Thursday, February 28, 2013

Armored Spell-Casters

Previously, I wrote that a cleric’s ability to wear armor wasn’t “worth mentioning” by which I meant “isn’t pertinent to the subject at hand,” said subject being what the cleric brings to the game that isn’t there otherwise.

Red commented that the cleric’s ability to use spells and wear armor is a special ability…that what the cleric brings is a hybrid of the magic-user/fighter class for humans that isn’t already present (said hybrid being present with elves) and that prior to the thief class, clerics were the jack-of-all-trades class (for humans) in the game.

Okay, I guess it does bear discussing. Let’s discuss.

First off, I disagree that the cleric is a “hybrid” anything. Elves, with their ability to fight as fighters and magic as magic-users are the only hybrid in the game. Clerics are spellcasters (that discussion is in the next post…which has been put off because I need to write this, thanks a lot!), but they do NOT cast magic-user spells…they have their own suite of spells, different in nature and effect from wizards.

Personally, I dislike calling a thief a “jack-of-all-trades” but I guess it really is the closest thing prior to the bard class of AD&D. They have the full use of weapons, the ability to read magic scrolls, attack ability equivalent to a cleric (if none of the cleric’s other abilities) at the cost of wearing heavy armor. The latter, while probably a game balancing effect, at least has an in-game justification that a big noisy human can’t perform their thiefly skills while bedecked in clinking mail. I don’t see any reason to rule that a thief can't wear armor (when not performing their thief skills)…I mean, it’s not like it burns their skin or something to put it on.

[likewise, you can justify making any thief that wears armor fight as the equivalent of a 1st level fighter, regardless of actual level; his better attack rolls at high level are in part due to his “thiefly fighting style” and being constricted by armor hamstrings his ability to duck and weave and feint and throw sand and fight dirty, etc.]

But the baseline human in OD&D has the ability to wear armor. Any of the NPC men found in the monster section could be kitted out in full armor and suffer no worse for it (they’re not the equal of an adventurer in fighting ability anyway, but they are unhindered by a little plate and mail). A cleric’s ability to wear armor isn’t unusual…the magic-user’s lack of ability to wear armor IS.  The real question isn’t why the cleric can wear armor and cast spells; the real question is why CAN’T the magic-user? After all, the elf can wear armor and cast spells, the cleric can wear armor and cast spells, what’s the bug up the wizard’s ass that prevents him (or her) from doing the same?

Under the elves’ description (in LBB #1) it states they “may wear magic armor and still act as magic-users.” The implication here is that magic-users can wear armor (like any other human) but their magical ability dries up (at least for the duration of wearing armor). Why?

The short, pithy answer is, of course, “game balance.”

In CHAINMAIL originally, wizards were of variable ability but all fought the same: as two armored foot, or as two medium horse (when mounted). For recognition of scale, an “armored foot” is the equivalent of a dismounted knight on foot (presumably with all the armor, weapons, and know-how to use them). A medium horse is the equivalent of pre-plate armored cavalry (the examples cited as "medium horse" are mail-wearing equivalents, like “Norman knights” and “Saracens” while “heavy horse” are simply “knights”). That wizards fight as two men gives them double the effectiveness…quite a bit more effectiveness than a single fighter, in other words.

Now whether this advantage is due to the actual wearing of armor or some magic that protects the wizard and strengthens his sword arm is not said (Chainmail is an abstract war game, not an individual-scale skirmish game), but either interpretation could be valid with the same end effectiveness. Certainly nothing indicates the wizard in Chainmail does NOT wear armor. In the list of spells presented for wizards none of them are of a “shield” or “armor” variety (the spell “protection from evil” IS present and simply keeps all “evil” opponents outside of a 12” diameter circle). If the wizard’s “armored” value is based on magic, then it is inherent magic that does not need to be cast to be effective.

So really, the only reason I can see for taking away a magic-user’s ability to wear armor (at least presuming OD&D is based on the standards of the Chainmail war game…and there is ample evidence that this appears to be the case) is one of “game balance.” If all magic-users can wear armor AND cast spells, it provides too much of a “leg up” over all the other character classes…despite the fact that elves are already doing this. The only reason not to play an elf is the level restrictions on the character for being a non-human…but to exceed an elf in magical prowess means achieving 9th level (“sorcerer”) with 100,000XP…a long, hard road indeed!

[especially considering the elf maxes out at both fighter (4th) and magic-user (8th) with a paltry 83,000XP]

Now an elfish warlock never achieves the ability to cast 5th and 6th level spells, so certainly missed out on some crucial ones (like teleport, animate dead, disintegrate, and weather control)…but everyone misses out on these high level spells unless your campaign lasts up into the 9th and higher levels of experience.  It took roughly four solid months of weekly gaming, with a LOT of treasure to get guys up to the 3rd to 5th level range in B/X (about 8000-9000XP apiece), and even if I kept the same rate (scaling treasure) it would take close to a solid year of gaming to hit 9th level…maybe longer. My recent experience (the last couple-three years) indicates gaming groups get bored a lot faster than that.

But whatever…that’s really straying from the point which is that there is no in-game justification for magic-users to not wear armor. It’s a stylistic (or silly) game balance choice. I mean, at low levels, wizards could simply don their plate armor after their spells had been exhausted, right? Even if it wrecked their “fighting ability” to do so (it’s a lot poorer in OD&D than Chainmail anyway), at least armor could give them the breathing room they need to make it out of the dungeon alive.

Now, why am I wasting all this time discussing the magic-user (and elves) when this post is supposed to be about clerics? Because a comparison was drawn between clerics and magic-users stating that clerics had the ability to be human AND cast spells while wearing armor (bonus!) while both elves and magic-users miss out on some part of this (magic-users lose the armor, elves lose the “human-ness”). As a "hybrid," clerics gain the ability to attack with both magic AND weapons, and are not limited in level like elves.

Okay, they’re not limited in level.

However, the cleric’s spells are NOT attack or combat oriented. For the most part (and I’ll write about this more in the next post), all the cleric’s spells are of the curing, detection, or protection variety. The clerics spells are designed to AID the party members (whether this be with a light spell, locate object, or raising the dead)…whereas the magic-user spell list provides more variety of both type and effect, including a lot of offensive spells along with the miscellaneous/helper offerings.

This, to me, doesn’t suggest a hybrid. If the character is still dealing damage with one’s weapons then there’s nothing “hybrid” about it: armor is necessary to get “stuck in” and fight. Magic-users don’t get stuck in, and they don’t need to due to the types of spells they know.

Does this make sense? Maybe I’m not being clear here. Let’s try this:

It’s not a class feature to wear armor (combat/defensive mechanic) and cast spells (aid/utility mechanic) when the two features are used at different times under different circumstance.

OD&D clerics aren’t casting flame strike and spiritual hammer, and blade barrier while simultaneously soaking up damage with their +3 plate mail. They are fighting like a fighter (armor and weapon), and then casting spells after the fight for other reasons (like healing buddies or detecting traps). There’s no double use one’s getting out of the two attributes of the cleric class. It’s one or the other.

On the other hand, contrast that with the elf. The elf does wade into battle with sword and armor…and then can switch to spell use (Fireball! Lightning bolt!) before switching back to sword and board. Afterwards, the elf might use detect magic or remove curse or wizard eye or whatever, but it’s in the midst of battle that you see the true "hybrid character."

No such hybrid is viewed with the cleric. The magic-user, too, can put on armor (after her spells are exhausted)…so what?  I don’t consider it a class feature that the cleric spends less time changing in and out of their clothes.

Hopefully that all makes sense. Now, let’s talk about the cleric spells, since those ARE something “new” being brought to the table by the class.

Clerics: Turning Undead

I don’t remember how old I was when I was first exposed to Dracula and/or vampires. I’m sure that the two were synonymous in my mind for a good long time in my youth, but I don’t remember when I got the concept. Certainly by age 5-6 I had a good knowledge of the monster, because by kindergarten my knowledge of Halloween was pretty solid, and I’m almost positive that my initial knowledge of the undead came in the form of a Halloween costume.

In fact, now that I consider it, I know my mother made “vampire capes” for my brother and I pretty early on (a semi-triangle of black cloth with a purplish, satiny lining sewed in. I believe my brother’s was the same but with pink lining instead of purple). And I know we had those fake plastic fangs that you wore over your own teeth and that didn’t allow you to talk right…and that my hair back then would just not do the Bella Lugosi “widow’s peak” no matter how hard I tried (always ended up being a blonde, bowl cut-looking vampire).

But those capes might have been a little older…like 1st grade (age 6-7). Certainly there were a couple years in there where my little brother and I liked to dress up in the Halloween costumes on days other than Halloween and play pretend.

[*sigh* Good times. Need to work on getting Diego a little brother one of these days]

So, anyway, my vampire “lore” certainly wasn’t very refined back then. In fact, I’d says it was pretty much limited to three things:

Vampires turned into bats. They sucked your blood. And they were held at bay by crosses.

I’m not even sure I knew about them being killed by stakes and sunlight or needing to sleep in coffins. Television shows like The Munsters, Scooby-Doo, and The Drak Pack were probably as much responsible for my knowledge as anything else…and vampires in kids’ television tend to go a little light on the darker aspects of the undead (for example, they usually aren’t getting killed).

So the idea that a cleric with a holy symbol can “turn undead” was never a very foreign concept to me…though I honestly don’t remember my 8-year old brain’s recollection of what I thought about turning skeletons and zombies and wights as outlined in the Basic set. Probably not much judging by the fact no one ever played a cleric until we picked up the Expert set, when we only had the “B” in B/X, players were either fighters or thieves or elves or halflings. There may have been a dwarf, too, but I really don’t remember ANY magic-users or clerics.

And why would there be? A 1st level cleric in B/X (because we were playing B/X when we first started and all new characters were dutifully created at 1st level) has very little to recommend it. Fighters have more hit points and do more damage. Elves and magic-users at least get some sort of spell power. The only thing a 1st level cleric has over other classes is it’s ability to “turn” undead…and then, only skeletons, zombies, and ghouls.

And any DM throwing zombies and ghouls against 1st level characters is engaging in genocide and mass TPKs.

All of these undead were actually pretty foreign to my brain. I’d seen a couple of Harryhausen’s Sindbad films and Clash of the Titans, but not Jason and the Argonauts, so I didn’t really have an idea what a fight with animated skeletons was all about. B2: The Keep on the Borderlands (included with the Basic box set) has one cave complex filled with undead (mostly skeletons and zombies) but it is the highest, most difficult set of caverns to reach, and a killer for most 1st level parties that even bother to try (as undead don’t negotiates and never break morale there’s no way to deal with the scores of monsters except by combat…an extremely risky proposition for those first couple levels of experience). I can’t remember anyone trying back in my “B-Only” days.

Likewise, even when I moved into “X” (and it was shortly thereafter that I received my first Monster Manual, too) I wasn’t including wights and wraiths and mummies. For a young child (and I was under the age of 10, which I consider to be young)…your eye is drawn first and foremost to monsters that are illustrated (which begin percolating ideas), and afterward to monsters that you are intimately familiar with…like the Cyclops and Minotaur and Vampire. As I didn’t read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings till high school, might only exposure to a wraith was in the animated Return of the King film (which I first viewed circa age 11 or 12)…and I really had no idea what I was watching. I even created a “unique” monster based on the Lich-King seen in the film for use in an adventure…but only because I didn’t understand the creature was already present in the books.

But as I said, even without any real fantasy literature under my belt, I still knew what a vampire was, and I knew that they were driven back by crosses. I’d imagine that it was sometime AFTER I received my Expert set (with clerical turnings that included Vampires and Mummies) that the whole “cleric turning” thing started gelling in my mind. Cleric presents cross (“holy symbol”) and vampire recoils…if the cleric’s faith is strong enough…makes perfect (movie) sense. But why did it only work for clerics?

Originally, it worked for everyone.

The write-up for the vampire monster in OD&D (Book 2) is the most extensive of any monster presented. Towards the end of the passage, it states the following:
Vampires cannot abide the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of a cross. They will fall back from these if strongly presented.
Note this is not related to turning…the other undead (all turnable in OD&D) make no such mention. Now, in typical clear-as-mud OD&D fashion, there’s no system given for how to judge whether or not the item is “strongly” presented, but at least it’s there: a cross will keep a vampire at bay.

Which leads me to infer that the turning effect is very different in OD&D compared to the fashion in which it’s presented in later editions. And what do ya’ know? It is. There is only a “cleric versus undead monsters” table (located beneath the cleric spells table), not a “turning table.” Here’s the ONLY text regarding the table:
Also, note the Cleric versus Undead Monsters table, indicating the strong effect of the various clerical levels upon the undead; however, evil clerics do not have this effect, the entire effect being lost.
[note again the problematic issue of “evil” in the text when there is no “evil” alignment in OD&D, only “Law” and “Chaos.” It seems apparent that this is with regard to Chaotic “anti-clerics” mentioned in the text (seeing as how most of them have the term “Evil” added to their title (with the notable exception of the “shaman”)]

There are a couple really important pieces to this. One is that the table represents an “effect” that the cleric has on undead monsters. This is not an action that is taken by the cleric…no holy symbol is being presented, for example. This is just the effect the (good) cleric’s (holy) presence has on the undead.

Presumably, anyone can present a cross against a vampire (there are two available for purchase in the equipment list: a wood one for 2gp, and a silver one for 25gp). “Strongly presented” might mean the character can take no other action (no attacks or spell-casting for example) instead focusing on the “presentation” while chanting The Lord’s Prayer or some Latin benediction.

But the cleric just “shows up” and there’s a chance the undead run away…it’s the character’s very presence that sets ‘em running (or dissolves/destroys them). It’s like a Papal aura (in the sense of “the Pope” – can you believe the current one is resigning by the way? In the middle of Lent! Watched his helicopter leaving the Vatican this morning)…a holy “something-somethin” that just causes the abominations to head for the hills. Presumably, it doesn’t do anything to prevent the cleric making normal attacks or casting spells. Heck, the priest wading into battle, mace in hand may be even more frightening…though I really like the image of the aged vicar that hobbles into the room, leaning on his cane, and watches passively as undead monsters explode around him.

That’s a pretty cool effect.

It also gets rid of all that later complicated discussion about how many times it can be used, or “turning attempts,” or what order of the round it takes place in, or how many times can it be attempted against the same monster, or whatever. The DM simply checks to see if this particular monster is affected by this particular cleric when encountered. No extra effort needs to be taken by the cleric…the “effect” is always “on.”

SO, in regard to our original topic of conversation, this turning as originally presented is a neat class effect…call it the effect of any “saintly type.” If you want a classification of adventurer called “holy person” or “saint,” this is a happy little effect. Of course, it’s also alignment-specific…that’s the second piece of the effect’s description that is important. It is only an effect of non-evil clerics (which, again, we can infer means non-anti-clerics, i.e. non-Chaotic clerics). There is no opposite effect for anti-clerics; no worship or control of undead that automatically occurs when the anti-cleric shows up. Instead, the trade-off appears to be anti-clerics’ use of reverse spells (like finger of death).

Which, interestingly enough, is pretty much exactly how I was running clerics in 5AK, with the added restriction that only monotheists (of Lawful or Neutral alignment) could engage in turning, and polytheistic clerics (even those of non-Chaotic alignment) could use reverse spells at will.

But I’m not talking about spells yet.

While it’s a “neat effect,” what exactly is the impact of the cleric’s turning “aura?” What does it give the adventurers? Is it necessary/appropriate to include a “saintly” class of character that has this impact on undead?

The undead subject to the clerical turning effect include the following: skeletons, zombies, ghouls, wights, wraiths, mummies, specters, and vampires. The “greater” undead require silver or magic weapons to hit them, but these shouldn’t be too hard for the average PC party to come by after a couple-three levels, so all of the monsters are “killable” without a cleric.

What the undead do have that appears to make the saintly cleric necessary is a number of special powers for which there is no saving throw. Ghouls paralyze party members “as per wights in Chainmail” (this means party members are paralyzed for ONE TURN…either 10 minutes or 1 day depending on the scale of “turn” being used). Unlike later editions, there is no save for this effect in OD&D. A mummy inflicts disease on characters (no save) that can only be mitigated by a cleric’s cure disease spell, not cured. Wights, wraiths, specters, and vampires all do level drain (no save) of either 1 or 2 levels.

None of these special attacks have any recourse in the game besides “have a better Armor Class.” Even ghoul paralysis has no “cure” in OD&D (later editions state cure light wounds will remove the effect). There is no restoration spell in OD&D to deal with level drain, and as stated a cleric’s cure disease only changes the effect of “mummy rot” from healing taking 10 times as long to healing taking twice as long. As such, the best defense against these creatures is the presence of a high level cleric to turn them away or dissolve/destroy them. Without the cleric’s turning ability, these undead will eventually hit in combat (especially unarmored magic-users) and inflict their ills, all of which are extremely potent. In this regard, the cleric’s “aura of turning” is extremely useful against some of the deadliest monsters in the game.

Now what if the game doesn’t have level drain? What if paralysis carries a saving throw the same as a giant spider’s poison attack?

My game doesn’t have level drain. Not because I have anything against it particularly, but because I can’t really justify the ability. When did a vampire’s touch (in fiction) ever cause someone to forget their past experiences and training? And if I don’t have these kind of “no save” attacks, is it necessary to have a character class that prevents the attacks from happening (via “turning”)?

Knowing the origin of the cleric class, it makes me wonder whether these undead effects came first, or if they were added to give the cleric’s ability more “oomph.” After all, zombies and ghouls and wights and wraiths are all present in Chainmail and none of them have any type of “draining” attacks. Instead, they all simply paralyze an opponent: ghouls and wights for one turn; wraiths (as a Nazgul/specter) until such time as the character is touched by an “elf, wizard, or hero-type.” Also interesting to note that the paralysis doesn’t affect elves, wizards, or hero-types (or any of the creatures listed in the “fantasy supplement” section, including dwarves, etc.)…only “men.” It leads one to believe it’s a kind of “paralysis of fear” effect, that stronger willed types aren’t affected at all against the types of individuals that make up the player characters. A direct translation would be:

-        Paralysis affects only (non-PC) mercenaries and normal humans, AND
-        Fighting-men (fighters) under 4th level (“Hero” status)

[in fact, based on a literal interpretation of the OD&D line “as a wight in Chainmail,” the paralysis of a ghoul might be ineffective against any PC other than fighters of level 1st – 3rd]

If your undead don’t have “no save” attacks, or ones that aren’t this potent, then the addition of a “cleric class” may be rather superfluous. Likewise, axing the cleric and then including such dangerous monsters might make your game overly dangerous/difficult unless such monsters are few and far between.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Clerics: What You Get

So let’s start this off with a good hard look at why you need a cleric in your game. Actually, “why” is not really the right question…I mean, you don’t need any particular class really (you could have a classless RPG and just pick a number of “add-ons” or “skills” for your character, right?). What I mean is, let’s discuss what it is that the cleric provides to the game.

Now, there’re a couple things we need to throw out, right off the bat. First off, we need to throw any thought that the cleric gives us “variety.” Sure, of course it does. All classes provide variety or options, and if your sole priority is having more options you end up adding a gazillion new classes and races to the game (see D&D post 1999, or even 2nd edition AD&D “kits”). If that's your main reason for keeping the cleric in your game, then you might as well stop reading now ‘cause there’s no reasoning with you.

After we throw that out as a reason for keeping the cleric, we need to also throw out any reason for keeping it based on self-perpetuating expectations. This is any line of reasoning that runs “well, the cleric class has always been in the game” or “even World of Warcraft has a priest class.” Just F that noise, okay? This is deconstruction, and we’re looking at REAL CONCRETE PLAYABLE ASPECTS OF THE CLASS. If we decide we can live without the cleric (which we might), that might lead us to creating different expectations down the road. Certainly there are a lot of expectations that have been attached to fantasy RPGs over the years that (IMO) need to be reexamined anyway…like the stupidity that WotC holds up as the “foundation” of D&D.

No, what I want to look at is what does the inclusion of the cleric class give you that its exclusion would cost you? Variety? No: you can always add more classes (maybe a beastmaster!). Expectation? No: we’re doing this in part to change expectation. I’m looking at the direct impact the character class has in-game; how does the cleric’s inclusion (or lack thereof) affect game play?

And since I want to make this a POSITIVE exercise, I’m going to try to look only at POSITIVE EFFECTS. For example, some might say “including the cleric makes the game cheesy,” or “forces at least one player to take up a support role as the party medic,” or “wrecks any chance of a gritty sword & sorcery feel to your game.” These phrases are not positive and thus not helpful. When I say I want to look at what the cleric gives you by its inclusion, I mean the positive, “thanks we needed that in the game” things.

Okay…everyone groks the ground rules? Let’s start.

For my purposes, it’s not all that helpful to look at the later iterations of the cleric class…that is, it’s not useful to look at the class as it’s changed over the years (whether you’re talking D20 or 2nd Edition or even B/X). Why not? Because by the time those later iterations of the cleric came about the cat was “already out of the bag,” so to speak. The cleric was in the game from the get go, and as a major player (one of the original three classes) so any changes/variations in class abilities or spells or whatnot can be viewed simply as “tweaks” to bring the class more firmly in-line with the present edition of D&D and/or balancing certain aspects of an already existing class based on feedback from actual play/players.

*whew* That last bit was a mouthful. What it means is that I’m only looking at OD&D, where this whole cleric mess started.

Now the origin of the cleric class as a playable PC type is fairly well-documented (or well enough for my purposes): in the primordial soup days (before OD&D was actually published), the wargamers who were playing this “thing” were sometimes placed in adversarial roles to each other. This isn’t all that strange to me (as I saw a lot of adversarial relationships between PCs back in my early AD&D days), but for youngsters raised on the “let’s all cooperate together” versions of D&D (basically, any version from Mentzer to the present) this may seem pretty alien. Nowadays, the most you hear/see is some light ribbing at the table and the occasional paralyzed PC being teabagged by a companion…but it was different in my youth when high level play often meant pitting (PC) political powers against each other, or when rivals clashed (over love and/or loot) and vendettas were enacted against each other.

ANYWAY…back in the primordial ooze days, one PC managed to get turned into a vampire (I assume in the usual fashion, but perhaps he’d been allowed to start play as one), and used his brains along with his vampiric powers to excellent effect against the other PCs of the campaign. Sir Fang was, apparently, a nightmare in the hands of this particular PC, and as a method of “balancing” his impact on the campaign, a Van Helsing-style holy man was introduced as another PC’s character. This “anti-vampire” character was the basis for the cleric class…at least once it was mashed with a couple historic figures and given some typical holy powers similar to what one finds in the Bible (especially the New Testament). The cleric as a class was included in Book 1 of the LBBs, and has been with us ever since.

Of course, by the time of OD&D we actually have something that looks like TWO classes: a “cleric” and an “evil priest” (which becomes an “Evil High Priest” or EHP and appears to have been a major villain type in OD&D). We’ll be talking about the EHP, too, since including “good” clerics mean including their reverse as well.

So what are the attributes of a cleric in OD&D?

1.     Their prime requisite is Wisdom.
2.     They have HPs and attack ability nearly equivalent to a fighting man of the same level (and thus a little better ability in this regard than the magic-user).
3.     They have the ability to wear all armor and use shields.
4.     They are restricted in their use of edged weapons, and specifically precluded from magic swords and arrows, the purview of the fighter (and generally more important with regard to Chainmail).
5.     They have the ability to turn undead which, in OD&D, includes the following monsters: skeletons, zombies, ghouls, wights, wraiths, mummies, specters, and vampires.
6.     Beginning at 2nd level they have the ability to cast spells, using a substantially different list than the magic-user (i.e. most spells are new, and many of them modeled on Biblical accounts of prophets, saints, Apostles, Moses, and Jesus). EHPs have the ability to reverse certain spells to cause evil effect (it is stated that Lawful clerics will do so only in direst need).
7.     A high level cleric receives divine aid (“extra funds”) when building a stronghold and attracts legions of “faithful” followers assuming they’ve been “true” to their faith.
8.     They have some alignment restrictions, being forced to choose between Law and Chaos…i.e. “good” and “evil”…in order to advance beyond a certain level.
9.     They are restricted to the human race (no elves, dwarves, or hobbits).

And that’s it…nothing else distinguishes the cleric from either of the other adventurer classifications presented in Original Dungeons & Dragons.

So of those nine attributes, which ones are pertinent to the discussion at hand?

#1 No. In OD&D the three prime requisites (STR, INT, and WIS for fighters, magic-users, and clerics respectively) have NO MECHANICAL IN-GAME EFFECT, save that they describe how good a class is at its “profession” (a high prime req gives a character a bonus to earned XP, thus facilitating rapid rise in level, while a low prime req carries a penalty to the same). Without the inclusion of the cleric class in OD&D, you might as well remove wisdom as an ability score. It serves a mechanical purpose solely for the cleric class; it can be surmised that it was only added as an ability score because of the inclusion of the cleric as a class. It adds nothing, so is not pertinent.

#2 Not particularly. In a way the cleric sets a “baseline” for PC combat ability (HPs and attack chance) with fighters being “a little better” and magic-users being “a little worse.” Without the cleric class, one of these other classes serve as the baseline with the other being exemplary (if the MU is baseline) or hopeless/pathetic (if the fighter is baseline).

#3 No. There’s nothing special about the ability to wear armor. The fact that magic-users cannot is notable…it indicates a restriction of some sort based on their magic. In another game, if being unable to wear armor was “the norm” than the cleric (like the fighter) would have an “exceptional ability.” However, such does not appear to be the case here (there are no armor restrictions for other humans in the monster section)…the magic-user class with its LACK of armor is exceptional (i.e. exceptionally bad). This isn’t worth mentioning.

#4 No. Similar to the magic-user’s lack of armor, the restriction on weapons is a lacking on the cleric’s part as other humans are not so penalized. This is a restriction; one purported to be based on a historic figure (a crusading priest who did not use blades as he did not want to “spill blood”), but is more likely included in aid of “game balance” (allowing fighters a certain niche protection when it comes to magic weapons). This is more important with the use of the Chainmail combat system as magic swords and magic arrows have specific rules. Likewise the inclusion of other magic weapons AND an alternative combat system in OD&D renders this a useless restriction for the most part…a magic mace or hammer (both useable by the cleric) has the same attack ability as a magic sword and does BETTER damage (in OD&D, magic swords do not add their “+” to damage and they top out at +3 just like the cleric weapons; ALSO, in OD&D there is no variable damage by weapon type…all weapons do D6 damage). Since this is a RESTRICTION, probably done in the name of game balance, it does not add anything to the game. It thus doesn’t bear as part of the discussion.

#5 Yes. We will discuss turning undead below.

#6 Yes. We will discuss the cleric’s unique spell list below.

#7 Yes, this should be included in the conversation, though its value is dubious. Clerics require less XP to advance in level, and thus achieve a higher level with a lesser acquisition of gold than the fighting-man. Having a rule that allows them to increase their funds for strongholds allow them to build castles at an equivalent level, even with a lesser treasury. By the same token, the cleric’s attraction of loyal followers cuts down the costs associated with hiring mercenaries to stock said stronghold. It may be hypothesized that some of this rule was included to give a newly created character class (in the primordial days) a “leg up” when it came to catching up to the baronies of longstanding, existing PCs of the campaign: the newly minted Van Helsing character getting a boost when it came to building a stronghold in opposition to that of Lord Fang’s evil barony. However, what it also adds (which I find more compelling) is a ROLE-PLAYING REQUIREMENT not found in either of the other basic classes. The player must pay attention to the tenets of his faith/alignment in order to receive these benefits. This is a marked departure compared to the other classes (who have no such strictures) and encourages role-playing “in character” for the cleric PC. That being said, I’d prefer to have some sort of “role-playing reward” system in place for ALL character types, not just the cleric(!) and it’s difficult to pin this as a “pro” of including the character in the game. It only affects/impacts the cleric PC (and only if he’s pursuing endgame action) only indirectly impacting game play for other (non-cleric) PCs.

#8 A very hesitant yes. As with #7, this actually encourages role-playing and sets up potential drama and conflict in the game. However, it impacts other players at the table even less directly than #7, especially in light of the lack of mechanical consequences/effects of alignment. If I say, “all clerics must have blue hair” or some other cosmetic difference, it DOES distinguish the PC from other classes, but it really doesn’t add anything, nor impact game play.

#9 No. As a restriction (and another one tied mainly to a stylistic choice), this attribute adds nothing to game with the cleric’s inclusion.

So there. As suspected there are only really TWO things the cleric class really brings to the table that have a real impact on game play, both for themselves and for others. Those things are:

-        The ability to turn undead.
-        A unique spell list with a divine theme.

We’ll talk about these in the next post.

[to be continued]

Looking at Film

Last night, I spent my evening (after putting Diego to bed) watching the old 1982 film Beastmaster. This was not for fun or entertainment (though I’ve viewed it many times in the past for just that reason), but with a critical eye towards the film as a model of cinematic “swords & sorcery” or “D&Dish fantasy.” Afterwards, I spent the remainder of my evening reading through the novelization of The Sword & The Sorcerer, the other main fantasy opus of 1982.

[no, I spent no time watching Schwarzenegger’s epic first Conan film…I’ve owned that one for years and have pretty much memorized it in its entirety]

Now, I’m the first to admit these are no great cinematic masterpieces in the traditional, Oscar-worthy sense of the term. But I’m not looking at them for inspiration in creating my own film. Instead, I’m looking at them in light of how they relate (cinematically) to a genre that I’d like to adapt, at least in part, to a fantasy adventure game. Or rather (since the game is mostly written at this point anyway…here I’m talking about 5AK) I’m looking at how to refine my setting.

And considering whether to junk it altogether and start from scratch.

The thing about these fantasy “epics” is they have free reign to include fantastic monsters and fabulous treasures and supernatural magic and violent adventure and steamy romance all under a single, semi-coherent whole. They also have an advantage over “historic-ish” fantasy fiction in that, being non-historical, they don’t have to pay any attention to real history. Which, of course, is useful when building an RPG setting, since it gives both DM and players full freedom to move and shake the world however they wish without guilt or complaint from armchair historians in the group.

Having such freedom contributes to stress-free fun.
; )

[interestingly, I was surprised to find that The Sword & The Sorcerer IS set in our “real world,” somewhat. The novelization makes reference to Egypt and Rome and Persia and Zimbabwe being contemporary cultures, and the main bad guy is the King of Aragon (a medieval Spanish kingdom), even though the main city/kingdom of Ehdan has no apparent counterpart in our real world]

Anyway, mainly what I was looking for was HOW each of these films dealt with the subject of religion, priests, and the cleric class…because right at the moment I’m having a really damn hard time justifying its inclusion in my game.

I have blogged about and dissected the cleric class in many, many posts over the years. I’ve discussed how to justify it in terms of Old School adventuring; I’ve talked about how it doesn’t have to be the “team medic;” I’ve discussed the character in relationship to the paladin class (and how the latter is fairly redundant with the inclusion of the cleric, save for the cleric’s weapon restrictions); I’ve discussed how the cleric as a concept renders moot the whole idea of “character death” being a substantial penalty; I’ve written what I feel is the difference between clerics and “temple priests;” I’ve written about my own experiences with the class, both as a player and as a DM…just a lot of different clerical posts can be found on this blog.

What I don’t think I’ve written about is DROPPING the class altogether.

A few years back I was inspired to write my own fantasy RPG, using Tolkien as a model. This game did not include clerics (there aren’t any clerics in Tolkien, unless you count Aragorn). It also, really didn’t make it out of the game (my main aim was to incorporate a clever mechanic I’d devised into an RPG, but a single clever mechanic does not an RPG make). Call this game “L.”

A couple years ago I again started working on something very much like my own version of B/X D&D (this was even before I started tossing around the concept of “D&D Mine” though it was a fantasy heartbreaker in all the usual regards). The magic system actually had a little similarity to that “clever mechanic” mentioned earlier, but otherwise it was a lot of keeping B/X as B/X, save that it shaved the total number of classes down to three: fighter, magic-user, and “adventurer.” While it lacked an actual clerical class, it provided rules for playing a “holy man/woman” that would be added onto the normal character class, giving you a few benefits (turning the undead, healing wounds and illness by “laying on hands”) in exchange for certain vows and alignment restrictions. Aside from the obvious differences, this game was actually largely inspired by the Good Parts found in DCC, but reflected and modified some of my frustrations found within the DCC system. It still wasn’t great and I decided to junk it. That game was called “FFA.”

Then, of course, WotC announced their D&D Next project (5E) which I thought was pretty stupid and insipid and caused me to do a little introspection into what I felt was the “real core” of D&D. This line of reflection led me to the conclusion that we all just need to write our own D&D…what I call the D&D Mine concept…and stop worrying about editions altogether. I set out to do just that, culling from OD&D and Chainmail and Holmes as much (if not more so) than B/X. My game, which I was calling BSS (Blood, Sand, and Silk) had all four basic classes of B/X including the cleric. It also, in this iteration, threw out a single “subclass” for each (the monk, paladin, illusionist, and assassin), each of which was heavily based on the OD&D supplements with regard to scope and requirements.

[for that matter BSS also included rules for dwarves, elves, and halflings in an appendix, noting that including these particular classes would give the game a “high fantasy” feel other than what had been intended by the author. This was me throwing a bone to people who like to include demihumans]

And then we came to 5AK, which isn’t all that different from BSS, except that it has discarded the “alternative combat system” first found in OD&D (and subsequently copied through AD&D and Holmes and B/X and BECMI) and moved back to a Chainmail-like system. In the process, everything about the game was updated to a D6-based system, and the magic system was reworked and the classes simplified (especially the subclasses) and additional subclasses added. Oh, yeah…and all of the setting material and additional rules stuff was piped in to the mix.

Yeah, actually the latest iteration is quite a bit different from the prior version.

So. clerics…first let me examine these films with regard to clerics.

The Sword and the Sorcerer: despite being (kind of) set in a “real world” setting, there seems to be no recognizable divinities present. The mention of Rome and Egypt as separate entities makes me think the time of the setting is pre-Christian (which would also mean pre-Islam since Islam didn’t arrive on the scene till six centuries after Christianity). The sorcerer himself is pretty demonic in appearance (and is treated as a sort of demon or minor divinity…at least by the witch that raises him) but the whole thing is kind of sketchy. It IS a movie after all: a vehicle to provide certain thrills and chills in an effort to make money. It’s not necessarily a thoughtful, well-constructed setting for use of a “world.”

Conan the Barbarian (also issued in 1982…do you think any of these were produced to capitalize on the marked popularity of a certain role-playing game?) is set in Howard’s Hyboria sometime after the Fall of Atlantis (circa 10,000 BCE for the first destruction based on the Cayce timeline; a bit more recent if you use Solon’s account) but before the advent of the Aryan race (which, if simply meaning “Old Iranian” would indicate 6th century BCE). That’s a long span of range, and Howard’s world is generally considered to be pre-recorded history. Recorded history is figured to have begun around 4,000 BCE (with the invention of writing allowing history to be “recorded”). In the Conan film we have a villain who purports to be a “demigod” walking the earth…though he may, alternatively, be simply a sorcerer and/or supernatural creature. HE has priests and worshippers, but none exhibit supernatural powers…they simply enforce the tenets of his particular “faith.” The time-setting of Hyboria also puts it long before the advent of any type of monotheism. In other words, no “clerics” in the D&D sense, despite the presence of necromancy.

Beastmaster certainly has the most “ancient” look to the setting. The largest city is a simple (by medieval standards) walled village whose centerpiece is a step-pyramid temple. There are (small) pastoral villages and marauding hordes and that’s it…no real organized civilization to speak of. Fewer population and people are closer knit (a lot of folks are related to each other and everything has a “small town” feel to it), plus names like Imur and Ard are suggestive of Enoch and Ur for “ancient city names.” Technology is slim: there’s agriculture and animal husbandry (including domesticated riding horses) but no metal armor or shields that I recall. They do have steel blades…. nice ones!...but again, it’s not really helpful to try attributing any type of rhyme or reason to the “world design” of a cinematic piece like Beastmaster.

In Beastmaster, the priests really ARE “priests” in the Old Religion sense of the term: with preaching and conversion and sacrifices to an unknown, unseen divinity…likewise, the lives of the people are fairly ruled by religion and there is the classic (and historic) struggle between rival powers of Church and State (the king and high priest don’t get along, causing the drama that drives the plot). As far as supernatural powers go, though, the priests really have none…at least nothing that is divinely channeled. The high priest’s harnessed the aid of witches who work sorcery for him, and he’s instilled fanaticism in his followers, and he’s got some alchemical secrets under his belt…but that’s it. Beastmaster feels a lot like OD&D…if OD&D was played only with fighting men in a semi-neolithic society. Even the priests (of which there are many) are all “fighting men;” they carry swords and crossbows and the heroes worry being outnumbered and killed or captured. The religion means having a willingness to die for the cause and following the instructions of the divine power (as interpreted, sometimes haphazardly, through the mouthpiece which is the high priest).

No “clerics” here either.

If I look back at my Howard or my Moorcock, the only priest-types one finds are sorcerers or illusionists or charlatans or political figures that generally worship demonic (and/or uncaring) entities and rule through intimidation and fear, if not outright lies. On the other hand, even fast-forwarding to more medieval, “non-ancient” fiction doesn’t find anything of a “clerical” example. Arthurian legend has a background Catholicism to it (in some legends) and nature-worshipping Druidism (in others)…but Merlin an Morganna, even in the fiction that considers them “pagan priests,” are more akin to magic-users in their spells and abilities. Healing through herb lore is NOT the same thing as “channeling the power of God” to heal wounds.

Anyone here remember the priest in Dragonslayer? That’s the closest thing I’ve found to an adventuring cleric in cinematic fiction (at least cinematic fiction not derived from D&D)…and we all saw what happened to him. Bacon.

Personally, despite the fact that I’m enjoying playing a cleric in my on-line game (mainly because I don’t play him like a cleric…at the moment he’s in a bare-knuckle boxing match), I’m thinking I need to axe the archetype as a class. Yes, D&D…in ALL its post-Chainmail incarnations…has always had clerics. I understand WHY, too…but I’m thinking of doing away with the whole concept.

And since this post is getting kind of long, I’ll talk about my thought process for “how to do it” in a separate write-up. Cheers.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Ripping Off Ali Baba (Part 2)

[continued from here. Just BTW, this is NOT what I want to write about at the moment, but I definitely want to get this play-test report out-o-the-way so it’s not bugging on my mind; on the other hand, this would have been posted a lot sooner if I hadn't spent the last couple hours watching Beastmaster]

Okay, so the last thing I wrote was that invisible sorcerer, Hakim, ended up in the “throne room” cavern of the “bandit king,” while Rhiann the thief went chasing down a lone messenger-bandit. We’ll deal with the latter first.

Comparing movement rates, Rhiann was able to catch-up to the lone messenger and bushwhack him (that’s the technical, game term) from behind, clubbing him unconscious with an unlit torch. Deciding that Allah (or, rather, “Halah”) would not want her to slit the throat of an unconscious man…even a brigand…she opted instead for tying him up with his own turban and dragging him over to the side of the road. She then decided to pad off back after the other brigands (curiosity getting the better of her) to see what they were up to with the bodies. And perhaps to find her cousin.

Said cousin was poking around the huge cavern, trying not to bump into anyone and checking out exits. The bandit king meanwhile was ordering his men to go back and look for the wretch that had stoned his people to death…not knowing that she was already on her way, right to his very lair.

Needless to say she was captured.

It’s been a few days now (and I was pretty hammered at the time) so I don’t remember exactly how it happened…she may have been surprised by the brigands coming back down the tunnel, or else she was discovered when trying to make a stealth or hide roll (though I don’t remember her ever actually failing the latter). Dragged before the “king” and questioned regarding her intrusion, Rhiann opted for the simple truth: she had entered the caves looking for missing “swamp people” and had not meant to disturb the brigands nor infringe on their territory, and had only acted previously to defend herself.

“Aye, such was not your intention, but this is what happened,” intoned the bandit king. “And it is death to reveal our secrets, for that is our law. Right or wrong you now know where we lair, but since you came upon us unprovoked, we will offer you one of two choices:

“You may choose death, swift and merciful. Or you may choose life…but it will be a life here in darkness, never to again return to the surface world. You will indeed discover what has befallen the people of the swamp (for you will share their fate)…but I warn you, you may prefer the swift death. Regardless, you may never again return to your home.”

Now I don’t remember if Rhiann actually had a chance to choose an option (though I’m pretty sure she would have chosen life over death if only to assuage her own curiosity)…what I do remember is Hakim deciding it was time to “make his move,” and he used his invisibility to sneak up behind the bandit king, knife in hand.

[said knife had been stolen from the cavern itself…we had a nice little sidebar about whether or not the knife would remain visible if it were picked up, and whether (if it DID remain visible) whether or not it could be wrapped in the folds of the invisible sorcerer’s robes or whether its glaring visibility would “shine through.” Ahhh…one of the age old questions of D&Disms: if my invisible character decides to eat something, will the contents of his belly be revealed to all?]

Anyway, Hakim sidled up behind the bandit and put the curvy knife blade to the man’s throat, before dropping the invisibility spell for utmost dramatic effect. “I suggest a third choice: you let her free and you get to keep your own head.” As the knife was to his throat, but he was on display in front of his subjects, I elected to have the player make a morale check for the bandit king (in this game there are a couple of interesting “oddities” compared to standard D&D…one is that rolling HIGH is always better for the person doing the rolling. Another thing is that when an NPC has a chance of breaking morale it is the player (doing the breaking) who gets to roll the result of the possible surrender or route).

Hakim rolled the worst possible result (snake eyes) indicating that not only the bandit king NOT going to be intimidated on his own turf, and instead wound up hostile and enraged. Turning on the sorcerer, the bandit lord wrestled him for the knife while the sorcerer attempted to stab him (“Because you’re SO good at that,” quipped Rhiann)…and as might be surmised, Hakim was disarmed and thrown to the ground.

Whereupon we decided we’d stop the adventure so that Will could catch his bus home.

Despite getting used as a punching bag for much of the night, Will did express his enjoyment of the game. His character was no shakes in hand-to-hand combat (I don’t think he really expected to be), but he was still effective at doing stuff, magic-wise. I think is the first time I’ve ever had a 1st level character with one (1) hp on an adventure, before…well other than a game of DCC…and Will’s PC still survived (unlike your average DCC adventurer).

I had more opportunity to debrief with Kayce afterwards. She really liked her character’s effectiveness (rather than having to go through a 1st level “shmucky” period as is usual for a thief). She liked the setting, but agreed it was much more “Ali Baba” than gritty sword & sorcery. She DID think the setting was neat, but wondered if the game would have slowed down with more players. Not because the system is slow (the mechanics are fairly fast and light…even faster than, say, DMI since there’s no justification needed for using abilities and no “buy back” card mechanic)…but because of the attention paid to characters (so as to better integrate folks with the setting)...well, it might be tough.

But then again, it might not be. All you have to say is, “hey, you’re cousins…go adventure” and away you fly. It may be that I’ve made the setting too complicated…again, in an attempt to keep a very specific historical (if fantastic) world setting I’ve made it a real bitch to justify going underground in the Underworld. In making a world with a well-developed civilization, I’ve limited the number of “ancient ruins” and crypts and tombs that are ripe for exploration and exploitation.

I may have to just junk much of the setting…at least as far as the history and religion goes. But if I do that, I’ll have to reconsider the way I’m currently doing the cleric class.

Which I’ll talk about more in my next post. Cheers.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Joy of TV

Anyone who thinks I'm some sort of high falutin' intellectual doesn't really know me. Sure, I'm an elitist snob about a lot of shit, but I'm as shlubby about some things as anyone...especially when it comes to television.

As a child I didn't watch a lot of television...except when I did. My family never had "cable TV" when I was growing up which means (in the 70s and 80s) that we were limited to a grand total of five channels (which eventually increased to six with the advent of FOX). And my parents didn't allow a lot of television watching, even on the weekends. Now, during the summer when we kids were older (and left at home alone while the parents were both at work) the "TV gloves" came off and my brother and I would spend long hours catching up on the daytime TV watching...namely, old shows in syndication (many of which were black and Perry Mason, the Beaver, My Favorite Martian, and Have Gun Will Travel...and all of which, even the color shows, had originally aired before we were born).

[well, those days of innocence are long gone, I'm afraid. When my child grows to an age where he knows how to use a remote control with impunity, I suppose I'll have to figure out how to lock the damn TV completely. Not just to keep him from watching violent shows and "Rated R" movies, but even daytime talk show hosts that are just...O Lord...just terrible and filled with the worst dregs society can dredge up. Maybe I just need to smash the cable box while I still have a chance!]

Anyhoo, while I got by in my early adulthood (till about age 26 or so) without actually owning a television, my lovely wife has turned me into a pretty serious TV watcher. Seeing as how we don't share any other hobbies (besides an enjoyment of other cultures when we can find the time and income to travel), it's the only relaxing pastime we can really share. Which is pretty f'ing sorry if you ask me (she's tried to play RPGs, she has, but I think that they scare her a little bit, to be quite honest), but there it is.

So I do watch a lot of TV...much more than I did in my 20s, or even my youth...and I even have shows that I like to watch that the wife doesn't. What I'd call "guilty pleasures," like Arrow, which is really not my wife's style at all. Usually, I watch it after she's already fallen asleep (On Demand)...but since I've discovered it I haven't missed a single episode. I just watched an episode and a half tonight.

But there are guilty pleasures, and then there are REAL guilty pleasures. The last couple weeks, I've started checking out this show called Supernatural that airs right after Arrow (and to which I got hipped by the trailers on the other show). Whereas I know the gist of Arrow (having been a Green Arrow fan) and have seen almost every episode (enough so that I can follow its convoluted, if somewhat simplistic plot), after three weeks I still really have no idea what Supernatural is about. There are two guys who are brothers or cousins or something that go around kind of investigating or hunting supernatural types (kind of like that show Grimm or something...I don't know), usually involving some sort of magic? in our present day and age. Maybe they're some kind of 21st century witch hunters or something? Except that they're kind of clueless half the time.

I really don't know...and I really don't care enough to bother finding out (by watching earlier shows On Demand or even reading the wikipedia entry on the show). I mean, it's not what I'd call "quality television" and it's not based on a particular IP in which I'm especially vested (like Arrow). I just refuse to waste that much time on it...but I've still been tuning in and checking it out. Why? Because...well, I don't know if I'm the real target audience for the show, but if I was a television writer, this is pretty much the show I would write.

I mean, it just seems to include a lot of the same quirky fantasy things I've been interested in, and it treats them in much the same way as I'd probably treat them, and it uses pretty much the same style of humor that I would use. Now a show like Psych (which I used to watch a bit and which I still think is damn funny) is right in my wheelhouse as far as hitting all the right notes and referencing all the same experiences and pop culture references I grew up with; i.e. I am the target audience of that show. But that's NOT the kind of television I would be writing myself. I'm not really clever enough, nor so interested in my own pop culture history that I'd put in the time and effort to write such clever scripts.

Supernatural isn't nearly as clever, but it's got clever enough bits...and the kind that I would think of adding if I was writing for TV...that it makes me feel like...well, I don't know really. A bit like I'm watching something I produced, maybe.

Anyway, it reminds me of a game I was working on awhile back (like last year)...a period game about witches and witchcraft set in the 1980s. It was a real, non-politically correct kind of game...basically one in which witches were fighting an underground battle against the evil forces of Reagan-era Republicans (yeah, it was really non-politically correct). It was also much more "indie" than anything else I've worked on in about five years (with the exception perhaps of DMI) being much more story-centric and much less B/X-style in crunch and mechanic. But as with many game projects, its currently gathering dust on a zip drive somewhere...and with TV shows like Supernatural, I don't really feel the need to dust it off anytime soon. It's like sometimes I think games like Trail of Cthulhu and The Esoterrorists have been created specifically because The X-Files is no longer airing on TV. I know that's a pretty random thought, but that's what I've been reflecting on this evening.

All right, all right...enough of this nonsense. Time to hit the hay...another busy day tomorrow.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ripping Off Ali Baba (Part 1)

As usual, I'm a bit pressed for time, but I'll see what I can do.

As mentioned previously, I was able to play-test my version of D&D Mine on Thursday, a little game I'm calling 5AK at the moment. The system worked well and received positive reviews from the players...Kayce, who has played and DM'd most editions of D&D enjoyed the fact that her character (a thief) was competent right from the get-go, and...well, maybe I should just do the write-up.

Here are the logistics of the thing...I showed up a bit after 8 (we'll call it 8:20ish). Two players ended up making it: Kayce and Will. I provided an overview of the setting and some of the unique rules/mechanics starting around 9 or so, and then we did chargen, step-by-step as outlined in Book 1 (I've got my own three LBBs for 5AK). We started the scenario around 10:20, with a slight interruption (when Nick showed up on his way home from work), and finished up before midnight...probably about 11:40ish (Will had to catch a bus home).

I drank a lot of beer. Not unusual.

The setting is kind of Mythic Middle East (think like Ars Magica's "Mythic Europe"). The time is about 800CE, about 150 years after Mohammed, and in this particular world the Franks never converted to Catholicism, leaving Europe a war ground of squabbling barbarian tribes with Rome left in ruins (i.e. there ain't no "Holy Roman Empire"). Islam (or its renamed knock-off version) is a big deal but not a requirement...only about 30% of the population is actually "True Believers" (and as with real world history, many of them converted so as to be exempt from the local poll tax on non-Muslims).

The basic introductory setting in Basur, a sprawling coastal city of 70-100K about 280 miles southeast of Bagdabha, the most wealthy and famous city in the world (and about 10 times the size of Basur). Basur, is built upon the ruins of an ancient city of the prior evil know the drill: sorcerous necromancers living behind giant basalt walls. It was burned and razed in the time of The Prophet and now the military camp set-up to oversee the ruins has blossomed into a thriving port town while the ruins have become a link to The Underworld (in the Holmes/OD&D sense of the term).

First step of chargen is choosing one's class (as ability scores are pretty secondary in nature). Kayce decided to go with a thief, and Will chose the easy road to power of the sorcerer (a subclass of magician: think "sold your soul to Satan for magical knowledge" and you'll get the  drift). Both were neutral in alignment with different motivations that color their personalities. For Kayce, her character (Rianne? Rianna? Something like that) was motivated by curiosity/excitement: she wanted to see and experience new things (ah, youthful indiscretion!); she was also a True Believer. Will's character (Hakim or Hakeem) on the other hand was motivated by revenge: he decided his ancestors had once been part of the sorcerous magic tradition of the original city and he burned to have his family's former glory restored. This was made more interesting by the fact that the PCs were cousins, with Rianna's immediate family having taken a more-or-less "live and let live" attitude to their current state of affairs. Both characters ended up (by random roll) being of "low class" which certainly went hand-in-hand with their character backgrounds, and gave them additional reason for seeking their fortune through adventurous means. They decided that despite their other differences (Hakim was NOT a follower of the True Faith, although he pretended to it...he also hid his sorcery from the average person, as trucking with demons was a big no-no), they were the only members of their (extended) family that shared a longing for something more and different...hence their reason for adventuring together.

The key to starting their career, of course, was getting them into the Underworld. Both had different motives for wanting to go (excitement/curiosity versus seeking for the means towards power as a way of facilitating vengeance), but they were still on the same page as far as adventure is concerned. Fortunately, they heard rumors of (poor) folk from the swampy coastal area (swamp people!) disappearing, and were able to follow rumors to a likely cave, hidden in the marsh. Having spent almost the entirety of their dinars on some fairly spare adventuring equipment (Riann was armed with a sling, while Hakim had a curvy dagger and a staff; neither one owned any armor), they lit up a couple of torches and entered said cave.

Only to be confronted by three scruffy brigands with clubs and knives of their own.

"What are you lot doing here?" Um...looking for missing swamp people; have you seen any? Reaction rolls indicated immediate attack and the brigands bum-rush the pair.

Hakim drops his staff and draws his dagger, brandishing both in front of him to ward off the bandits; meanwhile Riann drops her torch and plunges deeper into the cave, hoping to lose herself in the darkness (and thus hide). The brigands grapple the sorcerer, and quickly pin his arms behind his back.

In the fading torchlight behind her, Rhiann sees the tunnel splits in two directions. Rather than taking any particular fork she ducks behind a stalagmite and readies her sling, glad she though to fill a small sack with rocks beforehand. Down the tunnel, she can see the three bandits are now following after her, one holding Hakim's dropped torch and leading the way, while the other two hustle the sorcerer between them. She decides to put a stop to this by slinging a stone at the bandit walking point, and knocks him dead with a skull-crack fracture.

One of the other guards releases Hakim to pick up the torch of his fallen comrade, and she does for him, too. The third one is no dummy and decides to draw his weapon and charge her position, but the sorcerer chooses that moment to break free and attempts to mesmerize the brigand. "Look deep into my eyes," he begins...but the bandit punches him in the nose and knocks him cold (Hakim only had one HP). However, his gloating is short-lived: as he turns back to his quarry, the thief puts a stone in his eye and knocks him dead.

Rhiann quickly revives her cousin, when both hear the sounds of many (scruffy) men and booted feet from the tunnel to the left. Once again, the thief uses the rock formations of the cavern to hide herself, while the sorcerer mumbles a quick magical chant and vanishes into thin air. It is not long before five more brigands arrive on the scene and (after exclaiming mightily over the observed carnage) send one of their members down the other tunnel, while the remaining four gather the three fallen bodies and head back from whence they came. Hakim decides to follow them, while Rhiann (who can't see the invisible sorcerer anyway) decides to chase down the lone brigand headed the opposite direction.

Hakim follows the bandits through a large cave that appears to be some sort of makeshift storeroom, barracks, down another corridor that opens into a huge cavern, filled with perhaps another dozen or so bandits, a couple-four wenches of wretched demeanor and a throne upon which lazily sprawls a self-styled bandit king wearing a mail shirt. "What is the meaning of this?" he shouts as the brigands drag their fallen comrades into the cavern. "O Lord, we are invaded by outsiders who have done for our brethren!"

[to be continued]

Shaming My Space Opera

Jay recently commented on my gushing post about X-Plorers (the RPG):
I'm late to this party, but just wanted to pipe in that I'm running X-Plorers with a space opera setting (having jettisoned the "corporations in space" conceit, which I found dull).
So far, two different play groups - one of novices and another of veterans - have all found it to be great fun.
Attached were links to the Red Astra-themed posts on his blog.

Well, I read through his posts and his play-tests and Jay's take on what "space opera" is all about and I have to say he made me feel...O what word should I use? Shame? Yeah, that's a pretty good one, though perhaps a little harsh.

First and foremost, he reminded me that KWN has been back-burnered in recent weeks and has yet to have a single play-test. That is me totally dropping the ball, and pretty f'ing inexcusable. Why? 'Cause the thing is practically done (it's 42 out of maybe 48 or 50 pages total!) and ready to roll out. But it needs the play-testing at this point...I've just had such a damn hard time getting a game together lately. Either people are sick or have other plans or else I can't make it 'cause the wife's out of town or she's been sick or the boy's been sick, and I've had to stay in. She's been back for two weeks, and sick for all of it, and now she's been called down to Latin America again, on short notice, and will be flying out tomorrow morning for a week...which means no game for me this week either. So I' gaming session in a month? And I've got four or five things I'm trying to test? That makes for a very sloooow publishing process, even as I've managed to find some time to write it all up.

Not that my life is bad, folks...I'm not so stupid as to say I'd trade it for anything. I'm just venting my frustration. Frustration is a feeling...we all have feelings, regardless of what logic dictates we should be experiencing feeling-wise.

Anyway, I could be concentrating on KWN and play-testing it, but I actually allowed my frustration to get the better of me about 5 or 6 weeks ago, and so went back to working on 5AK...not to mention a 1-2 week stint with DMI, Legendary Might, right? Um, yeah...that was the most recent name. Anyway I could be concentrating on KWN, and I'm not, and that's leading to the project gathering dust on the shelf which is the first part of my shame.

The second part is...after reading Jay's posts...maybe I'm doing it all wrong. Maybe I don't know space opera the way I least, if I want to write a space opera supplement for X-Plorers.

Ugh...the problem I have, or that I suspect that I have (and that I've had for awhile) is that I take myself too goddamn seriously. Or rather, I don't take myself too seriously ( was a different story fifteen or eighteen years ago), but I take my WORK (that is the stuff I'm writing, game-wise) too seriously. Like, the subject matter, silly as it is, needs to be treated with some high degree of sanctification or dignity or something. Like, I'm not allowed to put specific rules for capes into my game even though I was considering it for DMI (and even though Jay has totally come up with a slick way to do just that in his space opera campaign.

What makes me have such a stick up my ass? It's like I'm trying to do a Jedi version of Dogs In The Vineyard or something using a B/X chassis (actually, I've often thought DitV would make the ideal vehicle for a Jedi-centric space opera game, but I've...duh...just never been able to find the time to try it; plus, ship-to-ship combat would be problematic). Anyway, part of why space opera kicks ass is its super-duper wahoo factor...and there is very little "wahoo" to be found in my KWN supplement. Or rather, "none." That would be a better way to describe it.

So I'm feeling a little shame...a little for letting the project slide, especially when it's so near to completion, and from doing it in a terribly serious fashion, as I seem to do with ALL my games. I purposefully tried to make my fantasy cyberpunk game more "over-the-top" but OTT for me is still pretty staid and serious, I'm afraid. I mean, compared to some things out's probably NOT as serious as Shadowrun itself (which it apes), but well...never mind. I was talking about space opera. And shame.


I have an interview for a promotional opportunity Monday at my regular job-job, and I don't think I even have a damn suit that fits me anymore, it's been so long since I had to wear a tie or button-up shirt that you "tuck in." And I don't even really want the gig, because it will mean I need to commute downtown again and learn a whole new skill set and deal with all new people in a managerial/adversarial position, plus possibly be working longer hours with less time to write. On the other hand, I'd make more money. Frigging money. And the only thing really on my mind right now is space opera.


I really need to get a couple more of these books finished/published.

Okay, that's all for now. Thank goodness tomorrow is Sunday. Maybe I'll drop Diego off with Grandma for a couple hours and go write. Like at the bar.

@ Jay: You are not late to the party, man. You ARE the party. Keep up the good work, and maybe I'll be buying your book.

P.S. Want to play-test a 40+ page supplement?