Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Transformative Character Classes

A post contributed to the Transitions and Transformations Blog Carnival.

I was introduced to transformative character classes by 3rd edition D&D. You know what I mean here - a 20th level monk becomes an Outsider... a 10th level Dragon Disciple becomes a Half-Dragon... that sort of thing. Transformative classes might have existed before then. I suppose you could say that in plain-old (Basic-Expert-Etc.) D&D, every class was transformative in the sense that you could become an Immortal. Of course, when everyone is special, no one is.

In any case, I thought these things were weird at first. Then, one day, I read the bit about gods in D&D generally being (as a prerequisite) 20HD Outsiders. It hit me immediately - "Hey. Monks, when they hit 20th level, are 20HD Outsiders." That was a pretty cool realization - that a life dedicated to introspection and perfection of onesself could be a shortcut to divinity. It opened my mind to some of the possibilities of these classes. Around this time, I was introduced to other classes of this sort: the Spirit Shaman (in Complete Divine) becomes fae, the Dread Necromancer becomes a Lich, and the Green Star Adept (in Complete Arcane) becomes (strangely) a construct. There are others as well.

I also decided to play one of these classes. I created a character based around the idea of self-evolution (I named him Darwane) for Jeff's crazy-high-powered-gestalt game. The gestalt thing allowed me a lot of freedom to play with classes. Among other things, Darwane had 3 levels of Human Paragon, 10 levels of Dragon Disciple, and 3 levels of Half-Dragon Paragon (mixed in with a few levels of Monk, Fighter, and Paladin and a bunch of levels of Sorcerer) before he was done. He was a ton of fun to play... and not just because he essentially one-shotted a two-headed, half-dragon (x2) Tarrasque.

I'm feeling like I am rambling today, so you are going to get some half-baked ideas on where transformative character classes could have gone in 3.5 D&D:
  • The Druid. Druids are arguably one of the most overpowered classes in the game. Having played one to 20th level (without trying to optimize), I can attest to this. I could see splitting the Druid up into, say, three transformative subclasses aimed, respectively, at transforming into a fae, elemental, or plant creature. Wild shape would be altered for each of these, beginning with short-term, partial transformations.
  • Feat trees. There are several feat trees that touch on the transformative such as Fey Heritage, Fiendish Heritage, and Draconic feats. Why not add an option to make these actually transformative? ...or have more of them? I could see a Celestial Dedicant exalted feat tree that turned one into an Outsider, for instance...
  • Divorce transformations of this sort from creature type. The creature type system in 3.5 is pretty odd, anyway. When you want to give traits of a creature type, go ahead. Otherwise, just say something along the lines of the Elven Blood property of Half-Elves (for example, For all effects related to race or creature type a 20th level Druid of the Green is considered a Plant).
What about PC transformations outside of 3.5 D&D? Well, part of what I've been talking about above is a transformation between two strict categories within the system (such as Humanoid and Outsider). Most systems don't have such categories. Transformation can still happen there, of course, it just has more of a descriptive aspect to it. In Mutants and Masterminds or HERO, your PC can slowly turn into a dragon - but you do it by the powers and such that you buy and the way that you describe them. In 4e, of course, transformations can be fitted into Epic Destinies (and, occasionally, Paragon Paths) pretty easily. For games without a real advancement system (FATE, Sorcerer), transformation will likely need collaboration between the GM and player (or a mischievous GM)... and it potentially makes a nice alternative for players who might be afraid of PC stagnation.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Year-end evaluation and thoughts for the future

I think that the release of 4e this year has knocked my blogging for a loop. I haven't really posted much d20 OGC since then. I'm not sure of the relevancy of it any more. I feel like this blog's mission, which has been fuzzy at its best, has become more scattered with time.

With the upcoming new year, I'd like to refocus it a bit. The thing is, I'm not sold on any particular direction for that focus. (See the problem?)

So I turn to you, dear readers. What sorts of posts would you like to see me concentrate upon more? Morality in RPGs? Game design? Actual play? Weird fantasy-food related posts?

Do you want to see more Open Game Content (or other mechanics in a similar vein)? If so, for what system? d20? FATE? Something else?

I'm not promising anything in particular, but it would be nice to know what the people who actually read this would like to see....

Monday, December 29, 2008

What I've been up to...

Not too much, gaming-wise.

I mentioned that I thought Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series would be great for gaming. I've been toying with some ideas about it. One of the interesting things about the books is that the main characters essentially change their roles and careers somewhat regularly. This got me thinking about a Warhammer FRP - style system. Of course, some characters are better in a role than others (or spend more time in it). For those who have read the books (this isn't a spoiler) - Ehren, for instance, is a better Cursor than Max (even if Max is far more 'powerful' in other ways). As a result, I started to think about levels in careers. Picking numeric scales out of the ether, Ehren might be an Academ 4/Cursor 6 while Max might be an Academ 1/Cursor 1/Legionnaire 2/Furycrafter 6.

Then I started thinking about the framework of the books and how they tended to focus on settings and situations within the context of the roles of the main characters. This led me to putting the above into a 4e-like tier system. I'm still not entirely sure how it would work, but I am pretty sure it has some promise.

Other than that, my life has been full of nongaming adventures: a holiday visit with Angela's parents and coming home to a flooded basement that held most of my old gaming stuff. It appears to have mostly survived, since it was generally off the ground... but there's a corner we haven't unearthed yet. I'm a bit worried what I'll find in it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Gaming, the year in review: Best and worst

Best game I hadn't really been aware of until this year: Spirit of the Century

I've written a bit about my thoughts on Spirit of the Century and FATE (the underlying system). In brief: it rocks. The GMing advice is awesome; while it is tightly focused on pulp gaming, a lot of it can be adapted to different genres. The mechanics are simple and flexible... and, most of all, they naturally promote interesting descriptions and plot twists (without being as focused on such things as a game like WuShu or Sorcerer). Also, there is an online OGL SRD for it. Check it out.

Best game I've owned for a while but hadn't played until this year: Nobilis

Angela bought me Nobilis for my birthday a while back. I would sit and look at it and think about what a pretty book it was. Then, one day, I was asked to play in a game. I'm having a tremendously fun time. A big part of that is certainly the fact that Jason is an extraordinarily good GM.

Best non-tabletop RPG: Fallout 3

Damn. This game is gorgeous... and enormous. It totally makes me see the appeal of sandbox gaming. The voice acting is impressively good. The plots are intriguing and involve a ton of morally gray areas. I've had some truly awesome moments in this game. It is available for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3, but given the huge numbers of downloadable mods that are becoming available from the huge modding community, I'd definitely recommend the PC version.

Biggest disappointment: Tie

D&D 4th edition. I was really hoping to love it to pieces. I didn't. I haven't really had too much to say about it, because I don't think it is a bad game... it just doesn't do what I want right now. Odyssey summed up my thoughts on the matter better than I could, so go read that if you are curious about my opinion.

The demise of our Wednesday night gaming group. Pat moved away. Doug and I were moving in a different direction from Jeff - we wanted more high-powered/pulpy stuff and he wanted more retro/nostalgia stuff. We couldn't find a workable compromise, though we tried valiantly with a Buck Rodgers-esque Savage Worlds game.

I'm also sad that Jenn hasn't been running her Exalted game, but I have hopes that she'll pick it up in January... so I refuse to acknowledge it as a demise...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What I've been reading

I just finished reading Princeps' Fury (Codex Alera, Book 5), the latest novel in the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher. Butcher is far better known as author of the Dresden Files. I like the Harry Dresden books, but I've found that I actually look forward to the Alera books more.

The series follows the story of Tavi. He begins as a clever young shepherd boy, but even by the end of the first book, it is clear that he is much more than that. The meta-plot of the series isn't original - it is somewhat Hero's Journeyish - but the setting, characters, and smaller plot twists are compelling. Personality-wise, Tavi reminds me a bit of Miles Vorkosigan - a bit too clever for his own good (or maybe just clever enough). The novels are set in Alera, a land styled a bit after the Roman Empire, in which people have control over elemental furies and can tap into their magic to perform a number of superhuman feats... or cause them to manifest as elemental creatures. Alera is surrounded by other lands with other peoples and other forms of magic: the nomadic Marat, who bind their souls to those of animals; the barbaric, apelike Icemen, who control the blizzards; the gigantic, wolflike Canim, who use powerful ritual magics; and the Vord, the less spoken about, the better.

The setting is ripe for gaming. I know that Evil Hat is releasing the Dresden Files RPG (which I am really looking forward to), but I'd love to see a Codex Alera game even more. Hell, I'd love to work on one. Rules for furycrafting and manifesting furies would be a ton of fun. There's plenty to do in Alera - the most obvious PCs would be cursors, who act as couriers and spies for the Emporer, but a legion-based game would be cool, as would a political citizen-based game, or even a game in which PCs started out on a simple steadhold.

I'm also in the middle of reading Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. I'm a big fan of Stephenson's other books... so I was willing to push past the first third of Anathem. This was no mean feat. If you've read much of his work, you know he loves to play with language and etymology. He's totally indulged himself in that here. Now that I've gotten through the basics, a cool story is starting to emerge. That said, I appreciate the frustration that gave rise to this. I think that's a lesson we can all take to heart...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Playing with ecological niches to come up with alien animals

My post on prehistoric rhinos last week got me thinking, and I came up with a way of generating new ideas for creatures that seems kind of nifty to me. This tends not to get you monsters, per se, but more like natural creatures that don't feel quite right. Some of them can be combatants - others are just color.

Step 1: Come up with a list of natural animals (giant/dire versions are fine). Include both animals that you would like to have your PCs face and animals that you know your PCs will see

Tiger, Giant Lobster, Squid, Salmon, Shark, Wolverine, Giant Spider, Giant Scorpion, Giant Parasitic Wasp, Hyenas, Vultures, Horse, Cow, Deer, Pig, Rat, Wolf, Dog, Chicken, Sparrow, Hawk, Rabbit

Step 2: Put each of those animals on a piece of paper, stick them in a hat (or whatever) and pick two.

Step 3: Create a version of one animal you picked that fills an ecological niche similar to that of the other.

Here are some examples:

Tiger and Pig: This could work either way. We could have a huge, striped, predatory boar that is surprisingly lithe and stalks its prey. That's pretty creepy. Alternately, we could have large cats that have been bred into slower omnivores kept as farm animals.

Giant Scorpion and Giant Spider: These are already pretty close and pretty creepy. What's creepier? Let's stick a giant scorpion on a web in a forested area.

Sparrow and Squid: Too easy: small, jet-propelled airborne squid.

This can also serve as a launching point for other ideas. Little harmless squid are kind of cool, but I think they'd be much cooler if they were snatching mice and small birds in their tentacles rather than seeds and things. How about (putting lobsters into the roll of rats) amphibious lobsterlike crustaceans that not only live in sewers, but dwell on city streets and rooftops? How about (combining parasitic wasps and salmon), giant, migratory, aquatic insects that go north to die? We could even say that they are eaten by bears in large numbers, but while being eaten, they transfer eggs which are incubated within the bear (and the young eat the bear from the inside out before crawling back to the river to swim south).

Fun, huh?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Episodic Powers

In comics, pulps, cartoons, some episodic TV shows, and similar sources, it is often the case that the hero will display some ability or tactic that he or she has never used before. Even though it might be a generally useful and effective thing to do, it may never show up again.

If we wanted to, we could easily incorporate such a thing into many RPGs. In 4e D&D, this would be easy - allow players to swap out a single encounter power between sessions (or, perhaps, during an extended rest). In other systems, it might take a bit more creativity. In 3.5, this could be a feat swap, or the swapping of a single spell for some classes (such as the sorcerer or bard). In Exalted, this might be a charm in one of your caste abilities. In the Marvel RPG, this would likely be power stunts.

The idea is simple, and it is useful in addition to emulating certain genres. What does it get you?
  • Variety: You aren't always doing the same thing game after game.
  • Adaptability: You can anticipate what abilities you have will be pointless in the coming session... and what abilities which you don't normally have will be useful.
  • Experimentation: Thinking about taking a new ability? Take it for a no-commitment test drive first.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Playing for the endgame

How many times have you heard people say that, in D&D 3.5, it doesn't pay to multi-class with a spellcaster because it would inhibit your ability to get 9th level spells? How about telling you not to take a particular feat because it will be useless after 15th level? ...or that you should take several sub-par feats because, at high level, they will be really good or allow you to qualify for an awesome prestige class or something? This sort of thinking downplays the importance of play at low level while emphasizing the importance of high-level play. It isn't just limited to game mechanics, but it is probably clearest there: the game mechanical choices you make at low levels are unimportant except insofar as they maximize your power later.

This sort of talk isn't limited to 3.5 (look at the AD&D monk)... much less D&D... or even tabletop roleplaying games. I see it on forums talking about Fallout 3 (my current obsession).

It isn't something I really understand. If I'm playing a game, I want to enjoy it at all levels. If my enjoyment of the game is correlated with my character's power (which is far from certain - and a whole 'nother post), then I want it to be spread out across all levels... not just concentrated at the endgame.

I suppose this might be analogous to planning for retirement. I know people who made themselves miserable out of college or law school, working incredibly hard and being generally miserable so that they could ensure their retirement fund. I can, in hindsight, see the appeal of this when it comes to one's career, but I don't think the analogy holds up when we're talking about a game. I really don't think that they were having fun at the time.

I do think, however, that there may be an important lesson that can be gleaned from such manners of thinking. I'm not sure what it is, though. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Giddyap Rhino

Over the weekend, while visiting my parents in Maryland for Thanksgiving, Angela and I were able to skip down to DC for a bit. We poked our head in to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where we spent most of our time in the prehistoric mammals exhibit.

Prehistoric mammals are pretty darn cool. One thing that struck me was the remarkable diversity of rhinoceros-like animals.

What if the ancestors of the rhinoceros had survived in their various ecological niches? We could have hyracodont-like animals instead of horses, menoceras and subhyracodont-like farm animals, and elasmotherium and paraceratherium-like warbeasts. Yeah, you'd have to rename them, but the picture these paint to me resonates well for a slightly-alien (perhaps Talislanta-inspired) fantasy world.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

More lessons from the Wasteland

I've been playing a lot of Fallout 3 lately. Parts of it are brilliant. Parts of it suffer in contrast to the brilliant bits. I keep thinking of it in comparison to a tabletop RPG, and thinking about what could have been done better on the tabletop and what couldn't have been done at all on the tabletop. Here are a few observations:

Reputation and Morality

The karma system in Fallout 3 is better than that in many computer games. Nonetheless, it can't really take your intentions into account. There's one group in particular that - as a good guy - I have trouble leaving alive. If I kill them, though, I will lose (as far as I can tell) as much karma as if I had killed anyone else.

Another problem: people react directly to your level of karma. Perhaps you've done all your killing of innocents behind closed doors, in secret, wearing a full-face mask and coveralls. When you walk around town in a fancy hat and old-style business suit, you'll still be treated like a murderer.

Both of these things are near-trivial for people to handle in a tabletop situation. Can it be done in a computer game? Probably. It would be tricky, though.


Some people have incredibly vivid imaginations and are able to fully immerse themselves in an imaginary world given just a few words of description by a GM. Most people don't fall into that category. There are few times that I've been panicked or really creeped out by a tabletop game. It happens, but it is rare. In Fallout 3, I've been getting creeped out regularly while stalking through old, labrynthine buildings or abandoned metro tunnels filled with boobytraps and other dangers (don't get me started on the fire-breathing giant ants). Then, there's all that wandering through ruins when someone starts shooting at you and I can't see where he is and oh my god he has a minigun and gah he isn't even human!

The reaction to that is a bit different from my reaction to something that begins with the words, "You failed your spot check?"

Similarly, wandering around in the Wastelands in Fallout is fun. You run into burnt-out husks of abandoned houses and all sorts of things. Describing the minutia in a tabletop game to get that level of detail would, I think, not be terribly interesting.


Fallout 3 is pretty good about conversations with NPCs - for a computer game. All NPCs have actual voice acting, and it generally doesn't suck. Many of them have their own story to tell. Many of them are totally insane. You generally have multiple conversational options.

That said, unless they start having live people portray NPCs, this is the one place where I don't expect to see CRPGs close the gap with tabletop games (and even then, it would be tricky). I like to think outside the box in RPGs and solve problems creatively. Someone has a quest for 18 widgets? I want to know what they need those widgets for and think about whether there's an alternative solution to their problem. While most quests in Fallout 3 seem to have a few ways to complete them, I've still run in to several places where I want to do something that just isn't an option.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Storytime: last night's game

I swear, our party isn't made up of PCs. I'm pretty sure we're a wandering encounter.

Last night, in Angela's game, we went through our first real(ish) dungeon. Yes, we've been playing for two years, and we're 10th level now.

...and, yeah, the dungeon is actually above ground (going up, actually), made of glass, and inhabited by good guys (who are total jerks).

Anyway, relevant bits of the story in handy bullet form:
  • While investigating a cult of a forgotten god (the bulk of the campaign to this point), we discovered that our plane had become untethered and was hurtling through the outer planes in a manner that would end with its destruction (or possible incorporation into Mechanus - not that such a fate would be any better).
  • We headed to Sigil to look for help. One of the trails we followed led us to Mitra, an arch-mage who had been (inadvertantly) responsible for the untethering of our plane 3,000 years ago - and cursed with vampirism.
  • Mitra said he was willing to help correct his error, but he'd need his notes on the ritual, which had been taken by a paranoid cult devoted to slaying vampires at any cost.
  • We made contact with the cult (their base was in the always-sunny part of the Beastlands), but they were unwilling to deal - or even budge. We decided that we had to take notes by force. Mitra helped out by creating a diversion in Sigil that drew some of their heavy-hitters away.
So these guys are living in a giant glass building in the Beastlands. They are totally paranoid about assassins (since their nemeses tend to be able to dominate thralls), and have boobytrapped their home (which is also hallowed w/dimensional anchor and has permanent Private Sanctum up).

We're not totally through yet, but we did manage to make it to the stairs to the third (top) floor. Talking to people first gave us enough info that we were able to bluff some people into thinking that we belonged there long enough to get the drop on them. Having two PCs capable of an invisibility/sneak-attack combo helped down a wizard without giving him a chance (his failure of 4 or 5 listen checks helped, too). We tried to subdue people when we could - but we had to kill more than we'd like. We had an in-character discussion about the possibility before we went in (the group is mixed good/neutral).

We managed to avoid a number of traps (though our druid got caught in an explosive runes), but we did encounter (sort of) an iron golem (medium-sized) - which probably would have wiped us out (our only adamantine weapon is a chef's knife - don't ask, and most of our big damage-dealing relies on either spells or sneak attacks) if we had actually fought it. Fortunately, we managed to close the door between us... and then I slipped our portable hole through the crack under the door. The golem fell in... and now we have a portable golem, and I really don't know what to do about that...

Beyond Alignment: Adding Moral Complexity to your Game (Reprint)

Reposted from 9/4/07

This article first appeared in the Silven Trumpeter (Vol. 4, Issue 2, June 2006).

Many people play roleplaying games in order to escape from the moral ambiguity of real life. They want to sit down, roll some dice, kill some goblins, take their stuff, and feel good about it. Perhaps the only personal growth that they are interested in for their characters is measured in terms of levels and experience points.

I find this to be a perfectly valid – and often very fun – way to play roleplaying games. In this article, however, I am going to talk about focusing your gameplay on serious moral questions and complicated moral dilemmas. Think about the goblin children that will starve to death now that their parents, mentioned above, are dead. This is not a new idea. People have been engaged in morally-focused roleplaying for decades. They have, however, been doing so without any guidance.

Conventional roleplaying games, such as Dungeons & Dragons and White Wolf’s various games, tend to address morality descriptively, if at all. They may have tags, like an alignment systems or virtue scores. These tags can provide a set of guidelines for roleplaying a person with a particular sort of moral outlook, but they do not in themselves regularly raise serious moral issues.

Recently, a number of small-press roleplaying games have come to print that focus strongly on some sort of moral question. Dust Devils is a game set in the American Old West that focuses upon the question of whether to shoot or to give up the gun. Another Western-themed game, Dogs in the Vineyard, casts the player characters as gun-toting religious lawmen who travel from town to town to set things right. With Great Power... is a super hero roleplaying game with the tag line, “You can save the world, but are you willing to pay the price?” The granddaddy of the indie game scene, Sorcerer, asks the simple question of “What would you do for power?”

These games have mechanics that are specifically designed to bring the moral issues that they are concerned with into play. In Sorcerer, for instance, you summon and bind demons in order to make yourself more powerful. There is no conventional limit on how many demons you can summon and bind, either in play or during character creation. Each time you summon or bind a demon, however, you risk a bit of your humanity.

This article is not designed for players of these games. Instead, I want to focus on how to ask interesting moral questions during gameplay when the game was not designed specifically around such questions.

Before you implement any of the suggestions I put forth here, talk to your players. If you don’t, following the advice in this article might destroy your game. I don’t want that to happen. Do your players want to be tested with morally difficult dilemmas? Are they interested in a game that asks tough questions? Do they want to have to second-guess their actions, or would they be happier killing goblins and taking their stuff?

Creating Moral Dilemmas

When creating a moral dilemma for a game, I try and remain aware of (and avoid the pitfalls of ) cliché and excessive frustration.

Of the two, clichés are easier to identify. Are the player characters in a position where they had to kill a pile of babies, puppies, and/or kittens in order to save the world? If so, you have a cliché. Using clichés may be an easy way to add moral dilemmas, but “easy” is not tantamount to compelling.

Frustration is trickier, insofar as it is necessary in moderation. Any challenge is a sort of frustration, and you want your players to be challenged. The frustration brought about by an intractable moral dilemma, however, can be particularly disheartening. When planning morally-charged situation, think about the frustration level of the dilemma before you use it. How will the dilemma frustrate the players: will it challenge them or will it simply aggravate them? The frustration level of a dilemma can be raised to unacceptable levels when a player realizes that she can’t make a difference, that her choices are irrelevant, that she don’t even have a choice, or that the game master forced her into the situation. If any of these are true, your players won’t find your plans for the game to be fun, and you need new plans.

With those caveats in mind, creating moral dilemmas isn’t difficult. My preferred method of dilemma-creation is to play on the assumptions of both players and characters. This is a simple thing to do, and it is something that many game masters do all the time, even if it is not usually done in a morally-charged context.

In many games, players will assume that a creature described to them as a monster is better off being killed. Similarly, they may assume that attractive and helpless people exist to be assisted and protected. When you spend time describing something in detail, players tend to assume that the thing you are describing is important and that at least some of the details you describe are relevant.

Every character comes with its own set of assumptions. A barbarian from the mountains might be intensely xenophobic, believing that those who were different from him are corrupt. A career soldier might assume that every situation can be solved through the application of straightforward rules. A businessman might assume that everything is for sale and negotiable. Similarly, both players and characters learn to trust certain nonplayer characters, social institutions, and their own abilities and methods.

The idea is not merely to trick the players into having their characters do morally questionable things. Doing so will only run the risk of alienating your players out of frustration. Instead, challenge the moral positions that the players and their characters hold.

How will the xenophobic barbarian react when, after being left for dead by those he trusted, he is nursed back to health and nurtured by someone from an alien culture? What will he do if, after returning to his homeland, he finds that his people are planning a genocidal war against this alien civilization?

How will the rules-bound soldier react when the rules tell her to destroy something she loves, defend something she hates, and defile something she has grown to respect? How will she change when she realizes that her life has been saved by deviating from her rules – or by dumb luck?

What will the mercenary businessman do when he finds that he has grown to care so much about something that he would never sell it? How will he react when his unwillingness to compromise hurts those he has grown to care for?

In addition to challenging a character’s morally-charged assumptions, you can challenge their habits. Consider the habits characters have that generally work out well for them. The barbarian may be usually successful when he charges headlong into battle. The soldier might function by deferring to those who claim authority over her. The businessman might quite effectively make extravagant and false claims when engaged in negotiations. It is often effective to notice these sorts of habits and nurture them. Give players a reason to rely upon them and have their characters develop the habits as worthwhile tools that they will depend upon. Challenges can then be easily constructed to test and refine these habits.

A far less effective, though very tempting, method of introducing moral issues is to introduce some sort of external moral authority and have this authority reprimand the characters for their choices. This forces the characters to either justify their behavior or atone for it. Quests for atonement can be a great deal of fun, but many players will become frustrated by them, particularly if they feel that they were railroaded into performing the act for which they are atoning and did not actually make a poor choice given the circumstances. The realization that you have done something wrong is more significant if you arrive at it yourself. Similarly, the drive to atone is significantly stronger and more meaningful if it is motivated internally.

Also, forcing characters to act in a morally-repugnant fashion is more likely to cause players to become frustrated than it is to engage them. Forcing them into situations where they are faced with an interesting moral choice, however, can be a lot of fun. As a player, I hate mind-control and paralysis, as they rob me of my ability to play my character. However, if the game master in a campaign I was playing set-up a situation in which I was mind-controlled into attacking my companions, but the mindcontrol wore off just as I was about to land a fatal blow on a companion with whom I had an intense rivalry, I would think that was terrific. I would be faced with a great moral dilemma: do I turn aside the blow now that I am no longer under
another’s control or do I pretend that the control has lingered and slay my rival?

Setting out to trick your players into acting in a way that they will be sorry for later is only reliably effective when the players can look back and honestly say that their characters ought to have known better. For instance, when a band of intrepid adventurers happens along a fearful dryad who is seeking to escape a horrible monster, the adventurers might well hunt down the monster to slay it. When it turns out that the so-called monster is a civilized, anthropomorphic beaver, they should probably consider the tool belt it wears or the enormous dam, well-crafted out of polished wood, that it comes out of, and realize that the dryad might have been a bit biased in describing it in horrific terms. If they simply charge in and slay the beaverman, then that is their choice, and they will have to live with it.

Creating Morally Interesting Characters

The most morally interesting characters are often those with deep-seated but subtle moral flaws. To be effective, such flaws ought not to be simply false moral principles to which a character adheres. If they are, a player can replace them as soon as they come under scrutiny. Instead, these flaws should be deeply-ingrained habits of character. An effectively-prejudiced barbarian character isn’t one who merely holds the statement, “elves are flighty, worthless cowards” to be true. This could be easily shown to be false, given enough exposure to dedicated and brave elves. Instead, an effectively-prejudiced barbarian might be one who mocks others by calling them elves, spits whenever he sees an elf, is unable to take an elf ’s competence seriously, and would expect to die if his life depended on elves.

Our other two examples are also easy to put into terms of habits. The rules-following soldier doesn’t necessarily think that every command from her superior is the right thing to do. Instead, she doesn’t make decisions on her own well. If she doesn’t have a rule that is applicable to the situation, she may flounder and hesitate out of uncertainty. Her rules-following might stem from a deep-seated insecurity about her own decision-making capabilities. She may also have a fear of taking responsibility for her own actions. If she follows rules she can blame any wrongdoings on the rules themselves, or whoever it was who gave her those instructions.

Similarly, it isn’t simply that the mercenary businessman believes that everything has a monetary value. He lives his life in such a way that, for him, everything does. Even if he doesn’t do so consciously, he implicitly assigns monetary values to relationships, people, and tasks of all sorts.Perhaps he does this because he finds himself incapable of caring about things unless they are put into monetary terms. He might be unable to form deep emotional connections to others. To him, love might mean nothing more than that he wouldn’t trade one he loved for a pile of treasure.

Developing moral flaws as habits embedded into a character’s psyche works well for both player characters and many nonplayer characters. There is a particular type of non-player character that demands special mention, however. This is the moral authority. Most moral authorities are normal people. They may be priests, mentors, or monarchs. What makes them moral authorities is often that they speak with the voice of experience. These characters might be just as internally flawed as any of those detailed above. The difference is that they understand their flaws and attempt to compensate for them.

When portraying a moral authority it is important to remember not to take away the players’ moral choices. Answering moral questions with a moral authority can shape the characters actions such that they are no longer acting based upon their own conscience, but are, rather, acting in accordance with what they have been told is good.

This is a particularly tricky thing to avoid when you are portraying moral authorities who are not mere mortals. It is possible to portray an angel or a similar character as something other than a one-dimensional caricature. In Dungeons & Dragons, the alignment system makes this particularly easy: there is no pure good. Celestial entities are either lawful good, neutral good, or chaotic good. These three moral outlooks can be distinguished by their flaws. The lawful good outlook might focus too much on justice, ignoring concern for relationships or individual liberty. The neutral good outlook might care deeply about individuals, but do so at the expense of both justice and freedom. The chaotic good outlook might focus upon protecting individual rights at the expense of other concerns. These dichotomies can be generalized to hold true independent of the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system by realizing that instituting priorities into a moral agenda will create corresponding blind spots. In a game that encourages players to think hard about moral questions, even the angels should not be completely above reproach. In fact, providing the player characters with a reason to doubt the moral wisdom of someone who they have considered a moral authority could be a great opportunity for roleplaying moral growth.

Creating a Morally Complex Game

There aren’t any secret tricks that you need to learn to put these tools into practice. Given interested players, morally charged situations, and morally interesting characters, your gameplay will naturally begin to address these sorts of issues.

If you want to focus your game strongly on a particular moral question or issue, however, there is more to be said. In addition to designing morally-interesting characters, you may want to create large-scale social institutions that accentuate some of the themes you wish to address. You might also want to institute some rule modifications that bring the focus of gameplay onto the issues you want to be highlighted. It might be worthwhile to look toward some of the indie games that I mentioned earlier for guidance in this respect.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Naming Characters

I have a lot of trouble deciding on PC names.

I often turn to Kate Monk's Onomastikon for help. If you aren't familiar with it, check it out.

I also look at baby naming websites. Many of these have name-meanings attached, which is often a plus. Today, via Lifehacker, I found What A Lovely Name, which allows you to start with character traits and end with a list of names associated with them. It also allows you to narrow by linguistic/cultural tradition. Unfortunately, you can't do both at once, though I hope this is an upcoming feature.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Help a child. Get a gaming tool.

A bit over a year ago, I mentioned the XO laptop as a possible gaming tool. Amazon is once again having their Give a Laptop, Get a Laptop offer where you spend $399 and get two XOs - one for yourself and one which is shipped to a child in a developing country.

I didn't get the XO last year because it runs Linux - and, thus, isn't going to work with WotC's Digital Initiative.

Now, I'm not really playing 4e. I'm not currently paying for a DI membership and I don't plan to. Unfortunately, I just spent about $400 dollars on a desktop PC, and I'm a bit concerned about long-term job security at the moment, so I don't know that I'll be able to take advantage of this. It seems really cool, though.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On the use of treasure...

In the beginning, we killed things and took their stuff.

Some of us still do that. Others of us got this crazy idea that maybe our PCs could do some other things and have some complex motivations.

What's the role of treasure in a game that follows that second path? Is it a reward? If so, it isn't really the most appropriate one - an effective reward should correspond to the motivation of either the PC or the player.

There's also no particular reason that treasure needs to scale with PC power level. That is a consideration of game and campaign design. You can have a (fun) game that has neither treasure acquisition nor necessary character advancement - Spirit of the Century is one example. Most superhero games don't really have treasure acquisition. Why do we see it as necessary to fantasy?

In the D&D game Angela is running, treasure acquisition isn't really a goal. The PCs were mostly motivated by trying to clear their names and to seek answers to some questions. As they found the answers, they found that their world was in danger and began to do what they could to help. I know that Angela has been having a hard time fitting treasure into the game. We don't kill a lot of things and take their stuff. While treasure acquisition is an assumption of the game system, it isn't really as appropriate to this campaign as it is in many others.

Yeah, we probably should be using a system other than D&D. Is that the answer here? Is there something that I'm missing?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Game scheduling tool?

At work, I've used web apps to schedule meetings between a bunch of people with busy schedules, but it never occurred to me to use such things to schedule a game. I know some campaigns out there (I'm in one at the moment) don't have a set meeting time - the players get together when they can. Often, though, these games fall apart for lack of meeting. For these sorts of scheduling issues, a web application might be useful. There are a bunch of these - one of them was mentioned today on Lifehacker (which is what inspired this post).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Magical material science

Fantasy worlds are full of magical materials - some actually enchanted, others merely unusual. In 3.5 D&D we have a whole host of them including mithril, adamantine, and darkwood.

Usually, there are weapons and armor made with these materials that are lighter or stronger than they normally would be. Rarely, though, are the full ramifications of these materials for engineering recognized.

Some settings deal with these things better than others. Exalted is pretty good for this with a host of magitech, but even it only touches the surface. In Exalted, the Haslanti League mines feathersteel - a remarkably lightweight ore that they use in building airships. The old city of Chiaroscuro had buildings built of a strong, glass-like material. The five magical materials: Orichalcum, Moonsilver, Starmetal, Soulsteel, and Jade are all nearly unbreakable possessed of different affinities. While not a building material, firedust is a naturally-occuring substance similar to black powder.

What, though, could exist in a fantasy world with some basic magic and access to materials like mithril, adamantine, and darkwood? (I am deliberately ignoring the possibility that these materials might be fantastically rare and expensive.)

Starting out in the familiar realm of weapons, we have untouched possibilities: mithril (half the weight of steel, but just as strong) could be used to make oversized, but usable weapons. Want a longsword that feels like you're wielding a shortsword or rapier? OK. How about a five foot long blade that's usable one-handed? Leverage will get to be an issue eventually, but a lot can be done with counterbalancing. Adamantine (super-strong metal) makes weapon-breakers a really feasable possibility. Darkwood (half the wieght of wood, just as strong) might have some interesting applications for long polearm hafts. A darkwood quarterstaff would be light enough to have heavy iron butts on either end - essentially, a dual mace with extra leverage. Adamantine could be used to make finely-linked (jewelery-sized) chains that are stronger than those found on normal flails - these could have a host of uses in weaponry and elsewhere.

Armor is often a reflection of the materials available. While D&D posits lightweight mithril full plate armor, what about normal-weight, extra thick full plate made of mithril? What about leather armor with mithril inserts to add extra protection to vital areas?

Stepping away from armor and weapons, what would a boat made from darkwood look like? Could a boat be made of mithral?

What about skyscrapers?

Think about what we can do with materials like plastics, high-density ceramics, steel alloys, and even aluminum - things that weren't existent or readily available 1000 years ago. Now, our current interests and needs are likely somewhat different from those of people living in a fantasy setting, but if you were to combine some of the fantasy materials above with spells like Wood Shape, Mending, Stone Shape (who needs concrete?), and Fabricate, I expect our engineering capabilities would be similar.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

WindyCon 35

Next week, Angela and I will be heading up to Chicagoland for WindyCon. This is a SF con - not a gaming con, but they do have a gaming track. sort of. in theory.

Mostly, though, I expect that I'll be in the dealer room where Angela will have a table selling stuff (mostly boxes with eyes on them and similar things).

Some of the programming looks interesting, but it is focusing upon military SF this year, which isn't really my favorite subgenre...

Anyway, if you're going to be there, drop me a line or stop by and say hello.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Fallout 3 - intro and character generation

As I mentioned yesterday, I just picked up Fallout 3. I haven't had much time to play, but i like what I've seen so far. Good games often give me ideas about how to improve other games, so I may be commenting here from time to time on possible applications to tabletop RPGs.

This wouldn't be too weird. The SPECIAL system which runs the underlying mechanics of the game is, essentially, a tabletop-style system that runs behind the scene.

Anyway, the introductory segment to Fallout 3 is brilliant.

It accomplishes four tasks amazingly well:
  • It serves as an introduction to the plot.
  • It establishes the tone of the Fallout world.
  • It acts as a tutorial.
  • It integrates character generation into it near-seamlessly.
This all happens as a series of flashbacks to birth (where you set your name, gender, and eventual appearance), infancy (learn to walk and basics of interacting with your environment - and set your attributes), 10th birthday (learn basics of conversation, how to use your Pipboy, and how the combat system works), and 16th birthday (set your skills). These are all interspersed with things that set the tone and setting of the game, and they are handled very smoothly. Once you are about to begin the game you get more of a taste of combat and a few subsystems - and then you get a chance to make any changes to your character that you want.

Now, there are times when low-impact introductory scenes would be great in tabletop RPG play. They would:
  • let new players learn the rules without serious in-game consequences
  • let you match your character stats to both your actual play style and the demands of the setting/GM
  • give you a bit of practice playing your character
  • allow you to make changes to your character before game play really starts
Now, some games do allow for some of this. Various White Wolf games have included Preludes for characters as options. Spirit of the Century has some optional rules for establishing PC stats during play. Many GMs allow players to revise their characters during the first few sessions of a campaign. I'm sure there are other examples.

The weird thing is, I loved this in Fallout, but (while I've enjoyed running them) I've never been a huge fan of White Wolf style Preludes as a player. At best, they have been OK. Now, this might have been a combination of my attitude and the GMs, but I have to wonder if this is something that simply works better in a computer game? Are there games that do this really well?

Monday, November 03, 2008

Fallout 3 and thoughts on edition change

I picked up a copy of Fallout 3 yesterday.

This is going to really cut into my productivity.

When I heard that the developers had changed, I was a little worried that the tone of the game wouldn't be quite the same under the new team. The 50s-style post-apocalyptic future that wasn't is what really appealed to me in the series. I needn't have worried. From what I've seen, they've nailed it... and they've done so while converting the game to 3-D with a different perspective (and truly gorgeous graphics), a somewhat different combat system, and some subtle tweaks to the underlying game mechanics.

Then I look at D&D, and I wonder why they couldn't have done the same thing.

The answer is pretty clear to me. There was a demand for Fallout 3. Fallout 2 has limited replay value. That doesn't carry over into D&D. Wizards created most of the demand for 4e (think about their negativity about 3.5 over the past year or so) - as far as I can tell, most people playing 3.5 were fairly happy with it. If Wizards had made 4e a slightly shinier version of 3.5 with a couple of major changes (but, at its base, the same game), would people have given up their investment in 3.5 and switched?

Maybe. Eventually.

It almost certainly wouldn't have been a rousing financial success for WotC, though.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween

Some random thoughts in honor of Halloween:
  • What looks scary in a fantasy world? We typically think of twisted, non-human visages as scary, but would they be in a world in which goblins, zombies, and such are commonplace?
  • One tool in creating fear is solitariness. When you are alone in a dangerous situation, it tends to be much scarier than if you have someone to rely on. If you want to scare your players in a game, this is a hard tool to use... since it generally requires splitting up PCs. Also, the fact that players are still sitting around the same table makes it tricky to pull off.
  • This is a scary website.
  • If I want to scare my players, I'd present them with weirdness rather than things that would be generally considered scary. If they don't understand something, they are more likely to fear it. This might also nicely allow you to tie their dawning comprehension to realization about the horror of the situation they are in...
  • I have a (bad?) habit while GMing of using a particular sort of horror in my games - I get the PCs into a situation where they act (usually with decent intentions) and eventually realize that they are responsible for some sort of atrocity... (Here are a couple of examples.)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Book Review(s): The Long Price Quartet (in progress)

The last week has been somewhat rough at work. I've been taking solace in fiction.

Currently, I'm in the middle of the third book of the Long Price Quartet, a series written by Daniel Abraham, who I'd never read. I picked up the first book on a whim at the library. Have I mentioned that I love living two blocks from a brand new public library?

Anyway, the three books released in the series so far are:
The Price of Spring (Book Four) is, presumably, forthcoming, but I'm not sure when.

It had better be soon, because I've been tearing through these things. The novels are non-traditional fantasy (with a definite economic/political twist to them). The strength of the books is well-divided between plot, characterization, and setting - though it is the last of these that I'm going to talk about since it probably has the most relevance to games.

The world in which the novels are set is a world which has (as far as I can tell) exactly one sort of magic, that of the andat. The andat are concepts of action that normally exist in a potential state. They are bound into physical forms by the poets, who accomplish this by describing them perfectly and holding that description in their heads constantly. The andat wish to return to their natural state, but are tied into a symbiotic relationship with their poet.

There are only a dozen or so andat, and they are powerful, limited only by the concept they embody. An example is Removing-The-Part-That-Continues (known as Seedless), who keeps the port city of Saraykeht rich by easing the production of cotton - but could just as easily cause every pregnant female thing in the world to spontaneously abort their pregnancy.

The society and culture of the nation that holds the andat is rife with bits to stealing for fantasy RPGs. In addition to the andat themselves, the training regimen and organization of poets that bind them is fascinating, and is closely tied to the actual rule of the cities in a subtle and believable manner.

The society uses a complicated series of expressive postures to complement language, adding nuance. For instance, there might be a simple posture indicating regretful leavetaking. This could be colored with indications (or implications) of relative status, the likelihood of return, acceptance of a task, or any number of other things. Something like this could be really interesting in an rpg, where players are often describing the appearance and reactions of their characters anyway.

In addition to the cool ideas, the characters and story are great, too. I'm a fan.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Real Magic Items: creepy magic weapons

Back in the day, everyone wanted Blackrazor, the nasty Stormbringer knock-off from White Plume Mountain. There were two other powerful magic items in that module of comparable power - the trident Wave and the hammer Whelm.

Why the Blackrazor love? Some of it might have had to do with its form factor (a sword) and powers (soul-stealing). On the other hand, there were - if I remember correctly - some serious consequences for wielding it. I think a lot of the appeal simply had to do with the visuals - Blackrazor was described as appearing to be made out of the night sky, or something like that. (It has been a long time.) It was cool.

So, just for fun, I thought I'd offer some cool visuals and effects that you could apply to magic weapons in your games. These won't have a serious effect on their power level - they just up the coolness (and occasionally the creepiness) factor.

  • The flat of the weapon's blade is covered with a low relief of multiple faces. When the blade is bloodied, the blood seeps into the mouths of the faces. A clear gem on the pommel darkens as the faces drink blood, but generally becomes clear again over the course of a day or two. This blade never needs cleaning from bloodstains.
  • This cold-based weapon appears to be made of actual ice. In warm environs, it is slick to the touch, but it does not actually drip moisture. When the weapon is looked at closely, a tiny, vaguely humanoid figure can be seen inside it. Usually, it appears frozen in place... but sometimes it seems to be moving... until it notices it is being watched.
  • This weapon is covered in tiny holes. Strange, beetle-like creatures swarm from the holes, entering the wounds of those damaged by the weapon.
  • This weapon, though it feels solid, appears to be made of wavering smoke. In combat, tendrils of smoke will hungrily reach out from the weapon towards the wielder's foes.
  • The wood on this weapon begins to show signs of rot when the weapon has spent significant amoutns of time unused. Though this does not seriously affect its use, it is unpleasant. Upon tasting blood, the rot immediately begins to fade, and (with repeated use), the wood begins to grow a smooth bark.
  • This fire-based weapon does not actually bear flame itself. Rather, it appears to be made of a craggy charcoal-like substance. In use, it glows red with interior heat. It will light combustible materials if touched to them, and - in doing so - lets out a hissing noise that sounds like a satisfied sigh. When brought close to such materials, but not allowed to light them, it releases a faint discomfited moan.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Playing with taboos

Roughly speaking, a taboo is a cultural prohibition. Modern societies have a ton of taboos. They range from prohibitions on cannibalism, slavery, and incest to prohibitions on eating meat, using certain words, and engaging in arguably harmless sexual activities. Some taboos have a religious origin, but it isn't necessary.

When you want to present a different culture in an RPG (whether it is a wholly alien one, one which you want players to perceive as despicable, or something that you want to be merely foreign and flavorful1) playing with that culture's taboos is one way of achieving your goals. An easy way of doing this is to pick one taboo that either the PCs' or players' culture has and violate it and then to institute a new taboo in the culture (probably unrelated) that neither the PCs' or players' culture has.

Here are a few examples:

  • You want to create a somewhat alien group of humanoid non-humans - close enough to relate to humans, but different enough to be clearly alien. Maybe they are Lizardfolk in a D&D game... or Star Trek style human-like aliens in a SF game. Let's say that these folk don't have an incest or pedophilia taboo. In fact, mothers breed with their own sons (who sexually mature more quickly than females) as a matter of course. (We can then come up with some seriously strange-to-us family structures.) In terms of giving them a new taboo, let's give them a series of taboos surrounding names and social interactions: they don't refer to certain familial relations by name; in social situations, they won't look at an individual's hands unless that person has told them their name, and there is a taboo against covering your face with your hands (it is considered revolting as well as a grave insult). Toss in cosmetic and biological differences, fill in some cultural gaps, and you're good to go.
  • You want something really alien? OK. Let's remove all taboos about food. Food consumption for this culture has no social relevance - eating is a culturally transparent activity. Cannibalism isn't a taboo. Eating while talking isn't impolite. If two members of this culture were walking down the street having an intimate conversation, and happened to walk by a festering corpse (of anything), one of them could take a bite out of it and the other wouldn't notice (they might physically see it, but it wouldn't register as relevant). The flip side of this is that there are no 'formal' meals - eating is totally irrelevant to social situations. Now, let's add in a bunch of taboos about, say, music. Music is important, but certain rhythyms (including when used in speech, footsteps, or anything else) are considered anathema - and are usually responded to by swiftly killing the offending rhythym-maker. Other sorts of music are only appropriate during certain social situations - and dictate socially-appropriate responses. When certain sorts of music are playing, there is a taboo against refusing a request; when other sorts of music are playing, there is a taboo against referring to one's own future plans in any way, and so on.
  • How about something not alien, but morally repugnant? We have taboos against treating guests badly. Let's get rid of them for an example culture - these people consider guests to be those who have come begging to them for shelter - as see a hierarchical power structure there. Placing yourself under someone else's power - for us - can often be seen as developing a relationship based on trust. In this culture, it is never done except as a last resort, except by the ignorant or very foolish. ("Hosts" might also extend the stay (and dependency) of their "guests" via things such as food poisoning, drugs, or outright imprisonment.) Let's add in a related taboo against asking for help and another (less related) taboo against, say, showing sentimentality to those considered your equals. If you want to go for crude shock value (I'm not advocating this), you can also remove some taboos about, say, bodily functions.

1 Can I use the word "flavorful" in a post referencing cannibalism?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Crunch Fetish

Sometimes, I have to indulge my twisted love of overcomplicated rules.

I blame 1e AD&D for this.

The thing is, I don't think I'd want to play a game with such rules - I just enjoy coming up with them.

Anyway, here is a sketchy draft of an add-on to 3.x to complement my last post (it doesn't do nearly everything that I want it to, but...):

Fluid Combat Round Rules Module

Initiative proceeds from highest to lowest, in rounds, as normal with the following changes:

  • Initiative is measured in moments. If the highest moment is an initiative of 23, then this is considered "moment 23." Moments are counted down beginning with the highest initiative score and ending at one(1).
  • Characters add a bonus to their initiative score equal to their BAB divided by 5 (rounded down).
  • A character may begin taking actions on the moment of its initiative rating, and may take additional actions until it runs out of actions or the moment count reaches 1 (whichever comes first).
  • In each round, a character has one move action and one standard action or a single full-round action.
  • A character may only take a single move, standard, or full-round action per moment.
  • A character may move one-third of its speed (rounded up) in a moment. Thus, to complete a normal movement action takes 3 moments (6 for a full move).
  • A character may take a single standard action in a moment.
  • A character may take a full-round action. This lasts from the moment a character begins the action to the same moment +1 then next round.
    • Characters who withdraw or run as a full-round action should divide their total distance moved by the number of moments to determine their location at any given point (if relevant).
    • There are no full attacks under this module
  • A character cannot act on an initiative count of 0 or less. If a character has actions or movement rate left after moment 1, it is lost.
  • A character may take a 5' step in a moment. This reduces their initiative count by 1 in the next round.
  • A character may sacrifice a move action to increase their initiative count by 6 in the next round.
  • A character may sacrifice a standard action to increase their initiative count by 10 in the next round.
  • A character may delay their action in a round without having an effect upon their initiative in the next round.
  • After taking a standard action, a character may make follow up attacks if they so choose. Each such attack is subject to the following restrictions:
    • Each attack is at a cumulative penalty to hit. For melee and thrown weapons: Light weapons are at -2 for the first follow up attack, -4 for the second, and -6 for the third (-8/-10/-12/etc). Medium weapons are at -3/-6/-9/etc. Heavy weapons are at -4/-8/-12/etc. Crossbows count as light weapons (but require loading time as normal). Other bows count as medium weapons, unless otherwise specified.
    • Each follow up attack imposes a penalty to your next round's initiative equal to the sum of the penalties to hit. Thus, two attacks with a medium weapon would impose a 9-point (3+6) penalty to your next round's initiative.
Light weapons are those that have a weight less than or equal to 1/10th of a character's light

Medium weapons are those that weigh between 1/10th and 1/5th of a character's light load.

Heavy weapons weigh more than 1/5th of a character's light load.

Some draft/example feats:

Strong Armed: Count your strength as 4 points higher for determining weapon category (light/med/heavy). (prereq: Strength 12)

Swift Archer: Bows count as light weapons for follow-up attacks. (replaces Rapid Shot)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Tyranny of the Turn

In the beginning (i.e., the 1970s and early '80s), turns in combat were very abstract things, representing a series of exchanges of blows. (I'm avoiding technical usage of turn vs. round here - just assume I'm talking about both of them.) The assumption was that only a small percentage of attacks were effective.

As time progressed, the abstraction diminished. People assumed that they were modeling every attack they made with a 'to-hit' roll. The rules shifted to be more accepting of such interpretations.

Games other than D&D were developed. Most of these did away with the elements of abstraction in combat. GURPS, for instance, uses a 1-second time interval in combat, rather than D&D's vaguer 3-5 second time interval. In general, successor games didn't even refer to combat as abstract. With few exceptions, each attack was represented by an individual roll. The thing that stayed? Turns.

Now, combat - particularly combat between two individuals - tends to have a rhythm to it. People talk about trading blows, for instance. I used to fence (and should really start it up again), and there is definitely a cadence in a bout.

That said, it is not unusual for someone to attack several (or even many) times in a row. This is obvious if you watch boxing matches (I don't, but... ummm... I've seen Rocky and stuff). In most RPGs, this doesn't happen due to the way combat is structured in turns.

When you add in multiple combatants, combat gets a lot messier and even less structured.

Given that, why do we use combat turns?
  1. They are easy: When you're sitting around a table, it is easier for everyone to have a turn in combat than to figure out and adjudicate who gets to go when.
  2. They are fair: Combat in real life may not be fair, but we like our games to be. We all know gamers who wouldn't be happy if they got into fights where they never had the opportunity to even try to land a blow.
  3. Historical momentum: Early RPG combat developed out of wargaming. Later RPG combat systems developed from earlier, turn-based ones. It is hard to break some assumptions...
Are there alternatives?


Notably, Exalted uses a system where each action takes a certain number of ticks. Some actions in combat take longer than others - and when you are done with the action you've taken, you can take another. I like the basic idea of Exalted's system, but I have a few issues with its specific implementation.

Are there other non-turn-based systems that you like?

Monday, October 20, 2008

d20 Patch: 4e-style monsters

It has been pointed out that players prefer 3.5 and GMs prefer 4e. Whether this is true or not, it has enough of an element of truth to gain some traction.


GMs really like the ease of preparation in 4e. In 3.5, statting up a monster for a combat that might last a couple of rounds was a headache. In 4e, you can quickly edit something from the Monster Manual - or, if you need something totally different, you pick a level, role, and a couple of powers and - with info contained on a 2-page spread in the DMG - you are pretty much good to go.

Has anyone basically translated this back so that it would be usable in 3.5? If not, is there a demand for it? I was thinking about doing it, but didn't want to waste my time if someone already has...

Friday, October 17, 2008

Useful GM tool?

I've mentioned mindmapping and brainwriting as techniques for GMs before. Apparently, you can currently get the ~$200 ConceptDraw v5 mindmapping software for free (they are currently on v6). I will probably download this tonight and check it out.

I've yet to find one of these things that is configurable to a degree that it will work well for me. Maybe this one will be it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Creepy little statues

Angela and I went to
Allerton Park over the weekend, mostly because we needed to just spend some time in the woods.

Allerton is pretty cool - it has both formal gardens and nature trails. There are some old, ruined structures in the woods, as well as some random sculptures (notably a large, bronze of a dying centaur). I think it is probably the sculptures that make Allerton particularly notable. The most famous sculpture there is the Sunsinger, but there are a ton of other ones - Fu Dogs, Sphinxes, and these creepy little Chinese musicians sculptures:

There is a whole "avenue" of the formal gardens lined with these guys. They're about two feet (~6o cm) tall. Let's get a close-up at a face:

I hope that these were actually imported from China or somewhere, but I fear that Allerton had these tiny, little figures with inhuman features commissioned.

When I saw them this time, I (inexplicably?) immediately thought of how 3.5 made the bard the favored class of gnomes. The features on these things would make for some decent inspiration for creepy, little fae types.

Happy birthday to me. Consider this my birthday present to you, in the hobbit-sense.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Disjoining language and culture

A quick tip to help you quickly generate flavorful cultures:

Language and culture are deeply embedded in each other, so much so that when we appropriate one for a new race or people in an RPG, we almost automatically grab them both. Take, for example, White Wolf's original Werewolf game - the nature-mysticism that the werewolves adhered to seemed to be loosely based in Native American beliefs (or cliches about them - I'm not sure), and their naming conventions ended up being similar. We've seen plenty of fantasy analogues to real-world regions (Al-Qadim, Rokugan, Maztica, Nyambe) that do this on a larger scale. People even do this unconsciously - consider the Scottish Dwarf Syndrome - or the tendency of many people to use stereotypically English-countryside place names in bucolic areas.

So here is a quick tip based on this observation:

To create a flavorful culture that feels a bit alien in a very short amount of time, grab linguistic conventions from one culture and combine it with the cultural flavor of another (very different) one. You want to have an Ancient Greek analogue in your game, but don't want it to be too obvious a rip-off? Use place names and linguistic conventions that are, say, of Scandinavian origin. Neither of these are unusual in most fantasy worlds, but the combination is likely to throw off expectations.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

d20 Patch: Caps

One of the big complaints about 3.x was how unbalanced the game could become given the ability and propensity of some players to create mechanically optimized builds. It is pretty clear that this was a major consideration in the creation of 4e.

What, though, if you want to play a 3.x game and are still concerned about this? One solution might be to place caps on things. Off the top of my head:

Maximum bonus to any d20 roll = (2 x ECL) +5
This would apply to skill rolls, attack rolls, caster level checks, saving throws, etc. If your bonus would normally exceed this, just use the maximum. This would require some tweaking of magical effects that provide massive skill bonuses (like Jump or Glibness) so that they would function differently.

Maximum damage to a single enemy in a single attack = (5 x ECL) +15
Attacks that were optimized to do damage beyond this level would still have value insofar as they'd be maxing out on damage more often than other attacks, but it would cut down on the massive imbalance that is currently possible.

Monday, October 13, 2008

4e: What do classes represent?

When 4e first came out, I remember someone asking a question that has strangely stuck with me. The question? "What if I want to play a fighter who specializes in a bow?" The answer? "Play a ranger."

The exchange is profoundly unsatisfying because the question and answer don't really respond to each other. What is a fighter? In 3.x, it was someone who focused their talents on combat and weapon use. In 4e, a description of a fighter will always include the phrase "martial defender." A 4e fighter isn't just someone who focuses on combat, but it is someone who focuses on melee combat and occupying foes. From the hints we've seen of the Martial Power book, there will be a ton of fighter options covering a wide number of variants within that general role.

...but it is fairly clear that a class can be more than just a power source and role combination. Rogues and Rangers are both martial strikers. We can easily imagine an arcane striker who isn't a Warlock (a Warmage, say) or an arcane controller who isn't a Wizard. The difference? Flavor, I guess. Could the rouge and ranger have been combined into a single class with alternate builds? They probably could have been, but I guess the feeling was that the flavors of the two were distinct enough to justify separating them.

The thing is, Fighters don't really have that flavor thing going for them. I don't think the fighter class is much more than the Martial+Defender combination. I get the impression that any martial defender is going to be presented as a new Fighter build. This seems... inconsistent. Maybe it is simply that the fighter is the class that is most basic, lacking particular flavor? I think that represents a lack of imagination. We could have easily seen the fighter broken up into a few Martial Defender classes. Here are two:
  • The Sentinel (heavily armored and often armed with a two-handed weapon) who focuses on guarding someone or something.
  • The Swashbuckler (lightly armored) who focuses on high mobility, forcing everyone in an area to pay attention to him or else. (It has been suggested that Rogues make good swashbuckling types - but what if I want a swashbuckler who doesn't focus on massive damage, but rather focuses on getting in people's way?)
I find it a little odd that they didn't go that route, but I think that, Warlord aside, they might have been tied up by 'classic' classes.


As a GM, I don't particularly like killing players. As a player, I don't like the idea that my PC could die in a random or meaningless way. When news about 4e was coming out, I found the rumored removal of save or die effects to be heartening. I know this upset many people, but I didn't really understand why - part of me chalked it up to sadistic DMs who were losing a favorite toy and whining about it. Jeff (who I know as a generally non-sadistic DM) tried to explain it to me, but I didn't really get his argument (particularly since he tends not to use a lot of save-or-die things in the games he's run that I've played in...).

Last night, Angela and I were talking about consequences for PC stupidity in her D&D game. She doesn't want to kill PCs outright - she'd rather teach them a lesson... but she feels like there aren't any system-supported consequences other than death.

Sure, there are roleplaying consequences. Neither of us mean to discount those. Part of the issue is that Angela's primary GMing background is in Wraith - a central conceit of which is that there are game-mechanical supports for roleplaying consequences. If you act on certain character flaws, you strengthen your Shadow and begin the descent to specterhood. In D&D, though, there aren't really game mechanics (at least not clear-cut ones) to support consequences other than injury, death, and theft.

I suppose that removing 'save or die' effects get rid of a major method of, ummm, imparting cosequences in D&D.

The thing is, I think that's a flimsy excuse that is used to cover deficiencies. There should be plenty of other consequences than death. If you're running a roleplaying-heavy game, PCs care about things and have beliefs. It is easy enough to violate them. Case in point: in Angela's game, there's a PC (a shaman of a death god who hates undead) who has been very careless. What if his carelessness resulted in the creation of some undead monstrosities. For roleplaying-light games, such things are trickier. Its there that I think some sort of game-mechanical support for consequences other than death is really needed (not that it isn't welcome in a roleplaying-heavy game). I think that this is one of the things that I really like about Spirit of the Century/FATE - you can stick negative aspects on PCs that follow naturally from their actions.

Friday, October 10, 2008

RPG Carnival: Superhero Tropes for Non-Superhero Gaming

Superhero comics have a ton of useful tropes that could easily be adapted to other genres.

Naming conventions

Want your players to know when an NPC is important? Give that NPC an alliterative name. Bonus: It will be easier for everyone (including you) to remember it.

As far as PC names go, Superhero code-names are usually nicknames or titles of a sort. I'm often surprised at how rarely PCs have nicknames or titles. One of my favorite PCs was a highish-level rogue/cleric of Tritherion in a Greyhawk campaign. I decided that his priestly title was Harbinger (which suited the god and the PC's role) and the DM generally had people who recognized him or his symbol of office calling him that - it added to the tone a great deal.

There's also nothing wrong with non-superheroes with secret identities. Look at the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Lone Ranger, or Zorro. Moreover, villains with secret identities are commonplace, so why not heroes?


Create a rogue's gallery for your PCs. In comics, rogues galleries often share a theme that mirrors the PCs in some way. Batman's rogues are often either reflections of Batman's animal-emblem (Catwoman, the Penguin) or reflections of his psychological instability (the Joker, Scarecrow, Two-Face). Superman's rogues may concentrate on the intellect (Lex Luthor, Braniac) or be reflections of him 'unhindered' by his moral compass (Bizarro, Doomsday). Spider-man often faces science experiments gone awry - like the one that created him (Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard). The Hulk typically faces other gamma-irradiated beings (Abomination, the Leader). How do you do this in an RPG? Well, there are a few ways. Perhaps most obvious is the 'evil opposites' route. More subtly, look at an aspect of each PC and twist it - either flipping it to its opposite or magnifying a flaw in it. For example, a wizard who focuses on fire spells might be countered with someone that summons elementals or an enemy focused around a different element. A character motivated by revenge against marauding orcs who slew his family might face the last orc from a tribe slaughtered by adventurers, a human raised by orcs, or someone (not an orc) whose family the character killed.

Also, few things motivate players to beat a villain more than having the villain beat their PCs. This is a fairly common superhero trope, where the hero faces off against a villain, gets beaten, and then needs to do something (even if it is just regain confidence) in order to beat the villain on their second match-up.

Other villain-related tropes you can use: Villain team-ups (usually with internal discord/betrayal), anything from the Evil Overlord list.

Material Issues

When a superhero is rich, he is usually so rich that money is never an object (see Batman, Iron Man, Professor X, Reed Richards). When a superhero is poor, the need for money often motivates the plot (Spider-man is the classic example here). Most superheroes are in-between - and, for them, money is simply never an issue. They have enough to do what they need, as long as what they need is not too ostentatious. Unless you are playing a game that focuses on mercantilism (or kill things and take their stuff), you might want to consider those three categories for PC wealth. In many games, anything more finely tuned will be unnecessary.

Another superhero trope is that equipment is part of a hero's identity. We don't imagine Captain America without a shield, Green Lantern without a ring, Iron man without armor, or Batman without those wonderful toys. Now, the precise nature of the equipment might change. Captain America might lose his adamantium-vibranium shield... but he'll replace it with another one (probably temporarily). Iron Man might modify/upgrade his armor. Green Lantern might... ummm... get nine more rings... Anyway. Yeah. In any case, few superheroes go out and actually, you know, buy things off the shelf (much less take things from their fallen foes) to use in superheroing. In contrast, PCs in fantasy RPGs are usually constantly upgrading their equipment. One eggect of this is that they change their look and capabilities every time they find a new magic item. This can lead to identity drift - the fighter who was the guy who wore mithril chain and carried a magical, flaming axe becomes the guy who wears magical plate armor and carries a dancing shield and magical greatsword. As an alternative to trading in items, consider letting your PCs upgrade magic items they find early in their careers for a discount... or even upgrade those items automatically in a low-treasure game.

Speaking of identity and character-branding, you probably don't want to dress your non-super PCs in spandex or the like (unless you're playing a pulp SF game... or something... naughty), but that shouldn't stop your PCs from having distinctive images. You can come up with a ton of excuses for why your PC wears a particular symbol, say - perhaps it is a family crest (Superman), something designed to evoke a reaction from enemies (Batman), a symbol of an organization (Green Lantern, Captain America), a symbol of something that started him on her path as an adventurer (Spider-man, the Flash), or a symbol of team membership (Fantastic Four, X-Men). It could also have practical purposes, serving as a target in a highly-protected area (the Punisher, Batman, Captain America). Even without a symbol, a particularly distinctive article of clothing or color scheme (Dr. Strange, Elektra, Balck Canary, Green Arrow) does a good bit to make a character distinctive.

Other tropes to steal:

Secret hideouts, secret vulnerabilities, origin stories, and alternate continuities (great for What If style one-shots).

submitted as part of the RPG Blog Carnival.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Reprint: Planescape, Revisited

This is a reprint of a post published on February 7, 2008 in honor of the fact that the D&D game Angela is running has moved to Sigil.

I wrote this up a long time ago as potential notes for a neo-planescape campaign. I've added a couple notes since then.

Maybe I will do something along these lines someday. Until then, maybe someone else will find this useful.

It is unlikely that this will make sense unless you are familiar with Planescape.

The Lady of Pain:
Largely unchanged, though perhaps a bit less hands-on. Mysterious. Silent. Terrifying. Ignore the backstory that was given to her in the gaming fiction.

Some portals, particularly older and more stable ones, are more akin to hallways than doorways. They have demiplanar space inside them. A few of these have multiple doorways off of them, but such are rare. Others have stores or inns that have set up shop within them. The largest and most stable portals practically have small cities within them - these are commonly called Gate-towns.

Religion in Sigil:
As I envision it, Sigil has very few churches to deities. Deities who desire representatives in Sigil may have an embassy, and nearly all such embassies have chapels. Organized worship of deities outside of embassies is not, precisely, illegal... but it appears to be frowned upon by the Lady of Pain and, thus, rare. The Lady of Pain has not, however, taken a stance on cults that worship things other than deities (which is one of the reasons that some of the Factions are so strong in Sigil).

Sigil Government:
The Factions, such as they are, do not have a formal role in government. Each of Sigil's six wards has a Ward Council. The members of these councils are chosen in different manners in different wards. Each of the Ward Councils sends a single representative to the High Council. In addition, each time the high council meets, a different citizen of Sigil is brought to the meeting by one or more of the Dabus. The Council refers to this person as The Voice (presumably "The Voice of the Lady," but this presumption goes unspoken in case it is mistaken). The Voice will break any ties of the council and holds veto power over any of their decisions. It is unknown how The Voice is chosen. Gate-towns have no formal representation, a fact that has caused some unrest.

Alignment and the Outer Planes:
I don't like the reification of alignment, and some alignment concepts ("lawful" - I am looking at you) are a conglomeration of things that aren't particularly related to each other. Instead of Law-Chaos-Good-Evil, the Outer Planes are organized around Reason-Passion-Peace-Conflict. Alternately, I'd use the new 4e cosmology. Sigil would be on an island in the 'center' of the Astral Sea... or something.

The Outlands:
My conception of the Outlands was pretty close to the 4e Astral anyway: The Outlands take up the space between the Planes of Reason-Passion-Peace-Conflict and are physically bordered by them. One can, in theory, walk from The Abyss (Conflict/Passion) to Arcadia (Reason/Peace). The Outlands, however, are weird. Phantom Tollbooth Weird. The Outlands are made up of a series of semi-contiguous pocket-dimensions, many of which are ruled by gods and shaped by their whims... and many of which are infinitely large. Some things formerly designated as outer planes in and of themselves will now be infinitely large domains within the Outlands. The Outlands also have a strange connection to the Inner Planes.

Gate-towns are no longer in the Outlands. Instead, the Gate-towns are demi-planes that have exactly two portals in them - one in Sigil and one on an Outer Plane. The location of each of these portals (in Sigil and on the other Plane) is well-known and well-traveled. The Gate-towns and Sigil itself make up a sort of megalopolis, and some people consider the Gate-towns to be part of Sigil.

The Factions:
The Factions are no longer Capital-F-Factions. Instead, they are much less unified and much more subtly integrated. Many of them are cults or secret societies. Others will have stronger ties to some of the outer planes or Sigil itself. Details are below.

Athar - The Athar exist as a secret society across many Planes. Most of its members in high standing are former clerics who have renounced their faiths. Some are worshippers of gods who have died. They rarely become directly involved in politics, but they often sponsor secular alternatives to activities typically provided only through religion. They have trained midwives and healers, and have reached out to those seeking spiritual enlightenment or meaning in a wide variety of ways. The Athar are subtly evangelical.

Godsmen - The Godsmen Foundry is run by a group within the Athar known as the Believers of the Source. The Foundry is a business venture - it sells both forged products and self-actualization training (which involves forge-training and work in the Foundry). Many people consider the whole thing a scam. The Foundry is, however, a cooperative, and the Godsmen own it (though the Athar still have influence in it). The Godsmen themselves are those who have successfully gone through the self-actualization training and believe that they are on the path to becoming gods. The Godsmen have become economically significant in Sigil. Many Godsmen have largely left the Foundry and continued on a more personal path. They tend to become successful in their ventures.

Bleak Cabal - the Cabal is a social club and service organization for existentialists. They often meet with each other or with members of the Sign of One (or - occasionally - the Revolutionary League) for philosophical discussions and alcohol. They fund and staff services for the poor in Sigil.

Doomguard - The Doomguard is a militant entropy-worshiping cult that exists across many Planes. It also has among its members a few of those who worship gods of entropy, death, and decay - though many of these eventually abandon their gods for the Doomguard philosophy. Members of the Doomguard recognize that the multiverse is flawed. These flaws, they see, will result in the eventual - and inevitable - decay and destruction of the universe. Many of the Doomguard are dedicated to seeing that this process occurs smoothly. Some of them are dedicated to eliminating unnecessary suffering in this process. Others seek to speed the process. In general, the belief is that the universe itself will reincarnate into a less flawed form. This process of decay and rebirth may need to happen many times before the universe is flawless. Joining the Doomguard involves a demonstration of your acceptance of entropy - and often involves the willing physical destruction of something of great value to you.

Dustmen - The Dustmen are cross-planar cultists, a group of whom have infiltrated and taken over the morticians guild of Sigil. Their philosophy involves a denial of Passion and Conflict. Instead of Reason and Peace, however, they see the opposition to these things as a state of True Death. Furthermore, they deny the meaningfulness of the common distinction between life and death - death that does not occur while one is in a state of denial of Passion and Conflict cannot be True Death (and, instead, results in the individual becoming a Petitioner). A minority of the Dustmen believe that the True Death must be found not only in the denial of Passion and Conflict, but must also involve the denial of Reason and Peace. This minority has a tremendous respect for mindlessness, and practices the creation of skeletons and zombies. The Dustmen count some intelligent undead among their members.

Fated - The Fated are the self-proclaimed social elite of Sigil - many of them are ex-adventurers and former members of the Fraternity of Order or the Godsmen. Their interactions with each other center primarily around formal social events. They count among their number several members of the Lady's Ward Council and the Clerk's Ward Council, but their real power is as individuals. Each of the Fated is an individual of impressive ability or resources, without which they would not have been admitted to the group. They consider themselves to be the true powers in Sigil.

Fraternity of Order - The Fraternity of Order is somewhere between a secret society and a cult. Its members seek to develop a set of rules that unify all physical, arcane, social, and governmental laws. Furthermore, they believe that Sigil is the hub of the multiverse, and - as a result - is the key to their project. They have members on most of the Ward Councils. Its members are politicians, scientists, wizards, and businessmen. One of their major projects is to collect as much empirical information as possible about what goes on in Sigil. Another is to study Sigil's relationship to the rest of the multiverse (in particular, many are interested in the Gate-towns). Perhaps most central to the Order's purpose, however, is the strong political goals which fall out of their belief system. If they become the powers that be in Sigil, they believe that they will effectively be the powers that be in the multiverse.

Harmonium - The Harmonium is a group founded by Peace-aligned outsiders. It began as a sort of neighborhood watch within Sigil, and has become a vigilante group that is the de facto police force in Sigil. Moreover, its activities have spread outward from Sigil to the areas around more well-travelled portals, including Gate-towns.

Mercykillers - As the Harmonium expanded, it recruited more individuals who were not as strongly Peace-aligned as its founders. When such individuals were forced to deal more with the harsh realities of the underbelly of Sigil, many of them resorted to methods not sanctioned by the Harmonium. Eventually, this group, frustrated by what they perceived as the Harmonium's overly merciful ways, split off completely. There is a tension between the two, but they will occasionally work together (particularly if the Mercykillers agree to reign in their tactics). The Mercykillers primarily function in the Hive, the Lower Ward, and the Gate-towns of Conflict-aligned planes, but they have begun recruiting and acting outside of the environs of Sigil.

Revolutionary League - The Revolutionary League, like the Bleak Cabal and the Sign of One, is largely a social club for people of a particular philosophical bent - in this case, anarchists. The League has a political agenda - it believes that Sigil belongs to everyone and that the Ward Councils (and their Harmonium lap dogs) should be abolished. Recently, they have gotten wind of the Fraternity of Order's true purpose and have begun to mobilize to tear them down. They could easily turn against other factions.

Sign of One - The Sign of One is a group of solipsists that developed around a group of magical researchers dedicated to developing their own form of magic based upon a solipsistic belief system. While it was founded by a small group of individuals, the group has become increasingly popular among the self-important. These hangers-on tend to treat Sign of One as a sort of social/philosophical club. Recently, the researchers at the core of the group have made some breakthroughs, and the basic abilities of the magical system they have developed are becoming more widespread among the Signers.

Society of Sensation - The Society of Sensation is an elite social club for explorers... in a very broad sense of the term explorer. The Sensates are choosy about who they admit to their number. A prospective member must be sponsored and must have a truly unique experience to offer. The Sensates make extensive use of crystals that record experiences and memories.

Transcendent Order - Members of the Transcendent Order attend - or have spent time at - the Cifer Monastery, where they learn to act through instinct, ignoring both passion and reason. They practice distinctive meditative techniques and martial arts. The monastery in Sigil is not the first of the Transcendent Order's (which was on a Prime), but it has become the largest and, effectively, the headquarters of the Order.

Xaositects - 'Xaositect' is a name imposed from the outside. It refers to any one of a number of roving gangs made up of individuals who are mentally ill, have been driven mad, have had their minds altered by magic, or are of a creature type whose mind works in a way that most individuals in Sigil consider insane or chaotic. There have recently been rumors about an entity (possibly from a Passion-aligned plane?) who calls itself the Xaositect and who is said to be the leader of all of these gangs, but most consider the rumor to be unfounded...

There would be additional factions, as well. These include one that wants Gate-town (and, possibly, outer-plane) representation in Sigil government, and another that is working toward Gate-town independence from Sigil and the connecting planes.

I've gotten rid of the Free League - which I felt was necessary given the role of the factions here - though they might be recast as either (1) a group of individuals fighting against a perceived shadow government or (2) a mercantile league that supports a free market.