Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mini-Book Review: Paladin of Souls

I recently finished reading Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold. It won the 2004 Hugo for best novel. It is a sequel to the 2001 Hugo-nominated Curse of Chalion, which I haven't read, which purportedly features a different protagonist and largely non-overlapping cast of characters, and which was not at all necessary as a prerequisite to enjoying Paladin of Souls. I picked up PoS as I was familiar with Bujold's epic science fiction series focusing upon Miles Vorkosigan and was curious as to how she would handle what appeared to be a fairly traditional fantasy novel. I enjoyed the Vorkosigan books, but - despite being a damn fine book - this novel was really nothing like them.

The protagonist is a forty-something royal dowager who starts off feeling trapped in court life. I was getting potential Mary-Sue vibes at first, which was worrisome, but these subsided as I continued.

What I found most interesting - and useful - in this novel was its depiction of religion, cosmology, and divine magic. Divine magic, as far as I can tell, doesn't have much of a literary pedigree in fantasy pre-D&D, unless you count actual religious texts. One reason why it seems that Clerics are relatively unpopular in D&D despite arguably being the most powerful of the core classes, is just this lack of popular images.
Paladin of Souls makes a bold move toward filling that gap. It reimagines a simple polytheistic pantheon of gods and the basics of the cosmology in which they exist in such a way as to justify the granting of divine powers to mortals in certain situations while at the same time minimizing the direct interference of gods in the world. There is even an interesting and evocative reinterpretation of turning undead (for certain values of "turning" and "undead").

Paladin of Souls is a good read. I'll recommend it to just about anyone who likes Western fantasy, but if you're generally uninspired by the possibilities of divine magic in rpgs and would like to change that, you should definitely check it out.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


I've been thinking more about turning D20 into a more object-oriented system, or at least a more regular system.

Everything on a character sheet could be reduced to Skills and Feats:
  • Take hit points and armor-like bonuses to armor class and replace them with a damage save mechanic.
  • Take dexterity, size, and related bonuses to armor class and replace them with a defensive value.
  • Treat BAB as a skill (DC based off of the defensive value).
  • Treat all saves as skills.
  • All modifiers to skills are provided via Feats.
Feats would need to be broken up into various categories and, perhaps, rated on a scale to allow for differentiated costs. Advancement would simply include a number of skill points and a number of Feats. Depending upon how much structure was necessary, some general Feats could allow for the purchase of Feats from different categories and govern the allocation of skill points (essentially replacing the structure of classes). Power level of the game could easily be scaled by increasing or decreasing the number of Feats and/or skill points available.

Use the cool

No, I am not talking about Fonzie again.

I've been thinking about some of the things that I find frustrating in RPGs, and I've noticed some patterns.

  1. In D&D, there are a lot of cool options - feats, prestige classes, races, spells, and things like that - but in any given game, you are likely to only use a small fraction of them. If you tend to play either long games or short games that start (and end) at low levels, then you're not likely to ever run into the vast majority of these things. The coolness is wasted. Exalted is similar. There are far too many Charms for all of the cool ones you'd like to try out to show up.
  2. The old World of Darkness games were full of all-but-prohibited-yet-cool character types and powers. Salubri? There are only a few of those in the world. You can't be one of them. Abominations (vampiric werewolves)? Uh, yeah, there are rules for them, but they aren't made to be played. Here, the coolness isn't necessarily wasted, but it is denied to the players. The player characters are assumed by default to be typical supernatural creatures (whatever that means), rather than extraordinary ones. Shadowrun (at least 3rd Ed.) is similar. Options for a variety of non-standard supernatural creature-types were added later on, but generally speaking they couldn't be played using the standard character creation rules. D&D has this problem to a lesser extent with non-zero ECL races. Exalted, at least, doesn't have this problem. Characters are assumed to be the extraordinary exception and the default character option is both rather rare and probably the most powerful creature-type in the game's world.
  3. In games that I've played, I've often gotten frustrated when NPCs overshadow my character. This takes a number of forms. I tend not to like playing narratively unimportant people or people who won't make a difference. This is one of the things that turned me off to Godlike - the explicit assumption that a single character isn't going to make a difference - and is also one of the reasons that I tend not to be fond of playing Call of Cthulu. I see this as a more generalized form of the (problematic) case in which a particular NPC is deemed more important to the story than the PCs. Sometimes, this can work (My Life With Master)... but it is usually either because that NPC is treated more as a setting element than as a character or because the campaign focuses upon influencing that NPC somehow and, in that arena, the PCs are the focus; and it almost always requires explicit player buy-in. More often than not, however, this is just a bad idea.
So, what do I take from all of this?

  • If there are cool options in the game (and there better be), they should all be theoretically able to show up without multiple years of playtime being necessary.
  • The player characters should be at least as cool as anything else out there in terms of game-mechanical/setting options. The player characters should be the 'special' and 'unique' ones in the setting. The game mechanics and character creation should support this.
  • The player characters should be the protagonists. This should be able to go without saying, but - unfortunately - it can't. Games should be about the PCs, and the game mechanics should support the fact that the PCs have a special status within the created narrative of a game.

Hephaestus Shrugged... and said, "eh."

I finally buckled down and really made a concerted effort to figure out Ron's 'brain damage' position. Realizing that Ron is a biologist helps. I don't know that I disagree with him, but I think he put it in, perhaps, as unhelpful a way as he possibly could have. This is something I find sad.

Here is my quick reinterpretation of the position:

There are some games that puport to be all about telling stories. Just picking a name at... umm... random... yeah.... random, let's call them Storyteller Games. Given structural notions of what constitutes a story, these games do not actually support the telling of stories (for a variety of detailed reasons). By playing these games and actually associating the activity of playing these games with the telling of stories (note that the latter is not necessary to play the game), you can develop habits that become ingrained. If you do, these habits might get in your way of telling and/or understanding stories. That is, you may well habitually resort to the techniques implicit in the game (which do not actually support storytelling) when faced with the prospect of telling a story.

Sure. That I can buy.

Is this brain damage? In a technical sense, perhaps. You have altered neural pathways so that certain methods of acting and reacting come more natural to you than others. That is, more or less, what is entailed by developing habits. This could be construed as "damage" if those habits are considered to be bad habits. Colloquially speaking, however, brain damage has another meaning entirely, and it is one that doesn't fit here at all. I think that if Ron wants people to actually carefully consider his words, he should do so first.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Neitherworld: More (Focused) Thoughts on Joint Character Ownership

I'm still not completelty sold on going down the multiple players per character route with Neitherworld. If I do, I will probably include a more conventional option as well and dual-stat everything. In any case, I'm going to explore this option a bit, because the potential fascinates me. I'll be riffing off of my earlier post on Fixing the Lone Wolf Problem. If you haven't read that, you should probably do so before continuing here.

The assumption in Neitherworld is that the protagonist will be one of the Unborn. Actually, a major advantage of having multiple players per character would be the viability of assuming that the protagonist is the only (or first) Unborn.

The Unborn are changelings, bits of Fae-stuff wrapped in a human shell, raised by unsuspecting parents whose birth-child's soul was secretly stolen. That Fae-stuff that make up the soul of the Unborn is what gives the Unborn its powers, separate the Unborn from humanity, and colors all of the Unborn's perceptions. In the past, I've referred to these as DreamPaths.

Each bit of an Unborn's soul is an individual DreamPath. Each DreamPath has a particular aspect. In most (if not all) cases, this aspect will be something that colored the fae-stuff as it was drawn out of the Neitherworld. This can only happen in places where the barriers between the world and the Neitherworld are thin - places that are particularly empty, chaotic, or full of wonder. Thus, typical aspects might be any of the following: fire, darkness, urban blight, the feeling of knowing that a thousand people are cheering for you, swarms of locusts, fields of wildflowers, unbridled lust, or abject horror.

At first, each of the Unborn is only at the Approach to each of its DreamPaths. It can look down the path and gather some idea of where it leads. The Unborn can begin a travel down a DreamPath. In some sense, this travel is metaphorical, but it does require action and it does bring the Unborn closer to the Neitherworld.

Eventually travel down a path will lead to the Unborn both gaining more power over the particular aspect of the path and becoming more attuned to that aspect. One result of this is that the Unborn will become generally less human as the path is travelled.

Now, one way of handling this is to allow each player to play the protagonist on a particular path, assuming that all paths are being travelled simultaneously. The GM, under this model, might serve a number of unusual functions including weaving the different journeys (as defined by the players of those journeys) together into a coherent whole and portraying the human shell that surrounds the fae-soul-bits/dreampaths.

Conceptually, I think I have a handle on this. The big questions now: What would it look like game-mechanically? and Would it actually be fun to play?

Origami beholder?

If you haven't seen this, do so. Too cool for words.

Hephaestus was uncouth

Since I've renewed my interest in game design of late, I'd been meaning to get back into The Forge. In part, this interest was increased by their recent 'refocus' on actual play and actual design over abstract theory. Mostly, however, it was remembering how much my initial introduction to The Forge meant to me. It changed the way I thought about (and played!) rpgs. The community was great. It really seemed to take its own rules of ettiquette seriously.

I left The Forge in mid-2003. I'd been fairly active on its fora for a bit under a year. (fora for a - did I actually type that?) I left for a combination of several reasons. The Forge was, in my opinion, becoming a bit clique-heavy and getting bogged down in theory. These are things I probably could have dealt with, but I was also at a point in my life where my priorities were in flux. Game design went on the back burner for awhile.

After starting this blog, I thought about becoming active there again. I began reading other blogs more actively. I got to Vincent's posts on anyway about how people who disagree with him have the wrong kind of fun. I sighed heavily. I decided to wait a little bit. Then Ron's remarks about the "brain-damaged" were posted. I am not going to link to them, but I will link to Clinton's comments about them.

I decided that I'll put off my Forge-activity for a bit longer.

I wonder, though, whether there is a link between the lack of a communal theory-space in which rules of etiquette are enforced and the increase that I perceive in the use of insulting language while talking about theory.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

D20 tweaking: Part I

I enjoy playing with D20/OGL rules. They make an interesting toolset, and D20 is as close to an object-oriented game system as I think we have come. On the other hand, to paraphrase something I read recently, I find the D20 rules-tweaking potential to be more fun than the actual gameplay. That isn't to say that I don't enjoy playing when I do so, but I really happen to have a lot of fun with the potential for making the game do what I want it to do.

So, here is an idea that I had which I mentioned on a thread on RPGnet today. The thread was focusing upon how to slow character advancement without simply declaring a different advancement rate.

In plain-old-D20, experience is earned based on the Challenge Rating of an encounter and the Character Levels of the PCs involved in the encounter. The larger the CR to CL ratio, the more experience is gained. Thus, if PCs have a higher level, they will gain less for a given encounter, all other things being equal.

My solution? Put the choice of how quickly to advance into the hands of the players. How do you do this?

Bribe them.

Tell players that they can use Action Points as defined in Unearthed Arcana (or your favorite alternative version - there are a few floating around). Instead of giving them a small number, however, let them have a near-unlimited number of them (How many? How about some number - maybe 2+Character Level - per encounter, refreshing each encounter?) with two caveats:
  1. They may only use these action points in encounters that have CRs.
  2. For each action point spent in an encounter, their effective character level will be treated as one higher when determining experience from that encounter.
Spending action points will slow your advancement under this system. What are the ramifications?

  • Players can advance their characters at the normal (fast) rate, but they will do so by not using all of the resources available to them.
  • Players can sacrifice long-term power for short-term flexibility and certainty.
  • Players can give themselves some insurance against things such as a character death they would find meaningless by sacrificing experience points in the encounter.
I can certainly see these as goals that might be valued in a campaign. If I were to run a D20-based game with something approaching normal experience payouts (which I probably won't), I might well use something like this.