Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stick a 4ork in It

Remember how I said earlier this week how WotC seems to have a little love for everyone?  Well, maybe not quite everyone, as it turns out...

One of my purchases at GenCon this past year was a new D&D book, Menzoberranzan: City of Intrigue.  I got it because I'm a sucker for fantasy cities.  I've picked up two Pathfinder adventures just because one took place in a drow city and the other was set in the City of Brass (the latter being a bit of a disappointment; almost all of the adventure takes place in a single palace of the city).  I have that DRAGON magazine that features more detailed write-ups for Vault of the Drow's Erelhei-Cinlu.  So picking up a 4e book about Menzoberranzan wasn't much of a stretch for me.  I figured I'd mine it for ideas to use in my own campaigns.

Imagine my shock when I dug it out of my stack of GenCon stuff the other day to discover that it's not a 4e book. 

This is not an old book.  It's brand new: August 2012.  And, printed on the back, the last sentence of the cover blurb is: “This product is compatible with all editions of the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game...”

Curious, I went back to see what's come out for 4e this last year.  The most recent book appears to be The Dungeon Survival Handbook published in May.  What's slated for 2013?  Well, clearly the 2e core books.  What else?

The first RPG publication for 2013 is a reprint of 1e's Unearthed Arcana .  After that comes hardbound collections of the S-series dungeons (Tomb of Horrors, White Plume Mountain, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth) followed by a hardbound collection of the A-series (the Slave Lord adventures) plus a new low-level adventure that, 'sets the stage for events that unfold throughout the remainder of the "A" series.'

And, as far as RPG products goes, that's it.  So the future of D&D, at least for the first half of 2013, is its past. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Little Love for Everyone

Moe Tousignant pointed out on G+ that there appear to be plans afoot to republish the 2e PHB.  2e doesn't get a lot of love on the intrawebs, but it's probably the system I had the most fun with.  (Ok, that's not entirely true.  My college games, and those that grew out of them, were driven by 2e PHBs and 1e's DMG, Manual of the Planes, a handful of D&D books, and, in later years, the Book of Vile Darkness.  But you get my point.)

2e got a lot wrong, including decoupling EXP from gp and a lot that can be traced to the ideas that resulted in James Ward's "Angry Mother Syndrome" editorial in DRAGON #154.  2e also got a lot right, however.  Among them were specialty priests and arranging clerical spells into spheres of influence (and, in general, I love what 2e did with clerics) and awesome settings like Dark Sun, Birthright, and Planescape. 

The best thing to come out of 2e, in my estimation, was the Monstrous Manual.  Ok, yes, the whole demons/devils/baatezu/whatever nonsense was lame, and some of the art was mediocre.  However, it had some of the best write-ups for monsters ever.  It's the one that gave us all the great "and the gizzard can be used in potions of pudding-breathing" type details that eventually inspired Noisms' excellent "Let's Read the 2nd Edition Monsterous Manual" thread on RPG.net, one of the most epic threads ever to grace that site.  The result was an amazing collection of campaign and adventure ideas for every single critter in the book!  (The link goes to his pdf collection of the ideas, not the thread at RPG.net.)

Luckily, it appears that the Monstrous Manual is also slated for re-release.  If you play any old-school game I heartily recommend you pick it up; other than possibly translating AC from descending to ascending, the only other thing you'd need to worry about is a mild case of hit point inflation.  And even if you don't use the stats, as Noisms showed, there's a wealth of inspirational material in that book.

If you haven't yet, I'd also heartily recommend picking up a copy of the 1e DMG.  Yes, it's chock-full of Gygaxianisms; yes, its poorly organized.  But it's also the best resource for running a fantasy RPG of any edition or rules I've ever read.  From lists of the magical properties of gems or the healing properties of herbs, to random tables for generating and stocking dungeons, to explanations of government types and noble titles, the book is just bursting with useful stuff I want when I'm designing campaigns, creating adventures, and running sessions.  But, as they used to say on Reading Rainbow, don't take my word for it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Troll5myth Plays

The local RPGA bunch at Dragon's Lair decided to forgo their usual 4e shenanigans to try out some 5e, or “Next” as the kids are calling it these days.  I was lucky enough to score a seat at the table and got to play a pre-gen monk (and ex-sailor) whom I promptly dubbed Stalking Platypus.  We poked around in the goblin tunnels of the Caves of Chaos, killing nearly all of them and their ogre friend as well. 

As one player put it near the end of the day, if you've only known 4e, 5e feels like a completely new game.  Some of them said it felt a lot like 1e.  In my estimation, it feels more like 1e as recreated by big fans of 3.5 with a dash of 4.  On the one hand, it is a lot simpler to play and create a character than it was in 4e.  On the other, everyone has something on their character sheet to invoke every turn, whether it's special powers, spells, or specialties.  Some of these are governed by a fancy mechanic called expertise.  You get so many expertise dice (at first level, it's 1d4 for everyone, I think) and what you can do with them is dictated by your class.  My monk could launch a “flurry of blows” allowing an extra attack per expertise dice, and rolling those dice for damage instead of my normal open-handed attack (which was a d6+4).  I could also spend my expertise die on bonus movement instead of the extra attack, and if I'd had more than one die, I could have split between the two.  These abilities felt like the feats of 3e or the special maneuvers of 4e (though there were few crazy shift-around-the-map powers), but were presented in a way that was more akin to the old special abilities of 1e, like the paladin's warhorse or the dwarf's ability to detect sloping passages.

Otherwise, it feels a lot like WotC-era D&D: roll a d20 plus stat bonuses versus a target number as the core mechanic.  There are a lot fewer dissociated mechanics this time around; my monk could only use his ki ability once per day, but as ki is at least semi-magical, the once-per-day fits the fairy tale logic of such a thing so it didn't throw me off at all. 

It's still damned hard to kill a PC.  The dissociated healing surges have been replaced by a healer's kit, a 20-use item that can be bought at stores and allows characters to roll their hit dice to see how many hit points they regain.  When my monk was down to 1 hit point, a 10 minute rest and use of the healer's kit allowed me to roll his hit dice (a single d8 at first level) and restore 3 hit points, bringing him to 4.  Hitting 0 means you've been KOed and you must pass a CON check every turn thereafter or take another d6 damage from bleeding and shock.  If your negative hit points is greater than your CON score plus level, you die.  In spite of facing an ogre who easily dished out 8 points of damage in single blow, nobody was ever in serious danger of such a fate, and any magical healing brings you to at least 0 hit points.

In short, the wonky stuff of 4e has been dropped, some of the “kewl powerz” of 3e have been retained in an extremely streamlined fashion, and the resource management of 1e is back.  So far, I haven't seen anything to pull me away from Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord/LotFP, but on the other hand, if someone told me they were starting up a 5e campaign, I'd be far more interested in joining up than I would be for a 4e game. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I Felt a Great Disturbance in the Force...

"... as if a million nerds suddenly cried out in terror..."

Lots and lots of angst out there about Lucas selling Star Wars to Disney.  For some (very blunt) perspective on all of this, you can't do worse than read the words of John Scalzi on the subject.  Frankly, I agree: this is what's best for everyone at this point.

As for those folks who worry about Disney filling Star Wars with Jar-jars, keep in mind that Disney isn't just Mickey Mouse.  I don't have an ear inside the Mouse House, but I strongly suspect Disney has a plan for Star Wars, and it's not primarily little kids.  Remember “Prince of Persia” and “John Carter?”  Both were from Disney and both were about replacing the highly lucrative, but increasingly tired, “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. 

Disney's looking for an action-adventure-romance series they can target to the young-adult and nerd audiences, which will have enough legs for at least a trilogy.  Can you think of a better property than Star Wars to fit that bill? 

This probably drives the last nail into any Barsoom series' coffin; why pour money into ur-Star Wars when you have actual Star Wars?  A 2015 release means they can pick up the epic baton just as “The Hobbit” is putting it down.  Expect to start hearing a lot about this somewhere around a year from now.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dredd Review: Beauty and Brutality

In the '80s and '90s, I only had glancing familiarity with the British sci-fi/fantasy scene. I mostly knew it from the Fighting Fantasy books, the Fiend Folio, Warhammer, and the British adventures published by TSR. To my eye, there seemed to be a punk-infused, worn-down, decadent and tragic nihilism laced through it all. I saw it in spades when I finally got my hands on some of the stuff published in 2000 AD. I saw it in Slaine, I saw it in Halo Jones. But it was Judge Dredd that seemed to be its purest expression.

The Stallone flick was, alas, more silly than anything else, an attempt to cram Dredd into the action tropes of Hollywood at the time. And while I sometimes mourn the loss of some of those tropes, Dredd wasn't made to fit them. Luckily, the new movie doesn't try.

There's a lot to love about this flick. The atmosphere is perhaps a touch too present day (thanks primarily to the costuming of the average citizens and the vehicles on the streets) but that vanishes once the Judges get stuck in, deep in a 1 kilometer tall archology, laying waste to perps and assassins. And it's exactly what the trailers promise: two Judges, cut off and alone, versus an entire building of thugs and toughs with all manner of weaponry and sadistic creativity.

Make no mistake about it: this is one of the most brutal movies I've seen in a while that was neither horror nor directed by Tarantino. Innocent passers-by and perps are smashed by speeding vehicles (leaving a blood splatter on the spiderwebbed windshield where their skull struck), mowed down by massed rotary cannon fire, set aflame, or have their faces ripped apart by bullets (shown in intimate slow-motion).

 The slow-motion is a running theme in the movie. The bad guys are selling a new drug that makes time appear to move at 1% its normal speed and makes every surface shimmer and gleam where the light hits it. The moments where we see through the eyes of those using the drug are some of the most brutal and gorgeous captured on film. And absolutely lovely in 3D. Film makers are clearly starting to get a handle on the tech. This is the second film I've seen this year that makes good use of it. And honestly, I'm not sure 3D is fully up to the promise of this film; it's going to look amazing when remastered for a full-on holographic experience.

Karl Urban joins the justly-celebrated Hugo Weaving as an actor who's willing to do what it takes to bring a character to life. Just as Weaving did in “V for Vendetta,” Urban never once reveals his face in this movie. Dredd never takes off his helmet. His relationship with the cute blonde Judge trainee is purely platonic mentorship. In fact, she's one of only two judges who are seen without helmets on.

The soundtrack is pulsing, dark, and brooding, a sort of grungy techno-beat. Imagine if you took the better parts of the Green Lantern soundtrack and, well, grunged them. It fits extremely well for Judge Dredd.

The plot is simple, but slips in a few twists, playing with our expectations, and nicely ratcheting up the tension throughout. There's nothing fancy here; the movie is a straight-forward sci-fi action flick, and never tries to be anything else.

If you're looking for a bit of the ol' ultra-violence, I can heartily recommend this movie, and I further recommend you catch this one on the big screen and in 3D.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Part the First-Point-Five

Some noteworthy addendums:

 First, yes, Mike Mearls said they were going to be releasing old back catalog in electronic format.  I don't recall his exact words, but the implication was that they were planning to release everything.  No word on what exact formats would be used, how they'd be priced, etc.  I suspect response to the release of the AD&D core books with new covers may have helped this along, though it's clearly an enticement for OSR types, as well as those who've gone to Paizo (since I'm sure they'll be releasing some 3.5 stuff as well). 

Second, a huge chunk of the presentation was Ed Greenwood, in the dramatic sort of voice I imagine in my head when I read the back-cover blurbs on paperback novels, talking about the Forgotten Realms and six planned novels that will prepare the Realms for 5e.  Novels are still a bright spot on D&D's balance sheet, clearly, and as we left the keynote we were gifted with a poster that included character sketches for the covers of the novels. 

More on what happened Friday as I recover enough to write it up.  Good panels and a great night of gaming with Tavis Allison, tinkering with ACKS mass-combat rules.

Oh, and an encounter with Larry Elmore...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Troll Goes to GenCon XLV: Part the First

Walked my darn feet off, but very glad I came this year.  There’s a heck of a lot going on.

I made it to a panel titled “D&D Digital Discussion” and while they talked about what they’re doing with DDO and the upcoming iteration of Neverwinter Nights (an MMO that, yes, also includes player-created content), the highlight of the panel was chatting with Jon Schindehette.  He’s largely responsible for the move away from the, um, unpleasant style of art direction that dominated 4e previous, especially the covers.  He talked about how they’ve opened things up for a wider range of art, expanding the possibilities so that the art better reflects the content of the book.  So a work with a more humorous topic might have more cartoony art.  I couldn’t help but think of the cover Gabe of Penny Arcade did for the Player’s Strategy Guide, which seemed a good fit since the book appeared to gather together all sorts of advice and strategies that had been floating around on the ‘net.  (And if you haven't been following his blog, The ArtOrder, do so.  Lots of great art to see there.)

After that was “D&D Next: Creating the Core”.  Not a whole lot here that was new and earth-shattering.  They’re taking the playtesting process seriously, they’re working slowly, and they’re willing to scrap an idea and start from scratch if it doesn’t appear to be working (as they’ve already done with the fighter).  They’re still wedded to their simple-core-plus-modules idea.  Alas, my attempts to get Shields Shall be Splintered as part of the official rules were rebuffed.  Curses!  I may have to fall back on my crack team of troll ninjas after all...

That evening, they had “The Future of D&D” at the Rooftop Ballroom of Indiana.  The venue was perfect: a large open room with pro lighting, video, and audio facilities, and a Spanish town-square motif.  Cut-out heroes, halflings, and an owlbear lurked in windows and open spaces.  The smoke machines were probably a bit much, though.

They warmed up the crowd with tunes from The Sword (Austin represent!), Ozzie, and Led Zeppelin.  The audience waited patiently, since the show wasn’t at its originally scheduled location and it was raining.  By the time things got rolling, they had a full house.

Somewhat surprisingly, things started off with Peter Adkinson.  Apparently, this was the first GenCon keynote address, and he clearly hopes to make it a regular thing.  He introduced Greg Leeds, President of WotC, and he introduced Kevin Kulp before leaving the stage.  Kulp introduced Mike Mearls, Jon Schindehette (whose official title is, I think, Creative Director for D&D), and Ed Greenwood.

What followed was both entertaining and mildly uncomfortable.  Part of that, I think, was the fact that D&Ds fans have, to a lesser or greater extent, a mildly adversarial relationship with WotC.  More, I think, was due to the crowd simply not understanding the rhythms of events like this, or being invested in any way in its success.  Obvious applause lines were passed over in silence, while Leeds was clearly taken by surprise by some spontaneous applause for Gygax and Arneson.  In any event, the crowd was ready to be less than impressed by the scripted marketing dog-and-pony show they knew they were getting, but also willing to give props where they were due.  

There was a lot of talk about how “the fans control the brand” of D&D and how trying to have the designers tell people how to play D&D was the wrong tack to take.  (This could be seen as a repudiation of 4e’s design philosophy and, quite frankly, this was among the most anti-4e language I’d yet seen from WotC, though they refrained from naming names.)  Mearls waxed greatly about allowing people to make the game their own at the table.  (For instance, should magic-users use Vancian magic, spell points, or some combination of the two?  Their answer was, “Yes,” and so we get a wizard class, a sorcerer class, and a warlock class.)

That seemed to contrast sharply with Schindehette’s talk about building “the biggest bible ever for the setting of D&D.”  Things started making more sense when Greenwood started speaking about the Forgotten Realms in 5e and how it’s going to be transformed in a set of six novels.  Apparently, the Realms are going to be the first official setting released for 5e, and while they never used the phrase “default setting” that’s the general vibe I got from them.  

One bit of surprise news was the estimate that the playtest might last two years.  Mearls insisted they were not in a hurry to end the playtest, and in the “D&D Next: Creating the Core” he also hit on the notion that they want to get it right the first time, and they’re willing to invest the time and effort necessary to do that.  It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, but with Magic doing so well right now, perhaps they can afford to take things slowly.

Tomorrow, I’m scheduled to attend the following panels: “The Art of the Art of RPGs”, “The Art of Pathfinder”, and “Fund Your Game Project with Kickstarter”.  I’m also hoping to get some more time in the dealer hall; I barely scratched the surface on that one today.  If you’re at GenCon and you’d like to get together over a brew or a meal, please drop me an email or a comment here.  And if there’s something you’d like to hear more about, let me know.

First bit of art from Cryptic Studios. The photos were generously provided by Elizabeth and Greg M.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Book Review: City of Bones

I’m a big fan of a kinda-genre of literature I jokingly refer to as “anthropology-porn”. Whether it’s Colleen McCullough’s intimate portrayal of life at the end of the Roman Republic, or Walter M. Miller, Jr’s musings on the clash between faith and politics in a world struggling back from nuclear destruction, I love me some wallowing in the daily lives and exotic mores of places that were or could be in a universe next door to our own. My favorite Elric stories are those in which we catch (frustratingly brief) glimpses of Melnibonean culture and Jacqueline Carrey’s exercise in alternative theologies are the icing on the cake of her exceptionally intriguing world-building.

So Martha Wells is, of course, one of my favorites. Just recently, I managed to get my hands on a copy of her second novel, City of Bones. It does not disappoint. The world described has been ravaged by an ancient cataclysm. The potent magics of the pre-cataclysm societies are a pale shadow of what they once were, and dangerous to use. Still, there’s wealth to be reaped from the cast-off rubbish and shattered treasures of the past.

Khat is an expert in finding and evaluating the relics of the ancient world, able to read some of the forgotten languages and discern forgeries. His partner is an impoverished scholar working to acquire enough cash to buy a place in the scholarly community. Unfortunately, both are foreigners in the city of Charisat, a town with a fairly thick streak of xenophobia in its culture. Even worse for Khat, he’s not even really human, but a race bioengineered by the wizards who’d survived the cataclysm in order to produce people who were adapted to live in a world ravaged by fire and poor in water.

Wells gives us a portrait of a culture clearly fashioned by its past. There are traces of what must have been before the cataclysm, surrounded by what has clearly been designed to allow humanity to survive in their ravaged world. And she does it gracefully; there are no blobs of tedious exposition or long lectures. Instead, the world is revealed in little things: how the characters treat one another, the architecture and the real-estate market, the value placed on water and all things pertaining to it.

This is the thing I really love about Wells’ work; her fantastical worlds are not trapped in amber, snapshots of a mere moment, but living and breathing and evolving and growing (or dying) places. We get that in spades in City of Bones, wrapped around mysteries that weave together current politics with the ancient past.

My main gripes about the book are on the outside, not the inside. The title, “City of Bones,” lead me to believe this was a book principally about archeology, in which the characters would be sitting in dusty holes in the ground painstakingly revealing skeletons and pottery shards to piece together clues about ancient events. It’s actually a book about intrigue, politics, theft, greed, and murder in which ancient events echo into the present. Most of the book takes place in Charisat, and Khat spends a lot more time scaling walls and ducking down shadowy alleys than he does out in the wilderness, and the book is stronger for it.

The back cover blurb is even worse, invoking a sort of phantasmagorical faux-1,001 Nights feel, with its mention of genies and “silken courtesans and beggars”. Other than taking place in a desert and a very light sprinkling of Egyptian myth, there’s nothing here for the orientalist. The book feels closer in tone to the pulp stories that informed the Warhammer 40k universe, with its blurring of technology and magic, and its order of ancient sorcerer-warriors struggling to hold the line against a seemingly unstoppable tide of entropy.

In fact, I’d heartily recommend you don’t read the back-cover blurb as it does a decent job of spoiling one of the central mysteries of the book. If you hunger for fantastical stories that don’t assume the bog-standard Tolkien-esque tropes of medieval Europe, you’ll best enjoy City of Bones by simply immersing yourself in what it is, and the world Wells has created.

Friday, July 13, 2012

RPGWithMe

This looks intriguing:






I'll probably wait until they've got real-time gaming working, but I'll be keeping an eye on them. Currently, MapTools works, but it's clunky and not terribly stable. I'd pay $5 per month for stability and ease-of-use.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Women in Entertainment: Glass Ceilings and Floors


Disclaimer: I'm on some meds that have a me a bit out-of-sorts just currently. So pardon me if this doesn't make a lick of sense.

Over at Observations of the Fox, Mr. Wenman bemoans the lack of female-lead nerdtastic action/adventureentertainment and toy tie-ins. Being a not-quite-powerful-and-influential member of the blogosphere, I have some friends who would desperately like to be movers-and-shakers in the Hollywood scene. And they fairly consistently point to a glass ceiling/glass floor dichotomy in how women are treated in popular entertainment. For while, yes, Arwen must now wield a sword and be the one who carries Frodo in the chase to the ford, and the engineer or hot-shot pilot must now be a tough-as-nails or ice-princess woman, the leads must still be male. The successful woman must still be defined by her relationship to a guy. If two female characters are alone and chatting on the screen, they must be talking about a guy.

And this isn't likely to change. As movies go international (if there's ever a “John Carter” sequel, it'll be because of the international audience), as the tastes of the American public continue to diverge and broaden, the fabled Taste Makers have become befuddled Taste Chasers. What does the American public want? Nobody seems to know, and that's not even tackling the Russian public or the Chinese public, or the French public or... So is it any wonder that the people who are risking their own cash swerve towards conservative, tried-and-true options at every decision gate?

There is some grounds for hope. We will get sequels to “The Hunger Games” and there's a chance that Joss Whedon might get a freebie from the studios after “The Avengers.” I don't buy toys and I don't understand that market, but it does seem to me that the gender bifurcation there is a defensive crouch as well. How does that market even work without the solid, five-hour block of Saturday morning cartoons they had when I was a kid? Is everything movie tie-ins now? LEGO certainly seems to have gone that route.

Hollywood is trying to give us decent sci-fi (and is almost succeeding; “Prometheus” I am so looking at you), which is more than I expected from them. Maybe they'll drag the toy manufacturers with them? In the meantime, however, the day when there's one of these in every home can't come fast enough.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Spending Money in Pitsh


I use a cash-for-EXP system in my Doom & Tea Parties game currently. Spend a single gold piece on anything except hiring hirelings, anything at all, and you get 1 experience point.

Getting to the mid levels means dropping some serious coinage. In the Cook Expert book, a fighter needs 16,000 EXP to achieve 5th level. That's a series chunk of change, and the fighter's on the low end of the scale.

This has created a situation where my players actively look for opportunities to spend money. Equipment for hirelings, extra rations, identifying treasure, treasure maps, buying a round for everyone at the Oarsman's Rest, it's all fair game. However, it can be a challenge at times, so here follows some more practical options for spending money:

MAGIC

There are some potions available on the open market. Healing potions are pretty important to the current crew since they don't have a cleric among them. It is possible to commission the crafting of a potion not generally available in Pitsh, but the price is considerable, generally clocking in around 200 gp for the simplest to make.

It's sometimes possible for sorcerers, elves, and pixies to buy new spells, though its extremely rare for these to be available. And most would rather trade spells for spells.

MAINTANENCE

The PCs already own a ship and rent an apartment. Generally speaking, every year, they can spend 10% of the original purchase cost of any piece of property to maintain it at its peak condition (in the case of ships, this means scraping the hull of barnacles, replacing the rigging and sails, and stuff like that). This will generally take a week's time for every 200 gp spent.

The same can be done for mundane personal gear like clothing, armour, weapons, ropes, and the like, but in general it's easier to replace rather than repair. Most magical gear doesn't require this sort of upkeep, though individual pieces may have their own special needs.

As time goes on and the PCs become more (in)famous, they'll need to worry about their property in town while they are away. All sorts of protections are available, from the mundane (better locks and bars on the windows) to the magical. Guards and guardian monsters are also possibilities.

FAME

The PCs have already made something of a splash in town as good employers (they only ever so rarely lose a hireling on an adventure these days). Spending coin to attract new employees (rowers and sailors for their ship as well as retainers) attracts attention and gets you talked about. But it's entirely possible to take this to the next level.

Pitsh is a new city, growing on the ruins of an older one. As it grows, it requires all manner of public works, from expanding the city walls to paving the streets. Keeping the sewers clear is vital as the city exists in a tropical zone and sees rain almost daily. Various services, from the magical to the mundane, are required to keep disease from spreading through the population.

More focused gifts and donations can result in improving a character's relationship with any particular group. The three temples to the gods within in the city and the temple of Tiamat outside the city will all gladly accept donations from individuals (though at this time none of them are hurting financially). There's a loose association of merchants and ship captains in town, as well as other trade groups, some fairly ad hoc (the farming community outside the walls, for instance) and some more organized (the Guild of Non-affiliated Scribes, for instance).

ROMANCE

Spending coin on presents, fancy meals, fine clothing, minstrels, etc. in amorous pursuits can chew through coffers fairly quickly. Maintaining a mistress (all the PCs, though not all the players, are currently male) can be even more expensive. Of course, if you can't win love, you can always buy it...

SLAVES

They cost coin to purchase, coin to house, and coin to feed. However, they can do a lot for a PC, including spending coin doing and managing the options mentioned already while the PCs are away. Of course, these sorts of things can also be done by hiring free folk, but they don't come with the guarantees of loyalty that are the hallmark of the stock of the Shkeenites.

INVESTMENT

I'm thinking of using something similar to the investment rules from Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  They look pretty gambly to me, which would be just fine.  I also need to peruse the rules for these sorts of things in Adventurer Conquerer King.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Prometheus Review: I've Got a Bad Feeling About This...

The good news: movies based on comic books keep getting better and better. I loved “The Avengers” and the audience I saw it with clearly loved it as well.

 The bad news: sci-fi movies are getting dumber. Well-read audiences are not, apparently, inspiring well-written scripts. I've already expressed my lack of respect for the “Avatar” script. So when I say that “Prometheus” is better, but only barely, that should be understood as damning with faint praise.

Visually, it's gorgeous, and, like “Avatar” is probably worth seeing in 3D if that's not too expensive in your neck of the woods. But understand, going in, that you're about to watch a film which includes scintillating (and revealing) dialogue like, “This is a scientific expedition; no guns.” This is a movie where someone dies because they apparently forget they can turn left or right. This is a movie where a guy with a PhD in biology, in a dangerous environment, decides to pet an alien creature he can't see most of. Where the guy who's directing the hovering drones mapping out the alien complex gets lost. Where emotionless androids enjoy classic cinema.

 As others have noted, the entire third act hinges on everyone acting in the best interests of the plot-beats instead of like self-interested (or even compassionate) human beings. I'm leery about declaring the movie has an overt Pro Life chip on its shoulder only because I have a hard time believing Hollywood would purposefully make a Pro Life movie. And yet, the only way to make sense of the last act is to say all things moved in service to heavy-handed allegory.

 That said, some of the acting is excellent, the scenery and props look great, and the body-horror is pleasantly spine-shivering. I can see myself watching this one again, but I'd only own it if the remaining films in the series (the ending invites, nay, demands at least one sequel) are compelling.  

PS - Yes, I know, actors hate to work in helmets and masks, but seriously? My respect for Hugo Weaving continues to skyrocket.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

You Say "Industry," I Say "Potato!"

Recent discussion about Monte Cook bowing out of the development of 5e has lead a certain someone to declare that her initial decision to not care about 5e has been validated. This (all happening on G+ where the cool kids hang out and your humble troll occasionally lurks) lead to the requisite argument about the importance of the industry to RPGs.

I think this is one of those areas where people are talking past each other. Watching Zak of all people poo-poo the industry is a bit twitch-provoking. Sure, he doesn’t need the industry, but I don’t exactly see him sending the money WotC’s paying him to advise on 5e back to them.

The DIY community can absolutely point to things like Fight On! and the gorgeous books shipping from Raggi’s living room and proudly proclaim that they can produce high-quality products just like (and often better than) the industry. But that only begs the question of where, exactly, is the line between the industry and the DIY folks.

The line has gotten really blurry with 5e. So far, 5e marketing has largely been about getting the blogging world yammering about it. In just under a month, WotC is promising to unleash a playtesting blitz similar to what the Paizo crew did for Pathfinder. Are all those playtesters part of the industry? What about people who drop some cash into a kickstarter project and get their names in a book? I think they are, and I’m fairly certain Paizo and WotC want them to feel like they are. The products Paizo sells are not nearly as important as the culture they foster, with their wide-open playtests, their organized play, and their RPG Superstar contest all working to blur the line between industry and hobby. Spend some time on the Paizo boards and you’ll discover that Pathfinder isn’t so much an RPG as a friendly, geeky cult. The fans send the corporate headquarters pizza for crying out loud! Even Apple fanatics don’t got that far.

It was recently announced that Tor is going to drop DRM on their ebooks. They can do this because the relationships authors have with their readers is becoming warmer and closer. Readers want to pay for books because they know that’s how writers keep the lights on and afford time to sit down and write. They want to say “thank you” to the authors for what the authors have given them. Paizo’s fans want to do the same thing, as do the fans of Steve Jackson Games. WotC is trying to build the same sort of rapport with their audience.

It’s coming slowly, but the relationship between consumers and producers is transforming. It used to be we just bought what we were offered. More and more, however, we’re developing relationships with the folks who make our stuff. I think RPGs are ahead of the curve here because the line between producer and consumer has always been rather hazy, and is only getting fuzzier with time.

Friday, April 06, 2012

A Swing and a Miss?

Looks like it to me:

Our current plan is to condense skill and feat choices into two choices: background and theme. Background tells you where you came from, who you were, and what you are trained to do. Your background gives you a set of skills, specific tasks, areas of knowledge, or assets a character of that background ought to have. The thief background gives you Pick Pockets, Stealth, Streetwise, and Thieves’ Cant. The soldier background gives you Endurance, Intimidate, Survival, and an extra language. We want your abilities to carry the weight of basic task resolution, so these skills improve your chances when you perform tasks related to them or just let you do something, such as cook a meal, speak Goblin, or run for twice as long as the next person.

Where background speaks to the skills you possess, your theme describes how you do the things you do. All fighters, for example, kick ass in combat because they are fighters. A sharpshooter fighter is awesome with ranged weapons while a slayer fighter dominates in hand-to-hand combat. Your theme helps you realize a certain style, technique, or flavor through the feats it offers. Each theme gives you several feats, starting with the first one right out of the gate. As you gain levels, your theme gives you additional feats that reflect the theme’s overall character.

There's a lot of maybe here for me. Maybe this will work if skills and feats don't have prerequisites. If they do, then I'm still going to have to build out my character to level 10 or whatever to make sure I pick up the right ones. And maybe it'll work if everyone doesn't decide your fighter must have a certain feat and skill package to be "viable" in the game. If that happens, your attempt to tie background to mechanics has backfired, and now everyone is playing the same background over and over again.

It also depends on how skills and feats are used in the game. Are they additive or subtractive? By this I mean, do the skills work as they do in the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG, where everyone has a 1-in-6 chance of finding a trap, but the Specialist can improve his odds? Or can nobody swim unless they have the swimming skill (which, as 3e taught us, means that nobody can swim because, seriously, how often does that come up). They've made noises in the past that indicate that it's more the LotFP style, with everyone at least getting a roll based on the appropriate stat, which is promising.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Ashe and Earth

If you're a regular reader over at the LotFP blog, you'll have seen Ashe Rhyder's entry in Raggi's March art contest. Rhyder's also been over at G+ offering to do art at request. Leaping at the chance, I finally got the Gefirir that Taichara created for me illustrated:

Monday, April 02, 2012

Of Combat Acrobatics and Not-So-Frustrated Novelists

While doing research for the sort of project that will never see the light of day, I came across this comment from R.A. Salvatore regarding fight scenes:

It seems to me that fight scenes used to be vague descriptions of the chaos happening around a major character or characters, who were often more interested in accomplishing something within the context of the fight rather than winning the fight itself. Even 30 years ago, I remember reading Terry Brooks's excellent Wishsong of Shannara. I love that book and adored the character of Garet Jax. In the climactic scene for that character, Garet Jax battles a demon. The fight starts, Terry cuts away, and we come back to see the result. Not the fight, but the result. This is tradition. Go back to Homer and Virgil--they don't describe the fights in actual terms, but in symbolic and grand gestures.

So why did it change? Partly, I think it's got to do with the amazing choreography in movies like The Princess Bride.

I think Mr. Salvatore overstates the case a bit, but he does have a point. Take, for example, this famous fight by Dumas, in which D’Artagnan first draws sword alongside the three musketeers:

This contest at length exhausted Jussac’s patience. Furious at being held in check by one whom he had considered a boy, he became warm and began to make mistakes. D’Artagnan, who though wanting in practice had a sound theory, redoubled his agility. Jussac, anxious to put an end to this, springing forward, aimed a terrible thrust at his adversary, but the latter parried it; and while Jussac was recovering himself, glided like a serpent beneath his blade, and passed his sword through his body.

Jussac fell like a dead mass.

It’s not quite the cut-away that Mr. Salvatore describes, but neither is it the detailed recitation of every thrust and parry, every feint and stratagem, every step of the “dance” as Mr. Salvatore calls it. Here's an example of a more modern fight scene from the novel Tiassa by Steven Brust, a noted fan of Dumas' rather droll style:

I pulled a knife from each boot and tossed them underhanded at the two in front of me--one missed, the other poked a guy in the side; both of them flinched. I drew my blade and slashed the nearest, ruining his pretty face, which gave me time to skewer the other in the middle of his body. He dropped his lepip and doubled over; must have gotten a good spot. I slashed at the first again, but missed as he fell backward.

I took the opportunity to turn around, which was just as well; one of them had gotten past Loiosh and was coming at me. I didn't like the idea of his heavy lepip against my little rapier, so I pulled three shuriken from inside my cloak and sent them in his direction. One shuriken scratched his forehead, one missed, and the last almost clipped Loiosh's wing where he was tagging around the other one's head.

"Boss..."

"Sorry."

And I’m willing to go along with his thesis blaming the movies. Consider this flash of blades, the ring of steel-on-steel, but it’s not easy to tell what’s going on, or why Captain Blood won the fight. A few years later, we get the same duo dueling in "The Adventures of Robin Hood".

(Seriously, follow the links. It's fun stuff. I'd have embedded, but apparently it was disabled for both of them.)

Again, the swift and ringing swordplay is difficult to follow with the eye, but in the end, it’s clear what happened: the fiendish Sir Guy cheated, drawing his dagger to get a sneak-attack on poor Robin, and, thus proving his villainy beyond any shadow of doubt, was slain!

Now, compare that to this:



Aragorn gets a brief burst of flashing blade near the end, but for the most part, this fight is all about special moves and impacts. This is a post Rocky IV/Die Hard movie, where the hero takes a pounding, but stays on his feet to win in the end. The hero proves his right to victory by sheer stubborn endurance.

And notice how slow and big the moves are. Even with the editing to add a sense of speed and danger, it’s easy to see what each of them is doing with their weapon, what part of the body they’re aiming for, the results of every swing and thrust. It’s all about the big moves, the sudden reversals, the equipment, and the moments of impact.

The comparison to D&D style combat is obvious. TSR-era D&D has its 10 second and 1 minute combat rounds, the action is vague with the clash of steel, and the sudden end to the fight. One moment, both combatants are fighting to their utmost; the next, one of them is dead.

Meanwhile, 4e is about the slow whittling of resources: healing surges, daily powers, action points; special individual moves like “Fury of the Sirocco” and “Cloud of Steel.” There are even mid-fight transformations to the combat in the form of the “blooded” status. The fights are less climaxes to slowly rising action and more events in and of themselves, sometimes with nary a preamble.

I don’t expect 5e to do much to reverse this trend, but it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. The 4e/”modern” style combat requires more time, more resource tracking, and more granularity to pull off. The reward is really detailed combats. Getting the latter without the former would be an interesting trick to pull off.

Friday, March 30, 2012

What Dangers Will be Found in the Snake Museum?

For those of you involved in my G+ game this evening, here's some information you might find useful.

The Snake Museum is a ruin sheathed in creamy jade. The collection of domes rests atop a broad, gently sloping hill. It's a known haunt of the dreaded white apes who sneak out at night to prey upon the spidergoat herds of the simple villagers who live nearby.

There are two known entrances into the Snake Museum. The main entrance on the eastern side, atop a brief flight of steps, was once sealed by a pair of massive doors. Those doors have long since vanished, and this is the preferred exit and entrance of the white apes today. One of the domes on the northern side of the complex has collapsed. While the break there is strewn with rubble, the entrance is nearly for three men abreast to march into the ruin.

Among the rules we'll be using tonight are Shields Shall be Splintered and a variation on my old Table of Death & Dismemberment:

2d6

RESULTS

2 or lower

instant death (decapitated or other grevious wound).

3

fatal wound (gutted, stabbed through lung, broken back, etc.) die in 1d6 turns.

4

severed limb (DM's choice or roll randomly) will die in 3d6 rounds unless tourniquet applied, wound cauterized with fire, or Cure Serious Wounds cast (CSW used for this will not restore lost hp).

5,6

weapon in use broken (if not magical) or armour damaged raising the PC's AC by 2.

7,8

knocked out for 2d6 rounds, unless wearing a helm. With helm, only stunned for 1 round.

9

stunned for 1 round, unless wearing helm. With helm, only knocked down.

10

knocked down.

11

no effect.

12+

a surge of adrenaline returns 1d4 hit points per every other level (1d4 at 1st and 2nd, 2d4 at 3rd and 4th, etc.) At the end of the combat, the adrenaline drains away, hit points are reduced to zero, and the PC faints for 2d6 rounds.

Monday, March 26, 2012

FLAILSNAILS, Ho!

Sphere of the Shattered Autarch


Adrift upon the Seas of Fate, the Sphere of the Shattered Autarch is a ball roughly 85 miles in radius (giving its surface roughly the same square footage as the British Isles). While it is a disturbingly tiny sphere, its curvature obvious to any creature standing upon it, it exerts as much gravity as a far larger world. It bobs and tumbles slowly upon the Seas of Fate, with half its volume submerged when the seas are relatively calm. By slowly rolling in the Seas, the Sphere creates a facsimile of a day-and-night cycle. All land on one side of the water line is lit nearly as bright as day by a sky full of brilliant, rainbow-hued nebulae. The other side is shrouded in a deep mists and shadow. The line between them does look, to both sides, like the surface of the Seas, but passing through it doesn’t make you wet (though the fogs on the mist side are sometimes thick enough that standing in them long enough will make you soggy).

In ancient times, the Sphere was the battle-barge of a world-plundering Autarch who would descend on unsuspecting populations and unleash the hordes dwelling upon his sphere. It is said he met his fate when he fell madly in love with Tiamat. While wooing the Mother of Wyrms, she rubbed him down with honey-garlic glaze, slow-roasted him, and devoured all of him save his heart, which she still keeps as a trophy in a jar of translucent alabaster.

Population Centers

There are two inhabited port cities on the Sphere, at the poles of the sphere. Both have a large dock facility that sticks out at right-angles from the sphere. To those docking at such ports, ships “on the other side of the sea” appear to be upside down, their keels pointing towards the heavens. Stepping off the docks and onto the sphere reorients “down” as towards the center of the sphere.

AXIS
The larger of the Sphere’s two port cities, Axis is metropolitan by ancient standards with a population of roughly 18,000 individuals. Due to the necessities of the port facility, the buildings at the center of Axis, mostly warehouses and sailors’ dives, are low and long buildings, while the taller towers and spires are out along the edge of the city. It serves as a port and refuge for those sailing the Seas of Fate. The gambling dens and vice halls of Axis are comprehensive in their offerings, but can be expensive, especially if a stranger appears to be wealthy or willing to spend coin freely. The Moon-Beasts have a compound near the port as well, and their agents occasionally roam the streets, scooping up drunks and others who have partied a bit too heartily for employ in their black galleys.

It’s also seen as neutral ground for gods and their minions. Axis doesn’t have temples so much as embassies from untold numbers of gods and godlings, and it’s said that some of its streets don’t actually exist on the Sphere itself, but penetrated the multiverse in various dimensions. Thus, it’s not entirely unheard of for people to stumble into Axis from other worlds without realizing what’s happened.

Finally, Axis houses a massive library. The Library of Axis is fashioned from marble and roofed with gleaming red orichalcum. The sphinx who guards and keeps the library is not very welcome of random visitors, however, and just earning access to the labyrinthine stacks can be a trial in itself.

The sewers of Axis are said to open to the ancient catacombs of Axis, where the heroes of the Autarch’s plunderers were laid to rest. Hundreds of would-be heroes descend into the sewers every year, and most are devoured by baby dragon turtles. More discerning treasure-hunters seek their fortune in the nearby Ziggurat of Ravens, assuming they can find a way in.

ANTIPODES
On the opposite side of the sphere from Axis is the port village Antipodes. The village is always shrouded in thick mists, no matter which side of the water line any particular street happens to be on. It has a third of Axis’ population and is generally considered much less urban and refined than Axis. Its tentpole industries are harvesting cabbages and raising spidergoats in the surrounding hillsides. More adventurous souls use Antipodes as a base of operations for exploring the nearby Snake Museum, an ancient ruin currently overrun by white apes.

Other Spots of Interest


FUNGOID JUNGLES
At various spots along the Sphere’s equator are thick jungles of towering mushrooms, thick drifts of moss and mildew, and pools of bubbling smuts. While it’s believed that these places of devoid of traditional treasures, the sorcerers of Axis will sometimes pay adventurers to journey into them to retrieve certain spores or caps for their experiments.

THE PLEASURE DOMES
The Sphere sports three of these: the Alabaster Pleasure Dome a few days journey from Axis, the Jade Pleasure Dome opposite the Snake Museum from Antipodes, and the Onyx Pleasure Dome hidden in one of the fungoid jungles. None have any obvious entrances. It’s rumored that underground passages must allow access from beneath, and that each is crammed to brimming with the Autarch’s ancient spoils.

THE AUTARCH’S WINTER PALACE
Shrouded in crystal snow, the Winter Palace is carved from green ice. Just beneath the surface of the ice can be seen all manner of bizarre and terrifying creatures, frozen in various positions of lurking or pouncing menace. While the upper levels were plundered long ago, in a few spots the ice is clear enough that lower levels can be seen. None have yet found a way to descend to the palace’s dungeons yet.

UPDATE


Joceyln the cabbage-growing peasant has had a VISION. The slitherous ST. SERPENTOR has come to her IN A DREAM and told her to GO FORTH! and retake THE SNAKE MUSEUM from the fiendish WHITE APES that therein dwell, so that it may be consecrated as a monastery in HIS name. She seeks fearless companions to aid her in this worthy quest, and to share in the TREASURE!

The expedition will take place on Saturday Friday 7pm Eastern / 23:00 UTC on Google Plus. The game is run under the FLAILSNAILS conventions. Jocelyn is a 1st level Labyrinth Lord character built with Stuart Robertson's Paladin subclass. I'll be running a bastard version of Moldvay/LL, with Shields Shall be Splintered, some variation on the Table of Death & Dismemberment, and whatever tickles my fancy at the time. Characters above 3rd level will be handicapped.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Verisimilitude: It Doesn’t Work That Way

I’m willing to go along with some of what Rick Moran says about the trouble with selling a Barsoom movie to an audience, but not this:

Besides, everyone today knows that there is no life on Mars, could never be life on Mars, thus destroying the premise of the movie from the outset. And since most of the potential movie-going audience had no preconceived notions of the source material, and had no treasured memories of being swept up by the narrative, most of the audience ended up at sea — caught between wanting to suspend belief and their own realistic assumptions about Mars. In the end, how could you ignore what your own eyes have shown you about the Red Planet? We’ve had rovers exploring the surface of Mars for more than a decade.

Uh-huh. And James Bond movies flop because submersible undersea bases make no sense. Star Wars was a flop because we know explosions make no sound in space, and spaceships don’t swoop around like aircraft. How many times have we seen the facade at Petra used in a movie? And how many people have walked out of a theater because they knew that was tourist attraction in Jordan, and not where the movie-makers were trying to say it was, or what it was? I’ll bet you could count ‘em all on one hand.

But that’s the way verisimilitude works. It says, “Ok, we’re going to do this one crazy thing that we both know ain’t real. Just go with it, and we’ll have fun.” Really good fantasy and sci-fi then goes with that one change and follows through on the rational consequences: Han Solo can tell the difference in the sound of lazer blasts from asteroid collisions, James Bond needs a car that can transform into a submarine, and John Carter enjoys incredible strength and the ability to leap over tall tharks in a single bound while on Mars.

People watching Heroes had no trouble with accepting the idea of ordinary people being imbued with super powers. Those who enjoyed Lost didn’t nit-pick over all the insane crazy things that happened on the island, even when no explanation was quickly offered. Heck, that was almost certainly one of the big draws for the viewership (ditto X-Files). Modern audiences are well acquainted with the bargain of verisimilitude. You can tell when it’s being used poorly (Avatar - link NSFW) and even then lots of folks will give it a pass.

Photo by Arian Zweger.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

GURPS: Coming to a D&D Game Near You!

I keep running across articles and comments written by folks who seem utterly perplexed by what the 5e team is saying about D&D Next. How can you have one-hour games that finish even one combat and 4e-style grid maneuvers? How can the game appease both folks who want OSR-style fantasy fucking Vietnam and precious-snowflakes who will never die to mooks and random chance?

C’mon, folks, they haven’t exactly been cagey about this. They’re going to build a bare spine of a game and then give you modules to build your own personal campaign from. Want race-as-class? Great, here are some dwarf, elf, and halfling classes to slot into your campaign. Your neighbor wants race and class to be separate? Great, here’s some race modules they can slot in instead.

But what, then, goes up the cry, will be the default game? I can’t say for certain, but if they’re going to do everything they claim to be setting out to do, I imagine it’ll be so bare-bones as to be neigh unplayable. It’ll be stats, BABs, saves, and that might be all of it. Every class, race, spell, etc would be part of a module. Every campaign will be unique, nobody will use all of it, and everyone will be talking in bizarre shorthand about how their campaign works (“D&D w/Core4 cls, no hlf or gnm, hrdcr dmg.”)

Assuming they plan to take it to this extreme, the really interesting question will be how they plan to publish supplements and adventure materials that would cover every available style. Perhaps they don’t? Maybe they’ll just focus on core books and settings that provide more slottable rules modules?

All their surveys certainly seem to point to this idea. The more diverse (or fractured, take your pick) the community reveals itself to be, the more this option looks like the logical next step. Though this doesn't address comments that a 1e-sytle fighter and a 4e-style fighter can play at the same table. That just sounds like a recipe for disaster. So I’m willing to entertain the notion that I’m completely wrong here; my track record with predictions for 5e has been notoriously bad so far. ;)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Moebius Ended


Art by Loopydave.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Hex Mapping Part 20: The Politics of Hex Crawling

So, the PCs are all eager to head into the wilderness. You've got it mapped out, you have your random tables at hand, and you're ready to rock-and-roll.

What next?

Traditionally, the most defining feature of a hex-crawl is resource management. The further the PCs get from civilization, the better the rewards and the cooler the encounters. But the further they also have to go to replace consumed supplies, destroyed equipment, and lost mounts and hirelings. There's an obvious solution to this problem: the PCs can get their supplies from the monsters.

Sure, they can pillage and plunder their way across the landscape, but that only works so long as they encounter groups that are relatively easy to defeat in battle. And that's not what I'm talking about here.

Unless you're running the sort of game where monsters are the physical manifestations of an ambient and utterly evil malevolence, they'll have functioning communities and economies. These might be really small communities and extremely basic economies; I'm thinking my goblin tribes are 200 to 600 individuals with fairly advanced neolithic tech. But they sell the PCs arrows, mounts, and food, while the tribe's shamans can provide extremely basic (ie levels 1-3) magical services.

Once your players have made that leap, things can get really interesting. Clearly, there's conflict between the various monster groups on the island I've mapped out. In the east, we have goblins vs. lizardfolk vs. orcs vs. bullywugs. But there's no reason you can't make it more granular. Maybe the individual goblin tribes don't always get along well. As the old saying goes: me against my brother; my brother and me against my cousin; me, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger.

A variation on Zak's Connections Between NPCs Diagram from Vornheim is great for this sort of thing. You can scale it up for allied nations of villages, or down to cliques among the females in a single village.

Generally, you want to move from the micro to the macro in this. In the first village the players attempt to deal with, maybe they'll get involved in a fight over the chieftainship of the village. After that, they could improve their relations with the new powers-that-be by championing that village against another. And then help cement an alliance of goblin villages to thwart raids by lizardfolk slavers...

For your part, don't be thinking more than one or two opportunities ahead. Scatter a few opportunities before your players and let 'em play with the ones that interest them. It's usually not worth it to try to guess what the players will do; they'll frequently surprise you. Look at what happened, who benefited and who got a bloody nose, and build the next set of opportunities on that.

And always keep an eye on the horizon. Who are the monsters the players are dealing with dealing with in turn? How can you draw the attention of the players out towards the next line of hills, across the next river? You're weaving an interconnected world here, not telling a village-of-the-week story. Always be tossing out links to the big picture, or having macro concerns affecting micro challenges.

Art by Arthur Rackham.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Helium Triumphant!

“John Carter,” the Princess of Mars movie, is fun!

Purists are gonna hate it; it's actually a conflation of A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars. Kinda... There are lots of liberties taken with both stories.

But oh, there is so much here. John Carter is a fighting man from Virginia, and he fights through the whole movie. By the time we are finished with his introductory scenes, I knew I was going to enjoy this flick.

Did you know the people who made “John Carter” are Pixar folks? The Director, Andrew Stanton, also directed “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” and has writing credits on all three “Toy Story” movies and “Finding Nemo.” And it shows in “John Carter” because so many things that shouldn't work, work. John Carter's speeches work. The tharks work. Woola works.

There's a scene that must have looked cringeworthy on paper, that combines action, melodramatic flashbacks, and comedy. And it works.

Tars Tarkas is an ass, but you like him. The Heliumites are bold and noble without being wooden and dry. Deja is a warrior-scholar-princess without coming across as an overachieving “tiger baby” ice queen.

The trailers looked a bit rough, felt a bit flat. The movie does not. If “The Avengers” and “The Hobbit” were not coming out this year, I'd risk suggesting that it would be the most fun you'd have in a theater this year. If it had come out last year, I know it would have been the most fun I'd had in theater in 2011.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Racial Disharmony

Over at WotC’s “DnD Next” page, Monte Cook has written a second article kinda circling around how to handle PC races. Basically, Mr. Cook is wrangling with the question of how much mechanical impact your choice of race should have. Since I can’t seem to figure out how to post over there, and since I don’t have time to write something brief and pithy, blog post!

If you’re going to separate race and class (and we know they are for 5e) and class is going to dictate the lion’s share of your character’s abilities, what does that leave for race? Traditionally, race has offered a few small tweaks to your character sheet: a few bonuses or penalties to stats (which vanished in importance fairly quickly in every iteration of the game) and a handful of special abilities and bonuses (which also often got swamped out by escalating bonuses and abilities as the characters approached mid-level). In 1e, the big bonus you got from choosing a non-human was the opportunity to multi-class, and it was fairly similar across the races.

If you’re going to bother having character race be a choice, what do you want to accomplish with it? Or, rather, as is the case for 5e’s design team, if you’re stuck with including elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. in your game, what opportunities do they give you?

What pops foremost in my mind is the chance to create a new experience while playing a familiar class. The basic mechanics of the class might still be the same (still rolling a d20 to hit with your weapon or still picking spells in advance via a Vancian system), but the race should offer a wrinkle that fundamentally changes how you play that class. That means more than a simple +1 when using certain weapons or the like.

What you’d look for are frequently used but seldom modified sub-systems that can be adjusted by your choice of race. One of my favorites is inventory management. The dwarf’s extra carrying capacity in LotFP’s encumbrance rules or my own pixie’s equipment costing half as much as normal are examples of this sort of thing. A race that received extra benefit from clerical spells would play very differently than norm for just about every class, as would one who was highly resistant (or even nearly immune, even to beneficial clerical magic). A race that reacted very differently to dropping to nearly, or below, zero hit points might also offer some interesting differences (assuming the PCs in your game did that frequently enough). So might a race that couldn’t wear armor but offered alternative options for adjusting AC.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are enough interesting sub-systems in 5e that they could come up with a fun and interesting tweak for every race that would alter how you play nearly every class enough to make playing a fighter of one race very different from playing a fighter of another. Keeping it all balanced would be a headache, but as I’m a “combat as war” kinda guy, I’ll admit to not being terribly interested in that aspect of it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Playing with Doom & Tea Parties

This post is an attempt to round up all the house-rules and background details I use in my Doom & Tea Parties Labyrinth Lord hack game.  It's been running for just over 2 years now and I'm quite happy with it.

This is primarily intended as a resource for my players.  I also have little random tables and the like I use on my side of the GM screen.  Many of these have been posted on this blog, and I'll probably pull them together in a post like this sometime soon.  Maybe.

It'll also serve as a one-stop spot for new players entering the campaign.  We play online, via MapTool, so it's common to have players I've never met face-to-face before.

Introduction to the Campaign

Character Creation - I ended up using the equipment lists from 2e's Al-Qadim.  Say what you will about 2e, but it had the best equipment lists.  Plus a few additional goodies.

Languages

CLASSES

Gnomes

Half-ogres

Nixies

Pixies

Rogues

Witches

For clerics: The Gods

For magic-users (usually called sorcerers IC): Residual and Secondary Powers From Prepared Spells

COMBAT
Weapons, Initiative, and Damage

Shields Shall be Splintered!

The Table of Death & Dismemberment - I do not use the Constitution bonus when rolling on this table.

Example Combat

THINGS TO BUY (not found in 2e's Al-Qadim Supplement)

Drugs & Herbs

Potions

BACKGROUND DETAILS

Timeline

Calendar

The Multiverse

The Eldest & Titans

Metals

Noble Titles Among the Efreet & Genie Corsairs

Friday, January 27, 2012

5kepticism and Intrigue

DDXP opened yesterday, and the first reports are coming back in. It’s the first public playtests of 5e, plus seminars and whatnot, with bits and pieces being dribbled out. Unlike with 4e, there seems to be more of an effort to explain the core experience, but, as you’d expect, there’s not much in the way of details.

Geek’s Dream Girl is clearly a fan already, so we probably need to take what she says with a grain of salt (unless you happen to know that her tastes mirror yours). She’s posted a rundown of Thursday’s 5e seminar entitled “Charting the Course: an Edition for All Editions.” (You can see a much rougher “transcript” cobbled together from various sources at ENWorld, too.)

You may recall, way back a few years ago, Ryan Dancey talking about his dream RPG. One of his central themes was modularity; each group would basically build their own rules from a list of options, kinda-sorta the way GURPS works in practice, but with a more up-front, compartmentalized collection of building blocks. It looks very much like that’s what the 5e team has in mind here.

That would seem to be a big enough challenge to me, but then they go on to explain how you can have PCs built using different modules (that’s blocks of rules, not adventures, for you grognards who might become confused by their use of the term) playing at the same table. That is, someone playing a bare-bones kinda-sorta 1e style fighter could play at the same table as a push-slide-pull 4e fighter, and they’d both be balanced enough to play together without one overshadowing the other.

That more than raises an eyebrow with me. The issues involved in picking your rules are not just how many pages you want your character sheet to run. 1e combats are fast, simple things, in and out and then dealing with the consequences. 4e fights are long, detailed, involved things. The guy who wants to play a 1e fighter isn’t just saying that he doesn’t want to deal with 5 foot steps, Attacks of Opportunity, and push-and-slide combat maneuvers. He’s also saying things about how important he wants combat to be in his games, how long he wants it to last, and what combat means for the games he’s playing in. I really don’t see how you can mix a 1e-style fighter with a 4e-style fighter and not end up with somebody bored and/or frustrated.

Geeks Dream Girl follows up with some brief comments about getting to play in a 5e game run by Monte Cook. She says some promising things there:

There was a LOT of talk at the table. In character at times! I’ve never been at a D&D table where players were more invested in figuring out their next move.

On that topic, your next move isn’t on your character sheet. You don’t go paging through all your stuff thinking, “Well, I could Bluff this guy.” Nope. We were doing what we thought our characters should do, even if that involved our very NOT charismatic half-orc fighter trying to be a charismatic leader of a band of skeptical savage orcs. Multiple times. In other games, it’s “Okay, who has the highest Charisma? You? Okay, you go talk to those orcs and get them to help us.”

That raises some eyebrows as well, but of interest rather than skepticism. That sounds like a game of D&D I’d enjoy playing.

UPDATE:
The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can't be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.
- Harry Emerson Fosdick

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