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.