Friday, August 28, 2015

People Getting Killed...Again

There's been a lot of news the last couple days about the reporters that were murdered on live television Wednesday...hard not to miss it. Unfortunately, these were only gun deaths #8,513 and #8,514 in the United States this year. As was recently pointed out, the other 8,512 haven't received quite as much attention, though the end result...senseless death at the end of a gun barrel...has been the same.

And as of this morning (two days later) the total number of gun deaths for 2015 has risen to 8,548. Right now, we're on pace to hit 13,000 deaths by gun in The Greatest Country in the World, up from 2014's total of 12,560, which was up from 11,419 in the year 2013.

Long time readers know my stance on guns...if not, I'd direct you to my 2012 post on the subject. My opinions on the subject haven't changed...we need to get rid of all the fucking guns. Period, end of story. I know there are folks who vehemently disagree with this opinion...one told me quite explicitly that he wouldn't buy my products because I am a "moron" on this particular subject.

As if I was using the money from my product to fund anti-NRA campaigns or something?

Anyway, just felt it was time to mention the subject again in the wake of the recent news/publicity. I will now return to writing about game-related items (as much as I ever do). Hope y'all are having an otherwise happy, healthy summer.

Imaginary guns in RPGs still allowed.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

B/X Overlays - Revisiting the Beastmaster

Tim Brannan had some nice things to say about The Complete B/X Adventurer the other day, specifically with regard to the beastmaster class it contains. Rereading the entry (it's been awhile since I've had reason to skim through the book myself) I found myself a bit disappointed at the way I chose to handle the concept, specifically the whole call/befriend/master mechanic (not to mention the learned languages...a throwback to the original inspiration found in Stephan Sechi's Compleat Adventurer book). It makes for a wordy class entry which is quite un-B/X, in my opinion.

The version of the class found in Five Ancient Kingdoms (an optional Hero subclass presented towards the end of Book 3) is a lot simpler, and much closer to what I wanted to model: a knock-off of the cult classic film, The Beastmaster. It's a movie that I find enjoyable to this day for all its sword & sorcery sensibilities. The class found in TCBXA is a bit too much of an homage to the Tarzan/Sheena feral-child-raised-to-be-lord-of-the-forest archetype. Which, when you think about it, doesn't make a whole helluva' lot of sense for a dungeon delving game. Those types are homebodies (protecting The Wild), not restless wanderers in search of adventure.

In considering rewriting the class (for my own amusement...I have no plans to alter TCBXA or issue a "2nd edition"), I hit upon a slightly different idea from doing the "one-more-new-class-for-B/X" thang: Class Overlays. Figured I'd share the idea with y'all.

A class overlay isn't a new class; instead, it's a set of conditions added to an existing class. Subclasses are a bit like this (at least, they were in the original D&D supplements). However, while a subclass is a set of conditions applied to a specific class (for example, ranger as a subclass of fighter), a class overlay is a set of conditions that can be applied to ANY class.

Dig it?

For example, a beastmaster is simply an individual who has a supernatural affinity with animals. There are many examples that don't resemble Marc Singer's oiled body: Radagast the Brown, St. Francis of Assisi, Dr. Doolittle, Voldemort, Mowgli, those kids from A Game of Thrones, Marko from Wizards & Warriors, some of MZB's Darkover characters (I know there are others I'm forgetting at the moment). These individual "beast masters" have a wide range of skills and attributes, and few of them are cut from the rough-and-tumble Tarzan mold. So rather than try to create a single class that encompasses the wide range of disparate examples, we just create a conditional class overlay that adjusts the existing character class.

"He senses danger, m'lord. Also, he wants a carrot."
[BTW: for my money, I'd probably only apply class overlays to HUMAN character classes in B/X; i.e. fighters, clerics, magic-users, and thieves. But if you want your dwarf to ride a giant mole or whatever, feel free to knock yourself out]

Below I've written up the conditions for the Beastmaster overlay. Other overlays I'd strongly consider for B/X would include Summoner (think pulp-style sorcerer), Witchhunter, Bard, and half-blood types (like Ogre/Giant or Elf). Yes, I am aware that most of these were classes I wrote-up for The Complete B/X Adventurer...I think they'd all work excellently in a variety of styles.

BEASTMASTER OVERLAY

"Beastmaster" is an overlay that can be applied to any human character class. Beastmasters have a natural affinity for, and deep rapport with animals, though this is limited to the vertebrate classes of mammals and birds (lower lifeforms...reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, etc...are too primitive and/or alien for the human mind to touch). Communication with giant or prehistoric animals (smilodons, mammoths, cave bears, etc.) is possible; it is up to the DM to determine if a beast master's powers apply to magical or mythical animals (like a pegasus or griffon).

Beastmasters automatically understand, and are understood, by the animals in question. It is not necessary for the beastmaster to speak like an animal (hooting and howling); the animal simply understands what the beastmaster is saying. Beastmasters are thus able to interact with any animal encountered (normal reaction rolls apply, modified as necessary by charisma and circumstance). Beastmasters suffer a -2 reaction penalty when attempting to communicate with prehistoric animals.

A beastmaster may proposition an animal to join the character as a retainer/follower. The animal may not have more hit dice than the beastmaster (note: all B/X characters are limited to a maximum of nine hit dice). Animal followers count against the beast master's normal number of retainers, as determined by charisma. Animals whose hit dice exceed the beastmaster may still be friendly and offer temporary aid, as determined by a positive reaction roll.

Beginning at 4th level, a beastmaster may use a type of animal clairvoyance, limited to any animal retainer possessed. The beastmaster may utilize all the animal's senses, directing the creature telepathically, at a range of one mile per level of experience. There is no limit to the number of times an animal may be possessed and utilized in this way, but only one animal may be used at a time, and the beastmaster may take no other action when so engaged.

Conditions: a beastmaster loses all abilities when wearing armor of any kind ("scent of man") or carrying any type bow, crossbow, or sling ("the hunter's weapons"). Spell-casters may not learn or use magic that inflicts damage at range, nor any spell that manifests fire or lightning. Animal retainers will temporarily leave the beastmaster if the character uses forbidden equipment, and must test Loyalty (as per page B21) to see if they permanently leave the beast master's service.

DMs may OPTIONALLY choose to include cold-blooded beastmasters, whose powers only function on reptiles, amphibians, and fish/sharks. All conditions apply but, in addition, spell-casters may use neither cold nor water magic.

Just can't get enough, can you?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Dissing Dexterity

AKA The Usual Futility

This is not the post I was originally planning to write. What I had planned to write, what I was working on formulating (somewhat) in my head last night, was a post about the ability score called Strength (STR) that we all so love and over-rate, and some ways in which it might actually be used to garner more love, even from the softer (magicky) section of adventurers. But while formulating, this little problem child kept sneaking into the forefront of my brain and annoying the heck out of me.  So let's deal with that little bastard first: Dexterity (DEX).

First a little history (just roll with me, folks...the 'why' of it will be explained in due time).

DEX first appears in Men & Magic (volume 1 of OD&D) with the following description:
Dexterity applies to both manual speed and conjuration. It will indicate the character's missile ability and speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.
That's all it says. It's sole mechanical effect is to give a +1 bonus to firing missile if the score is 13+ and a -1 penalty if the score is less than 9. The Greyhawk supplement expands this, stating it is also "affects the ability of character to act/react" and allows fighters of high (15+) DEX to "use their unusual manual dexterity to attempt to dodge or party opponents' attacks," reducing opponents' attack roll by 1 for every point of DEX above 14.

[this translates to the standard AC bonuses...not penalties...found in the 1E PHB]

Greyhawk also made DEX the prime requisite of the thief class, first introduced in the same volume.

Holmes Basic states simply that DEX "applies to speed and accuracy" and while it retains the ability as a prime requisite of the thief class (now, apparently, standard), it ignores the defensive bonus while keeping the missile fire bonus of the original book (Holmes does offer an alternate "parry rule" that is available to all classes and not dependent on DEX). Holmes takes the ability's description of speed as a mandate and uses DEX as the sole determinant of ordering actions in combat...a mechanic never repeated in later editions.

Gygax further expands the ability in AD&D, writing that:
Dexterity encompasses a number of physical attributes including hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, precision, balance, and speed of movement.
Which is a very broad definition indeed, if one is used to the idea of dexterity being synonymous with  manual dexterity, the most usual "real world" use of the term. Regarding mechanics, DEX provides the Greyhawk fighter bonuses, though now for all characters, along with a similar bonus against certain types of saving throws that can be "dodged;" there are also equivalent penalties for low DEX scores. The bonus/penalties to missile fire have also been expanded to a range on 1-3 and apply equally to surprise situations (as a number of awarded segments of action).

Moldvay Basic (B/X) has a smaller range of bonuses/penalties, though they apply over a broader spectrum of DEX (anything outside the 9-12 norm). Combat rounds in B/X are not the segmented affair of AD&D and so the reaction adjustment doesn't apply, but Moldvay offers the option of allowing DEX to adjust individual initiative, if the DM is using the more complicated "pair combat" (the real precursor of individual combat order as found in 3rd edition+). Moldvay's definition states:
"Dexterity" is a measure of speed and agility. A character with a high Dexterity score is "good with his hands" and has a good sense of balance.
Note the "good with his hands" phrase would seem to refer to manual dexterity...this might not be what the original author intended (we'll come back to this).

I don't have copies of BECMI/RC or the 2nd edition PHB at hand, but my remembrance is that their definitions and adjustments are unchanged from B/X and 1E (respectively). If I'm mistaken, I apologize.

Likewise, I don't have a 3rd edition book available here in Paraguay, but the on-line SRD for D20 defines DEX as follows:
Dexterity measures hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, and balance.
It's adjustments apply to armor class, ranged attacks, reflex saving throws, and DEX related skill rolls...these latter being skills that pertain to agility, balance, or manual dexterity,

Jesus Lord, how this shit morphs over three to four decades.

Manual dexterity, the real world term generally used when one hears the word "dexterity" outside of a gaming context, refers to a person's ability with their hands, specifically how skillful (deft) they are with their hands. In the "old days" a person with good manual dexterity might be skilled at a (hand) craft...like carving or sewing. These days, we'd probably use it when discussing someone's ability to mash the controller of a console game. If you look up the term "dexterity" in wikipedia, it redirects you to the entry for fine motor skill...hand-eye coordination, in other words. This is the common definition of the term.

However, there is a broader use of the term "dexterity" which applies to mental adroitness...the skillful and clever handling of any complex situation can be done with dexterity, even if its not done with one's hands. The word comes from the latin word dexteritas meaning aptness or readiness.

But we'll come back to definitions in a moment...let's focus on what the damn stat does, and maybe then we'll be able to reconcile it with the meaning (if necessary). 'Cause, at the moment, the thing is a bit of a mess. To be clear, there are three main mechanical effects that have been used over the years with regard to this thing called "DEX:"

- a measure of proficiency with ranged or "missile" attacks
- a measure of combat reaction/speed
- a measure of defensive bonus in combat

The way these mechanics are handled from edition to edition varies, but that's pretty much the list. Let's blow 'em up one at a time.

Missile combat: using a ranged weapon, whether you're talking rifles or archery or knife-throwing, is only minimally a matter of "hand-eye coordination." The more important factors are proper technique, a good eye/depth perception, and (and longer ranger) and understanding of physics and environmental factors. Perhaps hand-eye coordination (which is a part of "fine motor skills" and thus manual dexterity) might be more pertinent to short-range, non-assisted shots (i.e. thrown weapons as opposed to shooting with a bow or crossbow)...this can be observed by a "coordinated person" having  a better basketball shot, for example. But, at least with regard to knife-throwing (I have no experience with spear/javelin throwing), such coordination is of minimal use...proper technique is required to throw a weapon with the accuracy needed to achieve an effective "hit" (i.e. one capable of inflicting damage). This is best modeled (in D&D) by class and level. Perhaps more coordination will help one to learn faster (like a prime requisite adding an XP bonus), but since D&D handles advancement in broader strokes (at least, with respect to combat), it would seem little worth to draft such mechanics.

Combat reaction: in (American) football, they have a couple sayings regarding speed. "You can't coach speed" is one; "speed kills" is another. But unless you're doing an Old West style showdown (or attempting to pull the trigger of your automatic firearm faster than the other guy), straight-line speed is not a huge factor in combat. Hell, sometimes making a brash attack is a good way to get suckered into the other guy's attack. Timing and distance is important, knowing when to be aggressive and when not to, and (for purposes of accuracy and effectiveness) keeping a cool head, are the most important factors in determining who's going to damage (or kill) the other person first. Training and experience (again, best modeled by class and level), followed by a good combination of level-headedness and controlled aggression are the most important parts reacting quickly and effectively in combat...as opposed to panicking, stumbling, and fumbling into a massacre or route. In the "primitive" non-modern combat found in D&D, physical speed and dexterity should have no part.

Defensive bonus: much as we might romanticize the swashbuckling swordsman in cinema, dodging and weaving isn't really a big part of hand-to-hand combat with weapons. Timing, distance, and technique...all of which come, again, from training and experience...are the things that will keep you from harm's way. And in cramped quarters (like, say, fighting a squad of goblins with fellow party members in a subterranean chamber) the idea agilely dodging is laughable; you're more likely to "dodge" into the attack of a different foe (or one  of your buddies!). Discipline, armor, good use of cover, and shields are all things that will serve to protect you from harm. A certain amount of manual dexterity could, I suppose, help you in batting aside ("parrying") a spear with your hand axe...but for me, this is best modeled with training and experience: class and level dependent hit points. Whittled away hit points can model the fatigue that comes with parrying blow after blow, not to mention the bruise caused by catching the haft of an axe with your shoulder (instead of the sharpened business end).

Agility, by the way, isn't generally necessary in hand-to-hand combat. Most fighting techniques focus on bringing the pain, in the most expedient manner possible, closing distance as soon as a good opening is found. Moving quickly with precision (i.e. accuracy) is a matter of practice, practice, practice, in order to move smoothly. That was the mantra of my old fencing master, anyway: slow is smooth, smooth is fast. And we'd practice handwork for 20 minutes trying to be slow, precise, and smooth, all in aid of training the fast (smooth and precise) hand.

[and that, of course, was sport fencing. In real combat, you're not worried about "precision;" you're worried about killing without getting killed. Practice and experience become so much more valuable, then, to act with minimal thought]

Going through these, it makes me wonder why one would even need such an ability score, even in the earliest edition. What makes it so necessary to add an additional descriptive measuring a character's dexterity, when it had so little effect on the mechanics of the game (compared to the prime requisites and the very important mechanics of CON and CHA). It feels like the designer(s) were harkening back to school days, and the drafting of teams for the playground activities. I'm sure most of us have had the childhood experience of encountering kids who excelled in hitting and throwing the ball, kids who could naturally (as a gift of good genetics) run faster and farther than others, even from an early age without training. If we were lucky, we might have been these kids...but there's always someone faster, who can throw/hit farther, jump higher, swim better, etc. As children learning our place in the world, we often find ourselves measuring ourselves against our peers, asking ourselves "where do I rank?"

Years of training...not DEX.
Even though DEX need not serve any great mechanical purpose in terms of the adult fantasy adventurers we portray in the game, it feels based on a measure of which character would be better at softball. Or, to put in less snarky fashion, which characters are more athletic than others. Even though the importance of general athleticism was pretty small in medieval life (and D&D is usually gauged as pseudo-medieval). And even giving it importance, it means little when it comes to adult, trained adventurers...who's to say the wizard hasn't become proficient at a thousand yoga postures as part of his mystic training, or engaged in some sort of acrobatic bootcamp similar to Jedi Luke on planet Dagobah? Sure, the fighter knows how to ride and joust in full armor, but he's got a lot more important things to learn than how to touch his toes or throw a tight spiral.

My default presumption is that D&D adventurers are hardy individuals that can ride, climb, swim, and hike for miles over rough terrain. Athletics and hand-eye coordination (except as it pertains to an individual's training and class abilities) is of little use to me. If it was especially important to be (for example) a strong swimmer or agile climber, the easiest thing would be to have a feat or talent called "naturally athletic" that would provide a small bonus over other (non-talented) characters. But otherwise, I have a hard time justifying the inclusion of the ability score, based on its physical description alone...too little mechanics to justify it.

Now, as a prime requisite for a thief character, and using the broader definition of "dexterity," I can see it as potentially useful. But that's for another post.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Serving Players and Game Scale

There are a couple different ways to play Dungeons & Dragons...

Boy. How many times over the years have I started a post like that. More than a few, most of which (if not all) I've erased without publishing to Ye Old Blog. Fact o the matter is, there is a shit-ton number of ways to play D&D, some of which (in my Not So Humble opinion) are better than others.

Which is not to say that there aren't many ways to play that are good (there ARE)...but some ways of playing aren't as effective as others. And by "effective" I mean in a way that allows all participants to experience a greater degree of enjoyment or "fun."

In my opinion, as said.

However, for purposes of this post there are only a couple (broad) ways that I want to discuss (or, rather, opine about). Since time is limited (as usual) and I've been drinking a little wine (also as usual), we won't be too fancy in coming up with new verbiage. Let's just call these two methods Serial Adventurism and Virtual World Living. Just for giggles.

"Serial adventurism" is what I call on-going campaigns in which exploration is limited to site-based adventures that don't give much of a shit about what happens in between each new excursion. Players create characters and are started outside the mouth of a dark cave, or an abandoned ruin, or a short range from a forbidden temple and told, "go there, accomplish objective;" said objective being anything from acquiring treasure to killing a Big Bad Guy to liberating prisoners or some sacred artifact needed to save the Greater Good or whatever. Any consideration of a greater campaign world (outside and away from the adventure site) is a secondary consideration at best. The closest town is simply figured to have all the items on your Standard Equipment List available, as well as a place to pawn items or cash in treasure (gems, jewelry) for easily divided coinage, and probably a place to hire various specialists, whether we're talking torch bearers and mercenaries or sages and alchemists.

This is the world of the random table, though the degree of randomization certainly varies by taste. On the high end of randomization (what might be considered the lowest end of consideration for anything outside "the dungeon," i.e. the adventure site), we find "carousing tables" as well as the town wandering monster of the 1E DMG, featuring everything from street walkers to vampires lurking in the crooked alleys of our semi-historic burg. But even on the low-end of randomization, you're still dicing to see which specialists are available and what percentage of value the character is going to get in exchange for that giant ruby. Gate guards and taverns and liege lords are little more than generic cut-outs, despite often having fanciful names and the occasional hidden secret to be discerned (the guard that's easily bribed, the tavern with the secret cellar, the lord that's practicing necromancy). These things matter only insomuch as they offer another potential adventure...they are otherwise left un-dealt with. 'Who cares?' asks the players 'What's the next mission?'

The main concern for the Serial Adventurist campaign is getting to the next site, accomplishing the mission, and "leveling up" in power and ability...whether through the acquisition of XP and level or new spells and equipment. For those who say, "we explore dungeons not character," this is your game. It's almost (almost) the oldest of Old School play. The adventures need only the slimmest of justification, if any...if there is exploration of character, it's often limited to exploring the limits of what the character can do/accomplish based on class-race-level and (permissiveness of) the DM. For the Serial Adventurist, mechanical character options and interesting sites (and site challenges) are the most important facets of the campaign.

It's sport D&D, pure and simple.

"Virtual World Living" is on the opposite side of the campaign spectrum. In this game, the main consideration is escapism in exploration of a fictional fantasy world, whether created by the DM or purchased as a boxed campaign setting. The characters are a part of the setting, and the extent of their impact on that setting is a secondary consideration to the setting itself, which should be a living, breathing world with a sensical history and geography.

"Sensical" is a relative term, of course. The Virtual World campaign can still be subject to random whimsy, whether created by dice rolled tables, arbitrary DM decree, or both. The point is the extent of the world available for exploration and habitation by the characters. There may be dungeons available to plunder, but locating one and getting to it can be its own adventure; whole game sessions can be taken with journeys and environmental interaction, including the exploration of urban developments not considered traditional sites for adventure. Yes, most of the campaigns referred to as "sandbox" fall under this heading.

What's interesting to note is that the main distinguishing factor between these two types of play are the scope and scale of the structure being explored by the players' characters. Both the adventure site and the fantasy world are imaginary constructs through which the characters travel. In the first, we find the party traveling from room to room (or encounter to encounter) via 10' wide corridors; in the second they travel from site to site via roads or paths, whether already existent or blazed by the characters...and yet the latter game contains within it the former, as scale is "zoomed" upon arrival by the party at a site that offers conflict/reward/interest. A hostile encounter in the wilderness is handled exactly the same as an encounter in the dungeon environment...despite the scale of wilderness travel being in days and miles, not ten minute turns and five foot squares.

That's because D&D itself is small scale by default. Combat is man-to-man (or man-to-monster) with traded blows and momentary decisions (do I open a chest? do I cast a spell? do I search for secret doors?) having immediate dramatic impact on the players (do I lose hit points/resources? does my character die ending my participation?). This small scale immediacy allows players to escape into the excitement of the moment, to become (via shifting perception) their imaginary characters in that moment. Do I want to pull this level? Do I want to draw my sword and attack?

The purpose to creating, running, and/or playing in a Virtual World game would seem to be providing the players with a more immersive experience...that the escapism of fantasy gaming is aided by making players think about and account for the world in which they travel (Do I need a guide? How do I locate food in the wilderness? What are the politics of this kingdom? Which region offers the best source of adventure/income for a character of my experience level?). Dealing with these large scale concepts...WHY is this dungeon here?...tends to get a game labeled as "more real" (i.e. "more readily escapable into") than the Serial Adventure game with its freestanding "funhouses." Despite the fact that in both types of play, the escapism is most easily found in the momentary, small scale decisions of the player characters. The Serial Adventurists just don't find as much enjoyment in momentarily haggling with an armorer over the price of chain mail or deciding which drink to order at the tavern.

And yet, without these non-adventure moments, the game loses some of its fantasy luster. If the game is only about the best marshaling of resources and wit to "beat" the dungeon, how does that make the game much different from an overly complex game of Hearts? The soul of the Dungeons & Dragons game doesn't rest in the overcoming of challenges through the best tactical (i.e. small scale) decision making. It's in those all-too-human instances that occasionally arise during game play eliciting real emotional reactions: humor, fear, anger, greed, joy, etc. Instances not based on the mechanics or external objectives of gameplay (for example, not the "joy" of leveling up or defeating a Big Baddie), but instances where we momentarily forget we're playing a game, and have a real human reaction to the imaginary circumstances occurring at the table.

Those instances generally come only in the small scale (individual character interaction), with the possible exception of events that shake (or shatter) an entire campaign setting. And yet, I'd hazard that these latter events only elicit real emotional response when players are deeply invested in the setting itself. Otherwise, who cares if the "world" is overrun by Old Ones or a gigantic horde of frenzied undead (for example)...we can always just start a new world, right? And deep investment in a setting doesn't come easily for players except over long-term play when they've become part of the setting...you know, high level, endgame style play? With landowners and political shaker characters?

Which is NOT the usual style of play these days. Many times have I heard from people that play beyond a certain mid-level number isn't "as fun" or satisfying. Or that their games usually end by or around level 8. And hasn't the most recent editions of D&D aimed their design (in part) at making even high level play viable in a "small scale" arena? With powerful individual character abilities designed to be used at the man-to-man, tactical scale?

If you're only going to do small scale (even small scale at high levels), is a Big Ol' Wide World really necessary? Can you not get sufficient "buy-in" from players without a detailed world setting? I'd think the answer is "no" given the degree to which players can suspend their disbelief (with tiefling fighters and dracoform warlocks fighting side-by-side...or Old School parties that contain characters of diametrically opposed alignments). The fantasy excesses of D&D are already ridiculous...does it really serve the players to craft up such a "big picture" setting?

Unless you're going to provide a way for PCs to invest in that setting, I don't think it does. At least, not enough to justify attention such world building commands. That doesn't mean there aren't good reasons for world building. I'm just saying that there's a lot less pay-off in your average D&D game than focusing on other areas of campaign/game management...like making the small scale pay more emotional dividends with your players.

Anyway, them's my thoughts of the day.
: )

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Melancholy Musings

Apologies. No, I haven't been doing any cool design stuff...some demographics info intersecting GDP with population and minority percentages as a means of justifying a specific super-world setting, but I've spent nearly as much time occupied with following the beginnings of football season. Mainly been hanging and doing stuff with the kids or getting too little sleep at night and thus working on catching up in my free time.

So there. I'm surprised traffic to this blog continues to be steady.

Had a chance to catch up on my blog readings today at least, so that's something. Got hipped to this post from Venger Satanis (by way of Trollsmyth), asking peoples' opinions of 5th Edition D&D now that it's been out-and-about for a full year. And...well, this is kind of sad, but I've never even seen any of the 5E books in print, seeing as how I've been living in this South American backwater for the last year and eight months. And I feel a little bit "left out" that I have absolutely nothing to add to the conversation.

I feel so obsolete at the moment.

Which is, of course, ridiculous. Oh, not the obsolete part...that might well be true (though even if it is, I don't care too much about the fact...my desire to be relevant is Oh So Slight). No, the part that's ridiculous is that I desire to be part of a 5E discussion at all, after I was so vehement that folks should just go out and design (and play) their own fantasy adventure games (FAGs) rather than buy into yet another WotC-sponsored, cash-grubbing...well, you get the point without me dashing off into the usual rant. But perhaps I'm feeling lonely for the shared conversation of the gaming community. I've done so very little gaming in the last 18 months. None in fact, when it comes to the role-playing, FAG variety.

*sigh*

I'm not feeling depressed or despondent, but definitely melancholic. Yeah, melancholy is a good way to describe it. Even now, just writing this, makes me feel a little sad that I'm wasting the time to type the words, when I could be (perhaps should be) doing something more constructive with the moment.  But I've often said that this blog is as much a record of my feelings at given moments in time (as much as my ever evolving thoughts on gaming), and now is perhaps as good a moment as any to record for later perusal.

Plus, it's good to be writing actual text, rather than just notes, brainstorms, tables of stats, and conceptual models. I spent 90 minutes doing my yoga routines today for the first time in...hmm...a long, long ass time...and, man, am I out of shape. The muscles are still there (if diminished), but the extra fat I've put on sure gets in the way of doing what my mind remembers being capable of. Writing  a blog post...even a melancholic, throwaway one, is exercising Ye Old Writing Muscles, at least.

Baby steps. Yeah.

Reading folks' opinions of 5E (which I spent some time doing), and even reading Tim's kind words on my old book made me remember my old love of B/X (and old school gaming in general), and consider that there's still probably a bit more "left in the tank," D&D-wise. Things I could contribute...probably not to 5E specifically, but to FAGing in general.

Tomorrow's Friday and I should have some time to write...at least a couple-three hours. I'm really going to try to get something for you folks. I'm pretty sure that being even a little productive will help cure this melancholy.

Till then.

Friday, August 14, 2015

(Super) Teen Angst

AKA "Sharpening the Axe"

SO...new project. or, rather, adapting an old project in a new way. Been reading a lot of Age of Ravens lately...excellent stuff, especially his various "histories of [genre] RPG" series.  I can see why the blog was nominated for an (Ennie) award.

It was his History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs list that first drew me to his blog...not only is it hella' informative, but it gives a great, detailed account of "what has gone before." Because, face it: if you're going to write a PA RPG (as Cry Dark Future has kind of 'morphed into), it's a good thing to have an idea of what's already been done. You don't want to be reinventing the wheel if you don't have to, right? Likewise with Lowell's History of Superhero RPGs...and considering I've been working on two of those lately (and was contemplating a third) this latter list was even more pertinent to my most recent scribblings. Though it took me a couple-three days to get through the whole thing, the slog was definitely worth it.

However, neither of these lists was the impetus for the "new thang;" it was rather this old post from January 2010 about the mileage that can be gained from using a school setting for campaign framing. It's not a terribly original idea...people have been using Ars Magica to run Harry Potter (for example) since the latter gained popularity, and I seem to recall Children of the Atom having information on running Xavier's school for the original Marvel Superheroes RPG. No, it's not terribly original...but it's still a damn good idea. And Lowell does an excellent job listing the "pros" of using such a structure.

Teen Hijinx
Of course, there have been RPGs designed specifically for running school-situated games. I picked up a copy of The Tulip Academy's Society for Dangerous Gentlemen a couple years ago during a short jaunt up to Seattle. It's an interesting little game, utilizing a couple systems I've been working on myself (card based scenario construction/mechanics and "floating" GM responsibilities), but while the setting is neat, I found it a little too "wide open," and the system mechanics a tad under-developed. Also, I was a bit turned off by the "all boys" aspect of the setting and the game's male chauvinist flavor (can't there be dangerous girls at the Tulip Academy?), but that might just be my personal taste bias.

[hell, the style of artwork could easily suggest the game's concept is based in yaoi manga (a genre aimed at a female audience), or at least could be played in that way, rather than the more superficial shonen manga genre implied by the title. However, manga really isn't my bag, and I'm probably not the right guy to expound on the subject]

Also in the "already published" category is Michael Pondsmith's classic Teenagers from Outer Space. TFOS is a game I've been fascinated with since high school. God, I can still remember presenting the concept to my buddies in the school cafeteria, trying to get them interested and excited in it (I had been a fan of the cartoon Galaxy High, after all). Their disgust and condescension was unanimous: "Why the hell would I want to play a kid in high school? I AM in high school!" High school, I suppose was traumatic (or "dramatic") enough that no one was interested in doubling-down on the experience...even in a light-hearted or satirical manner.

I never did end up buying TFOS, nor playing it. I suppose I'm a weird duck, but I was probably more interested in the fantasy/escapist aspect of the idea than the "high school drama" aspect. Who wouldn't want to inject a more fantastical elements into the humdrum of school life (assuming your school life IS humdrum). Isn't that (at least part of) the appeal of things like the X-Men or Harry Potter? Wouldn't you rather have classes like Monster Zoology or do P.E. in the Danger Room? Adults tell teens they can change the world, but isn't it cool daydreaming of saving the world in a very cut-and-dry, blast-the-bad-guys kind of way?

And hasn't every teenager had an incident where they'd wished for the power of invisibility?

Well whatever...I'm not a high school adolescent anymore, but I'm strongly considering delving back into that world. Or rather, revamping my revamped revamp (of my original supers concept) to stuff it in a school setting, with young folks learning the super trade.

[just for those folks keeping score: #1 started as a B/X supers game; #2 rewritten as a card-based (DMI) supers system; #3 updated to a card only system with a specific emphasis on super-teams (a la The Avengers, etc.); #4 re-conceptualized the game as a "teenage super school," using same system as #3]

Good sourcebook
To this end, I picked up a (PDF) copy of Green Ronin's Hero High (nice, quality supplement) and spent a bunch of time reading it cover-to-cover. Likewise spent some time brushing up on young super teams (the New Mutants, Teen Titans, etc.). And oh, yeah...have also been watching a bunch of films with school-super themes like Sky High (pretty good) and Zoom (pretty terrible).

Disney's Sky High is actually a pretty good model for my idea (a school devoted to supers), though the setting is a bit more serious (think Astro City)...leave out the separate "sidekick" track, for example. It's a tricky balancing act (the ridiculous with the serious)...in an alternate world where supers exist, they require a standard, accepted curriculum because it's simply accepted as inevitable that they'll be needed to save the world (or some such) at some point in their lives. In many ways, my idea is really closer to J.K. Rowling's world of mages and muggles than Xavier's school for mutants, complete with the possibility that some alumni are going to end up using their powers for evil (i.e. becoming super villains).

Will I need rival high schools and dimensional wormholes dropping Pacific Rim-style monsters into Manhattan? Maybe...I kind of want to keep the game low on the "blue" (weirdness) scale (see Wild Talents). I don't want the school populated by Asgardians, Kryptonians, and sorcerer supremes...just gifted individuals learning to use their powers. But working up the setting specifics of the game is actually the minor hurdle in the design/writing process (getting the "feel" right). I'm a bit more concerned wtih reworking the attributes and game mechanics for a teen-centric game (since these kids probably aren't going to have "secret strongholds" and "super vehicles," at least not to start).

But the roughest part is the actual high school drama / teen angst shtick. It's just been so long since I've given a rip about the kind of things that matter to kids, I really pale at the thought of trying to write for the genre. Crushes and cliques and grades and esteem issues, etc. Ugh. It's one thing to poke fun of it (as, say, TFOS does), but to do it in a serious fashion? On top of the ridiculous tropes of the superhero genre? That's a tall order for a guy a quarter century removed from his time in "high school hell." Aside from which, teens have a whole new bag of drama these days (like being outed as internet porn stars and shit...Jesus).

Maybe such a concept is a little too ambitious.

Oh, well. That's what I'm working on right now.

[just BTW: it's taken me three days to finish writing this post because I've been moving my family in and out o hotels while we deal with yet another house issue. Sorry if it seems more disjointed than usual]

Friday, August 7, 2015

Mutants Rule

Earlier this week (Monday? maybe) my son and I finished watching the last episode of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes animated series. Ye Old Netflix suggested another show we might like to watch: Wolverine and the X-Men animated series. As it is (like Avengers) rated TV7 and (also like The Avengers) lacks the "FV" ("fantasy violence" tag) I figured we could give it a shot. My son understands superheroes and cartoons are just fiction, after all.

Welp, we haven't been disappointed. The boy digs it (he now says the X-Men have been added to his favorite superhero teams which previously only included the Avengers and "the Superfriends"). He does continue to refer to it as "The Mutants" ('Papa, can we watch The Mutants while we eat lunch?') which would probably have been a more apt title, if (perhaps) not one with the same cache.

[though "cache" is a relative term...I see the name "Wolverine" in a title these days and I'm pretty immediately disinterested. I reached my saturation point with little, furry guy some years back]

Anyway, the show's not bad, if a bit disjointed and grabass, story-wise (compared to tight story arcs of The Avengers). At least the characters and plots are recognizable to Yours Truly. And in addition to be a good model for teamwork, there's a nice message of tolerating others and their differences which allows me to justify my child's exposure of the program.

And from a gaming perspective, it's starting to percolate some inspiration in my brain.

The "gamers ADD" thing is a tired subject for blog posting, but it's no revelation to long-time readers of this blog that "game designer ADD" is a much more serious topic...in that flitting from project to project is a sure recipe for not getting shit done. Now, if I was a big company with a staff of writers and designers, this wouldn't be an issue: I'd hand off ideas and concepts to staffers and just oversee the development of "products" [anyone see my recent post about "entering a new phase" as a publisher? This is a taste of the direction I'm ruminating on]. But at this point I'm not a "company;" and multiple inspirations are dangerous de-railings when it comes to completing projects.

It is what it is.

The part that's got me thinking is the whole post-apoc, (anti-)mutant war, sentinel-filled future those X-Men folks always seem bent on preventing. The idea of such a future was a good and interesting one when it first came out in the comics...taking the mutant analogy for the Civil Rights movement (and general history of prejudice and intolerance in this country) and ramping it up in combination with the themes one finds in the 1984 film The Terminator (dudes from the future traveling back in time to prevent a war with "the machines"). Actually, the Days of Future Past storyline predates Terminator (1981), but the later storyline involving Nimrod and Rachel Summers physically traveling back in time was in 1985 and feels a bit derivative (to me). ANYway...

That's a lot go giant robots.
In 1987, TSR published MX1: Nightmares of Futures Past for the Advanced Marvel Superheroes RPG. MX1 isn't really an adventure module; instead, it's an entire campaign setting placing PCs in the dystopian future where the machines (the sentinels) have taken over. Most of its 36 pages contains information on the world, the sentinels, equipment, antagonists, procedures for searches, and a sample internment camp, as well as special (new) rules regarding popularity and karma use in the setting. Only the last 4 or 5 pages contain adventure ideas and possible scenarios. It's really a toolbox to run your own guerrilla war against giant robots in a dystopian future setting. Later TSR offerings MX2 and MX3 were straight "adventure modules," but ones set in the same campaign setting.

MX1 is interesting and has lots of good, useful information but, in my opinion, doesn't do enough to tweak the original MSH rules for compatibility with the rather dark and gritty setting. For example, there's no changes in character creation to insure appropriateness (i.e. a tightly themed setting could easily devolve into an ordinary cosmic weirdness/kitchen sink game MSH is prone to do). Normally, "appropriateness" isn't an issue as MSH does a great job of modeling the exact same weirdness found in the Marvel universe circa the early to mid-80s...but MX1 would probably work best in a "standard" MSH campaign wherein a PC hero group makes a (temporary) foray into the future to save a blighted alternate timeline.

A more manageable take on the "mutant hunted apocalypse" was suggested by Dennis Laffey in his recent Gamma World/Marvel mash-up campaign that uses Mutant Future as its base system. Dennis has been busy of late with a new baby and his ongoing Chanbara project, so I'm not sure if the campaign is still up and running, but the idea of using the Gamma World system (or, rather, the BX version of the GW system) is a much better starting point for grim-dark future than superheroic, narrative re-writing, nobody-can-die system that is MSH. Still not a perfect fit for the original concept of the setting (the war machines of GW far outclass the mutations)...but then, Dennis isn't trying to do the original concept. His campaign's apocalypse is inspired by the concept, but the campaign world is a far more primitive one (I use the term in a good way), more akin to the easy savagery and general weirdness found in Thundarr the Barbarian.

B/X is a good choice for gritty...I wish Dennis would publish his house rules for the campaign. But it's not quite what I want. A civilization that's already fallen (the default setting for GW) is one that's more about heroic survival in the wilderness and building a new community/civilization. I want a heroic quest to SAVE the civilization BEFORE it falls. But I still want gritty. Hence the need for a new game.

See? This is why I'm a fan of multiple game systems rather than the proponent of the "one-size-fits-all" universal RPG. If I actually pursue this inspiration (and start writing up notes), it will be the THIRD superhero RPG I've started since May. Well, third for which I've done substantial work...one was already a "work in progress." But all have different themes, settings, and styles of play. My street level game (heavily inspired by the Daredevil net series and my favorite Marvel small-timers) utilizes some narrative mechanics, explores a "closed system" (with a definitive endgame), and also attempts to run GM-less. My "hero team" game draws its inspiration from the Avengers, Justice League, etc., makes use of my updated DMI system (previously demo'd as Legendary Might), and focuses on cinematic supers action, as opposed to the comic book style and tropes.

But this would be something different. You're not harnessing your rage (a big theme in my low powered game) to "clean up the streets." You're not blowing up buildings in an attempt to save the Earth from alien empires and high-tech terrorist organizations bent on world domination. Instead, you're battling a World Gone Bad, in which humans have turned on each other (and continue to turn on each other) under the sight of their gigantic robot overlords. I kind of like the idea of different character classes (limited to, say, mutants, cyborgs, normals, and genetic experiments) with separate power suites and leveling to represent how experienced your resistance fighter is.

"I eat mutants like you for lunch."
On the other hand, how much mileage can you get out of fighting giant robots again and again and again? Would anyone be interested in playing a Terminator-style RPG fighting against the machines and "Skynet?" It feels more like a board game...or perhaps a video game...in which there'd be an actual objective, "get-to-the-end" target to obtain. Wipe out the bad mecha, return to normalcy (or, at least, the possibility of rebuilding the world that was lost). Is that enough for an ongoing RPG?

Maybe not.

[see the game Bliss Stage for ideas of running an RPG that focuses on the relationships and mental stability of survivors fighting a war of resistance against hopeless odds in a post apoc future; similar mechanics could probably be adapted if you wanted a more character exploration-style version of this concept]

Anyway, I don't really have time to start another project, so the question is probably moot (though one I'll continue to mull over). Too many other things to work on, including the post-apoc revamp of Cry Dark Future (which will NOT be turned into a supers game, thank you very much). Then again, if I had the right collaborator....

More on this later. I've got to put the kid down for his nap.