Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Quick Addendum to Might and Magic

And I mean really quick.

In my last (very early morning) post, I mentioned (briefly) M.A.R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne and its skill lists. For those who don't have EPT for reference, here's how it works:

In EPT you receive a handful of skills during character creation that help round out your character. These come in a couple different varieties. First there are background skills, similar to AD&D's "secondary skills" in that they are professional skills with no real game mechanics attached. These include things like butcher, carpenter, and wheelwright, as well as physician, poet, scholar, and slaver.

Actually, some have some mechanical benefits: the assassin-spy-tracker (that's one skill) can hide in shadows, and the alchemist can brew elixirs and poisons, for example. There are a few, but most don't  have more effect then, "Oh, fisherman? You know how to fish." New characters receive a random number of these skills...as few as one, or as many as ten.

In addition, characters receive from two to five professional skills. These come from a list based on the character's class, of which there are only three: warrior, priest, and magic-user. Warrior skills are pretty much weapon proficiencies (spear, axe, crossbow, etc.) but priests and magic-users have a selection that ranges from additional languages to spells. While the starting number of pro skills is random, characters receive an additional skill with every level, so eventually a character can claim all on the list (each list has a dozen or so). The interesting thing is that they must be chosen in order...a warrior can't learn bowman until he's learned crossbow, for example. The most advanced skills cannot be claimed until all the lesser skills have been learned.

Summoning The Vapor of Death. Ooo!
In addition to this, priests and magic-users have a random chance per level of learning bonus spells from one of three separate lists ("groupings"). The spells in these groups are very similar to the ones in OD&D, and they are grouped by power (so Group I spells are the "weakest," though many are still plenty potent). Group III spells cannot be learned until 4th level, but with enough experience, EPT spell-casters can become quite powerful.

Over-all, a very interesting system and very "magical" in feeling. I very much like the "knowledge needs to be built on knowledge" attitude of the professional skills. The random bonus spells are appropriate for a campaign setting that features psychic abilities (and the, perhaps, spontaneous development of such abilities), but probably doesn't make much sense for my current project.

Ok...got to go. More later (I hope!).

Might and Magic (Part 2)

[continued from here]

People may notice that the list of blogs listed in the sidebar include a random sampling of non-active blogs that probably need to be deleted...and perhaps someday they will, if I ever get around to getting active on Patreon (and want to make blog listing a "reward" for some level of support). However, I still hold out hope that these might "fire up" again, at some point in the future. And sometimes, I still reference them for their old posts.

Such is the case with long dead Grognardia. As I wrote in Part 1, I was up till the wee hours combing through old (digital) copies of The Dragon, and I was using some of James's old posts to add a bit of additional perspective. Just in random passing, I came across this old post of his and (especially in view of my recent thoughts, dissatisfaction with magic-users as is/was) it reminded me of something. I hate the lumping of spell-casters into one or (at most) two types "magic paradigm."

See my post on this back in 2010. At the time, I was working on The Complete B/X Adventurer (man, THAT has been selling like hotcakes the last two months, just by the way) and in an effort to add more content to a skinny book, decided to throw in some different types of spell-casting classes. I ended up with five total (gnomes, mystics, summoners, tattoo mages, and witches), each with their own variant form of magic...not just "magic-users with different spell lists," but completely different approaches to the form and function of magic. The bee in my bonnet (at the time) was this idea that isn't it Goddamn boring to have everything simply be arcane or divine?

Let me answer that: Yes. Yes it is.

This is the reason you don't find illusionists in D&D after 1st edition (at least, not as a core class). First, ya' fold all their spells under a heading called "arcane," then you say:

"Hey, if you want to specialize in illusion magic, pick illusion spells."

Much as I want a certain cosmology in my game world, I don't want a unified field theory of magic.

[hmm...I say this after already creating a brand-new variant magic system for the current project consisting of a single list of spells: the Forty Magnificent Marvels. Sigh...back to the drawing board...again]

I like the idea of different magical schools, each dedicated to a different brand of enchantment. Fire mages, necromancers, druids, etc. It's not a terribly original concept, I realize: I believe I first saw this kind of paradigm circa 1983 with DragonQuest (I created a stone giant who was a member of the Earth Magic college...sadly, we never had the chance to do more than chargen that day...). Ars Magica does a little of this, too, and I've used the concept a couple times in past FHBs I was developing ("LORE," which I briefly mentioned before, had some of this). The original WHFRP had demonologists, necromancers, battle mages, etc. each with their own separate spell list, skills, and (in some cases) horrifying drawbacks.

I dig this...it has a very old school (please, PLEASE forgive the use of that term!) pulp fantasy vibe. Like the rival wizard guilds in a Leiber story trying to show off why their magic is supreme (shades of 70's Hong Kong flicks with feuding martial art schools). Heck, it's the kind of thing that could work well with the concept of "wizard duels." Forget counter-spells: an illusionist doesn't know the first thing about countering a fire mage's spell. But create a mechanic to simulate dueling, and you can still have two mages of different backgrounds duking it out.

Now that I think of it, this is a big part of why I dug Magic Cards, waaaay back: the idea that you were a Red Mage or a Blue Mage or whatever, and the deck represented your spell book. I always liked working with a "theme;" but then, I've long been one of those people that prefer the fluff of a game over practical application (often to my detriment). Hmm...now that reminds me of the Rankin-Bass film Flight of Dragons with its different colored "wizard brothers."

Of course, that just reminds me of Tolkien (again) with its grey, white, brown, and blue wizards...and weren't Frank Baum's witches color-coded as well? Differing magic by color has a long and distinguished tradition, I suppose...

*ahem*

And to tie this back to the last post... One thing I was considering (just an idea, mind you), is providing more static spell lists for magicians. Limiting them (I suppose you'd say) rather than throwing this huge list of spells at players, only to have them (mostly) choose the same spells over and over. There would be some variation, of course (just as fighters get to choose what weapons they want to carry), and perhaps different lists depending on theme (a druid style list versus the illusionist, for example). Magicians would still acquire effectiveness with experience, though perhaps not so much a greater repertoire of spells. And the spells that would be gained (with increase in level) would be equally limited...something akin to Barker's EPT (1st edition) skill trees, building on knowledge already known.

No necromancers, though...otherwise everyone wants to be one.

The trade-off here...or, rather, what would be gained...would be an increased effectiveness from the get-go. Your magician (or pyromancer or whatever), would have a number of spells at his or her disposal right from 1st level...perhaps the equivalent (in D&D terms) of seven or eight spells ranging in magnitude of 1st through 3rd level. Something fairly equivalent to Gandalf, in other words. None of these would be over-powering, "game changing" sort (unless applied in creative fashion)...most would be of the "utility" type (said utility being determined by the school or "theme" of magic).

Anyway, just an idea I have...I'll see if I can work up some sample lists in the next couple days and post 'em to the blog. I have a strong suspicion that long-time players of the MU class in D&D might hate-hate-hate this concept for a number of reasons: it undermines the work they've put into mastering spell lists, it reduces the choices/options they have, it penalizes the creative strategies they've developed over years of play, it doesn't have the same feel as Vancian D&D, etc. And if folks DO raise these objections, I say: FINE. Go play D&D.

Take your 1st level sleep bomber or charm personer with your bandolier of throwing knives and go play D&D. Pick your edition...it's all the same (except that recent ones let you shoot lasers...um, "cantrips"...just like Harry Potter). Go skulk behind the fighters and clerics for umpteen game sessions until you've acquired enough points that you can be effective. Go do it...I'm not going to stop you! And when you've reached the lofty level where you outclass the non-spell-casters and there's the potential threat of grumbling, you can always incorporate feats and maneuvers and weapon specialization and be a merry band spending an entire game session on a single battle that will be a challenge for your immensely talented party.

That's one way to play (and a time honored one, to be sure). I'm just trying to work on a different way: one that appeals to me. I'm a guy who doesn't play magic-users...like never ever ever. And not because I don't like magic or something. I love stories of wizards and sorcerers and magicians and witches (well, most such stories...sorry, Ms. Rowling). Gandalf is a personal favorite...in fact, I lied! I did...once...play a wizard in 3rd Edition, and I modeled the character on Gandalf, right down to taking Martial Weapon Proficiency: Sword.

[I believe I related this story in the past? We couldn't get past the first obstacle in the adventure because I, as the party wizard, had not taken the "correct" spells. 'What do you mean you don't have fly? You're seventh level!' The DM, folded the adventure in disgust and our session ended. It was the last time I've ever played a straight wizard PC]

I don't like magic-users in D&D. I don't like the way they're conceptualized, I don't like their mechanics, I don't particularly like their steep power curve (and I'm a person that likes power!). So, I want to make a magician class that I'd like to play. That's all this is, folks.
: )

Monday, October 27, 2014

Might and Magic (Part 1)

I have so many different ideas for blog posts I want to get up, I feel a little stymied in where to start. But I guess I better do something...here goes:

I was up till...oh...2:30 or something in the morning reading the first twelve issues of Dragon magazine (at the time called simply, The Dragon). I went looking for a particular article, which then led me to another, thence to another, and so on until I finally just said, 'whatever...I'll just read the first twelve issues and see where it takes me.'

Minus the fiction, of course...boy, there was a LOT of fiction back in those days. Much more than what I remember back in the mid-late 80s (when I first started reading Dragon). Anyway, the main article of interest for purposes of this post is Bill Seligman's March '77 essay, "Gandalf was only a fifth level magic-user," found in The Dragon #5.

I love this article...perhaps not the way it is written (though the point here is not to critique Mr. Seligman), but the concept. That is, the idea the man is trying to express. The point (for those who don't have access to this particular issue) is that the abilities displayed by Gandalf throughout both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy can be modeled in OD&D (the only edition at the time) with the stats of a 5th level magic-user. That is to say, the majority of magic Gandalf displays in the text can be mimicked using existing 1st and 2nd level spells (or slight variations) with only the occasional use of a 3rd level lightning bolt spell...though the author points out the latter could possibly be explained by Gandalf's use of Narya the Great.

Seligman also states that Sauron's displays of magic can be modeled with a 7th or 8th level caster's ability (or 12th level "if you're going to be nasty" and allow that he has the control weather spell). Personally, I'd say that Sauron is at least 11th level in D&D terms, given his ability to manufacture magic items (like, ahem, magic rings).

As I said, I really like this. For one thing, if you look at the Tolkien books as adventure guides, you can see just how much is possible with a 5th level Magic-User carrying a bunch of utility spells and one (maybe two) "blasting" type dweomers. Gandalf is no slouch as an adventurer, being quite clever and not reliant on his magical abilities. It helps, of course, that he carries a sword like Glamdring (presumably the sword-equivalent of something like the dagger +1, +2 vs. goblins or similar)...but I've seen plenty of low-level (and not so low-level) magic-users that would be skulking around the back of the party, even with such a blade. Clever and yet bold: this is the kind of character I'd like to see in my own games...but herein lies the problem.

Being 5th level means needing an umbrella.
Gandalf is a very cool character in literature, but how does one get to him in the game? If he starts at 1st level (with only the capability of casting a single spell), he's certainly not going to resemble "Gandalf." More like a very raw apprentice...and one who tires quickly (blows his wad with a single spell-casting). Of course, if he survives to level up (probably by ducking and skulking), you'll get there eventually...and then you'll pass that "Gandalf level" rather quickly and soar into the stratosphere of magical power: polymorphing Nazgul into rabbits, conjuring walls of fire and stone to shore up Minas Tirith, and teleporting back to the Shire as necessary.

Just not quite right.

["JB! D&D isn't Tolkien!" Got it...just bear with me, ok?]

The problem (or, more accurately, MY problem) is that D&D is too slow to get to (what I consider to be) a competent level of magic, is too quick to ascend to lofty superhero levels of power, and too focused on combat, in general...the latter due to the nature of the game.

[plus, not enough geezers (though I recognize that may not be everyone's style)]

That all counts as ONE problem, by the way...it's a problem of granularity that doesn't really exist in the other classes. Characters increase in effectiveness doesn't jump in the same leaps and bounds as other classes...the differences between a 1st level fighter and 5th level fighter are very minimal compared to the difference between a 1st level (raw apprentice) MU and a 5th level "Gandalf." The gulf between the 5th level Gandalf and the 12th level Sauron is gigantic, which is a good thing....until you consider that it's not so terribly hard to advance from 5th to 12th level. Certainly it doesn't take thousands of years (considering the age, experience, and power of Tolkien's "Big Bad Guy") of game time...depending on the amount of playtime, the generosity of the DM, and the skill of the party, and the particular edition being played, a player could reasonably expect to reach 12th level within one to three years of play. I know 3rd edition shot for about one level gained per month (assuming weekly sessions). That is a fast, fast road to power.

How to rectify that?

Much as I liked the essay about Gandalf being "only" 5th level, there IS a part of me that says "how weak sauce!" when you know that it doesn't take that much effort to get to (and beyond) 5th level. Hey, Old Man: he who falls behind gets left behind, ya' know?

Okay, that's one thing I want to talk about...the article made me consider that Vancian magic isn't that terrible as put forward in the original LBBs. But there's tweaking that needs to happen with the advancement dynamic of the wizardly class to get to what I want to see. That and I think I'd like to restrict the variety of spells available to the mage...even more than I've already planned for my "basic" game.

But that has to do with a different issue that I'll be discussing in Part 2.
; )

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Heroic Smack Talk

Back in August, the Prismatic DM posted a neat idea about modeling the dramatic "throw down" in your B/X or LL game. It reminded me of my old blog post on vows, but with a more immediate, impactful effect on game play. Which is (in my mind) better...because it's something that can be practically implemented by player choice, rather than waiting for the DM to "set something up."

Anyway, cool as it was I wasn't 100% down with the mechanics of the maneuver, and I hadn't given it much additional thought until I was posting yesterday's entry on Eowyn. I said I wanted to model the same type of Eowyn-Nazgul interaction in the new heartbreaker, and I've already got a couple systems that will work (in aid of) that goal, but I really don't have anything for the "throw down" or heroic smack talk (as I like to call it) in place.

Not that what Eowyn does is really a challenge. In B/X terms, it's more of a standard negotiation (reaction check) kind of maneuver. "Hey, leave my dead uncle alone, huh? I don't want to fight over this." But the character blows the reaction roll and the fight's on. Not that Eowyn has a low Charisma, but there's probably a penalty involved here given the overall circumstances.

Usually, smack talk is made to ENCOURAGE a fight. Unlike the B/X reaction check, where combat only results due to a low roll, there are times in heroic fiction when a person is actively trying to entice an individual to battle. That's the kind of "smack talk" I'm talking about. And while it may not apply to Eowyn's case, as she was trying to discourage a fight, there are times when one might want to go the other way.

SO...I offer two slightly different game mechanics for your perusal. Both should be compatible with B/X. I call them The Goad and The Challenge.

The goad is what you use to encourage a fight with a lesser opponent. This is the classic dun moch maneuver of Star Wars (when Dooku or Vader taunts some lesser Jedi into a fight). This is Rage getting Armor all riled up so that he loses his cool in combat. The goad issues a challenge to the weaker opponent (a character of lesser HD/level), calling into question the character's courage and saying, "Here, come get me. Heck, I'll make it easy for you."

To goad an opponent, the person goading (called "the antagonist") rolls 2D6 using their Charisma reaction modifier. The result of the goad (which must be done prior to initiating combat) is determined by consulting the following table:
  • 2 or less: the target is immune to the goad (or future goads); if the target of the goad chooses to fight anyway, she receives a +1 bonus to attack rolls against her antagonist, who receives no benefits.
  • 3 to 5: the target is immune to the goad and future goads from this antagonist.
  • 6 to 8: the goad has no effect; the target may choose whether or not to fight; if the target chooses to fight, treat this result as a 9 to 11 instead.
  • 9 to 11: the goaded target must fight, receiving a +1 bonus to attack rolls (the antagonist leaves himself open, inviting the attack). However, anytime the goaded target misses an attack, the antagonist immediately receives a bonus attack against the target. The effects of the goad continue until the goaded target receives an attack that inflicts maximum damage.
  • 12 or more: as the 9 to 11 result except that the target is goaded into attacking recklessly, suffering a -2 penalty to all attack rolls instead of receiving a +1 bonus.
How's that? Individuals more than four HD/level lower than the antagonist should be immune to a goad attack (assuming they have an accurate gauge of the antagonist), as should ALL 1st level characters. You don't want the neighborhood ogre calling out newly minted adventurers!

Different tactic from Eowyn.
Now a challenge is similar to a goad, but here the the challenger is calling out someone of equal or greater HD/level. The challenger rolls a 2D6, again modified by any Charisma reaction modifier (how lordly/intimidating is the challenge?). The result of the challenge depends on the result of the die roll:

  • 2 or less: the target is immune to the challenge (or future challenges from this source); if he chooses to fight he receives a +1 attack bonus against the challenger (the challenger receiving no benefits).
  • 3 to 5: the target is immune to the challenge and future challenges from this person
  • 6 to 8: the challenge has no effect; if the target chooses to fight treat this result as a 9 to 11 instead.
  • 9 to 11: the target accepts the challenge (i.e. the target must fight); the challenger receives a +2 attack bonus and a bonus die of hit points (rolled immediately) for the duration of the fight.
  • 12 or more: as a 9 to 11 result except that the target of the challenge fights at a -2 penalty to all attacks, as he seeks to prove his greater skill "playing" with the challenger.

Issuing a challenge can really give the edge to someone of equal level, and so DMs may wish to limit the bonus effects only to targets that are of actual greater HD/level than the challenger, though a successful challenge (9+) should still entice the target to fight...a result of 12 or greater, should force the target to make a morale check or surrender to the challenger. Again, this is only for challenged targets of HD/level equal to the challenger.

It should probably go without saying that only sentient creatures (and only those with the ability to mutually communicate) can issue or accept goads and challenges.

I suppose that some negotiations, like the one between our friends Eowyn and the Witch-King, have an implicit challenge within them...a do this, or else kind of negotiation. With this type of system, you really can't mix and match...a challenge is something designed to provoke someone to battle...which is not at all what Eowyn was trying to do. She was attempting to back off the Nazgul: a "Get thee hence, demon!" kind of thing. In many ways, this is the equivalent of a turning attempt...and perhaps it should be modeled as such and not limited to clerics/undead (think Gandalf vs. the balrog: "You shall not pass!").

Hmmm...that may be fodder for another blog post.
; )

Okay, that's enough for now; I've got a baby to attend to and coffee to brew (not necessarily in that order). I will say that I want to return to the concept of "vows" sometime this week. But, yeah...got to go now (hold on, bebecita!)...

Friday, October 24, 2014

Eowyn

Long before I ever started this blog, probably shortly before (or, more likely, shortly after) I discovered The Forge and became really interested in the nuts and bolts of game design, I tried my hand at creating a system for a new fantasy RPG...one very different from B/X or D&D.

In fact, I'm going to say it was before I discovered "indie game design" because that was about 2005, and this was an idea I came up with when traveling in Canada with my wife back in the early 2000s...maybe even before we got married (which was in 2000). Whew...a loooong time ago.

This game idea was called "LORE" (which was an acronym for something, though I can't remember exactly what), and I can't seem to find the docs that had my notes...they're probably on some old zip drive back in Seattle. Anyway, back in those days, my main objective was to make sure that character creation could model various (fantasy) literary personalities (Conan, Elric, etc.) from the get-go without needing to wade through a bunch of "low levels" to become a proficient character. And the main literary person I used to model the LORE system was Tolkien's character, Eowyn.

This pic is too small.
Eowyn is one of my favorite characters from literature...at least as far as bit parts go. I dig most everything about her; I identify with many things about her. I think many people do: for most of us there have been times that we've been underestimated in our lives or frustrated at the pull between doing one's duty and doing what we want to do. Those who are younger siblings may have felt the pang of being told we need to "stay home" while the older sibling goes off to do something we want to do...and older siblings (like myself) have felt the guilt of not being "responsible enough" (even when our rebellion is only within our own minds). There are some archetypal emotions at work here.

But, mainly I like Eowyn because she kicks ass. This is the equivalent of an unblooded, 1st level fighter...and yet she's not afraid to talk smack to the Lord of the Nazgul. And then she backs it up by killing off his evil dinosaur mount, going toe-to-toe with the guy, and sticking her sword betwixt his eyes. Eowyn is pretty badass...at least in Tolkien's book.

There's no crying in battle!
I am on record as saying I received immense enjoyment from the Peter Jackson LotR films, and that I feel they do an excellent job of staying true to their source material (if you own/watch the Extended Version DVDs...which I do). But while I really, really, REALLY like Miranda Otto in the role of Eowyn, and find her interpretation of the character quite good (along with Jackson's writing, she really helps fill out and bring life to a literary character), I pretty much HATE the direction/depiction of her climactic scene on the Pelennor Fields. What is this: cowering? Is she going to cry or something? And the cheap way she delivers the line, "I am no man" after the Witch-King is already on his knees? What the hell is that? Kicking an enemy when he's down?

The scene in the book shows a stronger, confident character. First off, she calls out the bad guy right from the beginning...she gives him a chance to back off, and lays all the cards on the table, long before the first clash of battle...even before drawing her sword. But here...I'll quote the text, and you tell me what sounds better:
"Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!" 
A cold voice answered: "Come not between the Nazgul nd his prey. Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where they flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye." 
A sword rang as it was drawn. "Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may."
"Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!" 
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. "But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him."
[see what I'm talking about? this isn't some chica who's in over her head, backed into a corner and just trying to make a stand. She's just as proud and lordly as Aragorn or Theoden or Boromir or any of them. Except, of course, she actually kills something bigger than an orc. She can talk the talk AND walk the walk]
The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt. Very amazement for a moment conquered Merry's fear. He opened his eyes and the blackness was lifted from them. There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgul Lord like a shadow of despair. A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes...
...Suddenly the great beast beat its hideous wings, and the wind of them was foul. Again it leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Eowyn, shrieking, striking with beak and claw.
Still she did not blench: maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair but terrible. A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone. Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed to ruin, vast wings outspread, crumpled on the earth; and with its fall the shadow passed away. A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise. 
Out of the wreck rose the Black Rider, tall and threatening, towering above her. With a cry of hatred that stung the very ears like venom he let fall his mace. Her shield was shivered in many pieces, and her arm was broken; she stumbled to her knees. He bent over her like a cloud, and his eyes glittered; he raised his mace to kill.
[a few things to notice, here. One is the constant attention Tolkien pays to the Witch-King's eyes, for (aside from the crown floating above his head), nothing other part of the creature's head is visible. This is starkly different from the "empty helmet" (and hollow eyes) of Jackson. Then there's the potency of the Nazgul. In Tolkien's prose there's only two hits: "Me hitting you, you hitting the floor." Jackson's Nazgul swings his ridiculously over-sized flail no less than seven times before finally connecting with Eowyn's shield. It looks silly on screen (again, I say this as a fan of the film trilogy), making a battle between two champions look like...I don't know...a cheesy Kevin Costner-style fight scene. It makes me wince to watch the thing]
But suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground. Merry's sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee. 
"Eowyn! Eowyn!" cried Merry. Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang. Eowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe. But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty. Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled; and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world.
See, there's no clever repartee from Eowyn once the fight starts...just business. She's "all in" before the Nazgul even decides she's worth his attention (I cut out the bits where he ignores the hobbit for a worm writhing in the mud). It's a classic scene of fantasy literature, that makes me dig the character much more than the weak-sauce portrayal in Jackson's film. This is why I still love those Rankin-Bass  films...in addition to their beautiful animation, they adhere as closely to the text as they can while still being edited for time constraints.

Check out the video here. The dialogue and sequence is near word-for-word perfect.

Anyhoo, LORE of course was never completed, nor even developed to a point suitable for play-testing. But the idea of building a game capable of creating an "Eowyn-like" character is still something in which I'm interested. It's something I'm paying attention to as I work on the new heartbreaker (though, as magic is more prominent, it's unlikely I'll really get there. Hey, it's not supposed to be a LotR role-playing game!).

Just a couple more notes (I know this post is getting long):

Interesting that in Chainmail the Wraith figure can only be slain by another "fantasy character," like the Hero or Super Hero. I suppose Eowyn fits the bill as a "Hero" (she's certainly not the Super Heroic "Conan archetype"), which means she can slay a Nazgul on a 2D6 roll of 12. A pretty legendary task to be sure.

Second, in B/X both wraiths and (the more Nazgul appropriate) spectres are immune to normal weapons, so Eowyn wouldn't have been able to harm them anyway (though, of course, in B/X such creatures don't wield physical weapons, as they certainly do throughout Tolkien's books. Yes, I know, I know...there's a big difference between literature and RPGs. But I'm talking modeling, here, and many features of D&D were modeled after Tolkien's work). Eowyn isn't really an adventurer either (though perhaps she'd like to be one) and might be better modeled by Moldvay's NPC monster, the Noble:
"Noble" is a general term for the lord of a castle and any of his or her relatives.
The noble is is a three hit dice monster with AC 2 (presumably plate & shield) and damage of 1D8 (or per weapon). This would certainly be a good model for Theoden in B/X and probably both Eomer and Eowyn. But I'm just saying...

"Come get some, dwimmerlaik!"

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Guarding the Galaxy...From Themselves

Our "heroes."
I'm a little surprised I've never yet written a blog post about Guardians of the Galaxy. Well, okay, maybe not. I've been making a bit of a concerted effort to keep the blog firmly on the subject of gaming (with the occasional Seahawk-related digression...it is football season), so perhaps NOT opening my yap about the film is me showing restraint. After all, if I really wanted to, there are plenty of movie and comic and book reviews with which I could fill this empty space...but then, you can get such opinions a lot of places other than Ye Old B/X Blackrazor.

Still, I did want to write a post after I saw the film (this was back in August, during my five day jaunt back in Seattle). But I had a bunch of other stuff going on at the time (like shopping for the return journey to Paraguay) and...yeah, I never really got around to it.

ANYway, just wanted to take a short break from the D&D stuff (sorry) and since it was either this or Aquaman (maybe tomorrow) I figured I'd start with this.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the best Star Wars movie since Star Wars.

"Eat my space dust, suckers!"
That was the overwhelming impression I had coming out of the theater. There hasn't really been a movie like Star Wars, since the original...even the sequels/prequels take themselves a bit too seriously with their angsty soap opera of the Skywalker family. Sure, there have been other movies that have tried to rip off Star Wars or conjure its success with their own brand of SciFi wa-hoo. But of the bunch I've seen, Guardians of the Galaxy is the closest thing to Star Wars...the feeling of Star Wars...since Lucas first delighted folks with his homage to Flash Gordan and Saturday matinee serials. And just in case I'm being unclear, I mean this in a very complimentary fashion.

Now, I realize that the story is based on comic books and existing comic book characters, but they are comics with which I'm UNfamiliar, the sole exception being Rocket Raccoon who is/was one of my all-time favorites (certainly my fave with regard to anthropomorphic animals). Since this Rocket is very different from the upright, "space ranger" type that I grew up reading, I can only assume that the film takes some liberty with all the characters...unless, of course, I just missed a Rocket "reboot/makeover" somewhere in the last twenty years.

And that's fine...the liberties they've taken (such as with Ronan the Accuser...what a great villain that guy was in the film!) make for a great film that I can only judge on its (individual, probably non-canon) merits. This is an attitude I've taken with other films recently, and it's done a lot to ease my mental stress. And you know what? The new take on the Falcon in the most recent Captain America reboot is sooooo much better than the comic book character (sorry, Red Wing!), sometimes I just feel like applauding the filmmakers' divergence from accepted comic book continuity.

"I am the most boring thing in this film."
Having said that, Zoe Saldana's character is so utterly boring and pointless, I really wish they'd gone way-waaay off book with her. Great: she's a badass female assassin who's a bit "detached" emotionally. Haven't we seen this trope a gazillion times? I'm all for women kicking ass, but why doesn't she get the delightful quirkiness the rest of the cast does? Like the guy who interprets everything literally, or the bioengineered raccoon with an inferiority complex, or the simple-minded tree, or the putzy protagonist? I've already seen Saldana do this shtick in Colombiana...she's too good an actor to get stuck as a green-skinned killer who really wants to be good but can't because she hasn't found the right friends to let her open up and blah-blah-blah.

ANYway...(*sigh*) like most films it's not perfect, of course, but there's a lot of fun to it. And it uses my favorite-favorite SciFi trope of all time: the normal human who's had to adapt to life in space, and NOT as a "master race." This is the concept where the galaxy is full of weird sentient beings and humanity is anything but the "dominant species." The animated film Titan A.E. is great at this (I could write a couple blog posts on that movie, BTW). So was the old Continuity Comics title Armor (any of you catch that one? The Canadian brothers that get abducted by alien slavers and adapted to the needs of a pirate fleet? Great stuff).

I really dig the "stranger in the strangest land" thing, and Chris Pratt does a great job of "making do" with what he has as opposed to being some sort of gifted "Chosen One" (like that Alex kid in The Last Starfighter). The whackier the better, I say...if you got whisked away from Earth and jammed into an utterly alien society, how would you cope? Would you be able to cope? Or would you just fall apart?

[I think it's fitting that...in this particular genre...it's usually a youngster or kid who ends up being the hero, as kids are often more adaptable to new and drastic life changes than us sedentary adults]

"Go ahead...make my day."
When I saw this film was first coming out, I thought it looked pretty interesting (again, not knowing anything about the comic book canon of the IP) and it gave me an idea for a little game called Outlaw Space. At the time, I was very interested in GM-less type games, and this was one of my stabs at a concept. But after actually watching the film, I found myself surprisingly satisfied...I no longer felt the need to create a game that told a particular kind of story. I found that I had "gotten my fix" with Guardians of the Galaxy, and I really wasn't interested in doing a pastiche of the movie. Right now, between Star Wars, Firefly, and Guardians I've got plenty of space cowboy wahoo to fill my imagination...at least, for the time being.

Though I'm sure there's a sequel already in the works.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Hating on Lizards

Fast Paraguayan Fun Fact: All over Asuncion, there are these little yellow lizards that are all about getting into your home and scaring the beJesus out of you in the middle of the night by showing up on walls and counters and such. Some are tiny...barely over an inch...though I've seen some as long as eight or nine inches (these you bat with brooms). They're a damn plague is what they are; not as bad as the cucarachas, but...ANYway, the funny thing is, they're not native to the country, or even to the continent. Some years ago, a person brought a box of lizards to Paraguay from China, and the lizards escaped into the wild and they've been here ever since. Kind of like the damn chickens in Kauai. Now why anyone would want to bring a box of lizards from China (or anywhere else) is still a mystery...

You might think this is some kind of segue into a discussion on dynamic dungeon ecosystems or something, but you'd be wrong. My brain is not working hard enough this morning to generate that kind of power. No, I just hate these damn lizards. I've never liked creepy-crawly things, I've never been a fan of the outdoors or camping, and it's a constant irritation that I'm the dude that has to deal with this shit when my wife or kids are freaked out 'cause I'm the "man of the house." Seeing as how I'm about the least "manly" man I know, you'd think I'd get a pass or...well, whatever.

[actually, now that I think of it, I do know at least a couple of guys who are "less manly" than myself (they will remain nameless), but I really had to think about it. I'm pretty much a cream puff...though I do like hiking the occasional mountain]

No need for a loincloth. Really.
Lizard men, on the other hand, is something I can definitely dig on...at least as an RPG monster.

Lizard men...I prefer that term to the gender neutral "lizard folk" because to me folk implies some sort of family/culture (which I don't like my monsters to possess) and I think the archaic use of "man" as a gender neutral term harkens back to Old School pulp of which the monster was most certainly born. Besides, can you really tell the gender of a lizard person? Shouldn't we just call 'em "lizardoids" or something?...

*ahem* Lizard men (as I was starting to write) first appear in Supplement I (Greyhawk). They are not present in Monsters & Magic (book 2 of the LBBs), which isn't all that surprising when you consider that the entirety of the original monster list falls into one of these categories:

  • carryovers from Chainmail (and its Tolkien influence)
  • derivations of creatures from Chain mail (horses, for example)
  • human antagonists fit for wargaming (pirates, bandits, etc.)
  • creatures from Saturday matinee horror flicks (vampires, giant insects, The Blob, etc.)
  • creatures from (mostly Greek) myth...though these may in fact be based on film, too (of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad variety)

It isn't till Greyhawk that we start to see creatures derived from more literary sources, especially pulp fantasy and science fiction. Though maybe these, too, are found in horror and SciFi cinema...I'm not a huge lover of the B-movie genre, so I don't have the "chops" to really give a proper analysis.

Actually, in reading a few articles on-line about where these critters came from (many derived from Gygax's mind...at least their abilities, if not their names and images)...I see I'm waaay off base in my assumptions. Many times, Gygax was just "stretching things" to make them fit the needs of his campaign. Many images of iconic monsters (like kobolds and pig-faced orcs) simply come from the artist's rendering (and we've been using those images, incorporating them into the stats and background color ever since).

Well, at least that's better than simply making monsters to fill a niche created by a class ability.

As you might have guessed, I'm thinking about monsters today (well, and lizards...though they only come out at night). A lot of fantasy heartbreakers get dinged (in part) for their zealous adherence to the same old-same old equipment list found in the PHB (and elsewhere). For me, I'm considerably more concerned with the list of NPC antagonists (i.e. "monsters") that I want to include, and making sure they're distinct from "what has gone before," as well as being part of an internally consistent cosmology.

It's not just about re-skinning ghouls as "plague zombies," or orcs as "subhumans;" it's about creating the right flavor of adventure with the right creatures. Gygax made his gnolls "hyena-headed" because he needed something "more evil" and "disliked hyenas intensely." This just feels terribly appropriate to me...I feel the same way about lizard men. While all the entries for lizard man read about the same (from Greyhawk to Mentzer), the best summary of the creature can be found in Holmes's (two sentence!) description:
"These aquatic monsters will capture men in order to take them to the tribal lair for a feast, with the man as the main course! They are at least semi-intelligent and use weapons such as spears and clubs."
Really, that's all you need to know. They eat people, but they have the rudimentary intelligence to form a tribal structure and manufacture crude weapons. In other words, they are (presumably) aware of sentient beings (being sentient themselves) but choose to eat them! How evil is that? Kill 'em all!

Of course, the fact that they are much bigger and stronger (HD 2+1) than humans with a hide like mail (AC 5), means that they're a scourge that ain't going away anytime soon. Sure, a posse of mounted knights could drive them away on the open battlefield, but it's a fool's errand to take a horse and armor into the swamp with the aim of "stamping 'em out." And if lizard "folk" multiply like lizards (birthing half a dozen at a time), how long till your pseudo-medieval countryside is crawling with them, the same way Paraguay is crawling with these little scaly bastards?

Just a thought. I like lizard men in games, because I hate lizards in real life. Those folks with pet iguanas and such? I just don't get it. I've had roommates in the past with two foot (plus) long lizard pets, and while they're "fine" in the cage, taking 'em out and letting 'em run around was just...well, let's just say I used to drink even more than I do now (*ahem*). Anyhoo...

I didn't put lizard men in Five Ancient Kingdoms (though it would've been easy enough to do so) because they don't "fit the fiction" of the game (pulp fantasy versus mythic Arabia). But they're definitely going into the new heartbreaker, if I can make them fit the cosmology. And they're going to be the kind of creature one will feel no compunction about killing, sans hand-wringing.

'Cause I really, really don't like lizards.

[as an aside, if you want to add lizard folk to your Five Ancient Kingdom game, the stat-line would look like this:

HD: 2+1, Armor: Light, Hit/Kill: 8/12, Move: 6/12, Mettle: 4, Save: H2, Hoard: D

The monster works well with the "sword & sorcery" alternate setting described on page 48 of Volume 3, Dragon Master Secrets]