Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Inherently Evil

The morality system of Dungeons and Dragons (in most of its incarnations) has been the source of lively debate since . . . well . . . pretty much ever. Put ten gamers into a room together and you'll have ten different views on how the alignment system "should be" interpreted, which version of the alignment system is "best," whether or not Gary Gygax was, indeed, taking controlled substances when he thought that this would be a good idea for a game, and at least three black eyes. Many, if not most, blogs even peripherally about D&D have long series of articles discussing the "true nature of alignment" and how it works and such a discussion has even made it over to the pop-culture repository of "knowledge" called TVTropes.org. It is, in my opinion, one of the best articles about the D&D style alignment system ever. A great many gamers decry the whole exercise and call it a straight jacket or some bizarre, ill-conceived attempt to shoe-horn a morality system into the game that wasn't needed.

The topic has gotten some play within the blog sphere: here and here for instance.

Whatever side of this discussion you fall on isn't important here, and I'm not going to weigh in entirely about it. The truth of the matter, though, is that it (the alignment system and its attendant assumptions) tend to pose some difficult questions for modern gamers, especially considering modern ethical and moral sensibilities. Specifically, the concept of an "always chaotic evil" or even "often evil" type monsters. Orcs, goblins, hobgoblins (my personal favorite humanoid), kobolds, and etc. were, if I recall the history of the game correctly) designed specifically as a a sequence of incrementally more powerful targets for the PC's to kill and loot without attendant guilt complexes. They were, in short, evil races and could be slaughtered with aplomb. Of course, no plan or mechanic, however ingenius, survives contact with gamers.

The concept of an entire race or species (and I've honestly been confused as to whether we're to consider the various non-human sentients in the game a species or a race, or if there's a difference in the first place) as being objectively inferior and identifiably and demonstrably inherently evil is one that truly grates against modern sensibilities. After all, such excuses have been used in our own world to justify some of the most horrific acts in history and it's natural that those of us raised in this world would be recoil from such a thought. Or course, that didn't stop many of us from assuming that anything in the game with a written XP total was there for us to kill and acting accordingly. According to Dave Kenzer himself, the humanoids in the new edition of Hackmaster are going to hearken back to this understanding, that they are all evil and the players have a right if not duty to slaughter them wholesale and further, that upon reading the descriptions of said monsters in the Hacklopedias (their version of the Monster Manual) that you'll actually want to.

One of the natural responses to the quandry is to create a rational for why such and such a race is evil. Orcs, for example, might be magically created things little more than self-replicating automata. A disease, almost, on the land. James over at Grognardia has reportedly taken this angle with his Dwimmermount campaign (linked above, see the comments) where orcs at least are the result of genetic tinkering by one of the precursor races that bestrode the world like giants in the long dark history of the world. This angle is great for Dwimmermount since blaming one of the older races who are already a part of the campaign for the horrific humanoids rampaging through the world and preying upon the innocent does not multiply entities at all. In fact, orcs in Thylia share a similar niche, though I feel with a particularly dark twist.

Of course, the LOTFP article linked above takes a different tack, playing with the uncertainty of players and characters as to what place in the metaphysical and moral place in the world humanoids occupy. The suggestions to play up this uncertainty is delightfully evil in and of itself and I plan on having child goblins and kobolds around to trip up the players' certainties.

I've never really had a problem with a race of beings being evil. It just doesn't bother me on the same level as it does others, I suppose seeing as I don't view "Good" as objectively superior in any way within the context of the game. Of course, within the game itself, "Good and Evil" are semantically loaded terms anyway as they both seem to coincide with, respectivly, what our modern society considers morally laudable and morally reprehensible, but I consider that to be terms of semantic limits: sometimes you just can't escape using a word that has strong associative meanings. However, within the context of the game world, good and evil are neither superior nor inferior in any way, they just are.

This isn't moral relativism, because evil is still evil, if that made any sense.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why Can't We Have A Decent Fantasy Show Part Duex

Earlier, I lamented the fact that our latest concesion to fantasy entertainment was Krod Mandoon and afterword, I felt that I'd given the show short shrift. After all, I'd only ever seen one or two episodes (hard to tell whether that premier was two episodes pasted together, or if it was actually a double length episode). It's bound to get better right?

So I decided that the least I could do was give it another shot and see if it wasn't worth following. So, I watched last night's episode hoping for something to move beyond what the pilot had given us, and I'm impressed to say that it succeeded in going well beyond what it was, just in the wrong direction. Such stunning lines as the "mage" talking about his companions "little brown starfish" really set the tone early on as the "plot" was a thinly veiled excuse for an extended encounter with a so called "bi-clops" (a pansexual cyclops that is) and the entire episode devolved into a running series of sex jokes about Aneka and her . . . ahem . . . experience culminating in her riding off with the rival love interest carting a 2 quart gourd full of lube.

I will say, though, that Dongalore's little side trek to "rescue" the woman he had abducted only a few days earlier out of love was relatively good in comparison.

This all makes me uneasy about the upcoming (hopefully by Christmas) A Game of Thrones television series produced by HBO who did a marvelous job with Rome. Hell, if this series can do for fantasy literature what Rome did for, well, Rome, then I at least will be very happy. I worry, though, that this will end up junked and destroyed by the fact that it's an unpopular genre that seems to play better as parody than straight.

All that, and judging by what HBO did to True Blood, a by all accounts decent novel series, it's possible and even likely that this might turn into plot with porn. Or, for the less charitable than me, porn with plot.

One good rumor about the whole project, though, is that Peter Dinklage is the most likely to play Tyrion Lannister, which is a good thing.

One can only hope.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Whacky and Wierd VS. the Familiar and the Pseudo-Real

There's something to be said for the wierd. Thool is a very cool place, what with a seeming dearth of the ordinary and an overabundance of "just plain wierd shit." Scott has managed to create a world that is new enough and strange enough to our modern way of thinking, and our way of perceiving even simple daily tasks, that he's emphasized the acts of exploration and discovery as ends in and of themselves. The players will spend, likely, as much time learning about the world around them as they do rooting through ancient dungeons to their greedy, shivled hearts' content. And that's a great thing.

Hargrave's Arduin - actually, technically speaking, it's The World of Khaas and I recommend that book to, well, everybody - is, in my estimation, the poster child of the whacky, wierd, and zany campaign worlds. As far as I can tell, it's just about the only place where anthropoid insects, weasels, and panda are standard player races. Not to mention Saurig (aka, lizard men), Kobbits (half kobold, half hobbit, with wings), and Throon (near giant sized four armed humanoids that are dumber than a box of rocks and especially fond of pumpkin). Then there's Rune Weavers, Star Powered Mages, and Techno's (the guys that get to play around with high technology while their buddies carry around sharpened sticks). And, of course, we can't forget that some of the most famous games of Arduin included elements adapted from (i.e. stolen en toto) popular sources including Jedi and Storm Troopers. It all merged together in a kind of pleasant and goofy mish-mash as a thing in and of itself. Once there, you wouldn't question why your 5th level Fighter is scrambling for cover from the orc mortar squadron freshly timewarped from an alternate WWII somewhere in the vast and strange multi-verse.

Of course, one can't let Mutant Future or Gamma World go by without mention either. Science Fantasy at its high point and, in my opinion, the true inheritors of the pulp fiction genre in gaming more so than D&D if only because they lacked the inhibitions that later got piled on.

Gonzo playstyle leads to great levels of creativity and can often avoid what can be yet another boring "might as well be Greyhawk" world. After a while, all but the most fantastic of fantasy worlds can become dull, and it's times like those that we run off in search of border bending stuff.

In the end, though, there are problems that I have with all of this, not least of which is that many of us . . . ok some of us . . . ok, maybe just me . . . have a near fetish level appreciation for verisimilitude and "realism." That's not entirely right as it's more along the lines of looking for plausible explanations. In the Forgotten Realms setting, there's a great desert in the middle of which rests of glacier. Supposedly, I suppose, that's supposed to spark creativity and interest in explaining/discovering why that glacier is there, or why that desert is there, or whatever, but in the end, it seems to boil down to "a wizard did it" which isn't any kind of explanation at all. It's baseless wierdness. This might be why I like Arduin to some extent, because the wierdness has a relatively plausible explanation behind it all - a massive tear in the space-time continuum leading to massive and repeated crossings between Khaas and pretty much everywhere else leading to a general rule of thumb "if it stands even a remote chance of being cool, go for it."

Another issue I find is that it often turns into scenery porn. Either the DM has spent more time pouring love into the setting than he has creating an actually interesting (or at least pursuable) adventure, or it's so strange that the players spend more time trying to get their bearings: how often can you worry about whether that large animal you ride on is a horse, or a warm-blooded reptilian spider before you start to lose interest? This is absolutely the reason why I'm a great fan of low fantasy, especially stuff like A Song of Ice and Fire. It's fantastic enough, but not so strange that readers spend more time flipping back and forth between the text and the mandatory glossary just trying to figure out what a "whojunkiz" is and why it's hurting somebody's "yambotheric."

Assimov said it best, I think, when he said at some point that his first rule of writing good science fiction was to ask the audience to believe only one unbelieveable thing. This applies just as much to Fantasy as it does to anything else. You could have the sun rise in the North and set in the East, but why? What purpose does it have other than to lend some faux exoticism? Those multiple suns in the Tatooinian sky were there only to let us know quickly (as if we hadn't figured it out by now) that the crew really wasn't just wandering around in Tunisia. Everything added above the "normal" should have purpose.

Taken too far, and it ends up turing the focus of the game towards experiencing strange new worlds rather than adventuring in them. For me, the focuse of D&D always was and always should be on the actions of the characters, whether they choose to make heroes of themselves, or whether they restrain themselves to merely robbing crypts for the gold and grave goods they might find. Or they might choose to become grand explorers, but then it's their choice rather than neccessity because the world is so disparate from the world that the players know that they spend more time trying to figure it all out rather than actually adventuring. Keeping things closer to the real world gives the players a metahporical leg to stand on before the wierd-shit-o-meter spikes.

The worst thing, I think, is when this turns into the gimmick settings. "It's like Greyhawk, but with . . ." Dark Sun is like Greyhawk, but with really dry weather and lots of psionics. Dragonlance is just like Greyhawk, but with lots of dragons and a super-simplistic view of morality and interpersonal relationships. Eberron is just like Greyhawk, but with "magical technology." The world becomes a shtick rather than anything living and breathing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Hagli'mesh

Climate/Terrain: Cold boreal forest and taiga south of the mountains and dwarven kingdom, never found in remnants of old empire and kingdoms of south
Frequency: Very Rare
Organization: Solitary
Intelligence:non- to exceptional
Treasure: NA - See below
Alignment: Chaotic Evil
No. Appearing: 1
Armor Class: 2
Movement: 9
Hit Dice: 6
THAC0: 15
No. Attacks: 1 (smash) or 1 (throttle)
Damage Attacks: 1d6+6 (smash) or 1d4+6+Level Drain (throttle)
Special Attacks: Level Drain, Move Silently/Hide Shadows
Special Defenses: Standard per undead, Immune to Ice/Cold attacks
Magic Resistance: Nill
Size: Small
Morale: 20 Fearless

Hagli'Mesh appear as small elf children, twisted and deformed and pierced by long ceremonial flint blades. They walk with a twisted and stumbling gait, but are suprisingly graceful when required.

Combat: Hagli'Mesh are capable of moving silently through the forests and hiding in shadows as a thief level 6. They will often use this to approach a party undetected and ambush them for maximum effect due to their slow movement rate. Due to their twisted forms, they are unable to charge or increase their spead above Movement 9.

Hagli'Mesh attack by slamming their fists into foes and scrabbling at the throats of their victims. Due to their great strength, they are capable of inflicting significant damage. If an attack succeeds by more than 5 on a d20, the creature has managed to get a grip on his victim's throat and will begin strangling the poor creature the next round, causing 1d4+6 damage per round and draining 1 life energy level per round until the creature is slain or its grip is broken via a successful bend bars roll.

They are immune to mind affecting spells as are all undead and are further completely immune to ice or cold attacks.

Tactics depend largely upon the intelligence of the individual Hagli'Mesh. Those that have completely lost their minds during their transformation will attack with mindless brute force until either they or their opponents are dead. Those with greater intelligence will fight as appropriate, using ambush tactics, hit and run attacks, and others, but will never relent in its quest to see its victims dead short of its own destruction.

Habitat/Ecology: The semi-nomadic elf tribes wandering the taiga and boreal forests south of the mountains leave in their wake small shrines to the Hagli'mesh, an elf word with no literal translation into common or, seemingly, any other language. The word refers both to a physical structure and, only in whispers, a being. Constructed of a mastodon or mammoth hide stretched over the ribs or tusks of the animal, or in rare cases a thin lattice work of saplings, individual Hagli'mesh shrines can easily be mistaken for the dwelling of local forest sprites or supply cache, but woe betide those who invade the sanctity of such structures.

Within such a structure, there is a small humanoid corpse pierced by a long flint or obsidian blade and propped up in a pose resembling what humans call a "scare crow." Closer examination by a knowledgable individual will reveal that the figure is, in fact, a slain elf child (no more than 25-30 years old, equivalent to a 12 year old human child)with various grave goods strung about his neck in the form of a necklace of berries, fruits, dried meats, cakes, and other food stuffs. Only very rarely is anyting of monetary value discovered by the unscrupulous.

Throughout the region, elf tribes typically remain in one area, living in semi-permanent buildings constructed of hide and mastodon bone, for anywhere between 50 and 100 years. After such time, they pack everything onto their sledges and pack animals and migrate in cyclic patterns throughout the forests and taiga. Before leaving, however, the child of the most materially prosperous family is sacrificed by driving a ritual flint blad through the boy and covering him in a fresh Hagli'mesh structure. Left unattended and unmolested, such a structure and its sacrificial offering are torn down by local wolves or other wild animals within only a few days.

Such sacrifices are offerings by the elves to return some of the prosperity that the land has given them, and no elf would dream of refusing to offer their own child willingly in such a ritual, though they are not beyond acts of great "generosity" at times, giving away large amounts of their material wealth at strategic moments to ensure the survival of their own children. Most times, nothing goes wrong, but occasionally, some individuality is left to the sacrificed child, enough for it to grow angry over its condition and to rise again and wander the wood at night, enacting its hatred and loathing of life on any creature within its grasp . . .

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Book of Common Prayer

No, not that one, but inspired by it certainly.

One of the greatest advantages of the cleric class (if not the single greatest advantage) is their ability to gain any spell in the cleric spell list without having to resort to spell books, scrolls, or other "memorization media." This means that every cleric - assuming he has access to the appropriate sphere and level - can cast a healing spell, and the prayer spell, and all the rest, which is a startling advantage over magic users who must build their inventory of spells over time as they adventure. Their only limiters on spells are the requirements for rest every day and daily devotions in order to regain spells. It's also presumed that the cleric is required to further the cause of his ethos/god or otherwise stay true to his supposed religion, but this is ignored frequently enough that it might as well be optional.

Whether or not this disparity is "fair" is not my concern here. What's more interesting to me is the number of minor problems this issue can introduce.

First, it leads to a major issue if the DM wants to introduce new spells for the cleric from other sources, especially midway through a campaign. This can get especially dangerous if the ref isn't careful and doesn't make sure that the floodgates stay closed, thereby letting in a flood of spells into the game that he didn't want to begin with. In all fairness, while it might be great fun for me as the DM to throw a cleric with the "Spittle" spell at the group, it's not wonderful to then turn arond and tell the party clerics that not only can't they have such a spell (for it is evil in its own way) but that they can't go outside the bounds of the PHB to begin with.

Another major issue as I see it is that it leads to a disconnect between the cleric character and any possible organization of the religion he serves - i.e., the tribal teachings of the shaman, or "the church" as it were for geographically broader faiths. Just what attachment does an adventuring cleric of Pelor have with the church of Pelor anyway? What are his duties to the hierarchy if any? What penalties will he suffer for failing to oblige by them?

There's also the issue of holidays, fasting days, feasting days, and the religious calendar at large, though that is entirely the province of the DM and unique to each campaign.

My solution is the introduction of a holy cannon for each sort of priest in the campaign. Each individual religion will have its own holy texts (i.e., its own bible) which all of their clergy will be required to be familiar with. In it are the teachings and stories of the god, the history of the church if appropriate, and tellings of the miracles performed by the faithful. For the spellcasting members of the clergy (i.e., those with PC classes in Cleric, Druid, or any other class that features spell casting) these texts serve as essential tools without which they find the performance of miracles increasingly difficult: for every 24 hours period without their cannon, a cleric/druid character faces a cumulative 5% chance increased spell failure chance. These texts contain all of the spells available to cleric characters out of the PHB for the first three levels. At such time as a cleric character would be able to cast 4th level spells, he must make a pilgrimage to a suitable stronghold of his faith and present himself to the authorities there to make a reckoning of his career thus far and plead his case for access to the greater mysteries of the faith. Only if the authorities (an abbot or high priest or whatnot) are satisfied by the accounting will the priest be granted access to more complete sacred texts and permitted to copy from them. The whole process requires a week per spell level gained (i.e., gaining access to 4th level spells requires 4 full weeks of prayer and copying. Thus, replacing a lost or stolen cannon will require a significant investment in time and effort.

A priest may, of course, add spells gained upon his travels to his cannon, but such may cause difficulties when returning to the church for reckoning as spells outside of the cannon may be considered blasphemous. Unscrupulous priests may even pay for completed texts rather than subject themselves to the scrutiny of their superiors.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why Can't We Have A Decent Fantasy Show?

Well, in watching Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire over on Comedy Central here in the US, it's clear that the show is a shallow parody of a genre that its creators don't enjoy or are even particularly familiar with beyond the basest elements. Don't get me wrong, it was amusing in a puerile sort of way - tastless gay jokes, sex jokes, gay sex jokes, and the occasional slapstick prevail throughout - and I will probably end up watching at least the next few episodes if only to see what they do to abuse poor John Rhys Davies and Eliza Dushku.

What is more amusing to me - though also just as disheartening in its own way - is that the show seems to be as much, if not more so, a parody of fantasy gaming as it is about the fantasy genre as a whole. Certain scenes seem to be built around tropes of D&D and its ilk such as Loquasto's firing into melee (and frequently hitting his friend Krod), taking a mulligan (which seemed almost a direct reference to dice rolling in its own amusing way), and the death of General Arcadius (I spent at least 30 seconds there counting off hitpoints from miltiple crossbow bolts and a spear to the chest).

The end result is a somewhat watchable show if you can get past the parts that bother you - and there most certainly will be parts that will bother you whether it's the, let's be kind and call her "promiscuous" Aneka or the over the top Bruce whom just about everybody with common sense will find offensive once he tells you the two ways in which his lover, the General Arcadius, transmitted the prophecy that supposedly will drive the show's plot, and that can be genuinely amusing at times.

But in the end, I have to wonder why we have to settle for this kind of thing. Why is it that the only halfway decent fantasy movie to make it to the big screen since the terrible Lord of the Rings trilogy is Harry Potter? Harry Potter poorly adapted no less. Why is it that fantasy movies made for television are consigned to the likes of the absolute drek that the Sci-Fi Channel (or should I say SyFy?) produces that aren't even watchable when extremely drunk. The Sands of Oblivion springs to mind here.

Why is fantasy reduced to being the ghetto genre of the Science-Fiction ghetto? Why the hell can't we get a decent show or movie made that isn't a shallow parody or just plain old terrible?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dave Arneson

Well, the news is official this time, and it's certainly sad. There are already a number of tributes to the man and his work sprouting up across the blogs and other spots in the web. I won't bother linking to them since you'll be able to find them easily enough and they'll all have done a better job at commemorating the man than I ever could.

I'm only taking a brief moment here to give a nod to one of the co-creators of the game that we all enjoy, whose creative style and sensibilities meshed well enough with Mr. Gygax's to create something that - little were they aware, I am sure - would become a cultural phenomenon spanning the globe and spawning several multi-million dollar industries and created a household name that even the uninitiated recognized and understood.

I will note that, likely due to my age, I never used Blackmoor or the First Fantasy Campaign or really anything that was distinctly Arneson's, and I don't think I'm alone in this. There is currently an entire generation of gamers who recognize Arneson only as a name written briefly in the front of their PHB's and to whom they have no more solid or tangible connection than they do to the other roots of the game they play. Dave Arneson is "just another name" really, and that's a very sad thing.

In any case, I offer my salute today to one of the two men who helped give us a new way to play cowboys and indians, and who talked to us like we were adults no matter what.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Middle School Principles

In the same vein as the Old School Primer available for free over on Lulu, here are, as I see them, some of the principles behind Middle School gaming (i.e., those of us stuck somewhere between grognard and newbie status). This isn't definitive or anything like that as I make no pretenses to know what the hell I'm talking about: this is, after all, only opinion.

1)Rulings, Not Rules: There is no difference here between Old and Middle schools. It is vital that what a player/character can do is not pre-defined for them. Extensive and expansive rule sets only give the illusion of more variety of action; instead, they tend to limit action by constraining it into a set of pre-programmed options.

2)Challenge the Player AND the Character: Intelligent and skilled play are crucial to the game and character survival. Players must do much more than merely roll dice to survive. However, certain challenges are designed for the character and not the player. A character with an 18 intelligence played by a player with a 13 intelligence has to be taken into account in some way. The same goes for instances where a character would have knowledge that a player does not (for instance, a cultural oddity that the player is unaware of) that has an effect on game play. One should never expect, though, to simply dice their way through anything. This leads me into point #3 . . .

3)Playing as Character: This is not an advocation of method acting, or support of role playing as amateur theater hour. This is the acknowledgement that each player assumes the part of the character that they create and run. Players should make some effort to "play the part" rather than treating the character as nothing more than a construct of numbers and a game piece. They should be speaking as their character rather than saying "my character says . . ." and they should have the character act appropriately. A character who is a physical coward should be played as such.

4)Story, Not Plot: We all of us like a good, tight plot in a book or movie. It's essential there. But an RPG adventure or, even worse, an entire campaign should not belabour under any kind of plot. The substance of an adventure or campaign should never depend upon the PC's going directly from point A to B to C with no deviation. However, creating an adventure or campaign around a story, or potential story is fine. For example, the story of how the characters confronted the evil wizard lord of the tower might make a great adventure, but the minute that "scripted events" start appearing, something has gone wrong.

These are just preliminary items. There are more that are lurking about that just haven't been explicated yet.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Cord is Cut

The news is out all over the web. I'm not even going to bother linking to the actual news reports since, if you're actually reading this blog, you already know all about it, but I can't resist linking toJeff's Visceral Reaction to the whole thing. Johnny Cash says it well with only a gesture.

That said, I have to ask if anybody here actually doubted such an event would come to pass eventually? At some point, a beancounter at Hasbro and WOTC would have to look out and notice that people were still buying copies of older editions and not trying out the newest flavor and they would come to the conclusion that anybody not buying the newest version of D&D would be bad for business.

Of course, we can all rant and rave about how horrible a decision this is, how WOTC is, basically, throwing out money and locking out people who were willing to throw them a few bucks now and then for some products in favor of grabbing the teens and tweens with mommy's credit card and getting X% new subscriptions the DDI (or whatever they call that trash now) and Hasbro's latest vaporware product (I refuse, now, to pay for something that I cannot hold in my hands). We'd be right, at least in part, that WOTC is trying to drown out the presence of people who play a game that is not beholden to the corporate masters in Washington state and try to present 4ed as the only D&D, at least right up until 5th edition comes out, and then 4ed players will be dropped like a great big pile of stink (at which point I will have myself a great big laugh again at the wailing and the gnashing of teeth that goes on).

Or, we could look at this as an opportunity. This is the point where those who have in the past and will continue to resist "upgrading" to 4ed will look for new material in their particular idiom. Those who are looking for AD&D material, or BECMI and 0e material, are going to start looking around and eventually, those who didn't already know about them, will find Labyrinth Lord and Swords and Wizardry and OSRIC and they're going to realize that they aren't left completely high and dry anymore.

This is the chance for this OSR to take the reigns and become more than just a bunch of neckbeards grumbling across the internet at each other and growling at the whipper snappers to get off their lawn. Now's the chance for this old school revival or rennaisance or whatever it is to actually take back control of their hobby, or at least their corner of it, and start inviting people in rather than mumbling about how those young kids "aren't doing it right" and mumbling about what should be "orthodox old school" or even if there should be an orthodox.

Old School gaming now should be about inclusiveness, not exclusiveness. The movement should be extending the hand often and repeatedly to those who are becoming dissillusioned with the corporate model of D&D and show them that there's another way.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Heartwood Staff

The origin of this item is completely unknown. It is speculated by the more poetic of sages that it may have come into existence concurrently with Thylia (the world) itself, or may have even been used to create the world through some unknown power. Such speculation, however, is mere flight of fancy as those who know more about it than mere heresay, the druids, guard its secrets assiduously.

The staff is approximately the size of a standard quarterstaff and appears unadorned and unremarkable. It has been rumored that some of the greatest events of history have been precipitated by the staff being carried by an individual who simply did not know what he held in his hand. A detect magic spell will not reveal any magical dweomer, nor will an identify spell yield any usefull information. Legend Lore, on the other hand, may provide some leads for further investigation.

The primary powers of the staff are as follows:

1) The current custodian of the staff functions as if he were a 5th level druid. However, during such time, he must abide by the restrictions of the druidic faith or all such power is lost. One who is already a druid functions as if he were two levels higher.

2)At any time, the staff can provide the function of a Combine spell functioning for any druid or sympathetic creature touching the staff. The duration of this effect is limited only to however long each creature in the effect remains in contact with the staff and can be initiated with one round's concentration.

3) Thrice per day, the staff can be called upon to create the effects of the Weather Control and Plant Growth spells at 20th level effect with area of effect centered upon the staff and its custodian.

4) Once per week, the staff can summon a Nature Elemental (see Monstrous Manual Annual Compendium volume IV for details). The elemental will set about returning the surrounding 1 mile of terrain to a completely natural state, removing all traces of civilization for 24 hours. This power involves the completion of a 1 hour ceremony on the part of the custodian.

5) Once per century, the staff may be used to initiate a major climatological or ecological shift of staggering proportion upon Thylia. For example, a vast desert can be made to bloom and be verdant as a jungle - permanently or until the staff is used to restore the original state. Such use, though, causes an equal and opposite reaction elsewhere in the world (GM determination). The change is not instantaneous, but may take the entire thousand years to complete. Use of this power subjects the custodian immediately to artifact transformation per below. Use of this power requires an 8 hours ceremony and must involve the entirety of a druidic circle of no less than 10 individuals.

Minor powers (see Book of Artifacts or AD&D 1e DMG):
4 x I
2 x II
3 x IV

Curse/Artifact Transformation: There are two modes of transformation. First, upon using any of the primary powers, the custodian must make a save vs. paralyzation or immediately renounce his current occupation, change alignment to True Neutral, and seek out training as a Druid (any PC becomes an NPC for this purpose as the character is no longer under his player's control, but that of the staff itself).

The use of the 5th primary power invokes a 2nd transformation, this one automatic. Upon successful completion of the ceremony and the inauguration of the desired change, the custodian is immediately subsumed by the staff and absorbed entirely to reside within it forever.

If the staff should come into the hands of a non-druid and this becomes known to ANY druid, representatives of the order will arrive almost immediately and demand that it be turned over to them. Quick and polite compliance will earn the respect of the order, perhaps even a reward. Failure to comply will gain the party a very powerful enemy. Currently, the Shadow Circle (a covert sub-group of the Druidic Order who believe that civilization itself is a crime against the Balance) seek the staff for their own agenda. They will stop at nothing to acquire it and, in their eyes, use it to restore the Balance.

Rune Magic

This is something I've been rolling around in my head for the last two weeks. It's basically an alpha draft of runic magic based, in part, on Supplement III psionics somewhat, the runes from the Viking 2e sourcebook, and little bits from the depths of my disturbed and addled psyche. If this makes no sense at all to you guys, then don't worry, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me either. I've not decided whether or not I want to actually pursue this line of thinking, or if I want to simply abandon it as a half-baked brain fart and abstract the entire thing.

Just a note: any numbers here are largely based on AD&D 2e, though they'll fit fine in 1e or OSRIC without any trouble. Labyrinth Lord or Swords and Wizardry would require a bit of fiddling, or simply a new chart to be put together. A project for a different day perhaps.

Also be warned that I'm typing this up from the office from notes scribbled on napkins from the Black Barn Restaurant in NJ where this lunatic idea hit me over a bowel of good chili, so don't expect any real coherence here in terms of mechanics.

Introduction: Runes are an ancient and powerful form of magic originating, according to various scholars and sages, with the Mound People. Others claim that the Dwarves created this form of magic due to apparent similarities to their current written language. Just as many theories point to the ancient and lost empire of the elves and still more point to some strange and horrifying origin from the darkness before the world. The truth is, nobody currently living and willing to speak on the topic knows the origin of this form of magic.

Runes are an ideographic form of magic rather than the phonetic magical languages: i.e., one rune represents an entire word or concept rather than just a sound. One rune carries all the power of the idea behind it. Thus, a rune of Death is more than just the runic word for that concept, but carries with it all the attendant baggage that philosophers have written libraries of books about. They are complicated and difficult to learn and, according to some, impossible to master.

Learning a Rune:In order to learn a rune, a source of information must first be found. Preferably, this will be a person already accomplished in runic magic who can pass on the secrets of that particular ideogram personally, though it is possible to learn from a text or by spending a good deal of time researching an example of a complete rune (such research would most certainly be time consuming and possibly expensive, most certainly hazardous). Even with proper instruction, the learning process is far from certain. The time required to learn a rune is equal to 20 days less the average of the character's WIS and INT. These days must be spent in at least 8 consecutive hours of study. Significant interruption will require the learner to start again. If the character only has a text as his source material, the time is 30 days less the average of WIS and INT. Researching a rune without any assistance is a process goverened entirely by the DM.

At the end of this time period, the character will again take the average of his Intelligence and Wisdom. He must then roll 3d6 with a result equal to or less than his averaged mental attributes to successfully learn the power of that particular rune. Rolling above this number results in failure and the character may not try again to learn this particular rune.

A character of any race or class can attempt to learn a rune, though most frequent users are Humans, Dwarves, Fighters, Druids, and Mages. Clerics tend to eschew runes as they gain their power from a higher, purer source. Elves, on the other hand, have no particular incapability of using runes, but find them abhorent for some unspoken reason and will not willingly make use of them and may even drive away obvious users of runes.

Ok, here's where things get a little hairy in my brain.

Creation and Activation of Runes: To use a rune, a character must carve it. It cannot be written in ink upon a page, traced in the air or sand, or spoken as if it were a simple spell. This magic is deeper and older than such ephemeral cantrips. No, a rune must be carved into at least a semi-permanent medium such as stone, wood, metal, or other similar objects. It is not unheard of for some barbaric cultures to carve runes upon their own flesh. The carving process requires a successful Wisdom check.* A failure indicates an error has been made during the carving.

The activation of a rune requires blood: at least 4hp worth. A character on their own can easily open a sufficient wound in his own body, or the body of a willing volunteer. The blood of an unwilling "volunteer" must be obtained in the usual manner. The blood is smeared over the rune, upon which its power activates and remains active for a short time per the description of the individual runes. A character may activate more than one rune at a time, but doing so requires that he succeed at a Constitution check at -1 for each rune after the first. Thus, activating two runes requires a CON check at -1 while three runes requires a check at CON-2. This check applies even if the blood used to activate the runes is not that of the activating character.

Iron Will Not Bite: This rune is most often used by warriors and those in combat. Upon activation, it will reduce all damage done to the character by iron or steel weapons by 1 point per die. This includes magical weapons, but not any weapon made of stone or wood or without a significant steel component. Typically, such a rune is carved upon armor, a helm, or a pendant. This is the most rune most commonly carved upon flesh in such instances. It cannot be carved upon a weapon or other object, but must be placed upon an item that will enclose, encircle, or otherwise indicate the object or individual to be so protected. Duration is a number of rounds equal to the number of hp worth of blood used to activate it (minimum 4).

Death Oracle: Use of this rune permits the user to contact the spirits of the dead and gain truthful answers to his questions. Activation requires a minimum of 4 hp worth of blood and an additional 1 hp for every 5 years the creature has been dead. Thus, a creature dead only a few days is easy to contact while someone dead for centuries may be impossible to contact without the sacrifice of several living beings. Persons contacted by these means will communicate in their own language and will be compelled to speak truthfully, though nothing prevents them from twisting or misrepresenting facts as long as what they say is factually correct. This rune will remain active for approximately 10 minutes.

I'm not at all happy with the last half of this. It seems . . . cobbled together and half-assed, but such is the way of things when trying to move beyond Vancian casting at times.


*I had thought about throwing in a proficiency called "runecraft" or some such thing, but then I realized that only about 1% of the gaming world would continue reading past the mention of such a thing. So . . .

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Grognard on Grognard Action!

As Noisms put it, "the wailing and gnashing of teeth" has begun at, among other places, LotFP and Lord of the Green Dragons.

Whatever the hell about, it's honestly hard to tell, but it looks like an Old School internecine edition war. So now, not only do we have "Grognards," "3Etards," and "4rons," we must further divide up that first group into whomever sucks at the teat of which clone or even those who refuse the concept of clones in and of themselves and adhere to their moldering copies of Whitebox edition or BECMI or whatever.

And all I can do is laugh.

In all honesty, who the fuck cares whether an old school product says "compatible with D&D" or "compatible with [insert clone of choice here]" or "compatible with whatever the hell game you play"? In the first place, Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry are only a hop, skip, and a fart away from each other. Osric is just round the corner. Hackmaster ain't far behind, and whatever else game you play probably doesn't need a whole lot of effort before that module or supplement or whatever it is works for you, or at least gives you enough ideas to run off and do it yourself, which would be the point in the first place right?

The Old School movement is not system specific. If anything, it has been largely defined, in my view, by what it is not, and what it is not is "not New School." Not about super powers in the Middle Ages. Not about story driven "campaigns." Not about feats, skill points, or daily/per-battle/at-will powers. Not about WOTC's new thrust. That was the greatest strength of the Old School: the realization that whatever system you use was, for the most part, wildly unimportant, it's what you did with it. It was about not settling for pre-processed mass produced pap! And so now we're starting arguments about what should be the standardized system of publishing for the OSR?

Or is this little tempest in the teapot just an argument for the sake of argument?

Oh, and as an aside, "I play D&D" means just what it did 30 years ago. Those of the Old School should recognize more than most that the "common baseline" is largely illusory as the differences between one table and the next are vast enough to make "I play D&D" largely meaningless. It has little to do with what flavor is current today, though yes, most often it will be interpreted as referring to the most recent supported edition excreted by the coastal wizards.

With all due respect to the Old School: stick your shibboleths where your pride goes and remember what's important about this game and this Renaissance.

And you probably won't see a 2ed clone. We don't need one since pretty much every other edition hates us on principle.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hackmaster Isn't D&D

Well, first off, I'm going to apologize for this entire article. It is being written while under the influence of about half a dozen over the counter cold and allergy medications and if, at some points, it descends into incomprehensibility more than my usual, well, that is the reason. Mainlining a Benedryl and Claratin cocktail is, upon reconsideration of the act, a bad idea.

I've been thinking a lot, recently, about Hackmaster, especially in light of their upcoming 5th edition. OK, not really a 5th edition at all, but that's what it's colloquially known as other than Hackmaster Basic (HMB), and the conclusion that I came to is that Hackmaster just isn't D&D. Now, a lot of people are going to shout at me and say, rightly, "well no shit, you idiot, of course it isn't D&D!" but I think that a lot of people seem to forget that in some ways. There are so many who, in my experience, seem to look at Hackmaster 4e (i.e., the first edition of Hackmaster to actually hit shelves and not just be a joke in the comic book) as the continuation of the grand tradition of AD&D, and in one sense it really is: hell, its skeleton practically is AD&D.

The thing is, though, that in the translation between the two, it feels like it's lost something. I'm not talking about the addition of parody leading to what can be a less than serious game from time to time. After all, some of the greatest game sessions I've ever been in have devolved into a massive case of the giggles between half a dozen people when somebody actually suggests, with a straight face, trying to trick the warren of wererats by donning fake ears and noses. D&D at its heart revels in good (and bad) humor.

No, I think that what it's lost between 4e and 1e (and especially 2e and 0e) is simplicity and clarity. Hackmaster, in attempting to replicate the High Gygaxian prose of the AD&D books and inject a little extra comedic flair (partially because of intent, and partially because of directive from the evil coastal wizards) and the somewhat arcane presentation, a level of obfuscation and overt intricacy of the rules that, in my mind, detracts from the game on a certain level. I'll single out the skill rules and doubly so the training and advancement rules. I consider myself an educated, informed, and relatively intelligent man, but trying to understand those particular rules creates the same feeling as listening to somebody try to explain the rules of cricket to me: an overwhelming urge to hit somebody with a baseball bat.

Yes, yes, I know I just too recently talked about how I was ok with the whole proficiency system in 2nd edition, a system that drives so many grognards and old schoolers to distraction, but let's get real here, yeah? The proficiency system is a coating of whitewash to gussy up a fence; the Hackmaster skill system is Escher and the training system is Escher on crack. That is, to me, the allure of 2nd edition, that it seemed to restore a lot of the open simplicity of 0ed, but kept on a lot of the additions that I loved from AD&D. It stripped out the High Gygaxian which, though very entertaining to read, was inhibiting when it came to quick comprehension (hardly a drawback some would argue).

All that said, though, I still enjoy playing Hackmaster and would love to get a game of it together at some point. However, it loses or abandons the absolute core of what D&D is in my mind: pure simplicity of rule sets that are open enough for individualization and creation. Hackmaster is just too arcane (intentionally so) and too obtuse for me to confidently screw around with to the extent that I would want. It does have a number of things in it that I'd love to import to 2nd edition (varied AC per shield size for example) but for the most part, it's a different game.

It will be very interesting, though, to see what is made of Hackmaster Basic when it comes out. For those of you who don't know this already, Kenzer has released an excellent little preview in their most recent issue of Hackjournal, specifically a preview of the Mage class and a long list of Q&A answered by none other than Dave Kenzer himself. The class looks promising, to me. Clearly worded and with less obtrusive Gary Speak, but retaining the fondness for complication of its predecessor. For $3, it's definatelly worth the price of the PDF, plus it comes with a few excellent little magic items including the Chainmail Bikini of Strangulation and the Bag of Holding: Spectral Varient.