Monday, September 29, 2008

Hack Game Design

Sometimes I read non-rpg-related blogs on gaming and game design (for boardgames or video games). Sometimes they help me come at rpg gaming from a different perspective. Video game level design, for example, can tell you a lot about rpg adventure design - and not just about dungeon adventures either.

Today, I ran across this post: 10 Ways to Know If You Are a Hack Game Designer. This applies to RPG game design, but it also applies to GMing - whenever you create a conflict in a game you are running, you're designing a mini-game.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Axe of Lovingkindness

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom at war. The king was a petty man, and the war was his plaything. He persecuted neighboring kingdoms for no other reason than to aggrandize himself. He cared little for the effects the war had upon his own subjects, and gloried in the death of his own soldiers - in the fact that they would march to their doom at his word.

He became a great unifier. Not, of course, in his own country (except for unifying his people in contempt and hopelessness), but in neighboring ones. An alliance formed against him, and its leader - in a daring move to end the war - called him out. The move was daring, for the king was known as a mighty warrior, near unstoppable in battle. Though he was mighty, he was also fearful. He enjoyed bloodshed, but only under his terms. He would not appear a coward, though, so he accepted the challenge to single combat.

As the one challenged, he had the right to choose the weapons. He commissioned a powerful wizard-smith to craft two of the finest magical axes ever created. The wizard knew that the king would win in an axe-duel, but he was clever and had the resources of a kingdom with which to work.

So he created Philas and Ahmis, the Axes of Lovingkindness. The axes were intelligent and loved all. They were designed to see past differences and into the hearts of those around them. They could speak to these hearts, and try to convince their weilder to befriend his enemies. While they were powerful weapons, they loathed to cause harm.

When the day of the duel arrived, the king and his foe chose their axes by lot. The king picked Philas, who immediately saw into the rotten core of his heart. Philas spoke to the king out of love. Shocked by the true feeling of the axe, the king could not commit butchery.

It would be a lie to say that the king became an ideal and just ruler that day, but he certainly turned over a new leaf. The kindness shown to him by Philas touched him, and - while it took a lot of practice - he began to try to show others kindness in return.

In 3.5 D&D terms, Philas is probably a neutral good, intelligent +3, Merciful Battleaxe with a special purpose to promote harmony and kindness, telepathy, and ranks in diplomacy and sense motive.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Superstitions in a magical world

A lot of the superstitions we have today are leftovers from earlier times. The meanings of many of them have changed over the years. Some of them are ritualistic behavior meant to bring good luck or protect against supernatural influences. Others are things to avoid for fear of acquiring bad luck.

What would superstitions be like in a world where magic is demonstrably real?

Some settings tackle this issue dead-on. In Exalted, for instance, anyone who has a rating in the Occult skill can perform simple rituals. These aren't necessarily particularly powerful - they might help to preserve food for an extra day or enact a very short-lived ward that will make it a bit harder for, say, the powers of ghosts to have an effect on you. Also, Exalted's world is an animistic one. Everything has a spirit. The spirit of your iron pot might not be conscious - but if you interact with it in certain ways if might gain a bit of power that would help it in its tasks. On the other hand, the spirit of the river is conscious - and the poetry that you read to the river really does placate it so that it regulates its flooding in convenient ways. In this setting, this is real magic and spirit interactions. Superstitions still exist in such a world - many of them are corrupted forms of rituals and spirit interactions. People might throw apples into the river, thinking that it will please the river-spirit who will then protect them from drowning, but it might be that the river spirit doesn't particularly care about apples one way or another (or the bargain it made regarding apples was with a particular individual 300 years ago and no longer applies). Alternately, people might have jumbled the food-preservation ritual in a particular area and may not realize that it has no effect.

I think that, to some degree, this can be generalized to other settings. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense for superstitions in a fantasy world to be wholly divorced from magic in that world. So, for instance, in a D&D campaign we might see superstitions like:
  • A gesture that wards against the evil eye might be remarkably similar to a somatic component to the Shield spell... or a word said for good luck might be a corruption of some of the verbal components of a Heroism or Remove Curse spell
  • A ward against evil entering your house might include a god's holy symbol - seen used as a divine focus for turning undead
  • Rose petals adorning a baby's crib might be seen as helping it to sleep (rose petals as a material component of the sleep spell)
  • Suitors may eat honeycomb (a component of the suggestion spell) before attempting to, umm, press their case
In addition, ingredients to potions and such could be used. Metamagic components are a great place to look for inspiration if your campaign uses such rules.

In 4e, the components to rituals are generally left vague - but that doesn't mean that they don't have concrete components. An arcana (or religion, as appropriate) check might be used to identify the roots of superstitions.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sex-starved dwarves

It occurs to me that the title of this blog post might show up in some... uh... inappropriate searches.

Ah, well.

Anyway: the (fantasy rpg) Dwarf. I don't know why people started stereotyping them as Scottish, but it has never really resonated with me. In Angela's game, in which I play a dwarf, I go for more of an Amish angle: the focus on traditionalism and craftsmanship is there. I also declared that dwarves in that world wear hats - each of which has a chip of stone sewn into it - because it would be indecent to go around without stone over your head.

Last week, I thought of a bit of a stranger hook for dwarven culture: What if dwarves were all obsessed with sex?

Let me throw out a few postulates to make this work:
  • Dwarves are biologically distinct from humans. Their reproductive systems, in particular, are very different - dwarves bond for life on a hormonal/biological level to the first dwarven member of the opposite sex with whom they have sexual intercourse.
  • The incidence of maternal death during childbirth is very high for dwarves. There could be any number of reasons for this. I'm not planning on going into them.
  • Dwarven women are remarkably fertile.
  • Dwarven mates are strongly physically attracted to each other.
  • While dwarves can engage in sexual activities with those whom they aren't mated to (including members of the same sex)- doing so provokes a strong desire to return to their mate - whether or not that individual is still alive.
So... what do we have here?

Dwarves ruled by pent-up sexual frustration. They may or may not get along personally with their mate. Engaging in sexual activity might result in death (or the loss of a mate), but is near irresistable in some circumstances.

So... dwarves tend to spend long periods of time away from their mates. They engage in time and attention-intensive activities. They segregate by gender. They tend towards conservatism and are disapproving of displays of affection or sexuality. Older male dwarves who have lost their mates often become suicidal (though they tend to try to make their deaths count - and often seek death in battle).

Does it work?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

New classic monster?

We were in Michael's the other day looking at art supplies and decided to check out their Halloween selection. Among other things, they had some monster busts. They had the classics - skeleton-guy, vampire-guy, Medusa, and... hey! Who is that at the bottom?

Let's take a closer look:

Vincent Price?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Whose game is it, anyway?

About a week ago, Angela picked up Spore. I've tinkered around with it. The character modeling and such is really cool. That's not what I want to focus on, though.

If you look at the Amazon link (above), you'll note that Spore has a lousy rating. It isn't because the game is bad (although parts of it seem very oversimplified), but rather due to the ridiculous level of DRM included. In particular, Spore requires an internet connection and periodic background authentication by the publisher. It can only be installed three times without contacting the publisher. The publisher uses things you create in your game (which should be - at least in part - your intellectual property) in other people's games. The game is devoid of resale value. If the publisher goes out of business (or stops supporting the game), the game becomes totally worthless and unplayable.

There is a End User License Agreement that is intended to seriously limit your rights to ownership of the game and make all of the above stuff OK.

It isn't OK. EULAs are, at best, legally questionable. Angela bought Spore at Target. She didn't license it from Target. There was nothing she had to agree to or sign at the point of purchase. She bought the game. It ought to be hers to do with as she wishes.

This is a trend that seems to have started with the music and movie industries - the whole MPAA/RIAA copyright fiasco. The thing is, it hasn't just remained in the world of digital media. It is invading our tabletop roleplaying games.

Last week, Geek Related reported on White Wolf's draconian fansite policy in which they attempt to claim that fan sites can't make money. This seems to be an extension of their previous position that ludicrously prohibited the collection of money at any White Wolf game. I'm sorry, but White Wolf has no more authority over what goes on at my game than my mattress manufacturer has over what goes on in my bed.

Not that I collect money at my bed...

The Wizard's OGL/GSL/d20 licensing issue is related. There is an underlying assumption among many that publishers need a license to publish things that can be used with 4e (or 3.5 or whatever). People can write (and sell) compatible material without a license. You don't need WotC's permission. If you want to use their copyrighted materials, you do - and that was the beauty of the OGL - but you can indicate compatibility without that. If I wanted to publish things for 4e, I don't know that WotC would be offering me anything with the GSL that would be worth the restrictions they'd be imposing.

Note: Nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

To the pain!

Combat in RPGs tends to have a serious problem: it ends in death.

Sure. Some RPGs have morale rules and such. Usually, these are limited to NPCs and they tend to be more applicable in mass combat than skirmishes or duels.

It is duels that I'm concerned with here, duels and practice bouts. Non-lethal combats have a place in many genres. People test themselves against their rivals all the time. They train through practice. They participate in exhibitions. Usually, no one dies.

The thing is, despite no one dying, it is usually clear who the victor is. In D&D, you tell who the victor is by who runs out of hit points. That's not really satisfactory for a boxing match or a practice bout... or even a duel that could end with one side yielding. 4e is a bit better in that it can depend on the bloodied condition, but it is still a bit unsatisfying in the sense that there's no hard line that provides a necessarily compelling reason to yield - hit points lost after being bloodied aren't any different than those lost before.

This is one of the things that I really appreciate about FATE. Damage in FATE is tracked in terms of stress (a lot of the abstract stuff that generally gets lumped into hit points) and consequences (more lasting effects). Combat ends when one side is taken out - the victor gets to determine the condition of the one taken out. It is usually death, but it can just as easily be unconsciousness. Combat can end before that, too. It would be simple to fight until the first consequence. There's actually a concession mechanic built-in to handle this.

Are there any other systems that handle such things elegantly? If so, let me know.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Temptation of FATE

Since I read through Spirit of the Century, I want to run everything in FATE.

I expect this is largely because it is new and shiny (to me). Perhaps it is heightened by the fact that what FATE seems to do extraordinarily well is the stuff that I feel was left out of 4e D&D.

Still, it seems like an incredibly flexible engine. Initially, I was concerned that combat might be a bit oversimplified (and I'm still a wee bit worried about how to interpret consequences), but environmental Aspects and Aspect-imposition seem like they'd naturally generate some really dynamic fight scenes. Like Exalted, to be most effective in combat you need to interact with your environment and take advantage of individual circumstances. Unlike Exalted, this is built in to the core system rather than tacked on as a "stunt" subsystem that doesn't always get consistently implemented.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Romantic entanglements

On Saturday, we played our temporally-displaced Exalted game. It was a good session in which I got to explore my character a bit more than usual. One thing that I sometimes have trouble with is figuring out how characters feel about things. Sometimes it is obvious. Sometimes, though, people have unpredictable desires... and PCs should be no exception. So, yeah. This is about a girl.

Specifically, my character, Red, is a Solar Exalt who was raised in the Realm - where Solar Exalted are considered demonic Anathema and the empire is ruled by Dragonbloods - lesser exalts who have numbers and a constructed state religion on their side. Red is driven to overturn what he sees as the hipocrisy of the Dragonbloods.

So, when the PCs captured a young Dragonblooded girl (about his age) from a noble family, Red dedicated himself to pointing out this hipocrisy and bringing her around to his point of view before she was turned back over to her family. Of course, things are never that simple. Some Solar Exalts are really good at persuasion (natural or otherwise). Red is just a goofy kid (who can walk unseen down the middle of a street in broad daylight and punch a hole through a castle wall). Tigara (the girl) is a noble naval officer-in-training. He had to point out that he was worried that she was being taken advantage of by her family and society... and to do that, he had to convince her that he cared about her. Despite being incredibly good at stealth and theft, he isn't much into lying... so he came to care about her. How much? He's not sure... and neither am I. He's wholly opposed to her family and upbringing - and she still accepted them. Eventually, I just played up the confused teenager angle. He didn't really try to talk her out of leaving (in part due to a magical compulsion...), but he did sneak on to her brother's ship to say goodbye and make sure she really wanted to leave when she was returned to her family.

It was a good scene, but I'm still left with a vague bit of confusion as to how to determine PC feelings in cases like this. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

100 experience points and a bit over a year later...



Strangely, he's not too much better in combat (I should fix that), but he is a lot better at most of the things he does...

More importantly, I am still having fun playing him.

Summary of a campaign, Part 2

...continued from yesterday's post.

We headed back north with Rogenvald. The lich lived in a strange wild magic zone that was located north of the goblin lands. The only civilized inhabitants of this area are gnomes. Getting into the wild magic zone wasn't difficult, but there was a checkpoint manned by volunteers - mostly goblins, but they appeared to be lead by a youngish bronze dragon (a grandchild of the Mabon, we think). The checkpoint was mostly to keep things from the wild magic zone from coming out. They confirmed that there was a serious ghoul problem and that it appeared to come from the WMZ.

We ended up having a nice conversation with Dobriel, who pretended to be a (living) old wizard. He answered a number of questions about the Wayfarer's guild and the cult of Golgo for us. He thought the world was doomed, and planned to start a new life in Sigil. He let us know that he'd be willing to facilitate our evacuation from the world if we needed it. Nice guy, for a lich. We'd left the paladin outside... and pretended to have killed the lich when we ran out (with the illusion of flames consuming the lair).

We also found out that the lich wasn't responsible for the ghoul plague (and, in fact, it annoyed him) - it was, oddly, coming from the gnomes. Rake, the kobold druid, claimed to have suspected this all along.

So, yeah. We headed to the gnome-lands. On the way, we ran into Corbin (new PC, human beguiler) who was from the university and answering a seasonal job ad with the gnomes... did I mention that the ghouls were all originally human and that there weren't many humans up this way? Yeah. So we told Corbin that this was a bad idea and he decided to come and help us...

Eventually, we ended up ending the ghoul plague by ambushing the insanely powerful necromancer at the top of it. To keep with tradition, we framed the Drow. Along the way, Rogenvald was turned into a ghoul... mostly because he was an idiot. We thought about killing him, but then decided to send him to Dobriel... who we thought would find the whole thing hilarious.

We went back south and let the Mabon know about the gnomes. It turns out that the whole area around the Mabon was sort of his preserve for the kobolds, which are near-extinct elsewhere in the world. He wasn't happy that the gnomes were sending ghouls into it...

Between Dobriel and the Mabon (and some additional research and investigation), we found out a lot more about the whole Golgo thing. Apparently, the world we were on once had a strange link to the Elemental Plane of Water. It would flood periodically (every 2000 years), killing most things. Over 2000 years ago, an Archmage severed this link to prevent the flood. Since then, the world had become untethered in the planes, and the planar barriers were deteriorating. Golgo sought to stop this, but was imprisioned in a statue by other gods. His cult is trying to free him so that the world might be saved. Of course, Golgo's world-saving might involve the death of all sentient life...

So we crossed a continent to get to the elf-lands. We talked to fishy ghosts, intimidated a red dragon, and ate the tears of a myconid. Tasty! We ended up having a nice sit-down with Franklin.

End result? We got Franklin to teleport us back to Dobriel so that we could go to Sigil and try to find a solution to our cosmological problems that doesn't depend on Golgo.

So our game has, apparently, become a Planescape game. Surprise.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Summary of a campaign, Part 1

I've mentioned Angela's D&D campaign here before. On Sunday, it reached a major turning-point... so I thought it might be a nice time for a campaign update/log/thing.

I've mentioned the game a few times, but I haven't gone into much detail about it. I'm playing a Dwarf chef-turned-adventurer.

Here's a synopsis of the campaign-so-far:

It begins, as many D&D campaigns that don't start off in taverns do, in a prison. The PCs were all imprisoned for murders - murders they committed without forethought or reason. None of us understood why we'd killed someone. Our best guess was that we'd been enchanted. We escaped from the prison with a plan to find out what had happened. We later found out that the authorities covered up our escape and claimed to have executed us.

The PCs consisted of my dwarf, a half-orc scout (on the run from them orcish military which was engaged in skirmishes with the drow), an insane half-drow spirit shaman who grew up in the swamp and worships a (non-evil) death god, a leucistic kobold druid who has a strong belief in survival of the fittest, and a halfling rogue (imagine Belkar as a kender).

Through investigation, we found out that everyone killed had come into contact with some drow artifacts... and that the Wayfarer's Guild (teleporters) was somehow connected to the whole thing. One of their members, Malik, who was connected to one of these artifacts (a statue of Golgo - a forgotten elvish, not drow, god) was moving out of the area. We impersonated movers and searched his place, picking up some clues.

Information on Golgo was limited. Part of this is that the elvish homeland was on another continent and Golgo hadn't been actively worshipped anywhere for thousands of years. We did find out that Golgo was a god of plenty (wealth and fertility) who was - unlike most gods - native to the plane we were on. He was also tied somehow to Trazak, a god of famine. There was a legend in which Golgo went to various gods of death and disease seeking for them to cause mass destruction in order to prevent some catastrophe. Beyond that, we didn't know much.

We also found out that the world we were on had a periodic flood every 2000 years or so... but the last one was skipped. As a result, poisons were slowly building up in freshwater ponds and lakes. Was this connected? (The answer? Yes.)

Adventurers were had. We dealt with goblins. We beat up a baby black dragon and took its lunch money. We found a strange hole in the air past which we could see an odd-looking landscape and some odder-looking people. We identified it, eventually, as a tiny hole into the Outlands... and it appeared to be stationary in our world and moving steadily in the Outlands. We found some hidden treasure.

One of the hidden treasures we found was, essentially, a will... that included, essentially, a claim check for a folding boat. We went to redeem it from the Mabon, an ancient (and occasionally senile) bronze dragon. The stupid halfling tried to rob him and got polymorphed into a canary. We decided that it was more pleasant and useful in that form.

Outside the dragon's lair, we were confronted by Franklin, Malik's best friend and fellow teleporter. He knew who we were and that we were supposed to have been executed... and he made it clear that Malik told him to take care of us. He trapped us in a forcecage (which put him at about 10 levels higher than us) and threatened us with burning hands. It was clear he didn't actually want to hurt us... but that we were getting in the way of some important plans.

So... he teleported us away... very far away.

We ended up on a tropical island inhabited by peaceful squirrel people and normally-peaceful giant bee people. Unfortunately, there was another planar rift on this island... this one to Mechanus. Formians had come through and taken over the bee-people's hive mind. (Side note: apparently when Angela began the campaign, Nick put in a request for Ant People and Bee People. I have not forgiven him.) The Formians were unintentionally killing off the bee people and destroying the island's ecosystem (they insisted, for instance, in having the bee-people sort all of the island's rocks). So - with the cooperation of a rebel-bee who was intentionally drugging itself with hallucinogens in order to maintain autonomy, we liberated a bee-queen larvae, fed it some royal jelly,used it to hack the hive-mind. Then we set some formians on fire.

We escaped on the folding boat, bribed a kraken with some salt pork, and met up with a really stupid paladin named Rogenvald. Rogenvald had, like us, been teleported south. He'd been teleported by a lich named Dobriel who had once been part of the Wayfarer's Guild. Rogenvald thought he was responsible for a ghoul plague (which we'd heard about in goblin lands). We reluctantly decided to team up with Rogenvald to talk to this lich... who lived on the edge of an enormous wild magic zone.

Somewhere around this time, the player of the halfling (who wasn't a canary any longer) moved to California. be continued.

Deal-breaker: random character generation

Last week, in reaction to our Wednesday-night game-planning meet up, Jeff mentioned that random character generation is a deal-breaker for me. Yes, I grew up on it, but I grew up doing a lot of stuff that I no longer enjoy.

This weekend, though, I got to thinking about why - specifically - I don't want to play games with random character generation.

Part of it is that I'm fairly risk-averse, and I don't want to get stuck playing the substandard character because random dice told me to. I like playing the cool guy. That's one of the big reasons that I play RPGs.

Also, sometimes I - you know - have preferences. I might be in the mood to play a particular sort of character. I don't see why I should have to sacrifice those preferences on the basis of rolling dice. If I'm playing a game, it should be fun for me. That seems like a no-brainer.

Ultimately, though, I think it comes down to what I want to get out of the game - and the character. If I'm playing a PC as a token that I move around through the dungeon, then random character generation is more acceptable. On the other hand, I don't have a huge attention span for that sort of thing. It might be OK for an evening, but I'm not going to get invested in that character, and I'm not likely to have any particular desire to play it again.

I think that's the thing. I like to get invested in characters - in their personal stories and struggles. I'm more likely to do that if I design a character that I'm interested in rather than let the dice randomly assign me one.