to play. In the case of posts about publishing with Kickstarter, that game is Papers and Paychecks. Here are some of the system-neutral insights it’s generated.

To be a publisher, one should first be a corporation. This is the difference between rolling up a player character to go adventuring and actually descending into a hole filled with deadly traps while wearing your own skin. One of the foundational mistakes in the Dwimmermount Kickstarter was that James didn’t incorporate Grognardia Games. Happily, the potentially dire consequences of doing business as an individual have been averted in this case. We’ve managed to warp the ship off the shoals, but even if it’s wrecked on some other obstacle having Autarch at the helm will mean that all the casualties among the crew will be purely fictional entities.

It is interesting to be running a player character in real life, although usually not in the ways you’d think. Playing a role that’s made distinct from your own by the rules of the game or the laws governing corporate entities gives you the chance to act as if it is you and is not you. I think it comes down to protection from risk. Doing business as a company means that you can always roll up a new character if the current one gets killed, which leads to the same kind of exploration-based, consequence-embracing play we celebrate in games that don’t implicitly require that your guy will survive until the final act.

Autarch is actually more like a chartered adventuring party, and I think that the robustness that comes from making this the fundamental unit of play is as useful in other games as it is in Papers & Paychecks. Original D&D is the story of the world rather than the story of the characters who explore it, but making the party the recurring lens through which this takes place focuses the cumulative actions of the players and makes it easy to bring new actors into the story.

One of the cool things about roleplaying games is that they’re not just an outlet for your DIY creativity, but a chance to participate in the creativity of folks who have talents you don’t. My Night of the Walking Wet game at this year’s Gary Con introduced me to Fred Liner, who had one of the original pieces of Jonathan Bingham’s art that the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter made possible. For Domains at War, Fred pledged for a backer reward that let him choose the subject of an illustration for the book. His description nods to the Walking Wet party in which Mark’s hobbit has a special ability that makes him always appear to be a member of a group of 14:

The foreground of the picture is a small command group with a banner the banner bearer is a dwarf, Snorri One-eye, one of his eyes is a glittering black orb in the hand not holding the banner he carries an axe, his helmet is made of lizard skin. The headpiece of the banner is similar to a roman standard with “The XIV”, the banner, if it can be made out, is a griffon on a white field. The other members of the command group are 2 mages and a cleric. One of the mages specializes in fire magic and the other is a dark, necromancer. To the left and in the background are a of couple siege engines. To the right the rest of the company is in the middle distance advancing on an earthworks. There are 8 figures in this group all soldier types with various weapons with one exception. One of figures in this group should be a scout type in leathers and a cloak that is swirling around him as the cloak transforms into smoke.

Here’s Ryan’s compositional sketches for this idea:

Here’s the final piece:

I find it fascinating to be part of this process in the same way I’m amazed by people in my gaming groups who can do more than one funny voice. Of course, Ryan has a more than professional level of talent, and some of the people I’ve gamed with actually get paid as actors. Still, the personal involvement – the fact that it’s my character’s foolhardiness they’re talking about in that funny voice – means I value it much more than any exercise of skill I would appreciate as an outsider.

The last thing to say about Papers & Paychecks and other kinds of non-real-life gaming is that they fundamentally cross over. You can play Metamorphosis Alpha and you can play AD&D, but how much cooler is it to be transported from one to the other by a wish spell and realize that your campaign encompasses both of these multitudes? Likewise you could be a publisher and not play your games, or (more happily) a gamer who doesn’t feel the urge to aspire to what Gygax perhaps self-servingly saw as the ultimate level of player achievement in Master of the Game, but the greatest enjoyment comes from combining the two.

Here’s a game I ran in which the players led armies across the original outdoor map, seeking to be the first to extract the riches of Dwimmermount:

You can read more about the session from Tenkar’s perspective here. The thing I learned from it as a gamer is that I tend to make my scenarios front-loaded with choice. As a player I love the stage where we spend a long time coming up with a plan after considering all options and making elaborate preparations, and there’s a legitimate argument for including some of this even in a one-off game. Given a finite amount of time for play, though, spending more on these choices means having less room in which they can become meaningful by creating consequences at the table.

Something I’ve been doing with the character generation templates in the ACKS Player’s Companion might suggest a workable intermediary. You roll 3d6 for starting wealth, and this gives you the package of thematically-related equipment and proficiencies that your village elders or whoever have invested in providing for you. The option I give players if they don’t love that template is to swap it for any of the lower ones on the table and pocket the difference in gp value. This is awesome not just because it creates choice but because it immediately creates a context in which it can become meaningful. Why did your forefathers want your Dwarven Fury to be a Foehammer? How did you become a Vermin Hunter instead? These are juicy questions to launch directly into from character creation.

Here’s a snapshot of the final turn in my spur-of-the-moment recreation of the Battle of Arsuf with Paul, which you can read more about here.

The thing I learned here is about limits of attention rather than time. When I ran a Domains at War battle at Gary Con, it was the switch between playing a commander of units and zooming in to focus on your leader’s actions as an individual hero that I found most exciting and immersive. At that game, we had multiple players per side so each of us could manage the decisions about when to make that switch. When Paul and I played we were each running a general and three commanders, and the tactical decisions they were making for the divisions of thousands of troops each one led occupied our complete mental bandwidth.

One mark of a good game is that it can expand or collapse to meet the circumstances around the table. For me, Domains at War does this really well. I enjoyed the ebb and flow of battle lines seen entirely from an eagle-eyed commander’s view as much as I did the more heroism-focused game at Gary Con in which characters sometimes duked it out man to man. If we didn’t have enough attention for either we could have used the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Campaigns, and the game was fun in the Dwimmermount session above even when no mass combat ensued at all!

This flexibility is one of the key features of Domains at War’s inspiration Chainmail – sometimes you use the man-to-man system, sometimes the fantasy combat table, sometimes it’s purely unit-based. In the afterschool class when we started out playing 4E, I saw the importance of collapsibility. I’ve had great times with 4E’s uber-tactical resource management, but it breaks down when you play it with a group of kids with the attention span of 8 to 12 year olds and in the confines of an 80 minute session. I’m eager to use D@W more in my life as a gamer because of the extra degrees of expansion and contraction it offers, letting the story of the world be told at a number of scales from player characters in nightmare mazes to rulers of mighty hordes.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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