Monday, September 13, 2010

Monsters in da Family

Having just watched the LotR film trilogy yet again, I've undergone an epiphany regarding how I wrote goblinoids in Engines & Empires. In that book, I set up most of the single Hit Die gobliny types (kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgogblins) as various tribes of Tolkienesque Orcs, leaving bugbears (with their 3+1 HD) to stand in for the Uruk-Hai.

(The exception would be kobolds, which I re-dubbed "imps" in the E&E book as an homage to the badly transrated Engrish of Final Fantasy I, where the bakemono, a.k.a. goblins, are called "imps" to save character space. Four syllables in Japanese meant room for only four English letters when the game was localized! Ah, well, if you look very closely at E&E, you'll see that most of it is actually an attempt to synthesize Final Fantasy and Tolkien. In fact, I'm pretty obvious about it in places.)

When you think about it, the Orc/Uruk divide makes sense enough, if one is trying to emulate a Tolkien-inspired feel for goblinoids. Tolkien himself described many tribes of Orcs, generally hostile to each other, with northern Orcs from around Gundabad and such being larger and tougher; Orcs from the Misty Mountains region being shorter and weaker; and Mordor Orcs being swarthier, smarter, and more quarrelsome than others. And while Gundabad and Mordor Orcs were the strongest of the lot, they still weren't any kind of match for Saruman's Fighting Uruk-Hai. So there's some justification for using lots of different sets of stats for Orcish "sub-races" and then using bugbear stats for Uruk-Hai.

But as I was watching these movies, it occurred to me that the Uruks weren't that much tougher than plain-old Orcs. In fact, the disparity (as they're portrayed in the films) is little different than a simple matter of height, as between Men and Dwarves. According to that logic, Uruks ought to be no tougher than D&D's hobgoblins. It also occurred to me, around this time, that I had completely neglected half-orcs (which, in Tolkien, are a far cry from D&D's musclebound barbarians—rather, they're very thief-like spies, thugs, and ruffians; and so, to me, it's no wonder that in AD&D 1e, the half-orc favored the assassin class above all others!).

So, if I were to re-scale the goblinoids for use with (for example) a six-level steampunk campaign, I would probably shift things down a bit. Something like this:

Hit Dice ... D&D Monster ... Equivalent For My Home Game

1/2 ..... Kobold .................... Imp
1-1 ..... Goblin ..................... Half-Orc
1 .......... Orc ......................... Orc
1+1 ..... Hobgoblin .............. Uruk-Hai

2 ......... Gnoll ....................... Beastman
2+1 ..... Lizardman ............. Lizardman
3 .......... Thoul ..................... Grendel
3+1 ...... Bugbear ................ Ogre/Bogeyman

4+1 ...... Ogre ...................... Troll
6+3 ..... Troll ....................... Olog-Hai

Imps: Small, mischievous goblinoids which tend to inhabit forests and mineshafts. They often do the bidding of evil magicians.

Half-Orcs: A mongrel race of blended orcish and human blood, created through foul sorcery. Half-orcs aren't particularly tough, but they have orcish wickedness in their hearts and a limited ability to blend in with humans. They tend to be thieves, thugs, and hired killers. Basically, D&D goblin stats, minus the daylight penalties.

Orcs: Your run-of-the-mill goblinoids, foot-soldiers in the armies of Evil (Inc.) and eternal servants to the Dark Overlord of the Month.

Uruk-Hai: Although I name them "Hulks" in my campaign setting as an offbeat reference to another fantasy author, they're basically what it says on the tin. Upright-walking orc-kind created by breeding half-orcs back with regular orcs, to create a race of mannish orc capable of using large weapons and withstanding sunlight. For the purposes of this ruleset, it's just a matter of using the hobgoblin stats as-written (by the original RAW, they already have no penalty for fighting in daylight).

Beastmen: I always thought that gnolls were kind of an out-of-place monster, but a generic race of beastmen is very pulp fantasy, in a He-Man sort of way. I would probably wind up using these like Robert Jordan's Trollocs. (Lizardmen, on the other hand, always seem to fit in nicely, even if they're basically Sleestaks.)

Grendel: I don't know why, but I've always identified the thoul with the nasty trollspawned monster from Beowulf. Make of that what you will.

Ogre: Now this is where things start to get interesting. "Bugbears," like gnolls, are another one of those monsters that just seems like a mythological misfit... unless you're trying to use it in the traditional sense of the Bogeyman of English folklore, in which case, sure, I can see them as oversized goblins. But hairy almost-ogres haunting dungeons? Might as well just call these guys "ogres" and use them in the Shrek sense. Ogres and Bogeymen are of the same ilk, too: big scary monsters that you scar your children with by telling them gruesome fairy tales about how the big nasty Ogre will eat them if they don't behave. So, yes, it seems convoluted, but I think I'm going to start using the bugbear stats for ogres.

Troll: Now trolls are a weird concept in mythology, because sometimes they're dwarfish and sometimes they're gigantic. Are they rubbery and regenerative and prone to flee from fire like Frankenstein's monster on 'shrooms? Or are they big and hulking and made of rock and prone to petrifying in sunlight? I'm going to go with the petrifying variety, not least because of Tolkien, Norse mythology, and the fact that I watched David the Gnome when I was little. So just take the ogre stats, add "petrifies in sunlight" as a weakness, and boom, you have Norse trolls. (Or "rock trolls," maybe.)

Olog-Hai: Sauron created these "great trolls of Mordor" which aren't petrified by sunlight, to do battle for him in the War of the Ring. Now these are fearsome beasts worthy of the proper D&D troll stats! 6+3 hit dice, and regeneration when the wound isn't from fire or acid? Heck yeah. All I really need is a catchy name for the great trolls that isn't obviously taken from another source. I'm thinking "Orgg" (yes, after the ubiquitous 6/6 red critter from M:TG). At least it sounds rather like "Olog".



Skeleton (1 HD)
Zombie (2 HD)
Ghoul (2 HD)
Wight (3 HD)
Wraith (4 HD)
Mummy (5+1 HD)
Spectre (6 HD)
Vampire (7—9 HD)

What you see above is the list of standard low-to-mid level undead (everything in the Basic / Expert rules), stuff that can still be turned by a cleric below 15th level. In a six-level campaign, a vampire is definitely the toughest undead one might ever want to throw at a PC party, too. So I like how this scales. I would only make two minor changes to this classic family of critters.

1) Ghouls. Ghouls are a positive pain in the arse as written. Three attacks per round, plus a paralysis save to be rolled every time they hit? Using a couple of ghouls creates a storm of dice-rolling to muck up the combat. I would much rather distinguish them from zombies by giving them 2+1 HD (so that they attack as 3 HD monsters) and then balance this out by shortening their attack routine to claw 1d4/claw 1d4.

2) Vampires. I'm not quite sure how, mechanically, I want to model this, but I like the idea of using 7-HD vampires as the low-ranking or young vampires; 8-HD for varcolac (elder vampires with a wolfish affinity), and 9-HD for nosferatu (powerful vampire lords with a decidedly batty physiognomy). Perhaps the garden-variety vampire doesn't cast spells, the varcolac casts spells as an 8th level cleric/druid, and the nosferatu casts spells as a 9th level magic-user.


Time for a Farscape quote.

Aeryn: Look, this is hardly the time for human nonsense, Crichton.
Crichton: Oh, god, that is it—you are so damn smart. There's no time for stupid human anything. And I'm sick of it, Aeryn. I'm sick of Napoleon XVI. I'm sick of Blue. I'm sick of Tentacle Boy. And guess what? I'm sick of you. I'm sick of this whole turd-burp end of the universe.
—Episode 1.14, "Jeremiah Crichton"

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Red Box: "Ooh, Shiny!"

I have to admit that I've been curious about 4th edition (A)D&D since its fist appearance. I don't have a huge problem with most of the way the game is designed. I like that it backs off from 3rd edition's "rule for everything" approach to gaming. I'm a little torn about powers, though, because on the one hand they're a very cool idea, but on the other, they're a very dumb idea. Where the game really falls apart for me, though, is the uncompromising emphasis on combat.

According to the designers of 4th edition, it was meant to emphasize a style of play that "skips to the good parts," so that a game session isn't "four hours of play packed with twenty minutes of fun." The problem with that philosophy is the way the game designers defined what was fun. Apparently, according to the folks who wrote 4e, the sum total of fun to be had is in tactical combat, and everything else (like, say, crawling through dungeons to explore their every nook and cranny) can be left behind.

The game doesn't even have a "Craft" skill among the list of options for trained skills. Think about that for a second: the game actually disallows training your character in a skill that some game designer judged to have no immediate combat or dungeoneering application. Presumably, because someone who wants to play a craftsman would be giving something up in the combat-utility department, rendering that character sub-optimal and throwing off the game's carefully orchestrated balance.

What really wigs me out about 4th edition, though, is how freakishly inflated creatures' hit points are. The gelatinous cube in the new Red Box has 157 hit points! In classic D&D, conversely, it wouldn't be uncommon to see one with 15 hit points. But, as near as I can tell, weapon damage (at least for low level characters) isn't increased in anywhere near the same proportions. So basically, the whole design scheme of 4th edition is a great slight-of-hand trick, whereby hit points are increased tenfold but damage is left alone, so that combat can be stretched out to eat up time. If you did divide the hit points of 4th edition monsters by ten, and then you did the same thing to damage dealt, you'd find that 4e monsters had HP totals comparable to OD&D monsters, but the characters would be forced to slog through grindy combats dealing 1 or 2 points of damage a hit. (I don't know how this scales at high levels, but that's how it looks to work for 1st and 2nd level characters in the new Starter Set.)

It's kind of like that sample game in Mentzer's Red Box (you know, the real one!), where your fighter and the snake exchange blows that deal only one point of damage apiece, because the game is explaining the concept of "hit points" but hasn't quite gotten around to rolling damage yet. Can you imagine playing a game of OD&D, but instead of all hits dealing 1d6 damage, all hits deal 1 damage? That's basically the essence of 4th edition combat. It's a deliberate time-sink, the consequence being that a game of 4e doesn't leave room for much of anything else.

All I can say about that is, how terribly boring! I love a good tactical combat, but battles in general ought to be few and far between. That's the essence of a well-paced adventure. Most of the time, the characters ought to be exploring or interacting with the game world and its inhabitants. That's where the real action is! I shall always take as my motto the line from the AD&D 2nd edition rulebooks, which explicitly stated that AD&D is not supposed to be a combat simulator. A roleplaying game is not a wargame!

Of course, there was much about the underlying attitude of 2nd edition which was and still is to be admired. Not only did that game clearly downplay the relevance of combat, it was also very clear about other qualities that made good roleplaying games. The rules were relatively light, with many of the more complex systems marked optional, and it almost went without saying that they were really just a toolkit of suggestions for DMs to create their own campaigns with. The standard method of generating ability scores, unlike 1e and 3e, was straight 3d6. Player characters were "ordinary but brave" individuals who only became heroes through the course of playing the game and gaining experience. Low scores weren't to be discarded, they were a resource to mine for creating flawed, interesting, fun-to-roleplay characters! And "advanced" character options, particularly sub-classes like paladins and specialist wizards, were both marked as optional (because they weren't supposed to be appropriate to all campaigns) and, when allowed, difficult to qualify for if generating ability scores the usual way. All of this adds up to a very well designed game, the pinnacle of the AD&D line in my opinion.

Now, granted, it's still just a hair too complex for my tastes. I already have basic D&D, so why play anything else? But if I were ever in a situation where I absolutely had to play one of the four advanced editions, 2nd would be my choice, no contest.

So, back to the new Red Box. I bought it, partially to satisfy my curiosity once and for all, but mostly for its retro appeal. Honestly, it's a really nice box! Very sturdy, two inches deep, plenty of room to store all of the materials I might want to put into a portable gaming kit. And while the rulebooks, character sheets, and power cards found therein are all but useless to me and already discarded, the monster tokens are kind of nice and might see some usage at my table.

At the moment, I'm using my shiny new box to store my Basic Set (the 1981 edition), Expert Set (the 1983 edition), Engines & Empires, dice and tokens, a folded up Paizo Flip-Mat for tactical battles, and my referee's screen (a custom job I whipped up with four panels of appropriately steampunkish artwork, 44" x 6" laminated cardstock). I only need to toss a few pencils, blank character sheets, and pages of graph paper into the box, and I have the most portable gaming kit I can ever remember having put together. It's a far, far cry from my 3e days, when I had to schlep a full dozen hardcover books to every game session, along with a tackle-box full of miniatures and a big rolled-up battlemat. The follies of youth, etc., etc.


And, of course, the obligatory Farscape quote.

JOHN: Look at that.
AERYN: What?
JOHN: That's it. Earth. Minus the sunshine.
—Episode 1.13, "A Human Reaction"

Friday, September 3, 2010

Six-Level Steampunk, part 3

The first two parts of this post dealt with all of the game mechanics necessary to run a “six-level” Engines & Empires campaign, i.e. a game where characters essentially cannot progress beyond normal mortal capabilities (represented by 6th level in the game). What follows here are a few addenda which may be useful when actually running such games. In particular, I would strongly recommend using the Wound Level rules presented here. In a campaign which ordinarily lacks all kinds of raising and resurrection magic, character death ought not to be a trivial occurrence.

Wound Levels

This house rule is predicated on the idea that hit points represent stamina and combat skill only—damage to hit points is not the same thing as a physical wound. Under these rules, a character who falls to 0 HP is winded, but not wounded. The character is only on the brink of exhaustion—almost but not quite out of fight. There are no negative hit points, so a character with even 1 HP remaining, who then takes a blow for 10 damage, is merely reduced to 0 HP. Even one hit point is a sufficient buffer between “able to fight normally” and “on the brink of fatigue”.

Once a character is at 0 HP, the situation becomes dangerous. A character at zero hit points can still act normally—he can fight, move, run, use magic, whatever—except that he now moves at half speed (as if encumbered), and he must rest every third turn (instead of every sixth turn like normal) or else total exhaustion will set in. Furthermore, any damage that a character with 0 HP takes, whether from a trap or a weapon or a spell, will result in a Wound. How much damage gets taken is immaterial—it’s just as bad to be stabbed by a knife or a sword, or to be shot by an arrow or a bullet. Any hit, even for 1 point of damage, will cause a Wound.

The severity of a Wound is determined randomly:

Wound Levels are cumulative. A character with penalties up to -4 has a Light Wound; -5 to -7, a Serious Wound; -8 to -10, a Critical Wound; and at -11 or greater, death is immediate. Wound levels are removed by healing.

Complete bed-rest allows a character to heal naturally. With normal care, a character recovers wound penalties at a rate of one point of penalty per 1d12 days. In the care of a competent surgeon, natural healing is accelerated to one penalty point being lifted every 1d6 days.

Magical or technological healing lifts one penalty point for every (four- or six- sided) die of hit points normally cured.

A character cannot begin to recover hit points until all wound penalties are removed. Hit points can be cured normally with magic or technology. Otherwise, since HP represent stamina, they are recovered completely with one night’s rest. During the adventure, if the characters can manage to grab a short rest (half an hour), they can recover 1d3 HP from rest alone or 1d6 HP if in the care of a healer.

Mass Combat
This is more of a sketch than a complete set of house rules, but lately I’ve been pondering how to improve and simplify unit-based mass combat. In the E&E rulebook, mass combat treats units just like characters, except with HP that vary according to the unit’s size, up to 100 troops. Units with spell-casting or technological abilities essentially retain those abilities on a mass-combat scale. Player characters generally participate in unit combat only as the leader of a particular unit, to which the character then imparts a small level-based bonus to all combat statistics. I’m starting to think that it might be better to abstract these features further. Also, I’d like to re-think unit combat to fit the “six-level campaign” scale, where a character of 1st to 3rd level is a normal adventuring mercenary, while a character of 4th to 6th level is a big-time Hero™. Likewise, any monster with 4 HD or more is Large Size—the monstrous equivalent of a Hero.

Unit Combat for Six-Level Campaigns
As before, unit combat takes place on a larger scale than ordinary battles. One square or hex represents 100’, and units take actions by the (ten-minute) turn rather than by the round.

A unit is a group of similar soldiers, all acting in concert to fight as one. It has five statistics: Health, Attack, Defense, Movement, and Morale.

A unit’s Health is a function of its size. A unit has 1 point of Health for approximately every twenty soldiers in the unit, up to a maximum of 5 health. Damage reduces a unit’s Health (by killing or wounding soldiers, by causing ranks to break and soldiers to flee or desert), such that when a unit reaches 0 health, it disbands and can no longer function as a unit or affect the outcome of the mass battle. Health is an important statistic, since it modifies most of a unit’s other statistics.

A unit’s Attack value is equivalent to the Fighting Ability of one soldier in that unit, plus the unit’s current health. Normal humans (as a unit, they’d be called “conscripts”, or, less kindly, “cannon fodder”) have a base FA 1. Most 1 HD soldiers, from men to elves to orcs, have FA 2. So a unit of 100 conscripts would have Attack 6 (FA 1 + Health 5), as would a unit of 80 trained soldiers (FA 2 + Health 4).

Defense works just like ascending Defense Class, i.e. a unit attacks by rolling 1d20 + its Attack, and it hits if the total equals or beats the target unit’s Defense. A unit’s base Defense, though, is simply equal to 10 + its Attack value, i.e. 10 + FA + Health.

A unit’s Morale is equal to one individual soldier’s ordinary ML score, plus one-half the unit’s Health rounded down. A unit with Health 4 or 5 thus gets a +2 ML bonus, while a unit with Health 2 or 3 has a +1 ML bonus. Morale is very important, because it essentially functions like a unit-scale saving throw.

Finally, there is Movement, which is just like ordinary Movement multiplied by ten. A soldier might normally move at, 120’ (40’), so on unit combat scale, the unit can move 1200’ (400’), which is to say that it can march 12 squares and do nothing, or 4 squares and then attack.

The basic rule of unit combat is that a successful hit (Attack vs. Defense) causes the target unit check Morale. On a successful ML check, the unit loses 1 Health. On a failed ML check, the unit loses 2 Health. A unit is destroyed/disbanded when it falls to 0 Health. In order for an infantry or cavalry unit to make a mêlée attack, it must usually move to occupy the same 100’ square/hex as its target. A unit capable of missile-fire (or artillery-fire) can throw a volley out to the maximum range of the unit’s type of missile weapons (i.e. there are no range penalties, so 5 squares for short bows, 7 squares for long bows, 9 squares for muskets or machine guns, 12 squares for heavy cannon).

Spells and technology are abstracted under these rules; they become ordinary missile attacks with a range equal to the highest spell level, or one-half the highest tech degree, available to all the troops in the unit. That is to say, for example, a unit of 3rd level mages (best spell level = 2nd) can make a missile attack with a range of 2 squares.

Furthermore, for the purposes of unit combat, characters are treated as monsters when finding their unit-scale Attack value. Ordinarily, a 3rd level mage would have a Fighting Ability of 2, but on the battlefield, 3rd level mages are counted as 3 HD monsters and thus have FA 4 (an abstraction which accounts for their spell-casting abilities).

Equipment has a nominal impact on unit statistics. A unit primarily armed with primitive or poor-quality weapons suffers a -2 penalty to Attack. A unit mostly clad in metal armor enjoys a +2 bonus to Defense but suffers a -3 (-1) square penalty to its Movement.

Player Characters and Large Monsters generally do not form units. It’s certainly possible to imagine a Dark Overlord fielding a unit of ogres or trolls, but usually it would be impossible to gather sufficient numbers of them. In any case, Large Monsters and Heroes are usually more effective acting singly on the battlefield. In order to fight apart from a unit, a creature or character must have at least 4 hit dice. Large Monsters and Heroes are effectively one-man units with 1 point of Health. Attack and Defense are determined normally (i.e. find the creature or character’s Fighting Ability as if it were a monster with so many hit dice; Attack equals FA + Health, Defense equals 10 + FA + Health), Movement is ten times normal for the character, and Morale is ignored.

Special Hero or Large Monster units can attack or be attacked as normal. A monster that loses its sole point of Health is slain. A Hero under the same circumstances merely rolls on the Wound table (see above) and might be knocked out, wounded, or slain, but is in any event removed from the rest of the battle.

Any Monster with 8+ HD, or any 6th level character with a promotion title (Lord, Sorcerer, Sage, etc.) is capable of two additional actions in place of attacking, the ability to Rally Friends and Intimidate Foes. To Rally, the character targets an adjacent unit of friendly soldiers and rolls a special Charisma check (1d20 vs. Charisma if the character is trained in Diplomacy, 1d20 vs. one-half Charisma if not), and if successful, the friendly unit regains 1 point of Health as soldiers pick themselves back up and re-form ranks. To Intimidate, the character again rolls Charisma, this time targeting an adjacent unit of enemy soldiers. If successful, the enemy unit must check Morale or lose a point of Health, as troops quaver and flee before the mighty Hero or fierce Monster. (Since monsters have neither a Charisma score nor a Diplomacy skill, simply check 1d20 against their hit dice.)

Heroes and Large Monsters can also encounter each other in single combat, which would be resolved by an ordinary small-scale battle (set within a single 100’ square and taking place over the course of only one turn).

Heroes and Large Monsters might join up with or take command of a unit of ordinary soldiers, but all this does is impart a small (+2) Morale bonus which overlaps, but does not stack, with a unit’s Morale bonus from Health.

Finally, a group of adventurers, regardless of their level, can band together to form a special unit called an Adventuring Party. An Adventuring Party is a unit with 1 point of Health per two members, up to a maximum of 5 Health. Its base Attack and Defense are determined by taking the character in the party with the highest level, treating that level as monster hit dice to find unit Attack and Defense values, and then modifying for Health as normal. The slowest character in the party determines the unit’s Movement. Like a single Hero, an Adventuring Party has no Morale score and is immune to effects requiring a Morale Check.

Magic and the Paranormal
Maybe I’ve been watching too much Real Ghostbusters lately, but it occurred to me not long ago that in a six-level campaign, the assumption is that most of the world is populated by relatively ordinary people. That makes monsters exceptional and rare, and even the commonest kobold might be regarded as a supernatural horror. The idea of player characters as paranormal investigators is already enshrined in games like Call of Cthulhu, but it also fits the conceit of Victorian steampunk very well.

Then I got to thinking about the nature of magic in the original role-playing game, and about how I portray it in E&E, and I’ve noticed a few fun connections. First, look at the magic-user’s level titles. They start out as mediums, then become seers, and so on. The idea that a low-level arcane mage is a spirit medium or some kind of psychic channeler is very appealing to me. It fits the idea of the Victorian spiritualist (or stage swami), and helps to explain why arcane magic and psychic ability are one and the same thing (rather than having some separate discipline in the game-world called “psionics”, which is like magic but for some reason actually is not magic).

Then I thought, okay, if a mage is primarily concerned with calling out to the spirits of the great beyond, and acting as a medium, what if that’s the source of magic? What if all spell-craft is really spirit-channeling? That would mean that every spell memorized by a mage is actually a spirit from some anomalous other realm, pulled onto the material plane and bound within the mage’s mind. Casting the spell releases the spirit, and in its eagerness to return to its own plane, the spirit briefly opens a door between worlds and the magical effect leaks into physical reality.

That has groovy implications. It means that a simple spell, like read magic, is the mage calling upon and binding a small or weak spirit, releasing it for the price of knowledge gained. Memorizing fire ball, though, is the dangerous business of binding a fire elemental or maybe even a lesser ifrit. What if something goes wrong? What if a mage dies with memorized spells, i.e. trapped spirits, still rattling around in his brain? Do they burst out and manifest in the world? Do they possess corpses and become the undead? (1st level spells become skeletons/zombies/ghouls, 2nd level spells become wights/banshees/wraiths, 3rd level spells become mummies/spectres/vampires…)

Speaking of the undead, they’re kind of spirit-ish too. Wraiths and spectres, especially, are “ectoplasmic entities” in the classic sense. A technologist who invents a proton stream could have a field day, trapping spectres and maybe even containing them indefinitely. Assuming, of course, the rate of ionization is constant for all such vaporous apparitions. Insert raspberry emoticon (=P) here.


Can't forget the Farscape quote.

JOHN (learning to pilot the transport pod): Slicker'n snot.
AERYN: My microbes had to have translated that one wrongly.
JOHN: Southern metaphors, darlin'. You ain't heard the half of 'em.
—Episode 1.12, "The Flax"

Six-Level Steampunk, part 2

Previously, I laid down the framework for an Engines & Empires campaign that tops out at 6th level—a low-powered, low-magic world where nobody is a super-hero (or super-villain) and nobody is ever invulnerable. The basic rules for character advancement were outlined in the last post; and next come the changes which need to be made for each character class when using this campaign model.

Lv1: Unarmed Damage 1d4, Deflect Missile 1/turn, Off-Hand Penalty -2
Lv3: Unarmed Damage 1d6
Lv4: Stunning Fist 1/turn
Lv5: Unarmed Damage 1d8, Deflect Missile 2/turn, Off-Hand Penalty -0
Lv6: The Boxer can quest to become a Champion. Once that happens, the Champion immediately acquires the “Feel Qi” ability and a qi pool with 3 + Con mod qi points. Further qi powers (Focus Qi, Control Qi, Project Qi, etc.) are not learned automatically; instead, the Champion must travel and quest to learn them from masters, senseis, and sifus around the world (rather like collecting magical items). A Champion can also found a cloister or dojo and attract students, as normal.

Lv1: Three Bonus Skills, Critical Hit Chance 1-in-8
Lv4: Critical Hit Damage x3
Lv5: Critical Hit Chance 1-in-6
Lv6: The Expert can quest to become a Professional. A Professional can cast arcane spells as a 2nd level mage (two 1st level spell slots) and acquires a set of combat tricks (1d4 unarmed damage, 1d6 improvised weapon damage, full damage with rarely thrown weapons, off-hand penalty -2). A Professional can also found a guild and attract apprentices.

Lv1: Focused Strike 1/turn
Lv4: Whirlwind Attack 1/turn
Lv5: Focused Strike 2/turn
Lv6: The Fighter can quest to become a Lord. A Lord can turn undead and cast divine spells as a 2nd level scholar (one 1st level spell slot), and he can found a stronghold and attract a retinue of soldiers.

Lv1: Spells 1
Lv2: Spells 2
Lv3: Spells 2/1
Lv4: Spells 2/2, Spontaneous Spell 1/day
Lv5: Spells 2/2/1
Lv6: Spells 2/2/2, and the Mage can quest to become a Sorcerer. A Sorcerer is capable of using Ritual Magic (see below), and he can build a tower and attract apprentices.

Lv1: Turn Undead
Lv2: Spells 1
Lv3: Spells 2
Lv4: Spells 2/1, Spontaneous Spell 1/day
Lv5: Spells 2/2
Lv6: Spells 2/2/1, and the Scholar and quest to become a Sage. A Sage is capable of using Ritual Magic (see below), and he can build a stronghold and attract followers.

Lv1: 1st Degree, 1 Device per day
Lv2: 2nd Degree, 2 Devices per day
Lv3: 3rd Degree, 3 Devices per day
Lv4: 4th Degree, 4 Devices per day, Jury-Rig 1/day
Lv5: 5th Degree, 5 Devices per day
Lv6: 6th Degree, 6 Devices per day, and the Tech can quest to become an Inventor. An Inventor can practice Research & Development (see below), and he can build a workshop and attract apprentices.

As Fighters, plus Dwarf racial abilities (+2 to Saving Throws, 60’ Infravision, Craft skill training, MV 30’).

Lv6: A Dwarf can quest to become a Dwarf Lord, who can cast one 1st level spell as a Sch2 but cannot turn the undead. Instead, a Dwarf Lord has limited access to Ritual Magic, solely for the purpose of creating magical weapons and armor.

As Scholars, plus Elf racial abilities (+1 to missile attacks, 60’ Infravision, Perception skill training).

As Mages, plus Fay racial traits (60’ Infravision, Diplomacy skill training, Glamer 1/week).

As Techs, plus Gnome racial traits (Small Size, 60’ Infravision, Craft Skill Training, Speak with Animals)

As Experts, plus Halfling racial traits (Small Size, +1 to missile attacks, +2 to Saving Throws, Stealth skill training).

Lv6: A Halfling can quest to become a Halfling Thane. Thanes can cast two 1st level spells as a Mag2, but they lack the human Professional’s bag of combat tricks. A Thane has the “Hero’s Heart” ability (once per day, roll a Con check to completely avoid a magical attack, or reflect it on a natural 1).

Lv1: Centaur Traits (MV 50’, double damage with Lance Charge, hooves 1d4/1d4
Lv4: Hoof damage becomes 1d6
Lv5: Trample (able to make one hoof attack when also attacking with weapons)
Lv6: Can quest to become a Centaur Paladin. A Paladin can cast one 1st level spell (as a Sch2) but cannot turn the undead. Instead, a Paladin has the power of divination by Star Gazing (as the commune spell, usable 1/week, except that only one question is permitted instead of three).

As Experts, plus Faun racial traits (60’ Infravision, Athletics skill training, resistant to charms)
Lv6: Can quest to become a Faun Warden. A Warden can cast two 1st level spells (as a Mag2) but lacks the human Professional’s combat tricks. Instead, a Warden can invoke a lesser confusion spell by playing on the panpipes, 1/day (as confusion, except that the spell affects only 2d3 targets with a 20’ x 20’ area, and then only targets with 2 HD or less).

Lv1: Merrow Traits (Amphibious, 30’ Infravision, land MV 30’/swim MV 60’, Speak with Animals, Entertain skill training, Siren Song 1/day)
Lv2: Spells 1
Lv3: Spells 2
Lv4: Spells 2/1, Spontaneous Spell 1/day, Battle Hymn (+1) 1/day
Lv5: Spells 2/2, Siren Song 2/day
Lv6: Spells 2/2/1, and the Merrow can quest to become a Merrow Bard. A Bard can practice Ritual Magic (see below). The combat bonus imparted by a Bard’s Battle Hymn becomes +2, and a Bard’s Siren Song can now affect monsters instead of merely persons (just like the charm monster spell, except that it never affects more than one target at a time).

Lv1: Sylph Traits (Wings, Gliding/Leaping, 60’ Infravision, Speak with Animals, MV 50’)
Lv4: Dive Attack for double damage
Lv5: Flight (the sylph can fly, but only for 6 + Str mod hours per day, half that if encumbered)
Lv6: The Sylph can quest to become a Sylph Dragoon. A Dragoon can cast one 1st level spell (as a Sch2) but cannot turn the undead. Instead, the Dragoon can cast create air 1/day.

Ritual Magic/Research & Development
Sorcerers (including Fay Sorcerers), Sages (including Elf Sages), Merrow Bards, and Dwarf Lords are able to use Ritual Magic. Inventors (including Gnome Inventors) are able to practice Research and Development. These abilities allow the creation of magical items and technological inventions, within whatever parameters or power limits the referee might care to set upon them. More importantly, though, they allow characters to potentially use spells or technologies beyond the scope of their class abilities.

Casting a Ritual Spell: A Sorcerer, Sage, or Bard can cast one Ritual Spell per day. This is not the same as casting a spell in the ordinary sense, and it does not count against the character’s spells per day. A Ritual Spell is not memorized; rather, it is cast directly out of the caster’s spell book. Furthermore, there is no limit on the level of the Ritual Spell to be cast, although casting spells higher than 3rd level is potentially very dangerous. To cast a Ritual Spell, a character must have access to a book with the spell in it, and he must devote all of his concentration to casting. At the end of one turn, the character makes an ability check (Charisma for a Sorcerer, Wisdom for a Sage or Bard) to determine whether the casting was a success. Casting proceeds, with an ability check made at the end of every turn, until the character has passed as many ability checks as the spell has levels. Ritual Casting a 1st level spell (such as detect magic) is fairly easy, since it only requires one successful check, and therefore probably takes only one turn to cast.

Attempting to cast a higher-level spell is potentially hazardous. For every spell level above the 3rd, whenever the ritual caster fails an ability check, the referee must roll for catastrophic failure. This occurs 10% of the time per spell level above 3rd (i.e. 10% chance for a 4th level spell, 20% chance for a 5th level spell, etc). The exact effects of such a failure are left up to the referee, but they ought to be nasty indeed.

Research & Development: An Inventor uses R&D, which is similar to ritual magic. Ordinarily, this ability allows for the creation of technological inventions. Once per day, though, R&D can also be used to create a Prototype Device. A Prototype does not count against an Inventor’s ordinary suite of devices built per day. Instead, the Inventor cobbles it together from handy materials in his lab, a process which consumes a great deal of attention and concentration. The Inventor must make an Intelligence check each turn while building, and the Prototype is complete only when the Inventor has passed a number of Intelligence checks equal to the device’s technological degree. Once built, the Prototype can be activated at the Inventor’s leisure (like any other device, a Prototype is single-use), although it is always too big to move. A Prototype is more fragile than most devices and will break down after twelve hours if left unused.

Attempting to build a Prototype from a technical degree above 6th is a potentially dangerous prospect. For every degree above the 6th, there is a 5% chance of a laboratory accident whenever the Inventor fails an Intelligence check while working (5% for 7th degree technology, 10% for 8th degree technology, etc.). A laboratory accident might result in an immediate explosion, or it could unwittingly leave the inventor with a dangerously malfunction-prone Prototype that otherwise looks like it ought to work normally.

Helpful Items
Magic-using and technological characters are very limited in a six-level campaign. This is part of the appeal: characters won’t have so many spells that they can easily circumvent challenges, obstacles, or formidable foes. And the very powerful effects, such as polymorphs and teleports, if they’re even allowed at all, are limited to time-consuming ritual-castings or slapdash laboratory construction, possibly dangerous in either case. But a character’s repertoire of low-level spells, while limited, might be expanded a little bit if the referee should wish to include a few new items aimed at making characters more flexible with their special abilities. Most of the time, though, these items should only be found by characters who have already reached 6th level and have therefore been halted their normal spell or tech progressions. Neither can items like these ever be created by PCs; they are quasi-artifacts.

Tomes: A Tome is a special kind of magical book which contains a single spell of 1st, 2nd, or 3rd level. A Tome is essentially identical to a scroll, and it works the same way, except that a Tome is not destroyed when used. Instead, the magic is simply drained out of it for twenty-four hours. The next day, the Tome can be used again.

Mana Orbs: An Orb is a kind of crystal sphere which acts as a capacitor for magical energy. A Mana Orb comes in one of three varieties: lesser, median, and greater. A Lesser Mana Orb grants to its possessor an extra 1st level spell slot, which the caster can fill with a memorized spell as normal. A Median Mana Orb contains an empty 2nd level spell slot, while a Greater Mana Orb serves as a 3rd level spell slot—when the caster memorizes spells for the day, these Orbs can be filled by a spell of the appropriate level or lower.

Qi Focus: Some magical weapons, martial arts weapons in particular, act as a “qi focus”. These items add their magical bonus to a Champion Boxer’s pool of qi points per day.

Technical Manuals: A Technical Manual contains all the schematics needed to build any devices associated with a particular technical degree. In this way, a technologist character can surpass the ordinary limit on technical degrees known (which is usually equal to the technologist’s level). A Manual might even contain a schematic for devices of 7th degree and higher, normally unattainable in a six-level campaign, which can be used to make Prototype Devices.

Inspiring Journals: Scientists and engineers must always keep up on the latest academic literature. Occasionally, one will even stumble across an intriguing scientific theory that leads to a “eureka” moment in the laboratory. A technologist character who finds such an Inspiring Journal becomes capable of building an extra device per day.


All righty then. Closing thoughts on the "six-level campaign" model next time. But I wouldn't leave another post without a Farscape quote.

RORF: I am Rorf!
JOHN: Worf?
RORF: Rorf!!
—Episode 1.11, "Till the Blood Runs Clear"

Six-Level Steampunk, part 1

Well, that was a lovely summer vacation. And now that I’m back, I really should write something.

Okay, seriously, when was my last blog post? April? Holy Einstein, that’s quite a dry spell. I can’t believe I’ve slacked off on this for literally months on end. Well, c’est la vie, I guess. Or c’est la guerre, as I’ve always liked to hear it. Same difference, really.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been… well, never mind, that’s not important. What matters here is that I’ve been quite out of commission when it comes to writing anything. I haven’t posted to this blog; I haven’t done any work on my RPG; I haven’t even written any frelling fan-fiction. It’s a shame, really, but there you are. I’m a lazy, bummy, schlubby, lazy bum.

I did finish reffing a campaign last month, one that successfully combined Engines & Empires with the Epic Six conceit. I’ve learned enough from the experience, too, that I think I can now confidently codify a set of rules for this style of campaign. And it will definitely be going into my E&E Supplement I.

So, without further ado…

Six-Level Steampunk

This is a hack for Engines & Empires which limits character advancement to 6th level (rather than the usual 36th level). Gamers who are used to high-level play and take its inevitability for granted might find this unduly strict, but 6th level is the perfect place to limit the game if the referee should wish for a given campaign to feel reasonably realistic, in terms of character ability. Magic, monsters, and super-science notwithstanding, it’s important to remember that in terms of the original game, a 4th level fighting man was a “hero”, while an 8th level fighting man was a “super-hero”. By limiting the game to 6th level, therefore, the scope of the campaign sits just a hair above “heroic fantasy”. Players can feel like action stars, but they’ll never feel like comic book or wire-fu characters. In short, no super-heroes. You can have Indiana Jones, Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, or Jon McLane; but you will never be Kal-El, Li Mu Bai, Hercules, or Son Goku.

This kind of fantasy is gritty, but not unduly grimdark. Because, going hand-in-hand with the notion that there are no player characters above 6th level, neither are there any NPCs beyond that level. It’s a hard limit. (So kings, emperors, and high level player characters, while always vulnerable to assassination, can at least rest assured that they’re fairly well-protected by an ordinary retinue of bodyguards and a castle. There are no polymoprhing, teleporting, wish-happy arch-mages to threaten the status quo.) Likewise, monsters with more than six hit dice or so are presumed to be rare, and monsters with more than a dozen or so hit dice are all but unheard of. In short, use “Basic” and “Expert” monsters, but pretend that “Companion” and “Master” monsters just don’t exist. The biggest dragon ever is the 11-HD gold dragon, the nastiest of undead is the 9-HD spell-casting vampire, and the 15-HD purple worm is the closest thing to a nameless Lovecraftian horror that the PCs will ever encounter. Slaying Dracula in a six-level campaign can’t help but be a Big Freaking Deal™.

Game Rule Information (Table 1.1)

In a six-level campaign, the pace of character advancement remains the same as in standard Engines & Empires. Assuming that, on average, two achievement points are awarded to each character per successful game session, human characters will gain a level every four sessions and faerie characters will level up every five. The underlying assumption for a six-level campaign is that player characters are able to prove their mettle (but also reach their peak) relatively quickly, but after that, the advancement curve takes a sharp turn and becomes a plateau.

Fighting Ability and Saving Throw numbers are given on the table above. Note first of all that these progressions are slightly faster than in standard E&E; and note secondly that the base statistics for player characters stop advancing at 6th level. (This ought not to be the case for monsters, which can have more than six hit dice. Monsters, I think, can have their statistics reduced to a very simple formula, e.g. a monster’s Fighting Ability is simply equal to its hit dice plus one, with the usual caveat that any monster with a hit point bonus counts as the next highest hit die; and a monster’s saving throw number is equal to six plus two-thirds its hit dice if it’s intelligent, or one-third its hit dice if it has animal intelligence.)

Level benefits require a somewhat more drastic re-tooling, to account for the compacted nature of character advancement—and in particular, skills as written in the E&E game cannot work in a six-level campaign, since they are predicated on having many levels with which to build up skill ranks. So instead of basing skills on ranks, a skill is either known (“trained”) or not (“untrained”). Out of the twelve skills in the game (Athletics, Civics, Craft, Diplomacy, Entertain, Knowledge, Medicine, Outdoors, Perception, Pilot, Stealth, and Trade), most characters start the game trained in 3 + Int mod skills. Experts, halflings, and fauns, being the skill specialists that they are, know three bonus skills at the start of the game (i.e. 6 + Int mod trained skills). The chance to pass an untrained skill check is 1-in-6, like before. The chance to pass a trained skill check is now keyed to the character's level: 2-in-6 for 1st and 2nd level characters, 3-in-6 for 3rd and 4th level characters, and 4-in-6 for 5th and 6th level characters.

The bonus skill rank usually awarded to faerie characters now simply becomes a bonus trained skill. Elves get Perception for free, Dwarves get Craft for free, Halflings get Stealth for free, and so on. After the start of the game, characters can only acquire new skills in a very limited way. (1) All characters receive one extra skill at 3rd level, and one extra skill at 5th level. Expert-type characters do not get any more additional skills than others after 1st level. (2) Whenever a character raises his Intelligence to the point where the modifier goes up, the character immediately acquires a new trained skill.

1st level characters also enjoy the usual benefit of a maximized first hit die. Fighters and boxers start with 8 hp, scholars and experts with 6 hp, and mages and techs with 4 hp. Hit dice are thereafter rolled normally, until 6th level.

2nd level characters may select a particular weapon to be their “favored weapon”. Characters attacking with their favored weapon add a damage bonus equal to one-half their Fighting Ability, rounded down (thus, the maximum possible bonus is +1 for mages, +2 for scholars, and +3 for fighters). All fighter-type classes (fighters, boxers, dwarves, centaurs, and sylphs) get to pick a second favored weapon upon reaching 6th level.

4th level characters get to select one of their ability scores and raise it by one point.

6th level is the peak of normal character advancement. At 6th level, characters roll their last hit die, and they have reached their maximum Fighting Ability and best Saving Throw number. No more class abilities or spell slots are gained after 6th level. Also, as soon as a character reaches 6th level, that character may being questing for a name title (i.e. class promotion). Fighters can start working to become Lords, mages can start questing to become Sorcerers, etc. The benefits that come with a class promotion are somewhat reduced, though, to accord with the lower power levels expected in a six-level campaign.

Characters can still keep advancing after passing 6th level, but further levels grant mere token benefits. The first of these is increased hit points: characters above 6th level gain a small hit point bonus, but only until they reach the maximum possible number rolled on their own hit dice. That is, discounting Constitution modifiers, a fighter will gain +2 hp per level above the sixth until he reaches 48 hp (the maximum possible roll on 6d8). Scholars will gain +1d2 hp until they reach a ceiling of 36 hp. Mages gain +1 hp until they reach their maximum possible base of 24 hp. The second benefit is an ability increase: for each “epic level” gained above the 6th, a character can raise one of his ability scores by one point. Ability scores can be raised as high as 20 in this fashion.

Speaking of ability scores, a six-level campaign works best when ability modifiers are de-emphasized, reducing the “weight” that scores bring to bear on the game mechanics. Thus, table 1.2:

Having a maximum ability bonus of +2 produces several pleasing symmetries. It means that the maximum possible hit points that a character might have is 60 (a fighter-type with Con 17+ and maximum hit die rolls). It also means that if the mightiest magical weapons are +3 weapons, a character will rarely ever have more than a +5 in extra bonuses to hit (although the damage bonus could get up to +8 in the case of a fighter-type with a favored weapon).

Okay, that sums up the basic rules for a six-level steampunk campaign. Next post, I’ll go into detail about how these rules affect the fifteen Engines & Empires character classes, and I’ll offer a few suggestions about how one would go about using the six-level campaign mode to best effect.

With that, it’s time at last to renew my customary quoting of Farscape:

: Uh-oh. Eyes.
: Eyes?
: Yeah, like a cave scene in a Yosemite Sam cartoon.
—Episode 1.10, “They’ve
Got a Secret”

Friday, April 23, 2010

In Defense of the Humble Jot

(Fair warning: not a gaming post, but possibly geekier than one.)

You know what ticks me off more than anything else when I'm reading something in Latin? (You know, because we've all been there, am I right?) It's the fact that modern practice dispenses with the letter "j"... but for reasons that sit somewhere between historical accident and brazen hypocrisy.

To demonstrate, let's take a fairly common Latin sentence. Something that Cicero might've said to Julius Caesar. "Now I will throw his d20." Yeah, that sounds like something he probably said. In Latin, that sentence could be rendered, "Iam aleam cum viginti lateribus eius iaciam." Except, we live in a fallen and imperfect world, full of sin and evil and misery. If this were not the case, my very historically and linguistically accurate sentence would read, "Jam aleam cum viginti lateribus ejus jaciam."

Let's start with the hypocrisy. Okay, maybe I'm being harsh, but there's certainly a kind of inconsistency at work here. After all, the Romans didn't punctuate. They didn't use periods and commas, they didn't capitalize, they didn't have quotation marks, and they didn't even space out their words. So when we write Latin in modern times, we're already changing things quite a bit. There's no reason to try and imitate the Roman way of doing things; it would make the Latin all but unreadable. And yet, I've heard many classicists say that "j" shouldn't be used in Latin, because the Romans always used "i".

But, wait... what's that I see in a couple of those words up there? Words like "cum" and "ejus"? Why, it's a "u"! The Romans would've just written "v" of course, but modern orthographic practice distinguishes between the consonant and the vowel. Now, I tell you, why not do the same thing with "i" and "j", since the circumstances are all but identical? In both cases, the consonant ("v" or "j") is merely the liquid/semi-vocalic form of the vowel ("u" or "i"). Yes, okay, the "v" mutated all the way into a fricative [v] sound (from [w] in the classical period) in modern pronunciation, whereas the consonantal "i" is still pronounced [j] in nearly all idioms of Late, Neo, and Modern Latin (if it were a fricative, it would sound like [ʒ], as in French), except of course for English legal Latin where it takes our tongue's idiosyncratic [dʒ] pronunciation. The point is, the consonantal "i" in Latin is at least as distinct from its vowel as consonantal "u". If you dispense with the "j" on the practice that Romans didn't use it, you also have to toss out the "u" glyph, all the punctuation and lower-case letters, and spaces between the words.


See? What an improvement.

So why did the "j" disappear? Are the classicists really just that stuffy and myopic? Well, apparently "j" disappeared from Latin around the same time the Italians stopped using it (because the rules for using "j" in Italian, unlike in Latin, managed to become rather complex and arcane). But that doesn't seem like a very good reason to me. Sure, okay, Italian has a lot of influence on contemporary Latin usage. Many new Latin words (especially technology terms) get borrowed from modern Italian, and the Italian pronunciation (i.e. Catholic Church Latin) will always be my preferred idiom (since it's just so much prettier than the rather rigid and unimaginative classical pronunciation). Still, that's no good reason to ditch a perfectly good letter that serves a useful orthographic purpose.

So, I say, yay for "j"! Hell, I'll even concede to the classicists that the ash and oethel ligatures ("æ" and "œ") are too archaic to be of much use in writing modern-day Latin, just as they've fallen out of favor in today's English. (And just because I write out "ae" and "oe" in full, that doesn't mean I have to pronounce the [aj] and [oj] dipthongs that fell out of Late Latin! It's [e:] all the way, baby! w00t!)




God, I'm such a nerd.

Ah, well, might as well own it. Time for a line from Farscape:

JOHN: It's a happy face.
AERYN: They're food cubes.
JOHN: No, see, the pattern forms a... never mind.
—Episode 1.9, "DNA Mad Scientist"

Thursday, April 22, 2010

OSR != Dogma

Over at the forums, there is a post currently floating around the top of the forum that asks whether gamers have heard of the OSR. Well and good, except that the majority of respondents seem to have chimed in to express their utter disinterest in or barely-restrained contempt for the OSR. Disinterest I can understand: not everybody wants to give up their shiny new d20 System, with all its empty bells and whistles, and go back to the really substantive sort of role-playing encouraged by, say, 2nd edition AD&D.

But contempt? This makes me... well, partly curious and partly cheesed off, but mainly curious. Why hate a group of role-players that you, by your own admission, want nothing to do with? (N.B., this naturally excludes Vampire players. It's always okay to hate Vampire players for pretty much no reason at all, except that they're Vampire players.) After all, we're all playing D&D here! There's plenty of room on all points along the spectrum, from crusty grognards to wide-eyed noobs; from munchkins and min-maxers and power-gamers (oh my!) to collaborative story-tellers with angst-ridden pacifist PCs; from hack-n-slash adrenaline junkies to world-building lore-masters who speak fluent Sindarin and Quenya.

So why hate the OSR? I've discerned three reasons. They go something like this:

1. Old-school "renaissance"? Where do you get off calling it a "renaissance"? Shut up and go play your stupid, outdated games in your mom's basement or something!

2. You old-school gamers are so stuffy and pretentious. You've got the nerve to tell us that (3rd/4th) edition is bad! You've got the nerve to tell us we're playing D&D wrong! I call "badwrongfun" shenanigans! Officer Barbrady, arrest that grognard!

3. The "old-school" movement is elitist and dogmatic. Clearly you're all marching in lockstep with Matthew Finch and Jim Maliszewski and that Philotomy Jurament guy. Dogmas are bad, elites are bad, so you're all bad too!

This isn't little, people. This isn't Gabe from Penny Arcade playing S&W "wrong". This is a major cross-section of web-savvy RPGers who hate us on account of a few misinformed stereotypes. And this frightens me enough that I think we ought to refute each point as publicly and as often as possible.

The first complaint is easy to argue against, because it questions the existence of the OSR on the twofold grounds of its purpose and popularity. The underlying idea is something to the effect of, if you're just a small group of people playing old games, you're not a renaissance, you're a small group of sad and self-delusional people. This idea, however, relies on the unfounded assumption that the OSR hasn't actually changed anything. "Whoo, you're calling yourselves a renaissance now, big whup." Except, things have changed. Are changing. The popularity of old games has grown, and people are now motivated to publish for old games under the OGL. I can waltz down to my FLGS and buy a copy of Labyrinth Lord or an OSRIC module. That was not the case only a few short years ago, where the only places to get old gaming materials were the "used games" bin in the back of the shop and Ebay, neither prospect being particularly reliable. That's key: the OSR has already succeeded in making retro games more popular, more visible, and more widely available in-print. So what if our little niche of the hobby always stays small compared to the legions playing the newest editions? At least there are more of us than there are [insert random indie heartbreaker game here, or better yet, anything written by the RPG Pundit] players.

The second and third points are more problematic. The OSR really has developed a bad reputation on these counts, and I'll be the first to admit that I've noticed a fair degree of, shall we say, narrow-mindedness among the more vocal elements of the OSR. But there's a fine line between formulating a dogma and simply stating an opinion in strong terms, and I think our intentions as retro-gamers really do fall under the latter heading. Are there people who hate 3rd and 4th edition? Of course. For crying out loud, there are people who hate 2nd edition for being too "new school". (As an aside, I personally like to call these people... what was the word again? Ah, yes. "Douchebags.") So how do we explain the perception of dogmatic elitism? I think it boils down to a combination of good old-fashioned nerd-rage and a classically vocal minority drowning out all the voices of reason.

Nerd Rage: Everybody knows that nerds love the things that they love. It doesn't matter what it is: RPG, video game, card game, comic book, TV show, movie, book. If you change it, expect the nerds to go nerd-berserk (+2 to Indignation score and "Be a Fucktard on the Internet" skill for 1d6 months). It doesn't matter whether you're ret-conning Spider-Man's marriage to M.J., canceling Firefly after half a season, or making AC go up instead of down. If you change something that nerds love, the rage inevitably ensues. Whatever results from that rage can be either destructive or constructive. Destructive examples include tribalist reactionism, insulting people with a different opinion, etc. Constructive examples include fan activities (futile campaigns to prevent a TV show's cancellation, the writing of fan fiction, the organization of conventions, the publication of retro RPG materials). The key is to recognize the difference and dismiss the not-so-constructive things for the puerile temper-tantrum that they are. Or maybe even call them out and stand against them.

The Vocal Minority. One of the reasons that I started this blog was so I could give a voice to my opinions about gaming, and especially about old-school gaming, and really especially about how "I do not think it means what you think it means." (Thanks, Inigo.) Take this p-o-s, for example: the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. I despise this thing. I can't condone a damned word of it. The tone really is elitist, and its caricature of the way 3rd edition D&D works borders on abject misrepresentation. Sure, I have my issues with 3rd edition, but railing against Search and Spot checks is pretty damned way-out in left field. In fact, I've got a freaking laundry list of points where I disagree with the received old-school orthodoxy (such as it is), and perhaps that will be the topic of my next post. (Since this one has lengthened into a full-blown rant.) For now, I'll just say this: if you want to put a good face on the OSR (and some of us may not want to, but I certainly do), maybe it's time to dispense with the attitude. Not all the attitude, by any means. Just the bad attitude, the whole shtick that says "skill checks are evil and dumb, miniatures are evil and dumb, anything even tangentially associated with 3e/4e is obviously evil and dumb."

Sigh. Farscape quote time.

"I don't know your customs for these situations—not that I care! So I'll give you the Hynerian Ceremony of Passage and be done with it! John Crichton, valued friend... no, wait a minute. Valued friend is a bit of a stretch. John Crichton, unwelcome shipmate, may you have safe transport to the Hallowed Realm. Actually, not our Hallowed Realm—no, that's for Hynerians! Go find your own Hallowed Realm! With the Ceremony of Passage complete, I declare you officially dead, and claim all your possessions for myself!"
—Dominar Rygel XVI, episode 1.8 "That Old Black Magic"

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Official-Sounding Status Update

Work on E&E Supplement I goes well. I'm maybe a third of the way through drafting the text, which so far mostly consists of crunchy game-mechanical stuff. Some alternate game rules, a new playable character class (the sentient automaton), some monsters (also various stripes of automata). The rest of the book will be devoted to articles, mini-adventures, and singular descriptions of encounters, items, and NPCs. I'm shooting for a goal of at least eighty pages (mainly for technical reasons -- eighty pages is the minimum size for a perfect-bound book to have spine text, and I do loves me my spine text).

I've also been musing about low-powered gaming, and how the "Epic Six" idea for d20 could all too easily be adapted to the basic edition. It's a cool idea. A variant of this might work its way into my E&E supplement.

Wow, seventh blog post, time to quote Farscape again.

"Human. It’s kinda like Sebacean, but we haven’t conquered other worlds yet, so we just kick the crap out of each other."
—John Crichton, episode 1.7 "PK Tech Girl"

Saturday, April 10, 2010

I Miss Writing Fiction.

I really do. I've become so used to writing RPG rules that I seem to have forgotten how fiction works. I used to be pretty darned good at telling stories... but now I think I've lost my mojo. What happened?

Writing a rulebook for a game is all exposition and technicalities. The formula is something like this: Corny topic introduction. Delineation of game rule. Explanation of game rule, flavorful in-universe justification, crunchy game-balance justification. Laundry-list of exceptions to the rule. Lather, rinse, repeat until the book is written. Maybe shake things up with a table or an illustration. That's about it.

If you have a clear design in mind from a game-mechanical perspective, writing a rulebook is parsecs easier than writing fiction. All you have to do is describe the game the way you play it (or, if you're an armchair game-design type, tsk-tsk, just describe the way you imagine it being played). Describing game rules is easy. Gamers do it all the time, every time we teach a new player how to role-play or bring a new house rule to a table of old vets. Rulebooks are just collections of these little explanations and examples in written form.

Fiction, though... even when you have a clear idea of what happens, who does things, who says what to whom, and how it all fits together, the process of writing it is so much more involved. You have to agonize over word choice (in both the exposition and the dialogue) in ways that just never come up while writing game rules. And I'm so blastedly out of practice, because I've been giving all of my attention to games lately. Grr, what the crap happened to me?

I need to find a way to flip the switch. Take my deadened fiction-writing organ and turn it back on again. I need to get out of the habit of thinking like a game designer and start thinking like a story-teller. Act I, introduce the problem, Act II, complicate the problem, Act III, climax and dénouement. Only write scenes that advance the plot or alter characters/relationships. Make sure to increase tension and conflict wherever possible until the climax is over. If good fiction has a formula, surely that's it.

I'm missing just one thing: the inclination to start writing. It might have something to do with that whole inspiration/perspiration thing. Maybe I'm just lazy. Sigh.

Here's a Farscape quote.

Aeryn: She gives me a woody.
John: ...
Aeryn: 'Woody'. It's a Human saying. I've heard you say it often, when you don't trust someone, or they make you nervous, they give you—
John: 'Willies!' She gives you the willies!
—Episode 1.6, "Thank God It's Friday, Again"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I'm so excited...

I've started working on my RPG stuff again. After a months-long dry-spell, this is pretty damned momentous for me! I don't know how long it's going to take, but I've already made some progress on Engines & Empires Supplement I! Writing a supplement is a whole lot more engaging and inspiring than writing a module could've been, so I know I'm on the right track. Anyway, can't blog much now, since, y'know, I'm writing another book...

Guess I'll just leave off early tonight with another quick Farscape quote:

Crichton: I'm just gonna get some air.
Aeryn: We have air in here. What is the matter with him?
Zhaan: He is Crichton.
—Episode 1.5, "Back and Back and Back to the Future"

The Annoying Paradox

Are class and level systems utterly incompatible with heroic fantasy? One of the major "problems" with D&D, after all—"problem", that is, in the "bug/feature" sense—is that the player characters go from chumps who can be killed with a sneeze to deities who can raze the campaign world on a whim. The astonishing disparity between even 1st and 10th level characters was no doubt what prompted the creation of many other RPGs that lack any sort of advancement mechanic or power curve.

I don't care for those other games. I think I'm in good company here when I say that. I don't want a game where combat ability remains static and the characters perpetually can take about five wounds before dying, or where the whole notion of advancement is horizontal, i.e. all the characters progress from having a handful of skills to becoming über-bards, because the game doesn't offer much else. No, there's something ineffable and compelling about classes and levels that we really can't dispense with.

Sometimes there are house rules to flatten the power curve. Like, characters have a few hit dice rolled at 1st level, but then only +1 or +2 hit points gained thereafter. That would do something to reign in the awesomeness of high-level fighters, but then you would also have to pretty much re-write the magic system so that the damage didn't scale so high. And then do the same thing for monsters. No, the so-called "grim-'n'-gritty" option doesn't really help, because it would involve re-writing D&D. If you wanted to keep the hit point totals small and the spell ability weak, the best option would simply be to limit character advancement early, à la the "Epic Six" idea.

But I get ahead of myself. When I said "heroic fantasy" up at the top of this post, I was referring to something rather specific that merits definition: I meant the sort of heroic fantasy that one sees in fantasy novels, where there isn't much of a sense of "level gain" or "power curve". Yes, characters in those novels get more competent over time, but they hardly ever go from being mooks to unkillable gods. So if I wanted to replicate the feel of a fantasy novel in an RPG, would I be forced to abandon my beloved D&D and use one of those hateful other games?

I don't think that's necessarily the case. I think one could create a very proper sort of heroic fantasy game out of D&D, with only one simple tweak. And I wouldn't even need to alter the pace of character advancement.

We have to remember that first off, D&D was created as a game to simulate fantasy in general. Swords & sorcery novels, yes, but Lord of the Rings too. The plots and motivations and moralities might be worlds apart in these two genres, but mechanically, the heroes of both are equally mortal, equally vulnerable. High fantasy heroes are no more eager to rush into a needless fight than pulp fantasy heroes, because fights get people killed. The uncertainty of the outcome will stay a rash soldier of Middle-Earth just as surely as a self-interested tomb-robber of the Hyborian Age. So, I think, the way to make D&D feel more like a fantasy story (of any genre) is take away some of the players' certainty of success in combat.

You would do this by hiding their characters' hit points.

The curious thing about hit points, of course, is that they don't represent wounds. A character who has 1 hit point isn't running out of blood, he's running out of luck. And luck isn't something that the characters themselves can quantify or gauge or use to help decide when they should be retreating from the dungeon. "Well, my luck tank is running out of fuel, better go back to town and sleep for a few days." The characters might retreat because they're tired, low on spells, low on food, or just plain paranoid, but hit points are a players' consideration only. And if I want to immerse the players in the game-world, make them think like their characters, never truly certain of when their luck will run out, I have to keep their hit points (as, indeed, I already do with most other statistics) secreted behind my DM's screen.

There are logistical problems to overcome, no doubt. Players are going to bitch and moan about not being able to see information vital to their characters' survival. It would behoove me to be generous with descriptions of characters' relative states of readiness, "i.e. you're feeling pretty winded right now, and kind of shell-shocked; rushing into another battle today is the last thing you feel like doing." On the positive side, "cure wounds" spells and "healing potions" would have to become something else, something less overt in their effects, like "restore breath" spells and "fortune-in-battle potions". Whoa, that last one is pretty cool: "'Fortune in Battle', this magical effect restores 1d8 hit points, not that the player characters will know that." Definitely cool.

Okay, time to quote Farscape.

"John Wayne? No. The big guy. TRUE GRIT, THE SEARCHERS, THE COWBOYS, GENGHIS KHAN. No, look, forget about GENGHIS KHAN. Everybody makes a bad movie..."
—John Crichton, episode 1.4 "Throne for a Loss"

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Inspiration Strikes!

The module problem pestered my mind while I slept. It was still here for me when I got up this morning. It lay dormant while I played video games, mapped some more dungeon for my current campaign, and read this morning's newest fanfiction (bad habit, working on breaking it). But just now, and I mean just now, I realized what I must do.

Wow, blogging into the silence of the big, empty internet really can be therapeutic!

Okay, so in my first entry, I pointed out that adventure modules aren't adventures, they're just booklets that describe places (dungeons and such) where an adventure might take place, if the PCs decide to go there and shake things up. This whole concept interests me like watching mauve, taupe, and beige colored paints dry and then trying to explain the difference between them. So I probably ought not to be writing the typical sort of adventure module.

On top of that, Engines & Empires is pretty explicitly a plot-driven game, and that doesn't lend itself well to the sandboxy sort of adventure location where the PCs are expected to go in, explore, retreat when they run out of resources, delve again, lather-rinse-repeat. I should stop trying to apologize for this and just write material that supports the play style I want to promote. In fact, I feel another boldfaced statement coming on, kind of like when Jake Blues saw the light and started turning handsprings:

Just because I'm in the OSR, that doesn't mean I have to like sandboxes, mega-dungeons, swords & sorcery, or any other point of newly-minted old-school "orthodoxy".

We're hobby gamers. We do things our own way, and we do it for ourselves, by ourselves. This resurgence in old rules is a great thing, but it's great to different people for different reasons. For me, the increased popularity of B/E and BECMI (or should that be B/X and BXCMI?) means that I'm able to run a rules-light game that doesn't bog down in needless details. This leaves more room for plot and character, which is what I get out of playing and reffing. That's my payoff, acting and narration. For others, it might be exploration or puzzle-solving or trying to reconstruct the home campaigns of Gygax and Arneson with a bit of text-aided archaeology, but not me. I say, "to mine own self be true." I'm done apologizing.

So, what form will E&E modules take? They won't be adventure locations. They'll be plots. But before somebody shouts, "Dragonlance! hiss!" and starts reaching for the crosses and holy water, hear me out. I don't mean plot-based adventure modules or anything like that. I mean, books of plot elements that referees can draw upon as they please: plot hooks, plot twists, characters, locations, scenes, and the occasional bit of crunchy game material (new class, monster, item, whatever). Like a periodical or a magazine, slanted toward my E&E setting but still useful to anybody who likes gaslight, steampunk, and science fantasy. I can already envision what I'm going to write now, and that hasn't happened in months.

So, you know, yay for blogging. It worked. "Write two posts and call me in the morning." "Sure thing, Doc!"

Concerning Railroads
This comes up all the time on forums (which really just proves that I should avoid most forums), this idea that if your game isn't a sandbox, it's a railroad, and so "you're doing D&D wrong". I call it nonsense, because there's always pre-planning and linearity in games. Even the most wide-open world, with the most detached and impartial DM, must pre-plan some of his dungeons, his locations, the potential adventure hooks, and so forth. Sometimes, when pressed for time, it even behooves the beleaguered referee to prepare a "backup dungeon" and then just drop it bodily into the game world, right in the path of the traveling PCs, a kind of delaying tactic so that they don't get to the next region of the world before the DM can develop it. That's really just a kind of railroading, but the players will never cry foul because they'll never know it couldn't have been otherwise (i.e. that if they'd gone east instead of west, the DM might still have to place this dungeon in their path). What the players don't know can't bother them.

Railroading so that they players never find out can hardly be called a crime. In fact, it's a fine art requiring much subtlety. The problem with railroads is not that they compromise the players' agency; problems arise only when players come to believe that they're being railroaded, which is the result of a ham-fisted referee bludgeoning errant players back onto the main track. This is the mistake that creates the fallacy, "railroad == badwrongfun". Yes, that's a fallacy, because the truth of the matter is simply "bad railroad != fun". A good railroad keeps the players entertained and always keeps up the illusion of verisimilitude (same as a good sandbox, really, but with different tactics and goals involved).

On a forum once, someone whittled the question down to a dichotomy. Either you're for sandboxes or you're for railroads. I said that since plot-free sandboxes tend to bore me and my players to tears, I must be for railroads. The only question at hand is whether the DM is the ordinary sort of railway conductor who lets passengers get on and off at their intended stops, change lines, switch tracks... or is he some sort of demon engineer, straight out of an Old West ghost story, who keeps his passengers trapped in a pointless limbo for eternity? That's the difference between a bad railroad and a good one.

Okay, time for this morning's Farscape quote!

Aeryn: I'm sure your world has no force so ruthless, so disciplined.
Crichton: Oh, we call them linebackers. Or serial killers, depending on whether they're... professional or amateur.
—Episode 1.3 "Exodus from Genesis"

Monday, April 5, 2010

Turn and face the strange... ch-ch-changes...

Tonight, I finally got to see "The Eleventh Hour", the newest episode of Doctor Who and the first to feature Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor. And man-oh-man, what a great episode it was. Simply brilliant. I think I enjoyed this particular episode more than any I've seen with Eccleston, Tennant, or even the older Doctors. Matt Smith is a fine actor, Steve Moffat did a wonderful job as a writer, and I'm quite impressed by the show's new start. Even as I continue to bubble and glow about the newly regenerated Doctor, I consider the next entry for my shiny new blog...

And, hey, my E&E setting just underwent a little regeneration of its own. I've only just completed a revision to the book, so the E&E Campaign Compendium is now the E&E Revised Rulebook. Yes, I remain a sucker for alliteration. But boy did I ever agonize over whether to publish a revision. I mean, sure, E&E worked fine as it was, but there were still problems, most of which can be summed up in one phrase:

Pointless terminology changes.

By going and re-naming some very basic and high-profile game terms, I idiotically created a needless language barrier between the E&E setting and its own bloody core rules. That was a stupid mistake, and I felt I had to rectify it. On the one hand, it's a minor issue, because gamers on the whole are pretty smart people, and it's not like anyone didn't know what I was talking about with Vitality or Defense or whatever... but, on the other hand, the OSR is a big old nostalgia-driven D&D revival, and how can I claim to be a part of that with a straight face if I don't even use Armor Class in my game setting? So I put a lot of the proper vocabulary back where it belonged. Along with a few little tweaks to the rules and incorporated errata, of course. Here's the highlights:

• Constitution. I had renamed it "Vitality" in E&E, for little more than nit-picky vanity. Basically, I wanted to get rid of two ability scores starting with the same letter, so that my stat-blocks for characters would be more concise: S-D-V-I-W-C instead of the old-style S-I-W-D-Cn-Ch. But clearly, I wasn't thinking this through very far, because the former is no easier to read at a glance than the latter. Yes, I cut the number of Cs in half, but then again, I really just increased the number of Vs involved by 150%, didn't I? On top that, I'm quite disillusioned with modules these days, which pretty much eliminates the whole point of desiring a concise and easy-to-read-at-a-glance stat-block. But, should I ever come around to writing modules again, I'll use a different tactic, I think: I'll list the stat-block entry for ability scores as S-D-C-I-W-Χ, where "Χ" stands for Charisma (as in "Χάρισμα", get it?). Peculiar side-note: etymologically, Strength and Wisdom are native English words, whereas Dexterity, Intelligence, and Constitution all derive from Latin. Charisma is the only Greek word in the bunch. So, what the heck, I'll abbreviate it with a capital "chi" if I bloody well feel like it!

• Saving Throws. I had changed these to "Resistance Rolls" for E&E. Like Swords & Wizardry, E&E collapses the five saving throw categories into a single stat, but the kicker is this: the new save number in E&E is inverted, so that it goes up as it gets better and you want to roll low to make the save, just like making an ability check. I definitely prefer this mechanic (I'll wax poetic about the merits of "rolling low" some other time), but this name change is just as pointless as the others. So from now on, I'll call a save a save.

• Armor Class. Changing this to "Defense" was a more justifiable change than the others, because there really is a hullabaloo over whether Armor Class should go up or down as it gets better. The nostalgia crowd says "descending AC all the way, and attack tables too, because THAC0 is for heretics." The practical crowd says "ascending AC, because it's just plain illogical to subtract bonuses and add penalties." In the end, I decided to straddle the fence, and to just go ahead and dual-stat the game's defenses. There will always be two camps on this one, and I want E&E to allow for both descending AC and the ascending stat, which I've re-named Defense Class. Every creature or character in the E&E game lists an AC/DC (rock on!), i.e. leather armor is AC 7/DC 14. Why is the DC so much higher than one might expect from, say, BFRPG or the d20 System? Well, it's a matter of compatibility. Like Mr. Raggi's WFRP, I have decided to shoot for maximum compatibility with the old rules. Deriving a Defense Class from Armor Class by subtracting from 21 is definitely the way to go, because it lets both stats work with a single score for attack rolls. That score is now a part of E&E, and I have named it Fighting Ability.

Fighting Ability is just like my old Attack bonus, but one point higher; or like THAC0 subtracted from 21 (instead of 20, as I had been doing before). The original E&E game derived Defense from (20 - Labyrinth Lord AC) and Attack from (20 - THAC0), under the assumption that only the roll high (1d20 + Attack vs. Defense) system would be used. The revised E&E rules are more all-inclusive. So, whereas before, you might have a level 1 character with Attack +1, and he would roll to hit chainmail (Defense 15) by rolling 1d20+1 and trying to meet or beat 15, now there are more options. A 1st level character's Fighting Ability starts at 2, and depending on the campaign, his target in chainmail will have either AC 5 or DC 16. If DC is used, it's pretty much as before: the character rolls 1d20 + FA 2, and tries to hit or beat DC 16, so just like before, he'll hit on an unadjusted roll of 14 or higher. But if the ref would rather use AC, you can use either "roll low" or you can use "target 21". In the former case, you just add FA + AC, and that's the chance to hit: FA 2 + AC 5 = 7 in 20 chance to hit, so you hit on 7 or lower. In the latter case, you roll 1d20 + FA 2 + AC 5, and you hit when the total is 21 or higher (natural 14 in this case, same as all the other systems I've described). It's all up to what the players and the referee prefer, and I can still stat up an E&E character with a reasonably concise summary, i.e. "FA 4; AC 8/DC 13".

There are other changes here and there, like revised critical hit rules, and tweaks to spells and technology, a change to the weight of coins that nods in a small way to the historical value of precious metals, but most of the revised book is unchanged from the original. (As tempted as I was to shift E&E to a silver based economy, I couldn't really do it without altering the relative values of coins, i.e. LL's standard 1 pp = 5 gp = 10 ep = 50 sp = 500 cp. A new ratio would involve new treasure tables, and I'm trying to keep compatible with Labyrinth Lord as much as possible here! So instead, I just decided to keep the ratio, but shrink the coins way down in the E&E setting. That way, you can use whatever is needed according to particulars of the game system. If playing E&E, a coin weighs only one pennyweight, but if playing something closer to LL, a coin weighs 0.1 pound. The number and type of each coin remains the same, which is the important thing when describing a treasure hoard.) It's really just a massive backpedal, an effort to put the old terms back so that E&E has broader appeal with old-schoolers. Shameless, I know, but there it is.

Wow, that ending was abrupt. I feel as if I'm forgetting something. Ah, yes! This evening's Farscape quote:

Crichton: Kinda like Louisiana. Or Dagobah. Dagobah—where Yoda lives.
Aeryn: Who's Yoda?
Crichton: Just a little green guy. Trains warriors.
Aeryn: Oh.
—Episode 1.2 "I, E.T."