Showing posts with label alexander. Show all posts
Showing posts with label alexander. Show all posts

Friday, September 6, 2013

Wanting Better Fantasy


I started writing a big ol’, rambling post yesterday but forget all that noise. I’ve got something else on my mind.

People who have picked up Five Ancient Kingdoms and read its contents (or, God forbid, played the game) will have certainly noticed its departure from “traditional” D&D in many facets. No, I’m not talking about the inclusion of skills or “non-weapon proficiencies;” that kind of filler is something I can do without in my games.

No, here are some of the rule differences:
  • No dice other than D6s (no D20, D4, D8, D10, etc.)
  • Rule Zero (already discussed)
  • HPs limited to player characters
  • HPs rolled every game session (no carry-over)
  • Hit Dice repurposed as all-encompassing multi-use combat stats
  • Combat based (roughly) on Chainmail
  • Magic inspired (roughly) by Chainmail and non-Vancian
  • Unlimited magic for magicians
  • Treasure tables removed (treasure types for monsters remain)
  • Magic item creation combined into a single table-system
  • Different saving throws (and based on 2D6 roll)
  • XP earned for treasure/monsters scaled by level (less XP received as PCs advance)
  • Additional XP bonuses for “experiences” that don’t scale
  • Motivations that have (light!) mechanical impact
  • Romance rules
  • Warfare rules based on scaled up combat (simplified Chainmail in other words)

Those are the major rule departures; there are many more minor differences (like coinage, encumbrance, and movement rules). I’m also probably leaving out other major differences, but it’s not the point of this post to enumerate every deviance of design.

Now in case anyone’s wondering, most of these differences were created due to:

A) Repurposing to patch problems and inconsistencies
B) Removal of patches of the original designers for things not broken, and/or
C) Setting specific changes (especially regarding spells, equipment, monsters, costs, etc.)

I understand that for many people, the particular edition of D&D they’re currently playing (with or without additional house rules) is perfectly fine and dandy…it’s been working for ten or 20 or 30 or 40(!) years and they’re not interested in changing that now or anytime soon. The reasons I wrote 5AK was not an attempt to usurp the existing editions’ (nor clones’) place in the hearts and minds of role-players. Nope. My original motivation (as I’ve probably noted elsewhere on this blog) included a combination of 1) throwing my particular heartbreaker hat into the ring (i.e. my own ego), and 2) showing that such a thing could be done (and I mean, showing myself as well as others, BTW). AND I was truly irritated by the whole D&D Next thing and decided it would be a more constructive exercise to quit my bitching and just do my own version of D&D…D&D Mine, I called it.

[literally…that’s how the files are labeled on my computer]

But somewhere along the line, my original motivation morphed into something a bit different, due in no small part to the pride I’ve taken in this creation. It IS a complete game, after all…something I plan on supporting via a web site (currently under construction) and soliciting contributions for. There are FIVE ancient kingdoms after all…each could certainly use its own supplement book!

Five Ancient Kingdoms was written to be a standalone game; a cheap, packaged product (including dice) that people could pick up and use as an alternative to their standard fantasy fare. And for folks not interested in the specific setting of 5AK, I wanted the game to have a rule set that could be readily adapted to anyone’s normal D&D campaign, should they choose to roll with my deconstructed-reconstructed rules (hell, some of ‘em can simply be “dropped in” with no sweat expenditure necessary). But even more than that, my morphing motivation said: I want this to be a game for NEW PLAYERS...for people who haven’t played D&D or who don’t have preconceived notions about these things we call “table-top role-playing games.” THAT’s my main goal: distributing this game to non-players in an enticing package that says, “check this out; it’s interesting, fun, and easy to play.” That is the motivation that started percolating after I had looked upon this thing I wrought. In fact, at this point this might be the thing that matters most to me.

And dammit, that’s not what I’ve got!

You see, this is why it’s so ridiculous to try switching gears mid-stream (or even after the fact). I did not set out to create a game that was user-friendly to newbies; that wasn’t my intention, that wasn’t my initial motivation. My intention was to thumb my nose at WotC/Hasbro, and that’s what I did. I made a game that is exceptionally playable and much more affordable then the inevitable multi-volume 5th edition that Hasbro will eventually be rolling out. Easy to use? Check. Nice handling with small books. Check. Tastefully illustrated. Triple-check (all thanks to the Arabian Nights Entertainment being dumped into the public domain). If a person can get past the lack of skills, slick color plates, and the title “D&D” on the cover, I daresay a person would select my books over 5E…assuming, that is, that they’re looking to get into something new.

But would it appeal to a new player? I don’t think so. It operates under too many assumptions; it apes too many tropes of D&D (even its look is based on OD&D). It’s designed for players who are already familiar with D&D…hell, the target audience are the people who read this blog. Sure, other folks might pick it up and check it out…people who see it on the shelf of a game shop or hear about it on the internet or who are drawn to a fantasy adventure game with Middle Eastern flavor. But that’s not hitting the market that my shifting motivations want to target.

Kids. I want to target kids.

And not just kids. People who enjoy fantasy and fairy tales and fiction based on something other than D&D-derived fiction. And by “D&D-derived,” I am not simply referring to officially licensed books based on Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms and whatnot. I’m talking about stuff like Game of Thrones. I’m talking about The Ranger’s Apprentice (and similar) that stocks the shelf and the grocery store check-out counter.

I want Russian folklore. I want The Last Unicorn. I want The Hobbit (not The Lord of the Rings). I want Vainamoinen. I want a backwards-aging, half-demon Merlin. I want Robin McKinley. I want Halloween. Is that too much to ask?

And here’s the thing: the beauty of Dungeons & Dragons is that, despite the silliness of its premise (characters go into unexplored adventure site…over-and-over-and-over again) is two-fold. First, the adventure site (i.e. “the dungeon”) is still an excellent game convention, for all the reasons Arneson outlined in various published commentaries. Second, the concept of intrepid adventurers plunging into darkness is based off a literary stable of fantasy literature (often of the “swords & sorcery” or “weird fiction” variety) which is itself based off the older mythology and folklore I’m craving.

Which means (if you kind of reverse engineer my weird-ass logic) that there must be a way to build a fantasy-based D&D-style heartbreaker that doesn't cannibalize itself. That works under different assumptions than those that it has established for itself...over-and-over-and-over again.

Maybe that doesn't make sense. Let me try putting it a different way

I'm aware of the Beyond the Wall RPG. I don't own it. I haven't read it. I've read about it. And I've looked at the downloadable character sheet. It looks just like a B/X D&D character sheet. Regardless of how it gets there (with neat, Lloyd Alexander-like character generation) it appears to be the same game. It's just D&D. And I want something more.

I've got some ideas for getting there, but I've got to do some more thinking. I keep coming back to Holmes...Holmes Basic is about the scale of the thing I want. I've read and reread and reviewed Blue Holmes and Mazes & Perils and Holmes itself and I like all of it, but I don't think they do what I want. But they're my inspiration at the moment.

That and Faust. More on this in a bit.

What exactly am I saying here? Am I going to be dumping 5AK anytime soon? No, no...like I said, I'm still damn proud of it and will continue to sell it for the foreseeable future (in print form that is...electronically, it's already available forever). But, stupid as the idea is (and I feel stupid just typing this) I'm considering writing another fantasy heartbreaker. As if one wasn't enough of a waste. I'm considering writing one with a completely different target audience...and different objective...firmly in mind.

Ugh.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Paladins I’ve Known: Sir Alexander

Not be raised on OD&D has been in a boon in some ways and a bane in others (which, I suppose could be said for everyone regarding every edition). The main “bane” for me has been, that I have much less historical knowledge upon which to draw for my musings and rambling analysis of all things D&D…sure I have a copy of the LBBs, but have neither owned (nor perused) any of the original supplements, and the information I have on them has been scantily gleaned through on-line reviews and other folks’ blogs.

Which makes it tough when I’m trying to create something that wants to be at least semi-true to its roots.

Now having said all that, let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about the paladin class. Frankly, I’m surprised this guy keeps coming up in my posts seeing as how I have so little actual, visceral experience with the dude. But maybe that IS why I keep bringing him up…this blog is for the most part ephemeral and somewhat theoretical…why not analyze a character class with which I’ve had no direct experience.

Now, granted, much of my “D&D career” has been spent in the DM’s chair, but I went through a pretty long stretch (more than a couple years) as a player, and never once did I pick up the spurs and the Holy Avenger. Thing is, though, neither did the players in my game. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 or so that I actually had an honest-to-goodness Paladin sitting at my table.

That was a one-off game, and one that ended prematurely I’m afraid, and the character was played by my good buddy, Alex. Let me wax on a bit about this guy:

Alex and I actually met at work and started hanging out…well, I don’t really remember why. We probably got introduced at some work party and hit it off; we’d sometimes go out for a beer and a game of pool after work. He was a good guy with a good heart and I was heavy into my New Agey stuff back then and would share my philosophy with him and provide romantic advice to him from an astrological perspective.

I don’t remember how I learned he was a gamer…I think he was over at my apartment one time and saw an old gaming book and told me he played a lot of D&D…and that’s why we decided to get together and try a game (which unfortunately terminated early due to another player’s abrupt departure).

Now Alex’s gaming experience was a little different from mine. For one thing, he was raised up on 2nd edition AD&D and this was his game of choice (and I ran our game using 2nd edition books). For another thing, Alex ALWAYS played paladins, as he readily admitted.

And if you’d ever met Alex, the paladin thing would come as no surprise. The guy DID have a big heart…not that he didn’t do selfish of dimwitted things sometimes AS WE ALL DO, but for the most part he always tried to do the right thing for the right reason. He didn’t drink much, and smoked even less (I was a chain smoker at the time, and he had maybe one puff off a cigarette the whole time I knew him). He worked out every day and was tall and VERY muscular/fit…handsome, too, with a chiseled jaw, blue eyes and close-cropped receding blond hair…kind of a younger, buffer Daniel Craig. In addition to looking good, he was also very charming and (as one might imagine) a hit with the ladies. Yet he was also a serial monogamist, generally in long-term relationships (or no relationship at all) the whole time I knew him.

In other words, the kind of looked and acted like the knight in shiny armor. It was hard not to say, ‘okay, yeah, you can play a paladin.’ I mean, that class was practically MADE for Alex!

Contrast him with my earliest 1st edition AD&D group and we seem like downright miscreants. I mean, we weren’t above some “power-gaming” back in the day (see, for example the female drow cleric-assassin played by a male member of the group) and the paladin class has some nice bennies associated with it. But the main thing that kept our players away from it was the damn alignment restrictions.

Now folks like Alex, who started off with 2nd edition AD&D telling him that he was playing a game of heroic adventure, probably don’t get this. For us that started with the earlier edition (and as kids) we had no illusions about our role in the D&D game world: there are dungeons with monsters and treasure. Your characters are “adventurers” (i.e. tomb robbers, mercenaries, n’er-do-wells) that go into said dungeons to kill monsters and take loot. Try not to get killed.

For us there were no great plots, no over-arching story-line (save what we created with the soap opera melodrama of our own character’s bickering, politicking, and in-fighting), no “dragon high lords” to bring down. And the paladin’s alignment restrictions were a real hindrance to anyone trying to live the life of a career adventurer.

And RESTRICTIONS IS the key word here. Maybe because we were kids when we started playing, we took the rules very seriously…as in, to the letter. Even though D&D extolled us to change rules as we saw fit to make the game “fun” the only thing we did was ADD rules when no rules were present to govern a particular system. Our “tweaking” of the system was additive only…we never dumped “broken” rules (if the rule was present in the system it was sacrosanct). For example, we were so downright GRATEFUL when the Unearthed Arcana came out with a much less complicated, more streamlined unarmed combat system, because FINALLY we could put it into our games. Prior to UA, we avoided unarmed combat like the plague, because whenever someone tried it we’d have to haul out the bulky-weird system in the DMG and try to work it out using the “official rules.”

Alignment was a RULE, and we adhered to it closely. There were no restrictions on which character classes or alignments a player could have for his or her character (often there would be at least one assassin accompanying the party), but most player characters gravitated towards a chaotic, neutral, or evil bent as it was far less restrictive for the (adventuring) work at hand. The point was to pick an alignment that BEST DESCRIBED the character’s personality…and then play that. And as I said, I suppose we had a bunch of thuggish players in our group based on the usual alignments.

Scott’s magic-users and illusionists were always Chaotic Neutral; other characters (elven and half-elven thieves) might be Chaotic Good. Of course, he DID play a (male) Drow cleric of Lolth (Chaotic Evil) and a half-elf magic-user/assassin (Evil of some sort). Matt usually played a Lawful Good cleric (because he was a cleric of Athena), but he often got subordinated to a lesser (support) role unless he was solo-adventuring; he also played the female Drow cleric/multi-something, a regular human assassin (evil), an insane Healer (Chaotic Evil; from a Dragon magazine), and a Chaotic Neutral Archer (also from Dragon, I believe). Jocelyn would have sweet little Neutral Goods or Chaotic Goods, but her badass fighter Bladehawk was Chaotic Evil (as a follower of Ares); however, earlier BH had been Neutral (in Basic D&D), and Chaotic Neutral (in her 1st incarnation as an AD&D character). Jason played thieves of miscreant alignment, and my brother’s characters (barbarians and fighters) were generally Chaotic Good to Chaotic Neutral; Alejandro was the latter. Crystal’s fighter was Chaotic or Neutral, and Rob…well, he always played a “good” guy and generally paid the price for it; he should have played 2nd edition.

As I’ve mention before, I generally played a bard, originally Neutral Good but eventually Neutral Evil. That’s just how we rolled…as I said, we were a bunch of miscreants.

Anyway, the rules were THE RULES. There is nothing in AD&D that says you cannot play a Chaotic Evil assassin, for example (so long as you roll the required ability scores), but there ARE pretty explicit descriptions of what a Chaotic Evil person is. And there is even more restrictive prose regarding the paladin class, not just the Lawful Good alignment…apparently too restrictive for my players’ tastes.

Hell, we didn’t even (that I recall) institute “level reduction” penalties for playing out of alignment. If a person wasn’t playing their alignment correctly we DMs simply said, “bam, your character’s alignment is changed.” If someone did something murderous they were evil; if they routinely broke the law they were NOT “lawful.” The only time alignment mattered was if you played a class with an alignment restriction (a ranger, a monk, a cleric of a particular deity). THEN sudden alignment changes might have an actual in-game penalty (losing one’s abilities). Otherwise, it still HURT…it was a blow to one’s ego when you had created a character of a particular alignment and your DM changed it on you. Basically, you were being called out for “not playing right.” I know, ‘cause it happened to at least one of MY characters…and damn straight I deserved the chastisement!

Anyway, as an older, more mature role-player I LIKE the idea of the paladin for the role-playing challenge it is (or maybe I just feel more heroic myself these days!). I like the Holy Avenger sword (though why they bothered to add a +6 version in the Unearthed Arcana, I can’t begin to justify), and think it could be used as an excellent “quest” treasure or basis for a plot arc of some sort.

Heck, I know I’ve written many times that I enjoy the whole “fall-from-grace-and-redemption” story line; to really make it work though, I think you’d have to make the paladin restrictions even more restrictive. Make them live a life of poverty and chastity and then cause them to fall through simple temptation (O foul wine, women, and song!). Man, if I was running an AD&D campaign again (something I do NOT plan on) I’d do it…hell, I’d let anyone play a paladin that wanted to (auto-raise that Charisma to 17 if too low) provided they live by the strictest of strictures (and should he/she fall, lose that bonus Charisma as well! Ha!). It would be fun to see just how long an “adventurer” could walk the straight and narrow. ; )

Two last notes: it seems weird that the “heroic divide” SEEMS to be between 1973 and 1974, as far as birth dates of players. Alex, Rob, my buddies Mike, Michael, and Ben (the infamous “god squad;” a bunch of atheists playing lawful good paladins, clerics, and rangers…weird). All these folks were born in ’74. Me and my miscreant 1st edition friends were all ’72 or ’73.

Last note: my buddy Alex got a job with Wizards of the Coast eventually and then got out-sourced to some baseball card manufacturer (don’t ask) eventually moving to California for work. I haven’t seen him since (though I “friended” him on Facebook). I miss the guy, 2nd edition or no. : (

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Magic Swords I Have Known #1: the Sword of Kas

I considered expounding on my particular fascination with the sword as a weapon, but then realized I would not be saying much more than what has already been written by the likes of Richard F. Burton in his Book of the Sword introduction. Suffice is to say, people dig swords, and generally, the same people drawn to fantasy are those drawn to the “romance” inherent in the weapon.

Black blades have long been “all the rage” when it comes to weapons in fantasy fiction…nothing says “badass” quite like a blade that’s been darkened to an “ebon hue.” Probably the first such weapon I can remember was the flaming black sword, Dyrnwyn, from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. Last one I read about was probably Black Steel by Steve Perry (sci-fi, sure, but featuring black blades).

The Sword of Kas, I believe, is the first original black blade featured in a D&D publication…if I am mistaken, someone please correct me. I don’t have the original supplement Eldritch Wizardry in which it first appears, but in the DMG it is described as a black short sword. It’s the equivalent of a +6 vorpal weapon and carries a number of special abilities as well as several drawbacks.

This is the kind of magic weapon I like: it has a name, a history, and a personality. Just like Blackrazor or Stormbringer, the Sword of Kas has its own motivation and raison d’etre. This is something a DM can build a campaign around, if one is so inclined. And the great thing about the drawbacks (in this case, malignant artifact effects), is it really forces a player character to answer the question, “what am I willing to pay to use this item?”

I’m not a big fan of 3rd edition’s “Legacy Weapons,” and I really don’t like the way artifacts are handled in BECMI…far too limited in my opinion. I really like the idea that a weapon, piece of clothing, or severed body part can be imbued with the divine power/unholy might of its former owner, and thus become an item of immense power and great peril. Weapons like the Sword of Kas and Blackrazor that “break” the standard rules are what really define Old School D&D for me. For me, I like the inconsistencies of this approach; it’s what makes OS gaming organic and very “non-wargamey.”

I’ve actually never included the Sword of Kas in any of my campaigns…the title of this post refers to magic blades that I’ve read about or inspired me, ones that I’ve crafted for games and ones that I haven’t. I plan on this being a series: just thought I’d start it off with one from D&D canon.