Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Not dead, just busy. Right now working on corn beef and cabbage (cooking, not eating).

I'll try to post more in the coming few days. Sorry folks...hope y'all are having a good one!

[as he hoists a Guinness]

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Heaping Pile of Awesome

The wife got back safe and sound Thursday night, and my single parent duties have ended (well...until next week when she one again has to jetset off to the East Coast), but I took a couple days for myself and left the blogging on the back-burner. Caught up on some sleep, reread Al-Qadim (found even more I liked) as well as found a new, incredibly kick-ass reality TV show in the form of Full Metal Jousting (which actually kicked sleep's ass for awhile as I had to stay up till 2am watching back episodes last night).

I would dearly like to write more about AQ and FMJ (and hopefully will sometime in the next couple days), but I can't, as I just spent the afternoon at the Cinnebarre movie theater (no relation to the RPG) in Mountlake Terrace, drinking Guinness and watching John Carter of Mars in 3-D.

I'm going to go ahead and call it one of the all-time best fantasy-SciFi films I've ever seen. Definitely in the Top 10, quite possibly Top 5.

As others have written, the marketing for this film really didn't do it justice. I was not terribly impressed with the previews I'd seen, and I'm fairly nit-picky with films. This one? Really not much to pick at all.

Now, I should probably say up-front that I've never read Burroughs (sorry, folks, I have a large backlog of reading material I'm trying to catch up on...ERB is scheduled for around 2014 or 2015). As a consequence, I can't say how true to the book the film is.

However, I HAVE read a lot of other later imitators of Burroughs's John Carter character, including John Norman, Michael Moorcock, and S.M. Stirling. Of the bunch, the character portrayed on the screen...and the story narrated in the film...blew away anything I've read from others and certainly exceeded any expectations I had on this film. It was simply fascinating to see how much of the plot had been borrowed for other fantasy stories over the years. And yet JCM's story felt felt original (as in "the originator") rather than a pastiche of the films that have stolen from it.

What can I say? Sometimes Disney gets it right (like with Dragonslayer or that first Pirates of the Caribbean film); certainly Pixar are the #1 guys doing this CGI stuff (the six-armed aliens might as well have been animatronics. Or real aliens, I guess. Best CGI acting I can recall seeing). But the other film stuff...acting, pacing, art direction...great, great work. Perhaps not as spectacular as Avatar, JCM was still a damn sight better than that film.

And I prefer a better film to a better spectacle anyway.

Airships and pseudo-steampunk tech, weird cultures and traditions...with no heavy handed exposition needed to explain what the f is going on, may I add. As with Whedon's Firefly, the filmmakers just created a world, invited the audience in, and figured you were smart enough to figure stuff out (fortunately, it's a bit simpler than Firefly so it's pretty easy to grok in a single two hour movie).

And what a world! I think my favorite part was the panoramic views of Mars. Holy smokes...I never wanted to set an RPG on Mars so bad! Made me consider scratching my Arabian Nights setting for something a little more out-o-this world. Where's the Barsoom campaign setting for Labyrinth Lord, huh? Come on now! You OSR folks are going to leave me to cannibalize that Savage Worlds Mars book? Please don't do that!

All right, now I'm just raving. Suffice is to say I liked it a lot. My buddy Steve-O (who accompanied me) is a bit of a SciFi connoisseur (or at least and aficionado), and HE thought it was a heaping pile of awesome. Said he wanted a sequel. Of course, he hasn't read Burroughs either.

Point is, it was a great film. Certainly a Disney flick I'd want my child to see (when he's a little older, that is).
: )

***EDIT: Oh, just found this little gem for folks interested in old school fantasy role-playing on Barsoom. Check it's exactly what I was looking for!***

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Self-Imposed Blackout

My wife's out of town on business the next couple days, which means when I'm not at work (still downtown, by the way), I will be doing the "single parent thang" with my 13 month old baby. Which means I will be mostly absent from blogging.

Not that I didn't write a meandering three page bunch of randomness about ability scores yesterday, but it needs to be cleaned up (even by my standards!) and have a page or two added prior to posting. Sorry.

So, I'll get back to the blog after a couple days, unless all y'all get real lucky. Heck, I'm not even going to be gaming Thursday unless some milagro brings my wife's plane back early.

Later, gators!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

I don't know why I try... be original in any way, shape, or form. Clearly, I am constantly to find myself duplicating efforts that have already been done.

Picked up a copy of Al-Qadim today, the "Arabian adventures" campaign setting book for 2nd edition AD&D. Ugh. How can someone steal idea 20 years before you even have it?

Al-Qadim was written in 1992 (carrying the by-line of Jeff Grubb, a designer for whom I have immense respect due to the Marvel Superheroes RPG). It basically sets out to do everything I intended to do as background material for my D&D Mine project, drawing on the "three distinct versions of Arabia" for its material:

1) the historical Arabian Empire
2) the legendary or "mythic" Arabia
3) the Hollywood (TV and movie) Arabia

Which is exactly what I was drawing from as well.

Other sources of irritation:
  • the "Holy Slayer" (i.e. assassin) carries the same hard-line guild requirements that I included in my version of the assassin. Remember I was saying I still wanted to use the problematic assassin class because I dig my version/rules for the class? Well, Grubb did it first.
  • they include lamellar armor, dammit! Here I thought I was being all cool and innovative with that. Of course, AQ still keeps "scale mail" instead of replacing it with the former, which is kind of lame.
  • the magic-user classes, ESPECIALLY the shi'ar kit, is done better than my own spell-using classes, which adhere too closely to the original game rules (even as they don't...more on that later). makes me want to scrap the whole mage concept and ONLY use a knock-off version of the shi'ar. Dammit!
I suppose I could just make my game MORE generic (i.e. more like "classic D&D"), but I agree with the conclusion Noisms came to the other day: having a particular authorial flavor or personality makes rule systems a lot more palatable (if not more digestible) than more generic, "bland" RPGs. I guess I'll just bite the bullet and accept that I'm not terribly original.

Or maybe I'll throw more Gorean elements into the game/setting.
; )

I am NOT tempted to re-write Al-Qadim wholesale (say, as a B/X campaign setting, something I was looking at doing with Dark Sun for sure) looks a little over-worked and under-whelming in most areas, and even though I LIKE a lot of what's in the book, I'm not sure it really delivers what it promises. And how can they get away with NOT presenting the True Faith as an option for character worship?

That being said, I fully intend to keep this one on the work bench, and may well borrow some of its cooler ideas (like the shi-ar class or random sandstorm tables) for my own game.

: )

Tarnsman of Gor

Just finished reading Tarnsman of Gor, the first book in John Norman's 30+ fantasy book series begun in the 1960s and still being written today (Mariners of Gor was just published in 2011 and Conspirators of Gor planned for 2012 according to wikipedia).

Norman's books are technically of the "science fiction" variety, though there are a lot of the trappings of sword & sorcery fantasy in them. In the tradition of Burroughs's protagonist John Carter, Norman's character Tarl Cabot is a man of earth who is frequently brought to another planet (in this case, Gor or "Counter-Earth," a planet that shares the same orbit as the Earth but on the opposite side of the sun). On that planet he is a great warrior, or "tarnsman," trained to ride the gigantic hawk-like birds called tarns and becomes embroiled in the politics and sword-wielding adventure of that world.

Now, Norman and his books has received a lot of bile and revulsion over the years due to his subject matter; critics have panned his books for outright misogyny and gross tastelessness due mainly to its depiction of women as slaves and masochists and the "rightness" of the slave-master dynamic as a social system. I first got a sense of that from the description of the series in Fantasy Wargaming (published 1981):
Unfortunately, John Noman suffers from a deeply rooted bondage fetish which he obviously expects his readers to share, for all of these books are full of nubile slave girls who are forced to call men, "master," who are kept permanently chained and whose erotic instincts are usually aroused by a touch of a whip.
[this passage comes from the chapter on inspirational reading material for possible fantasy settings]

I'd read other reviews (prior to acquiring the book) that described Tarnsman as "the epitome of misogyny" or "having horrendous levels of misogyny." Apparently the series as a whole is responsible for inspiring a niche subculture of the BDSM community.

Well, maybe that's true of the later books, but I've only read the first one and I don't find any of that.

Yes, there are slaves, male and female. The male slaves feature most prominently as resources used during the siege of a major city. The female slaves are dealt with more explicitly because Cabot (the main character) interacts with them in the story...usually finding their treatment abhorrent and spending his time freeing them and rejecting Gorean society.

To me, the books read more as a "stranger in a strange land" type of story. The book, narrated in the first person by Cabot, often has the character not just questioning but outright rebelling against the values of an alien culture when they fail to match his own civilized Earth values, which are pretty standard 1960s American/British and male...perhaps a bit chauvinistic (though less than, say, Jack Hamm's character on Mad Men) but certainly he falls on the side of "right," decrying Gor's customs as "rude" and "barbaric" most of the time (and while he comes to take up their warrior code as his own, he is happy to question it and modify it when it doesn't suit his personal ethics).

The one female character portrayed as (perhaps) having a mild fetish for bondage is only that: a single example...and she herself is a free woman who gleefully admits to abusing her own slaves. Another female character, while accepting of her slavery as part of the tradition of Gor (whereby prisoners of wars and raids are enslaved) is still happy to have her freedom and leave her shackles behind given the chance. There's no promotion of slavery being a "happy state of affairs" by the author, speaking through the protagonist's narrative. One gets the impression that Tarl would, if permitted, attempt to overthrow those parts of Gorean society that oppress others...which is why he's returned to Earth, unhappily, at the end of the novel.

But as I said, maybe the later books are different. For me, Tarnsman of Gor is a fairly good book if you enjoy pulpy, sword-wielding fantasy, though I get tired of the first person narrative and the 1960s moralizing...again, I find Cabot to be a bit of a goody-two-shoes (more on that in a bit). For being a 45 year old book, it still holds up remarkably doesn't feel as dated as say, some of Heinlein or Bradbury. And part of that has to do with the setting which, from the snatches of description provided, seems to be well-thought out and fairly rich, containing social structures and traditions, language and politics, alien flora and fauna (much more than just the giant tarns), and an interesting premise: alien "priest-kings" abduct earth humans and strand them in this Lord of the Flies situation for their own whimsical amusement.

The priest-kings...who are never actually encountered, only described through hearsay in the novel...are fascinating individuals. They provide the humans of Gor with a certain level of high technology (for example, electrical lights and lifts and doors, high caliber structural engineering, and medicine and medical advances that exceed 20th century earth medicine), but forbid the use of any weapon of greater technology than a crossbow, and do not even allow the crafting of chain mail armor. The penalties for trying to break these taboos is pretty severe: offenders are incinerated in a ball of blue fire by the unseen priest-kings.

Not a bad little mechanism for enforcing arbitrary conventions in an RPG: yeah, your magic-user can't wear armor or wield a sword because he'll be horribly and immediately destroyed by the local divinity. Nice. Despite the lack of supernatural magic, the world of Gor would make an excellent campaign setting for an RPG. The Gorean caste system is a good basis for character class archetypes (ha! there's even an "assassin caste"), and there are more than a few adventure ideas in the game. Plus, the premise provides a way to include 21st century Earth personality and morality in a pseudo-primitive/medieval setting, something that might be fun around the gaming table ("yes, you know what a car is but they don't have them: you can ride a giant bird or a giant lizard"). Oh, yeah...and impalement is the main form of Gorean justice/punishment for criminals, which I found amusing considering my own posting on the subject a few months back.

There are a couple thoughts that came out of reading this book that I'd like to elaborate on, both regarding elements of the writing/subject matter and how they apply to (role-playing) game play, but those are going to have to wait for separate posts. Tarnsman of Gor wasn't "the best" fantasy book I've ever read, but it was a good read, and the quality of the writing was a big step up from some of the other fantasy series on my book shelves (sorry, James Silke, Steve Perry...). It made me put my reading of David Chandler's trilogy on hold (I'm currently on the third book of his Ancient Blades series), though I'll probably return to that before starting Outlaw of Gor.

; )

Friday, March 2, 2012

35% Power

That's how much juice I've got left in my laptop...and when it's gone I'm SOL because my son managed to chew through the power cord.

Actually, that's not completely accurate. My beagles chewed the power cord about 20 minutes after I opened the box. However, despite the frayed cord, it's still managed to keep me supplied with power (and able to write books and blogs) for about 4-5 years. Last night, though, Baby D appears to have managed to finish the job, somehow destroying the conductivity enough that, well...

35% power...and that's still keeping the thing plugged to prevent as much "seepage" as possible.


Well, I'll pop down to the Mac store tomorrow, but any serious writing tonight is probably a lost cause. I'm going to try to answer some email and then I'm just going to curl up with the Tomb of Horrors until I fall asleep.

34% power.

The Paladin Calling

So as I posted early this morning (well after midnight), I decided to change my character in the weekly Labyrinth Lord game from a gnome assassin-illusionist to a human paladin (for those who are confused, we are using the Advanced Edition Companion, or AEC, rules which adapts the AD&D PHB, MM, and DMG to the B/X rule set which Labyrinth Lord clones so admirably).

I rolled up the gnome in the first place because Randy (the DM) had jokingly said I HAD to be a gnome in order “to keep me out of trouble.” I went ahead and took the gnome anyway and decided to see just how much trouble I could get into (I can be a bit of a contrarian). Besides, I really wanted to try playing an assassin, and the wide-open multi-classing of the LL/AEC rules meant I could supplement my skills with some phantasm, something I thought was a pretty hot idea.

The problem I ran into over 4 weeks was two-fold:

  • The adventure was not very conducive to the optimal play style of a 1st level assassin; i.e. it has many of the elements of a straight dungeon crawl and a lot of undead and is often linear in progression…all of which hinders the abilities of an assassin. For example, what good is it to disguise yourself when everything just attacks you anyway? What good is your ability to stab kidneys and slit throats when you’re fighting skeletons with neither kidneys nor throats (not to mention an ability regenerate and reform almost instantly)?
  • The circumstances of the adventure (large group, specific quest, limited path choice) led to me using my default method of play, for which the assassin-illusionist is NOT a particularly well-suited class selection.

My “default method of play” is kind of a take charge (or at least ‘charge ahead’) balls-to-the-wall style: walking point, interacting with NPCs, getting ‘stuck in’ with melee, taking things fast rather than slow. Anyone ever play the video game Mass Effect? Think “Vanguard” character class…that’s MY personality. Ever play Warhammer 40,000? I’m the guy with the all Khorne Berserker and rampaging dreadnought army. I’m not very patient and I’ve only limited amounts of caution…usually just enough to work out an angle or (simple) advantage. I hate dithering. I’m kind of an ass.

Anyway, with the gnome I was basically acting as a leather clad fighter with minimal hit points: 5 in fact (maximum of the average of assassin + illusionist). I’d use an illusion to provide me with cover and charge the opponent, and then do a bunch of damage…and then get killed. Fortunately, in Randy’s game there’s a lot of resurrection and healing within the dungeon.

Well, maybe NOT fortunately…the fact that we couldn’t get “perma-killed” just made the game feel even more like playing a vid; and led me to continue using the same tactics, which really ISN’T playing an “assassin-illusionist.” I would’ve been better served playing a fighter-illusionist (at least I could have worn the gnome-sized plate armor we found). And the whole point of choosing those classes had been to experience and experiment with a style of play (assassin) I hadn’t gotten much opportunity to try. But I wasn’t doing that, see? There’s been no call for disguise or setting traps or using poison or assassinating anyone. This was the wrong game for trying this particular class.

[the only time I got to really commit “murder” was on my fellow player characters a couple-three times…but even that was unsatisfying. I mean, they just come back anyway…]

So ANYway…I told Randy I wanted to make a new character, even though it meant chucking all the XP, gold, and equipment I’d picked up over the last month of play. Seeing as how our characters begin the game with NOTHING (not even normal equipment!) that’s a fairly ballsy move on my part. On the other hand, it should go to illustrate just how dissatisfied I was with the experience IN PLAY. And since I’m not quite ready to start running my own game again (still writing up D&D Mine), I wanted to continue playing with Randy & Co.

So enter Sir Harold the Tall, 1st level paladin.

What a difference a change can make!

Playing Sir Harold was a MUCH more satisfying experience. My actual style of play changed very slightly, but it fit so well with the character that I felt much more “in tune” with the game. My character could lead from the front…because he’s a fearless paladin, and he wants to lead by example. My character can attempt to hail and talk to opponents…because he’s a lawful paladin and he’s not all about bloodthirsty combat. My character can freely pick up and redistribute loot…because he’s a trustworthy paladin and isn’t looking for his own financial gain (my character took none of the gold we found). My character was welcome to a helm and shield and suit of scale armor we found…because my character’s a battle-worthy paladin and has the “oomph” to get stuck-in and hold-the-line for the others.

Even though Sir Harold is a less effective fighter than the assassin (the Paladin only had a 15 strength while the gnome’s was 16, giving the little guy an extra bonus to attack and damage), Sir Harold was a complete badass in combat. It helped that my dice were rolling hot most of the night (a lot of 18, 19, and 20s, a lot of max damage rolls…and I didn’t roll less than a 6 out of 8 for damage all night!). Of the ten or so “evil” soldiers we encountered, I managed to deliver the death blow on at least half of ‘em myself…and all the while I was offering them mercy and giving them the chance to throw down their arms and trying to be a “good guy” (unfortunately…for them…they were only programmed for fighting not surrender or negotiation).

But I think I just “felt better” playing the character. It was like my basic inclinations all “made sense” in light of the paladin archetype. When one party member was so horribly cursed that he could do mostly nothing the during the session (including hold a weapon or even walk), it made sense that Sir Harold would strap the character to his own back and work his ass off to get him healed. It didn’t feel like I was “metagaming” to organize the PCs to pool their gold so we could buy enough “magic rocks” to remove the curses afflicting three of our party members…that’s just the kind of thing a paladin should do!...whereas the same action from my gnome would have felt “forced” and “artificial.” I mean, as a PLAYER I’d want the other PCs to get healed and back in the game, but why would the sleazy cold-blooded assassin give a shit about the other party members? I mean, they’re just a means to an end, right? And once they’ve lost their usefulness (due to debilitating curses), well that’s the time to loot their incapacitated forms and leave ‘em to rot!

And just by the way, playing cutthroat games like that can be fun, too…with the right GM and fellow players on the same page. But for this game, there’s a much more cooperative-camaraderie thing going on…I mean, we’re ALL cursed in this game (the Halfling strapped to the paladin’s back was just “double-cursed”) and we’re ALL just trying to find the magic objective that will break the curse and let us get back to whatever we were doing before ending up in this godsforsaken realm of skeletons and apparitions and exploding corpse-heads and fast zombies and evil (if slightly catatonic) soldiers.

And goateed necromancers. Can’t forget those dumb-dumbs (we’ve killed three so far).

So, in light of the group AND the adventure AND my personality the paladin is a pretty darn good fit. I enjoyed playing the character, and the session was (for me) the most satisfying one we’ve played in five weeks. It felt like a lot got accomplished. It felt like the group worked well together. It felt like I got to role-play a bit (which is one of the reasons I play these damn games, after all). And I got some good experience playing a class that previously I hadn’t.

And it’s a GOOD class, and yes, plays very different from a normal fighter so long as you keep the whole “goody-two-shoes / Boy Scout” firmly in the forefront of your thought process. Always act polite and try to negotiate with sentient beings. Always offer quarter and be willing to grant mercy. Spurn material goods and wealth save that which is absolutely necessary to your mission. Apply no attachment to the items acquired for they are only transitory (the cursed Halfling loaned me the magical holy shotel (a curvy sword) that he was unable to use…as soon as he was cured it was back in his possession along with my appreciation for the loan).

Detect evil as a class ability is VERY useful for this type of play…it helps you to decide how gently one deals with a potential opponent. On the other hand, it’s kind of an “easy out;” paladin PCs that DON’T have a detect evil ability (like the OD&D version I was adapting for D&D Mine) are FORCED to actually “talk first, kill second” to make sure they’re not unjustly murdering someone with whom they might otherwise come to an accord.

I like that a lot. The standard fighter is a much more practical, pragmatic archetype, regardless of whether they’re honorable or completely mercenary in temperament. A fighter starts out as a 1st level VETERAN…the implication is the character has “been around.” He’s an “old campaigner” (in the going to war sense). The regular fighter knows that if you catch an orc with its back turned, you don’t bother to ask what he’s doing in the area, you just run him through! Same with other potential opponents you come upon…if they fall between you and your objective, it’s better to err on the side of “taking them out.” The only place negotiation has is when you’re out-gunned or need more intelligence on the opposition (finding out how strong they are). War is hell…and the fighter is a warrior that has few illusions or romantic notions about combat and the martial arts.

The paladin, on the other hand, is COMPELLED to be idealistic. At least, he should be (I’m sure there are campaigns where paladins are given a little more “free rein”)…in my own campaigns I have close-to-zero leniency for players who take the paladins restrictions lightly. If you want the bennies, you better be playing by the book! And as long as I’m playing a paladin, I’m going to try to hold myself to the same standard.

But regarding my own game and my inclusion of the paladin subclass: well, I was starting to think that I would best be served by doing away with the “paladin,” per se and just making the character a templar or temple knight. In other words, remove the alignment restriction and make the character a more martial version of the cleric, restricting the character’s “holy powers” in exchange for improved fighting ability. In that way, the subclass might be better served in motivation for “going into the dungeon,” as the templars would still be serving the interest of their church or faith or whatever.

That’s what I WAS thinking, but now I’m not so sure I want to do that. After having the chance to play a paladin (admittedly, in a non-standard adventure and thus one more conducive to the class), I find I have a newfound respect for the archetype…which I see modeled in the figures Joan of Arc, Galahad/Percival, and Charlemagne’s Roland.

[NOT Holger Carlsen/Ogier the Dane by the way…I’ve read Three Hearts & Three Lions and see nothing of the paladin archetype in the protagonist (other than his mysterious “smart horse” perhaps)…that guy is Lawful fighter, sure, and one with a high charisma, but still a more pragmatic warrior and certainly bereft of any supernatural powers]

ALSO, Peter commenting on my prior post makes an excellent point about paladin’s motivation to go into dungeons: paladins have been gifted with certain abilities that make them supremely talented for fighting evil that other (good-aligned) folks can’t. They have a responsibility to use those abilities in their proper service…not just defending towns and working at the local soup kitchen. I agree with Peter and I retract any earlier statements to the contrary.

However, that doesn’t mean a paladin will just delve ANY dungeon. There should still be some hint that a place contains a threat or ancient menace of some sort, before a paladin is ready to join an expedition. I guess I still stand by the sentiment that while most adventurers need no more reason to go to a site than “because it is there,” paladins need some form of unselfish motivation. There are captive hostages. The place is the abode of demons or an evil cult. A warlord is extorting the local townships. An artifact of purity and righteousness was lost somewhere in the depths and needs to be recovered.

Money and power and glory and “adventure” should NOT be the motivation of a paladin. But there are plenty of other reasons a DM can offer a paladin PC for going on an adventure. Assuming it’s not “invading the Keep of Glenda the Wise to slay the gold dragon Pureheart” you can probably find some sort of bone to throw the guy.

; )

Dammit Paladins! (Change-Up)

…you don’t work either!

D&D is a mess. Glorious, perhaps. Hot and steaming, certainly. But a mess.

I will say this about Wizards of the Coast…by putting an emphasis on combat they at least attempted to straightjacket the thing into some semblance of coherence and order. A valiant effort and a practical tact, it’s just unfortunate that too much gets left out (and too much, crunch-wise, gets added in) to make those later editions anything I want to play.

But, hey, this post isn’t about WotC, it’s about paladins. I’ve waffled on this ridiculous class almost as badly as the barbarian over the last couple years. With regard to B/X, I’ve stated on more than one occasion that the cleric is about as paladin as you need (just let ‘em use a damn sword…jeez, all weapons do D6 damage anyway!). I’ve also derided the paladin as being redundant in AD&D (being simply a “souped-up fighter”), and talked about how the class NEVER graced the character sheets of my old campaigns, seeing as how we took our alignment restrictions seriously and the goody-two-shoes didn’t fit our roguish-reaving style.

On the other hand, I discovered a new interest in the class when I saw the original version in Supplement I (Greyhawk) and had planned to include this diminished version in my particular version of D&D Mine. And tonight at the Mox I shall be running a paladin character of my own for the Very First Time (having decided that I’m just not “feeling” the gnome assassin enough to carry on with the little guy).

[yikes! We’ll see how that goes!]

[***EDIT: This post was written earlier in the is now after midnight and, yes, I did indeed play a paladin for the first time in my life. More on that later***]

But so anyway, here I am considering carefully how the paladin works into a D&D campaign, especially hot-on-the-heels of my recent assassin reflections (and realizing that I may need to junk that particular subclass as unworkable) and realizing that the paladin is almost equally bad for a “standard” D&D game.

Now for tonight, Randy is not running a “standard” LL game. There’s a heavy-handed premise and plot driving the thing, such that ANY type of character would work in the adventure. It’s a bit like Marvel Secret Wars (or the recent movie PredatorS) in that a bunch of random characters have all been thrown together in this prison-like environment, branded with a curse, and are working (cooperatively) to free themselves from the curse and the dungeon. As I said: heavy handed. And unfortunately there’s not much freedom of choice of action (there are no towns to rest/shop at, monsters are either hostile and attack immediately or social and designed to provide certain info-bites or services), which isn’t all that surprising in light of it being based heavily on a computer game. It does make role-playing worthless for the most part (except as self-amusement), but I’m not sure that matters to anyone else at the table besides me.

In a “standard” D&D game, the idea is that a group of 1st level adventurers outfit get together, outfit and provision themselves, and then head to an adventure site (generally underground) looking to win fortune (and thereby glory) from the depths without getting killed. It’s more than a bit like an Indiana Jones movie (including bad guys and traps and occasional party conflict), pulpy and entertaining. And fun…who doesn’t like Indiana Jones movies? Well, the first two or three anyway!
; )

Characters might be basically “good at heart” (like Indy or his buddy Sallah), or they might be more mercenary and selfish (like Satipo or Marion or Indy in the Temple of Doom film), or they might be out-for-Number-One, ready to use and abuse at a moment’s notice (like Belloq or the Austrian chick in the 3rd film). All sorts of folk might band together for the adventure, and if everything goes well, they’ll all make a healthy profit out of it.

So now we look at the paladin class: here’s a type of adventurer that has a very strict moral agenda. In exchange for following this ethical code, the paladin receives a few extra abilities one might find in such a saintly soul.

Um…so why would this joker EVER go into a dungeon?

Why would he ever raid someone’s tomb or desecrate a temple? Aside from ethical considerations (personally, I don’t feel paladins are the type to say “the end justifies the means;” they KNOW when they’re doing bad and they need to hold themselves to a higher standard), what exactly is their motivation?

I mean, shouldn’t they be out riding that warhorse, protecting the town and championing the weak? They don’t seek after money or treasure…hell, they give away everything they find to poor and charitable institution, save for the bare minimum they need to support themselves. And they don’t associate with (i.e. “hold themselves aloof from”) the standard mercenary adventurer. Why would they ever choose to join such a group of rogues?

As with assassins, it just doesn’t work to put them in the treasure-hunting, reaction-type adventure. Paladins are PROACTIVE: seeking to right wrongs and mete out justice and protect the poor. They’re not going to invade some ancient ruin “just ‘cause it’s there.” Is it threatening anyone? Doing harm to anyone? Because there’s sure to be better uses of the paladin’s time (i.e. in action that HELPS people) than kicking in doors looking for a Holy Avenger Sword.

Yes, paladins are like assassins: they need specific missions to really make sense in the D&D game. Paladins, of course, have no need to plot or plan like an assassin…a crusader with a sword has a fairly straight-forward game plan when it comes to “fighting evil.” But they still need OBJECTIVES, and objectives beyond the normal D&D party motivations:
  • Curiosity
  • Greed
  • Power/Glory
Paladins are supposed to be purer than that, more virtuous than that. If you want to play a knight with a Code of Honor that still succumbs to these listed motivations, you should be playing a fighter. For a paladin, succumbing to these base temptations is a quick way to losing one’s paladin status!

You can see how I can justify playing a 1st level paladin in Randy’s LL game: here’s a guy who would be out seeking to fight demons and work the local soup kitchen if he hadn’t been spirited away and given this Dark Soul curse. NOW he has an in-game objective that has nothing to do with the standard adventurer motivations: he’s got to find a way to lift the curse (on himself and his companions) so that he can get back to fighting demons and working soup kitchens. He has fellow party-members in the same dire straits that require shepherding through this valley of darkness.

My gnome assassin just wasn’t working for me…it wasn’t a character designed for mutual cooperation but for individual action (which kept getting me into trouble). The paladin does have a motivation: to aid the folks in his party as best he can, to be a CONTRIBUTOR to the group’s (shared) success. That is to say, success in lifting the curse and getting out of the dungeon.

See, that wouldn’t work in a normal adventure. Yes, the paladin’s all about being a “team player,” but why would he ever want to contribute to a team of looters and brigands? Answer: he wouldn’t.

Look, even a Lawful (or Lawful Good) cleric can find some motivation for going down into a hole looking for loot. Institutionalized religion has a loooong history of going out into the world and taking questionable action all in aid of glorifying the church or a particular divinity. And greed and corruption and less-than-kind doctrines have been a part of ALL world religions, with the possible exception of Buddhism (which interestingly doesn’t possess clergy in the usual sense). But Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (eye-for-an-eye justice) have all had their moments of intolerance that can justify “non-good” actions for the sake of their doctrine…and the various “pagan” religions have histories just as bad, if not worse!

Now you can give your paladin players the option of “lip-service morality” of the type found in the cleric class…probably many DMs do just because it’s an expedient way of overcoming the issue I’m talking about (i.e. that paladins don’t work for the D&D game’s basic premise). They may allow the end to justify the means, or allow paladins to go on normal dungeon adventures “just because” or without too much thought one way or another…so long as the character is behaving “nice-nice” while on campaign.

For ME, I want to hold paladins to a Higher Standard. Otherwise, what’s the penalty for playing a paladin over a fighter? What…that they can’t use more than 10 magic items at a time? How many magic weapons and suits of armor do your fighters carry? Experience points needed? After a certain amount, all fighter-types become equal anyway (with regard to saves and attacks, that is); and hit points are always a crap-shoot.

No, I make paladins “walk-the-walk,” not just bandy about a lip service morality. The character class is required to have a 17 Charisma. Why? Because they’re not supposed to solve conflict simply by fighting, duh! They should be trying to work things out peacefully whenever possible (i.e. through negotiation and diplomacy) before resorting to violent force of arms. At least as originally designed, all paladin abilities were given for healing and defense. It’s only in 3rd Edition that guy starts being a “smiter of evil” (perhaps in an attempt to justify a high Charisma for the class?)…but then, as stated, WotC put the game’s emphasis firmly in the realm of combat.

So, yeah, here’s the bottom line(s):
  1. I intend my version of D&D Mine to be very “traditional D&D” right down to a possible mega-dungeon as part of the campaign setting (mega being a relative term in this case; the PCs are expected to come out of the dungeon at SOME point, round about 4th or 5th level).
  2. I would like to offer some variations on the four basic classes: cleric, fighter, thief, and mage. Ideally, the variations would be minor and flavorful and based on the campaign setting. My original intention was to include a single subclass for each: monk, paladin, assassin, and illusionist.
  3. I do NOT want these subclasses to be “prestige classes” (i.e. only available at high levels); while I can see them being specialties of the main classes (“only the thief that specializes in killing,” or “the fighter that proves his worth,” etc.) I really want them to be available from the very beginning (i.e. 1st level). I want the variation to already be on display…I don’t want subclasses to be a “prize” for making it through 20-odd game sessions.
You know what? Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way…maybe I’m adhering too closely to early edition D&D tropes, specifically OD&D. Perhaps I’m thinking too much “inside the box.” Arneson’s Blackmoor lists monks as a subclass of cleric, but other than the name and the Wisdom prime requisite, they bear no resemblance to clergy at all; they’re much more of a martial order. And paladins as holy champions would seem to fit better under the cleric class than the fighter.

Maybe I should change up the whole damn thing…something like this:

- Subclass Paladin
- Subclass Assassin or Monk
- Subclass Monk or Assassin
- Subclass Illusionist

Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I like the idea. I’ll have to decide which class between monks and assassins needs to be more “mystical” to fit under the magic-user heading (there’s historical precedent for either, depending on the stance I decide to take). I’m going to mull this one over for awhile and see what I come up with.

Cheers, folks!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Niche Protections vs. "Redundancy"

In my post on assassins the other day, Peter commented that what I call redundancy is basically the same thing as niche protection, something I have deplored in the past. His comment made me realize I hadn’t been very clear with what I meant (not unusual for this blog, especially when I have a different point to the post altogether) so I figured I’d better explain what I mean.

Here’s what I consider “niche protection:” attending to game design in such a way that one class doesn’t “step on the toes” of what another character class does. A few examples might include:
  • Complaining that a cleric can detect traps with 100% accuracy using a 2nd level spell (available in B/X at 4th level) or complaining that a magic-user can open all locks with a knock spell (available at 3rd level) thus stepping on the thief’s specialized abilities (which don’t reach nearly that level of accuracy for many levels).
  • Complaining that a barbarian can outfight a fighter in melee combat (due to higher hit points and, in some editions, a Rage ability) which is a traditional specialty of the fighter class.
  • Complaining that generalists (like bards in several editions) simply duplicate other character’s capabilities to a lesser extent instead of having their own protected niche.
The IDEA behind discussions on niche protection are (as far as I can tell) something about “giving every player character a chance to shine and be effective in the game.” Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but the discussions I’ve read seem to center around the idea that without enough specializations or areas of expertise, characters start to look cookie-cutter-esque. What’s more, poor class design (where one character is inherently lesser or stronger than a similarly skilled class…as in my fighter-cavalier example) results in one class (the lesser) being deemed “mostly useless,” and thus shunted aside in favor of the stronger class. And that can have further ramifications, too…if the only fighter-types in your game are chivalric-code-type cavaliers and honorable samurai, what does that do to your “down-and-dirty-dungeon-crawl” campaign?

But whatever. The fact is, I’m NOT very concerned with niche protection, especially in D&D, for a few reasons.

A) Player Characters DIE: in Dungeons & Dragons, you never know when someone’s going to blow their poison save or get petrified by a cockatrice. And for that reason, it behooves most parties to “double-up” in a variety of areas. I always find it a touch ridiculous when I hear new players asking, “okay, what class are we short of?” because at any time misfortune can make your party short in a LOT of areas. This is why when Old School DMs design adventures…
B) Old School DMs Challenge PLAYERS Not Characters: for most obstacles, encounters, and dangers found on an adventure, there should be more than one way to “skin the cat.” IN MY OPINION (I know not everyone does this) it’s probably best NOT to worry about character classes when designing an adventure. What? Yeah, you heard me.

Now this is my personal philosophy, but there’s a bit o logic at work here that might be helpful to people so I’ll try to enumerate my reasoning:
  1. I want players to be able to play the characters they want. I don’t want anyone to think “Oh, I HAVE to play a cleric (or thief or whatever) because we NEED one.” To me, maximizing fun is giving players at least a little choice regarding their heroic avatar.
  2. PCs can die at any time…sometimes unluckily, sometimes stupidly, sometimes inexplicably. It’s no use designing an obstacle that can ONLY be navigated by the pre-gen magic-user with the knockspell scroll if he gets gutted by a hobgoblin early on. And I’m not about to water down the game fudging rolls. Hell, there’s no guarantee players are going to read your mind and know what they’re supposed to do anyway…see my earlier post on gamer telepathy (they don't read minds).
  3. Likewise, players can be FLAKEY. Who’s to say the normal “thief guy” is going to show up? In the LL game I’ve been playing the last few weeks, our only thief player has failed to appear something like three weeks out of five. Yeah, Dave, I’m talking about YOU.
  4. Players are, by and large, a CREATIVE bunch of people. If you give them a challenge, they’ll think of a number of ways to meet that challenge, and a good DM will let them try things. That’s more fun than hoping they remembered they wrote down the special potion or whatever needed for a particular encounter. Let them be creative; encourage that creativity.
[okay, back to the main discussion]

C) With Large Groups, Doubling-Up is INEVITABLE: In post-2000 play this may not be an issue (because of the huge variety of class-race-multi-classing options), and even with AD&D you might avoid too much of this, but certainly with B/X a 9 player group is going to have multiples of some classes. Which is fine because…
D) In Old School Play, Players Get Out What They Put In: Your character’s personality is determined by his (or her) behavior and the choices the character makes. You can choose many ways in which to distinguish your character from others without any additional game mechanics: maybe your wizard only wears a certain color, maybe your cleric’s deity requires a particular sacrifice or prayer at random times, maybe your warrior has a phobia of spiders and won’t fight them in melee (not a bad rationale to keep from being poisoned), maybe your thief refuses to carry a weapon larger than a dagger. There’s little to prevent you from developing a personality and personal history for your character (within the limits of a campaign setting), and you can feel free to add all that to your game play to enrich your own (and fellow gamers’) experience. Your fighter doesn’t HAVE to look like, nor act like, someone else’s fighter.

Okay, so those are some of the reasons I don’t care about niche protection. So then what the hell am I talking about when I say my design attention (when it comes to character class) is lasered in on “redundancy?”

I’m talking about how one plays the game itself.

It’s a subtle distinction (maybe too subtle), but I’ll try to explain it a bit. There are plenty of ways to “play” D&D. You can blaze ahead of the party (probably, eventually, perishing in a blaze of glory), or you can cower in the back ranks doing little but firing the occasional arrow and collecting your share of treasure. You can be a healer or a crusader; you can attempt to negotiate encounters with silver-tongued words (and a high Charisma/Reaction roll), or you can treat every monster as an enemy to be spit on your halberd. You can purchase mercenaries to do your fighting for you, or you can bury your gold in the ground for that heady day when you have enough to buy a fortress. Hell, you can stay invisible through an entire adventure, never attacking and thus never breaking the spell!

Certain character classes are better suited for different ROLES. I’ve talked about this before. However, while certain character classes are better suited for some roles than others, it’s possible (with a little effort and perhaps a magic item or two) to find a degree of over-lap. If my fighter is carrying a bandolier of healing potions, he is a de facto “healer.

But it’s in the method of accomplishing a role that I’m wary of redundancy. Here’s a pretty blatant example:

A party includes (among its other members) two characters that consider themselves “Master Thieves.” One is an actual thief, the other is a magic-user with a penchant for theft.

For the sake of discussion we’ll give them the same number of XP: 280,000. This means the thief is 10th level and able to use ALL thief abilities (including the ability to read magic scrolls). 280,000xp limits the magic-user to 8th level (another 20,000xp to reach Name level…just need one more Big Fat Score!). I don’t have my B/X books with me, but according to the LBBs (which I now carry everywhere), an 8th level magic-user has access to 11 spells: 4 of 1st level, 3 each of 2nd and 3rd level, and 2 of 4th level. That sounds about right.

Now we already have a good idea of the 10th level thief’s capabilities; the magic-user determines HER role based on spell selection (and we already said she styles herself a thief). We thus take the following spell selection:

1st – Read Languages, Read Magic, Shield, Sleep
2nd – Invisibility, Knock (x2)
3rd – Clairvoyance, Fly, Lightning Bolt
4th – Polymorph Self, Wizard Eye

Perhaps she has also prepared a spell scroll with one each additional spell of invisibility, knock, and fly.

You can see the magic-user is trampling all over the “niche protection” of the thief with spells like invisibility (stealth skills), fly (instead of climbing), knock (duh), and clairvoyance/wizard eye (for “scouting ahead”). Clever use of polymorph is also going to let the magic-user enter and/or escape places the thief can’t, and while the mage can’t pick pockets or backstab, an 8-dice lightning bolt is a pretty good sneak attack, and a well placed sleep spell can enable pocket picking and throat slitting. And should the magic-user end up in melee combat, shield will give her a better AC than leather armor would.

For me, it doesn’t matter one whit that the magic-user is horning in on the thief’s territory…I’d find that an interesting and valid (and useful) character choice for a wizard. Especially if the thief goes down in combat, at least someone will be able to find a way through thief-type obstacles. Nope, my only concern is redundancy and from that perspective, we do NOT have a problem with Stein and Gertrude, here…because both characters PLAY DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER.

Stein (the thief) has a devil-may-care attitude in his approach to adventuring. Why? Because all his abilities are right there at his finger tips. At any moment he can stop, drop to the ground, and “check for tripwires” and such. The only piece o equipment he needs to worry about preserving is his trusty lock picks as he won’t be able to replace them in the dungeon setting. Any weapon he picks up can be used in combat or for a backstab, and he can hide or sneak in an instant, presuming no opponent is already aware of his presence. If he comes to a barrier or pit, he barely breaks stride to scurry up or climb down with his climb walls check. The higher level a thief, the more brazen their actions become with increased survivability (hit points and saving throws) and much higher chances of succeeding in their skill checks.

Gertrude (the magic-user) never really becomes “devil-may-care” as the magic-user’s nature is one of consideration and careful choice/selection. How many knock spells will she need for her adventure? Probably not more than 1 or 2, but one can never be sure. How many times will she need to turn invisible? Only once, so long as she can keep from attacking or running afoul of an anti-magic zone. Her spells will always remain a precious resource…like an archer’s quiver of arrows. With the proper spell application, the magic-user is guaranteed success in her endeavors…but wasteful application or poor choice can lead to ruin and the only thing she’ll be able to rely on is her D4 hit points per level and dagger +1 for protection. And woe-betide the wizard who loses her spell book!

While both characters can fill the same role (or “niche” in the party), the part that differs is the APPROACH and APPLICATION in that role. As I said, MY philosophy is to allow players to choose characters they will enjoy playing, not one they feel they have to play. You don’t NEED a cleric to get past a half-dozen skeletons…a few strong swords might take a bit longer than the turning attempt, but afterward the creatures will be crushed splinters with no danger of returning to the area. Characters don’t NEED detect magic to find an enchanted item, as careful examination and experimentation will usually provide the necessary revelation.

Using a class in the strength of its niche can be EXPEDIENT, leading to a quicker, easier resolution. But in the end, the most important part of playing the game is the PLAY itself. If I’m not enjoying how my character plays, my long term prospects for satisfaction aren’t good. If I don’t enjoy being the support/buffing/medic guy then it won’t matter (to me) that the party is kicking ass and going up in levels. If I don’t want to be a 3rd level medic then I probably don’t want to be a 12th level one, either! Same holds true for the guy who gets the “designated thief/scout” role.

THIS is why my design interest is making sure there ain’t a lot of redundancy in class choice…I want each class to have its own style of play, to give players a better option of finding that character that suits their temperament. The Witch-Hunter (for example) doesn’t play like a cleric, nor like a paladin. It’s a sneak around, inquisitor-type that kicks ass when it comes to demons and undead and coven members (good, bad, and imagined). But the WH ain’t no healer, and isn’t a stick-up-his-ass lance-and-destrier guy, either. This is Solomon Kane or Van Helsing, using forbidden knowledge to destroy the Unholy.

[that’s just a quick example from my upcoming book The Complete B/X Adventurer]

For the most part, none of the B/X classes are redundant, which is one of the reasons I really like B/X. The dwarf and fighter come pretty darn close, unfortunately (you really have to account for the dwarven bonuses below ground to make them feel like anything different), but the others have very distinct styles…even though they might be adapted to fill the same role.

Okay…does that make more sense?