Friday, September 30, 2011

What was it that Einstein said about time again?

Time.

There's just never enough of it, is there? I certainly never seem to have enough time to write, for this sake of this blog or otherwise. Life, work, and everything are always getting in the way. "Oy gevalt", I think, is the appropriate cliche for this manner of commiseration situation.

Oh, and there are also a couple of websites I can blame, like www.reddit.com and www.tvtropes.org, both being these swirling vortices into which all my free time has been periodically known to disappear.

(We won't even bring up the delightful ninth installment in the Mortal Kombat franchise. Ahem.)

Anyway... are we aware that the truly awesome and truly classic science show with Carl Sagan, Cosmos, is up on Hulu? And that a new version of the show is coming, which will involve both Seth MacFarlane and the incomparable Neil deGrasse Tyson? Good; glad we cleared that up.

And now back to your regularly scheduled... wait a minute, what the crap am I saying?

A schedule? On this intermittent and so-called "blog"? Oh, it is to laugh. *LOL*

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tachyonic Neutrinos?


Other bloggers who understand particle physics much better than me have doubtlessly already waxed eloquent about the recently leaked observation from CERN that some neutrinos may have moved faster than light. Now since all the evidence points to the fact that neutrinos have a tiny mass (without which they couldn't oscillate between the electron, muon, and tau flavors), they should move a tiny bit slower than light. Except, from what I understand, they've always been observed moving at exactly C, or just a bit faster (but heretofore always so slightly faster that it could be explained away as either an artifact of the detection equipment or a negligible quantum effect that doesn't really violate causality).

But no longer. Now the variance is too big to just write it off as a quantum phenomenon, and the data from the experiment are (apparently) too consistent to just assume equipment or human error... just yet. The jury's still out, of course, which is the great thing about science. Something this ground-breaking means that all involved want to be damned sure that the phenomenon is real, and that the experiment can be replicated. But wouldn't it be so freaking awesome if it turns out that neutrinos really are massive particles that just plain ordinarily move faster-than-light --- which would make them bona fide tachyons? (My intuition says that this isn't the case, since the faster-moving neutrinos seem to have more energy than the slower-moving neutrinos, which is just the opposite of how tachyons are supposed to work.)

Have neutrinos ever been observed moving slower than C (an impossibility for tachyons)? I don't know. But I'd love to find out. Anyway, whatever the truth turns out to be, new developments in physics are always hella exciting. Anything that might get us past the stagnation of string theory, y'know?

And now some obligatory snark:


Monday, September 19, 2011

My Go-To Game These Days

So yesterday evening, I ran another session of my current Engines & Empires game. And it was fun, as always -- we laughed, we cried, the player characters kicked butt, many jokes were cracked, the dwarf died. You know, a typical D&D session. About as good as it gets.

There's nothing at all wrong with D&D, not really. Especially when the game hits its "sweet spot" (and during this session, the party leveled up from Lv5 to Lv6). It's just that D&D is usually limited to doing certain things better than others. And the things it does really well (map-crawls, hack-and-slash games with light RP, and zero-to-hero stories with steep power curves) aren't the only things I want to do with my games.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why do I even like D&D, anyway?

Yesterday I hinted at the partial existential gaming crisis that I've been grappling with for some time now. Yes, I'm still currently running a D&D campaign, and I'll carry it on for as long as I can, but I'm not sure that I'll ever want to start up another one. I have a sneaking suspicion that there might actually be better ways to game. This, of course, begs the first question: does it really matter if I'm not playing the best possible game? Do I really need to "optimize" my leisure time?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Settling Down... and Opening Up

So it took a few months, but I finally landed a new job in my new home, which is also my old home: Omaha, Nebraska, the city where I was born. So long to Indiana, my home of twenty(!) years, for I cease this day to be a Hoosier and once more take up the mantle of Husker. (Not that you'll ever catch this dicing, DMing dork dead with a football in hand, of course.)

Hey OSR, I think I just solved your thief problem...

I don't know why nobody's thought of this, but...

For those of you out there who don't like the thief class (I'm not among you, but here you go), why not just (A) drop thief as a class and (B) give all of the thief's abilities to the fighter? In addition to the old chestnut problem (oh noes! thieves are teh weaksauce and goes against my filosofy!), it also makes some headway toward mitigating the linear warrior / quadratic spell-caster problem.

And that way, every fighter gets to be Conan, which is pretty much exactly what you diehard OSR folks want out of D&D to begin with, ain't it?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Savage Empires

At long last, I've finally gotten my hands on a copy of Savage Worlds: Explorer's Edition, which (at $10) is just about the cheapest mostly-complete RPG in a single book that one can buy. It's certainly enough of a rulebook to get a campaign off the ground, although I suspect that if I want to run something according to my preferred model of long-term epic quests, I'm eventually going to need the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion as well. But that's for later.

Despite the fact that I'm running a small mega-dungeon right now with Engines & Empires and the Rules Cylcopedia (and having a blast in so doing), I've been dying to take Savage Worlds for a spin. There are lots of things I like about it: mainly the balance of a system that lets characters advance, but doesn't suffer from the inherent problems of D&D's "chumps to gods" model. It's like playing D&D with Epic Six, but the limited power level is hard-wired into the system. (It uses a death-spiral instead of hit points, for example, and magic tends to be more limited and less world-breaking in SW.)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pax Silentiaque

Last week, I had the opportunity to run Engines & Empires for my younger brother and some of his college buddies. I whipped up a five-floor mega-dungeon will all kinds of weird wizardry and the usual magical tricks and traps. That's the best sort of mega-dungeon, of course: the kind where in any given room, the laws of physics might be temporarily suspended in comical and disturbing ways. I cribbed liberally from Castle Amber and White Plume Mountain for some of the more bizarre tricks, but plenty of the deviousness was my own and original.

I'm really just writing this post to catalog the set of house rules I used for this game. I wanted to make things light and quick, so I eased up on some of the rules complexity in a few places. I also wanted the players to jump right in with some well-defined characters, hence the addition of a few more spots on the character sheet:

Monday, May 2, 2011

And I'm Done.

I think it's time to call the game for the evening.

The A-Z challenge was fun and all, but I realized something along the way. I call this blog Ludandi Gratia--"for the sake of gaming"--and yet, I don't really have much to say on that account. Other bloggers within the Old-School Revival are far more articulate than I when it comes to proffering their game philosophies. (I admit this, even though I largely disagree with the slavish adherence to Gygaxian D&D, preferring instead the more story- and character-driven assumptions of the Zeb Cook era.)

I likewise have little interest these days in producing game material. For the last seven or eight months, I've been running a couple of wildly entertaining old-school campaigns (one using Engines & Empires, one using Retro Phaze) with a group of really great players at my FLGS. It's been a blast, a heck of a run, and it's coming to an end all too soon as I get ready to pack up and move on with life. During this time, I noticed that game materials--the modules, the prep-work, the things I want on-hand when I ref the game--are best produced in the week before the game session. They're more creative and just all-around better when they come from the DM, as close to the moment as possible. There's magic of a sort in the custom-build approach to DMing, where you create adventures and scenarios that are perfectly suited to your party but still somehow feel as if the player characters have stumbled upon them, sandbox style, entirely of their own volition. (The "pseudo-sandbox", although decried by some as just a railroad in sheep's clothing, is in my opinion the best way to run a game. It also has a poetical name: "Schroedinger's campaign setting". I like that.)

I'm starting to feel the pangs of burnout, both as a Dungeon Master and a blogger. It's high time that I took a nice, long break and stood back to get some perspective. I'll not be running any D&D for a while. I'm going to let this blog lie fallow, unless some wonderful gaming insight strikes me. But for the most part, gaming is sadly losing its charm. I'm probably going to start up another blog about the usual topics that nobody wants to hear others' opinions about: politics, religion, the vagaries of geekdom. Just to get some rants off my chest, you know? But a blog dedicated exclusively to role-playing... it's just not grabbing me right now.

As of this moment, I'm kind of an ex-OSR guy and an ex-D&D player. I know that it won't last: it's just a break. Someday soon, I'll feel the itch, get the bug-bite, need my fix. But for now, it sits somewhere between tear-jerking and cathartic to say that after this next weekend, I'll be hanging up the dice for a while.

To those who have followed this blog's short run (and I can count you on one hand): thanks for reading. See ya later.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is four Zounds!

Using anachronistic medieval terms in fantasy and other fiction has a name. It's called "gadzookery", derived from the medieval swear word "gadzooks" (meaning "God's hooks", referring to the nails from Christ's cross). In honor of the last April alphabet post, here's some more gadzookery to enjoy.

Zounds: "God's wounds", i.e. the stigmata.
Odds Bodkins: A "bodkin" is a dagger. This one means the same thing as "gadzooks".
Uds Daggers: See above.
'Sblood: "God's blood."

And then of course there are the phrases that have survived to our time, like cor blimey ("God blind me") and bloody ("by our Lady", i.e. the Virgin Mary). These two swears are quite at home in a 19th century setting, making them perfectly applicable to the gaslamp games I like to run. But, let's face it, gadzookery is fun too! Just... if you're going to use it, learn your Early Modern English pronouns and inflections, please? Here's the rules:

ye vs you -- The second person plural pronoun has three forms: ye is the subjective or nominative form (like "he", "she", "I"); your is the possessive or genitive form (like "his", "her", "my"); and you is the objective or accusative form (like "him", "her", or "me"). Use ye for the subject of the sentence or for a vocative (a direct address); use you for direct objects, indirect objects, and the objects of prepositions. Although officially a plural pronoun, "ye" is also a sign of respect used when addressing a social superior (cf. French vous, Spanish usted, German Sie).

thou, thy, thee -- This is the second person singular pronoun, though in Early Modern English it's better known for expressing familiarity or social inferiority (or for speeches directed at God, because it's more important to think of God as "singular" and not "plural" than to address Him as a social better). As with "ye", "thou" is inflected for case: thou is the subject of a sentence, thy is the possessive case, and thee is the object of a sentence. The substantive possessive thine is used in the same way as words like "mine" or "hers".

-st vs. -th vs. -s -- Verb endings inflect for person and number. The -st ending is used for verbs that follow "thou" (as in thou goest, thou knowest, thou dost, thou art or thou beest). The -th ending, meanwhile, is used following third-person pronouns (he, she, it, one), just like we use -s in Modern English (he goes, she goeth, it does, one doth). This is because the -th and -s endings are in fact the same ending. It's just that the -th ending is the original ending, and native to the Wessex and London dialects of early English; the -s ending was more common in the north of England. Somehow or another, the northern-sounding ending became dominant, probably because it sounds less like a lisp.

The point is, if you go around saying "thou doth" or "I goest", you're just doing it wrong. Learn some grammatical gadzookery!

Friday, April 29, 2011

O through Y is for Catching Up Via Speed-Blogging

It still counts if it's done before the end of April, right?

Okay, so life gets busy at the end of a semester. I'm still not done with finals. But I'm determined to get at least one more blog post up this month. So, without further ado, here are all the remaining subjects that I would have addressed, if I didn't have a life.

O - OD&D. To many, it stands for "Original D&D". For certain others, it simply means "Old D&D". In the latter context, "OD&D" is often used synonymously with "Classic D&D" and includes the Gygax/Arneson, Holmes, Moldvay/Cook, Mentzer, and Denning/Allston editions of the game (basically, the entire branch of the tree that isn't AD&D). I fall into this latter camp: I'll happily use "OD&D" or even "0e" when referring to the Basic and Expert Sets or the Rules Cyclopedia. Oh, and if you have a problem with that, screw you, you're a pedant.

P - Proton Pack. The choice tool for paranormal eliminators and investigators everywhere (but, for all its glitz and high-profile awesomeness, utterly useless without a muon trap; go figure). It's a wonder to me that D&D has never had a spell that duplicates the effects of the proton stream + ghost trap combination. Who wouldn't love to bag a wraith and save it for posterity, or trap a spectre and let it loose the next time you're slogging through the dungeon and happen to encounter gnolls? (You know... because gnolls have two hit dice, and spectres drain two energy levels per hit... heheh... jeez, I'm a nerd.)

Q - Uh, well, Q, I guess. The James Bond one, not the Star Trek one. Just to point out that yes, Virginia, there is an archetype for techies, inventors, and gadgeteers everywhere to aspire to.

R - Retro Phaze. I haven't written a post yet purely for the sake of plugging this game. I really ought to get around to that.

S - Stargate. I have to say, I really love Stargate. The movie, SG-1, Atlantis... okay, Universe wasn't much to write home about, but most of Stargate is pure win. It's weird... I came to love Stargate because of the similarity it bore to the original Battlestar Galactica. They both have that wild Chariots of the Gods?, Erich von Däniken, Ancient-Egyptians-in-SPACE!!! vibe going on. It's painfully incoherent nonsense to anyone who knows the least little bit about human prehistory -- I really can't stand the whole "Ancients guided human evolution" thing, because if it's guided, it's not evolution at all -- but it's wonderfully entertaining fantasy just the same.

T - Terminator. Another great sci-fi universe, as long as you stick with the good parts. Which means T1, T2, and the Sarah Connor Chronicles. T3 and Salvation are in fact retconned out of existence when you follow the T:SCC timeline... and it's all because Future John Connor sends the Summer Glauminator back in time to create that alternate timeline, which automatically makes it the coolest (and hottest) retcon event in the history of sci-fi. Um... have I mentioned that Summer Glau is hot?


U - Underworld. As opposed to the over-world, where the cities and the wilderness are. Underworlds are were the dungeon adventures take place. Does that mean that the underworld needs to be a mythic dimension, inherently chaotic and hostile to the PCs, possibly an active force trying to undermine their every move? I'm going to go with, "no, not necessarily." The mythic underworld dungeon is a cool concept, don't get me wrong; but there's also something to be said for Gygaxian naturalism. Sometimes a dungeon is just a hole in the ground full of monsters that want to eat you.

V - Virtue. When I'm a PC, I has it. I like to bring a little heroism to the table. I love playing paladins. Need a thief in the party? I'll be that neutral good, Robin Hood type who actually doesn't try to steal from, backstab, or generally frell over the party (weird, I know). The weird thing is, this seems to be a rare affliction among players. When I DM, I hardly ever encounter this phenomenon in others (with a few noteworthy exceptions).

W - Wormholes. Einstein-Rosen bridges. Kerr singularities. Stargates make them. So does John Crichton, on occasion. And they're always awesome. Okay, except for that one time in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Other than that, awesome.

X - The letter X. Re-purposed in the Latin alphabet to stand for the /ks/ phoneme, because the Romans initially had no need for the /kh/ of the Greek letter chi. But, you know what? I like to use this glyph as a chi for one very special purpose: game stats. The letter chi is the first in Xάρισμα (Charisma), which means that we can abbreviate the game scores with a single letter each (S/D/C/I/W/X). Consider: Strength and Wisdom are native English words; Dexterity, Constitution, and Intelligence are all borrowed from Latin; and Charisma is the sole Greek derivative.

Y - Yatta! Japanese for "I did it!" Made most famous by Chun-Li from Street Fighter (less so by Hiro Nakamura from Heroes).

Hey... I've caught up on the alphabet challenge! Yatta!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Nnnnnnggghhh!!!

...a.k.a. the the wall banger noise of pure frustration that a Dungeon Master makes through clenched teeth and pursed lips when the player characters don't bite the obvious plot hook and instead decide to go zipping off in some other random direction. And of course you can't stop them or redirect them, because then you're railroading and that's always bad. So you've either got to improvise something completely different off the cuff, or find an excuse to call the session early. (Speaking of... today's session got called about an hour early, for unrelated reasons. *whew*!) And best of all, since two of my players presently constitute about 50% of my blog readership, I can't go into anymore specifics than this without spoiling something major!

Nnnnnnggghhh!!!

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Maps

Here's something I learned very quickly during my earliest days refereeing RPGs: if there's anything that you need to run a game besides dice, it's a good map. Maps are indispensable. There is no more useful aid for the sake of structuring gameplay and keeping things running smoothly. But there are several kinds worth creating.

  • The "dungeon map". The best-known and most widely used, these are usually drawn on graph paper (.25" or .20" scale, with one square usually representing ten feet). They generally depict indoor areas of all kinds: labyrinths, caverns, buildings. Rooms and corridors are keyed to descriptive text entries, which relate the rooms' contents (especially enemies, treasures, traps, and other special features important to adventuring).
  • The "overworld map". Also considered essential to most old-school RPGs, these maps depict stretches of outdoor areas, wilderness and civilized alike. Traditionally drawn on paper with a hexagonal grid, each hexagon represents anywhere from 1 mile to 24 miles of distance. Use of this kind of map enables a "hex crawl" game, whereby wilderness travel can be structured and played out as part of the game. An overland journey becomes more than simply, "you take two weeks to get there, no random encounters". Even moreso than a dungeon map, an overworld map simply cries out for curious players to explore it: there could be literally anything hidden in a given hex!
  • The "star chart". Very similar to the fantasy overworld map, in that it's drawn on hex paper and meant for sandbox exploration. But the star chart shows the locations of different star systems, so each hex represents light-years or parsecs. Otherwise, it's basically the same idea.
  • The "plot map". Essential to running a good mystery, intrigue, or urban adventure, the plot map literally depicts plots. Similar to the idea map used for brainstorming in grade school, each key NPC (or faction) in an intrigue gets their own "box" on the map. The things they're up to and the places they frequent also get boxes, usually of different shapes. Lines between all the boxes show the relationships between each element in the plot. Movement on this kind of map isn't geographical; rather, as the player characters investigate the situation, they uncover the plot elements previously unknown to them and perhaps trigger new events.
  • The "conversation map". Like a plot map, this takes the form of a web of interconnected boxes, each devoted to its own topic. The boxes contain bits of information that a particular NPC knows (as well as things the NPC wants to know, and any misinformation the character might be trying to spread). Players navigate this kind of map by conversing with the NPC, possibly rolling skill checks as needed. This is a very specialized sort of map that only really sees use in campaigns which are heavy on intrigue or investigation. In a more traditional adventure campaign, a map like this is still useful for running a spy NPC that the player characters are almost certain to capture and interrogate (or torture... *sigh*).

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Laser Beams


At last, a decent letter for a sci-fi gaming topic. Today, kids, we're going to be talking about laser guns. Lasers are the classic raygun, a staple of pulp sci-fi and space opera. The Star Trek phaser was originally imagined as a kind of laser as well (it was supposed to stand for "photon maser", i.e. a beam of photons instead of microwaves... except, that's what a laser is already, so they had to retcon "phaser" to mean "phased particle beam"; more on that later).

Blaster weapons in Star Wars are often casually thought of as laser weapons, but of course the nerdy among us are quick to point out that you wouldn't see a coherent "blot" coming from a laser weapon, not if the energy weapon is actually firing light, which moves much too fast to see. Maybe you could see a sustained laser beam, under the right conditions, but never a bolt (or a blade, for that matter). This means that blaster bolts and lightsaber blades have to be plasma, not laser-light. The same is doubtlessly true of most other flashy energy weapons that fire a bolt (like the Goa'uld staff weapon or the Peacekeeper pulse pistol). Energy weapons in the Terminator universe are explicitly known as plasma rifles. On the other hand, in classic Battlestar Galactica, energy weapons were consistently called "lasers", and you couldn't see a beam coming out of the weapon half the time (but that just might've been the cheap special effects). Plasma blasts just seem to be much more scientifically plausible than laser beams, for all kinds of reasons (a real laser has to be focused on its target for quite a while before it will burn through anything; a high-energy plasma, meanwhile, can actually be "shaped" by a magnetic field).

In the space opera campaign I'm running now, normal firearms (i.e. bullets and gunpowder) are the commonest weapons. In sci-fi, these kinds of weapons are usually called "slug-throwers" to distinguish them from energy weapons. The fact that only "slug-throwers" are normally available on the Borderlands worlds should hopefully reinforce the "space western" feeling of the early part of the game. But as the characters move to other areas, whether back into Known Space our out into the Unexplored Reaches, they'll have the chance to acquire more powerful weapons: plasma, phased particle, and molecular disruptor weapons.

A "plasma gun" is your basic Star Wars blaster. It fires a bolt of highly ionized gas, hot enough to burn a hole in someone who gets shot with it. A "phased particle gun" is based on the Star Trek phaser (and the Asgard PPC weapon from Stargate). The principle behind it is treknobabble at its best: imagine a beam of plasma, but somehow shifted slightly "out of quantum phase", so that the ions in the beam don't just strike the first atoms they encounter. Instead, some of the particles actually pass through solid matter, while some do impact. The result is a beam with some really impressive penetrating power, nasty enough to punch a hole right through just about anything (like, say, the hull of a starship). Finally we have the disruptor gun, another staple of sci-fi (including Star Trek; another inspiration would be the gluon gun from Half-Life). This is the sort of weapon that actually disrupts the "strong nuclear force" (carried by gluon particles) that holds together atomic nuclei. Matter so affected is more than just vaporized; it's reduced to sub-atomic particles. Disintegrated. (And not the in sense of Duck Dodgers' disintegrating pistol!)

In game-mechanical terms, these three categories of weapons are simply expressed as +1, +2, and +3 weapons (the last category being the highest possible bonus for an item in the Retro Phaze RPG). In other words, a plasma pistol is about as rare in the Primus Galaxy setting as a mythrill weapon in a fantasy world. A phaser is about as rare as any magical sword with a name and a special purpose. And a disruptor is a one-of-a-kind item, a legendary and unique object (like Excalibur).

"Winona has been very reliable. It's not her fault she jammed."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Killing

Here's one that baffles me: why do D&D players, even those running Lawful Good characters, never bat an eye at killing? Is it a genre convention? Influence from video games? Last I checked, "not killing, even your enemies" was the mark of a truly Good hero. Superman, Kevin Sorbo's Hercules, even freaking Batman... they don't kill their enemies, ever (obviously unintelligent monsters excluded).

Maybe it's because D&D blurs the line between "human enemy" and "monster enemy". Orcs, ogres, gnolls, and other humanoids... people or monsters? It's a slippery slope from there. But once you've decided that "always Chaotic Evil humanoids" can be slain without mercy, why should that give the heroes license to do the same thing to human bandits?

Well, it shouldn't. Player characters who go around wantonly and injudiciously killing people, even criminal people, are Neutrally aligned at best. In D&D, that means paying attention to the alignment a player has chosen vs. the alignment the player is actually playing, and reacting accordingly. In a Star Wars, LotR, or similar sort of campaign setting with strict and universal morality, characters still playing in "D&D mode" (i.e. kill 'em all, take their stuff, and let the gods sort 'em to the right Outer Planes) are just plain doing it wrong.

*sigh* Now I'm bummed out. Where are all the heroes in RPGs, anyway?

***

On a lighter note, I just found out yesterday that www.garfield.com has the old U.S. Acres comic strip up as a webcomic! How cool is that? Orson, Roy, Wade, Booker & Sheldon, Bo & Lanolin... *sigh again* Happy memories!


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

J is for the Journey

Okay, pressed for time today, let's make this post short.

Just about every good fantasy story involves some sort of literal, physical journey. I'm not talking about the metaphorical hero's journey: I mean going from point A to point B to point C. Globe-trotting. Going places and seeing fantastical things. There's even a name for this genre convention: travelogue. Perhaps I think that this is important to fantasy because I was raised on the Oz series, and most of those stories are basically a trip out to one remote corner of Oz or another (or, sometimes, to another fairyland just outside of Oz). But then, the best fantasies (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and just about any space opera) also involve traveling from one fantastic location to the next.

In RPGs, the journey itself is all too often glossed over, except for the obligatory one random encounter. The general exception to this the so-called "hex crawl", in which the overworld map itself is divided into hexagons, facilitating something roughly analogous to a dungeon-crawl. This, at least, makes a journey feel like an adventure and not a footnote. And it can be an important component of a good RPG campaign, right up until the party acquires an airship or a reliable means of teleportation.

This assumes, of course, that the campaign is one where the players will be expected to travel far and wide and have adventures in exotic locales. Whether open-ended sandbox or more linear travelogue, in some genres the journey is the adventure. But the opposite of this kind of campaign is also the prototypical and aboriginal sort of D&D campaign: the single-site campaign, also called the "mega-dungeon" campaign. Best exemplified in most gamers' minds by the computer game Diablo, the mega-dungeon is an entire campaign that revolves around one town and one dungeon.

I've only ever run one mega-dungeon campaign, and it never properly concluded. It petered out with the player characters reaching perhaps the 8th experience level, and the dungeon only explored down to the 5th level or so. One thing that I noticed about the mega-dungeon: it's far easier to referee this sort of campaign than either a sandbox or a linear travelogue. Everything is inscribed in neat little boxes---rooms and corridors, caves and tunnels. The flowchart model.

A campaign full of journeys takes a lot of work. A site-based adventure, somewhat less so. Both are fun, but in different ways. To be sure, I hope someday to revisit the mega-dungeon model (and when I do, I'll probably try to run it with 1st edition AD&D, just for kicks). But for now, I've got a sci-fi game to run, full of plots and villains and drama that the players haven't quite stumbled across yet.

They've got light-years of space to journey across before they'll get there.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for Illusionists & Invokers

One of the reasons that I play Classic D&D rather than Advanced D&D: I've come to dislike sub-classes. They're unnecessary. What's a ranger, but a fighter who can sneak and track? What's a paladin, but a Lawful fighter who defends the Faith? A bard is merely a thief a with a scholarly and musical streak, to the same degree that an assassin is a Chaotic thief who hires himself out to poison and stab people. Barbarian, cavalier, swashbuckler, samurai? Fighter, fighter, fighter, fighter. Druid, shaman, ardent, favored soul? A cleric by any other name would cure as many light wounds.

And then we get to the mage. D&D has always had trouble coming up with mage sub-classes that strike enough of a chord to stick around in the collective gamer imagination. The obvious reason: arcane magic-users in D&D can already do just about everything. The notion of an illusionist, a sorcerer, a witch, or a warlock always seems kind of silly in the face of the standard wizard archetype. The psionicist makes an interesting variant; but then again, I've generally preferred to leave "psionics" out of my games altogether and actually describe D&D magic itself as sitting somewhere at the crossroads between psychic power and spiritualism. So for my campaigns, that even makes the psionicist redundant.

What archetypes are necessary? Well, you've got to have a fighter, a thief, a healer, and a mage. And I like to include monks, because kung-fu is cool, but fighting unarmed in D&D (and not sucking at it) really demands a special class devoted to the concept. And maybe a sixth class to round things out (six ability scores, six classes), like the tech in my Engines & Empires setting; or, in a more medieval game, a bard of the jack-of-all-trades variety (rather than merely the "magical thief" or "druidical fighter" varieties) would serve just as well. The point is to make all of the classes distinct, and not to have subtle variations that could easily be subsumed into another class. Otherwise, where does it end? The next thing you know, you're cracking open your Player's Handbook VII and trying to decide whether you want your next character to belong to the juggler, jester, or acrobat class.

(On the other hand, I do quite like using demi-human "racial classes" instead of sub-classes as a way to add variety to the game. Here, at least, players have the chance to do something different, but they also have a reason to come up with an interesting hook. Playing a "dwarf" in Classic D&D demands that the player invent some way to make his dwarf unique, to differentiate that dwarf from all other dwarves. You can't bank on the game rules to be a special snowflake, i.e. "my dwarf wizard is special; he's a dwarf... and he's a wizard!")

***

Two days ago, I started my space opera campaign using the Retro Phaze rules. Six players sat down at the table, so they easily managed to cover all of the classes in the game. (Retro Phaze describes five character classes for fantasy campaigns: Fighters, Rogues, Wizards, Monks, and Bards. For the sci-fi setting, these classes have been dubbed Fighters, Rogues, Psions, Mystic Monks, and Mystic Knights.) Thus did we wind up with the following cast of characters:
  1. Joseph Callahan, Fighter. A Federation Space Corps Crewman, he acts like a stuffy idiot (but really isn't) to cover up his minor smuggling operation. Given the way that he likes to stand on military ceremony, he's something of a cross between Arnold Rimmer and Sgt. Bilko.
  2. Mike Anderson, Rogue. An orphaned drifter raised on the streets of an urban planet, he's got a chip on his shoulder that makes him resent anybody well-off or rich, but he'll readily respect and befriend anyone who's had a rough time surviving.
  3. Rollo "Weasel" Jones, Rogue. A nervous, weaselly little engineer, he makes his way in the galaxy by keeping trader ships' engines in good repair and by looking out for his own hide with technical savvy and an overdeveloped sense of self-preservation.
  4. Kurtz Monroe, Psion. A computer hacker by trade, he was hired to steal a file but not look at it. He looked anyway, and the experience knocked him on his arse and fritzed with his memory. When he woke up, he was suddenly psionic, and now he has unhappy corporate stooges gunning for him.
  5. Lorenzo von Matterhorn, Mystic Monk. Raised in the Borderlands systems on the edge of the Federation, his "family" was actually a syndicate of slave-traders. He couldn't bring himself to stay in the family business, so he ran; but for a Mystic, he still seems to have an evil streak a mile wide, so who knows how long he'll last before turning to the Dark Side?
  6. Valraine Mythrari, Mystic Knight. She was the top bodyguard for a young nobleman who ruled a small princedom within the Federation. When the noble (for whom her esteem was more than professional) was deposed and presumably killed, she had to flee for her life. She's your classic "proud, brave warrior" personality.
I've run two campaigns with these rules previously, both of them fantasy, and both when the rulebook was named Elegia. These two campaigns were excellent playtesting experiences, veritable gold mines of data. So when I finally decided to revise this book, to add some artwork and clean up the rules (which mostly involved smoothing over some inconsistencies and nerfing magic and missile-fire), a new title seemed to be in order---something that spoke to the idea of "Eight-Bit Fantasy Role-Playing".

Even after one session (and only a few short battles to put the revised rules through their paces), I can already tell that things are much improved. I'll go into more detail about the first game session tomorrow, since this post is already running long, but for now I just want to comment on the fact that practically all of the magic in Retro Phaze is of the combat-useful variety, flashy invocations on the arcane side and standard heals and buffs on the divine side. Why is this factoid worth mentioning? Well, it gets to the heart of a bias that exists out in the D&D-playing community, not just the OSR.

4th edition AD&D, and 3rd edition to a somewhat lesser extent, are decried as being "too board-gamey", on the one hand because they use minis and grids, and on the other because of "gamist" or "dissociated" mechanics that mean something to the players of the game but not to the characters. Both of these charges are silly, of course, because earlier editions of D&D are chock full of dissociated mechanics (character levels, hit points, and cure spells, anyone?) and more than amenable to tactical combats. I have my problems with 4th edition (the mass slaughter of sacred cows; the woo-factor that says "our fantasy is edgy and 733t!"), as well as with 3rd edition and the d20 system in general (could there possibly be more rules and bonuses to keep track of?); but "too much like a board-game" isn't one of those problems.

The fact is, I wrote Retro Phaze not just to mimic the feel of 8-bit and 16-bit console games: I also wanted a board-gamey RPG that allowed for Shining Force and Fire Emblem style battles, without all of the silly complexity of 3e's "rule for everything" approach or 4e's "deck of powers" method. Simple, traditional, and board-gamey is actually a very good thing (not to mention fun as hell)!

Friday, April 8, 2011

H is for Hyperspace

I'm tossing this post up a bit early, since I'll be DMing tomorrow and likely won't have time.

A good space opera setting needs starships, and starships need some means of getting around---an FTL drive. Unfortunately for would-be interstellar travelers, the laws of physics have this annoying speed limit in C, the speed of light, unattainable by any object or particle with any mass at all. Thanks to relativity, as an object with mass approaches the speed of light, its overall mass-energy approaches infinity, requiring ever more energy to continue accelerating. And this doesn't even get into the other funky relativistic effects, like the time dilation and spatial distortion perceived from different reference frames. A proper FTL drive needs some way to circumvent the light barrier---a loophole in the laws of physics.

The traditional FTL drive is the "warp drive" (named as such in Star Trek; the "hetch drive" from Farscape probably operates on similar principles, to say nothing of the unmentioned FTL technology used in the classic Battlestar Galactica series). The idea behind the warp drive is actually pretty simple: if you can move space and time around the ship, rather than moving the ship itself, relativity and the light barrier ought not to apply. So you create a field of curved space-time (and nothing curves space-time quite like gravity, so the field is just an artificial gravity field) in the shape of a "bubble" around the ship, and then you tweak the shape of the bubble so that you're putting less space-time in front of the ship and more behind it. Voilà, FTL travel. (Major conceptual problem: in real life, it's not likely that a graviton could propagate through space any faster than a photon, so how is the warp bubble as a whole moving faster than light? Who knows? Who cares? It's science fiction.) Generally speaking, warp drive is slow for an FTL method: cruising speed is usually a few hundred times the speed of light, maybe a thousand times lightspeed at the outside. (For example: it would take the U.S.S. Voyager seventy years to get from the Delta Quadrant back to Earth using conventional warp drive; a Peacekeeper Command Carrier leaving the Uncharted Territories at maximum hetch-speed could reach Earth in sixty years.)

If the sci-fi setting needs a more unified galaxy where speedier travel is possible, the go-to technology is hyperspace. Star Wars and Stargate use hyperspace travel (as do Leviathan starships in Farscape, although they call it "Starburst".) Star Trek calls it "transwarp" or "quantum slipdrive" ("slipstream" seems to be a common alternative name for a hyperspace jump). The "jump drives" from newer Battlestar Galactica would also seem to operate on this principle, but in a more limited fashion. The upshot: a hyperdrive doesn't so much generate a field as a portal (Stargate explicitly refers to a "hyperspace window") through which the ship transitions ("jumps") into a higher dimension (hyperspace), travels at hugely FTL speeds, and then transitions back into "realspace" at the end of the jump. Hyperspace is really fast. In Star Wars, ships can cross the galaxy in a couple of days. In Stargate, there are lots of different hyperdrive engines, depending on the technology and the power source: Goa'uld hyperdrives seem to be about as fast as Star Wars hyperdrives, while Asgard and Ancient hyperdrive engines are capable of traveling between galaxies in a matter of weeks or days (depending on whether the ship is drawing power from a naquadah reactor or a zero-point energy module).

Last but not least, there are wormholes (or "Einstein-Rosen bridges"), shortcuts in space-time which (if traversable) would allow a ship to go anywhere in the universe, at any point in time, instantaneously. So unless you want the game to be all about time-travel and how the player characters can screw up causality or mess with the butterfly effect, it's probably not a good idea to put this technology into the players' hands. It would cause problems faster than you can say "grandfather paradox". No TARDIS for the party.

In the Primus Galaxy setting, FTL travel speeds are more like Star Trek: the FTL technology is basically a warp drive, although the in-universe name for it is "subspatial induction drive", often called a "subdrive" for short. Technobabble aside, a typical starship with engines in good repair, moving at cruising speed, can cover about three light-years per four days. Ships with military-grade engines are quite a bit faster, able to cruise along at two light-years per day. This is the foundation for all interstellar travel in the campaign world.

That said, this setting has three major competing civilizations, all of them looking for the next big military edge---so you just know that a hyperdrive engine would be the holy grail for whoever manages to invent one. It would make the farthest corners of the Primus Galaxy instantly accessible to who whoever controlled the technology, and it might even open up the potential for intergalactic exploration. (To a science fiction game, this would be functionally equivalent to a party of adventurers in a fantasy game acquiring their first airship. Naturally, it has to happen at some point down the road.)

G is for Galaxy

When putting together a science fiction setting, one has to ask a number of questions that just happen to be particularly germane to RPGs. For example, is the setting going to be one where Earth exists (Star Trek) or not (Star Wars)? If so, will it take place in the far future (Star Trek; Firefly), the near future (Earth-2; Space: Above and Beyond), or the present (Farscape; Stargate)? Or might this question be irrelevant, due to time-travel (Doctor Who) or dimension-hopping (Sliders)? If the setting has aliens, will they be human aliens (Stargate), rubber-forehead aliens (Star Trek), or far-out starfish aliens (Farscape; Star Wars)?

For my upcoming space opera campaign (which starts tomorrow!), I've decided to hew pretty close to Star Warswhich is, after all, the defining modern example of the genre. So, the game will be set in a galaxy with no mention of Earth at all, and the aliens will generally be more "alien" than your humans-with-bumpy-foreheads variety.

I've named this setting the "Primus Galaxy", so-called because it's the only known inhabited one—other galaxies have been observed by astronomers from Primus, but they're not reachable with current FTL technology (which I'll get into with my next post). Unlike the Star Wars galaxy, Primus is by no means well-explored. Instead, "Known Space" consists of a relatively modest stretch of territory in one of the middle spiral arms, maybe 10,000 light-years across. Within Known Space, there are three major political entities, "great powers" jockeying for supremacy. Everything beyond it is "the Unknown Reaches", with a narrow band of Borderlands in between.

The three Great Powers are the Federation of Man; the Fleen Consortium; and the Vulgh Empire. They're all, to a certain extent, "evil empires" in the space operatic sense: oppressive, dictatorial, and not apt to be friendly toward a band of adventuring rogues.

(1) The Federation of Man is the center of the campaign, a kind of feudal state where regions of many star systems are ruled by counts and princes, all beholden to a single High King. The High King, meanwhile, keeps his vassals in line with secret police, spy networks, etc. The humans have slowly expanded their territory out from the core worlds, absorbing alien cultures into the Federation where they encounter them, generally under the pretense of alliance rather than conquest.

(2) The Fleen Consortium is ruled by a race of "Roswell Gray" type aliens, who also happen to be chiefly concerned with trade, finance, and profit. Think Ferengis, but without the comic relief or the anvilicious aesop. Their society is an Orwellian corporate dystopia, with mega-corporations (rather than a government) openly running things in the name of self-interest. One of the major sources of profit for the Fleen: as an ancient, scientifically advanced, and naturally psionic species, they hold the monopoly on "psychic surgery", the only means by which a non-psionic individual can become psionic.

(3) The Vulgh Empire is the most overtly violent and antagonistic of the lot. The Vulgh are over-sized reptiles with a warrior culture, an unquenchable blood-lust, and a mysteriously occult religion that seems to drive their conquests and expansions. The Vulgh Empire sits between the core of the galaxy and the adjacent territories of the Humans and the Fleen (who have become grudging allies in the face of the Vulgh threat). Otherwise, very little is known about the Vulgh, except that they're as likely to obliterate a planet as enslave it.

(4) Rumors also persist, especially in the Federation, of a "fourth power", a distant lost civilization which has eluded the grasp of tyranny and remained a free nation among far-off stars. Most likely, though, these are just stories invented by various rebel groups and isolated resistance movements, circulated to keep up morale in the face of overwhelming odds.

This is the environment in which my players' characters are about to find themselves tomorrow. And while there are a number of dangling plot threads just waiting to be snatched up, they all lead in quite different directions: a galaxy is the best sandbox setting one could hope for. At this point, I honestly have no idea what the PCs will decide to do, once the action kicks off and throws the party together. But there will indeed be a "crisis moment" at the beginning of the campaign, a situation that forces the players to work together to come out of it alive. Is that artificial? Less so, I believe, than "you all meet in a bar, spend the afternoon drinking together, and decide to risk your lives for each other."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

F is for Farscape

"Well, it's a Jerry Springer sort of family. But for what it's worth, Zhaan, you are family."
John Crichton

Of all the sci-fi series that start with "F", Farscape is superior by light-years. Okay, okay, I'm just saying that to piss off the Browncoats. Actually, Farscape is superior by light-years to all sci-fi series, not just Firefly and Fringe and... uh... Futurama, I guess. All of 'em.

The reasons could fill an entire blog, not just one post, so I'll be brief here. This was a series with brilliant writing, brilliant acting, and all-around stunning visuals. There was drama, romance, action, and plenty of humor (ranging from dark gallows-humor to outright screwball insanity). It was a show with strong continuity: everything had consequences, plans didn't always work out, and things didn't just go back to the status quo at the end of every episode. Farscape took pride in using tired sci-fi clichés, but always putting creative (or downright sick) twists on them.

The show was also pretty visceral. Lots of vomit and other bodily fluids, usually played for laughs. Enough alien swear-words and insults in every episode to make a Viper pilot blush. (Just off the top of my head: frell, dren, yotz, hezmana, tralk, eema, loomas, mivonks, fharbot, fekkik, frellnik, pewnkah, fapootah, probakto, thoddo, greebol, yobbo, welnitz, kreetata... I'm sorry, but your frak, felgercarb, and smeg just don't have anything on Farscape.) But it was all done so straight-faced that the end result never came off as immature. Quite the opposite, in fact.

But the characters... the characters were what really made this show great. And for some reason, the cast of this show looked very much like a party of adventurers in an RPG. Truthfully, your average gamer could learn much about how to create and develop a character by watching this show. It certainly wouldn't hurt any.

Let's break it down:

You've got the hero, John Crichton, the lost astronaut from Earth who just wants to get home. At the start of the show he's barely competent (compared to the aliens), relatively innocent, and full of hope and wonder. As the show progresses, he gets tougher and more jaded but never really loses who he is. The best part: Crichton is thoroughly genre-savvy. Having been raised on a steady diet of 20th century Earth pop culture, he's always got a quip, joke, or sci-fi reference on his lips, and he utters these idioms ("Crichtonisms") frequently, much to the bafflement of his alien comrades. Though a scientist and pilot by profession, in RPG terms he'd just be the "Frodo": the ordinary everyman without a class, who becomes something of a fighter as the story progresses, thanks to necessity and circumstances.

Then you've got Aeryn Sun, the sebacean solider who gets exiled from the Peacekeepers (the space-Nazi rent-a-cops who like to bully and dominate all the "lesser races" in the galaxy, and who bottle up their emotions and don't form personal ties beyond the battle-unit). So of course Aeryn and Crichton are going to fall in love: in fact, that romance is the core of the whole show. For Aeryn's part, she has to deal with the fact that she was exiled from the Peacekeeper Corps for doing what she thought was right; that her own people are the ones hunting her and her friends aboard Moya; and all the while, she has to come to grips with her emotions and learn what it is to be "human" (even though she's sebacean). At the start of the show, she can say things like "Compassion? I know this feeling. I hate it," without irony. By the end, she's probably one of the most compassionate characters in the cast.

Ka D'Argo is a case-study in character design. As an RPG character, he'd be a DM's dream. Why? Well, he's got personality, backstory, ambitious subplots, and a great character arc. D'Argo is a luxan warrior who married a sebacean woman, Lo'laan (the Peacekeepers hate aliens, remember, so you know this can't have ended well), and they had a half-sebacean/half-luxan son, Jothee. But Lo'laan's own brother, Macton Tal, a Peacekeeper officer, murdered her and framed D'Argo for the crime. At the start of the show, D'Argo has finally escaped from Peacekeeper custody with the other fugitives, and he wants two things: to find his son and take revenge on Macton. He's so full of rage and suspicion, though, that he can barely get along with his own allies. Over the course of the series, so much happens to D'Argo. He finds his son, he finds his enemy, he finds new love, and yet it never works out quite like he hopes. Through it all, he becomes steadily more trusting and likable, and he even learns to conquer his rage. If only more role-players watched Farscape, they could take their best example from D'Argo.

Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan ("Pa'u" is a clerical title) is a delvian priestess. Zhaan is another character with a great back-story and character arc. (As a priest, she even fits the mold of an RPG cleric to a tee: she has a variety of mystical powers; she doesn't usually carry a weapon, but often fights unarmed with a style that reminds one of Taiji; and best of all, her priesthood has levels: she'll refer to herself as a "tenth-level Pa'u!") It seems that delvians, who have a lot of physiological oddities (not the least of which: they're humanoid flora), also have some strong mystical or psychic abilities. But if they explore these talents too quickly, they go insane. Zhaan, meanwhile, was a rebel trying to free Delvia from Peacekeeper control, and in her quest for power she drove herself to the brink of raging psychopathy. She spent years in PK custody, meditating and "finding religion" and finally bringing herself back to sanity. When the show starts, she's the kindest and gentlest and most level-headed of the cast... but events have a way of making her control fray at the edges. The truly disturbing thing about Zhaan: on the outside, she's all goodness, and she's always striving to do right; but just beneath the surface is a seething ocean of evil that she keeps in check through sheer force of will. Her character arc is the story of how the good finally triumphs in spite of the evil.

Rygel XVI, Dominar of the Hynerian Empire. He was deposed from his throne by his own cousin, and sent into PK custody as a political prisoner. He spent 130 years trying to escape before finally engineering the prison-break that kicks off the show. As a character, Rygel is the consummate rogue: sneaky, slippery, stealthy, cunning, greedy, and utterly selfish. At the slightest indication that he might gain some advantage, some profit, or simple survival in exchange for abandoning or betraying his crewmates, he'll do it without qualm or regret. Even as his character develops and he actually starts to demonstrate that he has a heart and kind of likes his friends, escaping with his own life (and all the wealth and food he can carry) seems to be his instinctive response to danger. As the show goes on, of course, Rygel does eventually acquire some bravery and some loyalty, and this allows his best qualities (charisma, strategic cunning, and political savvy) to actually benefit his allies. In an RPG, Rygel would be that character who everybody hates, the self-serving thief who steals from the rest of the party and even tries to backstab them on occasion---but since these schemes never really work out (sometimes foiled immediately, sometimes played for laughs, and once in a while they just plain backfire), a roguish character like this could be fun to have around in a game with mature role-players and a firm-handed DM.

And that's just the main, starting cast. I could go on and on about Pilot and Crais, Chiana and Jool, Scorpius and Braca, Stark and Grayza, Noranti and Sikozu. Hell, even the minor one-off characters were more often memorable than not (here's looking at you guys, Furlow and Grunchlk and Raxil). The characters made this show brilliant. It would be a real coup to get an RPG campaign to come close.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

E is for Evolution

...or Experience Points. I couldn't decide. But since this is a gaming blog, let's get the obvious one out of the way first.

***

D&D uses Experience Points to track character advancement. Different editions do this in different ways:
- 0e and 1e award XP for GP, on a 1-for-1 basis, so characters' earned experience is a direct function of their success as treasure hunters. This incentivizes "recovery of gold, by any means" as the key rewarded behavior. Great for swords & sorcery; not so great for high fantasy, where greed is a vice and never a virtue.
- 2e awards XP for completing quests and good role-playing. It directly incentivizes the things that we usually want out of an RPG, but also renders the system highly subjective and puts all of the players at the mercy of the DM's definition of "good role-playing".
- 3e and 4e award XP for overcoming challenges and killing monsters. It incentivizes facing danger like a hero, but also picking and winning fights (which in turn makes it a good idea to build combat-optimized characters). Obviously, if you don't want your game to be all about dungeons and battles, this is just a bad idea.
- Then again, some DMs just dispense with XP altogether and let all the players "level up" when it feels right. I've never liked this: it's entirely too subjective a method for handling such an important game mechanic as character advancement. And it doesn't reward anything in particular beyond "showing up to play".

The key to picking the right XP mechanic is in (1) deciding what behaviors you want to emphasize as important to your campaign, and (2) coming up with a game rule that incentivizes and codifies those behaviors. For my part, I've tended to avoid using traditional XPs because I don't like the chore of tallying up such large numbers (and I don't usually bring a calculator to my games); but neither will I countenance the "everyone levels when I say so" method. I want to use numbers... but they've got to be very small numbers. Small numbers are easy to deal with and intuitive for everyone.

Engines & Empires is a case in point. One of the more dramatic departures I took from the classic rules with this setting was to drop Experience Points in favor of something called "Achievement Points". AP advancement is fixed: everyone gains a new level at every eight to ten APs. Given that a "level up" is supposed to happen every four to five game sessions, this supposes that on average, each character will earn 2 AP a session, with some wiggle-room for the referee to award 1 AP when the players perform poorly and 3 AP when they perform admirably. The system works well; it's just a matter of the referee deciding what to award AP for. In a campaign driven by role-playing, APs can be awarded for "staying in character" and "not metagaming". In a campaign driven by quests or by treasure, they can be awarded for "completing the adventure" or "finding the big score". It's flexible and dirt-simple. (And, as I found out two weeks ago after reading Savage Worlds for the first time, it's almost identical to the system used in that game! Great minds, eh?)

But I noticed a problem that developed during my last Engines & Empires campaign. This problem was rooted in the fact of an open table with a large number of players coming and going from session to session. In order to keep everybody on an even footing, I decided that all of the characters in the party would have the same AP total: APs were earned by the party as a whole, not by individual characters, so as not to penalize players who had to miss a session. Hopefully, I thought, this would also encourage cooperation: if everybody was assured of the same award at the end of a session, wouldn't everybody work together to make sure that it was the highest possible award?

Instead, I think it just encouraged laziness. Players who missed a session missed out on treasure for that game, but they still got their level-ups, and that was what really seemed to matter. Meanwhile, the shy players continued their wall-flowering, riding the coattails of the more enthusiastic or theatrical players who were actually pulling their weight. So, lesson learned: never again. The next time I run Engines & Empires, I'll still use AP (because it's always worked exceedingly well with my typical cohort of two to three players), but I'll make damned sure that APs are awarded on an individual player basis. It's the only way to encourage players to play one way or another, according to the campaign I want to run.

***

Regarding my upcoming Retro Phaze campaign, let's take a look at how this game handles character advancement. It does use proper Experience Points, but the table involved is an arithmetic (rather than an exponential) progression, much like 3rd edition AD&D. In Retro Phaze, characters gain a level whenever they earn XP equal to (current level × 20). Meanwhile, because RP is a game designed to mimic the feel of old video games, it really is a game about winning battles, so points are earned in the first place by defeating monsters and other enemies. (Since character creation is a simple matter of determining ability scores and choosing a class, we hardly have to worry about players falling into the "character optimization" trap.)

Now, while I do trust the players in this game to role-play their characters, I'm going to append a little house rule onto this campaign to further encourage it. At the end of each session, I'm going to ask each player to cast a vote: "Who, apart from yourself, do you think was the best role-player this session? Use your best judgement, but remember that 'role-playing' is not just theatricality; it's staying true to the character's background and personality; and above all, it's a diligent avoidance of meta-gaming." Then, the top two players who win this vote will receive a little bonus XP at the end of the session. With the referee abstaining from the vote, I think this will be a far less subjective means of encouraging good role-playing than simply assigning bonus XPs myself, according to my own biases. Besides, I'll have enough going on just running the game to also have to pay attention to who was role-playing the best. It's an experiment, but I hope that it'll work.

***

Now, back to the actual topic of this post. Evolution. As in: the theory of, by natural selection. For some reason, this all-important fact -- an inescapable truth of the world we know -- gets very little play in most fantasy settings. Perhaps it's because most fantasy settings are created by fantasy deities (see my previous post), and a created world is utterly incompatible with an evolved world. Still, there's enough fuzzy, liberal theology out there that it wouldn't be much of a challenge to imagine a fantasy world with distant, deistic gods who started the universe like a wind-up toy and then let it unfold according to the laws of nature as we ordinarily understand them.

What I do find challenging is imagining a fantasy world that doesn't run according to most of the laws of nature as we know them. Fantasy worlds with flat earths and domed skies and Ptolemaic cosmology just don't do it for me. I want my planets orbiting their suns, thank you very much. As for the laws of physics and chemistry, why change them for a fantasy world? To keep the player characters from inventing gunpowder and internal combustion engines? If there's no modern technology in the setting, the DM just has to say so and be firm about it.

Which brings us to biology: another aspect of nature which indeed operates according to laws, chief among them being genetic inheritance and evolution by natural selection. Evolution is the inevitable, logical outcome of a few simple conditions which have long been known to occur in the natural world: (1) competition among living things for limited resources; (2) differential success at reproduction; (3) variation within species; and (4) introduction of new variations, i.e. mutations. Points #1 and #2 were observed by Malthus, and points #3 and #4 have been known to animal and plant breeders since ancient times. Charles Darwin's genius was in synthesizing these four observations and following the syllogism to its only logical outcome: evolution by natural selection must occur (and will produce new species, given sufficient time). Toss Mendel into the mixer, season lightly with Watson, Crick, and Franklin, and you've got modern biology in a nutshell. Evolution is a fact, as inescapable as the atom or gravity or relativity.

So, what are the characteristics of a world where evolution does not occur? Well, such a fantasy realm would have to be missing one of the main features outlined above. It could, perhaps, be a very young world, one with no prehistory or geological time. It could be an Edenic universe of unlimited resources and no competition or predation; or a static world of Platonic perfection, where nothing changes and DNA doesn't mutate; or else it could be a world without any DNA at all, which means no biochemistry, which in turn implies a world where chemistry and physics don't work as we know them -- and at that point, you're back to silly, fantastical cosmologies of the sort that just tick me off whenever I encounter them in fantasy novels or games.

I guess what I'm getting at is this: if you've never bothered to wonder how your particular fantasy setting came into being or reached its present state, go ahead and ask yourself a few questions. (1) Does it follow all the ordinary laws of physics: gravity, inertia, magnetism, etc.? (2) Does it follow all the ordinary laws of chemistry: combustion, oxidation, chemical elements and compounds usually occurring in the same forms we find in the real world? (3) Does it follow all of the really obvious laws of biology and biochemistry, like people needing to eat and drink and breathe, and all that good stuff? Well, if that's the case, then there's also probably a very good chance that your fantasy world is... well, let's just quote the man himself:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
--Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

D is for Deities

(It's against his programming to impersonate one.)

Here's one aspect of D&D that I've never had much occasion to bother with. Since most of the campaigns I've ever run have been set in a pseudo-European Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, or Industrial Revolution, the settings themselves have also tended towards pseudo-European religion. It's usually a vague sort of monotheism without any reference to theological particulars. This suits me just fine, as an imitator of JRPGs (which are also sometimes prone to doing this, or even never mentioning God at all but going on and on about the monolithic Church). It also meshes really well with the very simple treatment of religion in Classic D&D: there's Law for good guys and Chaos for bad guys, and that's it. Deities, demigods, and immortals optional.

I suppose it has to do with the rather unusual assumption of ancient polytheism in a setting that otherwise always looks like Medieval or Early Modern Europe. It just doesn't jive, does it? If I were ever to set a game in Ancient times, something more like mythical Greece or Rome or Persia or Egypt, or going further back, the Hyborian Age or Atlantis, well, okay then. You've got to have a pantheon for that. But so far, I haven't done this. As much as I love ancient history and mythology, a campaign set in such a world has yet to strike me as compelling.

For my upcoming space opera campaign, I'm going to do something else altogether, something seen in JRPGs, in Star Wars, and a few other places: there will be two metaphysical forces at work in the universe, the Light and the Darkness. The player characters, presumably being heroes, fight for the Light and against the Darkness. There will even be an order of psionic monks and knights who specifically espouse the philosophy of Light (because a good fantasy campaign needs its clerics, and in a good space opera campaign, that means Jedi). On the other hand, two out of the three Big Bad Evil Empires in the setting will be fairly strict in their state-sanctioned theisms, leading to plenty of tension between these various institutions. Always a good backdrop for a moving and shaking, strife-ridden campaign setting.

It occurs to me that at some point soon, I'll have to devote one of these posts to actually explaining the setting for my next game. Friday, then... "G" will be for "galaxy"!



Monday, April 4, 2011

C is for Cthulhu

To this day, I'm still not sure that I understand the OSR's fascination with pulp fiction. Hold on, let me rephrase that. I do kind of understand it: we're mostly talking about people who have read a great deal of this stuff, or grew up when it was the only game in town, and so it has shaped many an old-school gamer's perceptions of what fantasy (and fantasy gaming) should be like. What I meant to say was this: I do not share the OSR's fascination with pulp fiction, because it largely lies outside the realm of my experience.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s. My childhood exposure to sci-fi and fantasy consisted of He-Man, Thundercats, Transformers, GI Joe, Ninja Turtles, and -- my personal favorite -- The Real Ghostbusters. I watched these programs well before I ever picked up my first fantasy novel (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, at age 5) or saw Star Wars: A New Hope. When I did finally start reading "grownup" fantasy literature, having already decimated the "famous forty" Oz books, Narnia, and Wonderland, it was with The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and imitators of Tolkien who wrote in the epic, high fantasy mode.

I was brought to D&D by a friend who first exposed me to Final Fantasy (back when there were only seven of them) and then surmised that if I liked computer RPGs, I'd probably enjoy the real thing even better. (He was right.) These are the facts of my upbringing that color my understanding of fantasy, science fiction, and role-playing.

So... to the fans of Howard and Lovecraft and C.A.S., of Leiber and Moorcock and Anderson, I kind of get it. I'm just not coming from the same place as you. Does that invalidate my card-carrying OSR membership? If you think so, then you're probably also the sort who thinks that Cthulhu could never be defeated by a foursome of paranormal scientists with unlicensed nuclear accelerators strapped to their backs. (Care to place a wager on it?)

"Collect Call of Cthulhu" - Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

B is for Battlemat

I'm going to open this next post by riffing about the two RPG books that I've released, Engines & Empires and Retro Phaze. The former is a setting for Labyrinth Lord (and Dark Dungeons and others). The latter is a standalone game, though clearly derivative in nature. This past Saturday, I just concluded an Engines & Empires campaign; next Saturday, I start a Retro Phaze campaign with many of the same players. These two sets of game rules share many similarities, but one of the telling differences is the way that they treat physical representations of battle encounters.

Long ago, in days, of yore, I played the 2nd and 3rd editions of AD&D. For 2nd edition, we didn't bother with miniatures or battlemats at all. We were big Final Fantasy fans back then, and all of our battles in 2nd edition were imagined to work just like that: the heroes lined up on one side, the monsters lined up on the other, trading hits and spells until the monsters were defeated. There was no need at all for movement or position, never mind trinkets on the table to represent these concepts. Then Y2K rolled around, 3rd edition appeared, and we upgraded like good little consumers, even converting our current campaign mid-stride.

Coinciding with the appearance of this new edition was our collective discovery of the SRPG ("sim" or "strategy" RPG, also called the tactical RPG) on video game consoles: Shining Force was the favorite of the group, but Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics made their mark as well. I, for one, became just a little obsessed with these kinds of games. Add to that the fact that 3rd edition was such a complex game, one that practically demanded minis and a grid, and, well, you can probably guess what happened.

There were two regular DMs in our group. We didn't so much take turns as play whichever DM's campaign we all felt like playing that day. My fellow DM was the creative type who saw RPGs as an art-form and an excuse to engage in improvisational acting. He never prepared anything ahead of time: not a setting, not an adventure, not a single NPC. He just ran everything on the fly. And he always, always did without miniatures. And you know what? His campaigns were the best. The only really unsuccessful campaigns this guy ever ran were the ones that never got of the ground due to scheduling constraints, lack of time, or whatever. But me? Back then, I was the polar opposite. I was a chronic world-builder, hashing out everything in advance: settings, dungeons, house rules, classes, items, monsters, spells, villains, plots. And when it came to the tabletop, I wanted to see some tactics in action. I had managed to build up a decent collection of minis by then, and then I got a battlemat.

Chessex. The only game in town. Everybody who plays D&D knows the pearl-colored 1" grid meant for wet-erase markers. I have a couple of these (one Battlemat and one Megamat; unfortunately, I've never found a Mondomat) from way back that I still use. For a while, I also had a Combat Mat from Crystal Caste, although that one eventually started falling apart at the edges. The point is, I loved my battlemats. They were a fixture in all of my campaigns. But there was a problem with playing the game this way—a huge problem.

No, it's not that the battlemat became a distraction or a time-sink or anything like that. Anybody who thinks that just having minis on the table will somehow impede good role-playing is a frakking nimrod. It's not that at all. Rather, it was a question of scale and distance. You see, movement in AD&D (whether 1st, 2nd, or 3rd edition) is predicated on a character being able to cover 6" on the tabletop and still swing a sword. In 1st and 2nd edition, you had the 12" movement rate for a character who didn't attack that round, or 6" for the character who did. 3rd edition was rather more complicated, what with the 1" = 5 ft scale explicitly spelled out and the smorgasbord of movement actions (standard, partial, double, charging, running, etc.). A running character quadrupled movement, or quintupled it with the Run feat! 30" across the tabletop in one round... that's the whole span of a typical battlemat! And don't even get me started on monks!

In other words, characters could move across the battlemat far too quickly. Tactics became a matter of position alone, with distance hardly ever mattering. Not so important in a dungeon, perhaps, but some of us like big outdoor battles too.

Since then, my own efforts at game-design have tended to address this problem in different ways. With Engines & Empires, it was a simple matter of leaving the rules intact but zooming out the scale. In that game, I've used a 1" = 10 ft scale, with upwards of four characters occupying a single 1" square at a time. Now, given the way movement works in classic D&D (most characters can move 40 ft and attack, or 120 ft and do nothing else), characters can still close distances very quickly by scurrying across twelve inches of tabletop space... but most of the time, they'll creep along at three or four inches a pop and shoot a bow or a gun until they're in melee range. Best of all, a typical old-school dungeon map (the kind printed in light blue inside module covers) usually uses the 10 ft scale, and I can squeeze just about an entire dungeon floor onto my Megamat. This scale works well enough, but it's still only ideal for dungeon-crawls. 12" across the table in one round is a bit too much for tactically engaging outdoor battles.

Retro Phaze (which, I suppose, never having mentioned it on this blog before, I should link to) takes care of this problem in an altogether novel way. It uses the more traditional 25mm miniature scale, where 1" = 5 ft. Or rather, since I'll be running a sci-fi game very shortly here, 1" = 2m. Nothing says "sci-fi" quite like using meters rather than feet (and kilograms rather than pounds or stone). But here's the good part: the average character is only allowed to to move 5" per round... and that's it. No running, no charging, no double-move if you don't attack. You can either take your five squares/hexes or leave 'em. You see, distance and movement in Retro Phaze is all pretty abstract. It's designed around gameplay at the tabletop, not around some misguided attempt to simulate reality. This might strike some as a little too "gamist" or "dissocated" or even "4th editiony", but I consider the trade-offs well worth it. The end result is a simple game where characters actually have to take a few rounds to cross a battlefield, and things like missile ranges are drastically easier to deal with than even the least complex edition of D&D. That's a pretty good day's work, if I do say so myself.

This brings me around to another controversy, one near and dear to my heart: squares vs. hexes. It's up there with Goobers vs. Raisinets or sausage vs. pepperoni. Let's break it down:

- Tessellated hexagons don't produce a situation where two adjacent spaces are separated by a diagonal. Distances are thus counted by the same number of hexes in all directions, making the hex-grid ideal for any game where you have to count spaces for character movement, missile ranges, spell areas, etc. Win for hexagons.
- Man-made rooms and hallways tend to be rectangular, leading to awkward situations when hexagons are used for indoor areas. Win for squares.

In the Engines & Empires campaign that I just ran, I knew that there would be lots of dungeons with many more straight lines and angular rooms than winding tunnels or natural caverns. So squares won the day for that campaign. But my Retro Phaze game is doubtlessly going to involve all kinds of brawls, shootouts, and even starship battles. Unconstrained by right angles, hexes are going to be far more useful here. Even if the occasional room or straight hallway does show up, it will on the balance be a better trade-off to take the awkwardly fitting grid and this time leave the odd "diagonal counting squares" problem by the wayside.

Of course, this decision does have its impact on what equipment I bring to the table. For the campaign that just ended, I generally avoided using my Chessex wet-erase mats. Wet-erase is messy. For most of this game, I used a Paizo flip-mat: between the dry-erase surface and the ability to fold it up and store it in my D&D Red Box, it's been just about the most convenient and well-used piece of gaming equipment that I've ever spent twelve bucks on. But it only has square grids, on both bloody sides. If I want to use hexagons, I have to switch back to the rolled-up Chessex Megamat, to wet-erase markers and damp cloths. (Jeez, that reminds me, I need to pick up some new overhead markers soon. My last set ran out of ink.) Thankfully, there are restrooms adjoining the game-room in the FLGS where we play, so washing the battlemat is less inconvenient than it could otherwise be, given some of the other places I've played.