Monday 30 May 2011

The Emotions: Disgust

My posting is going to be less frequent over most of the summer as I hit the conference trail, a Powerpoint-spangled stairway to the stars that's already taken me to Limerick and Amsterdam and will end up in Kyoto (and probably, complete exhaustion) after four or so more European venues. At the same time, all this activity makes me think about those magic moments when my scholarship and fandom identities merge.

I mean, when my hosts at a three-day course google me and find my number three hit is as a talking head expert on the indie documentary "True Fan" (I tried to explain the social identity of convention Klingons and stormtroopers) .... and then I end up talking D&D with one of the grad students over beers ... that's got to be telling me something.
There's no doubt that the most interesting emotion my lab studies is disgust. We find that disgust is an irrational emotion that defies our attempts to explain it reasonably. Disgust is also a many-branched emotion. Many different things that we learn by association set it off, and there really is no one way to sum up the kind of perceptions that will and will not cause disgust.

Really, any kind of environment creator - game designer, author, filmmaker, game master - works best with a ready handle on the audience's emotions. One of the easiest to manipulate is disgust. I mean:

This gimmick from the Modern Toilet restaurant chain in Taiwan relies on the inflexibility of disgust. Even though you know you are eating from a clean metal dish in a clean porcelain bowl, the toilet shape brings up all kinds of associations and disgust can't help but happen (worse if you are eating splashy, green-brown curry).

It follows that, while it may be hard to get angry, feel pleasure, or fall in love as your character in a game, disgust more readily pierces through the "Just a game" barrier. We feel disgusted even at blatant simulations of things that make us disgusted.

But does this mean we really get disgusted in character? Or just that we transfer our own revulsions to the setting? I'll explain how to work with this gap next time, when I write about Basic Disgust.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

The Greatest Afro-Grindhouse RPG Never Made


Not small-press module covers, these are hand-painted posters on flour sack canvas, advertising the offerings of mobile VCR-cinema entrepeneurs in the hinterlands of Ghana. There are hundreds of them in this gallery; I've drawn on Nigerian horror but there are also renditions of Hollywood, Bollywood, and Hong Kong classics - Krull, Beastmaster, and Red Sonja among them. The most disturbing are not for the faint hearted (or work); END OF THE WICKED in particular.
Cartilage Heads!
The audience is not guaranteed to understand English, so that may account for all the fantasy and horror titles, with their visual spectacle. Anyway, most of these posters are so amazing you get the sense that seeing the actual movie would be kind of a letdown.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

The Gnome as Consolation

I've been thinking about adding a race/class to my Old School Players system that's a consolation for rolling no exceptional, 13+ ability scores. My recent thoughts about magical dabbling and random spellcasting gave rise to this: the Gnome.

Illus. by Arthur Rackham
Gnomes are small, furtive, hairless folk, the descendants of Earth who failed to choose Good (as the dwarves did) or Evil (as the kobolds did). Long ago, they were employed by the great sorcerers of the day as helpers, which may explain why they retain some tradition of magic.

A player may choose the gnome character class only if none of the character's initially rolled ability scores are 13 or greater.

Gnomes' hit die is 1d6, no bonus. They are small, with a maximum move of 9. They have +1 to attack with missile weapons. They have starting equipment as a rogue.

1    Attack +0, Skill points 4, Magic points 1, Mind save 15, Speed save 13, Body save 11, Spell (level 1, see below)
2    Skill points 5, Speed save 12, Magic points 2
3    Attack +1, Skill points 6, Mind save 14, Magic points 3, Spell (level 2)
4    Skill points 7, Body save 10, Speed save 11, Magic points 4
5    Attack +2, Skill points 8, Mind save 13, Magic points 5, Spell (level 3)
6    Skill points 9, Body save 9, Speed save 10, Magic points 6
7    Attack +3, Skill points 10, Mind save 12, Magic points 7, Spell (level 4)

Beyond level 7, gnomes follow the same progression except they do not learn new spells.

Gnomes start with a known magical spell at level 1 that is chosen randomly, or at will if they have 1 or more ability scores at 7 or below*; multiple low scores beyond the first give extra 1st level spells known, rolled at random. To cast a spell, a gnome spends Magic points equal to the spell's level, and rolls d20 adding Intelligence + caster level x2 - spell level x2; a result of 20 or more is a success, otherwise the Magic points are spent without effect. A natural 1 is a critical failure, with negative effects determined by the DM; a natural 20 is a critical success (gnomes occasionally get some random insight from their half-witted approach to magic) and gives some bonus effect; a natural 13 is a mishap, and the gnome ends up successfully casting a different random spell of that level.

The concept of the gnome is to blend a slightly less competent version of the rogue with a dabbler's knack for spellcasting, which is always going to be rather random due to low ability scores. It's not meant to be "balanced" with the other classes but to provide a reason to play a set of mediocre stats in a fun and unique way.

* Think of it this way: their low ability score meant they spent time studying magic instead of doing other things growing up. Yes, this even applies to intelligence ... studying lots of spells instead of taking time to study them well.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Olympians Incognito

A little too familiar? Via OrobosArt
So you want to use the Greco-Roman gods in your campaign. But halfway through, you stop, and check your mental roadmap. "Apollo" leads to moon rockets, Battlestar Galactica and Rocky. "Venus" leads to tennis, Bananarama and the planet, so you go "Aphrodite," but then you start thinking Woody Allen. How do your gods become otherworldly if Zeus was a pro wrestler, Bacchus a Mardi Gras krewe, and Athena a song from The Who's declining years? Not to mention their down-to earth appearances in the adventures of Xena.

You could make up your own names. Or you could take a tip from Gene Wolfe, classical scholar and fantasy author. In the Long Sun series he presents a far-future society that worships machine intelligences who present themselves as Olympian gods but under their lesser-known historical epithets; so, for example, Aphrodite/Venus goes by "Kypris." In the Latro trilogy he goes back to the times of ancient Greece, but the narrator is an amnesiac Latin mercenary who breaks the familiar associations by translating the literal meanings of place and god names; so instead of "Sparta" we have "rope" and "Demeter" becomes the "Earth Mother."

My campaign hides Olympians behind obscure epithets and aliases, also drawing on the long string of classical B-list gods and goddesses. For example, as adventurers descend into my main dungeon's cellar level, they see a stele with four faces, each depicting a different deity: Bellona, a B-List Roman goddess of war; Liber, a Roman god who became identified with Dionysus; Egeria, a nymph of fresh water important in Roman myth; and Pomona, a B-List Roman agricultural goddess (who has modern associations of her own, but we're far from California.)

Below is a list of the most evocative Olympian aliases and epithets. Good resources for this are Wikipedia and the terrific classical reference, For more variety, I've added some of the equivalences the Romans drew between their gods and the Etruscan and Celtic pantheons.

Aphrodite (Venus): the Cytherean, Cypris, Urania ("the heavenly"), Pandemos (as indiscriminate lover), "laughter-loving," "foam-born," "mother of desire". Etruscan: Turan.
Apollo: Phoebus (light), Loxias ("the obscure"; prophecy), the Musagete (arts), Acesius (healer), Apotropaeus (warder of evil), Pythios (dragon-slayer), Aphetor (archer). Etruscan: Aplu. Celtic: Belinus, Cunomaglus, Vindonnus.
Ares (Mars): Enyalius, Mamertus, Ultor, Theritas (the brute), "destroyer of men," "stormer of walls." Celtic: Albiorix, Alator, Camulos.
Artemis (Diana): Cynthia, Phoebe, Amarynthia, Aeginaea, Caryatis, "mistress of animals," Lochias (childbirth), Agrotera (countryside). Etruscan: Artumne. Celtic: Arduinna.
Athena: Pallas, Cydonia, Tritogeneia, "grey-eyed," "owl-eyed," Partheneia (virgin), Polias (cities), Phronesis (reasoning), Promachos (first to fight). Celtic: Brigantia, Sulis.
Demeter (Ceres): Thesmophoros ("order-bringer", natural law), Aganippe ("terrible mare"), "fruit-bringer", Chloe ("green"), Agaue (venerable), Chthonia (earth).
Dionysus (Bacchus): Iacchus, Liber, Sabazius, "The Liberator," Melanaigis ("black goatskin"), Lycurgus ("wolf-bane"), Polygethes ("many joys"), Omestes ("eater of raw flesh"), "destroyer of men." Etruscan: Fufluns.
Hades (Pluto): "the unseen," "the wealthy one," Polydegmon ("host to many"), Aidoneus (underworld). Etruscan: Aita.
Hera (Juno): "white-armed," "queen," "cow-eyed," Zygia (marriage), Gamelios (weddings). Etruscan: Uni.
Hermes (Mercury): Argeiphontes, Logios (orator), Psychopompos (guide of the dead), "ready helper," "luckbringer," Mercator (merchant). Etruscan: Turms (as seen in Grognardia). Celtic: Lugus.
Poseidon (Neptune): Soter (savior of mariners), Taureos (bull of the sea), "earthshaker". Etruscan: Nethuns.
Zeus (Jupiter): Ombrios (rain god), Agetor (leader), Panergetos ("all-doing"), Dikephoros ("justice-bringer"), Fulgens (lightning), Tonans (thunder), Optimus Maximus (best and greatest). Etruscan: Tinia. Celtic: Taranis.

Thursday 19 May 2011

The Cleric's Faith II: Radical Idea

FrDave notes, in comments on the last post, that the "randomly working miracle spells" approach was tried and rejected in his campaign.

I'm really intrigued by John L's idea and I want it to be attractive to players, even against this experience and my own nagging intuitions. The meat and bones of the cleric, as I've noted before, is healing. 3rd edition D&D recognized this in a big way by making spell slots usable at any time for cure spells. The message is clear. Healing hit points is the number one job of the cleric. Having it succeed only randomly is disconcerting.

So here's a proposal:

Healing: A sacred magic worker can lay on hands a number of times per day equal to his or her level, for healing of 1d6+level hit points each time, with no success roll needed.

All other miraculous powers may be attempted any number of times per day until they fail - at which point faith runs out and that particular power may not be used at all again that day. The basic mechanic is: roll 2d6, success on 9+, 2 always fails, add 1/2 caster's level rounded down and subtract 1/2 the level/HD of the opposition rounded up. Apply the cleric's Wisdom bonuses as per your system. In classic John L style you can see these as reaction rolls where 9+ is a favorable reaction, or morale rolls where 9+ is broken morale of the opposition. This is really more for memory than mechanical purposes though; the cleric's Charisma does not come into it.

Curing conditions: disease, insanity, injury, sorcerous influences. Use level of the spell's caster, HD of creature originating the condition, or 1/3/6/9 HD for mild/moderate/serious/death. You may rule that repeated attempts by the same cleric on the same condition are not allowed.

Banishing evil: turns unholy creatures and gives an immediate morale check to other evil creatures. Use level of one creature to check, numbers over that turn additional numbers of creatures. Yes, this is a less impressive turning power than normal, but I feel it's balanced when you add on the healing and the upgrading of other at-will powers, and the morale effect.

Providence: provides for basic needs of people who are without those needs through no fault of their own. In other words, it will create or find shelter for a shipwrecked party, and food for a starving multitude in famine, but will not provide for a party who has money to buy things, or has not brought food on a journey through negligence. The "opposition" here is 0 HD for water, 1 HD for food, 3 HD for clothing or small amounts of money, and 5HD for shelter. Add 1 HD per digit of a multitude (10s, 100s, 1000s) provided for above 9.

Safety: I think it's more characteristic of the Judeo-Christian miracle to allow safe passage across traps, hazards and walking in front of monsters than to detect these. At the very least, the rogue/thief/scout/wizard should enjoy a monopoly on intelligence gathering. For "HD" here use dice of damage of hazard, or total hit dice of creatures to be distracted; 7 for immediately lethal effects (walking on water would probably rate a 5). Add 1 HD if more than one person is to pass by, and 1 HD more for each digit of a multitude above 9. Success won't be known until it's attempted!

Of course, other powers may be added on, but I think this short list has the benefit of being fairly well balanced against the magic-user's powers (4 rather situational abilities with a starting 1/3 or so chance of success), and has an impeccable cultural pedigree.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

The Cleric's Faith I: Conservative Solution

One way to make the users of sacred magic feel like they are working with freely given miracles of faith is to keep the standard spell list and rules, but have casting in a short time frame (combat round) determined by a petitioning die roll. Here we are assuming that cleric spells are not memorized (cast at will) but that they use a system of levels and slots similar to magic spells. Roll d20 plus the caster's level minus twice the spell's level. On a modified roll of:

1 or less: The spell fails and the caster has spent both the spell's slot, and another of the same or higher level. If another is not available, the caster must atone by making a journey of 1 day/1000 of his or her xp, or a sacrifice of 1/10th xp in coins (or a being equal HD to level) before being able to call on sacred magic again.
2-4: The spell fails, spending the spell's slot.
5-7: The spell fails without spending the slot; may try again next round.
8-18: The spell succeeds, spending the spell's slot.
19-20: The spell succeeds without spending its slot.
21+: The spell succeeds, spending its slot, but with double effect.

If Wisdom is not being used to give the caster extra spells (as it does in my system) then its modifier goes toward this table. You may also apply modifiers due to the nature of the deity; if merciful, +2 if the last attempt that day was a failure and -1 if it was a success; if cruel, -2 for failure and +1 for success.

Being that most sacred spells are supportive, I would also allow a casting in the space of ten minutes without having to roll on this table. This does the least damage to the balance of the cleric/priest class, while still making them feel that they are making a "desperate petition" in the heat of battle.

Next up: A completely different approach based on reaction and morale rolls.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Character Roles Reflect Player Roles

See, the different power mechanics for different character types in old D&D are not a bug to be phased out and homogenized. They are a system of player preference and type as valid as the tank/shooter/controller/buffer system in multiplayer online games and the tabletop systems that emulate them.

Fighter: The safe role for the strong and silent type of player. Can attack until the hits run low. Always knows what the right thing to do is: block and attack the bad guys. If you don't have this type of player: Buy men-at-arms and henchmen.

Rogue/Thief: The good role for the impulsive tactical thinker. Using their combat and dungeon abilities requires initiative and coordination, but the abilities are not depleted by use, so the big picture doesn't play a part. If you don't have this type of player: Just play instinctively and roll with the punches, stabs, crushes and KABOOMs. Or throw a chicken down the stairs in front of you.

Wizard/Magic-User: Knowing this role well requires a grasp of a part of the rules - spells - that other classes can just ignore. This is a role best suited for the "specialist" player who enjoys working with complex systems and bending the rules. The player has several big, one-shot effects at his or her disposal, and especially at early levels, having the strategic big picture and knowing when to use each one is crucial. Having a strategist's mind also overcomes the critique that the magic-user's player has nothing to do when the spells run out; this player is likely to take over managing the party's other resources. If you don't have this type of player: Invest in oil, acid, offensive scrolls and potions.

Cleric: The cleric plays a relatively simple role, like the fighter, but supportive rather than offensive. The times to intervene are clear: heal wounded party members; turn undead when they show up. This should appeal to the player who likes to support and hold the party together. If you don't have this type of player: Invest in protection scrolls and healing potions.

In D&D, though, the cleric class partakes of other player roles - an armored blocker like the fighter; a caster of offensive spells like the wizard. This dilutes the class somewhat and may be part of the complaints that it is too bland or overpowered.

One of the reasons I'm eagerly looking forward to further development of the "all cleric spells work like turning" idea on Nine and Thirty Kingdoms: it pushes the cleric to further differentiation from the magic-user. The cleric becomes a manager of uncertainty over time rather than a dispenser of sure-shot one-shots.

One Page Dungeon Winners

The 1PD contest winners are up, and I congratulate them all. The field keeps getting bigger and the bar raised higher year to year. Particularly jaw-dropping was the Best Map Graphics winner, not just for its graphics but the way its teasing room descriptions invite completion. I'm also impressed by the compact map mystery in Hanging in Wolverine City.

Some of my overlooked favorites that didn't make the winner's circle:
Jeff R.'s mind-bending house - a little Time Tripper anyone?
Jens Thuresson's text dungeon, shades of Saul Steinberg...
Fr. Dave's elegant spiraling design

Your non-winner picks?

Monday 16 May 2011

Wizards' Law, Dabblers' Chaos, Clerics' Free Will

OK, Blogger looks to be back.

So - I don't agree with the designer explanation for why magic spells require a roll to succeed in Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. I mean - if it makes for a fun, wacky game, great, but I'll pass on the table lookups. And as I explained last time, part of the appeal of the traditional magic-user class to its core player type is its heavy reliance on strategy rather than chance.

Is there really a Dying Earth pedigree for random spells? Yes and no. Robin Laws' Dying Earth game has a much more involved analysis of those stories and novels. There, games can work at three levels of magic, each named after a Dying Earth character. The "Cugel" level is named after the famous rogue and similar dabblers in magic, prone to random fizzles and backfires. The "Turjan" level is named after the competent wizard-hero, whose spells work unerringly like formulae. The highest level is named after the wizard of the late novellas, Rhialto, who has mastered Turjan-like magic but deals with even more powerful, free-willed creatures known as sandestins.

I think he knows what he's doing...
It's a flaw of the D&D philosophy: The concept "Chaos" confuses free will with randomness. Understandably so, because other beings' free will gets simulated through randomness - reaction and morale rolls, primarily. But there's a world of difference in concept between each of these three views of magic: stumbling through half-understood procedures, confidently applying known laws, respectfully entreating free-willed entities.

This last view in particular I consider true to the idea of the cleric or priest. Whether addressing a terrible demon, the spirits of nature, or the Pancreator and heavenly choir, the divine miracle-worker should not go in with the complete assurance that prayers will be heard. To be meaningful, faith requires uncertainty.

I'm OK with "clerical spells" as a simplification, but I just feel that if you're going to involve random elements in spellcasting, do it for classes who are conceived of as bumblers - mountebanks, high-level rogues, gnomes and so on - and to those who deal with faith. And yes, how exactly randomness works for those two should be different...

More on this later.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

My Take on Damage from Travel

My personal requirements for using the intriguing idea variously developed by Zzarchov, Anthony and Alexis here and here and here:

  • Players traveling in less than ideal conditions should risk daily damage to Hit Points.
  • The damage must be real Hit Points and heal in the standard manner - no extra bookkeeping. 
  • The damage should scale, so that high level characters do not outlast low level ones to a ridiculous degree.
  • Easy to remember.
So: Damage can be taken from Bad Going as well as Bad Weather. Each day, check damage in the mid-afternoon based on the average events that day. Each character rolls 1d6 per 10 hit points he or she currently possesses*. A roll less than or equal to the Hazard Number means you take damage equal to the amount of the roll. At less than 10 hp, you still roll but take half damage (round up). 

* (Or for an Alexis-inspired variant, 1d6 each day, plus an additional d6 per 3 full days gone by without spending a day or night in a safe place.)

What's the Hazard Number? Take a base of 0...

Worst Going (swamp, dense forest, mountains): +3
Worst Weather (2 on a 2d6 weather roll; pouring rain, blizzard, baking heat): +3
Bad Going (hills, woods): +2
Bad Weather (4 or less on 2d6; raining, snowing, hot and humid): +1
Average Going (plains, countryside): +1; Average Weather: +0

Following a trail, road, or a guide who has successfully used a terrain-lore skill, reduces the badness of going by one category. Appropriate gear for protection reduces the badness of weather by one category.

Being at 0 hp or less lays you out from exhaustion. Hit points are recovered normally from rest and healing (I allow 1 hp/level/day for rest in a secure place), but camping without shelter disallows recovery and puts the party at risk for more bad weather damage.

I'm not sure the "cleric problem" is that much of a problem, if healing abilities are seen as being as much about restoring morale and cheer as curing physical wounds. Taking a divinely inspired priest or druid along on an arduous journey should be seen as a good idea. If monsters and more trap-like physical hazards are popping up along the way as well, the risk of taking damage from an additional source every single day will just add to the strain on resources.

Hit Dice Quirks: 4+4 or 5?

In some old-school d20 rulesets, such as Labyrinth Lord or its source Basic D&D game, hit points added to a monster's hit dice are just a "bump" up to the next hit die, so a creature with 4+4 dice attacks as a 5 hit die creature. Others, such as Swords & Wizardry or 2nd Edition AD&D, base their attacks on straight hit dice, so a creature with 4+4 dice attacks as a 4 hit die creature. Lamentations/WFRP's core rulebook still doesn't say how monsters get attack bonuses ... Anyway, my game uses the S&W convention, easier to remember.

With this system, and d8 as your hit die, each plus of 4 1/2 ends up averaging out to another hit die, and a 9+9 HD creature has the exact same average number as an 11 HD creature (49.5); just a tighter spread (18 to 81 vs. to 8 to 88). But, the 11HD creature is better at attacking and saving throws.

What I wonder is how much monster design takes this feature into account. There's a certain inertia when it comes to messing around with the ogre's 4+1 or the troll's 6+6, arbitrary figures seared into a generation's brains from adolescence.  After a while, hit dice codes seemed to be put out there for sheer novelty value, jumping the wereshark in Monster Manual 2 with stuff like 13+39 (the arcanadaemon), 2+8 (the tri-flower frond) or 7 plus, um, 3d4 (the annis). Keep in mind that each +3 hp counts as an extra hit die when attacking, by 1st Edition AD&D rules. Math is hard!

Or is that seven, plus three, minus twelve? Or 10-19 HD?
Anyway, back to straight-up hit dice combat tables. Why shouldn't the hill giant - long on endurance, short on skill - fight with 6+10 instead of 8+1 hit dice? Is a S&W cockatrice with 5 HD really better at attacking than a near-equivalent werewolf with 4+4? What about more fragile creatures with ample skill and fortune, like sprites or bird-men - shouldn't they have minuses (4-2 hit dice)?

OK, I find that it's hard to mentally budge those iconic numbers for the classic monsters. But maybe it's a thought when we turn to designing new ones.

Sunday 8 May 2011

Birth of a Gamer: Amazon on a Train

Last weekend we took in a play and a couple of meals up in London with some fellow Americans, a visiting prof at our department and his social worker spouse. These folks are somewhat older than we are, close to retirement age, but only are around at my university in the spring and were about to head back stateside.

Because the spouse had expressed some interest in roleplaying in one of our earlier meetings, I'd surreptitiously bought some dice (six siders) in Covent Garden market. The train ride back out of London was the scene for her gaming initiation, and the four of us were lucky to have grabbed table seats. It takes one hour but the time fairly flew as I had her roll 3d6 in order - 13 strength, 5 charisma - creating a warrior. When I gave the chance for one descriptive word, she came up with "Amazon."

Our Amazon approached the gates of a walled town. For some reason, interacting with the guards, she spun a story that the chainmail and spear weren't hers, but she'd just found them - a story she would repeat later. In any event, her social awkwardness led to a less than friendly reaction roll, but they let her in for the usual toll.

Three streets led away from the gate. I was completely winging this, with only four dice and no written material at all. I came up with rough ideas of what each street would lead to, and gave her the choice. She took the left-hand path, leading to an industrial district, where she came upon a group of tannery workers getting their supper slops. The cook rolled a great reaction - 11 on 2d6, friendly even toward her terrible charisma - so I had him greet her warmly, offer the last of the slops and a job feeding the pigs out back. But she didn't know that ... and though she took the job up, it was with some fear and a little ribbing from the rest of us as to the decidedly non-heroic turn of our adventure.

The workmen left and the cook showed our Amazon to her quarters, in the butcher shop of this all-in-one hog processing operation. Feeling wary by now, she decided to sneak out in the fading light and see if anyone else was about. I had her run into some women who worked in a weaving and dyeing establishment, but their reaction was negative and they called their menfolk to give dire threats to the Amazon (hostile reaction, but not a strong morale result that would have led to a fight).

She went back to the butcher shop, where there was an ominous trapdoor. She had the idea to use her strength to try and open it, at which she succeeded (roll low, 3d6). There were claw marks on the inside of the door and a series of rungs going down. Her eventual security plan was to sleep atop the door, so that anything coming up would both be blocked and wake her.

Of course, the underground has to intrude into the first adventure, right? So in the middle of the night, she's awakened by a thumping and scratching on the trapdoor. She gets up and runs out of the butcher shop, round a corner, waits and listens. In the darkness, something is shambling and snuffling toward her ...

And then the train reached its stop and the session was over.

Thinking back to our earlier discussions about the different selves in a game, our friend showed excellent adventuring caution. She put herself into the dangerous situation with great conviction and intensity. But, she did very little immersion into the role of the Amazon. In a sense, the "Amazon" was herself -a modern woman in medieval times, thrust into a strange town with strange goings-on.

We hope to pick up again next year!

Saturday 7 May 2011

Ontogeny Recapitulates Monstrosity

Watch how this video montage of our embryonic development goes through all your favorite humanoids ... fish-people at 0:08 ... lizard-people at 0:18 ... then dog- and pig-faced people around 0:21 to 0:23.

Is it too much to imagine that a strange science or wizardry could create such full-grown monsters by arresting the morphological development of the embryo at any one of these stages while continuing its growth?

Or that - building on a teleological folk-conception of evolution where human form and intelligence are the obvious goal of the whole process - an even more devious procedure would prolong the gestation of animals to the point where they take on human morphology?

The monsters, they are us.

Thursday 5 May 2011

When and Why Are You Yourself?

It's a well-worked observation by now in RPG circles: people playing characters in a game can act as they personally would act, or as their characters would act. Different people can identify at different levels; different games can support different levels; people can have fun exploring the boundary between levels.

This is where a fairly arcane theory in psychology comes in. Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist best known for his book Descartes' Error, which influenced a whole generation of thinkers in psychology (myself included) to take emotion more seriously as a positive and functional force in thought. His 1999 book The Feeling of What Happens is less well known. There, he uses the neuroscience of the day to construct a three-layered model of consciousness and the self.

To simplify somewhat, the first two layers of self are reactive. The proto-self, based on the reptile brain, monitors our body boundaries and pretty much stops us from chewing our extremities. And the core self, based on the mammal brain, gives us emotions to deal with threats, thwarting and opportunities.

The third layer of self is the autobiographical self, and it is deeply tied in with the human capacity for self-reflection and language. It lets us plan for the future, look to the past, and construct a story about who we are and where we're going.

I put it to you that in a game, players are most eager and comfortable to:
  • express their character when the autobiographical self is called on, and 
  • express themselves when the core self is called on.
So, for example, character autobiographical self. When a player spins stories about their character's origin at a lull in the game, or starts talking about what they're going to do with all this wealth, that's appropriate and well received.

But not player autobiographical self. When a player spins stories about what happened to them in another game last year, or about this really great pizza place they went to last week, or goes on at length about this Savage Worlds campaign they're planning ... Well, some players do that, but it gets old fast. And a joke that gets older fast - hell, was born old - is when the NPC asks you "Who are you and where are you going?" and you break the frame thusly: "Well, I'm Josh Schmenge and after this game I'm going to drive home, eat a bowl of cereal, and go to bed."

And player core self.  This is when six wights come barreling down on the party's paladin and his player yells "Ohhhh shit!" That's not inappropriate, even thought the contrast between the Lord's knight and the cursing player is funny. In a way, the genuine emotion gives homage to the realness of the situation for the player. Likewise, we cut players some slack for rejoicing according to their native customs when they find the huge treasure horde or defeat those wights.

It's not just emotion. When danger looms, players often go into an analytic mode that calls out the rules and moves in a way the characters never would. Some DMs frown on this, but nobody can stop it completely. Also, it's not satisfying to the players if you force them to act 100% in-character at those times. They would feel like the play-acting was getting in the way of what really engages them - ensuring their beloved character's survival. Maybe this represents the speeded-up processing that high emotion facilitates?

But not character core self. Who do you have more tolerance for - a player who nearly gets your whole party killed because they're roleplaying an incompetent, impulsive fool, or the same situation where the player just is an incompetent, impulsive fool? Hm, yeah, thought so. D&D is still not a role-playing game ... when the adventure's at stake.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Journey To Saddleback II: Wake-Up Rules

The last encounter of the session was an encounter with another human group, who I'd decided beforehand to be a rival group of the goat nomads.

via Arena Astral,
This encounter came at night, as the party camped in the badlands outside Saheedra's spire. They were taking one-person watches, and had camped in a hollow, concealing their fire from passers-by. The henchman on watch was alerted by two sling bullets whizzing by; he quickly raised the alarm as the intruders closed to fight. Nobody had time to put any armor on, but as the enemy swarmed the tents, the party wizard cast her Sleep spell and most of them (plus one henchman) went down. One ran into the dwarf's axe, and the militant struck to subdue the last one. Deciding on mercy, the party disarmed the attackers, tied them together, and ran them off.

All well and good, but there were still a few loose ends after that encounter.

1. Should there be less of a chance for encounters due to preparations such as hiding the fire? Or more of a chance for lack of such preparations? I think the latter, so on the d20 roll for static encounters while camping, figure -3 in flat ground, -2 in hills/mountains, or -1 in forest if the party is making visible smoke by day or fire by night, unless they take pains to hide it.

2. Should shouts be enough to wake the party in one round? Watches and waking are not really well treated in any of the old-school material I know of (I'm sure Wilderness Survival Guide from AD&D covers this but I am not familiar with it). In retroactive continuity, we can say that the holy influence from the lammasu spire made people miraculously alert to the shouting. But normally, I would say that physical kicking or shaking will also definitely wake people up, and any other alarm will wake people up if they make a Mind save (Spells if you're using that system). An unusual alarm device will give anywhere from +2 to +4 on that save.

3. All this argues for more people on watch, so that one or two can handle waking duty while the rest defend against attack. My party, maybe working off procedures from other games, posted only one watch person and disallowed the spellcasters from taking watch because they need to get sleep to recover spells.

But realistically, nights are 12 hours long (my world is flat so there's no procession of the sun; on a round planet with axial seasons, things get more complicated) and you only need to sleep 8 hours. With this in mind, it's not just a good idea to have watches consist of 1/3 of the party strength, it's actually more realistic, because what else are people going to do for those 4 hours?

In fact, before electric lighting, it was culturally accepted to have a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night. So even taking middle watch is an acceptable way to fit 8 hours of wakefulness into 12 hours of night. Even if spellcasters do need that sleep to be uninterrupted if they are to regain spells, they can still take first or (preferably) last watch.

4. All the same, this makes night monsters much more dangerous; they effectively get a couple of rounds even if you're not surprised and then you have to fight them in your PJ's.

I'm curious how the rest of you handle this kind of situation, given that it's not well described in any of the core rulebooks I know.

Monday 2 May 2011

Journey to Saddleback I: Three's Company

Result 20 on my one-page wilderness random encounter table says to "roll twice," raising the possibility that the party will stumble upon two groups of creatures hobnobbing or fighting.

Skirting wide away from rumors of a giant in the foothills, our Trossley adventurers came upon such a big 20. Further rolling revealed that some hill nomads and some ogres were in the mix. "You hear some shouting from behind that ridge ..."

As they advanced, I reflected that given the distances over open terrain, the fight could very well be over before the party closed to range. So I made it an ambush - groups of nomads were lying in wait behind three ridges that formed a box, and another couple of them had lured out some ogres.

How to run an outdoor fight? When the sling bullets and arrows started flying, the range was long enough that I marked out general positions with pawns on the hex mat, about 40' to a hex (in hindsight, 30' would have been handier for figuring out movement distances). Moving to melee and spell range, 5' hexes gave a focus on the action. The ogres randomly concentrated their efforts on the goat-hide-wearing hillmen, laying three or four of them low before being defeated. The hillmen thanked the party, divided the meager coins the ogres had been carrying, and all went their separate ways.

But the general question remains, how to handle those 20s, or in general stumbled-upon encounters of the kind that add spice to life?  Three factors come into it: whether the encounter is friendly or hostile; the power balance; and whether the encounter is in the future or past. For example, I could have had the party come upon the goatmen, and then have ogres crash in during negotiations ... or be attacked by ogres, and then saved at the last minute by a nomad charge.

So, this table is not necessarily for taking literally, but shows the possibilities and may help direct your thoughts when running a similar encounter.

Double Encounters
(d6 for time)
Encounter roll between the two groups (2d6 with modifiers)
Hostile (2-5)
Neutral (6-8) or friendly (9-12)
1-2: Before
Party encounters the side you rolled first; the other side will come on the scene in 1d8 rounds.
The side you rolled first is heading to a rendezvous with the other in 1d8 minutes.
3-4: During
They’re in the middle of a fight; for each figure on the weaker side and every second figure on the stronger, roll d6, 1 means dead and 2-3 means half hit points. When party shows up,  the side they’ll fight (if that’s obvious) or the weaker side (if that’s not) must test morale.
One group is meeting and trading (3) or on patrol (4) with the other if friendly; if neutral, it’s a standoff.
5-6: After
The two sides have already taken the casualties above. Party has come upon the fleeing and hiding weaker side (5) or the victorious stronger side, with 10% of the weaker side captive (6).
The side you rolled first is carrying trade goods (5) or loot (6) from their collaboration with the other. if not friendly, backing off from standoff. They are still in shouting distance.

Hat not included.
After the fight, the party made their way toward the now clearly visible landmark, the rock formation and spire shaped like a pointing finger (index finger) where they'd been told the lammasu Saheedra dwelt. I decided to make the occasion more solemn, and less like a White House press conference, by having each character ascend alone for an audience with the great and holy woman-beast, by request of her dwarf-child major-domo. "Alone" here was not taken literally - I hate secret information and separate rooms between the players - but allowing a platform for each player in turn gave just the right amount of slow-down to the session.

Many mysteries of the campaign were exposed in these audiences and more were hinted at. But there was one more encounter that evening, and it brings up a second mechanical DM issue, so it will get its own post.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Why I Give It Away

Some vague worries have been inhibiting my posting today, somewhat brought up by Courtney's post that is zinging around the blogosphere. I want to share with you my resolution of those worries, not to diminish anyone else's decisions, but to exorcise personal jimjams.

In the eight or so months since I have turned from a merely theoretical blogger to a practical DM blogger, the focus of my efforts in this hobby has radically changed. I have gone from trying to produce things someone will find useful, to trying to produce things I will find useful, in the face-to-face game that has come to be a high point of every week I run it.

The more I focus on this experience, the less I care about counting things like comments, followers, or page clicks on the blog. I don't mean that I utterly don't care, but given a choice between100 new blog followers in a flash and two additional players in the game ... no contest. And face it, if you're writing a blog you're pretty much guaranteed to be the kind of person who sees 75-90% of the stuff out there and goes "that's neat, but I've got my own way" ... Too many divas, not enough chorus.

Rather than seeing this as "work" I am doing to get paid, in cash, comments, internet thumbs up or what have you, it is vital that I see my output instead as by-products of play. Perhaps this is because I am doing paid work elsewhere in the gaming industry, as well as managing a professional career that is also all about producing creative work.

Pretty much all the things I have put up here for free have been works of near-compulsion to finish. I never once said to myself, "Oh god, another monster for Varlets & Vermin" or "Time to make the dooonuts and finish another one-page chart..."

But that doesn't mean that I don't have drudgework projects in the old-school vein. Remember color magic? As my players gain level, I'm going to have to come up with more detailed spell descriptions for higher and higher levels. If I ever publish that book, I'm highly likely to not have it be free.

The same goes for an idea that came to me this week - the encounter table that is more than an encounter table. That's too insanely fascinating to share just now without actually producing it, but also too much work to just crank out in a weekend. Or if I ever pack all the insights, techniques and play aids from my game into one bumper volume - let's call it "Desperate Deeds" - with crazy amounts of bonus material, yes, I'll be charging a nominal fee.

In other words, I'm only asking to be materially paid for not having fun. But as for the larger questions of gratitude, respect, acknowledgement, community, those are more difficult to answer. Some of it is ego, some of it is genuine. One way I try to give back, come to think of it, is my practice of the "play report plus" ... the session report with insight into GM techniques and decisions. It's there I can give credit where credit is due for things I use in the game.

Another way is to do more reviews of other people's work. I'm not sure if this is something that works for me, though. I have been sitting on a review for months now - dare I say that writing it has felt like work? Should we get paid to write reviews?

Perhaps the best "review" is actual use.

Paying the bla bla toll, here is a chart of the probabilities for one of my favorite dice rolls, 2d6 minimum.

1: 11/36 (about 1/3)
2: 9/36 (1/4)
3: 7/36 (about 1/5)
4: 5/36 (about 1/7)
5: 3/36 (1/12)
6: 1/36

Chance of 3 or higher: 4/9;  chance of 4 or higher: 1/4.