Friday, October 28, 2011

By This Axe I Rule

I may have throttled back on blog posting frequency this month, but in other writing arenas I have been picking up momentum. One big fat black marker scratch off of the to-do list was finishing up the fantasy supplement and revision of my old set of medieval battle miniatures rules: Swords & Shields.

The new rules—rechristened in suitably bombastic glory as By This Axe I Rule--are intended to be compatible with classical D&D and their attendant clones and spin-offs. Simple conversion rules allow you to port PCs, NPCs, and beastly critters from your campaign right onto the battlefield. Currently they support play at two different levels: skirmish/small battle (1 figure representing five warriors) or mid-sized battle (1:20). 

If you like pushing lead around a table and are interested in some playtesting mayhem, drop me a line at kutalik at gmail the mail dot com and I will hook you up with the PDF.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cosmic Secrets of the Hill Cantons Revealed

This will only make sense if you have read yesterday's post about campaign artifacts—and even then it may be a stretch. 

As always you must click to receive the embiggenation. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Campaign Artifacts of the Weird

It's a given that long-running campaigns accumulate equally long paper trails. Perhaps less given, but likely frequent, is that collection entails more than just the run-of-the-mill mundane paperwork.

After a while the burgeoning horde of maps, adventure site write-ups, character sheets, tallies of ill-begotten loot, and the like starts to increasingly share dusty cabinet space with the eccentric flotsam and jetsom of creative gaming.

If you are long-suffering GM-type you likely know what I am talking about.

At the tame end are the simple visual aids. A picture yanked from the Internet representing a tapestry or a mudbrick fortress that the characters are seeing. Some props start to work themselves up the strange and obsessional meter—here an old rusty lock to be used in a lockpick challenge or there a bright-painted Oaxacan folk mask.

Put in decades to a single world and you might make up to the masters level. Just remember that magnificent treasure horde of M.A.R. Barker's collection being busily—and lovingly--filed away up in Minnesota.

With three years in the Hill Cantons I am nowhere near that level of things sadly, but sorting though the rather over-packed desk drawer containing my GM material yesterday I was amazed by the strange diversity of stuff. Most of it is in the form of spiral notebooks. Some of these are reasonably sensible brainstorm notebooks, others...others are just a little more odd. 

My favorite are the ones from my sketch book, they usually start as doodles more often than not on anyone of the interminable conference calls that make up my day job (your union dues at work).

Occasionally, one actually makes the cut and turns up at the table as a goofy player's map or a cross-section of a place of interest. Sometimes they are purely for my creative jollies, but more often they are the raw fuel or cosmic unconsciousness of a world in creation from the bottom up. (Nine times out of ten a setting detail extemporized and/or co-created with the players at the table.)

I will stop writing and just show a few to give you an idea.

This would be a symbolic map of the insular border town of Marlankh, home base of the San Antonio HC crew. Any resemblance to places both fictional and not is purely coincidental.

Now here's the Big One, the cosmology of the “Over Hill Cantons”. (Click to embiggen for detail.)

On the back was this hastily-scrawled post-session bullet point jam:
The Supernal Orthodox Temple of the Puissant Sun Lord
  • Chariot of the Heavens and the Dome of the Sky [see illustration]
  • Godhead of 313 “Rays” (former deities)
  • Divided into 31 Houses of Orthodoxy over seemingly absurd doctrinal differences (whether sign of the sun is clockwise or counter, how many fingers used, the number of wheels on the Sun Chariot, etc.)
The Celestial Lady
At least three secret societies: Evening Star, Morning Star, and the Starry Void.

Old Gods
At least five gods: The White God, Wodan, Svat the Four-Faced, Radegast the Host, the World Turtle.

All I can say is I hope that if I die suddenly that no one paws through all the stuff. “He seemed like such a nice and polite man.”

Now it's your turn, show and tell time. What weird wonders lurk in your cabinet?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Open-Handed Design and the Stormbringer Hack

All sorcery in old school Stormbringer, is "third-party sorcery." Unlike in most fantasy games where magic flows directly from the caster tapping whatever it is that makes it flash, boom, rah, in that old BRP warhorse all magic--even that of items--comes from the summoning and/or binding of otherwordly agents (elementals, demons, beast lords, gods, etc.) rather than from the sorcerer directly.

By any measure it's a fun and satisfying system. I enjoy its unique and highly flavorful feel and it manages to pack a good number of quirky, granular bits (such as the distinctions between the varied types of demons) around fairly easy-to-grasp mechanics. It also models well how most sorcery works in the Elric books.

When pawing though those books again recently, though, I found there a number of scattered cases where sorcerers are in fact seeming to use directly-channeled magic. Not being a hardcore simulationist (a literalist?) this in itself wouldn't elicit a hoot from me—faithful literary emulation is a lost and foolish cause in any roleplaying game worth playing, really--but I've been toying around with wanting to add a limited range of lower-powered magic into the Stormbringer/Domain Game II hack madness for a good solid week now.

So come the third mention of anomalous spellcasting--Earl Saxif D'Aan in this case giving our favorite pale angster a quick mindscan—all I could see instead of text was a big green light slowly flashing tinker, tinker, tinker.

In keeping with the open-handed design philosophy I was yammering on about the other day, I'm going to “let it all hang” and post the kind of brainstorm checklist of goals I typically hash through before throwing out the variant system itself. (Feel free to skip the section if this is too “meta” for your tastes.)

What I Want:
1. A simple and easy magic system with a small amount of starting options, but expandable with player-driven spell research.

2. Should match enough old school contours to be familiar without just being a direct and dull D&D rehash. It also needs to match the sorcery ranks and level progression of the hack (and can thus play right back into the D&D-based domain-play rules).

3. A system with a relatively easy entry requirements by characters than the all-powerful sorcerer of SB (in which a character had to have a combined INT and POW of 32 with a minimum of 16 INT—and then gave out very high powered abilities). The intention is to flatten out the distinction between sorcerers and the non-spellcasting 99%--without ditching too much of the beautiful lack of balance in character types the game is famous for.

4. While the attribute rung is lower, we also still want to keep the relatively low-magic feel of the original (as opposed to say Runequest where nearly all sentient creatures have access to battle magic). So we build in some limitations: training time and requirements one hand and a one-time sacrifice of POW a la the rune magic of RQ.

5. We want something that models the limited direct magic of the Elric books (and other dark S&S in the genre). Most of these powers seem to be of a divination or psionic-like sort. The psychically-based magic of the Petal Throne would seem to fit this so we'll adapt some similarly-themed spells to fit around this.

“Wizardry” Variant Magic for Stormbringer
  • All characters with a combined POW and INT of 28 are allowed to cast this kind of magic.
  • Players may choose to have characters who qualify be pre-trained in “wizardry”. Add three years (without skill increases) to their age.
  • Characters who qualify through game play must be trained in the arcane arts before they can begin to employ magic. Training must happen under the tutelage of a third rank wizard or over and is 30 months minus INT in length.
  • To gain spells the character must: 1. permanently sacrifice on a one-time the specified amount of POW; 2. qualify to use the spell's rank (same rank per level as sorcerer); and 3. have access to appropriate and/or artifacts at the GM's discretion.
  • Spells can only be used twice before needing to be recharged with eight hours of rest and meditation.
  • Spells cannot be cast or maintained if the wizard is wearing armor bulkier than leather.
  • Players are encouraged to design spells of their own at the GM's discretion.

Spell Examples:
1st Rank Spells
Produce one small globe of light (40 foot radiance) for 1 hour per level of caster.
Control of Body
Total control over body (breath, heart beat, grip etc) for 10 minutes per level of the caster.
Can see through walls and other obstructions up to 50 feet from caster for 10 minutes times the caster's level.
Objects within site-distance of the caster may be moved up to 50 feet. Object can weigh no more than one ounce per level of the caster.
Cure Wounds
Cure 1d6 hit points damage. Also stops fatal major or critical wounds from bleeding out.
Comprehend Language
Can read/write/speak any language for 5 minutes duration per caster level.

Editor's Note: It might not be clear in the post this system would be a second, lower variety of magic that bolster rather than supplant the main system's third-party sorcery.]

Friday, October 21, 2011

Occupy Greyhawk

“The oppressed folk will most certainly attempt an uprising once every five years, minimum. If there is weakness noted, there will be an uprising immediately. Peasants will demand more freedom, rights, and lesser taxes; serfs will be attempting to gain peasant status; slaves will simply desire to slay their former masters and escape to somewhere where they can be free.”
-Dungeon Master's Guide (first ed.)

1986 was a tipping point in my gaming life. The trickle of pop-edged punk rawk LPs I had been listening to the year before gave way to a steady stream of faster, louder, and angrier mid-80s hardcore singles. Within a few month's time Black Flag will have completely edged out Blackmoor and Minor Threat the world-shattering threats of drow and other critters.

But in that last year before the big break I was still playing rpgs strong. In fact the AD&D that I had largely replaced with a succession of short-lived Traveller, Runequest, Gamma World, and Justice Inc. campaigns had even been reinstated.

That escapism didn't escape the larger personal sea change. The anger welling up in me about being stuck in bible-thumpin' redneck suburbia bled over into the campaign in a way about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Sure I picked back up that old familiar ratty Greyhawk folio again, but somehow gameplay that year was painted with much darker, edgier, and more sinister colors.

Take the Archclericy of Veluna, that saintly land of law and good, shield from the excesses of the demon-led hordes to the North and the Elemental Evil enemies within. For years it had been a bland, feel-good place to stock up between forays and maybe collect a heaping pile of reward money or two.

In 1986 though Veluna was a dreary oppressive place ruled by a newly-installed theocrat, a secret sadist and lover of a (well-spelled out) laundry list of hypocritical luxuries. A host of escalating cruelties and injustices were fostered on the suffering populace—and I made sure to goad the players at every opportunity with the same lot.

Bored with dungeons, I wanted them to wrap themselves into the mantles of village rabble-rousers. After having obnoxious, southern-drawling town guards confiscate their last loot haul—and a finger from one of the party thieves—they were full-bore jumping on to the tracks of that railroad.

Despite all that anarchic teen rebellion welling up in me, I still had at least one foot stuck in the nerdy “simulationism” of my early teens. I started working on the exact amount of forces based on squeezing whatever I could out of listed population figures and extrapolating from the rest of that great section from the DMG:
“The oppressed populace will give rise to about 1 fighter for every 5 total, as men, women, and just about anybody able to carry a club or a knife will join in. Arms and armor (if any) will be scant and crude. Troops will be 0 level, peasant class. Tactical ability will usually tend to be nil. The exception is if some mercenary group aids peasants, or if some slaves have had military experience.”
I struggle to recall in full detail the exact events, but I remember them whipping up one small village, marching on the local baron's castle, getting whipped, and then them retreating for a while into a long Robin Hood-like guerrilla campaign (surround the cities).

Though I had twisted their arms to get into this path—I also remember letting them go hog-wild in open-ended play after leaving the chute. There was stealing of griffons and raids into the S&M dungeons under the Archbishop's palace, there was using a rock to mud spell on a bridge as the theocrat's knights came charging across. There were skirmishes, big battles and mad capers.

I drifted out of gaming before we clinched the climax. There was no player-led, pitchfork-and-torch mob marching triumphantly down the main boulevard of Veluna City. And I blanch now at my own heavy-handedness: both in the heavy layering of my own political/personal issues into the campaign and the hard pushing of the players down a campaign vector that was all mine.

But damn was it satisfying.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Shaggy Dogs, Whirly Bits, and Motley Crews of Nowhere

Though the starting roster almost ran like the set-up for a Swords & Sorcery-inflected shaggy dog joke—a sailor, beggar, and nomad walk into a black lotus powder den--Domain Game II jumped off to a rollicking start in its ether confines Tuesday.

The last session was, as expected, a fairly conventional business. The newly-installed player-lording, Duke Mraz, and his motley retinue sized up the threats and hooks surrounding the lonely exclave of a fiefdom, 20 miles from the rest of the Colony and a dimension away from Elsewhere.

 Then as promptly they rode off to stick it to the white ape menace haunting the forest to the South. Much clacking of funny dice, mayhem and in-joking was made in the process.

The campaign as conceived is imagined as running on at least two planes. The first is that more familiar one of the adventuring party and it's non-linear exploration of the wilds. The terrain here is fairly standard (at least by the standards of the strange mixed other-worldliness of Nowhere), the player risks and rewards are fairly standard fare.

The hex map (the visible part being a tiny sliver of the humongous one I developed with Hexographer for Domain Game I) is littered with “experience point hoards” (thanks Roger for the term): sites of interest that pay out exp awards that vary according to danger, significance and difficulty in reaching from civilization. You explore, you deal with danger, you get the payout.

So far so good.

Over the next few sessions though by degrees—and player-driven inclination—the campaign's other more experimental hand will start to be seen. There are layers of mystery and environmental, arcane, and social factors at work that need bigger solutions—and broader play areas and tools.

Though I want to keep some of the cards close to my chest until we get there, I have fairly warned the players that while they are free to set the tempo, scope, and direction of their explorations that behind the sandbox is a highly active—and dangerous—set of “whirly bits.”

By “whirly bits” I mean the large array of external and internal forces that all have goals, plans, machinations, and dynamics of their own. And if that isn't bad Nowhere itself is a menace. Survival is more than just getting by with some hit points to spare, it's about having your little corner of civilization make it through another winter—let alone thrive.

But enough of that theorizing, let's go back to that motley roster as the first part of my reportback on the game's progress.
Holdfort on the Borderlands
Domain Game II Roster to date:
Duke Mraz (Jeremy D). In the Colony it's considered bad form to ask what circumstances led to a person's exiles, though some of the more loose-tongued courtesans of the Jade Quarter gossip that it had something to do with the popular movement that occupied the Walled Boulevard, a fortified arcade of money-changers in Haupt, last year. 

Whatever the circumstances the Duke--who's title is purely perfunctory and ceremonial now--has ridden down to his holdfort with his rag tag retinue to take up the lonely role of border satrap.

Zeph Buckthorn (Paul V). Zeph was born a body-slave to the inquisitrix Yantok in the Cities of Pain—soon to be a death metal band near you--but was happily press-ganged into service aboard an old cog from Athmyr called the Sea-Buckthorn. When she was sunk by pirates, he took the ship's name (modified slightly) as his own. Washed ashore and destitute, he joined a caravan to Nowhere.

Jathur (Peter R). An olive-skinned nomad of the aptly-named Desolate Isles, Jathur is a tough, quick warrior type with a mean mother of a greatsword and bone bow. He has distinguished himself in the retinue in the main by being the one on the receiving end of each and every combat encounter. He is rumored to have his eye set on the two comely twin acolytes in the fief-village, Fakyr.

Johan the Able, Master of the Five Winds, Sheikh of the Sighing Steppes (Brad). Hailing from the unremitting misery of life in the Sighing Steppes, the newly-installed Beggarmaster of the Southlands Satrapy (membership total: 2) is a master among...well...beggars. Despite his lack of a right eye and unsightly boils, he rose to the service of the Duke by deftly (and luckily) taking down a menacing sabre-cat.

PCs Waiting in the Wings:
Zibran the Calm (Barry B.). A priest of Thakan the Bloody Sun of Nuk-Mir, a warlike deity who requires blood to fuel the sun, preferably that of might warriors defeated in battle, but any schmuck will do in a pinch. Zibran's first task in this new land is to make converts and/or capture slaves and get himself a sacrificial altar built as fast as possible before the sun goes out.

NPC retinue:
Fahzul the Steward. Silver-masked eunuch-official from Lyk Kut'ah. Ass-kisser to all above his station, bully to underlings. Competent administrator. Likely a spy for the High Satrap. Obsequiousness skill of 90%.

Ofamm the Overseer. A rolly-polly middle-aged big-hearted, permissive sort. The estate's thralls love him and will even appear to work hard when he is around.

Barghun the Reeve. Steely-eyed hunter, hayseed and local enforcer of the laws. Leads a group of 14 hunter, part-time rangers (two are in service at any given time) and has been in Nowhere since Year Zero.

Seven white-ape hatin' mercenaries: Survivors of the Two-Tailed Banner of the Vermillion Tarns, a disbanded mercenary warband that backed the wrong horse in the internecine domestic warfare of noble life back in Elsewhere. Roused by the stirring oratory of Zeph, who they now worship and adore, they are ready to “give it to” the white ape menace.

Eight household thralls: 3 adult men, 5 adult women (with four free-born children). Strangely they have no faces or noticeable personalities of their own.

Other local notables:
Ehroon. A priest of the Elder Elemental Temple of the Ever-Unfulfillable Flame and his two comely acolytes: Lefa and Mussa.
Y'roon. a crazy old witch/herbalist
Xes Mahour. An eccentric sculptor and shaper of earth mounds
Steelpike. A grizzled, deaf-mute veteran

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Rough Guide to Nowhere

Tonight in the Google+ pocket universe we'll be kicking off the first session of Domain Game II, hand-powered by the increasingly wild and wooly Stormbringer hack. Group Two will be taking their own stab at lordship on October 30th. (One seat still open in each group.)

Domain Game I's foray into the brave new world of Nowhere was shrouded with a dense fog of war. The 15+ players only knew the situations of the other expeditions when they stumbled into them and forged diplomatic channels. Even then there was a fair amount of duplicity and hand-hiding (right James?).

It was immensely fun, but also incredibly difficult to maintain. Essentially, I was running multiple, simultaneous, but related campaigns—all mediated through a small mountain of paperwork (over 300 pages, by the time it just slowly slumped).And worst of all, because of that fog, I couldn't lift the window too much and share all that beautiful madness with readers of the blog.

Fortunately for lazy me, Domain Game II is much closer to the traditional play group. There will be off-season play that will be secret and individualized, but the central play arena will be a “face-to-face” with a somewhat traditional party structure.

A sneaky, shifty, look-at-the-hand-holding-the-keys emphasis on that somewhat. Technically, the face-to-face will be video-conferenced. There will also be some serious curveballs and twists: an asymmetrical array of some playing lordly characters and others playing their hanger-no's. And only like the open books of other games, some players may not be who the rest of the party thinks they are...

Not having the same limitations on reportage, readers will start to be able to check out what's happening with this experiment. Which I am duly going to start today with the first installment of the Rough Guide to Nowhere, the background material and running notes that players will have in their hot little hands (the longer, more detailed version can be downloaded in PDF form here if you are interested) .

Map of Known Lands in Nowhere

Places of Note, Installment I

“The Gate Between the Worlds” (Hex 65.62)
Mysterious black obelisksseem to be spread throughout the landscape of Nowhere. This is the only one accessible to date by the Colony, the gate leads back across the dimensional void to a remote forested area in Elsewhere (50 miles distant from closet town). Tightly-regulated, closely-supervised caravans wind their way through the gate twice a month.

Lyk Ku'tah (Hex 65.61)
The preeminent...well, the and administrative center of the Colony. Close to 3,000 residents are packed into a circular crude but stone-walled and double-trenched townsite.

The High Satrapy's silver-masked eunuch-officials, bureaucrats, courtesans, popinjays, and small horde of hanger-ons and slaves manage to cling to an unusually high level of decadent (if insular and provincial) civilized luxury in the Jade Quarter.

Recent buzz in the quarter's high circles centers on leaked news from Elsewhere that transparent, orange-hued wrap-around sarongs have seemed to push out last season's more somber fashions. Gauze is indeed the new Black Toga.

Black Ziggurat (Hex 55.66)
Scouts report a massive, multi-tiered, dull-black pyramid in the ash-choked burned out southwestern verges of the Colony. Attempts to penetrate the mysteries inside have been reputedly met with quick, ignominious death. One brain-addled, burn-scarred survivor spins wild tales of brass-sided urns filled to the brim with luminescent opals and hollow-tooted demonic guardians .

But then don't all sole survivors go on in such an unbecoming manner? Really now, it's hard to find good explorer help these days. Another pinch of black lotus powder?

Ash Wastes
A burned out wasteland stretches off to the west. Grey ash piles up like snowdrifts around rows of jagged-toothed trunks. The wastes are broken up every few miles by great crude stone-blocked ruins of villages and what look to be ceremonial spaces. The Colony has had a hit-and-go running war with hooded Serpetmen bands that haunt the western portions of this area (Hex 53.65 and surrounding).

The Pasturelands (Hex 63.65 and surrounding grassland hexes)
This is a grasslands, savanna-like area thick with game especially near deep naturally occurring cenotes (sinkholes).  There is an other-worldly, mixed-matched strangeness to the local ecosystem. A number of the species seem unsettingly divergent from each other: a six-legged furry mammalian-looking herd animal here; an exotic vermillion-streaked, many eye-stalked frog beast there.

Forest of Whispers
The Colony's is bordered to the south by a thick band of mixed wood forest. In the deep, eerily quiet reaches of this forest there are dense groves of ebon black-trunked trees--some rising tall and straight over 200 feet. The deep groves are surrounded by gentle rolling ridges with broad-leafed hardwood trees that give off enormous, sweet-meated nuts the size of a child's fist.

Ferocious warbands of white-furred apes haunt these woods and make terror-producing raids every High Summer all along the southern reaches of the Colony. Nothing is known of the fates of the children carried away by the brutes.

Crater and Dome (Hex 65.68)
A recent punitive raid on a White Ape war-camp by the outgoing Southland Satrap revealed a massive crater near the banks of the river here. Even more mysterious was the gold-domed edifice at its center surrounded by a circle of fine, dark gray gravel. The dome reportedly seemed to shimmer and be almost translucent in the glare of the noon-day sun.

The party walked the perimeter of the dome and found a small metal door with a bronze-looking circular value. The space beyond was a large open space (as wide as the dome), with a smooth-bored shaft leading precipitously down, down, down. How deep remains a mystery as the first party's lacked sufficient rope to descend.

Southlands Satrapy (Hex 68.65 and 69.64)
Player starting area, a small border fiefdom ruled by that cruel, young overlord, Jeremy D. (or some other player-tyrant).

The fief's total area is 48 square miles of coastal prairie land. There are currently a mere 10 square miles of the fief under cultivation running in a roughly quarter-mile wide band along the northern banks of the narrow, shallow (and still unnamed) river that marks the southern boundary of the colony in general.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dumping the Black Box of Roleplaying Game Design

Flip to the back page of a set of a hex-and-counter wargame circa 1979 and you'd more often than not see a dense little section titled “designer's notes.” Though most of these rulebooks—especially those of the big name companies like SPI and Avalon Hill--were often the polar opposites in tone from the heavy writer's voice I was lauding the other day in their rpg contemporaries, this was the section that game designer cut loose from the opaque blandness of the preceding sections.

Here was suddenly the voice of the person behind the game, but most interesting of all here was the building of a case of how and why the game existed in the first place. Here was the defense of an abstraction—why the complex politics of a civil war were boiled down to a “political resource chart”--there a ranty polemic on how a competing game of the period got it wrong in its simulation.

Even as an (admittedly geeky, history-obsessed) kid in that day it was the section I often turned to first. It was the game designer talking to you directly as a critically-thinking peer, not just as a consumer of the game. There was a presumption that there was a hobby where game design was not only taken seriously by other professional designers, but by those playing it.

One of the interesting points that came up in the conversation about the disappearing act of the writer's voice here the other day was that there was a similar trend to hide that kind of direct talk in rpg games over time. (And when I say trend here let's be clear that I mean a tendency from a common occurrence to a less common one; I am not denying the reality that there are counter-tendencies in the smaller, limited pockets of indie and DIY hobbyist rpgs).

Telecanter nicely alluded to this in his comments:
“It's a small step from trying to hide the writer to trying to hide all thought behind the rules. But a writer presenting rules as covering all contingencies is at best being naive at worst disingenuous. I want to know what the tricky bits are, what trade offs were made, and if rule A doesn't work a possible B. I want to know what the goal of a particular subsystem was (maybe I can tinker to make it work better). These don't make the writer fallible in my eyes, but real.”
A dead-on observation because it's not just similar to the rollback on author's voice, it's likely related. Pulling out at random second-generation rpg rulebooks right now I am struck by how downright argumentative they seem at times.

Take this unflinching, highly-opinionated example, from Chivalry & Sorcery, second edition arguing why the game cleaves so close to a more-or-less historical model:
“The worlds of a C&S campaign are modelled upon a real culture—that of feudalism. We believe that it is necessary to provide a coherent world if fantasy roleplaying is to be a coherent activity...[Feudalism] also has the virtue of being a real way of life, existing for well over 1000 years in Europe...The feudal system was a working culture, and thus it can be used to very good effect as a model on which to base a fantasy role playing culture that will also work, often to the finest detail.”
The section goes on here for almost an entire page stating essentially that your campaign and other games totally fail unless they take a similar hardcore “simulationism.” Whatever you think about the merits of their passage, clearly they were not afraid of making cases with you the reader and hobbyist on why the chose to do things as they did. It essentially forces you to agree or disagree on a key issue motivating the game. (I so happen to be highly conflicted by that passage--which makes it all the more great as an example of something that inspires you to think.)

And it wasn't just the knock-offs making these arguments, it was the big-fish, who still had some heads at least in part in a free-flowing, thinking hobby culture. Take all those odd-seeming passages in the DMG, perversely arguing why you WON'T find rules for something. One of my favorites is an obvious answer to the in-roads of second-generation games like above:
“There is no random table for determination of a character's social status to be found here. That is because the inclusion of such a factor will either tell you little or nothing of useful nature, or it will abridge your freedom with respect to development of your campaign milieu. That is, if such a table tells you only a little so as not to force a social structure upon your campaign, the table can contain nothing of use. If it states rank, it presupposes you will, in fact, have such classes in your campaign when you might not desire them at all. There are dozens of possible government forms, each of which will have varying social classes, ranks, or castes. Which sort you choose for your milieu is strictly your own prerogative. While this game is loosely based on Feudal European technology, history and myth, it also contains elements from the Ancient Period, parts of more modern myth, and the mythos of many authors as well. Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European.”
Just wonderful. A hobbyist reader was expected to think and take a stand--in cases written right into the rulebooks themselves.

Somewhere down the line, that conversation began disappearing, along with the writer's voice. Readers and players of mainstream games became consumers of opaque finished products that rare demanded that they argue with them. That's a loss.

Let's here for reviving a counter-trend: a model that returns to revealing the mind and thoughts of game designers. Not just because it appeals to the intellectual curmudgeon in me, but because like Telecanter points out in the rest of his comment that such more direct designer-to-reader conversation would “push toward making our games more 'platformy'... ”

Because, damn it, we could use a sight more tinkerable platforms and a ton fewer “complete” black box games. We could use a correction.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Whatever Happened to the Writer's Voice in RPGs?

One of the greater joys of heavy-duty rpg tinkering is that I never seem to come away from doing it without learning something unexpected. In the last week of transplanting alien hybrid brains into a Stormbringer body—done and a total pleasure, thanks for asking—I felt like I left the project with a great deep appreciation for what into the host body.

I could probably write a string of (likely not-heavily) read posts about what rocked that old warhorse mechanically, but perhaps the strongest impression came from the least quantifiable one: how distinct and wonderful the writer's voice is in the rules sections. And when I mean the writer, my gut is guessing one of the two co-writers in particular, Ken St.Andre of Tunnels and Trolls fame.

What exactly makes for a strong authorial voice is a tough thing to pin down in a neat teachable bullet-pointed list. In truth, it's more like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: you know it when you read it.

It's the quirky phrased section on the binding of demons or what may lie behind a multi-dimensional gate. It's the explicit reveling in the asymmetry and fine distinction of the various starting backgrounds in the Young Kingdoms. 

It's the enemy of the bland and dry. It's the lack of fear of expressing a strong opinion. It's the reaching through the page to address you directly, and it transcends the relative strength or weakness of the rules mechanics themselves.

A number of other rulebooks of that time pop with similar distinctiveness: the baroque, wide-reaching descriptions--and snarky, sometimes defensive polemics--of Gygax in the first edition DMG; the gonzo kitchen-sink charm of Holmes in the first Basic iteration; the huffy calls to medieval fantasy realism in Chivalry & Sorcery; and the glowing recounting of Saturday Night Specials by Barker in Petal Throne.

Sadly as I thumb through rulebooks as early as 1981 voices that have become fainter and tamer over time. As much as I love me some retro-clone most have—somewhat by necessity—written out that voice. Sure we have nice, clean, accessible copies of those games, but I miss the voices of the original.

There has been some recent and welcome trend bucking fortunately. Chris Hogan's Warhammer hack, Small but Vicious Dog, one of the inspiration points for my hackery, leaps immediately to mind.

Take this description of Elves in the character races section:
All elves are metrosexual minstrels and archers who fly into fey rages when provoked. The elven ability to lose it in spectacularly violent fashion has been clocked at “Nought to Feanor in 4.2 seconds”. Most PC elves are filthy tree-hugging pseudo-Celtic Wood Elves, although the Sea Elves who hang out in coastal cities seem to be a kind of Elven gap year backpacker. No one’s quite sure what the mohawked, spandex-wearing paramilitary Riverdance troupe known as Wardancers are supposed to be, apart from FABULOUS!”
Attention neo-classical game designers—and I am putting myself on notice here too--you will have to find your own path to idiosyncratic glory like above; but please, please loosen the collar, stretch a bit, and just let it rip. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Generating a Swords & Sorcery Land: Your People

Part two taking off from earlier today.

Step 2: National Features

The People of My Nation Tend to Be...” Chart
Roll d20, 1d4 times. If the same result is rolled double any mechanical effects that may apply, otherwise re-roll. 

Results dictating class background give the option to roll on one of the results of the player or GM's choice. If results do not dictate class background, roll on standard chart as normal.

Re-roll contradictory results—if desired.
1 Average in All Ways Cancel all other results, all classes open, no adjustments
2 Nomads Add d3 to DEX, -1 INT; Class Background d8: 1-4 Hunter, 5-7 Warrior, 8 Poor Noble
3 Barbarians Add d3 to CON, -1 INT; Class Background d8: 1 Farmer, 3-5 Hunter, 6-7 Warrior, 8 Poor Noble
4 Seafaring Class Background d8: 1-5 Sailor, 6-7 Merchant/Trader, 8 Poor Noble
5 Mercantile Class Background d10: 1-2 Sailor, 3-8 Merchant, 9-10 Standard table
6 Rural/Agricultural Class Background d8: 1-4 Farmer, 5-6 Hunter, 7 Craftsman, 8 Poor Noble
7 Exclusively Aligned with... Roll d6, 1 Law, 2 Law (Evil), 3-4 Balance, 5-6 Chaos
8 Desperately Poor +1d3 CON; Class Background d8: 1-4 Farmer, 5-6 Beggar, 7-8 Standard Table; -d20 starting LB
9 Wealthy -1 INT, +1 CHA; Double starting money
10 Warlike +1d4 STR; Class Background d8: 1-6 Warrior, 7-8 Standard table
11 Obese -1 CON, -1 DEX, Heavy frame
12 Beanpoles -1 CON, +1 DEX, Light frame
13 Dwarfish -1d4 SIZ
14 Huge +1d4 SIZ
15 Learned/Cultured +1d4 INT or CHA
16 Decadently Civilized -1d4 STR or CON, +1d4 INT, POW, or CHA; Class background d6, 1 Warrior, 2-3 Priest, 4-5 Poor Noble, 6 Noble
17 Magically Inclined +1d3 POW and INT
18 Pious +1d4 POW, Class background d6, 1-4 Priest, 5-6 Roll on standard table.
19 Completely Bald/Hairy Beasts -1 CHA
20 Insane/Drug-Addled Random addiction or insanity. -1d3 ANY, +1d3 ANY

Optional Dominant Skin Color
Roll d12

Ruddy Pink
Dark Brown
Exotic Hue of Your Choice
1d3 Types/Roll Again

Generating Swords & Sorcery Nations

One of the most interesting and flavor-choked character generation elements in first-edition Stormbringer is its character Nationality chart. A single random roll not only tells the player what part of the Young Kingdoms she hails from but has a profound effect on what the character will be. Her range of class backgrounds, magic accessibility, cosmic allegiances, body type even, all hinge on that single roll.

The resultant character positively drips with Moorcockian Swords & Sorcery ambiance--while providing for some really interesting asymmetrical surprises for the player--a hell of a nice hat trick in game design.

Though I have been busy dumping the Young Kingdoms formal dress in my (non-commercial) SB hack for the second Domain Game phase, I am not-surprisingly deeply reluctant to dump those kinds of elements in the mash-up system.

So what's the work around? How do you create something that can hit those notes without being bland as white toast, buying into a big-boy licensing feature, or straight-jacketing co-creation?

Solution A is create a generic, sociological system. Solution B is to tie it around a specific, hardwired setting of my own. Insert the sound of a loud, strident game show “wrong answer” buzz here.

Solution C is to try and play to that strength of that original chart and go even more random—and weird (and tongue-in-cheek). I, of course, voted for that.

Below is part one of my random S&S nationality generator. The first part is more generalized and can be used for nearly any fantasy rpg, the second part will have more mechanical applications to my hack--but should be relatively easy to adapt into other games if desired.

As always eager to hear any feedback.

Swords & Sorcery Nation Generator
Step 1. Roll on Nationality Name. Change or modify results to suit your own taste.
Step 2. Roll on National Features.
Step 3. Based on Step 1 and 2, compute background paths.

Step 1: Nationality Name

Name Structure Chart
Roll d10

1 [Syllable]
2-3 [Syllable] + [Syllable]
4-6 [Syllable] ' or - [Syllable]
7 [Syllable] + [Syllable] + [Syllable]
8 [Place Name] “of” [Descriptor]
9 Color of Your Choice + [Place Name]
10 [Descriptor] [Place Name]

Syllable Table
Roll d100

Roll Twice

Descriptor Chart
Roll d10

Endless/With No End
[The First Word that Comes Into Your Head]

Place Name Chart
Roll d10

1 Desert/Wastes/Barrens
2 Steppes/Plains
3 Cities/Towns
4 Forest/Woods/Jungles
5 Isles/Islands
6 Mountains/Peaks/Valley
7 Hills
8 Moors/Craters/Broken Lands
9 Swamps/Marshes/Bogs/Mires
10 Ocean/Seas/Gulf/Bay

Monday, October 10, 2011

Domain Game II, The Particulars

Coming out of a satisfying weekend of socializing and gaming—gratuitous, non-sequitur picture of the ever-proliferating small army of HC players and hirelings marching off into the dear sunlight of yesterday's session below—I am fired up and ready to move on Domain Game II this week.

The nitty-gritty:
Stormbringer Hack. The voting was still in deadlock on the rules and I have decided to use my executive privilege to indulge my current crush on the Stormbringer hack and go with that. I am the decider.

Part I of my hack, which has all rules relevant to the players other than the sorcery system, will be available by this evening. What you will see is elements of Stormbringer mixed in with old school Runequest and D&D--more and more the kind of “frankenquest” that Jeremy Duncan has inspired me with his Hellenistic Successors-era game (along with some other ambitious and creative projects) .

Interested readers and players who haven't emailed directly can email me at kutalik dot the gmail dot the com so I can send you the necessary files.

System is Secondary. That all said above, I need to emphasize to players and those interested in watching the action that the existing rules mechanics (both the hack and existing sections of Borderlands that we'll be using) will be secondary. The underlying philosophy here is similar to what happened in the first phase of the Domain Game, the campaign is a wide-open incubator.

What rules we use are merely guidelines—think menu options rather than immutable laws--and will be running behind the actual play. Practical translation: you tell me what you want to do, I will tell you what to roll, and we will translate it into system mechanics as we go.

Campaign Roster. The campaign currently has two “top-tier” lord characters, Jeremy and Reg, and 12 “casual” players. Given the usual rate of attrition I am going to keep open four more seats for casual players. If you want in email me at kutalik at gmail dot com.

How the monthly game will work is we will always have seats for our lord characters and 2-3 seats that will be allotted to the casuals by their availability--and by random roll if necessary. I will send out a notifications a week and a day before letting people know what's going on.

Tabula Rasa. The players are starting as exiles forcibly cut-off from the old world of Elsewhere. Their home planet is a diverse land vaguely mirroring the lands of the Young Kingdoms and currently unified by a cruel, pre-human race of lithe, play decadents (it starts with an “M”).

However because of their isolation—and the underlying campaign philosophy—much of the particulars of their society is a blank slate. Players are free to make up as much or as little of the culture, religion, political structure, etc. of back home.

Background setting is thus wide open to all who participate—and based on my past attempts at bottom-up co-creation an interesting—strangely coherent even—sense of place will tend to evolve out of play and the constant “yes and...”. Fun stuff.

Kick-off Session. I am going to throw out three dates for the first session: October 18 8:00 pm Central US; October 26 (same time); and October 30 noon Central US. And of course, the “where”, is that charming little pocket universe created by Google+ Hangout. Players should drop me a line here or at my email address about what sessions they can make.  

Saturday, October 8, 2011

If You are a Tekumel Fan...

I saw in today's post over Chirine ba Kal aka Jeff Berry's blog that he was pulling the plug on said blog and its related treasure trove of Tekumel miniatures photos tomorrow. 

Jeff has been an enormous inspiration and font of information for me in my Tekumel mania—that and Glorantha being the only real exceptions to my published setting-phobia—and it's hard to not be a little sad in seeing the blog travelling off to the Isles of Teretane. (Though I understand—and grapple with myself—the kind of continual weighing of costs and benefits that go into the mostly thankless work of maintaining blog day in day out over years).

Some long-time readers here may remember that a three-part interview with Jeff really ushered in 1. this blog's coverage, advocacy, and support for Tekumel-related; and 2. my first stab at kicking up the blog content to be something other than just an intermittently-updated spot for the Hill Cantons' campaign tidings and tinkering.

That series and other contributions he made here with his personal, detail-conscious observations of play in Barker's original campaign--and many, many other related subjects to the world-setting--were personally invaluable and I would recommend people going back and reading some of them here, herehere, and here.

Even more importantly I would highly recommend people go and check out the content on his blog in it's last day. Make sure to drop him a note of appreciation too--or raise a glass of mash-brandy--for the work he has put into it and keeping Tekumel on the tabletop and preserved with Aethervox.  [Editor's Note: the link to Photobucket is down on his page but can be directly accessed here for the next 48 hours according to Jeff's last post.]

A big thank you, Chirine, from the HC. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hacking Stormbringer

The following are working notes on hacking first edition Stormbringer to fit more comfortably with certain classic D&D core concepts--and the second Domain Game incubator-campaign coming down the pike in the next couple weeks (update on that later today).

Big shiny red, skull-boned sticker qualifier first: this is an intellectual exercise and one possible verdict by the end of the weekend might very well be that it's plain easier to stick with straight classic D&D. Good old, reliable Blue Party.

But in the meantime I do love me a kit-bashing challenge, so off we go.

I want to model the hardwired upward cycle of old school D&D: exploration leads to booty which leads to personal power growth--and back again. 

Secondly, I want to model Domain Game and campaign specific goals of exploration, expansion, and social advancement. And I want a system that models all this to be easily quantifiable with points and leveled progression.

Sound familiar?

Experience Point Awards
One experience point is earned for each adventure-acquired Large Bronze piece (roughly 1/20 of a D&D gold piece) spent in any off-season activity.

Ten experience points are earned per mile of wilderness actively explored or per hour of an adventure site. Award can be modified by the degree of adversity faced (half for little, double for highly dangerous).

One hundred experience points are earned for each square mile of newly-cleared or conquered land acquired. One hundred experience points are also earned for each opponent level beaten in combat (more on that also later).

Adventurer Level Progression
Extra HP
Improvement Checks

My mind is stilling racing with a number of open questions. Do the numbers balance overall; is progress to slow or too quick? Do the awards build the right mechanical incentives? Does that even matter?

If I continue with this route, follow-up posts will tackle how this system will fit with the off-season activities of Hill Cantons: Borderlands Chapter 6 and the social advancement rules of Chapter 8.

Off-season activities will provide players an outlet for : 1. spending treasure (and thus gaining experience as above); 2. gaining income or other game advantage (knowledge, political power, children, etc.); and 3. gaining extra improvement checks between levels.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Domain Game Take Two

Plans for a “face-to-face” second round of the Domain Game are rolling right along. The official count of players opting in is now at ten: two “lord” players and eight “casual” players. (Space for casual players is still open.)

The campaign will come back to the extra-planar wilds of Nowhere, this time centered around a foothold colony that has been clinging on to a section of the southern continent for almost a decade.

While it's a decidedly rough-and-tumble frontier society compared to Elsewhere, a trade town has developed near the obelisk gate and rough trappings of civilized society—and resulting intrigue—are starting to bloom. Players will be navigating through less of the Jamestown-like experience of the Domain Game 's first phase and more of a take-off period.

The Three E's
Although there are still a lot of angles to be developed, I am envisioning the campaign as a “deep sandbox” with a meta-theme for player motivation that boils down to: Exile, Exploration, and Expansion.

All of the PCs, indeed all the denizens of the Lands Beyond, have been exiled from Elsewhere. The players are part of the last recent wave of exiles pushed through the gates and have been effectively abandoned to their own devices. The lords will take the bittersweet reigns of their new manor-holds and the other player-notables jockey for the limited positions of power and influence in the fluid borderlands society.

While heavily-sanctioned trade continues back and forth to the motherland, the few traders and officials that make it through the gate are forbidden from sharing news from back home.

Hemmed in by the wilds and mysterious bordering sentient races ranging from the indifferent to the hostile, the hold has remained stable and self-contained--until now. The last wave of newcomers has pushed that containment to a tipping point; pressure for land, ambition, and the sheer boredom of frontier life are pushing the colony to look outward. "Grow or die" is the watchword of the day.

How Gameplay Will Work
The lion share of the play action will be in the monthly session. True to the campaign/off season conception of Borderlands each campaign season will take place over 1-3 sessions. The off-season in which most administrative, training, and other non-adventuring activities will be covered in brief emails between.

After a campaign season and off season is completed the calendar will be advanced from 1-3 years. Thus it's conceivable that players, like in Pendragon, may end up playing descendants of their original characters if we go a real-time year or more.

OD&D vs. Stormbringer
I left the decision open to incoming players and low and behold mirroring the two-party system is some good old fashioned gridlock with votes even divided between two systems.

It beckons...
Personally I lean toward the fresh start of Stormbringer—with a possible deal-breaking qualification. That being the singular fact that Borderlands as written and conceived is heavy invested in core D&D concepts: experience points and treasure as key motivators and the power arc of low/middle/high-level play (all of which map back into the premises above to boot).

Many portions could float autonomously and be adapted pretty readily, but there is a big stumbling block in that Stormbringer barely even has a mechanic for character improvement, and what it does have is the kind of bean-counting system (limited improvement when skill and attributes are checked) that I dislike.

Long and short is that I would have to hothouse an “emulator”, experience/improvement rules that approximate the carrots of D&D and the campaign's themes. Not an insurmountable task, but something I haven't wrapped my brain around completely.