Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Spells of Damage

A huge chunk of the 3.5 spell list is damage spells in every conceivable variety of energy, range and effect.

This takes me back to AD&D days. Has anyone ever rolled up Magic Missile in their spellbook and said "Darn, wish I'd gotten Burning Hands instead"? For that matter, what's the point of a low-level damage spell that you have to touch someone for, or one that burninates the henchman protecting you as well as the enemy? Magic Missile is darn near perfect - it cuts through most energy immunities, has a good range, hits automatically in most early editions. A lot of other damage spell ideas are either minor variations on it, or just unsuitable for someone with a 4 sided hit die and no armor.

Be it resolved that the most parsimonious way to treat direct damage spells at early levels is the good old Magic Missile, in one form or another; some way to set things on fire from a distance (fire is fun); and ... perhaps using Animate Rope to strangle? Any other varieties of the blast'em spell, I fear, will only reinforce the idea of the magic-user as arsenal rather than problem solver at low levels.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Cleric's Due

Continuing the spell list triage project.

It's easy to throw out those spells in 3.5 that are meant for arcane archers and other fighter-spell user types.

Harder to decide is where the job of the cleric ends and the magic-user begins. As a kind of anti-homage to 4e I want their duties and ways to be more sharply defined from each other, not less. At stake here are a number of "buff" spells such as Protection from Evil (and all the other alignments) but including anything that might benefit another character - Enlarge/Reduce, the variety of minor aquatic environment spells, and so on.

Let me present a perspective on the difference between divine and "arcane" magic I consider enlightening. It's from a book I read back in the 90's when my scholarly pursuits involved a heavy dose of Tarot and hermeticism strictly on the side. The author is an anonymous Russian convert to Catholicism and the book is Meditations on the Tarot.

Fortunately there is a summary of the first few chapters available on the Web so I don't have to dig up my old notes. The relevant chapter is on the Empress; the relevant section about the practice of sacred magic, which corresponds to the miracles of saints and the Bible. This is contrasted with personal magic and sorcery.

In sacred magic, the act has the aim of restoring freedom to others; is carried out through holy means; and has Godhead as its source of power. Other forms of magic deviate from this script at the caster's own spiritual peril, and tend to deny freedom to others, by enslaving their will or harming them. Personal magic in particular has the peril of descending into sorcery, in which the caster becomes the tool of "elemental forces" - demons from the human unconscious, more terrifying than the Devil and his minions because they are not bound by the same rules.

There is so much that is fascinating in the chapter. I am going to have to return to it when considering clerical magic, because that spell list forces a direct confrontation with the ethics of magic and indeed, with the alignment and ethical system reflected in one's game. In the meantime I am going to use it, in spirit rather than literally, to back a separation between the magic-user's personal magic and the sacred magic of the good cleric or the sorcery of the evil wizard. It is possible in my final system - depending on the desire of the setting's controller - to allow magic-users access to some aspects of "white" and "black" magic. After all, a lot of us can't live without skeleton-raising sorcerers and wizards who blast evil with holy names. Right now, though, both spells like "Protection from (alignment)" and necromancy spells are peripheral to the core list.

This also gives a cue as to which helpful spells are in the spirit of personal magic / sorcery and which are more sacred. Certainly, healing is presented by the Meditations' author as a way to restore freedom to another individual, corresponding nicely with the game reasons to restrict it to clerics; direct protection of others from harm is another general way to maintain freedom, and abjuration of hostile effects is a third. It's intriguing, if definitely too radical, to contemplate a world in which only clerics can Dispel Magic ...

The helpful effects of personal, magic-user magic should therefore either apply to the caster's self (Shield, Expeditious Retreat) or ideally, when affecting others, be as potentially problematic as liberating. Magic-user "buffs" should not just be bonuses or added skills but should have profoundly weird effects on the recipient. Examples of good spells for this are Enlarge/Reduce, or my weightlessness spell that combines Jump, Feather Fall and Tenser's. As a side effect ... this tends to encourage creative uses of the spells.

I realize that this all is just an echo of the deep understanding of morality and spirituality within the Empress chapter in the Meditations. Indeed, I think that source deserves to inspire a dedicated magic system top to toe. There is a way to do this within a D&D setting, as I'll show in my cleric writings, but it certainly calls into questions many assumptions in a game of uneasy alliances between sword-and-sorcery treasure seekers, scholarly wizards, holy crusaders from the Middle Ages, and Tolkien nonhumans.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Fun Killers and Creativity Stiflers

So, phase one of the function triage project for the roughly 100 1st level spells in 3.5 D&D. First criterion: does it just duplicate things that players can or should be doing for themselves, with skill, thinking, or equipment? Here are the ones that don't make it by this criterion.

Alarm: This is a marginal one. On the one hand, it's really more an NPC spell to make things harder for the party. I'm all in favor of NPCs having spells from diferent books and playing by different, unpredictable rules. Players who want to set up a guarded camp or area, arguably, should just set watches or rig up contraptions. On the other hand, it can be useful in those situations, to guard a player's stuff, keep an eye on the mule you left outside, and so on. On the balance, it feels more like a cantrip-level spell. I'm leaving it out.

Hold Portal: As I said - use spikes, benches, logs, anything but magic. I don't care if this spell was featured in the Lord of the flippin' Rings. Cmon Gandalf, you're a Maia, you must know Wizard Lock?

Detect Secret Doors: Pretty much the definition of a character/player skill usurpation. Ditto Instant Search, Spontaneous Search, and the numerous spells that give a bonus to skill checks in 3.5. You want spells to do something special, not just buff along another character's specialty.

Discern Bloodline: Leaving aside the Himmleresque implications of this spell, it is a fun killer par excellence. It is normally completely useless except when the party suspects there is a doppleganger or other deceptive creature around. Then, in the true "party vs. referee" spirit, if they have this spell they get to laugh at the exposure of the plot. It's this adversarial mentality that leads to the creation of such spells that are so useful for the party. Then the DM institutes heavy-handed countermeasures. Ooh, the doppleganger is wearing a special medallion of non-detection. Hey, teleport and passwall don't work in this dungeon due to "magical energies" in the wall.

I'm giving this Nazi spell the heave-ho and that also goes for Identify, Know Protections, and Locate City. There is a place for divination magic in a way that can help and not stifle good old detective work. These spells aren't in that place.

Mount: Buy a horse. I can see maybe a "Summon Docile Creature" spell that would allow more creative applications, but as is, Mount is way too specific.

Tenser's Floating Disk: Buy a hireling. I know this has an illustrious lineage but if players want to be lazy or cheap in hauling treasure, that's what spell research is for, just like in the original Greyhawk campaign. Besides, there's a better replacement for this if we diversify one of the weak first level spells from the list. I'll explain later ...

Erase: This spell just rubs me the wrong way - so to speak. I suppose it could be used creatively, but I'm really only going to favor a spell if it also has an easily comprehended mundane use. Right now it seems only good for tomb inscription vandalism and messing up spellbooks on the sly; any other uses can be substituted for with a wet rag or broom.

Anyway, so that's roughly 18 off the list for now. I hope this clarifies what I meant by "fun murderer" spells. There are more at higher levels, of course, and plenty of medallions, counterspells, fiats and kludges to make sure players don't get to use them.

Also: I should probably restrict myself to the SRD; and probably will once at higher levels. If this exercise is convincing me of anything, it's that most of the non-SRD spells are for one reason or another not fit for the aims of rules-light, player skill driven gaming.

Spells: Functions

What are magic-user spells good for?

This is a different kind of classification from "how do they work" (enchantment, summoning, transmutation and so on). But it might help us arrive at a minimal set of effect types that should be in a spell list at most levels.

FrDave at Blood of Prokopius is already exerting a heroic effort analyzing the OD&D spell lists vertically - creating rules for custom spells based on the balance of spell versus level within each type. I want to do something like that, but horizontally. This means adjusting for an approximate balance across different spell types, as much as they are apples and oranges, but also looking at these other two standards:

* Is it fair to other players? Does the spell duplicate effects that other class abilities or general adventuring skill can take care of? If so, then it is either a waste of a spell slot, or an infringement on the other players.  Example: the seldom used Hold Portal, whose underwhelming effect really can just be achieved by a hireling with a handful of iron spikes and a hammer.

* Is it fair to the campaign? Does it allow the giving away of information or overcoming of obstacles that are better resolved in a more creative way? Example: the Identify spell, one of many that take the magic out of magic.

Because this is a carte blanche effort with no sacred cows, I want as wide a choice of spell effects as possible while still remaining "D&D." Therefore I am using the 3.5 edition spell list found here as a starting point. Indeed, it's a sad roll call of what the game had become by 2005, packed with creativity stiflers, metagame-y effects, and fun murderers, with a clear pecking order of useful and dog spells. A large number of these will be thrown out immediately, of course (Locate City whut?) The rest can be classified into seven categories:

1. Creating or summoning objects/creatures
2. Destroying or damaging objects/creatures
3. Changing objects/creatures
4. Gaining knowledge
5. Changing minds
6. Illusions
7. Travel through space and time

So, let me know what you think. I'll be proceeding soon with a look at the first-level spells, maybe with a few asides along the way about good, evil, and the colors of magic.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

My take on "nice things"

Malcolm Sheppard's vaguely phrased rant on gamers and the even more vaguely phrased follow-up seem to be all things to everyone. Many DIY oldschoolers got their hackles up, responding "you talking to me?" Travis Bickle style.

I actually read the article more favorably, being involved with a company and colleagues who are trying to make more than a few bucks from selling the latest edition of a long-standing role-playing game. But I think what Malcolm was talking about - or rather, the concerns of mine that his gnomic pronouncement activated - was not the DIY community but rather the opposite, the people who refuse to DIY but expect that the company will release the perfect game for them, and then haunt the online spaces of that game like a hungry ghost, carping when the product does not meet their demands. In other words, the "citizens."

While you would think that these people are a perfect market for an endless stream of supplements, because they demand an official answer for everything, in fact they are hypocrites.  They have the contentious spirit of the tinkerer, but the moralizing spirit of the crusader, wanting to impose their "objectively correct" answers on everyone else. So while they may buy the products, they will then undermine the company's PR with a gush of negativity, seeking to spread their poisonous point of view to other gamers who might innocently just be looking for fun or creativity.

If you focus the problem onto online space this way, then the old school movement is blameless. You don't see its authors and designers hanging around on 4e forums blathering about class balance or WoW feel. The majority of those complainers are still hanging on to 3e and variants. Real oldschoolers vote with their feet and are a neutral, not hostile or co-dependent, alternative to commercial games.

What's more, some of the strategic decisions made around the latest edition of L5R RPG really have the citizens up in arms. The designers are explicitly telling GMs to take more control in deciding the context of their setting. There is less emphasis on official answers to the kind of rules question that GMs really should be deciding themselves. Needless to say, I think this is a very healthy decision. But if only the people who felt well-served by this power shift were as vocal as those who expect the company to answer their every concern.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Spells: Reform or Revolution?

So, a lot of the old school takes on spells are reformist in nature. They take as given the lists and general powers of spells as laid down in OD&D and tweaked over successive versions of the game. Sleep is always level 1, fireball level 3, clerics have bless at level 1 and so on. Within this framework there is maybe an attempt to tone down some of the more out of kilter powers, or drop a few spells (like Know Alignment) that prove to be fun-killers in play.

Of course, there's a label hanging over any attempt to completely remake the spell system. I'm conscious of the danger of coming up with a Fantasy Heartbreaker, as much as someone trying to recruit for the ideal Tom Petty backup band.

(Okay, that was a bad simile.)

So, which way to go? Take the basic spell list and just add and tweak a little? Or completely rip the structure down from top to bottom?

Point: Much of the appeal of old school gaming is having a very simple lingua franca of concepts - classes, levels, abilities, d20 to hit.

Counterpoint: Players who are into spellcasters and magic-users in particular don't mind having to pore through a spell list, learning the minute pros and cons of a set of spells they may not have committed to memory. With this in mind, why not have the spell list be something completely new? The quick starting group can always just roll up, say, 3 or 4 spell choices from a list, point out the appropriate pages in the spell manual, and have the caster's player study up on those in between stops on the trek to the first adventure.

Hmmm. I'm leaning toward the revolutionary option. Damn the torpedoes ... as Tom Petty would say.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Spells and Creativity

The magic system is probably the thing that's the least to my liking in older editions of D&D. After, all what attracts me to the old school ways is the emphasis on player creativity and problem solving. Then I face the prospect of a spell system that almost seems designed to smother creativity. It's just perverse to force pre-memorization of spells, from a list where one or two each level stand out as clearly optimal in combat, at the same time you are encouraging players to come up with crazy solutions in every other area using ropes, spikes, mules, catnip and what have you.

I actually don't have a beef with Vancian magic. I wish the magic was Vancian. Check out Turjan of Miir. Not for him 3x Sleep, 2x Web, 1x Fireball. After all, if you are physically forcing spells into your head, it's absurd to memorize the same thing twice. So one fix is to slightly up the number of spells - maybe, for instance, first-level casters with a decent prime requisite get two - but make each one be different. That would really enforce creativity and variety.

Or we can go with later-period Vancian (Rhialto the Marvellous, written many years after the first printing of D&D), and assume that magic is done through spirit-world intermediaries of various ranks, which would handily explain the levels system. Any rules, really, can be justified with an image of fractious, bureaucratically minded minions following absurd empyrean regulations. So why not have it be a matter of using spell slots instead of pre-memorizing spells, with free choice at each use? In other words, everyone's a cleric. That allows the odd Comprehend Languages to be pulled out at the right time when it would really save the party's bacon.

I'll mull over those possibilities and maybe take your comments. I don't want to use a spell point system - that just increases the bias toward your most effective spells across levels. But here is the other principle I want to use in spell design.

Same object, two descriptions.

"It's a tool for brushing your teeth."

"It's a plastic handle about five inches long with a narrow head. On the head are mounted a thick array of plastic bristles."

I think you'll see that the more concrete description opens more room for creativity. Instead of being constrained by the function, the material description invites you to think of all kinds of uses for it - scrubbing small places, melting the handle and using it as a spoon ...

Likewise for

"This spell strikes an enemy within 60 feet unerringly for 1d4 damage"

"This spell imparts great force to a pebble-sized object, causing it to streak from one's hand for up to 60 feet. It always hits its target; if the target is alive, it does 1d4 damage to it."

This is what I want in my spell descriptions and designs. Spells that expand role-playing and problem-solving rather than shutting them down. You may think I have some culprit spells in mind and you are right. But that's for another time.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Designing Around Sleep

I'm designing a module for a one-shot session in the summer, likely using S&W or LotFP old school rules.

It's a low-level adventure, and with everything I put into it, I am constantly thinking "Sleep spell." And then I realize a few things that work against the broken power of old-school-clone Sleep:

* Splitting up groups of low level monsters into multiple encounters
* Having close quarters and enforcing a "friendly fire" rule
* Foes approach from many angles
* Not all foes can be slept

And more ideas in this discussion ranging from a full-on nerfing of Sleep (saving throws, fewer creatures affected) to a "D&D is right" approach. Given it's a one-shot I am not really inclined to accept answers that come down to "it will all wash out over time". And for a longer campaign I would much rather start from a balanced spell system that gave starting spellcasters two or more things to do. In fact, I think the time is right to start discussing magic systems.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Welcome to the Pentadome

This thread on Boardgamegeek has a very cool discussion of the kind of grids that can be had by tiling pentagonal shapes, as opposed to the usual 4 or 6 sided figures.

The limitations of pentagons as a general spatial simulation soon become evident. But if you have a truly alien dungeon, building complex, or spaceship to show, there'd be nothing to make your players' eyes bug out like mapping it on this kind of paper:

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Customers, Customizers, and Citizens

I have been reading a fairly typical RPGnet thread about a game some of my colleagues design and playtest, with the very simple question. What do you want?

And the answer, at length, to another question: what do you do when a game product doesn't give you what you want?

Well, you can make peace with it, or you can act like one of these three characters.

The customer drops the game for something they enjoy better.

The customizer chooses to stick with the game. Maybe they have an attachment to it, or find it too convenient a language of common experience for fellow players to let go. But they satisfy their complaints by making the game their own; customizing it with add-ons and house rules.

The citizen is often seen on message boards; in fact, I think someone who reads a lot of them is bound to overestimate the frequency of this character. This is someone with such attachment to the product that they act as if its makers are a government that is obliged to listen to the complaints of its citizens. What's more, the typical citizen will claim to speak for the majority of their fellow inmates.

Trapped as if by accident of birth in their imaginary country, often you will hear the citizen-fan swearing to boycott and leave, just as some do when their side loses a bitter election. (Forum moderators call this behavior "flouncing.") They may stop buying products - though even that claim is suspect - but they won't leave the fan community, forming a perpetually dissatisfied government-in-exile.

Sometimes the customizer will ask the citizen why they don't just take matters into their own hands and run the version of the game they like. The answer is usually "I don't have the time" - never mind all the time you have spent on the internet haranguing people to change it for you. Or "I paid good money for this product, it is not my job to fix it." So how long are you going to wait for "Hey, The Company Finally Listened to Me" edition?

Perhaps this is why I find the old school community so refreshing, after going on 8 years in various capacities working on the side for a "government" - a commercial game line with a relatively large and highly identified fanbase. With no company to accuse of profiteering, no official products to fall short of the One True Vision of the game, the customizers of the retro-clone movement simply strike out on their own and share their ideas, triumphs and failures.

Normal, mature behavior, perhaps, but refreshing all the same.

Monday, 14 June 2010

We Have Fuligin

Fans of Gene Wolfe's magnificent Book of the New Sun far-future novels will recall that the traditional color of the Guild of Torturers was fuligin - a fictional light-absorbing hue blacker than black.

It now exists.

I think that almost makes up for the now shaky scientific basis of Wolfe's technology for transferring memories from person to person.

If you want fuligin cloaks or garments in a D&D game, you will have to visit one of the Underdark's disreputable bazaars, bringing with you at least 1000 gold pieces worth of treasure; or take them from those few underground elves who have learned to weave elemental darkness into spider silk. Covering your body near-completely with fuligin, with black masks or veils over one's face, black gloves, and all equipment painted black, gives a +4 on d20/+20%/+1 on d6 for hiding in shadows. Wearing fuligin in public will attract awe, fear and no small amount of attention.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Heroic Ego

I have been thinking recently about the heroic versus the naturalistic way of thinking, spurred on by a chapter I'm co-authoring for a volume on extremism and uncertainty.

Brief recap of what has gone before: in a heroic fiction the world is there for the sake of the protagonist. It is there to test, challenge, scare, amaze, delight.

In a naturalistic fiction the world exists with its own logic. The protagonist just stumbles upon it.

Four very different instances where this applies:

1. I've abandoned my re-reading of Stephen King's It  The bloat that was annoying in The Shining becomes nearly unbearable here, way too many characters and I don't feel like plodding through to the conclusion, which I recall as a total, disgusting WTF moment.

The real annoying thing, though, is that it's heroic mode. The Bad Thing is there primarily to test, tempt, taunt, and scare the protagonists. You peek in over their shoulder at a never ending parade of horror shows, most of which don't work, and you can almost hear King running around frantically going "I am the master spookster! Boo! Did I scaaare you?" The images may be disturbing, but the underlying message is reassuring. You are important enough for the Ultimate Evil to personally care about you.

Lovecraft doesn't play that. In his stories, you stumble on a universe that doesn't care if you exist or not. That's scary for keeps.

2. In a conversation with a grad student here who is studying conspiracy theories, he mentioned the belief that at the same time the plotters are incredibly powerful and capable, and incredibly stupid. One exhibit of the "incredibly stupid" variety is the mustache-twirling dialogue of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document forged by the Czar's secret service that purports to be the minutes of a global Jewish conspiracy. Again, a product of the heroic mode, as with so many villain tropes. The bad guy is only understandable as a foil for the hero, rather than someone who ruthlessly pursues their own goals. To this end his minions are set up to fail, he provides exposition of his own plots, leaves the hero in a death trap with an adequate Challenge Rating, and so forth.

3. The feminist Bechdel Rule judges films according to whether they contain more than one female character that talk to each other about something other than men. A similar rule could be applied to men who appear in "female" entertainments such as Sex and the City, I guess. Fiction tends to play to its target gender, presenting members of the opposite sex as props in the drama.

4. Hit point systems are heroic. Location injury systems are naturalistic. Guess which one overwhelmingly dominates the world of computer gaming.

The irony is that it is more natural to us as story listeners or game players to prefer heroic to naturalistic tales. Stories and games in heroic mode are comforting; easy to get into; do not tax our thought or motivation; appeal to a wide range of tastes. Stories and games in naturalistic mode are slightly more difficult; they ask us to step outside our heroic ego, face the possibility of death, disidentify with the hero or characters and become more of a puppet master.

I suspect which mode any given person prefers in a game depends on how much they see the game as an escape from the complexities of life, versus an arena in which to confront the complexities of life.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Combat House Rules now up

Look ye rightwards and behold the Rule of the Assayers, Chapter the First.

One thing I have no illusions about: I did this writeup because I wasn't 100% satisfied with any of the clone rule sets and I doubt anyone will be 100% satisfied with my approach. That's just the way of cranky old-schoolers with a quarter century of ideas and expectations under our belts. Least I can do, though, is put my cards on the table about my goals (see Foreword) without claiming to be the One True Way. I hope you can salvage a few ideas from this or at least be inspired to bash out your own. Comments and brickbats are always welcome!

These rules will largely be in effect for my GenCon private game and any other games I run in the near future.

Incidentally, if anyone can offer better hosting than Mediafire (upload doesn't work any more for me) or RapidShare (annoying), I'd be mucho obligado.

UPDATE: Now in Google Docs with some minor fixes.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Hex Crawl Mombasa

We spent most of the day with friends playing Avalon Hill's flawed classic from 1977, Source of the Nile. Really unlike any other boardgame, Source comes with a laminated board of central and southern Africa as it appeared to Europeans in the late 19th Century, with only coastal hexes and Cape Colony mapped. The players mount expeditions to explore the interior, filling in blank hexes with randomly generated terrain as they go. The rulebook charmingly talks about playing the game in the spirit of the "new role playing games," and there is a lot of overlap in feel - from the hex-mapping and exploration, to the choice of different professions with different victory priorities and special abilities in play, to the way ridiculous random events can wipe out nearly a whole expedition. In fact, an older version got a glowing review from a key figure in role-playing.

Leaving aside the somewhat chaotic tangle of the rules, which true to 70's form are full of holes, typos and charming special circumstances and mechanics, the game is just too full of fun-killer moments to recommend playing without changing the rules for getting lost and recruiting funds in Europe. Sitting there for half an hour, rolling a die or collecting cards so you can start moving again, is not fun. A computer spreadsheet is also mandatory to handle the complex task of balancing cost and carrying capacity for expedition design.

Still, the game play reminded me that there is something glorious about an explorer mapping out huge stretches of the continent, only to die in a random ambush, his discoveries fading into ontological unreality ... or the largest exploring party ever known, financed by the proceeds of five elephant tusks, karmically being scattered to the four winds by a rogue elephant stampede near the mouth of their starting river. There also was a great overland trek where one party, defeated in a fight with natives, was reduced to just the explorer. Trapped behind large lakes and hostile tribes without a canoe, the explorer chanced swamp and desert, putting life in the hands of an uncertain water supply ... and eventually coming out in glory as the first European to cross from the Atlantic to Indian Ocean coasts. Only the very real chance of failure can truly gild success as it deserves.

This is a lesson we may be losing in the gaming hobby at large, with its Nirvana of studiously balanced rules and procedure guaranteeing a constant diet of fun and involvement for everyone. What that design ethic doesn't teach is patience, the ability to fill empty "downtime" with banter, work out the holes in the rules cooperatively, and take hard knocks with a grin. Ah, progress...

I'm not sure why some enterprising game company has not taken it on themselves to produce a less difficult version of Source. The fantasy genre could get rid of any and all sociopolitical objections to the "natives" and "voodoo", and the game idea itself is lots of fun. At the very least, a hex crawl through a jungle continent in a role-playing adventure game could be regulated by frequent consultation of the random events and findings on the cards.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Combat Rules

The house rules I've been developing for combat are about ready to post in their entirety. So expect that coming up this week. I was spurred to produce them because I was dissatisfied with combat procedures in the three major OSR systems - S&W, Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC. I won't be too negative about systems that were explicitly intended to clone ages-old rules sets, but important goals of mine are:
  • to avoid a great deal of fiddling each round with surprise, initiative and so on
  • to have realistic time and distance scales, keeping in mind that most combats in the system tend to be in enclosed spaces
  • to be able to go around the table, have each player decide what they are doing, and carry it out then and there
  • to use round numbers wherever possible, and not get hung up on things like a 60' vs. 70' range
  • to have different weapon choices reflected in relatively simple, flavorful traits that are roughly balanced
  • to have the ability to move and attack, avoiding gamer-mentality standoffs when closing to combat, without obsessing about segments and partial actions
  • to show players that setting up the situation tactically can be as important as any bonuses they might get from the optimum character build
  • to have rules available for the most common kind of things that players try in a game
  • to have the depth of the rules accommodate both casual and intense gamers
Yes, some of these reflect an ... evolution of my priorities since previous posts on the matter.

    Thursday, 3 June 2010

    On Killing

    What if ...

    your fantasy world was all humans, intrigues, politics and naturalism above ground ... and only in the Underworld did monsters dwell?

    And those monsters were there in large numbers, and killable without remorse, because ...

    • they were less than human, and you needed their gold and experience points.
    • they were intrinsically evil and needed to be wiped out.
    • they were threatening the world above, and you needed to save the village.

    I'm working out these three implications in a different context than games - an article  I'm co-writing in psychology, about how  terrorists, extremists, and other supporters of violence overcome the natural impediments against direct killing of another human being. I suppose there are other answers, such as ...

    • the characters are sociopaths, born or made (viz. Raggi's fighter class in Flame Princess)
    • the characters are heroes who need impediments to overcome
    • the monsters deserve it; they chose to be monsters
    • the characters do feel remorse; they lose Sanity or Humanity each time they have to kill a sentient being
    • the whole situation is an ambiguous allegory in which each of these possibilities can be considered
    I realize this topic has been broached before in a rather unsubtle style. Ultimately, of course, our visceral ban is against the physical act of violence. But the blur between imagined or viewed violence and actual violence has become deeper with technology; a man in Nevada kills another in Afghanistan. If reality is made a game so that violence may more easily be done, does this taint our games, or make them an even more vital moral arena?

    I want to find the balance that Umberto Eco found, in one of his essays when he contrasted the very physical war games he used to play as a boy with the cold sadism of the entirely bloodless genocide, the future Auschwitz commandant playing with the Erector set.

    Wednesday, 2 June 2010


    So, my rules set is going to include bows.  Back to the weapons board.

    Be it resolved that no D&D rule set really gets the English longbow right.

    There's no magic trick to bows, short, long, composite or cross. Each mechanical advance is just a better way to store up arm strength and release it. The strength comes out as damage, penetration and - especially when arched into the air - range. Crossbows build up strength over time through slower loading.

    Two arrows per round, even a six second round, is a really good deal but probably reflects the shooter not having to worry about defense. The tradeoff is having to worry about range minuses.

    Range minuses "to hit" for any bow start at 20 feet and are -2 for every whole or part of 50 feet (the bow's range unit) thereafter.

    Normal bows are 2 arrows per round, 1d6.

    You can have a bow custom built for your strength at three times the price. It'll have +20 feet to its range unit per strength "plus". You get one point of your Strength "to hit" bonus for every three or more points of armor on the target (not counting shield) and +1 damage maximum. So if you're entitled to a +2 "to hit" from a 16 Strength, you get no bonus to hit vs. someone with leather armor or a shield; +1 vs. someone in chain; +2 vs. someone in plate.

    That's your English longbow - a whole company of specially exercised Strength 13+ archers with matching bows. You can't just pick one up in the thaler store.

    Light crossbows are 1 bolt per round, 1d6+1, range unit 70 feet, +1 to hit a target with 3 or more points of armor. Heavy crossbows are 1 bolt per 2 rounds, 1d6+2, range unit 100 feet, +1 to hit a target per 3 points of armor. They're bows with Strength bonuses built in.

    I like it when magic-users can have crossbows (shout out to Basic!) They're suitably technical and weaselly weapons.

    Tuesday, 1 June 2010

    Wrapping up Weapons

    So ... I just don't have it in me to blog about the odds and ends of weapons remaining. Shields, staffs, small arms. Flails. Whips. Sigh.

    But ... I am going to put it all into a pdf. Here's the first page.

    This system presents a set of house rules for pre-gunpowder combat with any pre-1984 d20-based adventure game. They add variety to weapon choice and interesting situations to combat, without bogging down in table lookups or extra dice rolls.

    There are four sheets to the guide. One sheet is the Player’s Aid. It is suitable for new players, who shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the level of description. More experienced players should intuitively grasp what is meant by each of the weapon effects. They can always ask the referee for details or check out the advanced sheets.

    The other three sheets are mainly for the game master. They’ll replace the pages on weapons in your game rules, and add to your array of rulings on combat situations.

    Your group might like these rules if:

    *     They like improvising small-group military tactics in a variety of situations, without worrying about who is in which five foot square.
    *     Your fighters enjoy walking around with a harness full of weapons, and figuring out which is the right one for any job.

    They might not like them if:

    *    They want the rules to regulate really dramatic, spectacular, heroic feats. (You can still improvise rulings for those, though.)
    *     They want ultra-realistic, blow-by-blow, reenacter-approved fighting rules.
    *     They want combat to be ultra-light and schematic, so they can get on with role-playing or exploring.