Monday, July 25, 2011

Magic and Aether

The following is a short bit of flavor that may (or may not) explain how magic works in my home-brew fantasy world of Terren. It's based on stuff I wrote here.

The Elements
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 Applebee's. 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 even 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 no choice but 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 domed 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 any farther alone. He turned around and began the arduous crawl back through the narrow tunnel. When he emerged, John was shocked to find the same large cavern that he had just 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 same 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 his boots, soaking his feet. He stood rooted like a statue, the will to move leaving his 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 his skin gray and nearly featureless. John's hands were now sharp, boney claws. His eyes were empty black pools. All around him, a thin purple fog 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.

Thoughts on Marvel Super Heroes RPG (Part 1)

As I posted a while ago, I ran into a group of guys playing the old TSR Marvel Super Heroes game down at the food court. They invited me to play, but work commitments kept me from accepting their offer until today.

Let me preface by saying that I had fun. The GM did a great job of making me feel like I was playing in a living, breathing comic book world that was unfolding all around my character. There was a lot of sandbox gaming going on, with a whole bunch of leads popping up all around us. We could have gone and investigated any of them and I'm sure they all would have turned up a bunch of adventures.

I say that because I don't want it to seem like I didn't enjoy gaming with this friendly group of guys. I really did. However, I'm not sure that Marvel Supers is my favorite game. This is likely to be a longer post than it needs to be. I'll try to keep it to two parts.

I used to own the Marvel Super Heroes Basic Boxed set. Man, did I save up and work hard to get that stupid thing. I was a kid and there was no internet, meaning that not only was it hard for me to scrape up the funds, I then had the added challenge of trying to find a copy of the game. I probably spent more time trying to get Marvel Super Heroes than any other game, toy, or “fun” thing I own. You can imagine my disappointment when I didn't like the game.

To be fair, I only actually played it once, running some of the sample characters against a mini-adventure that came in the back of the book. I couldn't have been much older than 12 or 13, no expert on either RPGs or comic books. The rules really encouraged you to play existing characters from the Marvel Universe and came with stats that seemed to cover every comic book super hero I could think of (minus Superman and his DC friends, of course). With that in mind, I let my neighbors and my cousin pick whatever characters they liked and we just went at the scenario as written.

They picked Spider-man, the Incredible Hulk, and Silver Surfer. For those of you not familiar with comics, let me help you out. You know Spider-man, of course. He's sort of a moderately powerful guy in the world of supers. Then, there's the Hulk. You also know him, but it's important to understand that, depending on how angry he is, Hulk is potentially the strongest character in the universe. A universe that includes people who can literally throw the moon at you. Finally, the Silver Surfer. Without getting too deep in needless detail, one can argue that Silver Surfer is more powerful than Superman or Thor. That's the most famous hero EVER and a deity, respectively.

Going against Spidey, an infinitely strong monster, and a guy who can stand in the middle of a supernova and not bat an eye? Two crooks and a guy dressed like a scorpion. 

Hey, it's not my fault! I didn't know that much about the game and didn't give a lot of thought to the relative strengths of these characters. I was used to level-based systems, where every character had a number that showed how powerful he was. This game rated abilities with adjectives, for crying out loud! Spidey's agility was something like “Amazing” or “Incredible.” The Silver Surfer's main ability was rated as “Shift Z” or some other abstract description, proving that even the authors of this game couldn't think of as many adjectives as they had power levels.

There are many people who claim they loved the Marvel attribute system. I'm not one of them. I get the concept here. They're trying to make the system feel less gamey and more like a comic book by removing numbers and replacing them with descriptive words. The trouble is the words themselves. I challenge the casual reader to tell me which is better, “Amazing,” “Monstrous,” or “Incredible.” Yeah, you might guess correctly. The order that the authors placed these stats might make perfect sense to you. But, then again, they might not. Change them into numbers, and there is never a chance you'll get it wrong. 8 will always be more than 5.

Anyway, the fight went something like this. Spider-man drops in on a couple of jewel-thieves mid-crime. After a few seconds of witty banter, Spidey wraps the bad guys up in a web and the battle is over. But wait! There's a surprise! The Scorpion is hiding in the back of the getaway van. Bursting from his hiding place, Scorpion raises his poisonous tail and...notices the Silver Surfer floating above the alley. The Surfer snaps his fingers and the Scorpion is blasted into oblivion. End of adventure.

As stupidly simple as that was, I remember that it took a long time. You could chalk some of that up to inexperience, but I remember the Marvel system being kind of slow. Tonight, I got to experience it again, a much older and more experienced gamer.

You know what? It was still slow.

Everything in Marvel is resolved on a chart. It's not the worst system in the world. You cross reference your stat or power, roll d%, and look on the chart. The results are color-coded with white as a failure, green as a success, yellow as a better success, and red is the best result. That's not hard, I know. I used to play Rolemaster; I don't mind a chart.

You know what's faster than a chart, though? A number. It's the same as the ability score thing. I can learn the difference between Monstrous and Colossal, I can also learn what a yellow means when attacking vs a green. With a number, though, I don't need to learn anything. If my sheet says, say, roll d10 and add 5, I can do so easily. Then, depending on the system, the GM can tell me whether my action worked or not.

It might sound like I'm picking nits here, but I don't think so. Remember that we're talking about a game that is trying to emulate the action of comic books. If any game system should be fast and easy to use, it's a super hero game system. Comic books feature lots of fights. These fights, for the most part, are divided up into large illustrations that tell the story in a kind of snapshot style. Comics don't feature a lot of characters missing, panel after panel, dragging on through seeming stalemates. The Marvel Super Heroes Roleplaying Game does.

I will forgive a supers game for slow, detailed character generation. A truth about almost every supers RPG I've ever played, even if I didn't care for the system, is that character generation is a lot of fun. It's a big part of the game, coming up with your own super hero. Also, in a game that faithfully emulates comics, character death should be rare. That makes me more forgiving of a drawn-out character creation. This isn't OD&D, where you're making new characters all the time.

Combat, though? It should be all WHAM! ZAP! SLICE! Done. Charts slow things down, at least until you learn to use them, and have no place in a super hero game. I have a theory about the chart. It feels like the product of a second or third generation of roleplaying games. It can only exist in a world where roleplaying game concepts are already firmly rooted in the minds of the designers. It feels like being different just for the sake of it. I can imagine designers asking themselves, “What would a game be like if it had a single chart to handle all the mechanics?” and then writing a game around that.

Instead, a better product would have come from looking at the source materials and trying to translate them into a game that remained as faithful to their feel and spirit as possible. Sadly, I don't think this was done here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thoughts on Cleric Magic

One of the things I've always tried to do is take a look at the way D&D rules work and tried to adapt my world to fit those assumptions. That doesn't mean that I won't alter or houserule something that doesn't jibe with some setting detail that I'm particularly attached to, but I'm not interested in changing 30 plus years of D&D tropes unless I have a darn good reason. Better to flex my world to fit the rules.

Cleric magic has always struck me as a good example of this kind of strangeness. With a few exemptions, clerics and magic-users (wizards, mages, whatever you want to call them) cast spells pretty much the exact same way. I think we can all agree that the D&D cleric is primarily based on the idea of a medieval Christian crusader, perhaps with some extra powers (i.e. spells) tacked on from various mythological and literary sources. Nowhere that I've read, however, do miracles work like D&D magic. So how do they work, why, and what does that mean for a D&D campaign setting?

Conclusion #1: Despite the difference in source and effect, cleric spells and magic-user spells are just different categories of the same kind of thing.

The magic used by clerics, for almost all purposes, is the same as the magic used by wizards. I know that the spells themselves are different, that's not what I'm saying. Cleric spells are not miracles. They don't reflect the way the biblical prophets performed signs and wonders. The only thing that cleric spells seem to be simulating is magic-user spells, at least in terms of preparation and execution. In fact, in the original D&D rulebooks (1974), there is no clear rule saying that only wizards keep spellbooks. The rules seem to imply that both clerics and magic-users both collect their spells in books (Men and Magic, p.34).

Conclusion #2: The force that powers spells comes from somewhere outside of the caster. Cleric spells come from a deity.

All magic comes from an external source. Magic-users study strange writings in ancient tomes to somehow temporarily “memorize” spells. Clerics pray to a god or goddess, also gaining a set number of one-shot spells. In both cases, the spell comes from somewhere else, gets held within the spell-caster's mind until used, and then it's gone. While it is not clear where magic-user spells actually come from (the cosmos, the energy of all living things, who knows?), such is not the case for clerics; their magic comes from the gods. Some D&D books make reference to clerics who gain their spells from some concept, such as Law or Nature, which for these purposes is the same as a deity.

Conclusion #3: Something intangible separates cleric and magic-user spells.
Despite the similarities between the two types of magic, clerics cannot cast magic-user spells and vice versa. The game rules don't offer any explanation for this, other than the idea that the spells come from different sources. There is something of an idea that perhaps wizard spells are written down differently than cleric spells. While clerics don't use spellbooks in most versions of D&D, they do make and use scrolls. However, clerics lack the spell Read Magic, which magic-users need to decipher spellbooks, scrolls, and the like. That seems to imply that a cleric spell is simpler than a magic-user spell, but requires a deity to function.

Conclusion #4: There are a finite number of cleric spells.

Magic-users must find and “learn” all their spells. If they haven't personally copied it into a spellbook, they can't prepare it. Furthermore, a given magic-user is limited by his intelligence, meaning that he can never learn all the spells in the world. Clerics do not suffer this limitation; they can pray for literally any spell that exists (limited by their experience level). However, they can't just ask their god for whatever they want. A cleric must choose from a set list of established spells.

Furthermore, it doesn't matter what deity a character follows, he has access to the same exact spells as every other cleric (at least, in original D&D). That means that a priest of the thunder god has the same powers as a priest of the goddess of love. Third Edition changed this a little bit with the advent of Cleric Domains, but all clerics still have access to the same core set of spells

Setting Assumptions
From the above conclusions, I came up with the following setting assumptions.

Assumption #1: There is a list of cleric spells
If a cleric must prepare spells from a set list, it is reasonable to assume that this list of available spells is somehow written down. Since all gods grant the same spells, then this list either predates the current religions, is somehow shared by them, or each had developed it independently (perhaps with divine inspiration).

Assumption #2: Cleric spells are simple rituals
All it takes to cast a magic-user spell is intelligence and special training. Cleric spells are presumably easier since they require no spellbook or a very high intelligence. However, only someone with faith in a deity and a certain amount of wisdom can cast them.

Assumption #3: Only the ordained can cast cleric spells
If cleric spells are written down, simple, and only require faith, then any pious, literate person should be able to cast them. This is not the case, however. Only clerics can employ these spells, with a god or goddess providing the final, unknown component that triggers the magic. While it's plausible to say that a deity actively approves the casting of each and every spell, checking whether or not the caster is a cleric of sufficient power and piety, this seems like a weak answer to me.

A better solution is to assume that clerics, by their affiliation with a structured religious order, undergo a ritual that gives them the power to use their magic. Whatever means a specific religion uses to ordain its clergy, the act of ordination lets the priest transform a list of simple prayers into powerful magic spells.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

House Rule Tolerance

In conversation with another gamer that I chanced upon here in South Korea, he mentioned that he's not really a D&D fan. Instead, he seems to prefer games with a more storytelling, less random aspect to them. While not exactly my cup of tea, I don't believe in the One True Way or the dreaded Wrongbadfun. Thus, I was interested to hear a bit about his games of choice. He mentioned that, while he likes certain games, he prefers to run a system of his own invention.

This got me thinking about our own tolerance for house rules and experimentation in RPGs run by other people. While I'm as obsessive a tinkerer as they come, I have always found it important to try to adhere to the core of the rules as written for whatever game I'm GMing at the time. When I add houserules (and I do), I try to keep them in the spirit of the original system and only add them for good reasons.

This idea also applies to setting/genre tropes that may or may not be part of the rules. If you're telling people that you want to run D&D, but you're excluding all demi-humans, changing out Vancian Fire-and-Forget-Magic, and making orcs the most dominate race in the world, are you really still playing D&D? At that point, I feel like you've invited me to a movie and instead offered me a circus. I might enjoy the latter, but I came here expecting the former.

There's nothing wrong with throwing all the rules or expectations out the window, of course. I'm certainly not disparaging my new-found gamer buddy's homebrewed system. In fact, I think it's awesome that he's taken the time to write a game that reflects the way he wants to play. I'd love to take a look at it sometime. I love games of all kinds and I can certainly admire his do-it-yourself attitude.

I do wonder, though, how much tolerance each of us has for other people's house rules. I once played in a 2E campaign that started with the GM telling us there are no halflings or gnomes in his world because he thinks that those two races are “stupid.” Maybe it was the crass way he presented the idea, but I was immediately turned off by this. I don't think gnomes or halflings are stupid and I'm playing this game too, man. If you have a neat idea that certain rules don't mesh with, I'm all for it. If you're just kind of winging rules options based on a whim...that sucks.

There are two extreme directions one can take this philosophy. One is the ultimate pioneer-spirit approach where everyone's game is different, subject to myriad houserules and basic setting assumptions getting tossed right out the window. The other side is a blind adherence to the rules, treating RPGs more like traditional games like Poker or Chess where the rules are universal so that everyone involved knows what they're getting into.

The best approach is probably somewhere in the middle. I think I'm more in the second camp. I want to be in the first camp, totally trusting that the GM is tweaking and houseruling the game in order to maximize the awesome and minimize flaws he's found through actual play. In reality, though, I'm far too wary of encountering another “halflings are dumb” guy. Therefore, I err on the side of caution and trust the professional game designers.

I would still love to read through someone's self-written game, though. That sounds awesome.