Sunday 25 October 2015

Dragonmeet 2015: Carry the Lantern High

Dragonmeet, London's one-day gaming convention, is coming up on the 5th December and unlike last year I can actually attend. It is my tradition to run an adventure from the one page dungeon contest, using the 52 Pages system, and name it after a rock song. This year is no exception, as I run Michael Prescott's winning adventure.

In which you have to get to that octahedron in the sky and wrestle forth its secrets. And now the theme will extend to the pre-generated characters, viz.

Well, there isn't much of a schedule visible yet because hey, Dragonmeet. But I am looking forward to it!

Sunday 11 October 2015

Street Guide Without Streets

Cities in adventure games demand a different logic than underground or wilderness adventures. The house-to-house detail that has traditionally characterized city supplements doesn't work and isn't needed, as Zak S first figured out in Vornheim.

Is all of this strictly necessary?
Wildernesses or dungeons are places where access is difficult (so mapping them is fun),but cities are places usually set up so that access is easy through a network of streets (so mapping them is pointless). There is discovery, but it doesn't follow geographical lines. The exceptions to openness -- forbidden cities of privilege; no-go slums of peril -- prove the rule. These areas cease to work as cities do in an adventure game, and begin to work as dungeons, like the hoary cliches of the monster-infested urban sewers or necropolis.

In my own Muleteers campaign, built from Joe Bloch's works, the Grey City counterpoises the tentpole dungeon of the Mad Archmage. Visits to the city sometimes end in impatience to get on with the adventuring, but still can take up to half of a four-hour session. But even though I'm using a detailed street map of the place, the geography never seems to stick, I don't keep a good idea of what shops are where, what they are like, and so on.

This suggests that I need a way to write down and systematize what matters in the city experience.

The Muleteers use the city for the following activities:

  1. Buying equipment
  2. Selling and identifying treasure finds
  3. Leveling up (taking one day per new level, in my rules)
  4. Carousing and other means of spending money for experience
  5. Brokering deals with religious, trade, scholarly and government bodies
  6. In the campaign's early days (less so now, as action has concentrated onto the megadungeon and frontier village), mini-misadventures from random encounters in the streets
For the first five, the journey and exact location are not as important as what can be done there. The random happenings (#6) do sometimes spill out into a full-fledged chase, but for this only a vague sense of geography is needed: the city is divided into districts; each district's streets all connect to each other and the process of finding out where things are is usually trivial; only between districts are there changes of atmosphere, walls and divisions.

The result is this template and guide (click to enlarge):

You'll see that with access to private and secret establishments, there is a process of discovery in the city too, but it works differently. The examples give an idea how: random encounters and establishments, if treated right, give clues and leads to others. This can be expanded to whole districts of social elites being off-limits unless you know the right people. I'm going to try this method at the next city phase of our adventures and see how it turns out.

Sunday 4 October 2015

Wizardry Demands Cosplay

Having discussed the armor-mobility tradeoff, another balance issue in fantasy games is whether wizards get to wear armor.

In editions of D&D up to 2nd, the explanations were as vague as hit points. The metal in armor disrupts magical energies;the encumbrance limits the wizard's gestures; you need training to wear armor, which the wizard doesn't have. While earlier editions ignored the rather obvious exceptions to the first two explanations (wear leather armor; cast spells without gestures), the third eventually became canon, starting with 3rd edition. With the rationalization of this rule came the rationalization of the way out. If the wizard becomes proficient in stomping around heavy armor, at the expense of more class-appropriate character development, he or she can certainly wear it.

These game-world reasons, though, are maybe besides the point. Their slow development over time shows that a stronger reasons is game balance. More specifically, class role protection. A wizard should have reasons within the game mechanics to act like a wizard, lobbing spells from the back row, protected by tougher characters up front. So, we make the wizard weak in single combat; fantasy artillery.

But I think there's a third reason. Wizards need to look like wizards, and the archetype of a wizard (unlike a knight, or a cleric militant) has nothing to do with armor.

Here's what convinced me: Let's accept the "game balance" reason and any of the game-world reasons of conductivity, encumbrance, or training. How would the strategic wizard dress for adventure or the battlefield?

Remember, this is a world where a spell-caster can turn the tide of battle, if not interrupted by a well-timed arrow. So your wizard is standing there like the officers of Napoleonic warfare, in a bright costume of visibility and authority, ready to be picked off. In civilization things are not much better; sometimes wizards are respected, other times they're burned at the stake. The logical, rational play is to dress your wizard normally - as a goose girl, traveling peddler, pack bearer, or whatever. Letthe magic do the talking, when it needs to.

Indeed, these considerations (or maybe just the inconvenience of flowing robes and a tall hat in a cave crawl) seem to have come into play designing the Ral Partha line of official AD&D 2nd edition miniatures. In keeping with the mundane fantasy-realism of that period, the "adventuring mages" and "wandering sorcerers" all sport practical breeches-and-jerkin combos, with nary a horned headdress or navel gem in sight,

Well, to hell with that! Wizards should be flamboyant, identifiable; that should be their mark, their pride, their penalty. It's not that armor encumbers or disrupts the magic, but it'snot part of the outfit. And the outfit is necessary for the magic to work - the wizard needs to feel like a wizard, needs the ritual vestments of the role in order to believe and have the forces of the universe believe. This is a principle of hermetic ritual magic (pdf) and it is a good reason in a game world as well.

What can wizards look like? They can go for shabby but unmistakably sorcerous, like Gandalf; they can dress like a god, a priest, a performer, an extreme dandy; they can show too much skin or cover up too much skin. This series of photo posts gives a good idea.

The "cosplay" rationale also means that there are certain type of armor wizards can wear. If flamboyant, impractical, otherworldly, then the armor can be worn, but it's likely to give less protection for more restriction of movement. For example:

I would rule this "ritual armor" as costing 10 times as much as light (leather) armor and either encumbering as medium armor, to a move of 9" (Bam and Biggs) or giving only 1 rather than 2 points of protection (Cher).