Tuesday, May 22, 2012

This is one part gaming blog, one part life blog. Granted, I haven't posted in a good long while. I'm not going to speak to that, because what is the point? Saying I'm going to post more is just blowing warm air into the aether. Only posting real content counts.

I've been busy the past three weeks or so with the fine (and sometimes overwhelming) details of getting my wife and kids settled here in South Korea. Let me say that, after a year living here without them, I cannot overstate how happy I am to finally have them join me here. However, there is a lot to do just to get things put together here. There is already a pretty strong support system in place but one must often puzzle out how to use it. They are otherwise happy to just let a person flounder on his own. Couple in the fact that our vehicle has yet to arrive from the States and you have a recipe for long walks and real tests of one's planning and efficiency.

From a D&D standpoint, I feel like I've had first-hand appreciation for the size and scope of the pseudo-medievel fantasy urban setting. Granted, I have lived here (and had to walk everywhere) for over a year, but adding the family has complicated the process. Walking places with kids is a drag. Self-sufficiency means storing up staples and taking planned trips. It also means that areas of large populations tend to require access to basic supplies and provisions. There is no 15 minute drive to WalMart here; now it's a three hour walk to the grocery store.

The lesson, I think, is that D&D towns should be designed as a series of microcosms and self-contained areas. Even more wide-open settled regions should be dotted with villages. Every farm should probably be within walking distance or (at most) a wagon ride away from the nearest moderate settlement. Walking is pleasant and walking has certainly kept me in shape, but the fun fades quickly when your other transportation options are limited. Take away the buses and taxis that I DO have access to here, and I imagine the world would get even more compact and even smaller than it already is here.

A loose D&D connection? Perhaps, but it is a post, dammit.By this weekend I'll be adding a new (dare I say regular) feature that should revive this blog a bit. No promises, though.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Feats and Skills are a Lie

In 3E, I can take a bunch of feats in order to be really good at tripping people with a spiked chain. Figuring the most optimal combination of feats (and skills) at the very least takes a few hours. I have to make sure I understand what the heck my characters abilities are, how they interact, and when and how to best use them. Once I do all that, is my character unique? Not unless you think that tripping people with a spiked-chain is unique. No, after a couple hours of effort, all you have now is a one-dimensional character defined entirely by some combat stunt he can pull off until it, too, becomes old-hat. Not to mention, the next guy can pick the same feats (and skills) and generate the EXACT SAME CHARACTER. Couldn't we save a bunch of time and effort by simply writing “+2 with spiked chains” or something and move on.

This goes double for skill systems. There are finite skills in D&D. Nine times out of ten, you're only going to find a handful of them useful. So, what you're going to do is maximize as many useful skills as your class allows. The other option is to be really crappy at a whole bunch of skills. Neither approach allows for very fast character creation. You see, the designers are hiding the choices behind a smokescreen of apparent choice. If you ignore the mathematically insignificant +1 here and there to some random skills, what you're giving the player actually amounts to “pick X skills to be good at.”
(More or less what you see in Pathfinder and 4E).

Great on paper, but if every character ends up maximizing the same basic skills plus a few class specific ones, then every character might as well just have a +X bonus to a set list of abilities. Even the rogue, the guy with a million skill points, ends up being REALLY good at a handful thiefy abilities and either gains some surprising cross-class skill (“I know a lot about plants!”) or ends up a jack-of-all-trades. It doesn't seem that way when you're creating your character, though, because in order to achieve this effect you're spending 40+ points, adding up synergy bonuses, and factoring in skill-boosting feats and class traits. It's all a lot of smoke and mirrors and meaningless number crunching to arrive at the same place you'd have gotten with a rule that said “you get a +15 bonus with 8 skills.”

Finally, once you introduce one customizable skill, you limit what a character can do. This isn't the same as class abilities, which are things that your character can do because he's a rogue on TOP of things we assume he can do because he's a person. No, skill systems lump all that class stuff together with mundane things like swimming and playing the piano. Now you're asking a player which is more important to him before he risks life and limb in a dark hole filled with traps and monsters: stealth or knowledge: oral poetry? While I applaud the guy who throws a few skill points toward the latter in the name of character development, I'd rather the game rules stopped punishing him for it. Let the rules cover how good you at doing life or death adventure stuff. Everyone's going to max those skills out anyway, so why try to shoe-horn all that together with interesting but meaningless stuff like cooking?

All I really care about for any given skill is the following: do you suck at it, are you ridiculously good at it, or are you everyone else? My character might be a low wisdom slug who wouldn't see a bandit ambush coming if they wore blaze orange and hung up signs (sucks). Your character is an elf with keen eyes and supernatural awareness of the goings-on in the forest (good). Bob's character is a human rogue with no more or less ambush perception than anyone else (average).

Do the rules really need to spend any more time on things than this?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

System Mastery

I’ve come to believe that a roleplaying game that codifies too many of its rules actually limits the creativity of players and GMs. I’m not commenting on the idea of complicated vs simple rules. 3E or Pathfinder aren’t necessarily any simpler than AD&D, which is full of elaborate and sometimes clunky rules systems. What I’m talking about here is the deliberate codifying of game design and character design into the rules in a way that’s meant to reward so-called hardcore players.

In 3E, this kind of rule takes place mostly off-stage (i.e. outside of the actual play experience). You don’t select feats during game play, you take them between sessions. Once the game begins you’re stuck with what you’ve got. It’s during your down time that you plan out your character’s next level, decide the best multiclassing route, figure out how to gain the most synergy bonuses to your skills, etc. The GM, on the other hand, has ready-made rules to help guide his creative process. An experienced GM doesn’t just create an evil order of assassins to hunt the PCs. He designs a specific prestige class to emulate all of the assassins’ abilities. A GM inspired by a cool combat scene from a popular movie must develop new feats if he wants his characters to emulate the actor’s stunts. The problem with the above is that it doesn’t just reward a deep knowledge of the rules, it requires it.

Take monster design for example. In 3E and Pathfinder there are entire subsections on building monsters the “proper way.” Note that this has little to do with helping the GM make sure the creature is fun or easy to use or whatever. No, most of it is there to make sure that all of the world’s plants or goblinoids have the same amount of skill points as other plant or goblinoid monsters. The premise is game balance, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that most of these specific formulas for proper hit dice or number of feats are just arbitrary. 3E includes a number of monsters that have a natural armor bonus that is actually “wrong” according to the monster design guidelines. A quick look at the AD&D Monstrous Manual shows where these numbers came from;  they exist to adjust the given monster’s AC so that it’s the same as it was in 2E. In other words, there are several pages of rules that allow you to achieve similar results to those you could have gotten by looking at an existing monster and then just making stuff up. Similar results, way more time and effort invested.

What did players do before all this “system mastery” stuff was written into the rules? Did they get a less fulfilling play experience? Do older versions of D&D offer less reward for players because they weren’t deliberately designed to account for “mastery”? I believe that the answer is no. The desire to tweak D&D with houserules and homebrewed campaigns has always been a part of D&D. In fact, one could argue that the original version of the game required house rules in order to even be playable. Instead of spending their time out of game trying to build their characters, players were forced to accomplish the same things through play. It is one thing to take a prestige class called “Dread Pirate.” It’s another thing entirely to steal a pirate ship and begin raiding the king’s treasure ships as they head for port. I understand the desire to give a character a bonus to sailing if he does either of the above, but I think that most of these kind of rules could be handled by the GM and some simple roleplay. Isn’t being a feared pirate in the campaign a reward in itself? Do you really need a special class all your own as well?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

D&D Race Doesn't Matter (but it should)

I must admit that when I first started looking at the rules for older versions of D&D, I found the idea of race as class strange and I daresay laughable. I get this same reaction from a lot of gamers when I broach the subject. One of my gamer friends here gets a bemused look on his face whenever he mentions “that version of D&D where Elf is a class.”

Look, I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid here on any one version of D&D being “superior.” One is certainly free to prefer whichever version of D&D he or she likes best, for whatever reason, but please don't pretend that the things you like about your favorite flavor of the game makes it better than other versions. That's a tired, tired philosophy and I have no interest in discussing it. With all that out of the way, allow me to explain why I've come around to liking race as class in D&D.

Since the first edition of AD&D and right on up through 3E D&D, I think a character's race has mattered less and less in favor of his character class. When I sit down at the gaming table, it's easy for me to forget that so-and-so's fighter is and elf or halfling or whatever, all I can remember is whether he's a ranger or a cleric. It's to the point that race almost completely doesn't matter and I think that's a shame. Look at Tolkien's stories, certainly the influence for D&D's demihuman races as we know them, and the non-human characters there. If I asked you, “What is Legolas?” you're first answer is probably “He's an elf.” Elf, you see, is a viable archetype, despite what more modern RPGs would have you believe.

It's important to remember that D&D is an archetype-driven game. Especially in earlier versions of the rules, but certainly present in all editions to one level or another, a character's class is his most important trait. In the absence of a codified skill system, how do you know whether your character can perform some task that's not defined by the game rules? Character class, that's how! Magic-users possess the sorts of abilities that magic-users should have acquired after a youth and early adulthood spent learning to cast spells. Identifying magic effects, reading arcane languages, and puzzling out the nature of demons are all the purview of the magic-users. The game doesn't have to tell us this, since the basic classes all represent powerful archetypes already familiar to most westerners in the 20th / 21st century.

In the first version of D&D there were 3 classes: Fighting-Men, Clerics, and Magic-Users. In addition, a player could choose to be a human, an elf (which could switch between Fighting-Man and Magic-user each adventure), Halflings (which could be Fighters), and Dwarves (Fighters). While at first glance you might think that there is no difference between, say a Fighting-Man and Dwarf, you'd be mistaken. The dwarf also gets a rather substantial bonus to saving throws against spells; access to a powerful type of magic weapon; the ability to note slanting passages, traps, and new construction underground; and the ability to speak Gnome, Kobold, and Goblin languages.

To the modern gamer, this might not sound like much to give the dwarf. Bear in mind, though, that this original version of the game didn't grant benefits for high ability scores beyond an XP bonus. That means that your Figthing-Man with the 18 STR didn't hit any better than a similar character with a STR of 11, at least not at first. (Except that the former character got an XP bonus, meaning he'd level faster than the latter character, thus making him a better combatant over time, but I digress.) Above all, OD&D was very light on rules and open to player improv and DM fiat. That means that any bonus ability, no matter how small, could have a big impact on a character's power. It was like dropping a few small pebbles into a saucer of water.

Now take a look at Labyrinth Lord, the retroclone game patterned after 1981's Basic version of D&D. Here we see the races codified almost as classes of their own. At the core, the dwarf is still just a fighter, with the same hit die and combat abilities. However, the dwarf has slightly different XP requirements to gain each level, a different set of saving throws, and some extra abilities. For all intents and purposes, it's a class all to itself. While the game says “dwarf” is your class, you could just as easily say you're a “dwarven fighter” and the only difference would be semantics

Please don't now fall into the trap of arguing against race as class based on roleplaying logic. Of course not every dwarf in the world is exactly the same class. NPCs don't need to follow the same rules as Player Characters. Indeed, they probably shouldn't most of the time. So, just because all dwarf adventurers fall into the same class, that doesn't mean there aren't dwarf cobblers and cartwrights and candlestick makers. It also doesn't mean that the DM can't, should he so desire, invent more class options for dwarf players to choose from. Think that your world should allow dwarven clerics? Great, make up a class specific to your mileu and write it out, but please make it a little different than the human cleric. It is much cooler and more evocative to say you're playing a “rune priest” and have that conjure up a very specific dwarven archetype, already tied into your campaign, than to have to keep reminding everyone present that you're a dwarf when all they hear is “cleric.”

When AD&D rolled around, Gary Gygax introduced the idea of racial modifier to ability scores. This is the concept that elves are more agile than humans and thus receive a +1 bonus to their Dexterity (and a -1 penalty to their Constitution due to a more fragile build). While this sound okay on paper, in practice it seldom amounted to much. AD&D's ability scores determined a bunch of secondary abilities for a character, such as his Strength affecting his bonus to hit will a melee weapon or his base chance of bending metal bars. However, there were big areas within each ability score where a +1 bonus made little mechanical difference in the character's stats. In most cases, the guy with the 12 STR wasn't stronger than the guy with the 10 STR. Unless your stats happened to fall at a specific number, a +1 either way didn't make a big difference. In other words, elves didn't seem any more dextrous than humans.

Third Edition remedied this issue somewhat by changing the ability score system so that every 2 points a stat increased, it gave a bigger bonus (and vice versa). While non-humans now were on average slightly better than humans (and worse in another area), it was the bonus that you were after. Once you added that +1 to your Armor Class for your elven Dexterity, you sort of forgot about it. And, unless you rolled really well (i.e. a legit 18), only luck kept the humans from being just as dextrous as you.

I'll comment on 4E in another post, as I think that game's philosophy invented a different set of reasons why race doesn't matter. Instead, I'll close by reiterating my initial point, and that's this: modern gamers shouldn't scoff at race-as-class as being something primitive or “less advanced” than the more recent race/class split. It's simply a different philosophy for approaching character archetypes, and it's one that I think makes for stronger, more memorable characters at the gaming table.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

July 25th?

I really have no excuse. I've been busy, sure, sometimes working 12 or 13 hour days. You know what, though? I'm supposed to be retreating forward here. Not standing still. I've got a posting philosophy change and a bit of a schedule that I think will keep me honest. More posts to follow, hopefully tomorrow, definitely by the weekend.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Magic and Aether

The material world is comprised of five elements. The first four, called the corporeal or lower elements, are earth, air, fire, and water. These elements, combined in various pairings and ratios, are the building blocks that make up everything in the physical world. The fifth element, called aether, is sometimes known as the celestial or higher element.
Aether, like air, is invisible and largely intangible. It does not exist on its own, but instead can be found within other things. A man's body is made of flesh (earth), blood (air), bile (fire), and phlegm (water); his soul is made of aether. Without the soul, the body is just an empty husk. Therefore, aether is the spark of life.

Tied closely with the concept of aether is an invisible energy scholars call mana. In simplest terms, mana is a kind of diluted aether, distilled from the universe and drawn inside a mortal being through ritual or divine will. Once gathered, mana allows a person with the proper training to exert his will upon the world around him, casting spells that can alter the laws of reality. Thus, a wizard can cause the air to burn (fireball) or a priest can mend a deadly wound (heal).

Mortals are not gods, however, and no living man can freely alter reality via nothing but his strength of will. Magic requires specific formula, rare materials, or the intervention of divine beings.

Arcane Magic
Arcane magic is the spellcraft of the magic-user class. This sort of spell-casting relies on complex rituals that, if completed correctly, allow a caster to draw mana from the world around him and store it within himself. He does this by meditating on a written spell, letting the strange runes and magical diagrams open a metaphysical conduit between his mind and the aether. Once the ritual is complete, the spells remain within the magic-user's mind until he casts them. Once cast, the mana tied to a particular spell leaves the magic-user. In order to cast that spell again, he must rest and then repeat the preparation ritual.

A mortal can only control so much arcane power, limited mainly by his intellect and experience. Regardless of his power, a magic-user must still consult a written work in order to prepare is spells. This is partially because of the complex nature of the spells themselves, but there is another, metaphysical reason; the act of writing a spell on paper, using special runes and magical symbols, focuses the mana and makes it possible for the spell-caster to channel the proper energy.

Armor, especially metal armor, interferes with a magic-user's ability to harness mana and hinders his ability to perform the intricate gestures most spells require. Thus, magic-users prefer to wear light, loose-fitting garments and shun heavy armor.

Divine Magic
Divine magic draws mana not from the world, but from the power of a god, demi-god, or other immortal being. However, a cleric's spells do not require the active consent of a deity. Indeed, even priests who have strayed from the tenets of their faith can cast spells. Perhaps the amount of mana a single mortal can channel is too small for a god to notice, or maybe a cleric takes power from his god indirectly, as a plant gathers energy from the sun. Whatever the reason, the ability to cast spells is not an indication of a person's piety, although some clerics would like the world to believe otherwise.

Cleric spells are simpler to cast than arcane spells. They are usually short prayers that invoke the name of a god or potent spirit to achieve a desired effect. The exact wording of a given spell is not precise and often varies between faiths and sometimes even between castings. Since the prayers are not complex and come from a higher power, clerics do not need to write their spells down or use a spellbook in order to prepare them. Instead, the cleric simply prays to his god and meditates on whatever spells he wants to cast. This act, bolstered by faith, channels divine power through the cleric's mortal body and gives him the necessary mana.

Faith alone, however, is not enough to wield divine magic. Before he can cast any spells, a cleric must be undergo a ritual called ordination. The ritual's details vary depending on the cleric's religion, but all require a blessing and ceremony conducted by someone who can already cast divine spells. Most religions have strict requirements that a prospective cleric must meet before he can undergo the necessary ritual. Once ordained, however, the cleric will have a permanent connection to the divine that grants him the ability to cast cleric spells. This ability can be taken away, should the cleric's order decide he is unworthy of the ability, but excommunications are rare. Also, a deity can always deny spells to a follower, although this is also very rare.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thoughts on Marvel Super Heroes RPG (Part 2)

I have a long-running joke with a friend of mine. It basically boils down to mocking the way one creates characters in the Marvel Super Hero RPG. The version that I owned really pressured players to assume the role of the established heroes of the Marvel comic books (at least, it seemed to 12 year old me that it did). The trouble is, no one I know wants to do that in a super hero game. They want to make their own guys. It's more than half the fun.

Don't get me wrong. It's neat to bump into established supers from time to time. While powerful NPCs are vexing in D&D, in a comic book game it's a treat to battle Doc Ock or meet the Human Torch at Applebees. As far as running those characters, though? Heck no! I want to make my own.

In Marvel Supers, at least the version that I owned, character creation was relegated to a back section. It was written as if the authors never expected you to actually use it. It was also completely random. Everything from how fast or smart your character is, to what powers he has, is determined by the roll of the dice.

That's where the joke came in. Whenever I would sit down and roll up a Marvel Supers character, it seemed that every time I'd come up with a guy with the stupidest combination of powers. Underwater Breathing, Electricity Manipulation, and Rotting Touch. It's Zombie Eel! Damn it, I wanted to play a guy with super speed!

I must say, my opinions have changed a little. I've become more a fan of purely random characters. Randomness in an RPG forces one to exercise the imagination, to roll with the punches that fate is throwing and try to bring everything together in a logical (at least comic book logical) fashion. One caveat, though. The random is much more fun as a GM. When you're behind the screen, rolling on charts can make you feel less like a referee and more like a player in the game, getting surprised by what the dice tell you and trying to make things work out.

The version of Marvel Supers that I played today was far more complete. Rather than devote a few pages of an appendix to character generation, the game put custom characters front and center. The GM gave us a set of house rules that let us game the probability a bit, picking powers here and assigning dice rolls there.

You know what? I ignored all that and let the dice decide EVERYTHING about my character. I was really happy with the results. It was a lot of fun taking these results and mixing them together, like a cook trying to make a gourmet meal of the stuff tossed to them by the Iron Chef. Say what you want about Zombie Eel, but I still talk about him 20 years after I randomly rolled him up, and I never actually used him in a game.

If only Marvel had a faster, more intuitive system, I would probably rate it as a much better game. Still, I'll probably go back next Sunday. After all, there are bad guys out there that need to be stopped. I leave you with my completely random character. Ignore the stats you don't understand (unless you do) and just read the flavor text.

To start you out, keep in mind that I began by rolling my powers. I got Claws, Shape-shifting (Imitation), and Corrosive Missile. Huh. I wouldn't have chosen a single one of those powers. Here's what I came up with. Forgive the Comic Sans font but, well, I hope you can understand why I used it.

Into the Caves
It took John Doppler two hours, crawling on his belly through the mud and grime, to reach the end of the tight crawlspace. Spelunking was dangerous enough, but spelunking by yourself was borderline insanity. Still, John had to reach the other side. If his instincts were right, the crawl-way would lead to a vast network of caverns, perhaps the largest in North America. Althea Cobb would have to let John onto her land then, once he could prove the significance of his find.

When John finally emerged from the tiny space, what he saw went beyond his expectations. A vast ceiling, like the roof of a cathedral, stretched past the range of his flashlight. A narrow, slow-moving stream split the entire massive cavern in two. Beyond the water, a dozen side-passages split off in every direction.

John didn't dare go farther alone. He turned around and began the arduous crawl back through the narrow tunnel. When he emerged, John was shocked to emerge in the same large cavern that he had left. How could he have gotten turned around in a claustrophobic tunnel barely big enough for a man on his belly? It wasn't possible. Slightly panicked, John again returned to the crawlspace. His heart beat with fear as he made his way, painfully, through the tunnel. Finally, he reached the end. He was still in the vast cave.

Exhausted and covered in filth, John began to question his sanity. There was no way he could have gotten turned around twice. Something unnatural was happening. Swallowing panic, John walked deeper into the large cave. As he waded across the ankle-deep river that bisected the cave, John suddenly stopped. The cold water began to seep into John's boots, soaking his feet. He stood rooted like a statue, the will to move leaving John's body like heat draining from a man dying of exposure.

“Wouldn't it be better to just lie down and rest?”

The voice came unbidden into the man's mind. What was his name again? J...something. It didn't matter. All that mattered was the water. And sleep. And oblivion. The man obeyed the voice, dropping slowly to his knees.

Then the ghosts came. Transparent apparitions with hollow eyes and blank, smooth faces. They seemed to grow more solid as they approached, as if they took substance from the man kneeling in the river. Smiling hungrily, the nearest spirit reached out its misty hand.

Something deep inside the man sparked as the spirit touched him. A thought. A memory. A name. John. With all his will, John Doppler stood up. The ghost-thing recoiled in surprise and fear. Then it screamed in unearthly rage as John turned and fled down the river.

* * *

John Doppler emerged from the small cave behind Jakobs Field a changed man. His memory of the past week was hazy and jumbled. John vaguely recalled a pale man, a dark boat, and a pervasive, clinging mist. He couldn't remember how he had escaped the endless cave.

John was certain of one thing, though. He knew where he had been; Hades, the underworld of Greek myth. Somehow, the land of the dead had infected John and taken a piece of his soul with it. It had altered his body, leaving him gray and nearly featureless. John's hands were now sharp, boney claws. His eyes were empty black pools. All around him, a thin purple hung like an aura.

John Doppler had spent a week in hell. He decided that he was never going to back. Swearing an oath to every Olympian god that he could remember, John Doppler became a hero. He took the name Eidolon, a Greek word for a phantom that can appear as a living person. With hell at his back, Eidolon went looking for trouble.


Hero's Name: Eidolon
Origin: Altered Human

Identity (Secret): John Doppler. Eidolon can use his Shapeshifting-Imitation power to disguise his altered appearance. As John Doppler, he is a an average-looking man with dark hair and brown eyes.

Fighting: Incredible (40)
Agility: Incredible (40)
Strength: Good (10)
Endurance: Remarkable (30)
Reason: Good (10)
Intuition: Excellent (20)
Psyche: Incredible (40)
Health (F+A+S+E): 120

Karma (R+I+P): 70

Popularity: 5

(Secret Identity): 10

Eidolon can channel a tiny thread of the life-force of any person he touches, mentally projecting it onto the mist that always surrounds him. Doing so creates a powerful illusion that allows Eidolon to duplicate the targeted person exactly.

CLAWS: Remarkable (30)
Eidolon's fingers end in boney claws, a side effect of his time in Hades.

Eidolon can project the purple fog of Lethe, the river of oblivion, whose condensation disintegrates matter.

Judo (Martial Arts A): Stun or Slam an opponent regardless of their comparative Strengths and Endurances.
Electronics: +1 CS on matters involving electronic devices, including their creation and repair.