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.