Thursday, December 25, 2014

Yule Greetings!

Merry Christmas, Yule, or whatever other holiday you might be in the mood to celebrate. I hope in the spirit of the year you can forgive my laxity in posts, but like many the season has kept me busy with familial obligations.

Regretably, I have little time to post so I will leave you to that.

Happy Holidays. Get off the internet and go spend some time with people you care about. We'll be here when you get back.

Until next time,

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Astonishing Swordsman and Sorcerers of Hyperborea

I recently had the pleasure of acquiring the pdf version of the Astonishing Swordsman and Sorcerers of Hyperborea Players / Referees manuals.

I have to say, after an initial review I'm really impressed. While it isn't quite as clean and elegant of current house-favorite Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it has a lot going for it.

The color cover from the box set catches the eye off the bat, wearing its pulp influences on its shoulder, both in fearless display of anatomy on the front cover (can you claim sexism when the guy isn't wearing anything but a loin cloth either?) and the delightfully retro typography of the logo. The individual pdfs have covers that evoke the original white box set in many ways. Though I don't have the physical edition, I'll post an image here from their website:

Very cool.

The internal layout is very spartan and relatively clean. In some ways, it reminds me of the AD&D1e book, albeit not nearly so cluttered and crowded. There are a large number of illustrations throughout the book, and it seems clear that they retained the same artist to do all of the work. I can appreciate that.

The game in many ways appears to be an AD&D retroclone, and it is probably closest to that edition from what I can tell. However, because of its specific Sword & Sorcery bent, they have made a few changes to fit thematically. For instance, Races are human only, but they have a good amount of information on different "races of men," representing them in a suitably interesting fashion. Many of the spells are flavored in a similarly S&S fashion, attempting to further etch out a flavor to the book.

Classes are very interesting as well, as they offer the "classic four" of  Fighter, Magician, Cleric, and Thief, but within each category exists a fairly comprehensive list of sub-classes. Fighters have the Barbarian, Paladin, and Ranger options you might expect, but also have Berserker, Cataphract, and Warlock as additional options that add some flavor to the setting. That said, even the book advises that for those seeking to closely emulate the genre, the classic four are often the best.

Most classes have progression listed up to only level 12, which might be a disappointment for some, but is entirely keeping with the genre being portrayed. Even in classic D&D editions, the levels above "name level" have always been the stuff of super-heroics.

Another interesting feature that strikes me is the separation of attribute tests into "Tests of X" and "Extraordinary Feat of X" with X being Strength, Dexterity and so forth. By way of explanation, a Test of Strength is an X-in-6 chance of doing mundane tasks that require significant strength - forcing open a stuck door, carrying an ally, and so on. These range between 1:6 chance at Strength 3, to a 5:6 chance at 18. Extraordinary Feats are defined as such heroic tasks as bending bars, breaking manacles, forcing a portcullis open, and so on. Stuff of true Conan stature. This is handled as a percentile role, outright impossible at 0% for Str3, and only 8% at Str14. At the upper scales, this then goes up to 16%, 24%, and finally 32% at 18. For the genre, this is a very neat touch and helps make the difference between ability scores feel even more pronounced.

I still have reading left to do through the Referee's Manual, but overall I definitely like the style. If you're at all interested in OSR style games in general, or Sword & Sorcery in particular, it's definitely worth picking up and giving a read through to mine for ideas if nothing else. Hopefully, I'll get time to play a game or two of it in the near future and report in.

Until next time,

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Orc Quest: Episode 1: It Begins

Our story begins with our heroes in need of supplies and stumbling into forbidden territory - an occupied humie village. With snow falling around them, they had no choice but to attempt interaction with the pink-skins.

The sun was setting in the distance when our greenskin wanderers filed down the narrow street. Around them, people attempted to settle in for the evening, quickly going about the business of whatever it is humies do when they aren't being krumped. Down the lane, a group of humie larva were conducting a mock battle involving compressed handfuls of snow. Justice Fist went out to hail them, but it was then the DM wondered if we could actually speak common, being tribal orcs.

This was handled via the Lamentations system, where rolls were made. As it turned out, Justice Fist could not speak common, and instead shouted at the children in his native tongue. Wagh waaahg wagh wagh! Fortunately, both Taz Dingo and Cunnin made their rolls and Cunnin tried to translate.

"Don't worry boss, I got this," he spoke in orcish, before attempting to hail the children in their native tongue. "HEY YOU SHITS!" Where Cunnin acquired his command of common is unknown. Startled by the appearance of four giant orcs shouting at them, the children ran to the relative safety of their snow-fort.

Unfazed, if confused, our brave heroes followed the larvae to their ice-cocoon, where Justice proceeded to tear the entrance open wider in order to get a better view. The small humies scurried to the rear and began to leak from their eyes. Justice tried to placate the situation by throwing silver coins at them, but an attack roll later they remained unresponsive. This lead to a spirited debate as to whether they were defective larvae, or if all humies are inherently broken. Meanwhile, Raph played with his pet pigeon.

Taz Dingo suggested that we give him a chance to handle it, and he began to invoke his tribal dance. A few hip-shaking moments later, the young female larva became confused and slightly horrified, but at least was now paying attention. Cunnin took the opportunity to ask "where the big humies at?" The trance was broken, and the girl quickly pointed down the lane before hiding back in the depths of their snow fortification. The party went to collect Raph and Cunnin used this time to show his gratitude to the larvae by repairing the damage done to the igloo. Unfamiliar with the structure of igloos, he simply kept packing snow until the entrance was sealed, providing a nice surface for humies to claw a proper entrance back out of, should they so choose.

By now the sun had passed over the horizon, and the streets were nearly empty. Fortunately, a single woman was visible in the distance. Learning from their prior mistake, they hatched a clever plan. Approaching slowly, Cunnin let out the shout "HEY YOU SHIT." The woman froze, and responded "..who are you?"

"We're not orcs, just Humies!"

She stared in confusion and disbelief. Taz Dingo attempted to add his own influence to the situation, but as he approached she spooked and ran. Fortunately, they had a Raph for just these kinds of situations. Justice belowed the order "RAPH. FETCH!" and the behemoth sprang into action, deceptively quick for his massive size. Like a charging bull, he crumpled wicker-work fences that stood in his way. The woman tripped and slid on the snow, and he towered over her, a simple grin on his face. "Hi lady."

Justice attempted to communicate with the woman, with Taz translating. Cunnin sat off to the side, by a row of hedges. When nothing managed to get past her fearful stupor, Justice threw some coins at her. That's how humies work, right? Several of which landed past her. One of which rolled past Cunnin's feet, where he stood on it until no one would notice that he pocketed it.

At this point, a group of farmers began to gather down the lane, bearing pitchforks and torches. Deciding these humies might be more useful, they let the woman go and went to meet them. Cunnin sank behind the hedge-row, taking up a position to watch. Raph stayed nearby, and Justice moved across the lane into another yard to watch. Taz Dingo happily dance-walked his way to meet the mob, power-sliding his way to their leader.

Unfortunately, these humies were quite excited about something. Or maybe angry. The two emotions are hard for orcs to distinguish. The first exchange was too fast and loud for the orcs to follow, but Taz managed to calm the situation down, "HUMIES. You are speaking HERE. I need you to bring down to heeeere."

Shocked that the superior greenskin lords spoke their lowlie human tongue, he stammered, stepping back with pitchfork leveled in Dingo's direction. After a bit, it became obvious that they were concerned for the whereabouts of the larva. Taz shouted a translation of this information back and Justice advised him to inform the humies that they had already paid the larva, assuming this to be the source of tension.

In translation, this information was conveyed as "We paid for them, they are ours now."

We rolled initiative, as the farmer makes to thrust at Taz.

Cunning loosed his crossbow, which goes harmlessly wide and largely unnoticed.  Justice came over a hedge wall, shield first, crushing a farmer beneath the combined weight of his shield and body. Raph charged forward and with a cestus reduced a farmer's face to a fine red mist. Unfortunately, none could get to the farmer in time to prevent Taz being speared through the chest. Taz fell backwards, gasping in slow motion, and sputtering "Remember.. me..."

The melee began in proper. Cunning parkoured his way over the hedgerow, past a fence and around back of another house, moving into a flanking position. Justice proceeded to tussle with another farmer, but after a series of failed rolls began to wonder of Gruumsh had forsaken him. Raph, enraged by the sight of Taz being skewered, WAAAGHed, trampling one farmer and destroying another almost by accident. One brave farmer gathered his wits long enough to thrust his torch at the giant, burrying it in a distinctly uncomfortable place and eliciting a howl from the beast. Another farmer ineffectually attempted to fend himself off from Justice, but could not manage a solid blow. Cunnin came to the aid of his giant friend, sneaking up and shanking the farmer from behind.

Raph tore into the farmer responsible for stabbing Dingo, grabbing him by the throat and snapping his neck, using the body as a bludgeoning weapon to crush a second hapless farmer. Justice finished off the farmer before him, but Cunnin's target was still standing and turned and landed a harsh blow across his face. A brutal exchange followed, with the final farmer laying dead.

Taz was gravely hurt, but through the powers of gruumsh, Justice laid on hands and staunched his sucking chest wound. Crisis averted, the heroes realized they were hungry and began to wonder where the larva had gone. By right of conquest, they now belonged to the orcs.

"Don't worry. They're on ice. They'll keep."

Fortunately, they were still sealed within the ice dome. Cunnin proceeded to use his short sword as a can-opener, prying open the roof of the igloo. Inside, the three small humies clung to each other, leaking once more. Raph extracted them as they clung to each other - humie young are notoriously sticky - and they were carried off to the nearest building, which Justice set on fire for warmth.

Of the three children, the young female struck Cunnin as familiar. He quickly decided it was the spawn of the farmer that had struck him. Immediately, he laid claim. Unfortunately, Taz contested this claim, arguing "we had a moment, earlier."

This was to be settled in the ancient tradition of their people. An eye-poking contest.

A quick scuffle occurred, and Cunnin was blessed by Gork and Mork, winning through an act that was both brutally cunning and cunningly brutal - shoving an elbow into Dingo's chest wound in order to distract him for the eye-poke. His prize won and the matter settled, they went to bask in the warm light of the burning building in the middle of town.

And this is where we left our heroes, with nothing that could possibly go wrong.

Until next time,

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Orc Quest: Episode 1: The Orcening

Tonight started our all-orc campaign, and it went exactly like I expected it to. "Off the rails" doesn't begin to describe it, but we didn't intend for it to be a serious adventure so all is well.

~Dramatis Personæ~

Justice Fist - A devout paladin of Gruumsh in the midst of a spiritual crisis. It is not enough to know that we Waaagh, but we must know why we Waaagh. Like the humie Socrates of ancient Greece, his questions quickly brought upon him the ire of his brother orcs, and soon he was cast out of the tribe for thinking too hard. Now he wanders the countryside in search of answers.

Cunnin Kidneyshanks - An unusually intelligent orc, what he lacks in physical ability he makes up for in brutal cunning and cunning brutality. Clad in his purplish burlap cloak, he followed Justice into exile - presumably because it would give him more opportunities to steal shit.

Raph - Big as an aurochs and about as intelligent, Raph is a one-orc wrecking ball. Growing up in the tribe, he quickly became fast friends with Cunnin and formed a kind of symbiosis. Where Raph's ridiculous strength would serve to protect his much scrawnier friend from much of the harshness of orc tribal politics, Cunnin's intelligence and guile kept others from taking advantage of his lumbering friend.

Taz Dingo - A mysterious orc with hypnotic hips, Dingo's power seems to lie in some form of pelvic sorcery. His reasons for joining the exiles are unknown to any but himself, but through the power of his peculiar tribal dance, Dingo has become the face of the party, power-sliding them through one sticky situation into another.

Boots: Cunnin's largely feral pet feline, Boots was found as a kitten and originally intended to be a light snack when it began to purr. Unable to bring himself to eat the fuzzy purring mass, Cunnin kept it for himself as a pet, where he learned to appreciate its own particular variety of brutal cunning. Boots can currently be found wherever Cunnin goes, usually napping in his haversack.
Together, they are The Green Team. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

All Orc Campaign

I have always had an infatuation with playing fantasy cliches in reverse - playing as a tribe of kobolds trying to protect their colony / mine from adventurers or the evil cultists trying to take over / end the world. Most recently, the conversation between Barbarossa and I has been based around Orcs. This turned into a pitch for a full-length campaign.

When you think about it, playing the tropes in reverse makes the GM's job remarkably easy... or tremendously complicated. When your protagonists are not just the bad guys, but visibly, irredeemably the bad guys (orcs), then the whole of the setting becomes a sandbox adventure. Every human village is a dungeon to explore, a target for conflict and profit. The diverse races and tribes of goblins, hobgoblins, gnolls, trolls and other ecology of the D&D world create innumerable unique situations and politics out of situations where human player-characters would have just attacked by default, and this is before any actual dungeons, lost artefacts, and so on the GM would sprinkle into their campaign.

So we've been kicking this around for a while, and because Barbarossa and I were the ones who initially came up with the idea, I've kind of been holding onto it as something I wanted to play, rather than run. As I'm usually Forever GM, it's been sitting in the wind for a while. Until our Aussie friend showed up. The Aussie is a regular in our skype-run weekly game, and he'd mentioned loving the way AD&D ran and was interested in trying to run it himself sometime. Yessssss.

So it is with great pleasure I get to announce that our orc campaign is a go, and will get to run this weekend. I will keep you up to date on the details, and maybe even some play reports.

Until then,

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Turkey Day!

At Grand Heresy, the birds have been eaten, our stomachs are full. Except for Higgins. They don't appear to have Thanksgiving in Estonia, which is a shame because it's delicious. It's been an extremely busy month, and we're extremely proud of the amount of work we've gotten done. Today, however, we are taking a well-earned break. We hope you are too.

Happy Turkey Day!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Home Stretch

November has been rough, but I can safely say that we're almost there. Almost. Editing is nearly done, I've got a side-business launched, blog maintained, and I'm 10k words away from finishing NaNoWriMo. I may simply hibernate through December.

A wise man once said, never half-ass two things, whole ass one thing. Remind me in the future to take on just one major project at a time.

On that note, I've got work to do.

Until next time,

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Material Culture in your Campaign

An interesting article floated across my Facebook feed the other day, with the ridiculously lengthy title of: The Truth about Vikings: Not the smelly barbarians of legend but silk-clad, blinged-up culture vultures. The article is interesting itself, though nothing particularly new to me. It's been one of my favorite quirks of history that the Norse actually did seem to go around dressed as metal-heads and goth rockers.

As always, it got me thinking on the subject of gaming. One of the things I think most frequently neglected in world-building and setting creation is the material culture present. In anthropology, material culture refers to the stuff of a culture or civilization. In broadest application, it applies from the kinds of buildings and architecture, the way settlements are laid out and the functionality of the same. More interestingly (for me, anyway) it also applies to the way the society adorns itself, both the decorations in the home, the manner of dress, the way classes distinguish themselves, the design of jewelry and adornment of weapons and tools.

I'm a very visual person, so for me these little details play a big part in conveying the feel of the world. It's part of the pageantry and immersion process. It is a huge part in what forms cultural identity and how one group distinguishes itself from another. That another culture dresses in ways foreign to ours, that another tribe marks itself differently, is an inherent and instinctual part of the way we perceive the other.

Of course, because it is very much a visual medium it is often the first thing to get ignored by people when they are writing a setting. This is especially true when the setting is in some analogue of medieval Europe, which is a shame as the material culture in the medieval period is extremely diverse and can be played up to great effect when talking about the difference between, say, the French and English. The further away you get from the "default" setting, the more interesting and important these descriptions can be in painting the color, flavor, and character of the society you are trying to portray.

We can tell a Greek design at a glance by its signature repeating waves patterns, or a Norse or Celtic piece by its knot-work and designs. Arabic geometric designs are easily recognized, and most of us can spot traditional Japanese artwork and patterns, or at least identify them as "Asian." African or Native American tribes have distinctive patterns of their own.

Take some time to think on the material culture in your setting. What do they look like? What clothes do they wear? How do they adorn themselves? What motifs are popularly repeated? What do their buildings look like? Their architecture? Their food?

And most importantly: how can you work these details into your game?

Until next time,

Monday, November 24, 2014

On World Building

World building in role playing games is a strange beast, with about as many approaches as there are people who do it. I tend to do a lot of it, myself. I rarely get particularly into pre-written campaign settings, for a variety of reasons. Being really into history, religion, and mythology, I tend to find things in published settings that will strike me as silly or unnecessarily complicated. I also tend to dislike the idea that one of my players may have the same book at home and have spent as much time with it as I have. Given my natural love of tinkering, by the time I've made the adjustments to taste, fixed glaring inconsistencies, and then rewritten parts of it so the players don't already know all of the setting's secrets, I might as well have written my own setting anyway. 

Once the decision to write a setting is made, the questions are "how?" and "for what purpose?" The latter will largely determine the former.

When I was younger, I took a lot of time in writing extremely long-winded backgrounds, deep and detailed settings, wrote cultural notes and all kinds of nonsense. I could start a campaign by handing out a fifty page primer to the setting. Pro tip: Don't do this.

The problem with creating that sheer volume of information is that your players are never going to read it all. Once in a rare cosmic alignment, your vision for what you wanted a setting to be will so line up with the tastes of a single player who just happens to also love reading setting material that they will, at some point during the weeks or months you spend in that campaign, actually finish your handouts, but this is such a rare occurrence as to be unworthy of mention.

If you absolutely must write a fifty page world bible on your campaign, then be prepared to handle that information the way a novelist does. A writer knows that you simply can't info-dump on your readers, whether we're talking about a prologue of exposition written in the beginning of the book, or pages scattered throughout. Any time you spend more than a paragraph or two outside of the flow of narration, you are in danger of losing your audience. Instead, you have to sprinkle tidbits throughout and show through the characters actions and reactions how thing go. This latter part can be tricky in a role-playing game, where you can't control everyone's actions, but you have an additional advantage. While readers can pick up on a hint and simply have to wait to find out more about it, a player who is curious about a piece of information can actually ask you to expand upon a subject. You should encourage the behavior.

If you're very into the world-bible style of world building, check out this article by Writer's Digest. It has a lot of interesting tips for this kind of project.

As for myself, what do I actually wind up doing these days?

Ultimately, every setting I create for gaming falls somewhere between two extremes.

On the one hand is traditional sand box, hex-crawl style preparation. I create a list of relevant elements and then populate an area with NPCs, factions, things that can happen, hooks to roll with, and so on.

On the other end, I've taken to embracing shared setting creation. If you're unfamiliar with the term, the idea is that rather than the GM having sole narrative discretion over the world, the players can invent elements and introduce them on their own. Depending on how far you want to go with this, it can mean anything from allowing the players to introduce details through their character's background and mannerisms, to sitting down and making the "lets make up a setting" the first session of the campaign.

In practice, what usually happens for me is some combination of the two. I will very often create a specific piece of a setting, often a single city or town, and through creating it establish the broadest strokes of the setting itself - general technological era, the kind of country / region it is in, etc. I'll usually expand on this, creating a very small sandbox at the beginning of the game, but inviting the players to create additional details about the world, its setting, its history and cultures, etc through their background and the player's mannerisms.

This approach has a bunch of advantages. The GM's investment up front is relatively minimal, but I can still plant mysteries and hooks as needed or desired. The players also find themselves more invested in the world as they establish facts about it. It ceases to be "my" world, and becomes "our" world, and the longer the game goes on the more true this is.

Most importantly, rather than writing 50 pages up front about the world and setting that may never be seen, the story played out will add its own details as they become relevant, and the longer you play the more rich the setting becomes.

Try it sometime, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Until next time,

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lazy Sunday Post

Feeling a bit crappy, honestly. I think I may be catching a bit of something, but no matter. There is work to be done.

I've got some stuff lined up to talk about later in the week, so hopefully I can get all of that cranked out before Thanksgiving. My NaNoWriMo bid is falling a bit behind, so that's a thing I'm going to have to rectify shortly. My NaGaDeMon efforts (read: finishing the game I've been working on for significantly longer than a month) are also falling a bit behind, but we've come up with some interesting developments there as well. I'll have to mark that down as an additional topic of discussion, either here or on the Grand Heresy blog. On the plus side, at least NaBloPoMo is working out just fine, so overall National Masochist Project Month is going well.

Once this settles out, I'll probably turn down the article frequency to one or two pieces a week, with additional posts coming out whenever I feel inspired. Interestingly, it is not for want of topics. I have another dozen or so partially finished posts sitting in my drafts folder. The rub is that each of those takes some hours to sit down, research, and give the effort they are due. Hours that I presently don't have, for all of my other masochistic projects and deadlines.

Amusingly, a video showed up in my "recommended" section on youtube, so I thought I would share it here. Luke Crane is a really interesting guy, even outside of his work on Burning Wheel. Given my current situation, the topic seemed extremely relevant. I'll leave you with this, it's worth the watch if you have the time to do so.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

History and Religion in RPG Settings

I think we have all encountered this somewhere in our experience with Roleplaying games. You thumb through the pages of what promises to be an interesting setting, but among the first things to greet you is an extremely lengthy and detailed "history of the world." In addition to being something of a dry read (timelines are never, never fun to read) it's interesting that these generally present theological elements as well. Together, these form two things that tend to annoy me in prewritten settings.

The first issue I tend to take is that history is always so complete, and written from such an absolute standpoint. We have exact dates for everything of importance for everything that has ever happened in the setting, which itself strikes me as weird, as our own history is one in which knowledge is repeatedly discovered, recorded, lost, and rediscovered. As someone who gets really into history in real life, I find it a bit jarring how exact and specific - how good - the record keeping is for all of time for essentially the entire planet is since the dawn of time. Adding to that, it's rarely written in character, from the perspective of any given group of people. 

In real life, history has a massive bias depending on who you talk to and when, who won and who lost. What we remember as a crusade for the holy land, the east remembers as "the Frankish invasion" and paints in much the way we painted the norse raids on churches and monasteries. Rome and the celts are another wonderful example, with history remembering the celts and Gauls as a barbarian rabble and a threat to "civilization," whereas archeology is forced to paint them as having a fully developed and complex society of their own - albeit one with the misfortune to stand between Rome and a substantial amount of silver. 

Clever role players can try to analyze the timeline and try to come up with alternate views based on their characters individual culture, but such attempts always seem forced. Having an official time line both presented and confirmed out of character can take a lot of the perspective out of the game. Which brings me to my next issue: religion. 

Religion in role-playing games is often handled so poorly. This isn't such a problem when the main religion in the game is NotCatholicism as most writers in the western world are at least familiar enough to fake it. However, the further one gets from this basic model the worse it becomes. I can't count how many settings I've come across that present the culture as some kind of paganesq polytheism, but the writers don't seem to understand the basics of how polytheism works as a world view.

In real world polytheisms, there are a whole mess of gods and goddesses, each with their own domains. Individuals within that culture may have an affinity to one god or another in particular, usually based on their vocation (warriors like war gods, farmers like whomever will bless the harvest) but as a whole it is a service-based religion. You go to whomever offers the thing you need at the time. I don't care how much you love Ares, when you're having lady troubles you go to Aphrodite or Hera. The trouble in many RPGs is that rather than treating the gods like a pantheon belonging to the same culture, you wind up with a setup where the various gods have competing churches. This is particularly bad in Forgotten Realms, where in third edition at least, failure to "dedicate" oneself to a specific god meant that you would spend eternity in a kind of purgatory, your soul becoming part of kelemvor's wall. Apparently, if I am a farmer in the realms, it isn't just my vocation - it must also be my religion. 

This setup gets even weirder when the authors begin attributing other monotheistic traits to polytheisms. Very often, you will find a hard push for a given deity to espouse a certain dogma, with different gods within the same pantheon often having contradictory or directly oppositional codes of ethics and dogmas, demands from their followers. Real polytheisms in history don't do this. The overwhelming majority of polytheisms are votive religions. This is the simplest relationship one can have with divinity. I leave you this nice offering in exchange for you either blessing me, or in some cases simply not wrecking my shit. The codes of ethics and values in these societies come from the society as a whole. There may be a mythological basis for it, but that comes from the mythology as a whole. If you're writing a polytheism, you're writing a single coherent religion. Catholicism would have never worked if the idea was that each part of the trinity and every angel and saint had different and contradictory expectations and demands. 

This isn't to say there can't be specific cults with different or contradictory teachings, there are always mystery cults and fringe sects. You simply need to be aware or this when writing and indicate that group B is different than the population at large. 

Much like with the above absolute nature of history, I personally dislike when games mechanically or out of character confirm things about the settings religion. When our out of character official history tells us that the god Zeno created the world, you have directly told the players that the Zenites are right, and that anyone who doesn't acknowledge Zeno is mechanically, objectively wrong. 

Weirder still, when you have a setting that features direct divine intervention and literally god powered divine spells (as opposed to powered by the faith of the caster) you miss a lot of opportunities for interesting role playing. You can't have discussions of faith when deity is a proven and objective fact. You can't disbelieve, or remain a skeptic of a priests claims when they can summon deity at will. You can't have questions about dogma or theological debates, heresies and reformations. The mystery and wonder of religion and the nature and power of faith fundamentally change when you can pick up a phone and get god on the line when need be. 

I honestly understand why many settings are written in exactly the above way. I think a lot of people find the real world so murky and ambiguous that a setting where everything is laid out, clear-cut and definitive is somewhat comforting. There are no grey areas. This is the good guy country because they are backed by the god of good guys and their enemies are the bad guys who were created by the bad god. There are no questions that need to be asked, no ethical quandaries. Just pure heroics. 

And that's absolutely fine. I can understand the appeal. I just find it .. Boring. For me, leaving things ambiguous, up for debate, means giving my character free reign to decide how he relates to the world, what these things mean to him and ultimately what his values are when put to the test. Whenever something is confirmed out of character by the setting, that opportunity feels diminished. 

Just my thoughts on the matter. 

Until next time,

Friday, November 21, 2014

Pretentiousness in Indie-Games

I was actually responding to something on the Grand Heresy forums, when I realized my response was going to turn into an unrelated rant. Instead, I moved it here.

Higgins made a comment about what we would call our GM, poking fun at TROS' terminology "Seneschal." I replied the following:

You know. That's a good conversation point. We originally started the game trying to decide what we were calling the GM. We had "narrator" for a long time, but ultimately wound up going with ...GM. Yes, we could carve ourselves out a neat title for the role of game master - Seneschal, Narrator, Story Teller, Scribe, Referee Arbiter, Adjudicator, Justicar, Grand Moff, Naib - but these are all cases of using a five dollar word where fifty cents will do. It's already pretty well established what a GM is and does, and ultimately people are going to call it GM anyway when they can't be bothered to remember what our particular variant is called.

I thought that itself was worth posting, simply because I just wrote a bit on the issue of naming things. The following is what was taken out, but something I want to get into anyway:

One of the things I've tried to do in writing / editing the Band of Bastards beta is be conscious of how we might come off in the writing itself. I'm speaking for myself alone here, but one of the things that makes me cringe when reading a lot of independently published RPGs is the way in which they talk about themselves, either in advertising or internally in the book itself. The rules may or may not be awesome, the game may be awesome, but there is so much author/creator commentary on how awesome it is that it's hard not to just roll your eyes. I'm a big fan of the "under sell, over-deliver" mantra. If our game is awesome, you won't need us to remind you of that within the book itself.

This really bothers me when the hype-machine for a game is fueled by negative comparisons to other games or types of games. Most often, this is a stab at dungeons and dragons and the people who play it. I feel like a lot of this comes out of Forge culture, but it isn't exclusive to it.

I get it, I really do. That someone has bothered to create something in the first place is generally evidence that they think it will do something better than some other system, otherwise they wouldn't have made it. I don't have a problem with someone explaining how their system is better for X or Y kind of game, or offers Z kind of experience. The rub is when the primary way they explain this is by crapping on some other kind of game or experience, as though it was less valid. Badwrongfun is not a way to sell your game, or at least it shouldn't be.

At least for 'Bastards, I want the game to speak for itself. Part of that is in managing the way we pitch ourselves, but that also carries through to more mundane topics.. like naming things.

My two cents.

Until next time,

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sacred Cows in DnD

Yesterday I talked a bit about Iterative design and the inherent problem of The Ship of Theseus. That got me thinking about my own current projects. Specifically, my AD&D/Lamentations mash-up, and the nature of D&D itself.

The wonderful thing about the OSR movement is that it's a bit like Linux. The core mechanics of D&D are extremely versatile and can be made to do a ton of different things. Everyone in the OSR movement is basically working off the same Kernel, but everyone has customized their own distro to suit their preferences.

In layman's terms: we're all basically using the same engine to power the game, but every variant uses that engine in slightly different ways. And that's awesome. Not just because it allows for ridiculous flexibility, but because the end results are largely compatible. It doesn't matter if the module I'm running was written for AD&D, AD&D2e, Moldvay Basic, White Box, BECMI, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lords, or Swords & Wizardry, it takes very little effort to use it in the framework of Lamentations of the Flame Princess or my own home-brew.

This does raise some interesting questions though. It would be easy to define D&D as the above system, but we also have to take into account 3.x, 4th edition (controversial, I know), and even 5th or D&D next. Each system is as alien to each other as it is the TSR era game. Clearly, changing the way skills work, classes work, special abilities work, spells, etc.. can all be heavily modified without worry.

At what point does the game stop being "D&D?"

The easiest argument would be "If it has the name, it's D&D," but this is intellectually dishonest. First, it precludes Pathfinder, which is effectively a direct iteration of 3.5, and it ignores the fact that the name only has meaning because people associate a certain kind of experience with it. Yes, we could take a 78 Chevette and call it a Mustang, but that doesn't mean people will accept it as a Mustang.

My immediate thought is that D&D requires the following design conceits in order to be "D&D."
  • Iconic Six Stats - you could certainly switch this around, but it's such a trademark by now.
  • Character creation based on classes - I just can't see a point-based character creation system being accepted as "D&D."
  • Earning of experience points - The moment it switched to something like Spiritual Attributes or BW style "beliefs" I imagine people would disqualify it.
  • Level-based advancement - This is a constant throughout every incarnation of the game, and something that separated D&D from other fantasy games early on. 
  • Saving Throws - this is such an odd and counter-intuitive abstraction that it's practically unique to D&D style games.
  • Attack roll - math directly tied to class advancement, rather than being an independent skill
That's my immediate thoughts. I can also imagine some questions coming up if you changed, say, the d20 to 3d6 or something but I'm not necessarily sure either of those would "disqualify" the game from being a D&D game.

What do you think? In your opinion, what are the constants required for a game to feel like a D&D game? 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why Make a New System? (RPG Design)

Yesterday, I talked about about "Why use a new system?" Today, I want to talk a little about the other half of the discussion. Why make a new system? When is it worth the effort?

If you're making something for yourself, then the answer is simply: when you want to, because you want to. I enjoy making systems and experimenting with them. If you're remotely interested in game-design, there's no better way to start than to start.

If you're making a system with other people in mind, then the situation changes some. So, when is this a good idea? A discussion on the Story Games forum provides some insight. The ever-knowledgeable Eero writes:

"I generally create a new system for one of two reasons: either I want the small, tight, to-the-point experience that only a highly specific custom job can provide, or the manner of play I'm envisioning has not been evocatively presented in a prior system, and I thus need to write a new one."

I've argued before about mechanics being inherently representative of the game-world, and that's usually the baseline criteria I have. If I'm going through the effort to write a new system, it's because I am looking for fiction to be defined and experienced in a way that I don't get from an existing system. You write a new system when no current system adequately facilitates the kind of experience you want to have.

When designing a new game though, you might not need a new system at all. If your focus is on setting or genre, and you don't have specific ideas about the mechanics or mode of play, then you may just want to look at something like Savage Worlds, or even Apocalypse World. If you have more retro-tastes, look at some of the OSR games that were published specifically with the intentions of allowing new people to produce content for old games. OSRIC is a great example. After having really fooled with B/x for a while, I can honestly say a number of game concepts I've had over the years would work just fine on that platform with a little tweaking. Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a brilliant example of this.

That creates the second point of discussion, iterative game design vs designing from first principles.

In iterative design, you begin with a basis of some other system or concept, and continue making tweaks and changes until you have arrived at your desired result. The Burning Wheel family of games are a good example of this, as Torchbearer and Mouse Guard have a lot of shared mechanics with Burning Wheel, but are indisputably separate games. This actually brings up the Ship of Theseus. How many planks can you replace before it's a different ship? At what point of tweaking have you created a new game? Is LotFP inherently a new game, or is it an elaborate modification? It's something of a moot point, only important insofar as it illustrates that "new design" vs "existing system" is a smooth gradient, rather than a hard dichotomy.

It is not a false dichotomy, however, as you do have the choice of designing from first principles. In this mode, you are starting from scratch. Literally "I want to use a handful of d10s" scratch. In this case, you're completely free to push things in whatever direction you wish.

In most cases, you're actually better off working with iterative design. This is especially true when you're either relatively inexperienced in designing a game, or a system you're already familiar with does a reasonably good job on its own. This is also extremely handy as a process when you've already built a system from scratch, but want to tweak it towards a specific end (see: Burning Wheel, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or Blade of the Iron Throne).

Sometimes though this approach can actually hold you back. Working iteratively keeps you in some ways tied to basic assumptions from the original design. When these assumptions become a constraint, you need to be willing to toss out whatever you need to make your mechanics work.

This is actually what happened to us in Band of Bastards. Like Blade of the Iron Throne, we began as an iterative hacking of The Riddle of Steel, but halfway through the process we realized the origional chassis were holding us back. Instead, we wound up tossing out everything and began again from first principles.

Designing from first principles is way more work, but you get a ton of valuable experience out of it and have more flexibility than you otherwise would. This is especially important for games where you want to change the actual mode of play from other default assumptions. Starting from a blank slate is a huge boon to creativity. This is also an excellent place to play with design for design's sake. I have a handful of mechanics that are floating around in a notebook looking for an excuse to use one day, with no immediate game idea in mind.  I recommend anyone interested in game design try this at least once. 

My two cents, anyway.

Until next time,

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why Use a New System (RPG Design)

In my crooked journeys through the role-playing blogosphere, I came across a post by Monsters and Manuals entitled Ryuutama and the Tiresomeness of New Systems. It was an interesting read, and there wasn't anything in there I'd like to directly argue with. It did get me thinking on the subject, however.

Obviously, there are certain circumstances in which you want to make the switch to a different system. Yes, I could run D&D style adventures in GURPS, but would I want to? So the discussion becomes when and why would I want to use a new system, and when and why would I design a new system? The latter question becomes particularly important for me, as I enjoy designing systems and I'd like to think I knew at least a little about the subject.

When talking about a "new" system for play, the question is always "what does this do that my old system doesn't?" There are only two real working answers here. It either offers a different experience than the old system did, or it simply does it better. You can make an objective argument for the former, but the latter is going to be subjective. Even if we established that game B was objectively simpler / more elegant / whatever somehow, there will still be people who think game A's clunkiness is charming or desirable.

For me, the former reason is why I read so many game books. I'm very interested in how different mechanical design choices impact the experience of playing a given game. This is the main reason I don't generally play universal or generic systems. It isn't because I don't think GURPS or Savage Worlds are fine systems in their own right, they are. I actually like Savage Worlds a good deal (in fact, I have a supplement planned for it one day.. one day...) but when I decide I want to run a specific kind of game, it's hard to make an argument for using a generic system over a system specifically designed for the kind of experience I want to play.

Fortunately, that seems to be the direction modern RPGs are heading. Whether we're talking about Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World, Sorcerer, or whatever else, the indie-RPG community has been pushing towards focused games providing a specific kind of experience and doing it very well. The market has evolved past the point where "create a better D&D" is a goal post. The OSR guys are doing a hell of a job playing with the original formula, but even that experience is being honed to a sharper focus on what they believe is "old school play," as opposed to the way modern D&D is trying to broaden its horizons and become everything to all people. (Protip: that never works).

So if that's why to use a new system, the next question is, why make a new system? When is it worth the effort?

That's the question for tomorrow.

Until then,

Monday, November 17, 2014

Chronica Feudalis: Updated Mentor List

I did a series of Chronica Feudalis mods a while back, but I realized I never shared the updated table. This is what I used below for the game, balanced to be compatible with the blue version of the book.

Image via DeviantArt

An updated Mentor list for the revised (blue) version of the rules. I added some items or item choices, changed a couple skills from core, and added a couple altogether new mentor categories. Some of these deviations were made with my upcoming campaign in mind, so your mileage may vary.

While it isn't spelled out in the book, assume that equipment from the same mentor type doesn't stack. Taking Knight, Knight, Knight may make you a terrible force in battle, but you don't get three horses for having done so. Your specialization gives you higher skills than anyone else, but you get fewer skills and less variety in equipment for having done so. 

Everyone has the option of a free knife / dagger (d4) at character creation.

Taught Skills
Gifted Tools
Aim, Dash, Sense
Longbow (d8) or crossbow (d10), quiver of arrows (d10)/bolts,  Gambeson or leathers (d4)
Entice, Sense, Will
Toolkit (d6), purse (d6)
Brawl, Fend, Strike
Handaxe (d6) and Roundshield (d10) or Longaxe (d10), Half-helm (d4), Boots (d6), hardened leather cuirass (d6)
Command, Deceive, Entice
Expensive outfit (d6), purse (d6)
Command, Heal, Will
Surgeon’s kit (d6), bandages (d4)
Fend, Sense, Will
Spear (d8), round shield (d10), leather jerkin (d4)
Aim, Hide, Hunt
Bow (d6), quiver of arrows (d10), snare trap (d4)
Fend, Ride, Strike
Helm (d6), horse (d20), mail hauberk (d8), kite shield (d12) and arming sword (d8) or Longsword (d10)
Deceive, Entice, Ride
Cart (d8), mule (d10), purse (d6)
Dash, Entice, Perform
Drum, flute, harp, or lute [pick one] (d8)
Monk / Friar
Dash, Sense, Will
Robes (d6), stylus and ink (d6)
Command, Will, Ride
Expensive outfit (d6), horse (d20), purse (d8)
Entice, Heal, Will
Habit (d6), prayer rope (d4)
Fend, Hide, Strike
Hand weapon (d6)[choose one], Dark Cloak (d6), Gambeson / Leathers (d4)
Brawl, Dash, Sense
a hand tool [pick one] (d6), hard shoes (d6)
Command, Entice, Perform
Holy text and device (d6), vestments (d6)
Deceive, Entice, Perform
Provocative dress (d6), uncomfortable shoes (d6)
Boat, Brawl, Swim
Map (d6), rope (d6)
Dash, Fend, Strike
battle axe or spear(d8), boots (d6), coif/ half-helm (d4), leather cuirass (d6) round/heater shield (d10)
Climb, Sneak, Steal
Dark cloak (d6), lock picks (d6), soft shoes (d6)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Question of Nomenclature

There is an extremely under-appreciated skill in game design. Naming stuff. I literally cannot tell you how many times I've written something or worked something out only for progress to grind to a screaming halt for want of a good term to label it. As an excellent case in point, I present the following from the Introductory chapter of Band of Bastards.

How to Use This Book

Band of Bastards is based around an idea we can credit Vincent Baker for: Concentric Game Design.  The game is divided into four Books within itself of escalating levels of complexity.
Book I contains everything you need to play the absolute core of the game, including task resolution and character creation.
Book II escalates this, including the rules for Full Contests, as well as Melee and Ranged combat sequences.
Book III includes all of the additional optional rules for fighting giant beasts, customizing weapons, and other topics.
Book IV is the province of the Game Master, and includes the rules for generating NPCs and running games in the ‘Bastards style player-driven narrative.

You don’t need to learn or use all of the rules at once, especially if you’re playing with a more experienced group. start with Book I and get used to the basics. It’s even possible to play the game using only the rules from Book I. You’re missing out on a lot, but it can be done. Many groups will be entirely comfortable just using Books I & II for most of their game-play, and certainly for the first few sessions or campaign. When you’ve got a handle on everything else, then you can expand into Book III, or not. Use everything, or just what you want, it’s in your hands.

Toolkit Mentality

Ultimately, this is your game, not ours. What you choose to do with it is more important than any suggestions we might make and we’ve designed it that way from the ground up. The division of the rules above supports a modular approach, and many systems can be tweaked or replaced entirely without damaging others in the game. We’ve even included some of the most common tweaks as Levers in Book III. Ultimately, we’ve set the game up to imitate the kind of world we want to play in, and expect that you will do the same. Look at this entire manual as a toolkit of interesting potential rules, and assemble them in the way you like. We just ask that before you do, play it our way, just once. After you’ve had a chance to see what we’ve done and why we’ve done it, tweak to your hearts content.
On the one hand, labeling things Book I - IV is direct and utilitarian, but also doesn't really do anything useful beyond being a placeholder. Burning Wheel was quite brilliant in this regard with its "hub," "spokes," etc.

Wanting for clever metaphor, I considered going something like "Core," "Basic," and "Advanced" but that doesn't seem like it accomplishes anything more than Book I-IV would. On the other hand, it would be pretty funny to have "Basic Bastard" and "Advanced Blades & Bastards" as terms. I'll have to pitch AB&B to Higgins. I can hear him groaning all the way from Estonia. It will be awesome.

Thinking on nomenclature will be my task for tonight. I'll have to sleep on it.

Until next time,

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Stressful Day

It's been an extraordinarily taxing day. One of our GHP team went to the hospital, though he's now fine. On top of that, I had a family emergency, and completely missed our weekly D&D game, in addition to all of the actual work I didn't get done.

I started the day with a joke about being productive today. If I ever do that again, shoot me. For now, It's an early bed. Before I do, however I thought I'd leave you with this.

November is a month a lot of people dedicate to their projects. If you're having a tough time with yours, maybe that will help.

Until next time,

Friday, November 14, 2014

Man vs Nature in Roleplaying Games

I've been on something of a survival / woodcraft / bushcraft streak lately, and it got me thinking about gaming. Doesn't everything?

Common literary theory boasts that there are essentially a Big Four of conflict in story: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Society, and Man vs Self.

Man vs Man is of course, the easiest to import into a role-playing game. Man vs Society can be slightly more obscure, but depending on how you want to handle it, it can be imported either through deliberate conflict, or by a motivation-based system, like Spiritual Attributes (The Riddle of Steel) or Beliefs (Burning Wheel). Similarly, Man vs Self can be explored as a theme through those motivation-based reward systems.

But how does one make use of Man vs Nature? Sure, you can be as direct as dropping a grizzly bear in front of the party and making them fight it, but that doesn't come close to capturing the feeling involved, or making that struggle a meaningful one.

For a long while, I've wanted to set up a campaign in such a way that exploration was an important part of the story: Charting uncharted lands, coming across the ruins of lost civilizations, the whole thing. While ruins and dungeons and whatever else are a way to make things interesting, is it possible to make man vs nature itself an interesting and vital aspect of the journey? It seems to largely be either hand-waved away, or worse: devolve into a series of rolls for fatigue or travel speed.

I seem to recall Mouse Guard had a mechanic that actually allowed you to make opposed rolls vs abstract concepts (I remember an episode of The Strand Gamers in which someone was rolling Weatherwise vs Spring? Or something), but I can't recall the specifics. Does this make things more evocative? I'm not sure. How do you make it impact the character - the player - beyond some rolls to resist fatigue, or cold, or whatever else.

Feel free to leave comments on this one. I'd love to know if there are any systems that do this well, or is it simply something that doesn't translate? I suppose it is hard to be cold, starving, soaked and annoyed at the rain when the player in reality is warm, dry, comfortable, and eating potato chips.

Until next time,

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Zweihander: A Grim & Perilous RPG

Short post today. I've got a ton of work on my plate, Bastards and otherwise. I just wanted to pass something along that I've been keeping an eye on.

Zweihander: A Grim & Perilous RPG is a something of a retroclone in its own right, originally based off of the 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy RPG. From what I've gathered, they've taken the original mechanisms behind the game, leveled out the playing field and balanced the classes, and retooled a number of the subsystems adding some of their own.

Personally, I'm fairly excited. I've always liked the WHFRPG system, but never really gotten the chance to play it. I never had a huge interest in the built-in setting and the amount of effort to divorce the original rules from the setting was more than I was willing to invest. Fortunately, Zweihander takes a similar stance to Band of Bastards, in producing a game that is setting neutral. Their artwork (such as the above) is very solid, from what I've seen, and the changes to the rules I've seen discussed on their forums have been interesting.

If you were a fan of WHFRPG in any edition, I'd suggest you check it out. Their last update spoke of a second beta in the works, I'd keep an eye out if you were interested.

Until next time, 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New fantasy Art Sucks (the MOST image heavy)

Alright. Sucks isn't the word. Much of the art is quite good, in terms of technique and visually interesting, but it's just never done anything for me.

Third edition / 3.5e's art was interesting, but as a whole it actively turned me off.

That's not bad. I actually like that quite a bit, really. It's what you'd expect from a book about delving dungeons. Good on you.

Alright. Stylized, sure. A little cartoony, but it's okay. I'll roll with it. He's a snazzy dresser, though he's carrying an awful lot of crap with him. Doesn't that get in his way? I hope that barrel doesn't come along with him.

Huh. Okay. Well. its obviously some amalgam of scale and leather. It's not terrible, but a little road warrior for my tastes. Maybe he couldn't afford to get the full suit? Poor guy. 

She seems to be going to the same armorer as the guy above. It's okay though, after the first couple dungeons I'm sure she'll be able to buy the rest of the set.

I'm not sure what to say about this ensemble. Some kind of chaps and a biker jacket? With what looks like a discount katana. Honestly, he seems more like a biker in Shadowrun.

Oh god. That armorer. Nevermind. No matter how much gold you loot, the armor will never improve. Are there people out there who actually find the above representation more attractive than, say this?

Well. Lets look at Pathfinder.

Well. It's certainly interesting to look at. Let's pick some pieces out.

The sword is confusing, but whatever. They are magical types, so I guess we'll give them the benefit of the doubt? I'm already noticing a trend though. I'll hold my tongue.

 That boat oar sword. That aside, I won't lie. It's a cool image. She looks like a badass, even if she appears to be completely floating in that armor.

Better, in terms of "what is armor" - she scores far higher than most of the 3.5 people - but I think I'm realizing what's happening here.

These are all extremely cool images. Hyper-stylized, angular, visually intricate, it's a kind of interesting post-anime sort of style. They are instantly identifiable with the pathfinder brand.

And all at once I realized, that's exactly what bothers me. 

A while back, I made a post sharing some AD&D cards that I picked up ages ago. The more that I look at the artwork, the more I find contemporary fantasy art wanting. And I finally know why.

Yeah. A lot of AD&D era art was ..bad. I won't deny that. But even the art that wasn't great had a certain charm to it that goes beyond nostalgia.

There is a certain quality to it, in it's attempts at realism. You can tell the above was done with models standing in at some point. Their outfits even look like costumes (realism is at times a double-edged sword). But there is a kind of life that creeps into the art. A verisimilitude. I can on some level believe that this is real. And that's exactly the point.


With each edition of D&D there seems to be a strong push to define a visual style for the game, in the same way you hire concept artists to establish the visuals for a video game. Games like Pathfinder have been extremely successful in creating a visual brand. I can look at a piece of art and know automatically that it's Pathfinder related. This seems to be the growing trend. The problem with this is that role-playing games aren't video games. It's not a visual medium. We aren't interacting with the world through its stylized artwork. Instead, we're tasked with imagining ourselves as though we were there.

In its attempts towards near photo-realism, early fantasy art is an invitation to imagine yourself there. To pretend that the world is real and breathing around you. It's asking you to picture the scene unfolding around you. Much of it seems to be built around building complete scenes, where the camera is literally you taking it all in, staring at the members of your party. The best example I could ever offer of this was in the Den of Thieves book.

The costumes? Fairly terrible. But it invites you to be there, to take part in the awe and wonder of it. It's an emotion that I find sorely missing in much of modern fantasy art. Pathfinder art is visually interesting, and would make for great concept art for a video game... but that's not what I'm looking for in my role-playing. By rendering the world as a comic book, or a stylized video game, I feel one step more removed from the subject matter. It feels less real and that much harder to identify with. Maybe it's a generational thing, but I have an extremely hard time looking at any of the above and going "yeah, that's me."

This has been a bit of a ramble, and I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with me entirely, but I'm at least glad to have worked this out for myself. If nothing else, it will come in handy when I have to start purchasing art for Band of Bastards later.

Until next time,