Monday, February 20, 2017

On Published Settings

I abhor published settings. Or at least, that's how I phrased it when the subject came up in conversation. This, of course, was bound to provoke a bit of controversy.

"I can't understand that mindset. Like. Have you READ Deadlands?"

Alright. 'Abhor' may be too strong of a word. I can actually enjoy published settings for their fluff. A lot of settings I quite enjoy, especially when they come from an actual work of fiction, rather a campaign book. If we want to make my initial statement more accurate, I abhor running published settings. There's a handful of reasons for this, some more practical than others.
  1. I'm huge on communal setting creation. I want to create something in the broad strokes and then fill in the details through play.  This was how I grew up playing these games in my early teens. We sketched out a map or a came up with a setting and then it just got filled as we played with it. New locations and things were introduced as a natural outgrowth of play, rather than as a concerted world-developing effort or referenced from a gazetteer. As a natural consequence, these worlds were always ours, unique to the people who shaped them and often colored by our own mythologies. Funny enough, this style of world-building seems to be popular both with the OSR crowd and the Burning Wheel/Apocalypse World/Story-Game crowd.
  2. I'm a history nerd. I spend a lot of time memorizing the details of various cultures and eras in the real-world's history. As a result, I can pretty handily fill in the gaps of whatever broad-stroke setting I was running with bits from history without missing a beat. Even something as small as just nailing the material culture of a society or setting is something that I really enjoy. It helps flavor the thing and makes it stand out. To bring that same level of loving detail and attention to a published setting, I'm effectively going to have to study a whole new culture and history while trying to parse how much it leans on this or that historical period/culture and where it deviates and the specific bits that make it worthwhile on its own. Even settings I legitimately enjoy and am familiar with from fiction (Middle Earth, Star Trek, Star Wars, Westeros) would require me to go back and study them for a while before I'd be comfortable trying to represent them. This could simply be a hangup based on unchecked perfectionism, on my part, but I'd rather spend my time studying earth history than Westerosi. The former is far more interesting than most people would believe.
  3. I enjoy GMing as an act of creation. Writing stuff and creating fluff is half my fun of doing it. The more details that are published for a setting, the less room I have to carve my own niches into it. This actually creates a weird double-edged sword for me. A setting too tightly constrained will lose my interest because I want to create for it, but a setting too loose will make me question why I'm bothering with a published setting in the first place. Does a sweet spot between the two exist? I'm not sure.
  4. I don't want my players to know more about a setting than I do. There are a handful of reasons for this by itself. The most immediate is that I don't want to introduce my players to the governor of Waterdeep only for someone to inform me that Waterdeep is actually governed by a council of retired adventurer-nobles or some nonsense. The more popular a setting is, and the more stuff has been produced for it, the more likely my players are to have read it and the less likely I am. I simply don't have the patience to go through three hundred forgotten realms novels. Before one cries "get players that won't be assholes," this isn't because I'm afraid my narrative authority would be challenged (I have good players, and it's easy enough to say "not in this setting.") but because...
  5. I mentioned before that I'm a big history nerd. My favorite settings are the "viking age" — northern Europe around 900AD — and various places/times in ancient Greece, classical and mythological, alike. Being a visual creature, I am naturally a big fan of movies set in these periods as well. Unfortunately, movies are absolutely terrible at actually representing history in any appreciable way. I've never seen a sword and sandals movie that bore anything more than a passing resemblance to ancient Greece. Viking movies get a little better, but even the Vikings show on the HISTORY channel is nothing close to the actual period. To enjoy any of these, I have to actively turn my history brain off and pretend that what I'm watching is actually a fantasy universe set in the flavor of the thing being represented, with all likenesses to places and characters a complete coincidence. Otherwise I'm like to point out that "We shall not interfere with the lives of mortals," is not only a stupid plot (Lookin at you, Immortals) but that Greek mythology is literally nothing but the Gods interfering with mortals. I don't want my players knowing more than I do because the whole point of playing that setting is to give them the experience of that setting. Every time I get it wrong or diverge significantly from canon, it's detracting from the reason I was using it in the first place.
  6. It removes some of the mystery. I don't want my players having a Word of God absolute knowledge of the history of the setting. I want them to know basically what their characters know. It makes the history that much more interesting when we can be uncertain of it and surprised by it. Likewise, you lose all dramatic impact of any kind of Lovecraftian plot when the players read on page 47 that the council that governs Kingdom Y is actually a dark cabal trying to summon Shub Nuggath, the Toothstorm. 
  7. Finally, settings are meant to be destroyed. I tend to make my players protagonists in the literary sense of the word. Within a few months of play, they're going to have shaken up the setting enough one way or another that they've overturned the most of the original status quo's anyway. Why put all the work into memorizing an establish setting and getting all of someone else's details right when there's a goodly chance the players will have burnt it down within the first campaign arc or two anyway?

That's enough rambling for one afternoon. I don't have any problems with other people running published settings, nor would I particularly mind being a player in one. As a GM, though, the effort/reward ratio is way off and in some ways it actually runs contrary to what I actually enjoy about GMing.

Am I crazy? How do you feel about published settings?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Song of Swords Kickstarter!

Another game in the family of TROS-descendents, Song of Swords kickstarted today. They've been at this for nearly as long as we have, so I'm glad to see them get off the ground. Even better, they've managed to get the project funded in the first day! Couldn't happen to nicer guys.

Check out their kickstarter here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Ruminations of the Rune Priestess

A buddy of mine is planning a viking-themed hex crawl using Lamentations of the Flame Princess. He wanted some help on fluffing out the classes, so I obliged. The rough draft of classes to follow:

Ruminations of the Rune Priestess

Myrkr, by TheFoxAndTheRaven

Ability Scores generated per normal. Classes are as follows:

Thegn: The warrior class. Maps to fighter in every way.

Goethi: Seers and spiritual advisors. Maps to cleric. Shuffle the spell list around to make it more of a divination/will of the gods type character.

Seidermenn/Volva: Sorcerers that are distrusted by society at large. Volva at least have the respect of being wise-women, but as sorcery is seen as women's magic, Seidermenn are doubly stigmatized. Maps to Magic User.

Carl: low-born men who haven't the martial training of the warrior class, but make themselves useful in other ways. Maps to Specialist.

Berserker: warrior-shaman that follow bear totems and work themselves up into a frenzy before battle. Maps to dwarves as a class, but loses Architecture. Instead, they get a bonus to AB and Damage when they work themselves into a rage. This bonus starts at +3 at level 1, and increases by 1 at levels 4, 7, and 11. Working themselves into a state of berserk takes a full round and can last for a number of rounds equal to Constitution mod+level.

Wolf-Skins: Warrior-shaman that follow a wolf totem. Maps to halfling, but they lose the size restriction and gain access to the same combat options as a fighter.

Blooded: Men who can trace their ancestry back to the Alfar or other land spirits. Maps to elf, save that they use Charisma as a casting stat instead of Intelligence and cannot make use of spell research. Their powers are innate. Like Seidermenn or Volva, if their status is known they will suffer a stigma.

Changes to Equipment
The cost of items are unchanged. Plate armor does not exist. Chain and leather only, though adding a helmet is worth +1AC and costs 25SP. Horses do not wear barding in this period. Lances, Polearms, Mancatchers, Rapiers and crossbows as listed in the standard equipment list are unavailable. There are no ships larger (or more expensive) than a Cog. Otherwise, use common sense for equipment availability.

I'll dabble with the spell list later, but this is enough to get us started.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Lifespans of Elves

One of the more disagreed upon rules that crop up in a lot of old-school OSR/TSR games is based around demihuman level limits. Some of these arguments are from a game balance perspective (which is its own can of worms), but I find the more odious justification is based around the lifespan of the demihumans in question.

The argument goes something like this:
"Elves and dwarves live so much longer than humans that they would have to gain XP slower and hit a cap. If they advanced at the same rate as humans, then the setting will be dominated by elves and dwarves of god-like power. After all, if humans can hit level 14 in their meager lifetimes, what could an elf do with a couple hundred years to blow adventuring?"
It's one of those arguments that makes a good deal of sense at first blush, but for a number of reasons I've never put much stock in it.

The first is that NPCs are not PCs. Older versions of the game don't bother to treat NPCs with the same kind of care and logistics that we treat PCs with in the first place. OD&D claims that for every 50 elves encounered in a group, one of these will have "above normal" capabilities. Normal being "something other than a 1HD creature." It then asks you to roll some dice to determine its magic and fighting levels. According to the AD&D monster manual "For every 20 elves in a band, there will be one with above average fighting ability (2nd, or 3rd level). For every 40 elves encountered, there will be one with this fighting ability plus a 1st or 2nd level magic-user ability." The important takeaway here is that the majority of elves you bump into aren't adventurers in the same way that the majority of humans you bump into aren't adventurers. PCs are level 1 characters in a level 0 world.

The second is that prior to AD&D2e, the main source of experience for characters was gold. This has some very important implications. The first and most obvious being that you don't get XP just for living a very long time. Even elves have to go out there and schlep their dainty arses through the same mud and blood and bog that the rest of us adventuring folk have to and put themselves in just as much danger for every experience point earned.

The second and more profound implication is that assumption that the reason for adventuring is to get rich. You are out there to acquire treasure. The game is explicitly about going out into the unknown in search of gold. A funny thing happens over time, however. The richer you are, the harder it is to justify schleping your ass into some gods-forsaken cave where something is certainly bound to try to eat you. You already have more gold than you could possibly spend. This is actually built into the endgame of D&D as well. There is an assumption in early editions that you'd eventually start to settle down in a region, build a stronghold, acquire followers, and begin to play on a more regional level rather than a personal one. Your actions play out on a broader stage. At this point, it takes a lot more gold to convince you that it's worth putting your life in danger and hoards of that size are few and far between. You reach a natural equilibrium at a certain point and eventually retire from adventuring to manage other things.

The TL;DR of this is that it's easy to ignore the "elven lifespan" problem simply by arguing that even with their longer lifespan there is no reason to assume that their adventuring careers would be any longer than any other races. After all, what is the likelihood of Bill Gates coming out of retirement to work a hotdog stand any time soon? 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Grand Heresy in 2017

Matt Easton posted a video recently entitled "Scholagladiatoria channel in 2017." It's a video of limited use to anyone who isn't already his subscriber (though, if you're at all interested in martial history, you should be) and chiefly details his plans for the coming year.

That's when I realized it was already February. How does that happen? Worse, I've written nothing on this blog this year. In an attempt to begin rectifying this mistake, I thought I'd post my own variant of the theme: Grand Heresy in 2017.

It's a very creative twist. 


With luck, this will be the break-out year for Grand Heresy. 'Bastards (now bearing the more marketable title Sword & Scoundrel) is getting a major facelift and some key rewriting. As this draft gets close to completion, I'll be redoing the site to better show it off as well as redoing some of the marketing/fluff text. Plans are to launch the kickstarter in the very near future. I cannot tell you how excited I am for the thing to be in the wild and officially off my desk for a while.

We've kept track of the download counts of each edition of 'Bastards released. We've gotten anywhere from 400-1000 downloads on each. The last edition of the dueling kit alone has gotten about 1200 downloads. On the surface, this looks fairly promising but you never know what this will mean in terms of kickstarter support or sales down the line. On the other hand, we've also not gone out of our way to market the thing at all. We haven't reached out to, storygames, or any of the other hub communities out there aside from a brief flirting with 4chan.

The level of interest we receive after launch will determine the next move. I have a number of things I'd love to develop out of the core rules as supplemental material for the game. Higgins and I have been wanting to develop the naval warfare rules since early in the project's development. A full pirate/age of sail book would let us treat the topic with the same kind of adoration we've spent on the HEMA nerd stuff in the book. I also have a number of setting-seed books I'd like to have the chance to develop for the game as well, all of which are basically toolkit modules for hacking the book to fit whatever you're trying to do with the main system. I've been keeping notes on this sort of stuff since just after the project began. If there were enough interest, I'd have material to write for this game for the next five years or more.

On the other hand, if it turns out to be an extremely niche interest with a limited following, I'm fine with that too. I have a half-dozen other projects I'd love to dev out. As anyone who reads this blog can attest, my gaming interests are eclectic as they are promiscuous.

All of that aside, I acquired a new mic today. It's a proper condenser mic I got relatively inexpensively. After some futzing around with Barbarossa on the audio we got it sounding pretty decent. Now properly equipped, we'll be doing a lot of youtube recording in the near future. Expect at least one actual play campaign of something. I'll probably record some AP material, explanations, and play aids for 'Bastards Sword & Scoundrel as well.

2017 is going to be a big year. Here's to it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Art Woes

The 'Bastards draft is chugging along. I may or may not meet my year-end deadline, but progress is being made at least. As the days tick by and I get the systems bolted nicely into place, I start to worry about other issues. Writing a game, as it turns out, is only one part of making a game.

We're going to have to deal with the kickstarter thing, sooner rather than later. We've waited too long to wrap all this up as it is. We have a date in mind to begin once we've gotten feedback on this draft. The problem, of course, is that we need art. It was an inevitable issue, but one that presents me with sort of a catch-22. To really get off the ground with a kickstarter, you need good art to sell it -- but our primary reason for doing a kickstarter is to get an art budget.

If you've been around my blog long enough, you've no doubt seen some of my own artwork. I know I'm decent at it, but I also know I'm not good enough to meet the task at hand. Not in any substantial way, in any case.

Further complicating matters, I'm not entirely sure how to start the shopping-for-art process.  I sent out a couple notes on Deviantart, but that's about the depth of my experience with the subject.

This post was mostly just my musing on the subject, but if anyone wants to toss me any advice, offer their services and quote a price, (or ESPECIALLY if you want to contribute art) feel free to leave a comment, hit me up on G+ or otherwise get in touch.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

'Bastards 0.2

If you lurk around our forums, you may have already heard: Band of Bastards is currently in the middle of a substantial overhaul. I thought it was appropriate to make some kind of a statement about what we're doing and why.

We've done this a few times before, though most were before we were ever under as much scrutiny. 'Bastards was (fittingly) the illegitimate child of the Trosfans forums, in their project to produce a new, unofficial, and revised edition of The Riddle of Steel after Driftwood went dark. This burst of creative impulse ultimately gave birth to Blade of the Iron Throne as well, which we still look at as a sibling for that reason. Like most siblings, though, we wound up going very separate directions.

The first iteration of the game was exactly what it set out to be - a TROS update, with all the bells and whistles. We had something like 60 maneuvers, 150+ weapons (most of which had more than one stat-line), and a whole mess of very exacting specifications for everything we touched. After the initial creative rush of cobbling together every optional rule from all of the TROS books and somehow making them more-or-less work together, we realized that this was a beast so ungainly that it would be a nightmare to run, let alone teach a new player.

Back to the drawing board.

The next iteration of the game would become what we promoted as Song of Steel. At the time, our focus was still on historical fiction -- a position we leaned into all the harder with Blade selling itself by contrast as a Swords and Sorcery game. It's a funny thing that siblings do. Bernard Cornwell had a prominent place on our bookshelf, along with a great deal of non-fiction that we picked up on swords and swordsmanship (including the book with a very similar title). This is about the time when we started pestering people like Nikolas Lloyd, Roland Warzecha, and Matt Easton for insights, which they all graciously provided.

This was the iteration when we really came into our own. Systems were scrapped, new bits invented, unnecessary bits stripped away. Our ranged combat and skirmish systems date back to this iteration (both of which were Higgin's contributions, amusingly enough. Thank him. He was very insistent on ranged combat being awesome).

Then came Song of Swords. What were the odds of another game being developed by another indie-dev team based on the same original game with a nearly identical  name? We discussed the thing with them - their hands were tied. The name was chosen by their fans. They were polite about the thing and even complimentary. At least one of them had been a fan of our work. It's always nice to be noticed.

Restriction breeds creativity. We were already competing for attention in the same sub-niche of a sub-niche of an already niche hobby, so we were left with the options of either sharing an initialism with who was arguably our closest competitor or redefine ourselves. We chose the latter.

One day, I'll shake Jimmy Rome's hand. Rebranding seemed like a setback at the time, but in the process, we had the license to re-evaluate everything we had chosen to do up to that point. Everything got cleaned up and polished, had the rough edges smoothed out. A lot of the stuff we had been so insistent in trying to replicate in exacting detail simply got dropped or abstracted. 'Bastards began to really hone in on what it wanted to be, which was a game about ambition and conflicts of the moral, physical, and bloody variety. In a strange way, despite being the furthest mechanically from its forebear, it may have been the closest in essence to what TROS wanted to be about.

This latest revision is a continuation of the iterative saga this game has undergone. The purpose of a beta test is to get feedback and have room to make adjustments. Between some of the cracks that have shown themselves at the fringes of our own play, and some of the feedback we've gotten on the forums, we're finding places where things could be better, tighter, or conversely need to be loosened up and made less rigid.

Higgins and I have both grown a lot as both players and designers since we started this project back in (dear God, really?) 2011. The last couple years, in particular, have been spent in a kind of ongoing game design boot camp. One of the driving forces in the revision is that certain areas of the game reflect designs that were either inherited from TROS once upon a time, or products of our early attempts to fix the products of those inherited parts. We can do better, and we're going to.

The end goal is to make a game that I will be inspired to play again. In slaughtering some of the sacred cows we've held on to in search of better design, of cleaning the clutter that we've amassed, we hope to create the kind of game that we're going to want to play and run for years to come. I want to be so again impassioned by this project that we have the energy and drive to see it through to the full vision we had for it. We hope that in making ourselves passionate about the thing, in cleaning up and overhauling the design of the thing, we'll make you passionate about it as well.