A quick update

Sunday, March 23, 2008 - 9:16 PM

What with classes finishing up, along with a friend's impending wedding and a number of other busy-nesses, I've let this sit for a little while. So, here's a few quick notes to tide people over.

1/ Paizo, if you hadn't heard, is essentially allowing its audience to playtest their upcoming Pathfinder system, which is DnD 3.75. I'll be posting my full impressions on this soon. You can download the Alpha rules set for free on their website... check it out, and join in.

2/ I've been looking at the pieces of 4.0 that keep creeping out there. I'm interested, but I admit, anything that gets really hyped up always leaves me cold. It's an anti-marketing reflex, I suppose. Now, that said, I like some of the concepts they are kicking around, but while reading about 4.0, I happened across a quote, which is the basis for /3.

/3 A fellow stated that he was happy about what he'd heard regarding 4.0, because it will make the monsters smarter.
No, no no.
YOU make the monsters smarter. The game system, no matter how cool it is, does not magically enhance the intelligence level of your encounters. The system is just a tool to resolve conflicts, and it may offer you more options to determine the outcome (i.e. the simple 'I swing and hit' as opposed to a system that allows hitting, grappling, tripping, stunning, frying eggs in combat or whatever else).
Systems, depending on their architecture, will bias the feel of a game. But ultimately, the one running the game has control over the system. It's a tool. It doesn't use you.

/4 I do, very much, enjoy the general movement towards simplification that is going on with the fantasy RPG market today. I have a general sense that fantasy gaming is beginning to turn full circle, and head back to its roots.
Of course, that means it'll probably turn into a cottage industry again, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Well, unless you want to make money writing games.

More to come, soon.

Level Up! pt 2

Friday, March 14, 2008 - 11:08 AM

In Destined, there are many planes of existence, but all of them overlap in a central bubble, which is the Destiny Plane. All other planes are limited by their nature in potential and change, but the Destiny Plane represents all of their possibilities. Within the Destiny bubble, there are universes upon universes flowing in a constant stream of actions and consequences and events. The strongest of these streams within a stream is the Destiny Prime, which represents the campaign world. Whether or not it is one single world among many, or several universes in itself isn't important for this discussion. What is important here is that destiny flows strongest through the Prime.

Destiny here is not a passive force. It isn't a foreordained doom or prophecy that comes to pass automatically. Destiny in this cosmology is fluid, and uncertain. However, it does obey certain laws. We'll examine these laws in the context of levels.

Levels, in the Destined setting, are interpreted as accumulations of destiny (not that any character has any notion of this). The more levels one has, the more significant one's destiny has become, be it through personal decisions or mere circumstance. When a character goes from level 1 to level 5, they are forcing their will for change upon the cosmos, and though destiny is grudging, it will move once enough momentum is generated.

As the character continues to advance in levels, they face greater difficulties, because destiny naturally seeks equilibrium. This is one reason why higher level encounters, before apparently unnoticed or simply not there, abruptly crop up when characters reach a higher level. Destiny pushes back, when it gets pushed... to the point of suddenly throwing momentum into a local ogre, say, who the characters might remember as being a lowly warlord. This local ogre suddenly finds things happening in his favor, and behold, he becomes a monstrous emperor with a great army. When one carries great destiny, others of similar weight are drawn to you. This works both ways; a standard fantasy trope is that a mighty evil overlord appears, only to be overthrown by an unlikely group of heroes... who level up very quickly, don't they?

Just as destiny can pool against the dam of a high level character, it can also drain from a place when equilibrium is met. Though it is difficult to simulate mechanically, I judge that accumulated destiny fades if the possessor does nothing with it, or has achieved his goals, or otherwise ceased to carry momentum. In a good many legends, great heroes eventually die from some small, minor thing after they've done with being great heroes, and I use that as a proof. Hercules is slain by a poisoned shirt, for example. Sure, it was assumed it was a very nasty poison, but maybe he just didn't have the saving throw he used to.

In my campaign, I restrict this increase/decrease effect to NPCs only. I'm continually toying with a mechanical representation of this, inspired by the excellent Spiritual Attributes mechanic of Riddle of Steel (fantastic game, play it if you get the chance). In sum, the SA mechanic means that your character only 'levels up' when they are pursuing certain aspects of their life which are tremendously important to them, and further, those SA's provide mechanical benefit. A peasant who believes in his cause can be a surprisingly strong adversary to a well-trained knight who doesn't have a cause at all. I see destiny as working in the same way. Sometimes it is thrust upon someone, usually to counterbalance the actions of another. Sometimes it is gathered unconsciously by those who have something to prove to the world.

The notion of the Destiny Prime spawned some other ideas, also. If there is a Prime, then there are alternate realities within the Destiny Plane that have branched off from decisions made in the Prime. These decisions are significant enough to create a different stream, but most of these end up flowing back into the Prime. Some, however, do not, and form bubbles of their own. Perhaps one day, their events, histories and contents will be seamlessly integrated into the Prime if they grow close enough, but until then, they rest apart. Some fundamental decision, somewhere back in the chain of causality, made these bubbles very different sorts of places. The inhabitants of the Prime are utterly unaware of these destiny bubbles, and would probably be disturbed at some of them.

My submission to the Wizards of the Coast setting search competition was one such bubble, a world called Rhoa. In Rhoa, conflict is hard-coded into the flow of destiny; there will never really be peace there. The divergence from the Prime ensures that conflict will continue. This makes it a brutal, visceral sort of place where beauty is precious and fleeting. The setting has gone through several stages of refinement and expansion since its creation for the competition, and I'll be sharing some facets of it in later posts.

Final note for today: My players are all awesome. I'm a happy man.


Level Up! pt 1

11:03 AM

Levels are a common way to designate degrees of power in RPGs. How levels are interpreted, and the size of the power difference from one to the other can vary, but if levels exist, there are some questions lurking in the background.

What is really the difference between level 1 and level 5? How many people of a given level are there? If earning a level is a more or less permanent thing (barring undead exposure or temporary death), then why is it most people never get past level 1? Surely a level 1 commoner racks up experience points enough to become a level... 5 commoner during the course of a full lifetime.

'Leveling up' means more skills, more powers, more hit points, and occasionally more spells. A higher level person is simply harder to kill, and when you use your average in-game scale for damage ratings, anyone beyond level 5 is practically superhuman. A level 10 character fades next to the earth-shaking power of level 15. And before anyone scoffs and points out 'omg, but look at all the level 20-30s', I'd like to remind them that realistically (if you can use such a word here), 95% of the game world's population is going to be level 1.

Perspective, please. Level 10 means, to the average joe, you are unstoppable. You are a mighty hero (or terrifying villain, or just powerfully indifferent). How high levels are depicted in an RPG is a topic for another day, but we'll touch on it briefly here.

I've noticed a fair amount of neglect in showcasing just how significant higher level characters are in the world. Part of it is that most GM s keep to the basic strategy of 'Can the PCs do this?' At high level play, the tagline shouldn't be whether or not they can, but whether or not they Should. This is particularly important in games like White Wolf's Exalted, where the system guarantees that the PLAYERS shape the story, regardless of what the GM might have in mind. A GM who tries to do the usual dungeon-crawl-and-faceoff-versus-powerful-bad-guy tactic may find themselves a little overwhelmed. In DnD the power scale runs a much wider range, with a higher degree of uncertainty in the mechanics. But the significance of a high-level character's actions should definitely be made plain.

Again, the question of 'should', rather than 'can we'?

My brain locked on to the reasons why, precisely, a high level character became so powerful. Why weren't there so many of them? How hard is it, really, to level up? The system of experience points converting to levels is a very abstract concept, and one that has seen a fair amount of parody.

So, I created a cosmology to explain it. This was the spark that eventually generated the default campaign setting that I use, which I simply call Destined (yeah, fine, shoot me, it's what I've got at the moment).



Friday, March 7, 2008 - 10:47 AM

I'll be running a Dark Heresy game sometime soon, something limited session. While considering the plot I had in mind, something short and dreadfully suspenseful, I pondered quite a bit on my own interpretation of the Warhammer 40K setting, which Dark Heresy uses.

Reinterpreting or reinventing the work of other people has been a long-time tradition, even if not necessarily time-honored. The popularity of spinning ideas into new directions is quite plain; one only needs to see the amount of fanfiction out there to understand that. Being the sort of creative zealot I am, I much prefer to generate my own material, but I find it very rewarding and inspiring at times to grow new ideas from someone else's proverbial flowerbed.

Generally, this tends to follow from one of two instances. First, there is something incongruous or illogical or ... just plain odd... which goes unexplained. Second, there is some mechanic in the game system that needs some manner of rationalization to fit into the world, unless you simply intend to gloss over or ignore its presence in-game.

The example I've been sharing recently with a couple friends has to do with the Sisters of Battle. Now, you can come up with all sorts of funny reasons why your standard 40K outfit has tremendous shoulderpads (portable refrigerators for beer) or extraordinarily spiky helmets (pick up pay-per-view three planets away), but what caught my attention was that in almost all illustrations of the Sisters, they are portrayed as beautiful. Stern, maybe, and a few artists toss on a battle scar or two... but beautiful.

Well, we all know how popular hot chicks with guns are for the market.

What do I see? I see women who are taken in as orphans, and raised to a grim, stoic life of faith and militancy. I see women who are indoctrinated to be fanatical warrior-nuns, sworn to burn the heretic and defend the Emperor and the Church. Beauty? Beauty isn't a necessity for soldiers. Why would they all be beautiful?

My brain simmered that in the futuristic dark-ages of the 40K setting, and came up with a conclusion.

I see women who undergo ritual plastic surgery at age 18, so that every single one of them looks like the Founder of their respective order. That means only six possible faces for hundreds of thousands of warrior-nuns. Same hair, same armor, same face, and same faith. It's the capstone to a dehumanizing process to ensure they understand their place. To me, that's the sort of psychological twist that makes the 40K setting evocative. It doesn't always have to be about the out-sized shoulder pads and huge guns.

In terms of mechanics... the level system in Dungeons and Dragons has always warranted a closer look. Just what -are- levels, anyway? How does it translate in the game world, when someone is level 10 and fights someone level 1?

Hit points, at least, you can interpret as skill as well as physical endurance. Rather than saying "The ogre cuts open your leg" on a hit, you might say "You barely manage to parry the ogre's blade, but it shoves you off balance and you feel your arm grow tired". Either way, this is translated as damage. In the case of hit points as skill/fatigue, your character might not even suffer a real wound until you are brought to zero. Everything before that fatal blow would have been exhausting parries, scratches, near-misses and fatigue. Or whatever else.

But what -are- levels? Why precisely is a level 10 person so far above your average level 1 person?

My own interpretation of this mechanic will be the topic of the next post, in which I also explain how it contributed to a cosmology.


In Memoriam

Tuesday, March 4, 2008 - 4:26 PM

My first gaming book ever was the Monster Manual. Very first edition, when 'Advanced' Dungeons and Dragons was still new.

I don't even remember how I got it these days. Maybe I saved up enough allowance or something, maybe it was a gift. Either way, I still have what's left of it. The spine is mostly gone, the cover art is faded and spotty, and when I flip through it these days, I have to chuckle at the bad coloring jobs I did on some of the illustrations... not to mention the illustrations I put in there to fill in the gaps.

When I got the book, it was just a strange book to me. It was a source of wonderment, a guidebook to an unearthly world written in a code of numbers and strange words that I did not yet understand. Not knowing the game then, I made up meanings for these numbers and words, and made my own stories for why these creatures existed, what they did, and how they acted. In some ways, it was a choose-your-own-adventure book for me.

Of course, I did understand there were other such books, somehow connected, and later, I got these as well. I kept a lot of my old ideas, and squeezed the game I had just learned to fit the frame of the painting the Monster Manual had already begun. In these early days, interpreting, reinterpreting and improvising around the keys I had been given would provide the foundations of the world-building I do today, and not just strictly in the sense of gaming.

I still have my first copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide, too, and it has fared much better than the Monster Manual. On occasion, I pick it up just to read a section or two, for inspiration and a return to the flourishing roots of my creative history.

I have Gary Gygax to thank for these things. Whatever people might say about his writing (and I'm sorry, Gary, but your novels weren't great), whatever people might say about his attitude, he was a pioneer, and for me, he was the author that showed me best that my dreams and visions could be not only accessible to others, but shared. They could be protagonists in stories so grand no one author could possibly pen them.

Further, there was a flavor to Gygax's work that I enjoyed. In particular, I had the distinct feeling that when Gary was writing a rulebook or discussing the game, he simply expected that if you were bothering to read what he was writing, you knew what he was talking about. He didn't make any concessions, and I respect that. Also, the slapdash creative energy behind Gygax and his peers was wonderful. Oh, sure, some of those early dungeons were silly... but only if you didn't think about why they -could- be possible.

Coming up with plausible explanations as to 'why'... well, that was one of the best creative exercises I have ever involved myself with. Many a spark of inspiration began in just such a way.

Today, the gaming world is a vastly different place. If you read the earliest Dragon or White Dwarf magazines, they are a cozy, almost scholarly read (actually, quite scholarly at times). The authors were writing to peers and associates. Today, gaming publications have to be far more generalist, particularly in the cases of those with corporate pressure for profit margins. Though this is quite understandable, let's face it... creativity tends to suffer when you have to take too much bean-counting into consideration. Thankfully, there are still some wonderfully flavorful and innovative people out there (Paizo, I'm looking at you guys), and though I see a smaller future for gaming, I believe it will be a very vivid one.

In some ways, I'm glad to know Gary had a chance to see things grow as they have. I do hope that he had pride in playing his part in all this. For my part, whenever I feel my inspiration clogged, I'll pull down my tired copy of the Monster Manual, and let the older dreams sift back in through my hands.

That's where I'll thank Gygax for following his own dream.

ps Rob Kuntz, you aren't allowed to leave this mortal coil without revealing at least 2 more sections of Castle Maure. Period. I will hire a necromancer, I swear it.