Tuesday, December 23, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Sartorial...

Some in the non-gaming-blogging world are not too keen on men wearing pointy shoes:

Watching a grown man trip down the sidewalk in court-jester shoes made me giggle. And these style mavens were soooo serious, dahling...

Have men become a group of effeminate elves? The shoes curl up at the point. It’s embarrassing for women to wear those sorts of shoes. On men, it takes 50 million years of mammalian evolution to suppress the primal urge to laugh and point.

Fashion, however, is utterly a matter of taste, as is most of what we call masculine or feminine. As far as this native-born Texan is concerned, you can take my pointy-toed, 1.5 to 2-inch heeled, decoratively embroidered boots after you've pried them from my cold, dead hands.

Fashions change. Today, the Utilikilt folks are waging a guerrilla marketing campaign to convince Americans that kilts are manly. The ancient Romans of the early Republic would have needed no convincing, however, as they felt that "bifurcated" garments like pants were feminine. They also felt the toga was the final word in conservative, serious clothing and wore socks with their sandals. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they really do, in fact, change.

Clothing and fashion are fun to play with in RPGs, too. Want to make a place seem a bit alien? Have people dress oddly. Pierced noses, formal tattoos, body paint, and odd headgear can all lend an air of the exotic. It's even more fun if those odd twists of fashion actually make sense. Things like pattens or chaps make sense in the right environments.

Unfortunately, you can take it too far. Nobody wants to read your five pages explaining the fashion faux pas of the various lands and cultures of your campaign. Dribbled in as these different places are visited, however, can be fun. As with all else, moderation.

Yeah, I know, the players assuming that the wonky LotR movies' bizarre waistcoats-and-cloaks fashion is all the rage in your campaign world can be very annoying. But it is their game, too, and too much oddness makes the game impossible to invest in. If your players are a bunch of anthropology majors and fashion mavens, sure, go hog-wild with sadors and philactories. Otherwise, less is probably more.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

So Let it be Written, so Let it be Done!

Here's a neat post from a guest-blogger at Chatty's blog. Gaming via text-chat in real-time (meaning, not play-by-post or email) has long been my preferred method of gaming, and Mr. Salazar hits on a lot of the reasons why. All the things I'd like to do, and linger on, in an RPG, are just easier in text. The small nuances, the subtle points of conversation or locale, the intricate puzzle presented as an ornate piece of jewelry, all are far easier to do in text than speech. And I love having recorded logs of the action.

It is a slower way to game. Even if you're not doing the play-by-post thing, play-by-text-chat is still far slower than speech, even if all the players are experienced typists. But the pros far outweigh the cons to me. I'm seriously considering running my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord game this way, with something like OpenRPG or maybe just an IM client.

I'm looking forward to seeing what else Mr. Salazar has to say on this topic.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Lots of chatter these days about music to play in the background while you game, or just for inspiration, including some rather, er, odd choices. I mean, yeah, it's catchy, but I'm not sure if it's the music I'd want to listen to while I was gaming.

But then, I should talk, because my players were always dropping in my Murphy Brown collection of Motown hits. Aretha Franklin beltin' out "R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to me!" doesn't exactly invoke images of stalwart heroes delving into the depths of orc-infested ruins.

And what music really gets me in the mood for gaming? It's purely nostalgia, I'll admit it, but it's '80s pop, especially Phil Collins. Why? Because that's what was on the radio when I was really getting into the game. I remember exploring the Palace of the Silver Princess while Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance" played on MTV in the background. We heard Madonna's "Live to Tell" in the hobby stores we visited.

(I'm apparently not alone in this. When discussing Scylla and Charybdis, a friend of mine first thought of "Wrapped Around Your Finger" rather than Homer.)

At the same time, though, I listened to Thistle & Shamrock every Saturday night. I was really into Celtic music back then, and that also heavily influenced my gaming style. That was the music I imagined in the background when I looked at the art of Elmore, Parkinson, and Whelan. I wasted quite a bit of time trying to reproduce the stories of King Arthur with AD&D. It was a poor fit, but I kept plugging away at it, since I was too cheap to buy Pendragon, and the music of the Boys of the Lough, Silly Wizard, and Clannad was usually playing in the background.

And today, as I work on my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack, with its ancient and tropical setting, I'm pulling up a lot of Oriental and Middle Eastern influences: the Dhol Foundation, Dead Can Dance, and Ofra Haza. I still pop in some Phil Collins when I need a little hit of those days-gone-by, though.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Defending the Indefensible

Neil Gaiman talks about Freedom of Speech, and its limits, here.

Good stuff, important stuff, especially for those of us who indulge in imagination and the fantastical.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How to Make Your Significant Other a Gamer

Yeah, ok, so I said I wasn't going to post much, and my heart is breaking and the world is tumbling down around my ears, and then I see this.

Hope it puts a smile on your face, too.

Weathering the Storm

Sorry, folks, but blogging is going to be light, if not non-existent from now until probably the new year. Bad stuff happening in the troll household, but we'll get through it.

'nuff said. Game on, and have a great time, y'all.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pandora (Kinda) Fails Me

I'm a huge fan of Pandora Radio, a web page that uses something called the "music genome project" to pick music for you. It's an ingenious system that takes a single song seed and, based on what the system knows about the song, finds similar songs and plays them for you. For instance, as I type this, Pandora is playing Greece 2000 (Original Mix) by Three Drives on a Vinyl. Pandora recognizes the following major themes in this piece:

techno roots
disco influences
use of modal harmonies
a variety of synth sounds
synth heavy arrangements
trippy soundscapes
prevalent use of groove

If I mark this song as a favorite, it will add these attributes to what it's looking for in the music it plays for me. It's a very cool system which, of course, appeals to the gamer in me. It's also introduced me to lots of music I'd not have heard otherwise.

Unfortunately, the variety isn't quite what I'd like. Most specifically, I'd really prefer a bit more oriental folk and traditional music. Both my big writing project and my work on the Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack could use with some Dhol Project or Dead Can Dance for inspiration. They've got DCD, but nothing from the Dhol Project, and so the channel I set up for it, called Yulunga Radio, is turning into a trippy techno thing, rather than the exotic rhythm machined I'd been hoping for.

Still, finding some neat music. If you haven't tried it yet, I'd highly recommend it.

2e Triumphs

There's been some talk lately about the horrors of 2nd edition AD&D. Technically, 2e is the version that was on the table when I've played and DMed the most, but the truth is, I've always played Moldvay/Cook with a thin veneer of other rules layered on top. Maybe that's part of the reason why I never made the leap to 3e. You can't just trowel on a few character creation rules and spell lists and have done with it. And that's honestly what I did with every edition of D&D that came into my hands. In that sense 3e and all that followed after it "isn't D&D." But that's a fairly narrow definition of the game, based entirely upon my laziness.

Taking what I did use from 2e, though, it's got one distinction that I miss when I play in other editions. 2e (and here I'm using just the core rules of PHB, DMG, and MM) really got clerics right. The rules for specialty priests make your priest of Zeus play differently than your priest of Thor than your priest of Bast. This was especially true if your DM was, like me, brave enough to create spell lists that didn't include most of the healing spells. With the spheres rules as laid out, it was a fairly simple thing to custom tailor clerics to your campaign. It was a bit of work, but nothing like the effort required to do the same thing from scratch for 1e.

In the end, I decided not to attempt something similar for my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack. Instead, I've crafted the setting so that universal cleric spells make a bit of sense. But in the future, I can see myself attempting to recreate 2e's clerical spheres, if I don't just make separate classes for every priesthood.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Stan "the Man" Lee has been awarded the National Medal of Arts!

I can't really say too much about Mr. Lee himself. He's combined some maybe shady business practices with some sometimes shady writing, but given us incredible characters who, like Isis and Osiris, Odysseus and Penelope, and Quetzalcoatl and Tetzcatlipoca, have a pretty good chance of being remembered and loved long after our civilization has collapsed into dust.

I have no idea how much of this was Mr. Lee's influence, but I've had an on-again, off-again love affair with Marvel comics for a long time. When I was a kid, I wasn't a regular reader because comics were far too juvenile for me. It wasn't until I got to college that I put away the fear of childish things and discovered the joys of Excaliber, mostly through back-issues. (Fans of Planetary Romance would do themselves a favor to track down the justly famous but painfully too short issues 16 and 17. The cover for 16, I think, says all that needs to be said.)

The thing that struck me about Excalibur was that my favorite issues didn't revolve around really cool villains or the "death" of a team member or anything like that. They were most likely to be the more "quiet" issues, where the team never got into costume, but wore their civies and dealt with slightly more mundane issues, like Kitty's birthday or the destruction of the only bathroom (sorry, water closet) in their lighthouse.

And that informed my DMing. Yeah, you knew I was gonna drag this around to RPGs eventually, right? Because it taught me that the most powerful events in the lives of our PCs were not going to be when they won the vorpal blade or defeated the archlich. It was going to be the quiet moments, often those times the players created between themselves, where I just sat and watched, holding the inevitable ninja attack back a few more moments. Because, honestly, if the players are having fun, I'm usually having fun, and if they can entertain themselves with romances and rivalries and jealousy and longing, then heck, I can sit back and enjoy the ride a little bit.

So we had entire sessions where I had little to nothing of any serious consequence planned. Some were given over to parties, often to commemorate recent victories. The players would plan the parties, write up menus and guest-lists, and then we'd play through conversations and events. There might be a drunken fistfight or two, someone would invariably attempt to play match-maker, and usually at least one couple (or trio) would end up disappearing into the bushes. I usually, but not always, dropped in something relating to the next section of the vaguely planned campaign arc.

And everyone had a great time. Granted, you need a special sort of player to pull this off and make it work, and the group needs to be pretty comfortable in their characters and the world. Tying this sort of thing into the customs and rituals of the locals also helps to make the world they live in feel more like a real place, somewhere they can invest emotional and creative energies.

And once they've done that, well, that's when the real magic starts, right?

'Nuff said!

What a Week


So I'm ready to jump back into the blogging thing. Lots of things to talk about, what with all the controversy over certain products. At first, I thought I should unleash a thunderous broadside in defense, but more vigorous and stalwart authors than myself have already given good service on Mr. McKinney's behalf. From the somewhat oblique, to the deeply reasoned and considered, to the smack-between-the-eyes-with-a-clue-by-four, just about anything that can be said has been said on this topic. (Though I do have to say, some of us might, possibly, exercise a bit more restraint when it comes to pushing the big shiny red button. Or maybe not.)

I will only add this little word on my own personal experience: the subject matter discussed in Mr. McKinney's book may seem bizarre, hideous, and unusual to you. You are certainly free to not purchase his book or use such material in your games. As for me, I'm what you might call a "High Church" Christian. Thus, while rituals of torment, human sacrifice, and cannibalism might be rare in your life, for me they're just a typical Sunday morning.

But then came life with its broken computers and hacking, nasty colds, and looking for a new job, and so the website languished again, for which I can only offer the usual lame apologies.

In any event, offered in no particular order, here are a handful of gods for my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack.


God of Knowledge, the Bronze Man

Uban appears to be an eight-foot tall statue of bronze, with gears and hinges of silver and copper, teeth and nails of jade, and eyes of lapis. His form is beautiful but androgynous, and three “wings” or “feathers”, resembling brilliant white palm fronds or the antennae of a moth, float and undulate around his head like a halo. His voice is sweet, like the ringing of crystal bells, but often lacking in emotional inflection.

His priesthood is charged primarily with the creation and keeping of knowledge. While writing is an old skill, he has given great advances in mathematics to the world. His devotions include meticulous recordkeeping, the writing of journals and histories, and the copying of written works, maps, diagrams, and charts, as is meditation.

His servants are owls, squirrels, and bees. His higher servitors are mechanical versions of these creatures fashioned in bronze, copper, and iron.

His symbol is a bronze lamp or pen nib. His priests wear long, sleeveless robes with pen, ink, paper, and other writing and charting instruments carefully kept in ornate leather belts.

PC clerics of Uban can earn an additional 10% EXP bonus by keeping a journal of their adventures.


Goddess of the Stars, the Dancing Goddess

Hasrit is a tall woman, nearly six-feet tall, curvaceous, with delicate hands and feet, and long, dexterous fingers and toes, each possessing an extra joint. She is usually wearing a short, sleeveless, hooded tunic of black silk over a longer robe with a full circle skirt and broad sleeves in translucent, midnight blue linen. A veil of amber beads held in place by silver chains covers her eyes, which have never been seen by a mortal. Her hair is raven-black and falls to her ankles when unbound.

Hasrit’s priesthood studies the motions of the stars, moons, and sun, and from these observations attempts to divine the past, present, and future. By their rites are the heavenly bodies kept in their proper orbits. These rites revolve around astronomical observations and intricate, whirling dances.

The wolf, rooster, and moth are sacred to her. Her higher servitors are wychlamps. Moonless nights are considered sacred to Hasrit.

A silver star of four greater and four lesser points is her symbol. Hasrit’s priests wear robes with long, bell-shaped sleeves, and from their belts hang long strings of gems, stones, metal chains or ropes that splay out as they dance.

Clerics of Hasrit can turn lycanthropes as if they were undead. Such lycanthropes can never be destroyed, just forced to flee.


The Law-giver, the Judge.

Aratshi appears to be a tall man, nearly seven-and-a-half-feet tall with dark grey eyes and long, silver hair. His clean-shaven features are long and lean, as are his hands, which some have described as spider-like. He’s usually seen wearing either a fringed kilt of red wool belted with a broad girdle of gold, or robes of purple silk. He bears a staff of pale ash capped on either end with gold and iron. The shaft is heavily carved from end to end, inscribed with the core of the law he administers.

Aratshi’s priests dress in accordance with their duties. Those who serve as judges dress in kilts of white wool striped with purple. Enforcers of the law wear sleeveless chain mail over red tunics and bear iron-headed maces. Inquisitors wear long crimson robes. Aratshi’s symbol is a long chain from which hangs a conical stone or weight, to point true to the ground.

The god himself creates the laws; his priesthood is tasked with enforcing them. They concern themselves only with obedience and due punishment. Justice is not their concern. Judgment and punishment are both sacred acts, and smaller devotions are marked by repetition of the law’s preamble, an argument and justification for the importance of the law as a bedrock of any stable civilization.

The hound is sacred to Aratshi, and his greater servitors are the (man-headed bull things which are not in the 1st edition Monster Manual like I thought they were, darn it). The sixth day of every week is considered sacred to Aratshi, as this is when most trials are held.

In civilized lands, the priests of Aratshi carry powerful influence, as they are both admired and feared by the citizens.


God of Slavery, Aratshi’s Hound

Shkeen is closely associated with Aratshi, and it is said that he is in truth a creature of Chaos bound in obedience to Aratshi. That would make him not just the god of slaves, but also the slave god, if it is true.

Shkeen stands just under six feet tall. His body is that of a muscular man with bronzed skin, broad shoulders, and large hands and feet. From the neck up, however, he has the head of a red-furred hound with golden eyes. Around his neck he wears a collar of black dragonscale studded with gold spikes. He wears a kilt of leather stained a deep rust color. He usually bears a staff of venom-green poisonoak shod with iron on either end.

Shkeen is no executioner, though he is a hunter of those who flee justice or their owners. Slavery is a common punishment under Aratshi’s law, and many who are brought to face one of Aratshi’s judges end up in the hands of Shkeen’s priests. They are tasked with marking slaves (usually by branding), breaking them, and then selling them, as well as hunting those who flee from their servitude. While they do not command a monopoly on the slave trade, the priesthood of Shkeen has grown very wealthy in this business. This has lead the priests to branch out into aspects of slavery, including transport, marketing, training, and financing.

The vestments of Shkeen’s priesthood include rust-colored tunics worn with belts of plaited green ropes, heavy bracers of green leather covered with bells that they clash loudly during services, and red dog masks. Shkeen’s symbol is a short length of chain, usually just three links, each incised with the four triangles arranged like the canines of a hound.

Hounds, of course, are sacred to Shkeen, as are gelded bulls. His higher servitors are tamed mammoths and a certain species of giant ant. As with Aratshi, the sixth day of the week is held as sacred.

The transformation of a free person to slave is a sacred rite, as is the manumission of a slave to freedman. Most rites, including smaller, daily devotions, are marked by the repetition of the Hunter’s Oath, said to be the exact same words Shkeen used to pledged his obedience to Aratshi.


Goddess of the Underworld, Keeper of the Dead

Lergan is rarely seen in the living world, as she is mistress and governor of Tartarus, the Grey Lands of the deceased. When she does appear in the living world, she is a tall, matronly woman of serious mien, dressed in a gown of black silk, tasseled in crimson and wearing jewelry of silver and bright jewels.

Lergan is not the goddess of death, as the Elder of the Silver Moon, Ushk, holds to that title, and no god has yet been able to wrest that authority from him. Rather, Lergan is the keeper and queen of those who have died and passed into the afterlife. It is said she is barely able to hold on to that title, for the titaness called Grandmother Spider is said to pass freely between Tartarus and the lands of the living, and that the wily crone openly makes her home in Tartarus, in open defiance of Lergan’s claim to dominion.

Lergan’s priesthood, then, is little concerned with executions, burial rites, and the like. Rather, they primarily concern themselves with making sure the dead aren’t wandering about where they’re not supposed to be, specifically the lands of the living. The dead are given reprieve to visit the living world once a year, the day after the autumnal equinox. The day after, the most sacred day of the year for Lergan’s priesthood, the priests go from house to house and search all around to make certain that none of the dead have remained behind. On this day, they may not be denied entrance to any place.

Lergan’s priests dress in grey kilts or robes and wear ivory jewelry. Her symbol is a skull. Rites usually conclude with a dirge-like chant called Lergan’s Welcoming, a reminder that all who live will eventually find themselves in her realm.

Bats and snakes are sacred to Lergan. Certain spirits, those of exceptional devotion or honesty serve her as go-betweens and messengers between her court and the living world.

Priests of Lergan turn undead as if they were two levels higher.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Massively Multijedi Online RPG

Over two years ago I ranted about why "Babylon 5" was a bad choice for a MMOG. I haven't changed my mind on that. I am willing to alter my views on "Star Trek" which were implied in that article, but I'm not holding my breath.

And now BioWare announces that they're doing a MMOG based on their popular (wildly popular, I'd even say, based on a very informal survey of old gaming friends) Knights of the Old Republic line of computer RPGs. And I'm thinking this may be a good thing.

So what makes "Star Wars" a better property for MMOGing than "Babylon 5"? Unlike the other popular sci-fi franchises, "Star Wars" is unapologetically focused on swashbuckling action. Even Captain Kirk didn't fire up the phasers at the first sign of trouble. But everyone knows a wookie will gladly rip your arms off just for beating it at holographic chess. Firefights and ship battles were cool parts of both "Babylon 5" and "Star Trek" but they were also rare, and generally saved for the climactic episodes that book-ended a season. Such battles and action are close to the heart of "Star Wars". Heck, the animated "Clone Wars" shorts which aired on the Cartoon Network between the "Clone Wars" and "Revenge of the Sith" movies were little more than wall-to-wall action, a loving recreation of the sorts of things we all did with our action figures, way back when.

That all said, the action in the "Star Wars" movies was rarely pointless. This is a subtle but important point; part of why Sony's attempt at a "Star Wars" MMOG stumbled is because killing five minocs and bringing in their left wings doesn't feel like "Star Wars". And changing it to killing five stormtroopers and turning in their helmets doesn't help matters any. Gratuitous murder and pillage doesn't feel like "Star Wars", because the heroes of that franchise don't act like that. Whenever there's a fight, there's a point to it: rescuing the princess, or escaping Cloud City, or breaking into the deflector shield projection array. Killing droids or stormtroopers might need to happen, but it's never the point. In the same way that City of Heroes couldn't blatantly be about killing and looting, a "Star Wars" MMOG also has a fine line to walk between the competing expectations of their audience.

Which makes this promising:

“As an attempt to appeal to a broader and broader audience, consequence has left gaming,” said BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk to me after unveiling his MMO this week. “Everything is very low impact and there’s no real negative result that can occur. We’re going to start bringing that back but in a rational way, a way that doesn’t punish the player — but puts them on the spot.”

It'll be interesting to see how this is implimented. The honest truth is, there's a vocal cadre of gamers who squeal in agony when forced to endure anything less than a steady, if slow, improvement in all areas of their online persona. Consequences of any sort are just a lesser version of permanent death, and anything that alters your character irrevocably is to be avoided as unfun. And against that, we have the expectations of BioWare's fans, who enjoy making the tough choices in Mass Effect or pursuing the romantic options in Baldur's Gate.

I think this needle can be threaded, and I think the folks at BioWare are more likely than most to do it, with their reputation for integrating story so strongly in their games. The fact that it's so important to them and, more importantly, their fans means they can't just drop that aspect on the cutting-room floor as deadlines approach and release an almost-good-enough bantha hunting game.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Where's That Darn Troll At?

I got this honestly heart-warming email the other day:

I have not played a pen and paper RPG since I was 13 or 14. Man those were great times; I especially miss those summers filled with D&D, backyard wiffle ball double-headers, and bike trips to the comic book store.

In any event, your blog site is awesome and I check it daily. Even without your having new posts, I use your site as the jump off spot to other links like Grognardia, another favorite site of mine.

Keep up the good work and keep posting great stuff!


And then I got that cranky post by mxyzplk. ;)

Yeah, I need to start posting again.

Sorry for the extended absence. Life has been a bit more exciting than I like, and it's kinda sucked all the wind out of my sails. The truth is, I haven't even been reading RPG blogs for the last month or so. So it's more than time to get back into it.

And that said, I may still be a bit of a light blogger since I'm giving serious consideration to NaNoWriMo this year. I'm a good way into a novel and that might be the perfect way to power through and finish a first draft.

In other news, the intriguing 56th page of "Outsider" has been posted.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Playing with Primordials

I mentioned yesterday that I wanted a conflict between the gods and more primordial powers. For the sake of tradition, and to keep things easy, I’m going to call these primordials titans. In Greek myth, the gods were the children of the titans. I’m thinking of playing with something similar.

This as-yet-unnamed world was created by a small collection of powers I’m calling the Eldest. They include a mother eldest who manifests as the sun, her first son who is the moon and commands transitions and transformations, including lycanthropy, death, and childbirth. He’s not the power of the dead or of fertility, but the eldest of moving from one state of being to another. The sun’s other children include a son who angered her and was transformed into the earth, and a daughter who is the seas. Is this daughter also being punished by her mother, or is she seeking to comfort her tormented brother?

Their children are the titans, and these titans are, as I said before, primordial powers. They’ll be the spirits of certain places, like mountains, forests, rivers and the like. Yes, that means the distinction between some of them and certain fey, like dryads, isn’t very clear, and that’s just fine with me. Ambiguity is a feature, not a bug. Some of the stronger titans might also have jurisdiction over emotions, seasons, and weather. I want an elder, wise, trickster crone titaness whom I’m calling Grandmother Spider for right now. Yep, she’s based a bit on the stories of Old Spider Woman told by Native Americans. I’m also stealing Tiamat from the Mesopotamians as the mother of monsters, now trapped within the world’s second moon, the red one. Trapped, but not destroyed, because of her influence over the powers of fertility. And yeah, I might even make her a five-headed dragon. ;)

The gods are children of the titans, but simply being a child of the titans isn’t enough to get you into that club, because that’s exactly what it is: an association of like-minded individuals. The gods are self-identified, an organization dedicated to improving the lot of those who live on the world. Some of the titans are rather indifferent to all the various creatures they share the world with, but the gods are very interested, and seek to organize the world and promote civilization. Why? Maybe because they just enjoy the creature-comforts that come with civilization. Maybe because they draw power from worship or sacrifice. Or maybe it just gives them something to do while eternity rolls on.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Playing with Campaign Design

Some people like to begin working on a new campaign with a map. They’ll start small, with a starting village and the surrounding countryside, maybe plot out where a dungeon or two can be found. Others pull way back and sketch out an entire continent or maybe even the entire world.

I prefer to start with themes. If I can come up with a theme that intrigues and inspires me, the rest tends to come rather easily. Even if the players never really interact with the theme, it serves as a seed from which inspiration for monsters, treasures, locations, and conflicts can arise.

At first, I was thinking about something a bit more high fantasy for my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack. My most successful games have been high fantasy, and that style has a lot going for it. It’s the default of not just D&D, but most fantasy RPGing in general. Everyone knows it, and they can jump right in with little effort.

But my interest in high fantasy has waned over the years. My heart lies elsewhere. A lot of my reading lately has been in the swords-and-sorcery genre, or tended in that direction. I’m less interested in knights and the Renaissance and gunpowder and more interested in barbarians and the Pliocene and magic as something dangerous and not quite tamed. More “Conan the Barbarian” and “Scorpion King” than “Excalibur” and the “Princess Bride”. More (NSFW) Frazetta and Daren Bader and (NSFW) John William Waterhouse, and less Sir Frank Dicksee and Scott Gustafson and (NSFW or your SAN score) Hieronymus Bosch. Not that I don’t like those other things (I maintain that “The Princess Bride” is one of the greatest movies ever made). I’m just not interested in running a game on those themes this time.

So I’m thinking a young world, still mostly untamed, wild and warm and in some ways unfamiliar. This opens up a lot of possibilities. For instance, a common theme in sword-and-sorcery literature is a time before Man ruled, when the great civilizations of the world were other than human. While I prefer to keep the humanocentric feel of Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord, that doesn’t mean I can’t have the remnants of those old civilizations heavily dotted across the landscape. So I’m going to have the waning lizardfolk empire still in evidence, struggling to hold on to their waning power in the face of waxing human dominance. And I’m going to steal a page from Jeff and replace horses with freakin’ giant birds and lizards like the ancient terror birds that made a cameo in “10,000 BC”. I can have (NSFW) mastodons in the north and populate my jungles with saber-toothed tigers. Dinosaurs? Probably not, or, at least, not in common profusion.

A common theme in mythology is a time of conflict among the gods, or between the gods and primal forces (the titans of Greek myth and the frost giants from the Norse myths). The gods at this time are not metaphysical abstractions, but flesh-and-blood creatures who wander the world and have their own adventures. From Isis’ quest to resurrect her beloved Osiris to Ares battling among the mortal armies clashing beneath the walls of Troy , the gods were people you could meet on the street and who took an active part in mortal affairs. Nor were they untouchable superbeings, as Diomedes driving Ares from the field proves.

The gods, then, are going to not be in some distant Outer Plane, but living and dwelling within the world. When people say that the ruler of Nius is a god-king, they’ll mean that quite literally; the ruler of the city is, in fact a god.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Light Saber Duels

Star Wars! Blaargh!

Pardon me while I geek out a moment.

I haven’t seen the new Star Wars animated movie-TV-pilot-thingie. If you’d known me back in college, or any time before the prequels were released, this would be shocking. I was an elementary school kid when the first Star Wars movie literally exploded onto the scene. There’d never been anything like it before. Hollywood was still emerging from a morose fascination with disaster movies. Star Wars was unexpected, imaginative, and sunk its hooks in my like nothing else before or since. I loved the original trilogy (even the ewoks), and the story was important to me, on many levels. I never played in a Star Wars RPG in part because I never felt I could do justice to the feel and power of the original stories.

I shouldn’t have worried so much, since apparently George Lucas can’t, either.

Ok, yeah, cheap shot, and what follows is, in part, a rant about why the prequels suck. There’s nothing directly game related here, in terms of mechanics or styles. However, I think it does have game-related significance because I will be talking about staying true to your themes, and making things cool. And I’ll be talking specifically about those coolest of military mystics, the jedi.

The lowest point of the three new movies, for me, was from “Attack of the Clones”. Chritopher Lee’s character had captured Obi-Wan. The words “jedi knights” came rolling off Lee’s lips in that incredibly rich voice of his, and a thrill ran down my spine. Jedi knights! The name evoked a fusion of ancient mysticism and the Round Table, of spiritual quests and courage and transcendent vision. I wanted to see more about these awesome jedi knights!

And then, like a dunk in cold water, I realized that the jedi knights were these G-Men in bathrobes we’d been watching through the whole movie.

The problem goes beyond midichlorians and over-exposure. It’s not so much the loss of mystery as the loss of vision and mission that reduced the jedi from mystic warrior-saints to mundane government agents from your standard Tuesday night police procedural. Consider the light saber duels. The new movies understood the importance of these as centerpieces, and each was a rousing spectacle of special effects, stage fighting, and stuntwork. But the fights were not really about anything more than fighters going mano-a-mano, trying to kill one another. Story-wise, they were no different from Amidala and her guards blasting away at droid soldiers. The duels look great, but they don’t mean anything beyond simple conflict. They remain mired in the purely physical.

What am I talking about? Ok, let’s go back to Episode IV’s light saber duel. It’s Vader vs. Obi-Wan as played by Alec Guinness, and, as the “later” fights go, it’s kinda lame. Two old guys shuffling around, banging their weapons together. But the fight works because it gives us clues to the as-yet-unknown past, and because Obi-Wan isn’t trying to kill Vader. He’s competing on a completely different plane. He knows he can’t kill Vader, and he’s not even really trying. He’s just toying with Vader, goading him on. Vader can’t see it; his only goal is to murder another jedi and push the order that much closer to oblivion.

Obi-Wan stops fighting as soon as he knows Luke is watching. He wants Luke to see Vader as a butcher and knows he’ll be in a better position to guide Luke’s development after he’s dead. Vader wins the fight but loses the duel; he doesn’t even begin to suspect that he’s been had until he’s prodding at the now empty robes of the dead Kenobi.

The next two duels of the original trilogy carry this theme even further. In “The Empire Strikes Back”, Luke wants to kill Vader. Vader, however, has something else completely in mind. Killing Luke is the last thing he wants to do. Instead, his desire is to corrupt and convert Luke. The duel is a showcase for how weak Luke is and how little he understands. Vader is constantly throwing Luke off-balance, either by chasing him through dark tunnels, using the Force to toss furniture at him, or making startling revelations about their secret history. In the end, Luke wins the fight by escaping, but loses the duel. His faith in Obi-Wan is shattered and he’s had his first taste of the seductive power of the dark side. When we next see Luke, at the beginning of “Return of the Jedi”, he’s abandoned the calm and humble earth-tones of the Alliance and jedi for a black-on-black ensemble, complete with creepy, Palpatine-style cloak.

The final battle of “Return of the Jedi” is rife with this theme. While the Alliance fights for its life around them, the Emperor, Vader, and Luke square off in a struggle unlike any other I’ve ever seen in a movie. The physical action isn’t just a metaphor for deeper struggles, but an active agent of them. Death is the least of everyone’s worries in this duel, and while the Alliance starships are dieing to keep their struggle alive, the conflict around the Emperor’s throne is for the very soul of the galaxy. Not only is Luke not interested in killing anyone, it’s his very refusal to take life that gives him victory. Only by elevating his perspective above the bestial kill-or-be-killed can he ward of the real attack of the Emperor, which has nothing to do with light sabers and warships, and everything to do with hate, love, and reason.

And it’s that which made the jedi so cool in the first three movies. Not that they could kill their foes with all sorts of neat tricks, spinning light sabers, or nifty force powers. It was that they operated on a plane above the normal, physical struggle of the conflict of the day, towards the more universal conflicts that are at the heart of every person. In the realm of the jedi, why you were doing something was vastly more important than what you did. In the mundane realm of Han Solo and Wedge Antilles, being willing to sacrifice yourself for the cause is noble, but in the plane of jedi combat, sacrificing yourself while in alignment with the natural flow of love and hope, or the light side of the Force as they call it in the movie, isn’t just noble, but an undeniable and absolute victory. And that’s something we haven’t really seen since Vader decided he’d rather be a father than a Dark Lord of the Sith.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Mysterious Magical Items

Over at the Verbing Noun, David wonders how to maintain the wonder that magical items really ought to have:

The problem is, the mage says "Ok, I'll cast Identify." Suddenly, the DM is faced with an issue. The spell tells the party what the sword is. The sword, as an item, is exactly a +2 Adamantine Longsword. The problem is, that is exactly what goes down on the loot sheet. The party fighter will take the sword you just lovingly described, and write it down exactly as a +2 Adamantine Longsword. Next week/month/whatever, when you play the next session, no one will remember what the sword looks like or feels like.

I like to tackle this issue in two ways. The first one is to make even the exact, standard description mysterious. And I do this by making the items not entirely beneficial. I wrote about this back at the beginning of August:

This is one area where most games, pen-and-paper RPGs and, most especially, computer RPGs alike, almost all stumble, and in the exact same way. By making magic predictable, reliable, and easily controllable, they drain all the color from it. Fireballs not only harm just your enemies, they don’t cause fires to break out or melt the treasure the monsters were carrying. Stored magical power doesn’t leak or cause unexpected effects. Magic is far more reliable and boring than technology; your computer might blue-screen, your light bulbs might pop, and your car may be melting the polar icecaps, but your wand of lightning bolts only ever does 6d6 points of damage to your intended targets.

When you can't trust magic, when you know in advance there will be a cost for using it, it becomes not just another stat bonus, but instead a resource to be used with caution and treated with respect.

That, however, doesn't really address the issue David is talking about here. Why should players be interested in the description of the magical items, their flavor and style? One general rule applies any time you want the players to pay attention to something: if you want them to care, you have to make it important.

History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells "Can't you remember anything I told you?" and lets fly with a club.
- John W. Campbell

If you want the players to care that the mithril blade was forged by the famed elven smith Norenvyll, then have a collector offer them more than it's market value for the blade. If you want them to care that the Battle of Kessnal Ford was won when an elven champion used this same sword to behead the orcish chieftain Chugrel, have Chugrel's half-orcish daughters assume one of the PCs was that hero when they see him with it in a tavern. Do they want vengeance? Or do they believe the sword has stolen their father's soul, and must be destroyed so his spirit can pass on to the Outer Planes? Or do they owe a debt of fealty to the wielder of the blade, for freeing their mother from the cruel warlord?

You can even have NPCs react to how things look. Even though it wasn't magical, the armour of Sturm from the Dragonlance novels got a reaction from almost everyone who saw it and recognized its significance. What sort of reaction do elves or dwarves have to someone wearing a sword crafted in the elven style? Does that reaction change if the sword was actually crafted by a human smith aping the elvish style? Does the priesthood of the Moon treat differently those who wear the sacred metal silver? Does wearing white, doeskin boots of speed before the Feastday of St. Peret of the Stonemasons get you snickered at in the courts of the High King?

Yeah, you can really go overboard with this, and it only works if your players are interested in these sorts of anthropological details. Still, I've not yet known a player to pass over even a +1 reaction bonus if all they need to do is change out their usual +2 bastard sword for the +1, +2 vs. lycanthropes they've been storing in the bag of holding.

I Taut I Taw a Dwagon...

Now this is just a damned cool idea:

TwitRPG is an experiment I accepted to do on a whim on a random Wednesday night after someone asked me semi-seriously to create a Twitter (A microblog engine that limits post to 140 characters) game world to let characters play in.

It'll never be my preferred method, falling somewhere between the immediacy of IRC gaming and the slow, forgiving play-by-post/email, but it's got a lot of potential. I could really see it working well for very abstract games. For instance, if your RPG has a strong strategic component (like Birthright, for instance) or focuses on long, slow actions (things that take a month or a week to complete), this could work very well.

- Brian

Friday, August 29, 2008

Dzur Review

I'm noticing a trend in the books I'm reading. Actually, my father noticed it first when he described John Scalzi's Old Man's War as a decent book that turns into a dynamite book in the last 20 pages.

Steven Brust's Issola was the same for me, only with a more dynamic shift. I actually wasn't enjoying it much about halfway through, and if it had been my first exposure to Brust's writing, I would have put the book down and might not have picked it up ever again.

But Brust has earned some patience from me, so I stuck it out. And I loved the ending, which so redeemed the book that I went back and reread it again.

Dzur picks up right where Issola left off. And that's a bit of a problem, because Issola promised us...

Well, ok, I should stop here. There be spoilers ahead, folks, so if you want to come at the book fresh, stop now and go get it. If you're a fan of Vlad Taltos, you know you're going to read it anyway, right? Come back after you have for the critique, so you can tell me where I got it wrong. And if you're not a fan of Vlad Taltos, stop reading now, head to your nearest neighborhood bookstore, and pick up a copy of Jhereg. Yes, I know it was originally written in '83, but if your bookstore doesn't have a copy on their shelves, they can get one for you. Yes, it's that popular, and yes, it's that good. Vlad's name doesn't get tossed around as much as maybe Elric or Conan, but he's as much an icon of fantasy as either of those worthies. Seriously, get the book and read it.

Ok, so Dzur... One of the interesting things about Steven Brust is that you're often conscious of the fact that you're reading a book that was written by an author, but it's still ok. Most of the time, writers work hard to disappear into the prose, so there's nothing between you and the story. With Brust, you often are faced with the conscious fact that there's a guy writing this stuff. And every now and then, he tries a neat little writerly trick, and it feels a bit like when your neighbor gets a new lawnmower with some special feature, and he's gotta try out that feature, even if he's only going to use it on a tiny portion of his yard. Sometimes, it's kinda cool, and you can share in the joy of watching your neighbor play with his new toy. Other times, it's just frustrating when it doesn't work as advertised, and everyone wonders if it wasn't built right or if your neighbor just doesn't know how to use it properly.

In this case, the neat toy is opening each chapter with comments about Vlad's dinner at Valabar and Sons, the assassin's favorite restaurant. Each little vignette just oozes decadence. Vlad loves food and Brust loves talking about how Vlad loves food. Food is to Vlad Taltos as pain and sex are to the anguisette Phèdre nó Delaunay.

It makes sense, of course. Vlad is back in his element. No more mucking about in the army or tromping about through rustic hinterlands. And the dzur who joins him for the food and supplies the pleasant conversation every good meal really needs is a neat character, one I hope we get to see more of. Honestly, it may be a writerly flourish, but the meal was my favorite parts of the book. And it mostly works. It partly depends on how you view a meal. Yes, a meal is like a story, and Brust does a wonderful job of explaining how the various courses of an expertly prepared meal has it's own rising action. Unfortunately, this relegates dessert to denouement, especially if there's no digestife course. And the big climax we've been looking forward to since the end of Issola happens in the chapter headed by the dessert. Even worse, it's not really the climax we were promised, but an anti-climax. The whole thing left me scratching my head.

Why did he need the Demon Goddess to send Telnan a dream to summon him to the confrontation? Couldn't he have, I dunno, sent a letter? Or had someone send a telepathic summons? Was there an issue there? Or is this just the proper way to summon a dzur hero? Or is it another example of Verra mucking about in Vlad's head?

Why does Vlad think the Left Hand will keep their promise? Yeah, ok, a pair of murders might make them think twice before they try anything, but I'm not convinced. They seemed to back down too easily. And we know Triesco isn't going to just let it go.

And in the end, things finish in an odd place. Vlad is still on the run. He's still not sure why the Demon Goddess is mucking about with his head. And if you take a step back and look at how the story is structured, his confrontation with Verra falls in the spot of the main course, which would indicate that it's the true climax. Which makes sense if you consider this book only a fraction of the story being told.

Which means that while Brust is still writing 300 page books, he's been bitten by the same massive-tome bug that's gotten to the rest of the fantasy lit field, and is telling 1,000+ page stories. The real story, I think, is what Verra has in mind for Vlad, and his relationship to the Demon Goddess. Dzur is something of an opening act to that tale, which may have its prologue in Taltos. As a stand-alone novel, Dzur starts great and ends weak. It'll probably be another two or three novels before we know if the entire story is up to the usual standards we expect from Brust. But since it is Brust, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Living with 4e

Scott Schimmel of "A Butterfly Dreaming" has been playing 4e for two months now, and has some interesting things to say about it.

First, yes, the organization of the PHB is lacking:

The problems arise when I need to find a specific piece of information, such as the range of a power. Sure, I know it’s in the chapter on classes… but there’s nothing for it except to page through the listing of that class’s powers. There’s no index or table of contents that points to powers by name. The powers are broken down by level, but I might not know the level off the top of my head.

In other cases, I might need to flip through several sections to find where a rule is located. Learning what [W] means, for example, requires following text through at least three pages in different chapters of the book. Some rules are only referred to once — the almost offhanded remark about the ability to change the fluff of a power, for one, is easy to overlook on a casual read through.

Mr. Schimmel of course mentions Propagandroids improved index. Never leave the Nentir Vale without it.

And speaking of the Nentir Vale, Scott's got nothing but praise for the DMG:

Admittedly, it’s pretty light on the crunchy bits. Most of those are subsumed into the PHB now, and all of the monsters are in the MM. It does, however, show you how to easily build encounters, modify monsters, award treasure and experience, and use traps and interesting terrain. The chapter about Fallcrest and the Nentir Vale also provides a starting location suitable to be dropped into many campaigns, fleshed out enough to be useful with little preparation, left undefined enough to be modified to suit the GM’s needs, and strewn with dozens of potential plot hooks.

An experienced GM won’t really need this book. But the above bits are useful enough that he might want them anyway. For newer GMs, this is an incredible introduction to the other side of the screen.

I've been less effusive in my praise, but I've never tried to use the book, and that might make all the difference. I suspect most of my disagreements would arise from differing expectations.

He's also pretty happy with the MM, though I really can't share his enthusiasm there. The monsters just rub me the wrong way: how they're laid out, how they've been reimagined, how they operate in the game. Still, if you're playing 4e, I imagine the book is very well set up to give you what you need.

Finally, if you want some thoughts on how the game actually plays, Odyssey continues to be our canary in the mineshaft there:

It had the usual near-death moments, which I'm beginning to think are an artifact of the way healing works rather than a sign of actual peril. The damage/healing system, to put it most simply, is subject to negative feedback. There are, of course, monsters that are more dangerous against bloodied foes. But those effects are dwarfed by the basic dynamic of the PCs healing abilities: the more wounded they are, the easier they are to heal.

Mostly it comes down to the death and dying rules. There are a couple of powers I know of that exacerbate the effect, but they're not what drives it. Sooner or later, the death and dying rules kick in whenever a PC takes damage. And they don't just make it impossible to die within less than 3 rounds after hitting zero, giving their friends plenty of time to get them back on their feet with a simple skill check. They also guarantee that when the character does get back into the fight, they do so with a quarter of their starting hit points -- any healing on a dying character resets them to zero before hit points get added, and that basic heal check option gives them a free use of a healing surge.

I can't say I'm too surprised by this. This is the same thing we were wondering about when the rules were first revealed. The many TPKs of the demo games silenced that for a while, but those now appear to have been the product of pitting the heroes against foes far beyond their weight class. As Odyssey asks, 'Is there an intermediate setting in a 4e fight, between "artificial danger" and "certain doom?"' Frankly, this isn't just a problem for 4e, as I've encountered it in high-level 2e play as well. The difference is, in 2e, you can use layered defenses to slowly wear the PCs down. That doesn't work nearly so well in 4e.

Wrangling Over Rust Monsters

Noisms just doesn’t get the rust monster hate:

I like Rust Monsters; they're one of the very few D&D creatures who can actually generate genuine fear and excitement in players - the others usually being level-draining undead. But there is no Rust Monster anymore: it was decided that destroying armour and weapons wasn't fun and should therefore be cut from the game. (Apparently genuine fear and excitement aren't enjoyable in the brave new world - crazy times.) It constitutes 'screwing players over', you see, because DMs can't be trusted to use Rust Monsters fairly or sensibly, and little Johnny the player will cry because the nasty Rust Monster took away his ickle Vorpal Sword, and he'll run off home and tell mumsy, and that won't be fun, and it will ruin D&D as we know it, or something. That's broadly the argument, as far as I can tell.

Well, not really. I suspect that Noisms’ first introduction to fantasy RPGs had nothing to do with a computer, and that’s made a lot of the difference.

No, this isn’t another “4e is WoW” rant. However, computer RPGs have influenced pen-and-paper RPG design, and the expectations of the players. Folks coming from computer games bring different assumptions to the table than those of us who started playing with our heads full of Harryhausen movies and Conan stories.

The original Diablo game, by Blizzard, is a great example of this. I read somewhere (somewhere I can’t find now) that the designers had a mantra when programming how the dungeon levels would be generated. It went something like this: “If a minute passes, and the player doesn’t see something die or burst into flames, something needs to be fixed.” If you played any of the old first-person-shooters, like Doom or Quake, you know exactly what they’re talking about. The game is great so long as you’re slipping around corners, dodging monsters, and shooting your guns. But the game falls painfully flat when you’ve cleared all the monsters you can find from a level, but have no idea how to get to the next one. You wander around and around through the maze, all the corridors looking the same, until you’re about to pull your hair out in frustration, looking for the damned key or door or whatever it is you need to go to the next level, so you can get back to the fun.

This is what they’re talking about when they say the rust monster isn’t fun. The problem isn’t so much that the player’s PC loses hard-earned loot, so much as it disrupts what the game is about. 4e is focused around the tactical challenges of battlemat combat. It’s about maneuver and when to whip out those per-day and per-encounter abilities. 4e is fun when these challenges are coming at a steady clip. This is why traps are now built like encounters and why non-combat encounters (aka the skill challenges) are set up to result in victory or defeat in a fairly short span of time. The primary goal was to give players a little break from the tactical challenges, and then get them right back into it as soon as possible afterwards.

The problem with the rust monster isn’t so much the equipment it destroys as it is the disruption to the standard pacing of the game. Instead of moving on to the next tactical challenge, the rust monster forces the PCs to leave the dungeon and return to civilization and re-equip. If you play it out, that means a long time of playing without tactical challenges, where the PCs are mostly traveling through previously cleared dungeon corridors and wilderness. If you don’t play it out, and just say the time passes and the coin is spent, why bother with the rust monster in the first place? The pain isn’t so much the personal grief of the player who’s PC lost his vorpal sword, and more the annoyance of the entire group as they are pulled away from stream of combats that is the core of the 4e experience.

Older players don’t mind so much because the core of the game way back when was exploration and logistics. Losing equipment was a logistical puzzle; do you continue on without it, or risk the dangerous road back to civilization? Pushing deeper into the dungeon without that sword or plate mail might be dangerous, but those random forest encounter tables in the back of the DMG could dump the party into the lap of a green dragon. If you risked going deeper, you might get lucky and find replacement equipment. If you go back, you’ll certainly be able to buy new equipment, but that choice isn’t without serious risk, either. Making those decisions was the fun of old school D&D. The rust monster didn’t interrupt the game. The rust monster was the game.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Review of Memories of Ice

I just finished Memories of Ice, book three of Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The book returns us to the characters we know from the first book, Gardens of the Moon, but we see little of the characters we met in book two, Deadhouse Gates beyond a few cameos.

It’s good stuff. The books are thick, as is the fashion in fantasy novels following the mad success of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Still, don’t expect anything like Jordan’s stories here. Nor is it much like Martin’s Game of Thrones books, though Erikson’s work is closer in tone to those.

The first thing I’ll say about Erikson’s books is, even though we’ve got a large ensemble cast, you never find yourself straining to get through chapters or skipping ahead past characters you’re less interested in to get to those you really care about. Erikson does a great job of lavishing all his characters with mystery, interest, and detail. More than that, though, is the sprawling, jumbled, unorchestrated feel of the narrative. Now, that might seem like a detraction, and for some readers it might be. The stories feel almost random, events following one after another as dictated by the collisions of chance and consequence, and without any regard at all for the usual demands of structure and pacing. Some might find this annoying, as the story leaves you adrift, without the usual signposts we usually get from stories. Me, I find it refreshing. The books read more like a narrative of actual, historic events rather than crafted stories. Combined with Erikson’s willingness to kill characters you care about, a willingness that rivals Glen Cook’s and surpasses George R.R. Martin’s, and you feel completely adrift in the stories, not really able to tell what’s coming next.

Granted, some of that comes from the confusion of characters, races, groups, and creatures which populate these books. Even with the dramatis personae and a glossary bookending the story, I still got confused a few times. The book begins with the forging of an alliance between Dujek Onearm’s outlawed Malazan army and the rag-tag army of mercenaries and immortals that were, up till now, their foes. They’ve united to fight against the rising power of an army of religious fanatics. No, not the army of the Raraku Apocalypse that was the focus of Deadhouse Gates; this is another, different army of religious fanatics. Yeah, you can see why it can get confusing at times.

Even more confusing are some of the motives for perplexing actions taken by the characters. I won’t be running a damned thing when I tell you that one of the immortals, an ancient, cursed tyrant named Kallor, betrays the alliance. Which begs the question, why is he part of the alliance at all? He doesn’t bring with him an army, his perfidy is so well known that his military advice is rarely heeded, and the only time we see him draw his weapon is to attack his supposed allies. So why do they put up with him? It’s a mystery that’s never explained. Likewise, there are secrets kept for no apparent reason. In both cases, the bones of narrative structure peek out past the wild froth of events, and we see choices made that seem primarily motivated by the need to set up later events in the story. And at the end of the book, we see the Malazan soldiers honoring a man who undertook an epic sacrifice for a very noble cause, though his timing was abysmal and almost certainly cost the lives of many Malazan soldiers. And, while the scene is wonderfully written, the sort of thing to bring tears to the eyes, it’s almost undercut by wondering why the heck this guy didn’t wait an hour or two, and why the Malazans are so willing to overlook the horrible cost to their own.

In the end, though, this is good stuff. I’ve heard that Erikson is an archeologist by training, and that comes through in his writing, especially his love of epoch-spanning storylines and his adoration of memory and geography, which he romantically links near the end of the book. Lots of loose ends from Gardens of the Moon are nicely tied up here, and questions raised in that volume are so neatly answered that if the series stopped here, I’d almost be satisfied. I will say that if the Bridgeburners never make another appearance, I won’t be upset, and that has nothing to do with disliking them and everything to do with the nature of how their tale is told in this volume. This is everything you liked about Glen Cook’s Black Company books, without that unpleasant sense that the author has no idea where the story is going and is just writing to fill out books, with no end in sight.

Yeah, I know, I’m contradicting myself. I said above that the story feels unplanned, a wild retelling of actual events. Yeah, it feels that way, but everyone in the story has plans they are pursuing. So while almost nobody’s plans work out the way they hope, those goals give the story a sense of trajectory that is clearly illusory, but also comforting for the reader. In short, the tale is shot through with the chaos that is the literary equivalent of the shaky, hand-held camera used often in movies and TV to convey a sense of realism to a scene, but still embraces the reader’s need to feel like the author does have some sort of story in mind during all this madness. The only times the book stumbles is when the author’s hand is a bit too evident, as I mentioned above. But those stumbles are few and far between, and easily forgiven, considering the empathetic characters, wonderful scenes, and interesting locales he gives us.

Currently, I prefer Glen Cook’s new series, The Instrumentalities of the Night, to Erikson’s books. But Erikson’s writing is a more than suitable substitute while we await the third book in Cook’s series.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Pair of Videos

The first is edumacational, so you should all watch it twice or something.

We've discussed this a bit before here, and I really can't wait to see what we learn from the LHC.

And now for something completely different. This just sings to me. Will I play the game? Heck, no. I've got other things, things that I find far more entertaining, to do with my time. But could I take this and run with it as the scenario for an adventure, or even a campaign. Oh, hell, yes!

It's just a great example of how Blizzard, er, "borrows" from the best. Armoured sorcerer in tall, spikey, crown-helm stomping around while boy soloist sings in dead or imaginary languages in the background? Oh yeah, someone's been watching their Lord of the Rings DVDs over and over again. A healthy heapin' of heavy-metal-album-cover cool with a twist of pathos and a sprinkling of horror. Those Blizzard folks are good at what they do.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Adventure Paths, the Old School, and Fun

Once again, as I read Grognardia, I'm thinking to myself "yes, yes, YES!"

Modules D1 and D2 provide nothing in the way of a "plot." They are simply descriptions of locales and encounters along the way to the drow metropolis of Erelhei-Cinlu. Along the descent into the depths of the earth, the characters might make various friends and enemies to aid them in their explorations, but none of these encounters is part of a grand plot as such. Instead, what we get is a subterranean "wilderness," with many different monster lairs, along with the usual tricks and traps. Even the fabled Shrine of the Kuo-Toa is mostly a dungeon without any greater significance, although the characters may loot from it drow brooches and clothing to aid them in infiltrating the Vault of the Drow.

D2: Shrine of the Kuo-toa is a great example of old school adventure design. Here's the thing: if the PCs are lucky, observant, and polite, they can pass through the entire shrine and never once draw their blades. Seriously. It's not so much an adventure as a locale. The DM and players can do anything with it. Wholesale slaughter, polite but aloof anthropology, or even forging an alliance with the kuo-toa are viable possibilities. The players could spend as little as an hour or two real time as they pass efficiently through the lands of the kuo-toa, or use the shrine as a base of operations to explore the surrounding subterranean wilderness, or even get embroiled in local politics, spending multiple sessions within the shrine itself.

This lack of assumptions is, I think, key to old school adventure design. What I find even more interesting, however, is how invisible such things can be to the players:

My memories of these modules were quite different than the reality. My recollections were of a number of memorable encounters with various antagonists, strong connections between the various groups of evildoers, and an overall coherence that simply isn't there. But then I was the referee for all these modules and ran them many times. I provided huge doses of "connective tissue" based on what my players did and how well they succeeded (or failed).

The good DM creates plot and conflict from the diverse parts and tools the game and adventures provide. Running through the Giants/Drow series of adventures feels like an adventure path because the players only see the logical progression from one part of the adventure to the next. But what they don't see is the open framework the DM has to play with. This openness is vital, however, because while they may not see it, they certainly enjoy it. In the hands of a clever, imaginative, and flexible DM, this framework allows the DM to customize the adventure towards the preferred playstyle of the group. Do they want to engage in diplomacy? Or do they prefer James Bond style infiltrations? What about straight-up hack-and-slash? The adventures work best when these different styles are combined, but the DM is open to emphasize each in whatever combination is most enjoyed by the group. They're even flexible enough to allow the group to change their style for an evening if things start to get stale.

And this, more than anything else, is the glory of old school play. It doesn't assume to know what fun is. Instead, it gives you the tools you need to create what is fun for you.

Monday, August 18, 2008

ArmadilloCon XXX Report

Good times at ArmadilloCon 30 (which I prefer to refer to as ArmadilloCon XXX, just 'cause it sounds both cooler and more deviant). I ended up spending very little time in the gaming room, but reports are that things went well, and the MIB who helped out is thinking of getting things even more organized next year with a schedule of games to be played, something that has worked well in the past if I recall correctly.

Beyond the game room, the dealers' room had little in the way of games, though one of the booksellers had some old GURPS books, at least one issue of DRAGON from what I consider their best years (roughly 70 to 150 or so), and a few old D&D modules. Ninja Pirate was there with a nice big table heavily laden with games of all sorts, especially big board games and the like. Perusing their selection was an inspiration to consider trying my hand once more at a game of interstellar politics and warfare, something along the lines of a Babylon 5 boardgame. Otherwise, there were lots of relatively contemporary novels and few gems from ages past, old hardbacks from the '30s on up, classics from Howard, Moorcock, Clark Ashton Smith, and others, as well as the new Paizo collections from those writers.

The panels, however, were the best part of the organized offerings. The first panel the Trollwife and I were able to catch was about world building. John Scalzi was in it, as was Steven Brust. My copy of Jhereg has a publication date of 1983, so Brust has been building worlds professionally for nearly a quarter century now. The guy had lots of interesting things to say and is a great, engaging, and fun public speaker, as is Scalzi. One thing they were both big on is treating the world as a character in its own right, something you get to know as you explore it and watch it interact with the other characters. This is very similar to a lot of bottom-up world building we see in the gaming world, where the GM creates just enough of the world to get the ball rolling, and then adds more as the needs of the game dictate. Another interesting observation from Brust was that readers learn about the world from narrators and that there are two types of narrators: “those who are unreliable, and those I don't trust.” By this, he meant that nobody can understand a world perfectly, and everyone sees the world through a prism of expectations, philosophies, and prejudices.

Now, this is something you can use with players, but you have to be careful about it. They expect the things you tell them as the GM to be reliable. If you tell them, for instance, that dwarves love it when you buy them drinks, and then every dwarf they meet is insulted when the PCs try to buy them a few rounds at the tavern, the players likely to get upset with you. It gets even worse if the rules of the game don't work like they expect, and a high intelligence actually offers no benefit to wizards.

That said, there are some things you can offer as prejudices to the PCs. I like to use the carefully worded caveat “everybody knows”. Most people understand what that means, and it allows the player to decide if their character shares the common assumptions. Another thing I like to do is offer extra information to certain characters. I especially like to do this with elves or other long-lived races. Everyone else knows the story of how the Black Duke fell at the battle of Balen Hills; your character dated a woman who was actually there, and her version of events is a bit different from the others. (Notice also that, by describing the information as coming from another character, I introduce the idea that it is likely colored by that character's personality, expectations, and limited viewpoint. Information that comes directly and unfiltered from the GM needs to be reliable. Information that comes from characters in the world ought to be filtered through those characters' goals and outlook.) Martha Wells was also on this panel, so of course she brought up the multiple points of view different characters could bring to a single piece of evidence.

Brust also suggested using slang, colloquialisms, and the like to really make your world feel real. “Floor it!” only makes sense in a world with gas pedals and the like. How do people say the same thing in a world of muscle power? Or magical transportation? What exclamations do they use? Which gods' names are taken in vain, and how are these curses constructed? For instance, in a world based on the Great Wheel of AD&D 1e, you don't say, “Go to Hell!” There are, after all, nine of them. “Go to the Hells!” or “To the Abyss with you!” makes a lot more sense.

Brust later moderated a panel on creating characters, and he echoed a lot of the same points. J.U. Hall, Kitanidis, Prater, Ward, and Williams took those ideas and ran with them, and they also took lots of comments from the audience on characters that have felt real or were especially empathetic. One of them, and darn it, I didn't write down which one, mentioned three Cs: contrasts, conflicts, and contradictions. To really make a character stand out, set them in contrast to something, such as the setting, other characters around them, or, perhaps most effective, the readers' expectations. A cowardly dwarf, for instance, or a hard-bitten, rough-and-tumble noble might stand out more strongly in the players' minds because they confound expectations.

Conflicts are really the engine of story, and they are instigators of adventures in RPGs. But even small, mundane conflicts can make a character stand out. The Witch of Deepvale is waging a constant battle against the gophers that keep digging up her garden, while Sir Kalivar struggles to find a way to help his poor squire Neville overcome the awkward clumsiness of his growth spurt. These sorts of conflicts might not immediately present themselves as useful adventure hooks, but they do make these characters feel more like real people.

Contradictions are those ways in which characters work against themselves. These are the things they do that they know they shouldn't, or the way their actions seem to contradict their personal philosophies. The upwardly mobile merchant who is trying to prove he's really among the social upper crust but whose taste in art is extremely gauche, or the man of peace who has trouble controlling his temper are simple examples of this sort of thing. As GMs we have to be careful how we use this. On the one hand, it's really the perfect, textured touch that makes a character really three-dimensional. On the other hand, if you introduce it before the character's basic personality has been grasped by the players, the contradiction will only confuse them and make the character seem to be a tangled mess of conflicting desires.

Which brings us to the next point that both panels brought up: don't reveal everything you know. There can be a strong urge to info-dump on your players when you introduce a new location or NPC to your players. Avoid the urge, and keep a few cards in your hand. On the other hand, this does not mean that you sit on cool ideas. If you have a cool idea, try to use it as soon as you can. But more mundane attributes or aspects don't need to be shared right away, if ever. Keep in mind what you want this character or location to accomplish in your game, and use that as a guide when you decide what you need to reveal, and what can remain in the background.

Those were the two best panels for use by GMs, but there were lots of other interesting panels on topics ranging from the physics of orbital mechanics to the modes of urban fantasy. A great panel on military SF had the last minute addition of Elizabeth Moon to the already great lineup of Joe Haldeman, John Scalzi, Dave Duggins, Lawrence Person, Selina Rosen, Steven Swiniarski (aka S. Andrew Swann). For those of us who don't have first-hand personal experience with warfare, Mr. Duggins suggested reading Strategy by Liddell Hart, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Haldeman's Forever War, and Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Scalzi added the works of John Keegan and Victor Davis Hanson, both of which I can also heartily recommend. There's probably nobody else in the discipline of military history doing better work today than those two.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

ArmadilloCon Report #1

Well, we got there late, didn't attend any panels, and spent most of our time doing one of the most enjoyable things you can at a con: catching up with cool people you haven't seen in a while. That was a lot of folks for us as events recently have kinda made us shut-ins. So it was great to talk to folks we hadn't seen in some time.

We did get to enjoy a quick spin through the art show. It's a pretty eclectic mix, including an incredible sculpture, thrown pottery with a Tolkien theme, and the usual mix of illustration, paintings, and computer graphics. There seem to be a lot more amateur works this year than in past, which I'd say is a good thing, but rather surprising all the same.

We also got up to the game room. Steve Jackson Games has gifted the con with a number of goodies and giveaways, including Munchkin coins, dice, and special cards. I also picked up a copy of Where We're Going: Trade News from Steve Jackson Games. Among other things, it reports that GURPS: Thaumaturgy is out (and probably has been for a while, and I should be paying closer attention) and that the Munchkin boardgame has been delayed 'til the holiday season.

Of course, what people do with the games is often more interesting than what the game companies themselves are up to. There's apparently a popular new version of Munchkin being played that combines The Good, the Bad, and the Munchkin (the Wild West version of the game) with Star Munchkin (the sci-fi version) to create an unofficial Firefly Munchkin.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dances with Armadillos

ArmadilloCon XXX is this weekend!

Be there and be square!

Er, wait, I'm not sure that came out right...

Lots of fun for gamers and sci-fi and fantasy fans alike. In addition to the gaming room being run by Angela and Brian Price, Ninja Pirate will be in the dealer's room.

Of course, the big draw of ArmadilloCon is the programming. (Yeah, right, can you tell I arranged the programming a few years ago? But really, the programming rocks.) And while the focus of the con is primarily on writing, here are a few panels that gamers might find of particular interest:

Electronically Published Fiction
Fri 5:00 PM-6:00 PM deWitt
Burton*, Henderson, Huff, Marin, McKinney, Trimm
An examination of new publishing avenues opened by technology, and the best places to publish and read it.
New Space Opera
Fri 10:00 PM-11:00 PM Phoenix North
Duggins, Fletcher, Mills, N. J. Moore, Picacio*, Reasoner, Scalzi
The subgenre established by Doc Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Jack Williamson has persisted and evolved to a new tradition upheld by Iain M. Banks, Lois McMaster Bujold, Elizabeth Moon, John Scalzi, and others. Our panelists will discuss this evolution, where they think Space Opera is now, and where it's going.
Neglected Gems of Genre Fiction
Fri 10:00 PM-11:00 PM deWitt
Blaschke*, Brust, Graham, Hobson, Nakashima-Brown, Sheridan
Which works of speculative fiction are the most criminally-neglected?
In the Beginning
Sat 11:00 AM-Noon deWitt
Latner*, Scalzi, W. Spector, M. Wells
Our panelists look at worldbuilding for writers, artists, and game designers.
Orbital Mechanics
Sat Noon-1:00 PM deWitt
Gibbons*, Jackson, Ledbetter, Mahoney
Learn from NASA scientists, but no equations, just plenty of hula hoops. We'll discuss the basics of terminology and process GETting‡ from here to there, general sense of scales and distances, rules of thumb, and some of the most common / worst misrepresentations of spaceflight basics in SF. Just because it’s rocket science doesn’t mean it ain’t fun! (‡ i.e., juggling Geometry, Energy, Time)
What You Should Have Read
Sat 2:00 PM-3:00 PM deWitt
Dimond*, Hevelin, Klaw, Marin, W. Siros, S. Williams
Our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and book-sellers discuss their take on the most important, influential, and enjoyable books and stories of the year.
JPL Mars Mission
Sat 3:00 PM-4:00 PM Phoenix North
Slide show on the history and results of the lander currently investigating the Martian arctic.
Forever Wars
Sat 5:00 PM-6:00 PM Phoenix North
Duggins, J. Haldeman, Person, Rosen*, Scalzi, Swann
Our panelists discuss military sf inspired inspired by or written in response to Robert A. Heinlein's classic Starship Troopers. They'll compare and contrast portrayals of war from WWII through today.
Blogging and Social Networking
Sat 5:00 PM-6:00 PM deZavala
Crider, Frost, Hale, Harper, Kofmel*
Blogs are becoming an essential tool for fans and pros to keep in touch with their friends and followers around the world. Our panelists will discuss some basics, some do's and don'ts, differences between the various blog communities, and provide funny anecdotes of the blogosphere.
Creating Characters that Live
Sat 7:00 PM-8:00 PM deZavala
Brust*, J. U. Hall, Kitanidis, Prater, Ward, M. Williams
Our panel of authors discusses the craft of writing, and the key elements of character development and matching point of view to story.
Lovecraft and His Legacy
Sat 10:00 PM-11:00 PM deWitt
Leicht, Prater*, Reasoner, Richerson, Rountree, Spencer, Wade
How accessible is the ground-breaking horror writer to a modern reader? How has he influenced our panelists' work, and why are so many homages appearing lately?
Religious Themes in SF
Sun 10:00 AM-11:00 AM Phoenix North
Broderick, Dimond*, Eudaly, Latner, Webb
How does religion inform our panelists’ writing? And how do they feel religion has been treated in science fiction?
Alternate History
Sun 11:00 AM-Noon Phoenix North
Huff, J. Lansdale, Mills, Rogers, Utley, S. Williams*
Rome never falls, Dewey defeats Truman, New England Patriots defeat the Giants in the Superbowl. A discussion of writing alternate history and how to show how changes in the past can affect the present.
Getting the Biology Right in SF
Sun Noon-1:00 PM Phoenix North
Fletcher, Frost*, J. Moore, Persons, Roberts
Could there be three sexes? What would aliens from a methane planet look like? What would the effects of a few hundred years on low gravity or high gravity be? Our panelists will answer these questions and many more to tell you how to get the biology right in science fiction.
Speculative Fiction in Computer Games
Sun 1:00 PM-2:00 PM deZavala
Duggins, Huey, McDermott, Salvaggio, W. Spector*, Tyler
Science Fiction and Fantasy are in computer gaming - from Bioshock to Final Fantasy to Warcraft to Fallout. Why is there so much talk about the science fiction and fantasy element in movies, when computer gaming has so many genre elements in most of its top games?
And that's just the stuff I think will be most useful to gamers. I haven't mentioned "Swashbuckling in Fantasy" with Stephen Brust and Martha Wells on the panel, or the panel on metafiction in comics, or Sheila Williams telling you exactly what she's looking for when she buys a story for Asimov's, or the art show, or the charity auction...

And if you're a military sci-fi fan, this is the convention for you. John "Old Man's War" Scalzi and Joe "The Forever War" Haldeman will both be there this weekend. The only way it could get better is if Heinlein's ghost shows up.

UPDATE: This article in the Austin Chronicle better defines what makes ArmadilloCon unique.