Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Magic Item: Imperator's Regalia

This is the accoutrement of the Imperators, high officers in the Thylian region that govern the colonial holdings and acquisitions of the Imperium, that ruled 400 years ago. To all of Thelerite descent, or those who at least pretend, any of these items is immediately recognizable as a symbol of authority and power within the Thelerite Imperium. Any who bear them will certainly attract attention from those who know and care about such symbols.

Scholars of the period report that in the early centuries of the Thelerite Presence, sets of these regalia were relatively common, possessed by many or even most of the regional lords administering holdings outside of the imperial heartland. It is believed that in that time, each regalia befit its owner's personality both in appearance and power, but today, there are but a few pieces remaining, and each is coveted by those who would see the Imperium returned and re-empowered.

Imperator's Armor

This is a suit of studded leather armor. The leather is died a dark blue, almost navy, color, or perhaps taken from the hide of some strange and unknown creaturefrom faraway lands. The studs are bronze and arranged in intricate patterning resembling intertwined vinces, except for the front where they frame a cunningly wrought figure of a figure appearing to be a cross between a human or humanoid and some sort of draconic creature posession sinewy tale, ellongated neck, and clawed hands: the symbols of the Imperium's ruling family from time immemorial. It is sized for a human, or any humanoid/demi-human being of approximately six feet, though it is known that it can be adjusted for persons anywhere from five-and-a-half feet through nearly six foot four. It carries a simple +2 enchantment affecting both AC and saving throws appropriately. Once per day, the wearer is able to invoke the ability to Detect Lie per the spell according to their own level. If they are not of sufficient to cast the spell as if they were a cleric, then this ability does not function. This armor will not function at all for any being of elf extraction and, in fact, those who attempt to wear it will find it binding and restricting, affording no defensive bonus at all.

Guard of the Imperator

A tall, rectangular medium shield designed to protect a roughly human sized figure from knee to nose. Blazoned across the front is the draconic sillouette of the imperial ruling family, crossed by the bar sinister in blue and black. The shiled appears to be constructed of wood, though of what type it is unclear for it is an unearthly white and it weighs only half of what a similar shield of oak should. At any time, the bearer can sacrifice 1d4 hit points in order to cast a light spell at 5th level of ability. This damage heals normally. The light itself is unbearably painful, though non-damaging, to most types of undead and will drive them back as per a 5th level priest's turning ability. Any who are drained to 0 hit points or less by this power will be drawn wholly into the shield and vanish from this world, their souls beyond the reach of all but the most powerful magics.

Hand of the Imperator

This is, perhaps, the most infamous of the currently known regalia, for it has a truly sinister reputation. A short sword with a broad, leaf shaped blade and a jagged edge in the form of fine barbs running back along most of the length of the blade. The steel is is forged from is stained a dark color, almost black. The sword carries a +1 enchantment, but is also a sword of wounding, inflicting terrible wounds that are difficult, oft impossible to heal. Worst of all, on any critical hit (or natural 20 if no critical hit rules are used), the sword will effect a vampiric regeneration on behlaf of the wielder, healing him for a like amount of damage inflicted upon a foe. For every point of damage inflicted in this manner (but not for normal blows struck with it), there is a cumulative 1% chance that the wielder will become addicted to the sensation and will do anything to experience it as often as possible, even to the point of attacking innocent victims and comrades.

The last owner of this blade is well remembered, though his name is never spoken or recorded if possible. Nazdith the Wild cut a bloody swath across the realm, killing dozens of innocents before he was finally slain by a group of heroes. Unfortunately, the Hand itself was lost and its current wearabouts are unknown.

Imperator's Orb

A six inch diameter orb of copper stamped with the intertwining vines and draconic symbols of the Thelerites: it weighs approximately 5 pounds. It's powers are wholly unknown, though rumored to be anything from functioning as a crystal ball to controlling the Great Wyrms that gnaw at the root of the world.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Arduin Eternal Shipping Soon

Well, since I'm out from under the NDA, and they're actually shipping the product, I feel that I can actually talk about this openly now, at least a bit.

This is not a review, since I don't actually have the finished product in my hands yet. I was lucky enough to be a playtester for Arduin Eternal, the third version of the game (or, maybe, 3.6, it's kinda hard to tell), and I'm eager to see what Monte actually put together in the end with this. I say this, despite the fact that I've seen the beta test, because the very last thing I or many of the other playtesters have heard is that "big changes" have occured, so pretty much everything I say here may be entirely wrong. Also, despite the fact that I am no longer under NDA, I'm going to act as though I am for the most part because, well, frankly that agreement I signed scared the crap out of me. If, when I finally get my hands on this book and get a read through, none of what I say here applies, I will gladly retract it all.

So, many of the grognards lurking about the web are already familiar with Arduin, if only in the format of the little booklets that were nothing more than options books for the original LBB version of D&D. Few people remember, or for that matter want to remember, that there was a second edition released entitled The Compleat Arduin (spelling intentional). That was a very curious set of books if only for the novelty of them. They were the first set of books out of Hargrave's mind that attempted truly to turn Arduin into more than just "Hargrave's Campaign" and house rules and into a singular and whole game if its own. It's also remembered frequently as a truly terrible game, which is mostly unfair really. Was it simple and easy to understand? Not a chance. But in the end, it's still a very enjoyable game and I recommend that version to anybody who's got the temperment to take a hammer to it and make it into their own.

Now, Monty StJohn, author of The Worldbook of Khass, has put together a new, completely revisualized version of the Arduin game that will lock in with his previous work. Of course, being a systemless book, saying that anything at all will lock in with the worldbook is . . . meaningless, but you probably understand what I'm talking about at least.

This new book, called Arduin Eternal, is a significant leap away from the original system (essentially D&D) and the Compleat Arduin systems. People looking for a game that is a strong inheritor of the D&D mechanic, any of them, will be sorely dissapointed. Certainly there are identifiable elements of Gygaxian DNA in the thing, this is a whole other monster that will twist the undies of a fair few.

First, this is not entirely a class based system. Yes, there are classes, and yes, they do, in very broad strokes, outline the general thrust of your character and his abilities, this is, in no way, the class system where fighters, magic-users, and clerics are identifiable and quantifiable packages of specific rules. Instead, being a part of a class nets you access to specific skill sets and talents that are not accessible from the outside, or in some cases as easily improved. For instance, while anybody can learn to use armor and weapons and to hold their own in a fight, Warriors of all stripes have access to deeper and, in some ways, more powerful understanding and abilities in the arts of combat and war than others.

You know, that last sentence seems fairly . . . blatantly obvious now that I'm rereading it, and perhaps in a way it really is. However, it's just not when you're looking at the gaming industry as a whole any more. We currently reside in a world where RPG's largely cater to the wish fulfillment and "give the player what he wants" mentality. A world where "character build" and "fun" are the vast overriding factors, even over the power of the referee. This, though it looks to be that at first blush (and even second and third blush) is not that. There are a great deal of Old School sensibilities here, mixed well with some of the best traits of New Schoolism. Youngin's will have all the choices they could imagine in their wildest dreams, and will be able to build to their heart's content, but some of the older folks will truly love, I think, that things here are very easily stripped down and jiggered into a bare skeleton on par with even the dustiest of grognard lore.

At its heart, at least last time I saw it, there is a core mechanic that governs the entirety of the mechanics. Essentially, roll D100, add modifiers and skill ranks, and compare to a target difficulty number (either set by the ref, or set by an opposed roll). It's really that simple. It just has so much else slathered on that it may throw people off who came here looking for simplicity. Those who come looking for infinite diverersity in infinite combination will also be dissapointed as many choices are not universal and are largely attached to others based on Arduinian flavor.

What the game does very well, though, is to provide tools for both the GM and the players to . . . well . . . the only way to adequately describe it is "go hog wild." Bare bones ideas of how to build magic items, both from the GM's perspective of including them in adventures, and from the players' perspective, of having their character build them. The most logical minds here, though, will probably find them infuriating in their spareness. Not to mention similar rules for demi-urges, spirits, technology and alchemy. A section worth special mention is the rune-magic section, which will drive many people absolutely insane: instead of rune spells as in prior editions, we are provided with actual individual runes that produce specific effects on their own (ranging from fire, earth, air, and water all the way to runes that affect time/duration and dimensions) and in combination with others. Every rune casting is, literally, a recipe that has to be discovered, experimented with, and perfected. The same goes for much everything else.

At its heart, and the last time I saw anything official, the game was all about economies of scale. At its heart, the game is a single, simple mechanic which can be used entirely satisfactorily on its own. Everything else can be added on bit by bit as desired, or left out as you please.

I'm excited to see what the "big changes" are, and if anything I know still actually applies.

Where The Hell I've Been

Well, I suppose I owe the two or three people who actually read this blog a brief explanation as to my long absence.

First, my home computer suffered a horrifying and total meltdown not long ago. The kind of meltdown from which delicate electronics do not recover. The service group, when called, laughed in my face and informed me that they would not care a whit for a 7 year old computer and that I should be ashamed of myself for having something so old and "out-of-date" in my home. I was forced to purchase a new machine, which took a goodly time to be built and delivered to my lair.

Second, in the process of increasing security, my office has decided that blogspot.com is now a blocked site. I can no longer browse the blogs while in long telecon meetings, and that makes me sad. Nor can I, obviously, make updates to my own pointless and rambling blog while in the office. This cuts down my available time to post things here to about 2 hours a day at most.

Third, I am the semi-proud survivor of several rounds of vicious layoffs in my workplace that resulted in something like a 50% cut in the work force which prevented me from spending as much time online not working as I am want to do at times. This is either because, if my boss is aware I have a blog and reads it, that I am actually a good worker and productive and valued member of the professional community. Or, if he is not reading this, then because the people who decided who was to be terminated and who was to remain are complete and total morons. I tend towards the later myself.

Well, anyway, I'm mostly back in production here, though obviously I won't be able to post terribly often. Yeah, you probably won't see a change at all, so I'm not sure of the point of this post at all.

Anyway, I do have some brief thoughts coming up, so I'll be posting a real thought sometime in the next couple hours.

To all those who hate me: well, you can't get rid of me that easily you bastards!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fear and Insanely Brave PC's

Last time, I talked briefly about fear and horror in RPG's (D&D specifically) since it was so close to Halloween. Since I rarely am not thinking about horror stories (both movies and books really), and since I watched the excelent Dracula and His Brides the other night, I've further refined my thinking on this in terms of RPG's.

One of the most difficult realities to face when trying to run a horror campaign, or a campaign with horrifying elements in it, is that players tend to treat their characters as if they were absurdly brave. Of course, compared to the average inhabitant of any world, PC's truly are brave. It takes real courage to face down the average monstrous threats from bugbears to orcs, from kobolds to great wyrms, and most of the inhabitants of the Monster Manual: the average peasant runs in terror while the PC's stand their ground. Which is entirely appropriate in most instances. After all, most of us really do have the itch to play a heroic character seeking glory and riches (or maybe just riches).

But there are times when such courage becomes a little ridiculous. Whether you're actively trying to frighten the players/characters or they simply should be frightened, most likely the players simply are not. It's frustrating even if you manage to build up an unsettling atmosphere that it becomes just like any other action centric session once the veils are torn away and the center of the mystery is unveiled.

The comment (singular) from the last post recommended treating it like a horror movie, at least in part: turn the players into a passive audience for short times. This I cannot agree with. Simply put, this is a role playing game, not a horror flick. Part of, perhaps the main part of, the fear rests in the choices the players make, or are forced to make. It's about looking at your list of choices and knowing that there isn't a "good" choice and a "bad" choice, merely choices and few, if any of them, wholly worthy of the risk or likely to repair the problem(s) at hand. You've killed a vampire and taken his powerful magic item from him, but the local powers that be (a pack of wolfwere bards who run the nearby city and university) are in front of you and want that item. You don't know what they'll do with that magic item, but you can only assume that it will be nothing good, but keeping it from them means a fight and there's nothing at all you can do to stand up to them, at least for the moment. What, precisely, do you do here?

Is that horror? Or is that not? I'm not entirely sure, honestly, but it's something that certainly horrifies me, the thought of trying to do something good (yes, for the most part I, as a player, tend to create and run characters motivated a little less by the money and more by the thought of improving the world in some small way) and instead having merely transitioned the danger/evil from one place to another, or even worse, increased the danger inadvertaintly. Of course, the danger here is in pushing it too far and refusing the players any level of success instead of simply moderating or corrupted success. After a certain point, it feels pointless and the fun gets drained out of it all.

This is also, incidentally, where I believe the concept of fear and horror checks rests. These little "tools" for the DM out of Ravenloft the setting are there to tell the players how their characters feel. While certainly useful at times, it tends to be something with all the subltety of a hammer. They can be useful to be sure and can, in some cases, give cues to players who like to get into the swing of things to have a lot of fun, but most often they feel contrived and more like something that overrides player choice in favor of a "desired result." Something that results from too much faith and emphasis on plat rather than story as well.

One of the best methods for putting a little fear into players that I've found is in the monsters. No, not in finding stronger and more terrifying monsters, but in using them properly. Nothing puts a crimp in players' styles quicker, at times, than a monster that refuses to "play fair" by simply standing there and dying politely. More than likely, the monsters have plans and goals and are going to act to further them even when, or especially when the players aren't ready for them. Moreover, monsters don't play fair and limit themselves to attacking "military targets. Wanna upset a player? Take an NPC that they've become attached to, who has sheltered them or provided aid in some way, and have a frustrated opponent who can't strike directly at the players kill them or turn them instead.

Another great tool is monsters that "violate" the PC's, or do something just "wrong" enough the get past the character/player filter. I love Goblyns (spelled with a "y") for this. Nothing says scary like a moderately tough humanoid that will eat your face off the first chance it gets (literally). And for added fun, see what you get when you add just a little bit of low level telepathy or instant communication as they did in Castles Forlorn.

There have to be better ways of communicating genuine horror if not actual fear than turning the players into an audience and perfuse purple prose.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mildewed Thoughts

Just getting a few things out of my brain before I suffer a stroke over them.

1. I wonder if it's possible to make a living by actually working reasonble hours. I've done nothing other than sleep and work for about a month and a half now, and it's inexorably pushing me towards a psychotic break. You wouldn't like me when I'm crazy.

2. Thoughts of late turn, naturally, to horror. In the D&D world, that naturally leads to thoughts of Ravenloft the campaign setting. There's a nice little review of Ravenloft's history over at Advanced Gaming Theory, from the first module all the way through the horrors that were inflicted on us by crappy writers and the bitch in charge of TSR at the time. I agree with most of it, but I'll say that there are a few of the modules that were really excellent, most notable among them was Castles Forlorn, a madening little twist of insanity involving time travel and a bad guy to drive you loopy.

More specifically here, in between TPS status reports, I've been pondering how a good horror campaign in AD&D would run without falling into the same traps that TSR's middle and late Ravenloft did. TSR, you see, noticed that most of our greatest horror movies and stories revolved around a central "bad guy" or antagonistic character. Dracula is mostly about the titular vampire and the efforts organized to defeat it. Frankenstein's tale is about the mad doctor's perverse disfigurement of the natrual cycles of birth, life, and death (and if you have forgotten just how perverse this really was, go back and read it again keeping in the front of your mind the image of a woman giving birth). Hell, in the end, even Halloween (our first and greatest slasher movie) became, in the end, mostly about Mr. Meyers. This is great, because the greatest horror, in my view, revolves around the concept of a single, charismatic damned soul and those caught up in its orbit or a very few other rare concepts.

But, of course, this doesn't make for a good roleplaying game. What scares us on the big screen just makes for crappy gaming, really, so what, exactly, is the composition of a good horror game? I suspect it has little to do with Ravenloft itself and more with understanding the underpinnings of what frightens us individually rather than what frightens us in the books and movies.

3. Thoughts of late also turn, for some unknowable reason, to The Peninsular War and the prospect of a game set in the style of The Richard Sharpe series. If you've not experienced this particular series, it behooves you to take some time and get into it. I think it'd be a great deal of fun to put together a series of "adventures" or more appropriately, missions, casting the players as members of a detached unit in either the military intelligence corps or part of the 95th Rifles. Of course, the trick would be to avoid the "Star Wars Syndrome" and keep major personalities out of the game. As tempting as it might be to put Welsey into play, I'd hate myself for doing it.

4. Thylia is log jammed in a corner of my mind, slowly developing a tumor that keeps me up nights. I find it becoming darker and darker in my mind and less and less like the original D&D, and even less like the morality play that 2nd edition can turn into. Bleak and hopeless wastes populated by men and women who's sole concern is to survive to the next day. I feel compelled, here, to quote "The Widening Gyre," but I shall resist such temptation for now. I'd like, more and more to actually assemble a group to give this world a twirl, but it's hard to set aside time to actually do that. Perhaps a Thursday or Friday night game, weekly or bi-weekly, but really, how many northern Jersey gamers are there?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why Aren't We Gaming In Pandorum?

Ok, this isn't a movie review at least partly because I haven't completely mentally digested the thing yet, and partly because, well, you probably wouldn't believe me if I told you what went on in that flick. For those that have seen it, you'll understand.

The purpose here, though, is to simply state the obvious that Pandorum the movie seems to be a perfect setup for a sci-fi/modernesque RPG game. It would be ridiculously easy to set this up as a short (or long) adventure using some modern ruleset (like Alternity or D20 Modern) and watch as things unfold.

That is all.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Specialist Wizards

In the comments here, James M. talks about why he dislikes 2nd editions take on specialist wizards. Rather than clutter up the comments over there too much, I'll throw this up here.

I dislike 2e's specialist wizards for two reasons. First is the creation of a universal spell list that lumps both MU and Illusionist spells into a single collection. In 1e, there were spells -- illusionist spells -- that no MU could ever cast, regardless of their ostensible school. I think 2e misreads the meaning of the schools and attempts to over-rationalize them at the expense of flavor and mystery, which is what having separate spell lists for each class did.

Second, and more damning, many of the specialist wizard types exist for no other reason than to fill out a schema. No effort is made to make each specialist type unique. Instead, each type gets an identical bonus for its favored school and cannot cast spells from one or more "opposed" schools. It's in my opinion the triumph of categorization over substance, a kind of "spreadsheet" mentality where everything has to fit in a nice little box according to an outside rationale.

I don't think 2e specialist wizards (or specialty priests for that matter) are unholy abominations and I fully understand the reasoning behind their creation. However, I think they sacrifice too much uniqueness on the altar of simplicity/rationality and, given the choice, I'd rather stick with the original presentations.

While I can sympathize with James' point of view, I can't really agree with it. In my eye, the 1e (or OSRIC since it's effectively the same) Illusionist is no more mysterious than anything else. Nor is it particularly distinct. To me, it looks just like any other magic-user/wizard/arcanist/whatever-the-hell-we're-calling-them-now: a unique spell list is but a distinction without a difference. Honestly, what fundamental difference is there between an Illusionist and a Magic-User in the PHB other than a somewhat exclusive spell list?

Contrary to James' point of view, I think the designers understood the idea of spell schools and spheres perfectly well and that the real objection, here, is that all of 2nd edition's specialists are, at their core, pretty much the same thing. They get the same bonuses and penalties, they chose from a largely identical spell list except for banned and favored schools. In essence, they were as similar as two law school students, one who focused on criminal trial law and the other who focused on corporate finance law. In exchange for sacrificing a certain level of general knowledge (i.e., they do not have the breadth of comprehension that a genarlist does), they gain a depth of knowledge in their chosen field that gives them an edge both in the lab and in the field. In the end, though every one of them works with magic of a different sort, they all belong to the same archetype and class - the hermetic/academic spell caster - and, in my mind, do not at all need to be differentiated more than that. That way lay the dreaded realm of the third edition where every fine nuance on an archetype required it's own unique base class (in some cases there or four base classes) and any number of prestige classes.

Of course, I don't object to the idea that the spell lists are too much the same. Too often, it seems that, for the most part, the spells one wizard carries are virtually identical to just about any other out there. Can't tell you how many times the later 2e modules had every single wizard NPC carry magic missile, even if the evocation school was forbidden them. Personally, I think it might be very interesting to try a campaign in which all wizards are specialists (no such thing as a generalist in this world) and they are able to learn and cast spells ONLY from their favored school: a necromancer, therefor, would cast ONLY necromantic spells. There would be a short list of universal spells, the likes of Read Magic, Detect Magic, and so on, but otherwise, all spells would be the exclusive domain of the specialists.

Now, I'm not at all opposed here to the concept of adding truly unique specialist types. As much as Vancian casting works for D&D, I think the possibility of magically endowed characters who do not utilize recipie like spells is an intriguing one. I've simply never seen an adequate example of it that would work along the lines of the D&D game (or any version of it). Maybe a simple short hand for an elementalist would be to utilize the vancian system, but to remove the "spell book" aspect and have them function more like clerics. Their spell list would be a conglomeration of both clerical and magic-user spells that would fall within that element (i.e., both burning hands and flame-strike would be a part of a fire elementalist's spell list). Instead of a holy symbol or spell book, they would be carrying a fetish or medicine bag type of object which would act as a focus for the magic.

I don't know, I'm ust spitballing here. The entirety of D&D seems built around the concept of Vancian magic (with good reason) and it's difficult to go outside of that boundary without venturing into other realms.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Drow Part II

Disclaimer: I don't have the monster manual entry (or Monstrous Compendium entry, or the like) right in front of me, so I'll likely get something about the TSR standard Drow marginally wrong. I don't really care, it's not my purpose to dissect every little nitpicking aspect of that version of the "evil elf."

First and foremost, Drow are elves, biologically speaking (and in terms of rules mechanics) and do not have a small swathe of special powers and spell like abilities at their disposal. A Drow is, from the perspective of the rules, just an elf out of the player's handbook/monster manual. And, while we're here, might as well get this out too: there are no biological divisions between high elves, sylvan elves, wild elves, gray elves, Kheebler elves, shoe making elves, or elves with purple polka dots. An elf, is an elf, is an elf. Any such differences are socio-cultural, not biological or genetic.

Many generations ago (that's elf generations for those keeping score) the elf race was united and ruled from great cities that stood as beacons of civilization in the wilderness. At the time, the elves were the pinnacle of sentient life and, via various paths, began to explore not only the physical world around them, but the multiverse itself. Despite the popular view of elves as an inherently magical race, these early individuals eschewed magic in most forms, finding the reliance on outside sources of power and of easily lost or removed tools dangerous and demeaning. Instead, they preferred the innate power of the mind, of psionics, a tool that relied upon and enhanced the personal power of each.

At some point, the elves made contact with the Illithids - likely via Probability Travel or some similar means - and were horrified by what they found. The Mind Flayers proved a frighteningly accurate mirror to the elves' own ambitions and values, and to their credit, many elves turned away in revulsion and retreated from their cities to lead more ascetic lives. However, a small minority saw in the Mind Flayers not the terrifying prospect of what the elves were becoming, but an admirable role model. They argued in the public forums that these entities were to be revered as a realization of true potential rather than reviled.

For their crimes, these individuals were hunted and slain wherever they were found, but what remained of elven authorities were unable to locate the core faction of these Drow as they were termed. In reality, the Drow used their powerful psionics to pull a portion of the material world into a pocket dimension which their incensed bretheren (having long ago abandoned entirely the practice of psionics) were entirely unable to locate and enter. Whatever safety the Drow had created for themselves, however, was barbed in that each of them bears the mark of that realm standing a full foot taller than most of their more normal bretheren with pale, nearly white skin and preternaturally blue eyes. Occasionally, there have been those displaying faintly reptilian features and habits.

Their motives are mysterious, but assumed to be nefarious and hostile by most civilized persons who know of the Drow's existance. Typically a Drow within the Prime Material World can be found at the center of a web of intrigue and influence, rarely acting on their own or in the open for they are unwelcome in all places.

Professionaly, the Drow overwhelmingly pursue a career in psionics, finding that they have a natural aptitude for it, especially telepathy and clairsentience: they are masters at the art of gathering and using information and controlling those around them. Infrequently, they combine such power with theivery or martial combat. Only occasionally will a Drow take up the study of arcane magic and will never take up the worship of deities or divine, faith based abilities. Truly, the only thing that the Drow worship is themselves.

And now, just because I can, I include this picture, which is the quintessential Drow.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Drow Part I

I don't like the Drow; which is to say that I do not like what the Drow have been turned into after 20+ years of D&D history and gaming. Somehow, somewhere along the line, they changed from an altogether creepy, consciously immoral race of evil elves broken from their kin and mutated by the mysterious radiations of the depths below the earth to an entire race of chaotic good rebels against a decadent and evil society of their peers. I suspect, perhaps too strongly really, that a certain TSR fiction character by a certain author who shall remain nameless, though I tend to think he rather "gave permission" to a practice that was already rampant by that time. After all, I'm sure that by the time D3 came out, there were more than a few persons chomping at the bit to sink their teeth into a Drow character.

Of course, there are other issues at work. First, and in my mind foremost, how many different brands of elf do we really need? There's already mechanically distinct flavors for wood elves, high elves, grey elves, and elves ad nauseum. Do we really need a special entry for "evil elves"? Granted, according to the grand D&D mythos, Drow aren't just evil elves, they're mutated by the magical radiation of their deep, subterranean lairs, but at times that just seems like an excuse for the next generation of gamers to play an "elf with bonuses" rather than anything else. In their first appearance in Gary's writings (I think they showed up in the Monster Manual, but I may be mistaken), they were little more than a legend, a foot note to a larger elf entry. It was the especially magic nature of Gary's underworld that had changed them, an artifact of setting rather than of sort, thus, I don't think that Gary ever intended all Drow to look the same on paper. They were a prime target for referee individualization and in that light, I'm gutting the Drow of all their magical gizmos and noisemakers. They are, from my perspective, holdover elements from the setting of Greyhawk and, worse yet, the Forgotten Realms and have little or no relavence on my conception of what a conciously evil society of elves would be.

Second, there are whole layers of unfortunate implications orbiting around the dark skinned Drow. Of course I'm not going to attribute racism where none exists, but seriously, the situation is ripe for misinterpretation. Which isn't to mention why a race living underground and far from light would have its skin turn black when, scientifically speaking, the opposite would be true. Of course I know that for Gary, the Drow's blackness was largely metaphorical, a blackness of the soul that was physically manifested as darkened skin pigmentation, but at the same time, I don't see the need for this, leastways because the moment a player catches sight of a dark skinned elf underground he knows precisely what he's in for. No, I see no need at all for dark skinned evil elves when there are other, more interesting ways to deal with physiognomatic ways of expressing inner darkness and spiritual rot. Salvatore from Name of the Rose springs to mind. Jeremy Irons as an "uber-morlock" even more so.

Of course, it's only natural from there to move on to the completely dysfunctional society. Honestly, has anybody seen a culture more rooted in backstabbing, betrayal, and self-gratification as the Drow are most often portrayed as? To the point of ineffectuality even. Nope, my Drow will work and play well, if not with others, than at least with each other.

Then there's the whole spider fixation. On the one hand, yeah, spiders creep me the fuck out. On the other, I'm really tired of Lolth and the dysfunction inspired by the whole premise. Honestly, here I'm torn about whether or not to pull it out entirely.

From what's left (a basic, pointy eared elf), I want to build up towards something that's not related to a certain wangsty character that's inspired millions of copy cats.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Magic Item: The Way Stone

I have a feeling that this is far less original than I think it is, but I can't find it anywhere in my books that I have access to at the moment. I'm sure if I'm just copying from a sourcebook that I only remember fuzzily, they'll tell me.

The Way Stone

These devices are simple in both form and function. A flat bit of knapped flint pointed on one end, these devices are easily mistaken for arrow or spearheads from a technologically primitive tribe, though a detect magic spell will reveal a minor enchantment of divination. To use, one must simply hold them in the palm of one's hand and name a desired and known location. The stone will spin to point in the direction of that location.

Successful use of the stone is based upon how well known the desired destination is:

*Location known intimately to user (having physically visited for a period no less than 4 hours) - 95%

*Location known in passing (physically passed through on at least one occasion, but did not stay) - 85%

*Location described in detail (as from one who knows it intimately or from a text) - 75%

*Location known only vaguely or by reputation (have heard of location, but do not know any details about it) - 50%

*Location known only by legend or heresay (true existance unsure) - 10%

A failure indicates 50% of the time that the stone simply does not function and 50% of the time the stone will point to a random, incorrect location.

Note that the stone does not indicate passable routes, only the direction in which a point in space is situated. Thus, if asked to point in the direction of the center of the planet, it will point straight down and not at the location of a tunnel that will eventually lead to the center of the planet.

A very few (5%) of these devices will, in fact, point not to a location, but a passable route to reach that location. In the case of common towns, cities, castles, etc., the stone will likely point to a nearby road that will take the user towards their destination. If no road exists, or the "best" route is a direct, overland route, the stone will point in that direction. Asking the location of mythological locations, or locations that are not entirely within the confines of the Prime Material plane will likely generate a prosaic response similar to a Divination spell: helpful, but likely not direct or straightforward.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Illithid of Thylia Part II

Rather than just edit the previous post like any normal human would, I'm going to make this a follow on post.

For the most part, the Illithid remain an unknown quantity in Thylia. Typically living in deep, subteranean caverns, it is rare for the mind flayers to step foot upon the surface of the world, though from time to time, explorers have stumbled upon one of their outposts and lived to tell the tale. What is known to the surface world is based almost entirely on wild stories that grow more lurid and less true with every telling and the academic observations of a handful of sages lucky enough, or mad enough to have gotten their hands upon the body of one of these creatures and some of their belongings: Petras is one of the more widely known "experts" on the subject and occasionally will hire the foolish and greedy to venture beneath the surface of the world to collect samples for him.

In truth, the Illithid are the first sentient species to inhabit the place now known as Thylia, or at least the remnant of it since it is almost certain that their current form is not their original for it is the driving motive behind all of Illithid society to drive their race to physical and mental perfection via targeted modification. Having had practice for many thousands of years, the mind flayers have grown exceedingly skilled at biologic and genetic "artistry" as they would term it. Potential changes are proposed and discussed by a council convened once every century where further and alternate courses of research are explored. When a desired change is fully agreed upon, it is implemented in young Illithid and undifferentiated spawn (a viscous and vile slime kept in great vats by tenders capable, with electric stimulation, of spawning half-power Illithid in 1d2 weeks and grow to full strength over the course of 1 year) where its effects upon the population can be carefully monitored. Eventually, the modification will breed into the population as a whole and the original form left behind.

Long ago, a mind flayer exploratory party discovered the mortal races infesting the sunlit realms and found in them not vermin or food (though they found the brains of these creatures to be particularly appatizing), but a blank genetic/biological canvas upon which to paint their will: a collection of simple, uncomplicated DNA strands compared to the vastly denser Illithid genetic code providing a perfect experimental test-bed to be used without compunction. It's unclear how many test subjects are kidnapped from the surface and how many are purpose bred, but it is almost certain that the humanoid and demi-human races have all been affected by the experiments of the Illithid lurking beneath their feet.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Illithid of Thylia

From "Illithidia: An Examinatory Journal and Summary" by Petras, Scholar and Hedge Wizard:

"Cold, alien, and methodical." Such are the only descriptors that can, academically, be reasonably applied to the little known, almost mysterious, beings known as the Mind Flayers, or Illithid in their own parlance. Those who tell the stories about them, though, tend to add such descriptors as "evil, malignant, horrifying, etc." either out of ignorance, or desire for enhanced narrative interest. Indeed, outside of certain academic circles, very little is known about these entities which is, I'm certain, a result both of the sedentary lives of typical peasants and the difficulty of returning with objective observations from survivors of actual encounters.

From a simple anatomical standpoint, the Illithid are wholly alien and otherwordly compared to native species of Thylia. Vivisections of those few living individuals brought back by enterprising adventurer capatalists reveal few familiar anatomical structures within the Illithid, though I have tentatively identified pulmonary and cardiac systems: however, even these seem entirely divergent in form and function than those found within standard humans and humanoids. For instance, I have found no emotional center within the cardiac system of the Illithid I've examined as one would expect in a human or, say, an elf: the whole seems to be decentralized and independant of other systems. Indeed, these beings show marked differences in basic form even one from the other so much so that it is possible to identify, potentially, two sub-species of the larger whole.

Of motives or intellect, little can be said of these creatures even though the learned are cognizant of some of their actions. Those with first hand experience of the lairs of the Illithid report laboratories similar to those kept by the learned and wise of the cities. Test subjects of various sorts kept confined in cages, tables for vivisection and examination, various delicate tools (extremely fine knives, hooks, probes, and other unidentifiable tools), and other such academic apparatus dominate as well as, on occasion, the apparant results of their experiments in the form of misceganated conglomerate beings: humans with the limbs of wild animals, horribly and purposely mutated persons presumably captured from the surface world, and hybridized creatures somewhat akin to the bizaare owlbear familiar to our world. The Illithid seem to be experimenters, creators, and changers, but to what purpose none can say as they do not speak of themselves nor reveal their thoughts in any intelligable way to the remainder of the academic community.

Whatever their intent and purpose, one must admire the artistic flair of the Illithid's creations and ponder what, if any, entities now living upon the surface world have been touched by thier hand.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Coming Up

Coming up in the near future to this blog as real life begins to calm down:

1. The Drow of Thylia are dragged kicking and screaming into the light. Never really cared for the original conception of them, or more specifically what Salvatore did to them, but I've always had a passion race of dark (metaphorically) ur-elves that had grown socially if not genetically along a different path than the typical elf.

2. Illithid culture of Thylia. Lurkers in the dark.

3. The map I've mentioned once or twice, if I ever manage to remember to bring it to work where I have a scanner. Then you can all mock my complete ineptitude in artistic matters.

4. Dragons and the Great Game.

5. A general outline of a few thousand years of Thylian history.

6. A play report of my attempt to run Death Frost Doom this comming Sunday. Yes, I actually game. Surprise.

What's With All The Ruins?: or Fantasy Urban Renewal

If there's one surety in any D&D campaign, it's a surfeit of crumbling ruins, mysterious misplaced castles and towers, and vast, intricate, underground complexes. Those underground complexes are another issue unto themselves, but that's neither here nor there. My question today is: where the hell do all those ruins come from?

For the most part, these types of things are only haphazardly explained in most campaigns, or not at all. Which is fine since the real world is replete with abandoned and decaying structures the purposes of which are either long forgotten or not widely known. Hell, Eastern Europe is positively lousy with decrepit castles, monastaries, and stone structures. So it's not exactly a tremendous stretch to imagine a fantastic, medieval stasis type world positively busting with such things. After all, you know how wizards are: they must have some sort of fetish for non-Euclidian geometry in home decor . . .

But the problem for me is that the little Smeagol in me, in all of us really, starts to ask "where are they from?". Who built these places and why? Who was the original owner of the castle that the PC's evicted a tribe of goblins from? Why? Where'd he go? What came before this? I'm always, as a player, snuffling around looking for a root cause, an origin, a precurser, which drives my DM absolutely insane at times. "Sometimes a castle is just a castle" indeed.

It's not crucial to explain every single nuance of the world, and in fact doing so is detrimental in the long run, but a ref owes it to himself and his players to at least throw out a generic, overarching rational for the surplus of crumbling architecture. First off, it provides an easier way for the ref to fend off the overly curious players who look to make a bigger comotion out of relatively minor details. You have no damn clue why that particular castle is there, but if you can tell them something, anything, then they'll probably be satisfied on some level.

Second, and better, it provides a potential jumping off point for deeper explorations by the players. It leads those curious players deeper into the world even though it's only an illusion of depth and into that curious place where the players start helping the ref build the world around them. Tell them the tower is a guard post and the really good ones will start asking the next obvious question: a guard against what? Their speculations can lead to some pretty decent ideas that inspire new directions. Who the hell knew a great hobgoblin nation lay just on the other side of that winding valley path? Or that in the deepest pit of this place was a magicaly spawned portal into some insanity inducing realm responsible for some of the stranges things in the world. Hey, owlbears have to come from somewhere don't they?

For its part, the current region of Thylia being details (the northwestern region of the continent for those who actually care) was the site of a gradual invasion and assimilation by the distant Thelerite Imperium. A fleet of 4 ships made landfall on the western shore and promptly informed the local population (mostly cloistered dwarf communities who cared little for anything but their craft and semi-nomadic bands of humans) that they had been conquered and were expected to render unto the Imperium. The dwarves promptly ignored the invaders in typical dwarven fashion for, south of their home kingdom, they really didn't care a whit what some poncy Imperator had to say. The tribal humans found the whole thing terribly amusing and proceeded with business as usual, treating the Thelerites as a mild curiosity and occasional trading partner: their steel weapons were, after all, far superior to the copper and knapped flint still used by many. The Thelerites, satisfied that they had succeeded in claiming the land expanded ever eastward in waves, leaving in their wake long defensive lines of keeps, towers, and walls that the natives simply went around, under, or over as was convenient.

Around 350 years ago, however, the Imerium began to recede towards the coast again and before long, the carefully built civil structure that they had created was gone. Few, according to the dwarves, cared or even noticed the change.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Assassins and Archetypes

One of the greatest strengths of D&D, I think, is the class system. No, it doesn't have ten thousand options for not only fighters and wizards, but "beguilers" (whatever the hell those are), knights, barbarians, warlocks, battle mages, etc. But that's not the point, nor the intent of the AD&D class system (and the D&D system from the little brown books and BECMI as well really). Instead, Gary Gygax's conception of a "class" was less of a packet of customizable character powers and abilities to help some poor dateless wonder realize his fantasies of playing a super cinematic character, but as broad archetypes, instead. Thus, a fighter isn't a job description, it's a category denoting "those who fight with armor and weapons in a martial manner" instead. A magic-user/wizard/mage is "one who uses arcane spells" and not a title. A thief - often the butt of grognardian displeasure because, of course, why does one need to belong to the thief class in order to steal? - is not so much one who steals as "one skilled in subterfeuge, stealth, and non-direct means."

Within these categories, the possibilities are numerous. Within the category of "fighter" for instance, lies the characters of an ex-soldier, Robin-Hood, a raging berserker, a swashbukling romantic hero, a town guard seargeant, or simply a degenerate thug. Likewise, the cleric category can encompass anything from Brother Cadfael to a frenetic ideological zealot. This is why I don't really like the multiplication of entities when it comes to classes. Simply put, they're just not needed, or they draw a distinction where none should be (i.e., why is it that all barbarians after UA are really berserkers? Isn't "barbarian" a cultural and social distinction instead?).

That's why, in the end, I don't see the need for an entire class devoted to the assassin. In the end, isn't an assassin merely one who kills for money? Why can't a member of any class perform that function? As it is, the class seems merely to co-opt part of the function of the thief class, but not as well. Ostensibly, a professional hired killer and a spy (two archetypes for the price of one?), but I simply do not see the need for this in the core rules say what you will about maturity, tone, of juvenality. The removal of the assassin from the core PHB in 2nd edition was, in my mind, a moderate improvement along these lines.

But what about the ranger, druid, bard, and paladin? Aren't they the same issue?

Yes, they are. And no, given the model of archetypes that I think Gary was following, I don't think that they're all together neccessary or needed within the core rules of the game. Each of their niches can be filled about as well by one or more of the other classes and good role playing as these extra classes can. Hell, the 2e PHB actually denotes the druid as a type of specialty mythos priest, but then goes out of its way to make it virtually impossible to replicate it via the guidlines given for special mythos priesthoods, so go figure.

In my mind, the only truly neccessary classes within the archetypal fantasy framework of AD&D are the Fighter, the Cleric, the Magic-User, and the Thief. All else is gravy.

Of course, one could take this argument far enough to say that there shouldn't be any classes at all and characters are entirely defined by what they do, but then it just wouldn't by D&D would it? We'd be off playing GURPS or something like that and there's no need to insult anybody by going there.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Emanent Death Not Imminent Death

One of the most frequent complaints leveled at the old school style games I see (and, let's be honest, one of the most inaccurately used points of "nostalgia" as well) is that characters die frequently and gruesomely and often pointlessly. That statue in the first room? Yeah, save vs death. Those who fail, die instantly as the things leaps across the room and throat punches your character. Those who succeed, make a new saving throw every minute until you fail. Then you die.

The belief that Old School dungeons were designed to be unfair PC death traps is, perhaps, a bit unfair. Imminent death, in the static between mistranslations, means that the old games have a "kill-em'all" attitude. That reputation is not entirely applicable, in my opinion as, more often than not, it seems to be based on the conflation of the Tomb of Horros with all modules and the perception of Gary as a "killer GM."

Of course, in reaction, the New School type of gamer pushed towards no save or die at all. It seems to have culminated in 4th edition's "save or minor inconvenience" mentality. Traps are now merely minor obstacles that can be plowed through effectively. The once terrifying powers of high level magic seem . . . less so in the name of egalitarianism of function.

Of course, I'm of a mind somewhere in the middle. Death should be emanant rather than imminent.

Yes, that's a butchering of the English language and I should be locked up for crimes against grammar, but that's not a surprise to anybody here I suspect. Let me explain.

By "imminent death" I mean that character death is all but certain if not immediate. Running through this dungeon, it's only a matter of time before you succumb to one of the plentifle traps forcing save or die effects, the vicious "grudge monsters," or simply the capriciousness of a dick ref. Death WILL happen, and it will be brutal and bloody and there's very little you can do except stave it off for one more room.

"Emanent death," on the other hand, is slightly different. Death is close, possibly even immediate, but it is far from a foregone conclusion. There's always a way for a clever, observant, and well played character to escape should he be intelligent enough to look, even if that way out is to walk away entirely.

That statue in the first room that lops off heads at the drop of a hat? All the clues that a player needs to realize that this is a challenge and to overcome it are present, if they bother to look. Blood stains on the blade, walls, and floor. Perhaps a headless corpse, or a corpseless head at its feet. A very close look from the door might reveal the joints at which the statue is meant to articulate. A detect traps spell obviously. Whatever the circumstance, there's always evidence there that allows the players to escape relatively unscathed, or even to excell.

This non-post brought to you by the fear of corporate layoffs.

Perhaps I'm imagining things here and this is the way all sensible referees run their games. If so, then grand.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Earthdawn Opinions?

Earthdawn has recently caught my attention, though I hesitate to shell out $100 bucks to look at the new edition just on the chance it might be interesting.

Has anybody who actually reads this blog seen this game in any of its incarnations? How does it play? Got any opinions?

There are, I see, three editions. What's the comparison across them?

Permanent and Lasting Injury

The 2nd Edition AD&D books specifically discourage players from tracking specific injuries, which I generally agree with. After all, I'm not a kid anymore and I don't get a giggle over the fact that every hit has a 1-in-6 chance of whacking some poor shmuck in the jewels, or neck, or whatever. It's just not necessary and is, in many ways, puerile. It also adds a whole lot of "all the time" complexity that the game just doesn't need.

After all, one of the biggest draws of the D&D type systems for me is the level of abstraction. Whether or not hit points represent purely physical punishment, or a mixture of luck, near misses, and minor wounds sapping a PC's will to go on or something else entirely really isn't all that important. The system is an abstraction for the sake of gameplay and, in the end, it's a completely self-referential one. It's only there to provide a numeric system to govern when your character can no longer function. It makes no real appeals to realism except in that more physical and martial classes get more HP while more "bookish" or "crafty" type classes receive fewer. It's verisimilitude, not realism.

The same goes for the 1 minute combat rounds (of which I am still a strong supporter by the by), the class and level system in general, armor class, and much of everything else in a lot of ways. Everything there sets an acceptable (to us at least) comprimise between realism and abstraction for the sake of game flow.

However, one of the alures of D&D is the loosness of its framework and the ability of the players to "hang on ornaments" so to speak. That's, I think, one of the greatest and most marvelous lessons that TSR learned during the run of AD&D 2ed: that the only thing that separated the core AD&D system from being something else was ornamentation and decoration. Dark Sun, one of the wierdest settings for the game, is little more than AD&D 2ed with a few moderate rules tweaks thrown in (i.e., retooling the attributes charts to account for the concept of Survival of the Fittest run amok, everybody's got psionics, an insanely harsh environment, and so on). That's the strength of 2nd edition, in my mind, it's chameleon like ability to change on the face to

That's a long way to go, I suppose, to get to the purpose of today's post.

Thylia, though I know I've put so little of it up here owing to life going absolutely berserk of late, is at present a bit grim, dark, and gritty. Those phrases have largely lost meaning, especially in WOTC's wake of using them to apply to their new material (one imagines purely in a humerous intent). Things in that world are going badly: monsters lurk in the wilderness, petty warlords claim control over wide expanses of land or just city states, cats and dogs living together . . . But of course, whisper me the difference between that and just about any bog-standard D&D setting?

In order to reflect the darker, somewhat grittier nature of things in Thylia, I'm employing both the modifications to the Vancian spell casting rules I talked of earlier, and a minor system for lasting and permanent injuries.

Simply put, while employing the "at death's door" rule (i.e., you have until -10 hp before you actually die for good), any character or monster/NPC that is reduced to -7 HP or less must make a system shock check or be forced to roll on the chart below to determine what, if any, lasting consequences are assessed.

1. Injury to the face/head. Suffer -1 to WIS/INT/CHA (equal chance of any of them).
2. Torso/Abdomen. Suffer -1 to CON, max HP reduced by 1d20%.
3. Fore/Upper Limb (includes arms (all if multiple), wings, and any other appendage other than a head above body midline). Determine which randomly. Limb is useless unless successfull save vs. death. To-Hit and Damage are -1 with that limb. If quadraped or limb otherwise used for mobility, see Lower/Hind Limb entry below.
4. Lower/Hind Limb (includes legs and other mobility appendages, tails, etc.). Save vs. death else limb is useless. Suffer -1d4x10% loss in movement rate. Limb is -1 to-hit and DAM if appropriate. May require crutch, cane, or other assistave device at DM's discretion.

All effects persist for 1d3 weeks at the end of which the character must make a System Shock check or the effects become permanent unless powerful healing or regenerative magics are applied successfully. At DM's option, surgical arts may be attempted to repair such damage, though they obviously carry significant risks of their own.

I think this will help to bring across the brutality of combat just a little more, and leave open my options open for when truly greivous wounds need inflicting.

Example: Hamlet the fighter is snatched up by a Roc intent on making the hapless adventurer its next meal. Through pure piss and vinneager, Hamlet is able to land a few telling kicks and bites on the bird before too much altitude is gained and the beast drops him. The fall reduces the fighter to -8 HP where he is luckily discovered by a friendly band of elves who bandage his wounds before he bleeds out. Rolling on the chart above nets him a result of 3 and the DM determines that his left arm has been severely broken when Hamlet fell on it. He has failed his saving throw and so the arm is useless for anywhere from one to three weeks. If he fails a System Shock test at the end of that time, the arm is permanently lame and of no use to him at all: a dangerous vulnerability to say the least.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review: Death Frost Doom

There's not much for it, here, except to point you over to Grognardia's much better review and then add some of my own dithering commentary here to fill out this post.

First off, I was very pleasantly surprised by Death Frost Doom. On the whole, I've been displeased with the current slew of Old School modules on the publishing line. I'm not going to start talking specifics here because I'm not interested in starting a backdraft (with all 10 of my regular readers, yeah . . .) or engendering hard feelings through a hobby discussion portal. No doubt half a dozen folks will charge in and tell me just how wrong I am, but I will say that, in general, I feel that most of the modules I see coming out of the various publishers and the OSR fall prey to the same fault: they try too hard to imitate the Old School feel and atmosphere and fail at being good modules in their own right. This isn't to say that they're bad modules: they're not. They just, in my opinion, focus too much on imitation and not enough on innovation.

Jim Raggi's Death Frost Doom module, on the other hand, is very impressive in that respect. He certainly has respect for his inspirational material, and it shows strongly in his work, but at no significant point does the module come across as imitative of a particular thing except in spirit. In short, the module relies more on the atmosphere of the weird tale and less on the formula of the weird tale. And it certainly has an atmosphere that is unique among its fellows and makes it stand out.

I'm not going to go into details because James has already done a better job of that than I ever could: not superior only in writing skill, but in knowledge of the source material. It is notable, though, that there are a few places where the author's affection for the Evil Dead series shows through a little more clearly than in others.

One of my favorite things about this module, though I'm sure Jim will shout at me that I'm a clueless noob here, is that it is quintassentially Middle School. There is a story to the module, a strong and interesting backstory, but if the players don't learn it, it's not detrimental at all. It's also loose and vague enough that it can be comfortably bolted onto an existing campaign without too much struggle. One of the most rewarding things I can see in this module, from a player's point of view, would be learning what the hell went on at this place, what was buried there, and getting out alive to tell of it, being able to tell tales in the tavern later on that you outsmarted the pitfals and dangers of this place and came away filthy stinking rich for it. Or, if the players are incautious or just flat out stupid, this module has the capability as written to remake a significant portion of the campaign setting.

Well done, sir. I look forward to tormenting players with this one in the near future.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Evil is Petty

Following on from good men doing evil for the greater good, I'm moving towards one of my favorite, touchiest topics in terms of good and evil.

One of the commonest mainstay fantasy fiction (and sci-fi fiction for that matter)is the Evil Overlord. So common, in fact, that he has his own list that's moderately famous around the internet. Typically, the control vast armies of evil (draconians, orcs/goblins, insert evil monster of the week here) and are hell bent on conquering the world and molding it in their own image, but spend a great deal of time brooding in their tent or castle like Achiles until the heroes of the story (in our case, the PC's) are ready for the confrontation. It's a concept that's at once familiar and comforting to our inbred sensibilities, that a face can be put on evil, that there's an apparatus it has built up around it. The ability to name and identify the evil and, more specifically, to identify it as "that one over there" is empowering for most people, not only because it builds up the image of a confrontable font of darkness, but it's pseudo-exoneration of those who would oppose it, even if only in principle.

The industrial sized, world threatening, archetypal evil lord is such a common image and device that I'm sure everybody here could name at least half a dozen of them, even excluding Morgoth/Melkor, Sauron, and Hitler (as a literary device, really, and not neccessarily the real life figure).

At a game level, the concept is tremendously convenient since it allows us to build everything around a single, larger conflict. Dark Lord McScarypants is threatening Utopiaville and all kingdoms of sweetness and light in a bid to conquer the world and oppress the innocent and kick little puppies on the street. It's up to the heroes to stop him! Everything else just writes itself into that framework and there's really nothing wrong with it.

When we try to break out of the stereotypical molds of games, we tend to do away with the conspicuous Dark Lords and replace them with "the Big Bad Evil Guy" or BBEG as he's commonly referred to on the mind numbing gaming forums. This guy is a bit like a demoted evil overlord. He gives us the convenience of an identifiable source of evil, or at least of the identifiable troubles, but he's somehow less hokey than the overpowering overlord ruling from his thrown of skulls and clotted blood in the land of shadows somewhere over that direction, but could you maybe look into this strange influx of goblins we seem to be having before you run off and take care of that? More conveniently, with the redefinition of "campaign" as a 1 year start to finish story by the newer editions of D&D, it's something that gives a strong focus to the game. The players are there to investigate the machinations and doings of some evil being who is causing troubles locally or globally or whatever. Over a 1 year time period, sandbox play really isn't that great and, it seems, that D20 type D&D requires a stronger focal point than simply wandering around and looking for adventure. The big bad(s) are a narrative tool, just on a slightly less cosmic scale.

As comforting and convenient as that all is, it ignores some specific and overt realities: and how I do love reality for inspiration. The issue is that evil is petty. Evil is, for the most part, small, relatively contained, and self-interested. World spanning and archetypal evils like that are relatively rare. Far more common are small things, like wife beating, child abuse, murder of local political opponents, and so on. Open up the news today, and you'll find an example of just what I mean. For the record, I find that particular news item extraordinarily unpleasant and the punishment leveled against the girl far insufficient.

For every Morgoth, there are ten Sharky's. For every Hitler inaugurating genocidal campaigns against hated ethnicities, there are a thousand Cheyenne Cherry's throwing kittens into hot ovens just to hear the cries of pain and fear it makes before dying. And more often than not, these evils are motivated almost entirely by self-interest and not some Moorcockian esoteric concepts of law and chaos, good vs. evil. The evil priest lurking at the outskirts of civilization sacrificing innocents in the hopes that his dark master will grant him immortality in the form of undeath as a lich or vampire or specter. A man who rapes and murders a woman who, in town council, blocked one of his pet projects.* A woman who bathes in the blood of her handmaidens in order to preserve her youth and beauty. These kinds of people are memorable simply because they are realistic and believable and because their crimes are far more personal than any plotting and scheming dark lord.

Why am I talking about this? Simply because, hand in hand with "all politics are local" goes "most evil is petty, small, and local." While there might be vast, brooding evil intelligences out in the game world, plotting the overthrow of order, the downfall of light, or whatever, far more effective game villains are of the smaller sort. These kinds of opponents tend to stick in players' minds when they are encountered and, as I said within the Bernardo Gui post, force the players themselves to confront something that is challenging or difficult for them.

*I'm very clear here that such topics are not always suitable for all games, nor am I encouraging those who don't want to deal with such unsavory topics to every include them in their games, nor should such topics EVER be treated lightly.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Review: Malevolent and Benign: A First Edition Bestiary

I don't have the ability to head over to Expeditious Retreat from behind the Firewall of Doom here, but I'll link you over to Noble Knight where I first found Malevolent and Benign: A First Edition Bestiary.

Honestly, I have pretty much nothing negative to say about this book. First, the cover and internal art (not to mention a sturdy binding, which is always nice) are very impressive. It's all evocative of the Fiend Folio and the first Monster Manual, but very obviously not straight imitation of style either. At least 60% of the creatures in the book have a picture to go with them, but none of the art even comes close to being filler, or creating blank white space: the book is crammed with two column, easy to read text patterned after the format of the monster entries in the OSRIC book.

Inside, about 150 new monsters lurk. Some, yes, are reprints from some of the OSRIC modules out there, but if, like me, you have been finding the modules of spotty interest, then this book is a great find. In reading through, I didn't see any monster in there that I wouldn't be happy to use in my home game. I'm on record as saying I'm not a fan of the goofy, but even here, the goofy is understated enough that even the most jaded player will get a kick out of it all.

Right now, my favorite entry would have to be the Avatar of Famine, a semi-undead fellow with a rather unpleasant special ability that makes him more than a match for even a powerful group. Its presence and origin are just creepy enough that they'll fit well in a horror campaign as much as any other.

Another standout is the Fungal Render: a giant, semi-predatory mushroom that has a knack for, well, you can probably guess given the name.

Oak Men fill a nice niche for those of us looking for more fairie folk to throw into the mix.

Of course, there's a very healthy dose of excellent undead, my favorite type of creature in the game, including a new type of elf lich kin.

It looks to me as if the authors looked for a theme for their monsters rather than "just another 1+1HD humanoid." Almost every monster here, as far as I can tell at the moment, fills a new nich (midget creepy tree men) or expands an existing niche into a new field (ritualized self-embalming elves anyone?) and doesn't trample on the toes of older, classic monsters by creating smudged photo-copies so to speak.

Bernard Gui Was Lawful Good

James Raggi over at LotFP has put up a series of articles over the last week about alignment. Here's the latest in the series. What's interesting is that the articles are not the standard dithering over defining what Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil really mean as if the definitions in the books weren't already clear, but about larger, farther reaching ramifications, such as what a being of evil incarnate might be like when the evils perpetrated by ordinary humans (even in the name of good) are so heinous as to turn your stomach. A demon or devil, even a relatively low level example, would be evil on a level unknown to lowly humans.

I wanted to get into some of the smaller, closer to home aspects of alignment. How a normal mortal might operate within the framework of the nine-point dual axis (i.e., AD&D alignment system) alignment codification and still break from a 1970's conception of right and wrong and morality: which is not to say anything disparaging against such conceptions, merely that good and evil within the framework of D&D seem to be largely judged from the paradigm of a 1970's educated man, which makes perfect sense since it was written and largely written for 1970's educated men.

My first object lesson is Bernardo Gui, born 1261, died 1331, and arguably the most famous member of the Medieval Inquisition (as VERY distinct from the infamous Spanish Inquisition which he had absolutely nothing to do with). It's remarkable how few people know Bernardo outside of the near caricature by F. Murray Abraham and Umberto Ecco in The Name of the Rose: you see, Umberto disliked the Church in general and the Inquisition in particular and it bled into his writing (which I'm sure he'll be the first to tell you is open to the audience's interpretation) and when the movie was created, it was decided that there was a need for a stronger antagonist than an old monk who hated laughter during the climax, thus was born the enhanced antagonism of Abraham's Gui.

In reality, the man quite literally wrote the book on how the Papal Inquisition was supposed to conduct and comport itself as well as its overall purpose: Practica Inquisitionis Heretice Pravitatis or "Conduct of the Inquisition into Heretical Wickedness." The work discusses the purpose of the Inquisition, describes its "targets" (including a very good description of the Cathars and why they are designated heretical by the Church of the time), and the methodology of accusations, interrogation, indictment, and punishment by members of the Inquisition. Gui did, indeed, advise the use of torture as a method to extract information from accused persons, an act that almost anybody in the Western World would consider irredeemably evil. During his tenure in this position, Gui obtained about 900 convictions, but only turned over a mere 42 to the state for execution. He was very reticent to see the people brought before him executed arguing convincingly that such would be considered a failure of one of the most important purposes of the Inquisition: the detection and rehabilitation of those persons who had strayed from the "correct" teachings of the Church. More common and preferred forms of punishment and rehabilitative therapy included pennance, joining an aesthetic monastic order for a time, a long pilgrimage, flogging, or simply time in the stocks. Killing somebody in this situation would be effectively damning them to hell, something that was to be strenuously avoided as the Church truly believed itself to be in the business of helping to save souls, not condemning them. Thus, execution was reserved for only the most vile and unrepentant heretics.

In the end, and within the context of his historical setting, I would argue that Bernardo Gui would fit in well within the Lawful Good alignment, despite what we would view as reprehensibly evil methods, much of which could be attributed to a Medieval sense of jurisprudence really. Which brings me to my point, at last; while it's certainly great to play D&D within the moral framework of modern folk, there's a lot to be said about opening up to a different moral paradigm. To continue within our example of the Inquisition, how would the players themselves interact with such a person? Upon realizing that torture was being used as a method to seek out and identify heretics (or, perhaps, slightly easier on our modern sensibilities, hidden evil moles), what would the party's attendant Paladin do? The party may be asked to perform tasks for such an inquisition and to abide by its regulations.

Travelling this way is difficult to do without getting hokey and over simplified, but done right, it challenges more than just the technical and role playing skills of the players, it challenges the players themselves. A little narativist in a way? Sure, but even the oldest and grognardiest of games can benefit from some of the better lessons of the White Wolf and Hickman/Weiss revolutions. Dealing with good and evil on a more than just lip service level, forcing players to confront some of their own personal demons within the game, is, in my opinion of course, one of those good lessons. It's another layer of challenge beyond disarming traps, killing monsters with clever tactics, and hauling treasure out from under the nose of a sleeping dragon. How, as a player of a Lawful Good character, do you work within a game world where not only is slavery and martial interrogation (torture) are not only accepted and acceptable functions of society, but are so widespread as to be near universal?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Problem With HD and Blu-Ray

This is completely and entirely off topic, but I felt like complaining about it here.

Why the hell is it that every time I try to watch a Blu-Ray movie on my fancy new player that the sound effects and music volume is turned way up (deafening really) but the dialogue is turned down so much that I can't actually hear it at all and have to rely on captions.

It's the same, though to a slightly lesser degree on HD television channels.

Is this a common thing across all HD sources? Is there some special fix that I don't know about? Or is this an example of stupid movie studios who assume "louder is better" and "people don't really care about what's being said on screen anyway"?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Review: Hackmaster Basic

Well, I got mine about two weeks ago and have spent my spare minutes reading through it to get myself an opinion. For whatever my opinion is worth, here it is.

I'll admit right up front that I've not had the chance to play the game, and I might be entirely wrong about it, but then again, what's the internet for except for strongly held, mostly baseless opinion sharing anyway?

First impressions: The first thought I had when I pulled the book out of the mailing envelope (immediately after being annoyed with the postal worker who folded the book double in order to fit it in the mailbox despite the words "DO NOT BEND" in bold red lettering on the front, and immediately before the panicked moment of flapping my hands uselessly as I was attacked by half a dozen red ants swarming out of the thing) was "this is just too thick to be "basic."" Weighing in somewhere around 200 pages, this is well beyond what can reasonably be called an introductory book to a game. If anything, it gives the impression that the basic moniker is there simply to hearken back to D&D Basic, shamelessly so.

James was right, this isn't a particularly Old School product, at least not in the sense that Old School has come to be defined by the OSR (or whatever we're calling it nowadays).

Presentation and Physical Stuff: In terms of physical quality, this book earns high marks. The binding is sturdy,as are the cover and the pages themselves. High quality materials throughout and no obvious or glaring printing errors that can be a major drawback to any product.

Speaking of the cover, yes, it's an Erol Otus print, and a damn fine one. Evocative and just slightly comedic. That creature on the front (a variant of the hydra if anybody cares) is just weird enough to catch your attention and make you wonder, and just vicious enough (he's eating the fighter's leg for crying out loud!) to give you a hint about the tone of things within.

The art throughout is quite nice, though not entirely inspiring. It's certainly worlds better than the current "art" plastered all over more "modern" RPG's, that's for sure, but it just doesn't grab me. Don't get me wrong, I like the woodcuttings just as much as the next guy, but it's just not all there yet, and too much of it looks to be recycled from Hackmaster 4th for my tastes.

Other than issues of personal taste, there are no complaints in this department. The book, as a book in itself, is of excellent quality, and even after being folded in half for 18 hours in the mailbox, the entire thing recovered in less than 2 hours and now you'd never be able to tell. This book was obviously built for extended and hard use.

Content: If you didn't care for Hackmaster 4 as a game itself, then you probably won't like Hackmaster Basic (and presumably HMA since it's purported by the authors to be the same thing, except more-so). If you looked at Hackmaster as a source for clipping out interesting rules variations, then you probably won't like Hackmaster Basic very much as the new stuff here won't be of too much use to your AD&D type game: the differences are just too broad for easy portability.

Whereas the original Hackmaster could reasonably be called AD&D with a whole lot of house rules and attitude thrown in, HackMaster basic is a new animal. It's certainly heavily informed by the D&D Basic model: the four classes are, of course, fighter, thief, mage, and cleric and they've got the basic races down to human, elf, dwarf, and halfling, and largely they mean the same things. Mages still cast magic spells, clerics still channel the powers of their deities and often turn or command undead, fighters are really good at hitting things, etc. The rules, however, are not basic as we understood them back then.

Each race in Basic has its own little chart that helps you understand the gist of the rules governing it ranging from attribute modifiers (and there are several, not just the +1/-1 from the days of AD&D) to what talents can be purchased at discounted rates and the number of building points needed to purchase your way into each particular class. One of the greatest advantages to being a demi-human is that you can purchase your way into certain classes for a substantial discount (say, 20 points as opposed to an average 30) and if one follows on with typecasting, demi-humans will certainly excell at certain types of things. Dwarves, for example, make excellent fighters if but for a slightly lower movement rate and a reach penalty, both of which can play significant roles later on. Elves make good wizards, halfings thieves, and humans fall into their jack-of-all-trades role again. Of course, level limits are a thing of the past as, in Dave Kenzer's own words, "research shows that most gamers tend to be frickin' pussies . . ." and the increased cost to enter the class in the first place seems at first glance to help balance that out in the short and middle game. Long term, though, I guess that things would tend to even out on some level.

Attributes are rolled for by the standard 3d6 along with their percentile fractional values (typically used in the original as further gradations between attribute points and as stepping stones between advancing attributes between levels) and seemingly the same here. In terms of a basic game where attribute advancement is left out, I don't see the need for the fractional ability scores. It muddies the waters for those who don't know what's coming up. Though I can see the desire to leave as much from the eventual "final form" of HMA the same as possible rather than following TSR's model of slicing the game into two different lines.

Higher attribute scores are, as in AD&D, important to a character as they govern all sorts of things as how many hit points characters get, how hard they hit in combat, how quickly they can act, etc. Those who don't like a strong reliance on ability scores will not be overtly pleased here I think.

Up until this point, there's little difference between AD&D and HMB in concept. They both follow along the same models. But it's when we get to the nitty gritty of the rules that the paths diverge. In concept, the rules are very simple. In execution, though, I see a whole lot of individual nightmares.

Skills operate on a system very similar to the Aces & Eights model, though they start at 0% for untrained and ascend towards 100% for masters. There are some skills, known appropriately as universal skills, are things that pretty much everybody has some facility with. Things like Hide, Sneak, Climb, etc. fall into this category. Other skills, like animal handling, riding, and academic type skills fall into the category where, without training, you have no real hope of using the skill. You gain and advance skills by spending build points. Not a bad arrangement, though there are still more skills here than I think are helpful and, of course, I'm still a strong believer in the proficiency model of AD&D 2e. Overall, I think this skill system is an improvement over HM4 provided that the skills don't expand into idiocy as the original game's did and provided we don't slather on layers of complication that add little to the satisfactory feeling of the game.

Clerics deserve to be singled out since, it seems, Kenzer & Co. have finally done what so many have wanted before and created a separate class for each deity. A Cleric of the True is not the same as a Cleric of the Harvester, is not the same as a Cleric of the Riftmaster. Great! Except that they still look very similar except for a few paltry, desultory differences. Maybe I'm judging that harshly, though. It's nice to see at least some service paid to the concept.

Combat. Combat is . . . well . . . it follows hot on the heels of the successful model of Aces & Eights. Somebody made the very astute observation that, realistically speaking, combat doesn't happen in nice, orderly rounds, but in real time. So Hackmaster Basic operates on the "count up" system instead. The GM begins combat by calling out each second as it passes (i.e., "1: the orcs start their charge while you stand surprised, 2: they continue to charge . . ."). Once your initiative arrives (the point at which you realize combat has begun and aren't standing there gaping like a landed fish) you are free to act, though each particular action takes a certain amount of time. A long sword, for example, takes 12 seconds to "reset" after its first attack, so unless something happens in between, you can expect to be able to attack once every 12 seconds with your sword.

Movement operates on a separate, parallel track to hacking, so you can, each second, move a distance equal to your walking, jogging, running, or sprinting speed every second independent of what your sword arm is doing at the time. Of course, moving out of melee with a foe, assuming he stands there like an idiot, can lead to a counter "reset" for your weapon, but again, nothing in execution is simple as it is on paper. I suppose that's going to be the calling card of this game, in the end.

Trading blows is accomplished by an, in my opinion, excellent model: opposed rolls adding modifiers, high roll wins. I think that, in basic premise, that's a GREAT way of doing things and I've often pondered what the effect of turning AC into a modifier to a d20 roll would result in at the table. However, in the end, the simple makes way for a host of complications, many in the interest of realism. For example, not carrying a shield gives you a flat -4 to your defense rolls as, of course, these are very important items in medieval combat. Why, you might ask, do you suffer a penalty for not carrying a shield rather than simply get a bonus for using one? Well, that's because there's another complication later on for what happens when your oponent misses you while you're using a shield: you still can suffer damage from this as the book points out because your arm is, after all, right on the other side. There are, as well, different types of dice to roll for defense based on if you are caught unaware, or are helpless, or are being attacked from behind. Initiative dice are the same, a different one for each circumstance, though there is, as in most rules, a standard. Maybe its my pessimism, but I see the standard being excepted too often to be of much use, really. In the end, here, I'm left wondering whether I really want a realistic system as opposed to a comfortably abstracted system that blends into the background and is all but completely invisible at table.

For all that, though, combat itself is explained rather well, including via a nice little comic strip example. It makes me think that, given a little patience and practice, I could GM it successfully and make it fun, which is, in the end, the point of it all. If you're a fan of the comics, it'll make you chuckle and you'll probably appreciate it. If not, you'll probably be a little disheartened that such a bit of crucial info is dumped into a comic book format that you have to slog through.

Despite my overall negative tone above, I do think that the combat system is very interesting and worth a look through even if you don't plan on playing this particular system. It looks like it'll prove to be a gritty, violent, and brutal affair rather than the high fantasy swashbuckling that D&D can often fall prey to. Shields break with alarming regularity, wounds do not heal overnight, and those large pointy objects that were a minor annoyance to AD&D figher characters can be exceptionally dangerous with the risk of penetration and critical hits. Even when armor is absorbing damage, we're still talking big, satisfying numbers here even at first level. A three foot blade in the gullet is about as debilitating in Hackmaster Basic as it would be in real life, and that's a good thing.

Honor remains as yet another fiddly bit. Spellcasting has morphed into a strange, almost Arduinian combination of the Vancian slot system and a spell point system (I heartily encourage you to check out the book if only for that).

The monster selection is quite nice, though sparse considering what fit into the original Baisc books. Something on the order of 75 monsters including several undead like vampires, ghouls/ghasts, and wights. Dragons are conspicuous in their absence, though rumor has it that they are going to make an appearance in one of the KODT issues coming up. Undead no longer drain experience, but ability scores semi-permanently (there's a moderate chance that you can recover, but it's by no means a sure thing as it was in 3.x). Poison is a rather nasty affair, though not always of the save or die variety. All in all, an excellent selection of monsters to start the game with including a few classic Hackmaster creatures like the Sturm Wolf.

There are at least two sections of the book that I see as superfluous and as taking up more space than they are entitled to. First, there's a "Quick Start" characters section that you can download on the Kenzer & Co. website for free now to look over as a PDF. In my view, this is a basic game and it sure as hell shouldn't need a quick start setup. If anything, they should have included four or so pre-generated characters for that purpose rather than taking up half a dozen pages with marginally useful information.

The second was the dice rolling section. Yes, it's well written and very fun to read, and a lot of it needed to be said as so much "dice ettiquate" has been forgotten and ignored over the years, but really, it's too big for what it is and it should have been dropped in favor of streamlining the rest of the book, or for at least adding more monsters.

Overall: Despite my general negative tone above, I do think that Hackmaster Basic is an excellent looking game based on a read through and no practical experience with it. It garners 4 out of 5 stars from my questionable perspective, loosing points only because it's not really basic at all and the amount of fiddelyness is too much for my taste. It's apparant that Kenzer & Co's definition of Old School is significantly different than Matt Finche's.

Buy it if you enjoy reading a well written game that has a good sense of humor about itself and the entire hobby, but is much toned down since the last PHB.

Buy it if you love Hackmaster in general and would buy just about anything Kenzer published on principle.

Don't buy it if you're looking for an old school experience as it's defined currently by the Old School Revolution.

Don't buy it if you're looking for a basic, simple, and quickly grasped game.

A Note on Hackmaster and Kalamar: It should be noted that Hackmaster Basic is the first new product in the line that will specifically support the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting. As noted above, the Cleric class has been specifically subdivided into a unique class for each of Kalamar's many deities, though only a few make an appearance in Basic.

This connection is definately noticable, but hardly so overt that one couldn't adapt the game to another setting with relative ease.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Spellcasting in Thylia: Modifications to the Vancian System

This is the biggest house rule I will ever implement, or at least the one that causes the most significant change in how the game functions. Just to come right out and say this up front, this modification to the casting system did not originate with me. The game I currently play in (for the last 5 or so years actually) put this into effect and, after 5 years, I can't really imagine playing without it. Whether that's because the rule really is that excellent of a change, or because internally, I was never satisfied with the whole Vancian thing to begin with is something open to debate. Either way, it makes for an interesting modification in my opinion.

First, wizards do not gain new spells upon leveling per the rules. The only way for a wizard to gain new spells is to discover them in "the dungeon" or to trade for or steal them from others. This makes arcane magic, at least, that much more difficult to get hold of so that the players aren't pulling magic our of their orificies at every instant.

Magic is rare and mages are jealous of each other's abilities. This is to counteract some of the change below.

Casting still functions largely as detailed in the PHB. Wizards have a certain number of spell slots per day per level based on their current character level and any specialization they pursue (i.e., a transmuter gets an extra spell slot per level that must be devoted to an alteration spell). However, wizards can, with a percent chance of failure based on their intelligence and the level of the spell, attempt to "wing it" when casting spells. That means that they can forgoe memorizing a spell (or all spells for very intelligent and powerful wizards) in order to enhance their potential versatility. Unfortunately, this comes with a good chance of failing to successfully cast their spells.

Mages can still memorize their spells, and in fact, doing so greatly reduces the percent chance of failure.

For example:
A wizard with INT 15 has a base 65% chance to fail casting a 1st level spell while winging it. A 2nd level spell fails 70% of the time, 3rd 75% and so on. This means that our example wizard will fail 75% of the time while trying to cast a 3rd level spell without prior memorization.

If, however, the wizard in question chooses to memorize his spell in the morning, he reduces his chance for failure by 100%, thus in our example, the 3rd level spell is cast with a -25% chance of failure.

This, in actual play, does increase the utility of a wizard, but at the same time can make him somewhat unreliable. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "it's only a 10% chance of failure" right before a critical spell fizzles because the player wanted to leave the slot open "just in case."

It also has a very nice side benefit: players of wizards end up casting more of their spell selection (i.e., instead of just memorizing the same few over and over again) and there's fewer instances of "ok, we need this or that spell, but the wizard has to rest 8 hours before we can proceed, so everybody break out the bedrolls!"

A few other things to add into the pot:
For a specialist caster (transmuter, necromancer, etc), the caster receives a -10%/+10% failure chance based on whether the spell is in or out of their specialty school.

When leveling up, for every 5 successful times a spell is cast, the charcter gains a -5% chance to fail that particular spell.

At first level, and upon ataining further levels, the character gains 200% discretionary percentage points with which he can reduce any spell's failure chance, or he can hold them in reserve in anticipation of gaining new spells over the next level.

If, upon attempting to learn a new spell, the player fails the roll to learn, he can still scribe it to his book and cast it, but it suffers a +50% chance of failure. This can, and often does, raise the failure chance to above 100% making even memorized casting dodgy.

And one final bit:
A mage must still spend time every day reviewing and studying his spells. If his book is stolen or he has no access to it, he suffers an increased 5% failure chance per day without the book.

It looks a little confusing at first blush (and if I knew how to make this blog thing make tables, it'd be a might clearer) and it certainly does add a lot of book keeping to playing a wizard character or a bard (who follow the same rules, but keyed off of the average INT ahd CHA), but I find that the whole thing is definately worth it.

I like the falvor of it for Thylia, and since spells are rare, spell books cost 1000gp each, and the ink to scribe a spell costs 10gp per page written (not to mention 1 day per page/level of the spell), it's really a fair trade in my book.

Of course, I wouldn't try to port this over to Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk since I don't think it'd fit terribly well there, but in a grim and gritty setting where things are falling apart all over, it sort of fits.