Monday, April 29, 2013

The Character Class Conundrum and the Axes of Awesome

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about character classes in RPGs. Classes are useful, in that they help to codify archetypes, and those archetypes help to provide conceptual cues related to game genre, power relationships among different classes, and so forth. They are, in effect, shorthand ways to speak of the applied, practical power of any particular character. They are the character's capabilities in short form.

So, if you've got a cleric, you know his powers derive from a relationhip to the Divine, however it might be conceived. Maybe it's a set of magical capabilities (spells) or the power of faith (turning undead). It's also about the characters relationship to combat. A cleric gets armor, or example (a wizard does not), but does not fulfill "fighting man" in the same way as a straight fighter. The paladin, of course, is the bridge between them, and a bullshit class in my opinion, but that's a fight for another day.

Then you have thieves. Thieves wear light armor, creep around stealing and backstabbing and doing all kinds of special thief stuff. They advance in their thievery and get better at it. They can also do some other things well, but the thing that makes a thief a thief is his or her unique skillset. And they're fun to play, so there's that as well.

Here's the thing though. Outside of the fighter and the wizard, the rest of the character classes are kind of bullshit. Wait! Hear me out!

When we think about the power of characters, part of what we're trying to say is, how does this guy (or girl) put a hurtin' on the bad guys? Only the fighter and wizard are purely what they are, simply by doing what they do. The fighter hits things until they die, and the wizard zaps them with arcane energies to do Bad Things to them. A cleric, well, that's sort of a fighterish, wizardlike, hyper-religious dude who hates skeletons (like a lot). A thief? Well that's sort of a fighter who attacks from hiding really well, and has some tinkering skills. Oh, and after a while the thief can use scrolls. Pretty cool, huh?

Here's the thing about clerics and thieves, though. Who freakin' needs 'em? I can do the same thing with just two classes, provided that character generation and development framework provides me with a way to do it. Games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Stars Without Number, for example, have specialists and experts to take the place of thieves, and provide a skill-driven conception of that character class. It makes them more flexible. Some systems don't have clerics, but instead have wizards who do healing magic.

Here's what I'd like to consider: All characters could conceivably be derived from the fighter or the wizard classes. From there, we can put them into a triaxial system to vary from the purity of those two archetypes.

The first axis is a continuum of power effects, from brute physicality to arcane magic. This represents how the character does big things in the world, how he or she kills the baddies (among other things). Very few characters would be purely one or the other, but doing so should allow him or her to enjoy benefits for doing one thing really, really well.

Add in a second axis where the continuum goes from Specialized to Eclectic. This represents how the character focuses his or her skills. At the specialized end, the Archetype is very pure; at the eclectic end, it is muddied by other influences. So, a player could have a wizard who specializes in arcane magic, but also is a scholar of relgion, has some tinkering skills, is excellent and interaction with NPCs, and you have the makings of a wizard with a healthy dash of the rogue in him. That's a playable character. At the specialized end, the character gets what goes with the wizard/fighter archetype, in terms of fulfilling each of those archetypes it the expected ways. He or she would be able to do things that less specialized characters could not, but would sacrifice the flexibility less specialized characters could do. For example, a specialized wizard might be able to keep spells after casting them, or learn more of them and at higher levels, or get Read Magic and Dispel Magic more or less as a freebie. There are a lot of ways you might approach that. I'm just spitballing some ideas here.

Finally, the third axis has to do with the characters relationship to the Divine, Spirit, the Winds of Magick, or the influence of the Hidden Realm, or whatever else you want to call it. At one end you have the Realist. This sort of character has no truck with gods, demons or other such creatures. Perhaps the character doesn't believe in them, perhaps he or she doesn't trust them. It literally doesn't matter why. As a result, perhaps the character is resistant to the effects associated with such things (effect: enhanced saving throws versus magic), or something of that nature. However, that character would never have a chance to get bailed out by those things without a significant life change. At the end of alignment with such powers, he or she is able to draw upon them in significant ways, but also is subject to the whims of whatever fates govern them. The end of the spectrum, I'll call the Idealist. So, I am in touch with the Winds of Magic. This gives my magic-attuned character the ability to detect such forces, or to more easily modulate them, or whatever. It also makes it more likely that he or she will get corrupted by chaos energies and grow tentacles, for example.

I think that there are a variety of games that take a very open approach to doing these things (SFX! and FATE are some good example systems for that kind of open approach). What I'm attempting to do here is to stay more constrained and limited to the fantasy roots of my original example. That said, there's no reason this couldn't open up into other genres, or that it wouldn't be a good way to mix up genres.

Anyway, there's a basic framework. Three axes related to Force, Skills, and Hidden Powers. Sometime soon, I'd like to develop mechanics for creation and development. In doing so, I'd like to avoid as much as possible the min/max problem. I'd also like to allow for further development of the character based on what happens in game play (i.e., development based on play, not plan). You start with a certain cluster of capabilties. Those can change over time. They can also develop and become more powerful.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Discourses on Religion in Ur-Hadad: The Avenue of a Thousand Gods

In Golden Ur-Hadad, the First City of Men, one may find any sort of religion one can imagine. Certainly, the Metal Gods are supreme in that place, and there are other, prominent gods and pantheons known to all and sundry. However, the First City is also home to many lesser-known godlings, household spirits, and the like. If anyone gives a thing or being worship (or whatever might be its equivalent), that thing enters into the domain of the sacred. In the case of Ur-Hadad, that sacred realm is the Avenue of a Thousand Gods.

Melius the Jester, also known as the Sage Fool, is one of many raconteurs whose words have attempted to explain the ways of religion in the First City, but this passage from his later works is particularly revealing of what travelers to Ur-Hadad might discover.
The Avenue of a Thousand Gods is poorly named. There are more gods than a thousand represented on that endless road, and perhaps every god who will ever be worshipped is there.  I cannot say. I only know that a man could walk the Avenue for days and never reach its end, and each time he returned he would find it a different place. Certainly, there are the great landmarks, the Spires of the Metal Gods, the great stone ziggurats of the Old Ones, the Blood Chapel of Gorus Na'al, all of which are easy enough to spot. It's the smaller things that shift and change and merge into a chaotic collection of misremembered details, and one can never be certain that what he saw on one day will be there the next, or even if what he saw was real in the first place, or, instead, just a fever-dream or a brush with sacred madness. It is no accident that the word for "madness" and "worship" is the same in the ancient tongue of the Faeleven. Many know that to be the case, but fewer know that the same word is used for "blessed," "cursed," "forgotten," and "eternal." (from Mad Laughter in the First City, by Melius the Jester)
 In practical terms, the Avenue is home to an infinite procession of deities, large and small, terrifically powerful and ridiculously ineffectual, all of whom vie for worshippers and worship. But there are only so many true believers to go around, and the number of the gods is uncountable. Even the gods may die if there is none to give them regard. For this reason, the gods are jealous of each other and vengeful toward those who would steal away their adherents. This competitive relationship gives rise to some peculiarities of religious fervor not found in other places. Jacurus the Bloody, Primate of Gorus Na'al, wrote in the last millenium, saying:
We came down the Avenue, ten thousand strong, filled with the Bloodfire, swords flashing in the light of dawn. And there they stood, the hated, the blasphemers, the vile and filthy Medicari, arrayed in their pristine bandages and aromatic unguents, and bearing caducei. In their wickedness, they bind the flow of the Sacred Wine, denying it to Gorus Na'al. Such audacity could not stand. We slew them to a man, though thousands of our brothers and sisters fell that day. Each of our martyrs died smiling, for Blood ran in the gutters where they lay, ran in torrents like the runoff from a summer storm, and the Medicari learned well that true cleansing can only come from opening wounds, not from binding them. (The Bleeding of the Medicari by Primate Jacurus of Gorus Na'al.)
It is said that, though there are infinite houses on the Avenue of the Gods, there is only sufficient room for just enough gods. Those gods who are unable to keep their adherents are purged from the Avenue, cast into the oblivious of the Outer Darkness. It is also said that such deities as have been cast out cannot come back to the Avenue easily, and must always do so though the Dreamworld of Men. Evidence for this possibility is conjecture at best, but the words of the scholar Lo Mendu should be considered as authoritative in this regard (especially given what came to pass when the Gori Hargun did not heed his repeated warnings, and became the first God-King to kill himself with a dream):
Tread, then, lightly in the realm of sleep, for the dreams of men are potent. The dreams of the sleeping Eternals, by contrast, are dim flickers against a grey sky. Is it any wonder that they flock to sleeping men like moths to a flame? For it in Men's dreams that they must live, and without a place in the Dreamland, even gods may die. (The Realm of the Silver Clouds, by Lo Mendu)
Strangely, the Faelven and the other Fae do not dream as we do. They do have truck with the gods in a variety of ways, certainly, but they are not fertile in their minds as are Men, though any wizard worth the name will attest that the dreams of the Fae are what makes magic possible. Dreamland, though... Dreamland is solely the domain of Men.

For this reason, only Men have priesthoods. Only Men establish temples. Only the worship of Men is truly powerful in the sense that we mean "Divine." Certainly the other races establish places like temples, the Serpent Men among them, but what happens there is not worship in the sense that Men mean it. It is not Belief they foster, but Power. Such temples are nothing more than a tool for the maintenance of raw power.

One may wonder, then, whether the gods created Man or whether the opposite might be the case. Did Men create the gods from whole cloth? Every dive-tavern scholar asks that question, in order to appear clever to drunkards and whores, but asks it knowing that it cannot be answered with a single response. Most of the truly wise hold that both things are true, and that neither is. The wizard, Algurus Delko, also known as Algurus the Red, made this point in his most famous work:
So, I looked into the glass, and therein found my own visage. In that instant, I no longer was anywhere at all, but everywhere all at once. And what I saw in my eyes were the eyes of every god, daemon, and being in between, every Old One and every petty god.
I gazed upon the Thousand Eyes of Narul Ma'Tep, all of them looking back at me. I took, then, a single step and made a journey of 500 leagues without even the time to draw another breath. Had I blinked, I likely would have annihilated myself that day. I might have found myself the thousand and first eye of Narul Ma'Tep, for I know that He did not always have so many eyes, and that among those terrible orbs I found the eyes of my mother, the witch, Merin Black Claw. She watched me still, who had been rudely snatched away so many years ago. ...
So, what is the answer then? Did my gaze hold the power of all possibility when I looked in that mirror, or were my own eyes truly the mirror? I hold that both are correct: The Wise may see truly for they have the undivided attention of the gods themselves. In the regard of the Divine is power over all possibility, power to rival the gods themselves.
To this day, I will not have a mirror in my house, nor pause too long beside a reflecting pool, for They all know my name, and They wait in hunger. Mother still waits for me, too, which is almost too much for me to bear. (Reflections in Red, by Algurus Delko)
It is my hope that each of you, should you have a chance to visit the First City, will make time to visit the Avenue, and to pay your respects. Who knows? Perhaps you will find divine favor, free of attachments or entaglements. Hah! Maybe, also, the the costermongers of the Great Market will give their fire-fruits, free of charge, to the urchins of the streets. Stranger things have happened, I suppose, but not in my memory.

MGoU-H: Adventures in the Undercity, Session 1

Well, we got the band back together again for another fun-filled session of DCC, Metal Gods style.

This time our party consisted of:

Banvha the 1st level Halfling (Adam M.)
Aram the 1st level Cleric
Vane the 2nd level Warrior
Klaus the 1st level Thief
Grumble the 1st level Dwarf
Jerkal (now Gerbil) the 2nd level Wizard
Nimue the 1st level Cleric
Sybian the 1st level Warforged

I cannot, for the life of me, remember who came up with that name, or why he came up with that name, but damned if one of the boys didn't find a picture to go with the name. Behold, Sybian the Whoreforged:

Now go bleach your eyes.

About Sybian, Adam said:
The first thing we found (which happened off-camera and we retconned in as an explanation of where Gabriel's new PC came from) was a man-sized automaton of some sort that we managed to get working somehow and who then joined up with the Purple Tentacle team. Thus, the legend of Sybian the Whoreforged was born. Is he a pleasurebot of some lost species of super-hedonists? Or perhaps the personal orgasmatron of a dowager-queen from a repressed society of sexual prudes? For now, the only thing that is certain is that Sybian has a "pole-arm" and knows how to use it. Oh, and he has a lantern built into his noggin, so we periodically have to make sure he's all oiled up.
So, I started the party by hand-waving the journey into the Undercity. There was some exposition about the effects of the earthquake that kicked off the Metal Gods campaign, and was part of the background of Crypt of the Lizard King. I told them that, to the north of Ur-Hadad, an island had risen from the sea. Honest merchant ships were giving it a wide berth, because it seemed to be composed of some sort of ruins. Everyone knows that islands made of ruins are haunted, and nobody in their right minds is interested in that sort of thing. That was not the adventure for this session. It was a trailer for "Things to Come." I'm hoping to do that up for the next little thing I write.

In any case, the members of the Divine Order of the Purple Tentacle would enter The Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, en route to Anomalous Subsurface Environment (I'm still thinking about where I want them to come into ASE, but I'm thinking that they're a little too tough for the first part). I didn't run ASE as-written because I really wanted to do it completely outside of the implied game world presented by Patrick Wetmore. Mind you, it's a good one, but it doesn't fit with my actual game world as well as I'd like. No worries, though, Pod Caverns is a good way to bridge the gap. Mushroom people are a nice entree to robots, dinosaurs, and clowns (Can I just call them Juggalos and be done with it?).

The PCs entered the Pod Caverns and found a channel of water flowing down into the interior. The approached a waterfall and made to descend it. Vane Barbute took the lead. I made him roll for it, because the rocks were slippery. He, of course, rolled a 1. Nicely done, Vane! For your trouble, you took 3 points of damage. Ouchies! The rest of the party made the descent without such complications.

The discovered that a bamboo pipe system had been rigged to send water from the the waterfall toward the south, and into another tunnel. After a brief survey of the cavern they'd entered, they also found some plants flanking the entrance to that tunnel. Being seasoned adventurers they know that, of course, the plants were not just plants but Killer Plants, called snagwort in this case. They did what anyone would: They burned them and cut them and shot them until they were dead. Then they entered the tunnel.

As the first of them entered the tunnel, he discovered a wooden casket hidden in the stream. Inside, they found a wooden key. This would prove useful later, as the tunnel led fairly quickly to a much higher waterfall. A search of the area at the top of the fall turned up a round, wooden door on one side and a keyhole on the other. They used the wooden key in the keyhole, and it diverted the flow of water into the now-opened wooden door, revealing a ladder down which they could climb to the cavern below the fall. Once at the bottom, they found another keyhole and restored the normal flow of the waterfall.

This new cavern, they discovered, was little more than a four-way intersection, with new branches leading away to northeast, south, and west. Each contained a channel of water which flowed into the new tunnels. After listening and considering their options, the decided to go toward the northeast. This led them to the Upper Pod Chamber, where they found a variety of weird cocoon-like pods depending from the high ceiling of this large, amoebic cavern. They (of course) just had to fuck with the pods. In doing so, they unleashed... Mushroom Men.

A brief aside, here: I like Patrick's take on the Pod Men, but I decided to make them just a bit more fanciful by imagining them in the form of mushrooms, rather than just fungus covered humanoids. Yeah, yeah... it's been done, but I really like mushrooms. My grandmother used to do paintings of mushrooms, so I've always had a connection to them. So, Mushroom Men.

The PCs began to do their thing. One of the outcomes was that Jerkal the Blazin', Wizard, was forced to make another mercurial magic roll for his new spell. Once again, he rolled one that involved the spontaneous production of rodents from his underclothes. At this point, I think Jerkal has about three such in his repertoire. Very strange. I've decided he has finally earned his Company name: Gerbil. It was fairly won, and really captures what has become his particular idiom.

The fight was pretty tough, and Vane (among others) got whacked pretty good a couple of times. Adam's recap sums up the action pretty nicely:
After a severe beating on both sides, the Divine Order of the Purple Tentacle prevailed, but not until circumstances forced us to seriously consider what it should be called when Jerkal experiences a premature flamejaculation and shoots fire from his crotch in the direction of party halflings. 
Oh, and Vane's new black metal warhammer is called the Whore-Whammer. 
So, they survived. It will only get worse from here, though. Perhaps for his next trick, Jerkal Gerbil can produce a plague of rats with a taste for mushrooms. We can only hope for the best, by which I mean mayhem and bloodshed on an epic scale.

Update: Correction--Vane only took damage from himself. Others bore the brunt of the fighting. Sometimes you get the Bear, sometimes the Bear gets you, and sometimes Bear gets himself.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Some Questions about Ur-Hadad

+Adam Muszkiewicz invented the city of Ur-Hadad as a setting a while back, and has already answered most of Jeff Rients' questions about the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign, but I think he missed a few. I might be wrong about that, but my quest to turn up the answers fell short. Anyway, I'm trying to accumulate our setting info into a master document, and was attempting to organize/edit it. Then I got distracted by this, so, umm... bonus!

How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

You must be kidding. This is Ur-Hadad. Of course there are. Some are grand, and only the best of fighters and richest and most important of patrons are even able to get in. Others can be found in poorer environs. It is even rumored that there is an arena in the Undercity, where escaped slaves, fabulous beasts, and all manner of other things fight for gold or for death. Most folks, though, flock to the Blood Chapel on the Street of a Thousand Gods where the priests of Gorus Na'al provide the most spectacular show around. Every day from dusk 'til dawn, their arena runs with blood. Every fight is a fight to the death, and the blood that is shed, a tribute to Gorus Na'al. Winners are adorned with jewels and rewarded with gold. Losers are used to feed the dangerous creatures kept by the Temple's Master of Beasts.

Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?

Take your pick. Ur-Hadad is a hotbed of skullduggery and intrigue. A variety of leagues, societies, and orders have sprung up in the city. Many of them, of course, are not what they seem to be, and serve as camouflage for shadowy groups and individuals who would prefer that their machinations stay hidden. Others are exactly what they claim to be, and serve any of a thousand purposes.

What is there to eat around here?

Ur-Hadad is the largest human port in the world. It also sits right in the middle of rich fishing grounds. One can find all manner of foods, spices, and drink in its markets. The city is also known for its fine and diverse cuisine. One need never eat the same thing twice, in Ur-Hadad, even if one lived a hundred years. If someone can imagine eating it, you can probably find it here.

Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?

While recently is has been rumored that the Frosthammer of Graki Deathstalker has been found by the members of the Divine Order of the Purple Tentacle, there are many more such legendary treasures to be had. Each is unique, has a story, and provides all of the boons and banes Men associate with magical things. Here are a few with which you might concern yourselves, being fellow adventurers. Mind you, not a lot is known about some of these items.

The Mug of Durok
Durok Goldenmane is a legendary dwarven hero known both for his adventures and for his longevity. It is rumored that he endured more than 10,000 years, subsisting on nothing but the ale in this mug which, it is said, has no bottom.

The Black Sword
This storied bladed is reputed to have been forged simultaneously on many different planes by masters of the art. Its concurrent existence in multiple planes of existence allows the blade to strike creatures only affected by magical weapons with +2 to hit and +3 to damage. Its resonance with the energies of those planes causes the black metal blade to glow in different colors, depending on the nature of the energy in question. The blade's unique status makes it difficult to hide by any means, magical or mundane. The same is true of the person who possesses it.

The Mystical Sphere of 30
This onyx sphere is about seven inches in diameter. It is filled with some sort of bluish-purple liquid and has a window of indestructible crystal build into one side of it. Through the window one can see a 30-sided stone of an unknown material, each of its sides carved with runes in an archaic human language. The holder of the sphere may ask one question per day and by reading the sphere's response, receive a true (but somewhat vague) answer.

The Scepter of the Jester Kings
The Scepter is a legendary relic of the earliest history of Men. The Imperial Elves, during their long and bloody dominion over Men, would capture human leaders and make mock of their status by using them for entertainment. The practice of dressing fools in motley comes from this practice. However, one such leader was a powerful human wizard, Gorlo the Joker, who ensorcelled his fool's scepter (and crown of penises, but that's another story) by calling upon Arn the Mocker, the god of practical humor. A successful attack with the Scepter drains 1d3 Luck from its target, one point of that Luck accrues to the wielder and any remaining points to Arn the Mocker. Twice per day, the Scepter can be used to cause accidents; the more powerful the target, the more calamitous the accident. However, those accidents, however horrible the results, must be humorous to Arn the Mocker. If they are not, then the Scepter's holder must make a Will save or lose 1d4 Luck, permanently.

The Bow of Arkuno
The Bow of Arkuno is. It is rumored to have been carved from the wood of the World Tree and reinforced with minotaur horn. Arkuno used it to slay the Torfos God-King of the Crab People. Any creature struck with an arrow from the Bow of Arkuno must make a Reflex save (DC 15) or be knocked prone. The bow does 1d8+Agility Mod damage.

Mureed's Candelabra
The Candelabra holds three candles, one red (made with the blood of dogs), one black (made with the ashes of wild boars), and one white (made with fat from a werebear). When lit, the Candelabra allows the user to read magical writing without casting a spell. It also reveals hidden compartments and secret doors and any invisible creature (within 20' range).

Lemm's Codpiece
This armored cup belonged to the Metal God Lemm. It grants the wearer additional protection (+2 AC, +2 to Fort saves ), as well as immunity from poisons of all kinds. However, the wearer must drink strong liquor every day or the Codpiece will vanish, to be found by another, more worthy user.

The Eyes of The Serpent (currently in the possession of the wizard, Amor Ba'Gish)
The Eyes of the Serpent are two roughly cut stones of dark reddish hue. Lights dance within them. The recently were liberated by the Divine Order of the Purple Tentacle and delivered to the wizard, Amor Ba'Gish. It is uncertain what they are for, but it is rumored that he paid 50,000 gp to the fool who parted with him. The deal he made should be considered a bargain for the ages.

Demonic Puzzlebox (because, why the hell not?)
Yeah, a weird take on the Hellraiser puzzle box. It's just too cool not to have it around, right?

The Iron Standard
This is like the standard in Glen Cook's Black Company books. Anyone holding the Iron Standard is affected by a geas (pick one appropriate to your setting). This geas spreads from person to person, as the bearer accumulates followers. This happens over time, but more or less automatically. Anyone with the standard in his possession gains the ability to recruit hirelings, men-at-arms, and other henchmen as if Personality/Charisma 18 (or more in the right circumstances). However, the geas of the Iron Standard leads inevitably to battle, and most of those followers are fated to die. Then the process of building a host begins all over again. The Iron Standard is an lance with a rusty iron head. The shaft is mundane and has been changed many times, as has the banner attached to it. The lance head is the important part. Its legend suggests that it was the penis of a demon prince. It is a fell weapon against when used against supernatural beings. It has killed gods.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Appreciating Swords and Wizardry for the First Time

I have a confession to make. I agreed to do this blogswarm thing about Swords and Wizardry without ever actually having read the book or played the system. In fact, I haven't played any OD&D in my life, and most of what I've played is either Basic D&D (box set from 1978 or so) or AD&D which (to my 11 year-old mind) was the next logical step. After that, I didn't really encounter D&D until a while later in my life. I played some GURPS and a little bit of some other games, sure. But didn't really play The Original Game (as some wag put it) very much at all compared to most people who blog in the OSR community. Even when I started playing D&D again sometime in the early 1990s, it was still AD&D (1st ed.). After that I really have not played the system much at all until very recently, and that has been DCC.

So, why the hell should I be appreciating S&W? Well, why the hell not? I got a free copy of the S&W Complete from the Reaper Kickstarter (Vampire Pack + should be here in the next month or so), and this gives an opportunity to give it a gander. I also have the 2009 Core Rules PDF. Oh, and nota bene: I don't know a whole lot about the differences between various editions of The Original Game, its predecessors, or its OSR offspring. That may be of benefit to me. I can simply look at the game, as-is, and try to take it for what it is, on its own merits.

Just to make this simple, I'll try to figure out what I like about it. We're appreciating things about it, after all, not telling it that it's ugly and that its mom dresses it funny.  And there's a lot of good stuff here.

First thing I noticed about the Core Rules is the attribute modifiers. They don't go "up to 11," so to speak. They top out at +1 or -1. I am strangely attracted to that idea. It's not much of a bonus (or penalty), but it's something. I like that, because I (like lots of other people) am a power gamer at heart, though I loathe that fact. I really like it when I get high, positive modifiers. How could you not? At the same time, I don't like it when I've got a character with something like a -3 modifier. Yes, you can roleplay it, but that sort of seems like the game trying to tell me how to play my character. What seems like an advantage is, at the same time, something that takes you out of the things that really make a character unique (and achievable via gameplay, naturally), reducing him or her to a block of stats. YMMV, of course, but still I (and I'm sure a lot of you) have that same tendency.

On the other hand, I have the Complete rules as well, so I can go with the enhanced modifiers if I want them.

I also like that S&W Core Rules do some new things (e.g., saving throws) in a simpler way. I really never have understood the saving throw table's design. When I encountered 3rd edition for the first time, and the three saving throws, I loved it. I could actually understand what the hell they were even about. I mean, seriously, why the fuck do you need to have so many saves. What's the difference between a wand and a staff and a spell? I don't fucking care, that's what! This is so much simpler. Again, though, they step up and give you the option (in the S&W Complete Rules) to use the old style tables if you're so inclined. Nice! All the options you need.

I sort of like the treatment of character alignment in the Core Rules more than S&W Complete. It explains the concept, gives you a ballpark estimate of what it might mean, and moves on. Use it if you want it. I sometimes use alignment as a feature in my games (usually with respect to gods or magic items), but I'm doing it because it's in the rules, not because I really feel like it's useful. I'd prefer not to use it, frankly. Alignment? Who cares? Play the  game and see what happens. If you need a motivation for your character, then choose one, or (again) just wait and see what happens, who you fall in with, and what you do together. There. Now you know you're a dirty, lyin', cheatin' murderhobo and/or grave robber. I don't have to tell you you're chaotic evil. You just are.

The S&W Complete take on the Fighter is pretty neat. Sure there are paladins and rangers, but they're still not fighters. They can fight, sure, just not like a Fighter. Which is why, of course, he or she is a Fighter in the first place. (It's for the fighting, you see.)

Also good: Race as Class or Race and Class are options in this game, as is multiclassing. Just pick one ruleset or the other. Mix and match if you feel like. However, it limits the choices for particular races. That's within the idiom established by the fantasy roots of the game.

S&W Core Rules does my favorite thing of all: 3d6, in order. That's how I like to do attributes. S&W Complete is 3d6, in order (but, hey, go ahead and move 'em around if you have character concept and want to go with that). Again, nice pair of options, and not a whole lot to promote power gaming (e.g., 4d6 and drop lowest). That, I do not like.

Armor class? Well, just take your pick: Ascending or descending. How do you like to do your math? Ascending? Cool, fine with us. It's the utter sensibility of this sort of "here's the options, pick options you like" that I like best about the S&W rulesets. They are about helping you to play the game, but also promote a little thinking about your preferences (and those of your players). That's what rules should do, after all. Provide options for having fun with the game, but don't present so many options that it just gets ridiculous and takes like two hours to make a character (like in 4th ed. By the gods, what the hell was that shit?).

Okay, so that's about what I've got in me to write tonight. I do like this ruleset, though I prefer some elements of one ruleset more than the other. If I used them for my own game, I'd probably spend some time picking and choosing the things I like best.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Word Cloud

Since all the other cool kids are doing it, here's my word cloud.

I only regret that none of the purple themes were worth a damn.

Monday, April 15, 2013

TSR Reprints: The Unexpected Challenge

When WOTC began to re-release their old materials, especially the modules, I was beyond thrilled. You see, I never really played modules when I was younger (say from 1979 to 1983) and then I took a break from gaming to get drunk and listen to lots of punk rock before starting to play again in the early 90s. When I was a kid, my family was pretty poor and I didn't really have a lot of money for anything but the 1st ed AD&D books and some dice. Even those took a while to buy. Modules, to me, seemed sort of superfluous. We just sort of played, making a lot of it up as we went and getting a lot of it "wrong," at least from a rules standpoint.

So, with that background, it was neat to finally get a chance to use these materials. But there's a bit of a problem. Unlike me, there are a LOT of people in the OSR community who have played just about all of these, even run them for other people. What's fresh and new to me is old and beloved (or be-hated?) to them. This creates a quandary: How do I go about getting some use of these modules without boring my players?

Approach 1: Re-skin the modules

This approach has the benefit of creating cosmetic differences without requiring a whole lot of work on my part to institute changes. Unfortunately, I don't think re-skinning a module is sufficient. It would still have the same narrative structure, and throwing a new coat of paint on it won't change it sufficiently. Nonetheless, I think at least part of the changes I'd make would involve some measure of this approach.

Approach 2: Combining the Old and the New

This approach is about me taking the old material and re-imagining it in different ways. The basic structure or theme of the module stays the same, but I would add new pieces, remove some sections, subtly change other pieces, completely rewrite others, etc. This is probably the approach I'd normally take, but it would take nearly as much work to do this well as it would to write my own material (one of the things I'm trying to avoid for the next little while due to time constraints). The benefits, though, are certainly there, as well. It would at least provide a skeleton for whatever other meat I'd add, and the basic structure would have been thoroughly playtested.

Approach 3: Bricolage

Bricolage is an artistic practice of putting in one work a variety of diverse elements (not the dictionary definition). If I took this approach I could put different sections of various modules together and run them as one thing. Clearly, this would require that I be very careful about which ones I choose to work with. Otherwise the weird juxtapositions might be a bit jarring, and not in ways that actually work well. I could see how doing so could create as sense of weirdness that would work pretty well, but it could also just not work well. It could, in short, be an obviously slapped-together piece of shit module (Nothing but giant rats and copper pieces all the way down, Bob). Doing it right would require a lot of the same work I'd have to do in the first two approaches. However, the results might work very well indeed, depending on the modules in question, and how much work I'm willing to put into the effort (not much, frankly).

Approach 4: Just play them as written

I'd really like to avoid this approach. I've had the experience of having to run through a module I've played in before, and being the only one in the party who'd done so. At the time, I just played dumb and sort of let everyone else make decisions about what the party would do. It wasn't a lot of fun. I mean, yeah, it was fun in the sense that I got to game with my friends, sure. That's always a good time. What was not fun was not being fully engaged in the game. I'm ADD enough, anyway, without having to disengage from what is supposed to be an immersive experience.

Approach 5: Just another knock-off

I could, I suppose, just scrap the whole idea and try to run something based on the idea of a module, but do it as original material. So, for example, I could do as +Zak Smith did in his recent series of "read a module and look for good shit" posts (which were very fun, btw, and you should read them). Then, however, I might just say, "Okay, I just read that. How would I do something like that?" So, read The Temple of Elemental Evil, but then do it up in my own way, and completely re-write the thing. I could certainly mine the original modules for things that I like, avoid the stuff that I hate, and end up with something works fine.

That said, if I wanted to go to all of that trouble, why not just write my own stuff in the first place? It really would be about as much work in the end.

Approach 6: Aww, fuck it!

In this approach, I just give up on running modules and write some new material, essentially abandoning my original plan. I could simply decide, for example, to write a dungeon crawl that has no story, no theme, but really just a bunch of rooms filled with monsters, traps, treasures, and so forth. This would be very simple. It's also quite possible, especially given the group I play with these days, that the story would just write itself. It may be that I'm putting too much pressure on myself to make something awesome, when my players will do most of that work themselves, because they do awesome things.

Unfortunately, I have the tendency (nay, the requirement) to fight ADD with OCD. This means that I'm a bit of a control freak about preparation. I really, really don't like to be unprepared for a session. It makes it a lot less fun for me. And having a bunch of random tables, or encounter generators, or whatever might work really well for most people, but that approach tends only to confuse and frustrate me. I'm very deliberate about that sort of thing and it would slow the game down considerably. I need some prior sense of what's what and why it's that way, so I can get it in my head, and really understand it as a gestalt. If I don't get the Big Picture, I get confused, things get mixed up, and my players inevitably notice, and question or challenge what I've presented. Then, I'm like, "Oh, shit. Well, okay, maybe it didn't happen that way." It may end up being fun and fine for everyone, but I still end up feeling foolish (which is not pleasant), and not having very much fun. Fun, after all, is the point of all this, even for the GM.

I'm sure that a lot of people reading this will say, "Well, you don't have to think about it that way. Just relax and have fun." Unfortunately, my brain just doesn't work that way. I get anxious. It makes me panicky. It sucks. This is why I have the OCD coping mechanisms that I have. They are safety and security, and they protect me from my worst tendencies. It is, for better or worse, how I roll.

So what now?

I'm going to have to think about it for a while. I'll probably do some reading, take some notes, sleep on it a bit, and Inspiration will strike. That's what usually happens. If not, then I think I'll just run The Emerald Enchanter  or ASE and call it good.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Old Ones

A group of youngsters sit in a tavern, sipping small beer, and try to get old Marko to tell them once more about the world that was, and of the legends of the Old Times before the coming of Man. This night, one girl, an urchin from the streets, pressed him to speak of the Old Ones, the god-like beings who came before the Elder races (the serpentkin and the lizardfolk, and of course the Elves).

Marko was reluctant at first, but soon someone had bought him a bottle of strong wine, and he relented. Marko drinks a lot, but sometimes he says things worth hearing, so why not? Here's what he said that night.

So you wish to know of the Old Ones, the gods that ruled here in ages lost? Very well, though I warn you that such tales are conflicting and that different versions of the same tale have even been the cause of wars. So no fighting, you lot.

Long before Men walked the face of the world there had dwelled on Urth a variety of creatures, some native and some not. We call them the Old Ones, now, but they probably had names of their own. Legend has it that Urth has seen visitors from the skies, and from other, less hospitable places as well, and that their civilizations rose and fell for thousands of thousands of years. Among the last of these oldest civilizations, what we call the Old Ones, three main groups have left traces of their passing. I've certainly seen relics that were claimed to  have come from them, and I've seen other… things. In any case, they're gone now, that they are. Now, some say that the Old Ones are just sleeping, waiting for the stars to align, or for chicken innards to fall into a particular design, or for the 9,783,321 names of Gu'ul the Destroyer to be chanted so that the world might end in blood... They say a lot of things, but most of them is cranks and cretins, though maybe a few aren't, I suppose.

While the Old Ones certainly were here, and have left traces of their passing, there is no one alive who has encountered them. The stories you hear in the taverns are all nonsense, stories told to frighten young children. Who could believe, for example, that gigantic, tentacled beasts like armored octopi rose from the sea, and stole whole herds of goats, as they say happened in Redflood? No, certainly nothing like that happened. Those stories get retold over and over again, because they are the land's stories, and contain the hopes and fears of its people. Surely, there is some truth in them, for what story can we call "good" that does not have a bit of truth to it? There are accounts of Old Ones like great octopi and squids and fish o' various sorts.

Yorl the Elder, wrote that such stories might well have truth, as they relate to the Cephaploi, which is a word in a long-dead tongue for those Old Ones who lived in the sea in vast, underwater cities. Other stories suggest that the Cephaploi came later, after a race of beings men might remember a little better, as they are related to the races of Urth. Corag Loona, First Librarian of the Blue Spire Conclave, named that older race the Sauron, as they resemble races reputed to be descended from them, which included the thunder lizards still occasionally found in the jungles. And of course the serpentkin and the lizardfolk also are reputed to have sprung from them. It's said by some, though, that the Veridians, far to the west of Ur-Hadad, are the true scions of the Sauron, and that they attempt to raise again their gods from whatever slumbers they currently are pursuing. Folk suspect them of all sorts of things, though, so I'd discount such accounts as pure conjecture.

The ancient chants, as recorded on the Scrolls of Du Muk, tell of a great war in the sea, between the gods of that claimed power in that place (maybe the Cephaloi and the Sauron?), and that the Sauron came forth from the seas after a great defeat, to make a place upon the Urth and under its sun and moons. They raised great cities, vast expanses of gigantic constructions that stretched from horizon to horizon, even extending into the very Urth's depths. I've not seen such places, though some claim to have done so.

We do know, though, that the races descended from the Sauron were here, and that they held sway over the world for eons after the Old Ones are reputed to have retreated from the world, whatever and wherever they might be. Ur-Hadad itself sits on the very spot of one of their greatest cities. Parts of it can be found in the Undercity, and it may also be that other ruins, far older still, lay below, as well. Some even say that the First City of Men used to be at the bottom of a mighty ocean. I have seen the petrified remains of a variety of strange beasts and creatures that are supposed to be proof of that, but I have my doubts. You don't get as old as me in a place like Ur-Hadad by trusting folk who carry such tales.

It's even said that there is another group of Old Ones who aren't even from the same plane of existence as Urth. I personally have seen scrolls that were brought from ill-starred Lorgoroth, before the fires from the sky lay it to waste. They told of the Old Ones who first brought magic to Urth. They were said to have had blood like fire, and to have mated with humans to produce some of the demi-human races. That's unlikely, I think, for not even a horse and a goat can produce offspring. Why would it work otherwise with such beings and lesser races?

In any case, the Arkanoi, as they were called, sailed the heavens in ships without sails and left wakes of fire behind them. It's also said that they were great craftsmen, and that they build vast cities. Those cities were abandoned by the Arkanoi, and the lot of them left Urth before Men were even made. I've not seen those cities, though some claim they are there still, maybe beneath our very feet. I'd dismiss that as lies… but I know differently. I've seen them. They came to me when I was out late at night. I was returning from a piece of business I had outside of town, maybe five miles from the First City. My body was washed in a blue light, and I could not move, nor could my horse. I don't remember much beyond that except that there were bright lights, and I remember being in pain and screaming out for it to end. Then blackness. When I awoke, my horse was gone, and a lay naked in a corn field, stalked pressed down onto the ground in weird, arcane patterns. Along my spine were a series of small puncture wounds, and my smallest toe on my left foot was gone, but the wound full healed. I swear it all happened, truly I do.

So, at various times in the history of the Urth, the Old Ones were born here, or came later. They were gods, or they weren't, or maybe they aren't really but we worship as gods. Some say they were never here, and some say that they're only waiting to return, though they differ on whether the return of the Old Ones is boon or bane to man, but "bane" seems to outweigh "boon" by a wide margin. That, I think, is the most reasonable thing of all that I've heard on the topic.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Hexenbracken: Hex # 0420 The Black Metal Army

So, I've been a bad blogger lately. I blame work. After writing, editing, and revising policy documents all day long, which I've been doing a lot of lately, coming home and writing some more is just not happenin'.

That said, I wanted to contribute to +Zak Smith's call to provide a blog entry about the Hexenbracken project he started.

So, my part of Hex 0420 (hehe hehe) contains the following (of two contributions to that hex):
Titanic arm made of black, very hard metal makes a lewd gesture toward what used to be a contended border. Chance of rock slides.
Okay, so that's kinda ha-ha funny, but what purpose does it serve beyond putting the PCs in danger of being buried in rocks? The only apparent aspect of this monumental feature is a titanic arm, raised in a lewd gesture. 

In part, it's a graffitti. It's a reference to  +Adam Muszkiewicz' and my Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad DCC campaign, and to a substance (black metal) found in our game world. That said, something cool is here.
The arm is made of an incredibly hard and durable black metal, the manufacture of which is lost to the ages. It rises some 80 feet from the uneven and rocky ground, near the peak of large hill. There are many such hills in this particular region.

The real danger here is not the obvious one (rock slides), though that is a concern (can some die rolling going on there, just to make it to the arm). The danger is in what lies beneath. 

First, this could be just one of many, complete mega-statues. You remember the "many such hills in this area" thing I said up above? Well, each one contains one of these statues, each one hundreds of feet tall. What you can see is only part the arm, from just below the wrist. The rest of the statue is down below, buried in stone (probably by magic, I'm sure). And each one is unique. Some are flippin' the bird, as above, or mooning the enemy lands, wiggling their naught bits. Basically, a resounding "Fuck you!" to their enemy's border. I think that's rock and roll (or punk rock, or metal, or whatever--defiance, motherfuckers!), so that's where that comes from. Then, what is the nature of these statues?

I think I have two ways I'd take this, just off the top of my head. 

First, these things are, say, about 800 to a 1,000 feet high/deep. What if each one was a building (or dungeon, since they're buried)? They would constitute a sort of lateral megadungeon. Hell, that whole area is mountainous. It could be lousy with these statues. Maybe they're also interconnnected in some way. I imagine that there could be all kinds of neat sci-fantasy stuff in them. Metal snakes with paralytic beams in their eyes, ecologies of subterranean flora and fauna of various sorts, some of it certainly hostile and equipped (why?) with loot for the taking. I'd like to see external entrances of some kind, and evidence of incursions by later groups of people or creatures. But this is a hexcrawl, so I think you would want them to have just a few exposed entrances to the whole network. They'd need to be nearby, and maybe extend into one or two other hexes, depending on the extent of the "black metal army."

Also, we could make them into sleeping gods, or giant fighting robots, or something just a little bit more... active. They could be autonomous creatures of some kind, or perhaps they could be powered up and piloted in some fashion. The options are plentiful for the more active plan.

So, there it is: Hex 0420. I think I'd check it out. There could be some good adventuring to be had.