Saturday, August 25, 2012

More Reviews of The Complete B/X Adventurer

Hopefully, I'll have more interesting stuff to blog about later today (had a good play-test on Thursday with the new game I've been working on this week)...but my time is kind of limited right at the moment. Plus I have a ton of Seahawk thoughts swirling through my brain at the moment and if I start writing at all, that stuff will probably end up spilling out all over my nice, little game blog. are a couple more detailed reviews for The Complete B/X Adventurer. There are still a couple copies down at Gary's Games in Seattle (for locals who don't want to pay shipping & handling charges), but at least one of the copies is looking a little beat-up. I was told today that, other than the new Big Edition books, my little book gets more "thumb-thrus" than anything else on the shelf.

Okay, are the links:

Been meaning to post those for a while now (sorry)...but (as Tim might say) it's been one of those months.
; )

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Old School Hacking

Things have been quiet lately because, well, I've been focusing my writing efforts, rather than blogging. Not that this is ALL I've done with my free time this week; I managed to make it to the Mariners game last night (I know, I know...) and I've spent a considerable amount of time simultaneously moping for my missing family and seething at the Pete Carroll's handling of the Seahawks' quarterbacks.

Anyway, I'm still reading the commentary on the blog (thanks for reading) and I had one reader call me to task for dismissing out-of-hand the Old School Hack role-playing game (which can be downloaded here, by the least the beta version) I spent some time this evening to actually read it.

Can I dismiss it out of hand now?

That's a joke, that's a joke...look, I'll stand by what I wrote in my earlier blog post (including, as I wrote, that it was a stupid post, which was my final assessment). OSH does not look very much at all like B/X D&D mechanic-wise, but I think it operates from the same stance and with the same sensibilities (fight monsters, find treasure)...if not, then what exactly is it supposed to be about? Yes, there are a number of random adventuring goals to "fill out" your character. Yes, "leveling up" is accomplished through being "awesome" rather than through acquiring treasure or kills. But it's still:
"...a world where fantastic dangers exist in a multitude of old ruins and underground lairs."
Listen, I think the basic OSH game is neat. I like that the characters simply earn new "talents" through leveling while everything else remains the same. I think the "awesome point" mechanic, as written, is just fine for the freewheeling objective of the game designer. Interestingly enough (at least, interesting to me), I've included a very similar mechanic with similar objectives in the game I've been working on the last couple days (I call mine "freebie points," for what it's worth)...though mine are a little more rigid in their mechanics. And the inspiration for mine come from a combo of Deadlands' poker chips and HEX's "style points" (just in case anyone cares).

However, the game my "freebies" are appearing in are NOT my version of D&D Mine but a more freewheeling, cinematic game where (I think) they feel appropriate. I've already said I'm a lot less inclined to "freewheel" in my fantasy games (where gritty death is more the order).

But that doesn't mean such a mechanic doesn't work for works just fine for OSH. But as I said, it doesn't particularly excite me. Which isn't saying a whole lot, by the just means it doesn't have the "juice" to get me cranked. I will say this for Old School Hack: it has fairly elegant game design and some very pretty graphics for the rules, and if given a choice between playing OSH and DCC I would choose the OSH beta, hands down. It has the same irreverence but the "fun" is amped up a bit higher. And it has a lot fewer random tables and fiddly rules (less "search & handling" time).

But, hey, that's just my subjective opinion.

Still haven't picked up a copy of ACKS yet, so I'll have to blog an apologetic post for that game later. Right now, I'm off to the 74th Street Ale House to do some writing. Later, gators!
; )

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Leveling Up

The cleric I’ve been playing in an on-line B/X game just hit 2nd level after four (plus) months of play. This is the first time I’ve earned a level in ANY edition of D&D (on-line or not) in YEARS…as in, more than a decade.

Four months is a long time, but having played and run PBP and PBEM games in the past I understand it takes 3-5 times as long to get anything accomplished in this format…and it takes longer the more players involved in the game. We’ve really only had three (four?) excursions to the local dungeon in that time, so that’s about a “par” rate of return for B/X, maybe even a little quick. But then again, clerics advance quicker than most other classes (only 1500XP needed for 2nd level), and my character receives an XP bonus for a high Wisdom score.

SO…how do I feel about the accomplishment?

Honestly, gratified. I see what all the fuss is about: why D&D, with its class/level system, has enjoyed such immense popularity over the years. As a DM, I’ve always enjoyed seeing my players “level up” because it A) makes for happier players, and B) opens up new adventure opportunities for ME as a DM (using niftier traps, monsters, encounters, treasures, etc.). But it’s been a long while since I was on the other side of the screen…and it IS cool to have a concrete measure of achievement.

I just want to note a few additional thoughts:

- While it’s a nice “rah-rah” moment to go up in level, it’s especially nice that the level up brings a concrete increase to my character’s effectiveness. As a cleric, my character receives his first 1st level spell (awesome) and a boost to his turning ability (auto-turning skeletons!), in addition to the bonus hit points. If my character was a fighter or dwarf, achieving 2nd level would do nothing but give me an extra roll for HPs. As a design consideration, rewards mean more when they carry some actual value other than a +1 BAB or a couple more skill points.

- Having different XP rates is nice because it staggers the leveling of party members, “keeping the party going” (so to speak) over several sessions. That’s hip…I’m looking forward to the next guy’s turn, which should occur shortly, followed by our fighter and then our illusionist. When you have everyone level at once (such as in D20), you get one “big party” followed by long, dry stretches of grinding.

- There is definitely a “sweet spot” to leveling up and…for me…it’s sooner rather than later. 20+ sessions (what would amount to 4-5 months in a table-top game) is waaaay too long; at least during the low to mid levels. Unfortunately, it’s the low levels where leveling seems to take the longest, due to the poor output of XP from tiny monsters and stingy treasures.

- Personally, it’s not just quantity of the accomplishment, but the quality of the accomplishment that is satisfying. To me, this game feels like I’m doing more than just “going through the motions” of kicking in doors and stabbing things. There’s mystery, there’s history, there’s “local politics,” and sub-plots and much of the adventuring is fueled by the players’ motivations rather than by railroads or “carrots” dangled by the DM. It’s to our DM’s credit that he’s able to run with and adapt to the interests of the players.

I’ll (possibly) talk about some of that last one in a later post. Heron (the DM) has graciously given his approval to discuss and quote his campaign on Ye Old Blog (our campaign/game blog is a closed one so I can’t simply direct folks with a link). There are several topics of conversation to take from his game and besides this is a gaming blog; I should probably discuss some actual gaming rather than simple theory right?

All right, more of that later. Right now I’m going to spend a little time familiarizing myself with the 1st level cleric spell list. Heron says my character is more likely to cast cause fear than cure light wounds (there doesn't seem much of the "healer archetype" to my character) but I do like to know all my options.
; )

Later Gators.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Building a Better Magic-User

Thank God the Olympics are over. They were a lot of fun (as usual), but it will be nice to get some sleep at night. I was open till 3AM re-watching the closing ceremonies (which I missed earlier in the day), and man-o-man am I beat. Worst moments from the games: no broadcasts of fencing (even medal highlights!) on NBC or On Demand, Morgan Uceny getting tripped up in the 1500m, no Iron Maiden (or ANY British metal bands) at the closing ceremonies. Best moments from the games: Mexico’s local kids winning gold in soccer over Brazil’s pro superstars (that’s like the 1980 USA vs. USSR hockey final) ; Grenada winning their first ever medal (and it was gold); final match of Trainor-Walsh in beach volleyball; shorty Leo Manzano’s run for the silver in the 1500m from the back of the pack; Oscar Pistorious (just awesome); David Boudia (diving) and Aly Raisman (floor exercise) winning gold despite being underdogs. Oh, yeah…the Australian girl winning the hurdles…watching her gliding speed was about the smoothest thing I’ve ever seen on a track. Actually, there were a ton of “best moments,” but those were some of my favorites…in other words, well worth the lack of sleep.

[so, so tired…]

[by the way, little to say about the Seahawks game except hooray the season has finally started and it looks like we’ll have our QB for the foreseeable future. Whether or not there will be anyone who can catch is the same old story. Oh, and my son LOVED the game and yelled and cheered and clapped without getting bored, despite not having much idea what the hell was going on]

Okay, let’s get on with it.

Just by the way (before I begin) please allow me to say that I appreciate all the feedback on the recent posts, including the disagreement. Not only can it (sometimes) sway my mind, but it can lead me to things I missed before: for example, magic-user spells in OD&D (pre-Supplement) is quite different from the later (Vancian) take. Specifically:
  • Magic-users are presumed to have access to ALL spells on the spell list (similar to a cleric). While they still have a set of spell books, each book (initially received for FREE) contains a complete collection of spells for a particular level. In other words, a 5th level magic-user would have three books: one with 1st level spells, one with 2nd level spells, and a third with 3rd level spells. If a book gets lost, the magic-user needs to pay to replace the volume.
  • The number of spells an MU can be cast is the spells that a magic-user can REMEMBER from his (or her) spell books. An experienced (i.e. high level) magic-user can remember many more spells than a new magic-user. There’s no “morning study” or “memorization” that takes place at the beginning of the day; instead casting is based on real “memory” (which, interestingly, is similar to my own system as currently written). This has a couple interesting implications. #1 Low level magic-users are terribly ignorant or absent-minded (that’s what such a system models; not sure if that’s what you want to model). #2 Can MUs bring their books into the dungeon (i.e. risking their loss) in order to cast more spells?
  • Per the rule book, no spell may be cast more than once per day/adventure. No particular reason is given, but this puts a stop to “doubling up” on offensive spells (like sleep or fireball). While this has interesting game play effects (MU players are forced to be creative rather than relying on old stand-bys; players have the ability to “count bullets” with enemy wizards: ‘Well, he’s already used lightning bolt and fireball so we know he can’t cast those anymore…’), it’s hard to think of a non-game play justification that really makes sense here. On the other hand, if you only get one knock spell or levitate per session it makes thieves’ abilities a bit more practical/useful, which is cool.
But, hey, this particular method of working magic-user spells is ONLY found in the LBBs of OD&D; I would assume these rules were tweaked and replaced in later editions due to them “not working” for one reason or another, interesting as they are.

That’s kind of the point of my original series of posts: it’s not that any particular edition’s take on magic-users can't be used. An intelligent and creative player can do a lot with most ANY character. My two part concern is this:
  • Can the character class be used consistently with satisfaction?
  • Does the character class model what you want it to model?
Now, making a character class (any class) one that can be used “consistently with satisfaction” is not a matter of just giving the archetype to blast opponents with laser mind-bullets at will (i.e. going the 4th Edition path). The consistent satisfaction is not about “character inflation” (the opposite of “nerfing”); it’s about making the character fun to play for most people, most of the time, including other players in the group AND the DM. That’s a tall order, but I think it’s doable.

[and, yes, some folks may wonder why I so stubbornly cling to a “class” system as opposed to moving to a “classless” one; this is a whole separate topic for a different post. Suffice is to say: at the moment, I feel that class-based is a very useful method of chargen for this particular game, and NOT because it pigeonholes player characters into particular “roles”]

With regard to the other question listed (“modeling what you want it to model”) as far as I’m concerned, this may be the more important concern, and for two reasons. First off, I think that a lot is forgivable (and, ultimately, playable) when one can put it in context. Why can’t magic-users wear armor? Um…because they’ll fry like tinfoil in a microwave when they try to cast a spell? I mean, if the rules of a class carry an in-game justification, it’s far easier to get into the role of the character archetype. Secondly, when going through the chargen process, it’s helpful to have the ability to draw on inspiration from other references (literary, cinematic, etc.)…at least somewhat. Of course, this isn’t always possible with specific fictional settings…for example sorcery in Moorcock’s Young Kingdom works in a very specific fashion, being accomplished through contact with and summoning of extra-planar entities rather than specific “charms,” “incantations,” and “spells.”

Okay. SO…keeping these two questions in mind, let’s talk about both in turn (with regard to my rebuild of the deconstructed magic-user class for my version of D&D Mine). We’ll actually start with the second consideration first:


Mmm…now I’m sorry that I didn’t get into my reasons for being a proponent of the “class” system, because some of this might not make sense without that context. Well, whatever…suffice is to say if every player character (PC) is an “adventurer,” then one’s “classification of adventurer” describes the character’s skill set. As in, the character has spent years training in a particular arena (or has a natural ability in a particular category) and this is reflected in the character’s “class.” CLASS describes what an adventurer IS and (in part) what TOOLS an adventurer has to work with.

Magic-users are users of magic. Duh.

But they are still adventurers. What can adventurer do? Well, a lot, actually. Adventurers are “combat ready” (they’re pretty good fighters). They have a heightened awareness and greater destiny/luck that helps them survive hazards (hit points and saves). They can wear armor, and wield weapons that don’t require sophisticated training (e.g. swords and bows).

They have a lot of “automatic skills” that come with an adventuring background: fire-building, using rope, climbing (non-sheer) surfaces, searching for traps and other hidden objects. Other skills may be available to them based on their individual ability scores (Strength, Intelligence, etc.), which represent raw talent.

Okay, those are the things magic-users have in common with ALL adventurers. What else can they do?

Well, they can use magic, which has to be defined by the cosmology inherent in your “fantasy adventure game.” MY game, for example, does not use Vance’s Dying Earth as a source, but rather a hodge-podge of mythology and literary tropes. Some of the things I wish to model include:
  • Magic is a skill that is learnable by anyone (though only characters of the magic-user class have bothered to do so).
  • Magical spells involve incantation and proper phrasing, as well as the proper mindset (i.e. “mental discipline”). Spells may be recited from memory or read from writing (scrolls, books, tablets, etc.).
  • More powerful spells are more complex in incantation and require greater mental focus. They thus are more difficult to cast and take longer to do so. Spell-casters that rush the incantation have a better chance at botching it.
  • More experienced casters are better at casting spells and have committed more spells to memory than less experienced casters.
  • Magic spells are formulae that must be learned, taught, or discovered. Once a magic-user passes his (or her) apprenticeship, he is on his own in this regard.
  • Anyone can attempt to invent or reinvent or steal a spell that is not known.
  • A high intelligence is useful both for performing an incantation correctly AND for creating or “reverse engineering” spells.
  • Magic-users can attempt to imbue items with magical might (i.e. brew potions and enchant magic items) though it takes a certain degree of knowledge (i.e. level of experience) to do so.
  • Magic-users can attempt to counter other mages spells.
Finally, I personally want to get away from the whole idea of “wizards as artillery.” As such there will be very few (if any!) spells that inflict “direct damage” on an opponent: no magic missiles or lightning bolts or laser vision, for example, and any damaging spells that do exist will be of a high degree of complexity and not necessarily readily available. What wizard mentor wants to put the power of life and death into the hands of another? Almost all spells will be of the “utility” variety…if you want to kill someone, pick up a sword and stab him like a normal adventurer!

Magic in my game can be called “the subtle path;” powerful and versatile when executed with creativity. It is the path of the academic (and as such, magic-user characters may be a tad less hearty of constitution than other adventurers), and magicians should have a mystical or mysterious air about them. They are adept at “seeing things others don’t” due to their training…but it’s up to the individual player to correctly interpret what they see and make wise use of the information.


Well, this is a toughie to answer, since it really requires play-testing. I will say this: I have run a single session of D&D Mine with a magic-user class that met 80% of the above requirements (the one way I was still clinking to the old tropes was in disallowing the use of armor…the tinfoil-in-microwave deal), and the 1st level magician seemed to have a blast and had no complaints. Now this was back when I was still designing the game as a “dungeon crawl first” type adventure game, and since then I’ve been working on how to involve other stages of exploration (from the get go) but things still look VERY promising.

By the way, I should probably have pointed out in the beginning that I’m not going to be posting any specific rules here…at least not yet (sorry). I know that’s probably a bit disappointing for folks; however, if you stick with my own model listed above and go back to Chainmail and Men & Magic (volume 1 of OD&D) you can probably puzzle out something similar to my own system.
: )

[on the other hand, I’m going to be looking to create one or more new play-testing groups in the very near future…if you’re a reader that lives in the Seattle area, keep checking this blog over the next couple-four days for a posting about “Players Wanted”]

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Killing Vancian Magic (Part 3)

[continued from here]

The spells in Dungeon! are limited to two categories: combat (fireball and lightning) and movement (teleport). The combat spells are the most effective means of combat in the game (except against evil wizards and witches, perhaps due to an unwritten, “counter-spell” ability). This is balanced by the finite nature of the spells: each spell is recorded on a card, and spell cards are discarded with use. A wizard player starts the game with a certain number of spells (in my 1981 edition, this is 7-12 cards) and part of the “advanced play” of the wizard role is nursing that finite resource and expending it wisely. In some editions of the board game (including mine) the wizard can return to the starting chamber and spend turns to regain spell cards; in other editions, they never receive more. However, even without spells wizards are formidable in the upper works of the dungeon, and are no easier to kill than any of the other character types.

The First Fantasy Campaign provides a sketchy description of Blackmoor and its operation without providing much in the way of hard, fast rules. For example, it does not discuss the exact magic system used (the subject of this post) but it DOES discuss the justification for Arneson’s magic system. And while it appears obvious that wizard spells in Blackmoor were limited (just as they were are in D&D or the Dungeon! board game) it wasn’t based on any Vancian literary justification:
"In Blackmoor, magic followed the "Formula" pattern for most magic. The reasoning behind limiting the number of spells that a Magic User [sic] could take down into the Dungeon was simply that many ingredients had to be prepared ahead of time, and of course, once used were then powerless. Special adventures could then be organized by the parties to gain some special ingredient that could only be found in some dangerous place."
Here magic-users appear to be of a more traditional (cinematic, mythological) tradition, using magic formula requiring specific ingredients (Eye of newt? Bat wings? Alchemical concoctions?) that had to be prepared prior to entry into the dungeon. Expenditure of spells (i.e. discarding “spell cards”) represented expenditure of those prepped magical ingredients…and when gone, the mage would be left bereft of magical power.

What’s evident from examination of Dungeon! and the FFC is that Arneson found it necessary to limit the number of spells available to player character magic-users. After all, he started with the Chainmail rules and spell use in Chainmail is NOT limited as a finite resource…if a mage knows a spell, it may be cast over-and-over again (though perhaps needing a successful die roll to go off). Personally, the whole “die roll for spell-casting” thing works well for me, but remember that this doesn’t apply to the wizard’s “automatic” abilities: fireball/lightning bolt, invisibility, viewing in darkness. Those “spell effects” (for lack of a better term) could simply be used at will. And while their use was limited on the battle field of Chainmail (who cares if you can auto-kill a handful of opponents with a fireball…there’s still an army bearing down on your now revealed wizard!), in the SMALL SCALE, TACTICAL SKIRMISH game of D&D these effects…if adapted straight…would be devastatingly over-powered.

See, for me, I see yet another gross design oversight leading to years of dissatisfaction and “tweaking” ever since:
  • Rules are developed for a table-top fantasy wargame (Chainmail)
  • A person (D.A.) designs a small-scale fantasy adventure game (Blackmoor)
  • DA adapts the wargame rules to the fantasy adventure game
  • Over time, actual play shows the (wargame) magic rules to be too powerful on the small scale
  • Gradually, the magic-user character is “nerfed” for balance.
The nerfing includes the following:
  • Limiting the defensive capability of wizards (no armor, less hit points)
  • Limiting their offensive capability (attack tables, weapon selection)
  • Limiting their spell effects (“damage” infliction instead of auto-kill)
  • Limiting their spells carried (in-game justification: prepping ingredients)
  • Limiting spells based on complexity (some spells require ingredients only found in the dungeon, per the FFC book) and character constitution (also per FFC notes)
And eventually (with the advent of levels and experience points; remember the game didn't start with these things):
  • Limiting the spells that may be known AND the spells that may be cast based on level of character.
Whether this last was an idea of Gygax or developed by Arneson’s group doesn’t much matter (though I’d lay the “credit” for this development and the foot of Gygax as a formulaic organizer). Was it simpler and easier to limit spells in this fashion? Yeah, probably (use Chainmail “complexity” as a basis for D&D “spell levels;” award a new degree of spell level mastery for every two character levels advanced; give up messy spell ingredient requirements, etc.). Very safe and easy and more consistent, math-wise. And this IS just a game, right? Playability is important in a game.

But, even accepting that D&D is a game (and thus de-emphasizing any importance on actually modeling the literary or real-world mythology surrounding “magic”), we still find the system wanting. Even accepting “this is just how it works” most folks are still dissatisfied with the mechanics of the magic system and how the magic-user class functions in the game. Which I’m sure is at least part of the reason why so many fantasy heartbreakers (note: NOT the “new Old School heartbreakers” discussed earlier) junk the Vancian magic system in part or completely. I’m not the only one who sees it as being in need of a rebuild.

Next up: Building a Better Magic-User

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Killing Vancian Magic (Part 2)

[continued from here]

You read or hear (at least I do) all this garbage about “how great D&D is at the low-to-mid levels” but then "sucks after that." Tell that to the guy playing a magic-user! Just how "awesome" is it to be a 4th level magic-user (where one’s average hit points and armor class are about equal)? 10,000xp…that’s a lot of dead orcs (100 in OD&D, 2000 in B/X) that need defeating. Or huge, fat wads of treasure. Now, I’m a big believer in the “3-to-5-sessions-to-level” school of thought, which means four to six months of regular play to earn that 4th level and the right to cast two 1st level and two 2nd level spells…which will probably be sleep, charm person, invisibility, and web (or levitate), right? How can that be called “satisfying play?”

Okay, okay…I’m digressing (as usual). The point of the mini-rant from the last couple paragraphs is simply this: there are problems with character class as designed/written that make game play unsatisfying. So let’s get down to brass tacks and start DECONSTRUCTING that design:

First off, all these detrimental aspects of the magic-user class…the lack of hit points, lack of defense (armor), lack of combat ability (weapons and attack %), lack of saving throw progression (incremental increase every 5 levels? Holy crap!)…all of these detriments in the main appear to be design choices made to BALANCE the character against other classes. As in, “magic-users get to cast cool spells so we have to make them suck in every other way.”

And the reason I chalk this up to design choice is that there’s not a whole lot of literary precedent otherwise. Sorcerers and wizards found in Howard or Moorcock or Bradley or Tolkien or even Vance (look at Turjan in the Dying Earth) are hale and hearty adventurers, capable of holding their own in a fight, happy to wear armor and wield weapons. Elric is one of the greatest swordsmen of his world, only hampered by his albinism (like he rolled a “3” for his Strength score); it’s not by dint of being a wizard that he's a weakling (his sorcerer cousin Yrkoon has no such problems). Gandalf and MZB’s character Lythande are likewise depicted as able (and feared) swordsmen despite their magical professions.

So the idea of a “spindly wizard” as a class is a design choice. Please note the distinction here: there are plenty of “spindly” (or at least “below average”) wizards pictured in literature, too, like Elric’s nemesis Theleb K’aarna (though NOT Jagreen Lern, the sorcerous theocrat of Pan Tang with his plate armor and great axe). However, “wimpy as class” is much different from a “wimpy character” (of any class). Get it?

Personally, I dislike this design choice, this “balance by subtraction.” After all, one could simply make fighters stouter and more lethal (because of their training) compared to the baseline adventurer (like magic-users, etc.). Instead, it feels like thieves, or perhaps clerics, are the “baseline,” and magic-users are a step-down on the physical prowess scale. And by doing this, you make the class terribly hamstrung once the character’s vaunted magic power is exhausted (as pointed out earlier).

But, hey, whether I like it or not, it’s just a choice of design, and done with an eye towards BALANCE versus the magic-user’s magic, right? Okay, so now let’s look at what that magic power entails:

Since the LBBs of OD&D, arcane magic has worked more or less the same. A magic-user has a spell book containing one or more spells. The magic-user “memorizes” spells found in the spell book. Casting a memorized spell causes that spell to be “erased” from the magic-user’s memory. Advancing in level increases A) the number of spells that are known (in the spell book), B) the number of spells that can be memorized, and C) the level (magnitude) of spells that can be learned and memorized.

In addition, it’s important to note that in most (all?) editions, spells may be transcribed on scrolls and cast simply by reading the spell; however, this causes the spell to disappear from the scroll. Depending on the edition, spells might be transcribed from a scroll into a spell book, but it is unclear (or varies) as to whether or not a spell book functions like a spell scroll – i.e. can a magic-user read a spell from a spell book as from a scroll.

According to Gygax, the mechanics of the system is modeled off the magic described in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels. Wizard has book. Wizard memorizes spells from book. Casting spell erases spell from memory. However, I think it’s pertinent to point out that Vance’s magic differs from the D&D system in a number of ways. There are no degrees of magnitude (“levels”) for spells. The number of spells memorized seems more connected to the degree of complication inherent in the spell. The number of spells memorized seem much fewer in number (in Dying Earth), even for a powerful mage. Scrolls (or the transcription of spells in books) are unmentioned, as I recall.

Gygax also stated that he felt the D&D magic system may have been too powerful…which is perhaps the case once player characters reach a high level of experience (as those in Gary’s campaign must certainly have done over time). Certainly, high level magic-users have the capacity to cast a great number of spells, even those with limited spell lists (limited due to an early edition of the game or restrictions based on Intelligence score in AD&D). But if a magic-user has the ability to cast five fireballs plus chain lightning, does it really matter that feather fall isn’t in his repertoire? As a side note, I believe the increased casting times and material components found in AD&D are a kind of “patch” against high level magic abuse as neither of these are aspects of the Vance magic “system” (memorized spells in Vance get cast instantly and without components).

Here’s the thing folks: I personally think Gygax’s claim of basing the magic system on Vance is mostly bunk.

The D&D magic system…which mechanically breaks down as a resource management system based on character’s placement on the “flunky-hero” scale…may have some TRAPPINGS of the Vance literature (tomes of spells, memorization, forgetfulness, fini), but that’s all they are: trappings. Flavor. COLOR, to use the Forge term. What you have is a variety of game effects like the fancy-shmancy arrows in Hawkeye’s quiver…except in this case, your quiver is your character’s brain (or “memory”). As you shoot those arrows…the explosive one, the zip-line one, the net, etc….you gradually deplete your ammunition, until you’re left with an empty quiver, and the need to return to “base” to get more.

It’s simply a DESIGN CHOICE…a game rule to limit a character’s magical firepower. Holmes writes that he pleaded with Gygax to let him use some sort of “magic points” (a different way of tracking magic ammunition) when he was writing the first Basic set, but Gary would have none of it (perhaps he really liked the Vancian style; perhaps he’d mostly penned the PHB and didn’t want to have to change the text). But where does the mechanic come from in the first place, since it seems to have little literary precedent besides Vance’s strange Dying Earth magic? Most magic in literature seems to be limited by exhaustion/fatigue or requirements of astronomy (“the right constellations”) or the need for spell components or the limited nature of magic itself (which is very rarely as flashy as what is found in D&D and video games inspired by D&D). What was the basis for this magic-as-resource system?

I would assert it comes from a combination of Chainmail and Arneson (specifically Arneson’s Blackmoor).

We’ll talk about Chainmail first: Chainmail introduces several fantasy pieces to the table-top war game in order to inject a little Tolkien into your Normans and Saxons and Vikings. We have the dragon, of course, and the hero (and superhero). Also the giant, the wraith (as in, Tolkien ring-wraith), and the troll. And you have the wizard.

The wizard in Chainmail has the same attack and defense capability of a couple armored knights, making them pretty tough hombres (no flimsy meat bags here!). They can turn invisible at will (and thus cannot be targeted) until they make an attack (ever wonder where that rule came from?). They can see in darkness. And they have the ability to throw either a fireball or a lightning bolt (chosen at the beginning of a match), making them into a mobile piece of magical artillery…which is just fine for a table-top war game as the subtlety of sorcery in S&S literature is kind of lost on the open field of battle.

Please note all of the listed abilities are AUTOMATIC (it should also be noted that fireball and lightning don’t do “damage” in the D&D sense; instead, they simply wipe out targets, though heroic figures receive a “saving throw” to avoid this). In addition to these automatic abilities, wizards will know a number of additional spells (chosen from a short list, most of which appear later in the OD&D rules). However, UNLIKE D&D there is no mention of Vance or spell books or memorization. As with literary spell-casters, the wizard either knows the spell or does not…and a spell known may be cast over-and-over again. There is no “quiver of ammunition;” instead the player who controls a wizard must roll dice to see if, in the thick of battle, the wizard can cast the spell correctly. Depending on the result of the roll, the spell will either go into effect immediately, or go into effect on the following game turn (“delayed”). And that die roll (based on the “complexity” of the spell) is OPTIONAL.

In Chainmail, the basic magic-using figure is the wizard, but players can choose to have lesser wizards in their army as well. Why would anyone want a “lesser wizard?” They cost less “points” to field in battle (for readers that have never played war games, most pieces will have a “point value” and the sum of an army’s points is compared against the sum of an opponent’s to make sure a particular match/battle is “fair”). These lesser wizards have names that will be readily familiar to long-time D&D players: Seer (-4), Magician (-3), Warlock (-2), and Sorcerer (-1). The negative number in parenthesis indicates the penalty the lesser wizard suffers when attempting to counter another wizard’s spell; lesser wizards also know less spells, and need higher die rolls to cast those “non-automatic” spells, like phantasmal forces and hallucinatory terrain.

[another side note: interesting that Chainmail has a counter-spell mechanic unlike every single edition of D&D, but very much in-line with fantasy literature]

Now as I wrote before, Arneson used Chainmail as the base rule system for resolving conflict in Blackmoor, but it is unclear whether or not wizards, as player characters, were available from the outset (the first documented game seems to indicate all players were members of the “king’s guard” and thus soldier/fighter-types). However, it’s clear that they were eventually a part of the game and we can get a clue of HOW the magic system was changed (from Chainmail) from two different sources: the board game Dungeon! and Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign from Judge’s Guild.

Now it’s pretty well documented that the board game Dungeon! was developed from Arneson’s Blackmoor by one of his Blackmoor players. Even the combat system in Dungeon! (roll 2D6 to either one-shot the monster or not) echoes Chainmail and Arneson’s own statements about the primordial beginnings of the game.

In Dungeon! “wizard” is one of the four character types you can play (along with the “elf,” “hero,” and “superhero”). The wizard has a choice of three spells: lightning bolt, fireball, and teleport. The wizard can also fight without spells (not as well as the superhero, but better than both the elf and hero, echoing Chainmail) and I have read on-line that the first printing of Dungeon! allows wizards the choice of using magic swords (though they receive more spells if they choose not to do so). Again, the wizard is an all-around badass, which is balanced by his tougher victory conditions (wizards need more treasure to win than any of the other character types).

[to be continued]

Killing Vancian Magic (Part 1)

[I have a busy weekend ahead of me...including taking the boy to see his first Seahawks game today in what will undoubtably Matthew Hasselbeck's last appearance on Century Link field until he retires and is inducted into Seattle's "Ring of Honor." Chokes me up a bit thinking about it...I really hope we don't injure him with our new, tuned up defense (maybe the 12th Man will take it easy on him?). such, I'm setting up a schedule of posts for blogger to put out over the next couple days; please feel free to comment, but it might be awhile before I respond!]

Time for a little more deconstruction.

In the past I’ve been, if not completely raving in favor of the D&D magic system, at least accepting of it as is. I was never bothered (much) by the “mental blackboard/eraser” process, and the weirdness of Vancian magic (borrowed from Jack Vance’s weird Dying Earth stories) actually contributes a “psychedelic” tone to the game which I appreciate, even if it makes the system hell to justify in a “mythic Europe” setting or the literary paradigm of “swords & sorcery.” People who prefer something akin to Tolkien or Howard have all had to find a way to reconcile Vancian magic, a system developed as a GAME mechanic that breaks the 4th wall suspension of disbelief due to its lack of justification outside a world drawn by Erol Otus.

Or so it’s always seemed to me. When I was a kid it didn’t matter because, well, I never really thought about the “underlying logic of the game world.” As a teen and young adult I railed at the “nonsensical” system of magic (in comparison with examples of magic in literature and film) and looked for better, “more accurate” magic systems. As a more mature adult, I embraced the weirdness or (as said) accepted it, being more concerned with other issues…like running a good game and enjoying the “balance” of it. I’ve never really had any major complaints with the Vancian system.

Of course, I’ve never been one to play magic-user characters.

And when I HAVE played an arcane caster, it wouldn’t be the traditional robed and pointy-hatted wizard. I had a 3rd edition magic-user modeled after Gandalf (including spending feats on sword skills, and non-damaging, utility spells). I played a gnome assassin-illusionist that behaved more like a fighter. I had another (single class) illusionist in a recent game that spent most of his efforts on wooing ladies and being talky-talky. I’ve never been the “lightning-slinger” (or “sleep-bomb”) type…but then, I really don’t have that much experience playing arcane spell-casters.

But I’ve seen quite a few of ‘em…both in games I’ve played and in games I’ve run…and I’ve come to a conclusion over time:

Magic-users suck.

I make this statement from the perspective of a player, and from an analysis of the magic-user as a player character class. As a monster, they’re just fine: an interesting opponent, lightly armored, variable abilities, scalable to a party’s level, and usable in a variety of ways. As an NPC (both opponents and allies) the DM can prepare the magic-user in any fashion appropriate for the situation at hand. But then, DMs can do this with any NPC (magic-users just give more in-game justification for their customizability).

So when I say, MAGIC-USERS SUCK, I’m only talking about the magic-using class, as used by player characters. And my astute observation (that they suck) comes from a careful review of the rules as written and their actual use in-play. My concern is about the “fun factor” of the class, both for the player who actually plays the character, the other players in the party, and the DM running the adventure. My thoughts are not considerate of “game balance,” but rather about EFFECTIVENESS and USABILITY.

Just by the way (before I begin to enumerate my position), people who disagree with my position should observe the following pieces of evidence that “something is wrong” with the magic-user class:
  1. The existence of house rules in many, many campaigns to change or increase magic-user effectiveness. This includes bonus spells, bonus hit points, bonus starting levels, ease of weapon and/or armor restrictions, etc. all of which express dissatisfaction with the class as written.
  2. The modification and tweaking of the class and its abilities over-time and across editions, expressing dissatisfaction with the class as conceived in prior/earlier editions.
The simple fact is that few people seem satisfied with the character class as designed. Gygax’s own house rules, from what I’ve read, started new characters at 3rd level and granted a bonus 1st level spell for high Intelligence. That’s fairly beefy compared to your Rules As Written starting M-U.

In my own B/X campaigns (the ones I’ve run over the last couple years) I’ve included only a couple house rules that effected magic-users: max hit points at 1st level and the ability for any class to use any weapon (at 1st based on my B/X Companion rules, and later simply because I “regressed” to all weapons doing D6 damage and didn’t see how it was “unbalanced” to restrict magic-user and cleric weapon selection). Oh, yeah…and I waffled back-n-forth at times about how spell research worked. But for the most part I played “straight” B/X. Here’s what magic-users get with the B/X rule set:
  • Character starts at 1st level with 0 XP.
  • No ability restrictions; Intelligence (high or low) only adjusts XP earned.
  • 2500xp necessary for level 2 (highest of any character except elves).
  • No armor/shield; dagger only (D4 damage if using “variable damage” rule)
  • Character knows one spell of 1st level.
  • Character can cast one spell per day.
  • Hit points determined by 1D4 (average 2.5) and may reroll 1s and 2s at 1st level.
  • Combat and saves advance upon reaching 5th level (20,000XP needed).
Now this is based almost entirely on OD&D, only using Supplement I when it comes to variable hit points and weapon damage, and the inclusion of new spells (like magic-missile) in the spell list. AD&D increases the characters choice of available weapons and increases the number of spells in the character’s spell book (if not the number the character can cast on a daily basis). 2nd edition adds some additional options (especially with the later Player Options book: I remember my brother creating a Githzerai wizard who had the ability to wear armor while spell-casting). 3rd Edition adds feats and skills and bonus spells based on Intelligence and reduces all advancement to a single table (so wizards advance as quickly as anyone else); plus the ability to make multiple attacks at high level and multi-class as desired. 4th Edition adds more changes including the unlimited ability to cast “cantrip” spells, including magic missile.

But, whatever…I mean, I have many reasons for not playing AD&D or 2nd edition or 3rd or 4th, so I’m not going to worry about them for the purpose of this discussion. Presuming you (like me) are more enchanted with B/X or Holmes or OD&D, let’s look at the “littlest wizard:” that geezer in the robes with the beard, dagger strapped to his belt and single page spell book. This guy? What do you think is the chance he’s going to survive to 2nd level? Or 3rd (at which time he will receive his first 2nd level spell)? 5000xp is a lot, after all…even assuming a high prime requisite score and a liberal amount of treasure. How easy is it for a guy with no armor to take 5+ points of damage (presuming average hit points at 2nd level) and die-die-die? Pretty easy…against a single orc, the average 2nd level magic-user will not survive past round three.

‘Course, it’s not likely the magic-user will be getting stuck-in with the baseline humanoid. Instead, they’ll be skulking around the back of the pack, or whining that they need to retreat the dungeon to re-memorize their sleep spell(s), or bitterly complaining that they “can’t do anything.” Or all of the above. At least, in my experience that’s the usual thing that low-level magic-users are doing for most of a three to five hour game session.

Does that sound like fun to you?

As a DM, I hate it. I HATE it. From every angle. I hate the bitching and moaning and requests for house rules. I hate the party constantly mounting “retreats” to “sleep and regain spells” just so they can rinse and repeat the same approach to encounters. I hate that players get “left out” of action because they’re out of spells, or only have a single spell left that’s inappropriate for the circumstance. I hate that players feel compelled to take the same selection of “most useful spells” including such gems as sleep, charm, web, fly, and fireball. And I REALLY hate the magic-user with the bandolier of throwing knives…it was cool the first time, but has since lost any trace of coolness or originality.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The New "Heartbreakers"

I am extremely tired, a result of staying up till after 1am the last few nights watching Olympics coverage and then getting up early-early-early (today was 4:30…beagles!). It’s all good stuff with a ton o compelling stories (natch), but my brain is doing a bit of a swimmy thing right now, so just bear with me as I meander a bit.

Spent much of the morning reading on-line reviews for two different RPGs: Adventurer-Conquerer-King System (ACKS) and Old School Hack (OSH). I don’t own either of these games (I don’t think…I might have downloaded OSH a while back, but if I did I don’t remember), and haven’t personally read ‘em (or have forgotten what I read), so you’ll have to take anything I say on either with a heaping grain of salt.

Both of these games could be considered part and parcel to what I call “D&D Mine” – that is, they’re new versions of old edition D&D games, deconstructed and rebuilt (not just re-flavored) by individuals who aren’t buying into the WotC program, understand the limitations of Old School D&D, and aren’t afraid to divorce themselves from standard D&D tropes. Unlike most Fantasy Heartbreakers (to which they certainly bear a certain resemblance) they seem built off a B/X or BECMI base foundation (including race-as-class design preference), though often borrowing mechanics from later editions (including 3rd & 4th edition). Also different from heartbreakers (at least as described by Ron Edwards) they make no great claims to innovations, but instead claim to ape, emulate, or conjure “Old School” flavor or values through the use of 21st century game design…in other words, bringing a post-modern sensibility to contribute to the old school “fun” of the game.

Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) also falls into this category, as far as I’m concerned, and possibly Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP). As with ACKS and OSH (wow, quite a proliferation of acronyms, huh?) I have yet to purchase either of these books…though I’ve read (and played) the Beta version of DCC and perused (briefly) the text of LotFP.

The question I suppose I’m circling around, deciding how to parse is this: just what do I think of this development?

NOT “what do I think of these games specifically?” because, as I said, I really haven’t taken a close enough look at any of ‘em (well, I did play the DCC beta for several weeks and my views were decidedly mixed and, in the end, more to the negative side). But rather what do I think of the tact of these publishers? What do I think of the idea as a CONCEPT?

And just to be clear, here’s the concept I’m talking about:

- Take B/X (or the early stages of BECMI/RC).
- Manipulate the rules to taste using 21st century sensibilities and old school attitude.
- Self-publish in an extremely polished, beautiful packaged form.

Do you see the difference between this and a “fantasy heartbreaker?” These games are not shy about paying tribute to their roots (even, one presumes, including boilerplate OGL language “just in case”). However, they are very different from retro-clones, which attempt to emulate their original editions as best as possible while a) filing off serial numbers, and b) correcting “over-sights” based on existing edition rules (see S&W and LL’s AEC for examples of what I mean).

So what do I think about the concept? Um…does it say something that I haven’t purchased any of ‘em?

On the one hand, they face the same challenge to their business model as an actual fantasy heartbreaker. Heck, they may be more challenged, since their target demographic isn’t newbies, but rather Old School aficionados who already have their favorite edition, retro-clone, or personal heartbreaker for use. On the other hand, the OSR as a group feels much more kind-hearted and open-minded and seem ready to regularly purchase books from their compatriots if only to support designers, steal ideas, and keep the movement going. It IS heady, inspiring stuff…not just the ease with which people can create and publish their games, but the sheer amount of creativity being shared around.

However, I still can’t help but feel that…well, shit…I don’t really know what I want to say here. Let me talk about each of these games in turn:

DCC: I’ve played this game and there’s a lot to like, especially some of the new ideas and concepts included in the game. Unfortunately, I dislike the execution of most of ‘em. For me, having played the game I will probably never buy it, despite the fantastic appearance of the book: it’s too big, too random, too bulky for the kind of game I like to run these days.

LotFP: Knowing what this game is all about and having read a couple of Raggi’s adventures, it would be difficult for me to purchase this one (except for the killer artwork), because I will probably never run it/play it. I’m just not that into the weird/horror genre as far as gaming goes. I mean, I love weird horror having grown up with Lovecraft and the Swamp Thing and those eerie Golden Key comics and Weird Tales and horror comics and such. But I’ve yet to find the game system that does the genre credit (No, Call of Cthulhu does not. No, World of Darkness does not. No, all those various zombie games on the market do not. No, just providing instruction to the GM as to how to set the mood is NOT enough). For Raggi, this is probably a fantastic system, facilitating him in the type of games he’d run anyway using a (tweaked) D&D system. For me, it’s not enough.

OSH: I’ll probably have to search my hard drive at home and see if I already have this, but jeez, I’m just not feeling the “awesome” that people dig on this game. I’m NOT really about the free-wheeling style, and so the central feature of the game (the “awesome” mechanic) doesn’t appeal to me much…just as the Feng Shui RPG doesn’t really do it for me. I already tried some similar ideas a while back but, well, my experience is that not all players ARE “awesome.” I’d rather provide players with CHOICES to make than wide-open metagame mechanics.

ACKS: ACKS, oh ACKS. I remember now (after reading half a dozen detailed reviews) why I didn’t pick this game up. Too depressing. From what I’ve read, it sounds A LOT like what my first stab at D&D Mine was going to look like: compressing BXC (including my B/X Companion) into the 14 levels of B/X and using tiers to distinguish different stages of development. There are other similarities, too (including high level “ritual magic” and undead that only go up to vampire), but this isn’t what bums me out. 270 pages. That’s just so…ugh. Not that I think my version of D&D Mine is going to be fitting into 64 pages (and that’s by design…I’d rather emulate the LBB format with the work I’m currently penning), but I really don’t expect it to be over 100 pages.

Is it fair to downgrade a product for a high page count? I don’t know…what I feel is that it’s pretty weird for these types of games to run to the length of ACKS or DCC or Hackmaster Basic. I know the page count gives the publisher the ability to include more art and a bigger font and longer, more detailed examples of play, etc. I know there’s precious little “padding” in these games and a book should include “just as many rules as it needs” to run an effective game.

And anyway, I’m rambling now (tired, right?). Like I said, I don’t know what I feel about these games. Except this: none of them really excite me. Not enough to make me want to play ‘em, let alone buy ‘em…but that’s not saying a whole lot. It’s been awhile since the last time I came across a game that really excited me (one of the reasons I keep writing my own); certainly I would not discourage someone from writing and publishing these games.

Do I think it’s a lost cause to do so? No. And I mean that on a number of levels: it’s a good mental exercise. While you may not make a living doing it, you can certainly make SOME money. And these games ARE fun (for some folks) to play…if only the games’ authors (which is why I call this concept “D&D Mine”). On the contrary, I want to see MORE of these things. Where’s Urutsk for goodness sake?

[that’s rhetorical…it is apparently in an editing phase at the moment]

Writing is a good thing. Sharing one’s creativity with others is a good thing. Supporting another’s art is a good thing. Playing games with others is (generally) a good thing. Building an open-minded, inspired and creative community is a good thing.

But excitement helps.

You know what? This is a stupid post. It’s obvious I need to get some sleep.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Good Rewards, Bad Rewards

I had a bunch of (basically) garbage filler written up that I’ve now deleted. I’m just going to lay it out for folks…and sorry if this seems a bit terse, but sometimes people get my goat with their obtuseness.

When I was railing against the poor design of the D&D game with regard to the later “stages of exploration” I was NOT decrying the designers’ choice of awarding XP for treasure. Yesterday, I spent part o my morning rereading the sections on experience in both the AD&D PHB and DMG and found Gygax’s explanation and justification both concise and 100% reasonable. The problem with the current XP system isn’t the choice of mechanic, the problem is the lack of EVOLUTION in the advancement system commensurate with the evolution of game play (both as intended and as unintentionally designed) and how that lack:

A) Fails to appropriately reward “right action”
B) Fails to incentivize players to choose “right action.”

And right action in this case could be defined as “behavior that contributes to the type of fantasy exploration intended by setting and scenario.”

Once you get out of the “hazard site” (the “dungeon” scenario) and move into the larger fantasy world (i.e. “the wilderness”) or the more lofty objectives and goals that come with being a high level character (when game play becomes more proactive, less reactive), the XP system as written falls short.

So why not just junk the system altogether? I.e. why not award XP for different objectives? Well, sure, okay let’s just do that. But before we do, let me pose a slightly tangential question:

Do you want an objective measure of a character’s success, or a subjective one?

This is, of course, assuming you are interested in having an advancement system whereby characters progress in effectiveness (i.e. “level up”) dependent on reward. I read one tale of a certain, unnamed innovative indie-game designer that was running a D&D game that kept getting bogged down in the advancement system and decided to junk the whole thing: that is, NO XP and NO LEVELS. "Let’s just play and forget all about counting points for actions." To me, that’s a fairly extreme stance to take (because it defeats the whole gamist/challenging premise of D&D) but it's certainly an innovative approach to circumventing the question altogether!

However, I am interested in an advancement system, so I return to the question at hand: do you want your reward system to be an objective measure of success or not? And I want you to consider the question from two different perspectives before coming to your answer, those perspectives being as player and as Dungeon Master.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, let me explain what I mean by an “objective measure of success.” An OBJECTIVE measure is one that is cut-and-dry and not dependent on DM judgment. Now I know, I know it’s difficult to have a reward system that is TRULY independent of DM judgment…after all, the DM is responsible for setting the quantity of “reward opportunities” in a game and thus still has the choice to be “generous” or “stingy” with those opportunities. But having a nominally objective measure of success at least gives the players a yardstick by which to measure the choices they make in game. The original measures of success (treasure found and monsters defeated) are both objective measures of success: if you find treasure you gain XP equal to its GP value; if you defeat a monster you gain XP based on its hit dice.

Treasure and monsters aren’t the only possible “objective” measures of success. Miles travelled, damage sustained, collection of taxes, locks/traps disarmed, or treasure spent/donated are all non-subjective ways to award XP to players, as is awarding a certain amount of XP for (player) attendance. Do the specified action and receive the specified XP total; simple and straight-forward. Here are the important considerations regarding objective measures of success:

1) Rewarding a particular action provides incentive to take that action, to the possible exclusion of other (non-rewarding) actions. For example, if you ONLY reward PCs for the defeat of monsters, PCs will seek out conflict with monsters.
2) Over time, your game will become about that which you choose to reward.

There are several consequences of #2 that should be pointed out. If I say, “This game is about finding treasure,” and award XP for the acquisition of finding treasure, then players will expect to find treasure and will bristle in disappointment if they don’t. If you decide to reward players solely for attendance (i.e. being seat warmers) than there is little incentive for them to take any dangerous action that might jeopardize their characters: showing up and sitting on their hands is enough “effort” to climb in level.

Okay, those are objective measures of success. What would be SUBJECTIVE measures of success, or what I like to call “DM fiat?” Welp, that would be a game in which a character’s rate of advancement is more or less arbitrary based on the whim of the DM. Some examples might include: awards for good role-playing, or bonuses for showing courage/heroism, or humor awards, or completing “mission objectives,” or setting-specific goals. All of these are entirely dependent on the DM for any award to be received, and thus stunt players’ ability to be proactive to a greater or lesser extent.

For example, if I (as DM) say, “you get XP for making a journey of a 1000 miles or more” (an objective measure of success) players may choose to travel to any random far-off place they’ve heard of in order to gain XP. If the DM says, “you get XP for making a pilgrimage to shrine XYZ,” then players are limited solely to travelling to XYZ…at least if they want to gain the reward. Of course, if PCs don’t know they get XP for travelling to a shrine XYZ (because it’s a “secret” or “hidden” objective) then it’s even more of an arbitrary reward…the DM is simply handing out “bonus XP” when he or she feels like it based on the “accomplishments” of the PCs…which require “good guesses” by the players in question.

“Secret goals” or events are ALWAYS considered “subjective” awards. If players don’t know about them, then they cannot make informed choices whether or not to pursue those objectives. So what if a DM has a list of objectives written down beforehand? The list is still subject to the DM’s whim and can be changed at any time due to the “demands” of the campaign or campaign setting. Hopefully, players will manage to do the right thing during the right session when the DM is still feeling like a visit to shrine XYZ is deserving of an XP award.

With a subjective measure of success, “right behavior” becomes about pleasing the DM and players are forced to take pains to determine what it is the DM enjoys or expects. If the DM wants you to rescue captives (and dangles a fat XP carrot as incentive) then By God we better get in there and save those hostages! If the DM awards bonus XP for “good role-playing,” whatever that means, then players better figure out what the DM expects (Funny voices? Accents? A cape?) so as to receive that reward.

Now if it sounds like I’m throwing stones at “subjective” measures of experience, well, yeah, I am. Of course, Arneson’s Blackmoor game started out with a “fiat based” advancement system from the accounts I’ve read. Back in those days, you were either a “flunky,” hero, or superhero (the latter two based on the Chainmail system) and Dave promoted your character based on meritorious action (as decided by Mr. Arneson). And when you think of it, that’s not an absolutely terrible method of advancement (presuming some basic guidelines for heroism), assuming a fair-minded DM (debatable) and a level/advancement system that isn’t too granular (i.e. NOT 14, 20, or 36 possible levels of experience).

But, yeah, in general my thought is it’s better to have objective measures of success for a game like D&D: giving players objective measures of success provides them with a) an objective knowledge of what behavior/action is expected of them, and b) the incentive to proactively seek out those things that will earn them advancement. That doesn’t mean ANY objective measure is better…again, review those considerations. Do the objectives model what you want your game to be about? Because rest assured, they will (in part) determine what your game is about. Do they incentivize player behavior that your want to see? Because that’s what it’s going to do, especially depending on the amount of reward being offered.

For example, I’ve written before that I dislike XP awards for attendance, i.e. awards for participation. “Show up and your character receives X amount of XP regardless of accomplishment during a game session.” Now, I realize that this is often an award given in addition to the normal XP awards, so there is still an incentive for players to “push” their characters…but if I want to reward are players stepping up and face challenges then why would I award ANYthing for failing to participate? Players that fail to take part might as well have not showed up in the first place. In effect, they don't show up. If you’re adding an “attendance award” because advancement is otherwise too slow, then up the other XP awards or reduce the XP needed to advance. Duh.

Another “objective” measure of success I hate is found in Mentzer’s version of the Basic set. I didn’t realize this until recently a major change in the way XP is awarded for treasure, different from Moldvay’s Basic set: in B/X, the total value of treasure found is divided amongst all surviving members of the party. In BECMI, the total value of monsters defeated is divided, but treasure XP is awarded based on a character's SHARE of treasure found. What this does is place a priority on the “division of spoils” (and there is, indeed, a large section in the Mentzer rules detailing the importance of treasure shares), in effect rewarding the shrewdest bargaining player character. The highest level guy is thus the best merchant/shop-keeper in the group!

On the other hand, I really like Alexis’s rule about gaining XP for taking damage. As going up in level represents (on a certain level) a “hardening” of adventurers, it makes sense that a character’s confidence will increase by surviving punishment. What’s more, it provides incentive for players to take risks and not shy away from danger…an “anti-craven,” fortune-favors-the-bold point o view. Also, there’s definitely a gamble involved in facing danger and taking damage…but that’s the kind of choice I like to offer my players. Some might say, “but magic-users benefit less than fighters from this rule because of HP differential.” Well, duh…fighters benefit more from the experience of getting their asses kicked the magic-users (their training isn’t that which allows them to learn from their combat mistakes).

Hmm…you know, I’d intended this to be short and terse, but once again my brain has run-on a lot longer than I expected. I’m going to stop writing (for the moment)…I might pick this up again later with my specific thoughts on possible objective measures of success for the various stages of exploration.


Friday, August 3, 2012

Age of Aquarius (addendum)

Just a couple quick notes on last night's post, before I'm off to work:
  • Even though it may be inappropriate to model an evil, vicious inhumanity in a fantasy RPG that models a pseudo-medieval agrarian society with detachment, there are other ways to make human antagonists monstrous. There have been monstrous groups throughout the years, long before the Aquarian Age, though often because of a more personal drive: a culture that celebrates aggression or bloodthirstiness, or rivalries and vendettas against the subjects of their violence. However, in a human culture that is closer to itself, the personal nature should be emphasized.
  • If there is a type of human antagonist that can appropriately modeled with detachment, consider the magic-user from every angle. The more powerful the mage, the less "human" they may actually feel, as their powers separate them from their fellows. If you're going to have any NPC act with cold detachment, objectifying humans and doing or ordering terrible things, the magic-user's a good choice. No wonder those evil wizards are always portrayed in the company of orcs.
  • I did make it home last night and DID watch some television myself (a little Project Runway) while massaging the wife's poor little feet. Even while veg'ing in front of the Boob-Tube, you can still have some quality interaction with your friends and family...we don't have to let technology totally alienate us.
All right, that's all I want to say on the subject (hopefully, more gaming posts later). Except that table-top RPGs are a good way to remain engaged with each other in a meaningful way, despite the distractions of the Age in which we live.
: )

Oh, yeah...if you haven't done so yet, please put your comments on my non-poll poll post regarding my next writing project. Thanks again for your feedback.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Age of Aquarius

[currently sitting in the bar waiting to see if any of my players will be showing up least three wanted to be here but couldn't and a fourth is out-o-town...anyway, figured I might as well brush up on my blogging while brushing up on my drinking]

[by the way, this is long, rambling, and has precious little to do with might want to stop reading after the first couple paragraphs]

The "poll" goes well with close to 30 actual responses. I've built a grid to tally preferences and provide them with the proper weight (I'm kind of big into grids the last week-and-a-half...more on that later). Please feel free to continue commenting on the "writing bonanza" isn't happening till mid-August and, well, aren't there more than 400 people signed up as followers of this blog? Let's get some damn feedback, folks!
; )

Actually, it's fine. I'm quite surprised at how things are weighing out. No, I'm not surprised more people aren't selecting the DMI options...only people who've actually had a chance to play DMI know quite what it's all about. However, I did find it interesting how many people are interested in me finishing D&D Mine...I mean that's a true vanity project, after all. Aren't there enough editions of D&D already on the table? Apparently not.

Well, whatever. Right now I want a blog a little bit about...well, about this post over at Monsters & Manuals about man's real inhumanity to man and why humans can thus be considered the supreme antagonist in D&D (and presumably other fantasy RPGs). There's also a nice little response to it over here from richardthinks, defending the use of monsters in D&D. For those of you interested in such philosophical discussions, I'd recommend teeing off in both categories and seeing what kind of responses flame up.

HOWEVER, over here at Ye Old Blackrazor, we've never been ones to let a good tangential thought or chance to extrapolate on some random astrology go to waste. Without further ado, let us discuss the present (and possibly future coming) storm.

The procession of equinoxes is the term used to describe the grand rotation of the various "astrological ages" (like the "Age of Aquarius" or the "Age of Pisces"). Each age is around 2100 years in length (an "age" is long), and due to our perception of the constellations from our vantage point here on Earth, the ages occur in the reverse order of the normal zodiacal calendar (so, for example, Aquarius was preceded by Pisces preceded by Aries...and it will be followed by Capricorn).

The theoretical, philosophical, astrological point of view is the age in which we live colors it...the "sign of the times" as it were...and we can learn something (or find some understanding for the time in which we live) by knowing a bit about a sign's astrological significance. So, for example, we can take a look at the sign of Aquarius to understand a bit about the world in which we are currently making our lives.

Now...full disclosure time...there is a lot of dispute and debate as to when EXACTLY one age ends and another begins. Some will tell you we've been in the Age of Aquarius since the 19th century, and others will tell you we're still in the Age of Pisces and will remain there for the next 200 years. However, while I don't believe in "cusps" in normal natal astrology (there are other ways to explain why a person born on the edge of one sign has resemblances to the adjacent sign), the grand procession of ages is hazy enough (to me anyway) to allow for some "over-lap" (or rather "spill-over") between signs. My own personal belief? We are currently in the Age of Aquarius, and have been since at least the early 20th century...however, we continue to get some spill-over from Pisces. But that's becoming less and less a factor.

So let's talk about the sign of Aquarius a bit, since it "colors" the times in which we live.

Aquarius is what we call a "fixed" (organized, prone to inertia) "air" (intellectual, mental) sign. The combinations of these thing lend a powerful intelligence to the sign, often associated with genius. The sign is ruled by the planet Uranus (that's pronounced Urine-us, not ur-Anus, by the way) a planet known for delivering powerful shocks: both "Eureka" bolts from the blue, and traumatic crisis that rips up and overturns our staid and sedentary habits. Aquarius is the ruler of such modern inventions as electricity, television, computers, also rules astrology and weird, eclectic pursuits.

Probably "geek chic" as well, though that's not a term I find in my astrology books.

Aquarians tend to be iconoclasts and geniuses, hippies and activists. I like to refer to them as "the flakes of the zodiac" (what about Pisces, then? They're "the doormat of the zodiac"). They're not really all that flakey ('s debatable) but they DO tend to have their head in the clouds quite a bit, thinking great thoughts and forgetting to, oh say, pay bills or do laundry. Doesn't mean you won't find some rich Aquarian who's hired an accountant to do their taxes (the godfather of my child actually IS an accountant and CPA!)...but you'll find those Aquarians have a lot of practical Capricorn in their mix.

[and Matthew the accountant is very much the peace, love, and justice for all -type Aquarius...he just likes numbers. Weirdo]

The term "can't see the forest for the trees" doesn't usually apply to Aquarius. They are much more likely to miss the trees for the forest. Hell, they may walk into the damn tree for not paying close enough attention.

This tends to give 'em a reputation for coldness. That they don't care or don't have emotions or some such nonsense because they're so worried about "the big picture" or (worse slander) that they're some sort of unfeeling robot. But they're NOT I said, they tend to be the activists of the zodiac, fundraising for causes and organizing movements and trying to make the world a better place. But they have (due to their airy nature) an ability to operate with detachment and not get caught up in the petty dramas that often mire us other signs (*ahem*).

There's a very good and useful reason for this...of all the signs they are the most about self-actualization and authenticity...especially towards themselves. Remember Uranus blowing shit up? What it does is blow up the areas where we are's job is to get us to be authentic and true to ourselves. To figure out what we're really all about and get us to be that, dammit. This is very different from the Piscean (and Neptune) influence that wants us to dissolve our egos and surrender to the will of the universe (often acted out by escapism...whether through drugs or religion or obsessive-compulsive gaming...hey, just saying!).

Not that "being true to ourselves" is easy to do...or even interpret. Uranus, being far out in the solar system, moves through the signs slowly. Around 42 years into your life, it is directly opposite its placement at your time of birth and forces you to examine your life and see if you are being true to yourself (the proverbial "mid-life crisis"). This forced self-examination and discomfort leads to all sorts of crazy, half-assed attempts at "authentication," from buying sports cars to leaving your spouse of 20 years, when all it's really trying to do is say "hey, wake up and live your damn life with purpose and integrity." Uranus reaches its return point in your natal (birth) chart at 84 years and its no wonder that's the average human lifespan these days...most of us can't take the "shock" of another such forced examination.

SO what the heck does any of this have to do with Noism's post on the inhumanity of man to man? Especially considering that the "Age of Aquarius" has this reputation for being all about peace and "brotherhood of man" and all that? Well, here's what:
  • All the incidents in the books Noism chronicles are from the Age of Aquarius (or a period of over-lap).
  • All of Aquarius colors its age to a degree...HOW it colors it depends on the context.
Woodrow Wilson helped create a League of Nations that failed to prevent World War II and eventually collapsed, only to be replaced by the United Nations. Both of these institutions carried with them Aquarian ideals: a let's look at the forest attitude to resolve a great peace on Earth. But being institutions made by humans they are only as good and effective as the humans that make them up.

The Aquarian age rules technology and with the rise of technological developments has come, at the hands of not-very-nice folks, technological developments in the weapons of war. Weapons that allow us to practice the art of killing with a decreased detachment from the act of violence we perpetrate. Cannons and bombards allowed the indiscriminate killing of many individuals at a distance, machine guns and chemical warfare weapons upped the body count, and now we can launch missiles across the globe or fire laser-guided bombs from un-manned drone vehicles...taking lives, many human lives, without ever getting a drop of blood on our own hands. Without ever seeing the blood and viscera we spill at the touch of a button, should we choose not to look.

And what is an individual human life? What is a single tree when one has a whole forest to look at? Certainly, our own life is precious to ourselves, and those whom we hold near and dear to our hearts...our spouse, our children, our parents. But what is one life of another...especially one whom we've never known and who may be or IS, in fact, our enemy?

Well, Alfred Nobel's inventions of nitroglycerine and dynamite haunted him so much that decided to make his legacy the Nobel Prizes, including the Peace Prize, encouraging folks to work for the cause of a better world with a large financial incentive paid for by his inventions responsible for the deaths of so many over the years. If we had simply judged Nobel for the evil he created and condemned him to death, would we not be depriving the world of his legacy that has caused scientists and philosophers, etc. to strive for a better planet for decades since? How are we to know how one's life will eventually turn out, or the impact it will have?

But not everyone things about this kind of thing. There's detachment (and big picture thinking) and then there's simple detachment for the sake of detachment. There's plugging yourself into your smart phone or IPod or tablet and isolating yourself from what is going on about you. Alienation and isolation are also parts of Aquarius...again, in aid of withdrawing from the rat race enough to find your authentic self: what you are meant to do to be a positive, contributing member of society, doing the will of The Universe (or God or whatever) to make this a better place to live. However, we often get distracted within our detachment...whether, we are isolated through our use of technology, or firing up a joint and watching television at the end of the day.

It's about context folks. Is this an age of "brotherly love?" Yeah, if you make it about that. We don't live in a world of serfs and slaves anymore (for the most part). People are not stuck in their class or caste (for the most part) and there is great knowledge and medicine and constructive philosophy that is shared between people within and between cultures. The stars still beckon to us and people are still interested in creating a better world...whether by fighting for justice or the environment or universal health care or better and cooler technology for the sake of better & cooler technology (as opposed to "for the sake of making a buck"). Those Aquarian ideals ARE there.

But with intellectualism and detachment from spiritual values (because they are associated with those earlier, superstitious Piscean institutions called "organized religion" that only exist to "be an opiate of the masses") with the acceptance that a rejection of God (whatever your name him/her/it) and spiritual values is reasonable, logical, and, heck, practical you run into the possible pitfall of dehumanizing individuals.

Not just marginalizing. Not just oppressing or converting. I'm talking OBJECTIFYING people...making them objects. That it doesn't matter what atrocities or abuse or Terrible Things you do to someone...that a human is nothing more than a Smart Animal. Ignoring the potential of a Mother Theresa or an Albert Einstein or whatever. That such individuals that exemplify and uplift the human race or simply flukes or genetic aberrations in our apelike evolution instead of (yeah, get this) the POTENTIAL we can all strive to be and emulate.

Jesus...the world is watching the Olympics right now and we are watching young teens achieve heights of physical prowess (and mental focus) exhibited in few individuals after only a few scant years of training. And when their Olympic careers are over (shortly, in the Very Near Future) who knows WHAT they will do? What heights they might achieve in other fields...even if just passing their genetic code onto the next, greatest, record-setting athlete?

Who knows how many potential Olympians lie buried in shallow graves? Were mowed down in the trenches of the Great War? Who were the subjects of genocide in Serbia or Darfur or Rwanda? Were casually snuffed out (with detachment) in concentration camps? Were cut from the bellies of Tibetan mothers by heartless soldiers? How many corpses were potentially great doctors or peace makers or thinkers? How many might have made good parents for good children who would make this world a better place?

My point...if I have one besides rambling about the tragedy of the human experience and the dichotomy of our extreme potential (as humans) for both good and POINT is this: I'm not sure it's fair to judge the humanity of a fantasy role-playing game by the standards of humanity in our modern/post-modern/Aquarian age. Because the inhumanity you can see in recent history is a sign of our times...just as is our "more enlightened" perspective towards other issues.

FOR EXAMPLE: we (generally) don't continue to live in a feudal society, where land grants and baronial titles are granted for our "great accomplishments." But THAT is exactly the kind of fantasy world that is the setting for the D&D fantasy adventure game. And in a fantasy based on an antiquated age (as D&D is) we can base the values of our imaginary human society on those earlier human values (good and bad that there were). We can create imaginary worlds where humans are NOT detached...where they care enough about their fellow humans (or the spiritual state of their souls if you want to mix in Old Time religion) to not commit atrocities and to generally ally with each other against the forces of Chaos: goblins, orcs, demons, necromancers, etc. Facing down evil in heroic battle because to do otherwise would be to condemn their families to horrible torture and death at the hands of creatures who don't care about their souls or sanity or the brotherhood of man. Creatures who are detached from and devoid of simple human values and decency.

I'll repeat, we CAN do this...we don't have to, of course. But as I commented on Noism's blog: it's my fantasy, dammit. Can't I at least dream of a better, kinder humanity - one that uses the teachings of Aquarius in a context that pays attention to the higher laws of spirit?

: )

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Making Choices

All right, I give up. Normally, I’m not a guy who likes to quit anything (bullishly stubborn, one might say). But I really don’t have the time to f around with blogger trying to add a poll to the site. I gave it a couple days, and several attempts, on multiple computers, and it’s just not working…and, yes, I have posted polls in the past without issue so I’m inclined to think this is a blogger issue and not “user error.”

SO…folks who read my post yesterday know that I’ve got some upcoming free time to get all obsessive-compulsive with my writing.

[my wife even told me I BETTER do some writing while they’re gone, what with all my usual bitching and moaning of “not having time” to do everything I want]

SO…here’s the deal: as I said yesterday I’d like some feedback from my readers on where exactly you’d like me to turn my focus. Ten days may not seem like a whole lot of time, but I can probably pound out 5-10 good pages a day, and seeing as how some of these projects are already half-way (or further) along, I should be able to finish some of ‘em up. Since I’m giving up on doing a poll, I’ll just ask folks post their choice in the comments section here. Without further ado, here are your choices:

B/X-based Space Opera
B/X-based Supers
CDF (B/X-based cyberpunk fantasy)
DMI – Out of Time (lost world time-warp)
DMI – MDR (post-apocalypse mutants)
DMI – Space Opera
DMI – Supers
D&D Mine
Land of Ash (B/X world setting)
Land of Ice (B/X world setting)
BXC1 (adventure for B/X Companion)
Clockwork (steam-punk Boot Hill)

Now a selection of “Other” should be for something else I’ve previously mentioned or worked on, like one of my one-page micro-games you’d like to see me expand (like Chronicles of Mutation or War of the Mecha) or even an idea I mentioned in passing (like the World War 3, Appleseed-style game, or a B/X-converted Rifts setting similar to Wormwood or Warlords of Russia). Just understand that the choices I’ve listed above are ones that already have some work put into them, so (in theory) they should be easier for me to finish up. And by “finished” I mean, “at least to a Beta format” (worth testing) if not more.

All right, folks, start your commenting.
: )

Two Reviews for The Complete B/X Adventurer

Found two reviews so far for the new book:

Both are short and scant of detail (Tim promises he'll be putting up a more extensive one later), but both are positive which is definitely a good thing (and really, is there such a thing as bad publicity?).

If anyone else has a posted or vlogged a review of The Complete B/X Adventurer (positive or not), please email me a link so I can check it out and note it here. Thanks, folks...I appreciate it!

: )