Monday, September 30, 2013

Escaping the Necromancer

In my vast collection of Blood Bowl figures, I have exactly one team of the undead. Their colors are black, red, and white, and I have them assigned as the Houston Texans.

Yes, I realize Houston is red, blue, and white (“deep steel blue” as a matter of fact), but my first couple seasons watching them in the league were on a non-“high def” television with questionable color. In my mind’s eye, they look black and red, and I tend to have a pretty stubborn mind’s eye. I have a similar problem with the Chicago Bears.

But why do I have my undead team assigned to the Texans? All my Blood Bowl teams are assigned to one NFL team or another (though the exact teams have changed over the years…I’ve been playing BB since 2nd edition after all – circa 1990 – and there have been three new franchises and a league realignment since then), because…well, because I’m weird and stuff. But why undead?

Well, a couple reasons. The original Blood Bowl game (which also based their fictional “fluff” on the NFL) has two teams one could say are (nominally) based on the Dallas Cowboys: the Darkside Cowboys (a flashy dark elf team owned by a Prince of Darkness type) and the Champions of Death, an undead team coached by “Tom O’Landry the Undying.” Well, if the Cowboys are still the Cowboys, then where do I put the necromantic TX team? How about in Houston where the NFL sought to resurrect a franchise after the Oilers moved to Tennessee?

Yeah, that works for me.

Of course, play-style is also a factor in team assignment, as I’ve blogged before. The Seahawks are orks because (historically) we’ve been a run-heavy, hard-hitting defense, with a really loud (“waa-agh”) crowd. We’ve also had an almost complete lack of stellar receivers the likes of Andre Johnson, Megatron, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Irving, etc. Our receivers have tended to be short and stunty, butter-fingered, or mediocre journeymen types (all apologies to Hall of Famer Steve Largent…one dude does not make for a history of high-flying receivers).

The undead are one of those teams that don’t have a real “specialty” type of play; instead they have a resilient team of “specialists.” Ghouls are speedy receivers and the vampire star player is a near unstoppable ball carrier, but they don’t have a real “passer” type player on the roster. A wight usually acts as the team’s QB, but it’s not a “natural” position (they don’t have any starting passing skills)…it’s just that you don’t want a zombie throwing the ball down the field to the ghouls.

But the real stand-out player on the roster (other than the exorbitantly priced vampire) is the mummy. The mummy is a real monster, and hands-down the toughest standard roster player on any 3rd edition Blood Bowl team. No, they’re not ball-handlers; they are simply engines of destruction wrecking lines and players, leaving the pitch wet with brains and blood. A well-played mummy against an incautious team will wrack up 4 or 5 casualties and knock-out another half dozen over the course of the match…and that’s against a standard strength team. Against the more “breakable” types (goblins, hobbits, etc.) the number of bodies in the dug-out can get really impressive. Having a starting Strength of 5 (more than any other non-star player), Mighty Blow, and a burning thirst for vengeance on the living…well, they tend to advance quickly by racking up star player points.

J.J. Watt is a mummy, and a goddamn wrecking ball.

My wife is not a gamer, but she has played Blood Bowl on a number of occasions. Why not...she’s a big football fan, after all. The undead are one of her preferred teams: they give her the resilience to withstand my onslaughts (I tend to play smashy teams like the orks) and hit back hard. Actually, hitting hard is usually a secondary consideration for her; she really doesn’t like it when her players die (she tends to become emotionally attached to pieces that perform well in a game), and the undead are notoriously hard-to-kill (being already dead)…so when she does inflict casualties with her mummies it’s almost a surprise to her. Like she doesn’t know her own strength (“Oh, I did that?”). She was just trying to get the ball to the vampire.

J.J. Watt knows his own strength and knows exactly how to use it. I haven’t seen such a dominating individual performance from a single player against the Seahawks since last year’s game against Peterson and the Vikings. We won that game, too, but AP was nigh-unstoppable and it was the Vikes’ other weaknesses that the ‘Hawks were able to exploit. The five sacks and numerous tackles for losses and QB hits delivered by the Texans were not all attributed to Watt’s stats, but they might as well have been…it was the Seahawks’ need to double and triple team him that allowed the rest of the defense to come free. The Texans were ferocious…and it started with Watts.

That’s a good team down in Houston and the Seahawks had to show some high caliber resiliency themselves to come back and wrest the victory away from the Texans…a Texans team that dominated our depleted offensive line and moved pretty well against the defense. We’ll see the resiliency of Houston next week when they go into San Francisco next week; can they pull it together and get up the emotion they need to take it to the Niners? Sitting at 2-2, losing at home, and falling behind the Colts and Titans in the division…can they muster their talent and blow up the defending NFC champs?

I have a feeling Watt will be out for blood. If he was a minotaur he’d probably eat which ever quarterback loses the match (“Yates! Get ready to suit up!”). Hell, minotaur or not, I’d be afraid to be in that locker room if the Texans lose three in a row. You let the mummy off the chain, and who knows what might happen!

Someone's going to die, and it ain't this guy

Next up for the Seahawks: at the High Elves of Indianapolis. Hoo-boy…can the “Legion of Boom” handle the Colts’ high flying offense, bolstered by new dragon warrior, Trent Richardson? Andre Luck was drafted way ahead of Russell Wilson…way ahead of everyone, really, being the #1 pick overall. Can the phoenix warrior out –duel our slippery star goblin? Can the Seahawks get a couple of our injured linemen back? Another frigging 10am start on the road...sheesh.

[J.J. Watt stats in Blood Bowl:

Mummy (M +2, S +1, add Block, Break Tackle, Pass Defense, Tackle)

For other players, call Johnson a strong, fast ghoul with Catch and use the vampire Count for Foster. Schaub is a wight with a handful of passing skills…or a zombie if you’re feeling uncharitable today]

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bean Counting

Yesterday, I missed most of the football games on television, including the entirety of the Seahawks game. I did hear the first touchdown on my car radio before losing reception in Lynnwood, but between 1:30 and 5:30 I was effectively out of action, because my son and I were at Chuck E. Cheese, celebrating the birthday of a two year old amigo.

Now, I don’t know if Chuck E. Cheese exists as a franchise outside of Washington. Hell, it barely exists here…the one in Lynnwood is one of only a handful remaining in the state. I should note the place was high on my list of All-Time Favorite Places as a child, so there’s a certain nostalgia assigned to it, but I haven’t been to one in years…not since a buddy decided to have his 20th or 22nd year birthday bash at one (I’m not the only person subject to nostalgia) and everyone, including my buddy, was sorely disappointed by the experience.

For one thing, the concept seems to have changed immensely over the last couple-three decades. When we were kids, I recall the place being bigger, and having a much larger assortment of video games (what we used to call arcade games)…yes, it had the animatronic rat and cheap pizza and play areas for small children, but pre-teens had much more of the types of games one might find (these days) at the larger arcades, like GameWorks. “Cutting edge” arcade games used to be the order of the day…I remember when Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace were these incredibly awesome, super-cool/high-tech vids and the only place you could find them to play them were at Chuck E. Cheese. But anything resembling cutting edge electronic entertainment seems to have been dropped by the franchise sometime circa 1989 and the place is now geared more to small children (like my son). Perhaps there’s just no way to keep up with the technology and quality of console games available to your average teenager at a reasonable price.
This game took a lot of tokens, back in the day...

So instead, most of the games are of the “carnival” variety (throwing balls into hoops or rings or bopping stuff or shooting water from a gun), and ALL of the games offers tickets at the end of a round of play…tickets that can be redeemed for fairly cheap carnival prizes. How cheap? Well, most games seemed to offer three to six tickets based on the quality of one’s play (several “maxed out” at five) and it took 100 tickets to get a keychain, and 400 to get a non-articulated, 3” Spider-Man action figure (which my son wanted). There were some really cheap-ass board games on the wall that required 1500+ tickets to redeem. I think part of the scam is parents have the ability to make up the difference in the price with cold, hard cash if a child hasn’t earned enough tickets through play (keeping in mind that each play costs money…or “tokens”…as well).

Still, D hit the jackpot a couple times on one or two games and ended the day with almost 200 tickets (186, actually) which we were able to redeem for a small (6” long) nerf rocket launcher, a curly straw, and two tiny rubber frogs. My boy, being two and a half, had nearly as much fun with these “prizes” last night as he’d had running around and playing games at Chuck’s. Okay, maybe “nearly as much” is a stretch, but certainly he had much more than I would have enjoyed had they been my reward for five hours of play.

But, of course, I’m not two years old.

One can draw an analogy (well, I can draw an analogy) between this type of play and the play of our favorite table-top role-playing game. I mean, can’t you? You spend several hours, hopefully enjoying play (as my son and I did), and then you get a paltry award of “tickets” (experience points) that get exchanged for…well, for very little on average. In fact, most game sessions probably sees players receiving NO reward for the actions in a particular session, and only after several sessions does one receive a reward (“leveling up”) and even then the reward isn’t all that great. Depending on the edition, you might receive a handful of hit points, you might (might!) receive a slight uptick in attack chance or saving throws, you might learn a new spell…and that’s about it. 3rd Edition/D20 at least packed more into the reward by giving you skill points to spend (about as useful as rubber frogs, in my opinion), some bonus feats (staggered by level depending on class), and some attribute increases. Even so, there are still some “level ups” where “not much happens” (ain’t much difference going from 4th level fighter to 5th level fighter, for example).

I wrote a bit before about the “leveling-opens-content” thang, and how I’m tired of it…been tired of it for a while, but am now more tired of it than ever before. You know, my big “claim to fame” was my writing of the B/X Companion for high level B/X play…but how many B/X campaigns (or Labyrinth Lord or whatever) actually get to a level where such a book would be useful. In the three or four years I was playing B/X prior to my “play-testing phase” (in which all the games I’ve been running seem to be testing one thing or another), none of the player characters ever reached Name level, let along the 15th plus range postulated in the B/X Companion. Sure, you could have your players create high-level characters from the get-go, but this is still only a “patch” to the issue of closed content…besides which it trades off (i.e. loses) the actual play aspect of the game (the fighting and finding of all those low- and mid-range monsters and treasures), which is hardly desirable.

Yes, “paying your dues” is an essential part of the D&D game, but not everyone wants to play the young farm boy that grows up to be a glamorous Jedi Knight. Some people simply want to have a series of adventures as Han Solo. And some people want to be Old Man Ben Kenobi from the start without going through all that prequel jazz.

[sorry for the Star Wars references…it’s been on my brain lately]

I’ve been revisiting The Hobbit quite a bit lately, both the novel and the Rankin-Bass film. The reason being that I have a young child to whom I read at night, and who really digs the music (because originally The Hobbit was a children’s fairytale, unlike the ridiculous action film currently being sold to the public as Tolkien). I’ve discussed before my whole problem with assigning a “class” (in D&D terms) to the dwarves or hobbit in the story, but after analyzing the thing (with regard to my recent game concept musings) I see less and less where there is any “advancement” that is taking place in the characters. Despite defeating lots of monsters (trolls, goblins, spiders, etc.) and finding lots of treasure and magic items (from the troll hoard, to Gollum’s ring, to the dragon’s lair) these characters aren’t developing in the traditional D&D sense of the term. They are maturing as individuals, they are seen as more heroic based on their actions, but their inborn effectiveness remains the same at the end of the adventure as at the beginning. Where their effectiveness does improve, it is based on the finding of magical equipment (Orcrist, Sting, Sauron’s One Ring) and the use of that equipment.

[as a side-note, has anyone ever noticed that while the dwarven adventurers are defeated at every turn, the penalty for that feat is ALWAYS capture? At the hands of the trolls, the goblins, the spiders, the wood elves, the dragon…the only consequence they ever face is being bagged, chained, webbed, imprisoned, or entombed in the mountain. The only time any of the character’s dies is at the end of the book/film…and then, that is death in VICTORY (over the goblins in the Battle of Five Armies), not death in defeat. Just thought that was interesting, and certainly something I’m considering in the design process as well]

Now, the game I’m currently working/writing still has “bean counting” because…well, because it appeals to my snarky sense of humor as well as my competitive attitude. However, right now the “beans” turn into a meta-game mechanic, increasing character effectiveness in game (similar to “karma” in the old Marvel Superheroes RPG…thanks, Mr. Grubb!)…there’s no rules for using them to “advance” (i.e. “permanently make more effective”) the baseline character a player is playing. If you start as Bilbo Baggins, you remain Bilbo (though perhaps one who has lost his pipe and pocket handkerchief). If you start as Gandalf you remain Gandalf (though you might acquire a magic sword along the way).

Is that “fair?” Boromir is one tough hombre, but Aragorn is better (and has other skills to boot). Moonglum might be a better swordsman, but will never have the sorcery abilities of Elric (and both will always be better swordsmen than Count Smirogan Baldhead). Does this make them less heroic in the stories in which they appear?

Again, you have to ask what is the point of fantasy role-playing…is it to become more powerful? Why? To open up content? Why not simply open content from the beginning? Because the characters will all die if they’re forced to face the dragon? Would a character in a story die for facing a dragon? Neither Bilbo nor Bard got cooked by Smaug…but Beowulf wasn’t quite as lucky.

Characters die in fairytales…both modern ones (like Tolkien) and ancient sagas (like Beowulf and Arthur).  Sometimes characters die long before the end of the story (i.e. they don’t wait for a “dramatically appropriate climax” in the action)…like Hector or Ajax. That’s fine…the idea of a serial adventure game (like D&D) is that the campaign or saga goes on…the PCs are protagonists and the main characters, but if they go down the story continues and others must “take up the torch.” In other words, I’m not talking about “taking death off the table,” or even meaningless death. Death has meaning in a story…or should have meaning…regardless of the point at which it occurs in the tale.

So why does a character need to have these regular level increases? Why is it important to give the PC an extra 3-5 hit points every five or ten or 20 game sessions? That’s a cheap-ass prize.

There is something to be said for experience…the paragraph Kevin Siembieda includes in every Palladium rulebook holds true to a certain degree. But show me an experienced adventurer, and I’ll show you a guy with a bad back, a trick knee, and a lot of gaps in his teeth. Scars and a hook for a hand…not to mention night sweats and fantasy PTSD from facing giant slavering monsters should be the order of the day for an “experienced” adventurer. Frodo’s Morgul wound never fully heals and bothers him for years after his adventure…why would a veteran of a dozen dungeons remain in happy health, only getting better with time? Because of clerical magic? Doesn’t every raise dead spell sap a point of Constitution?

The issue raised by Will (mentioned in my prior post) was one of what motivates players better than regular continued improvement? What indeed? That’s the real question: what GOALS can you provide players that they can shoot for…what WIN conditions can you provide that will encourage players to come back and keep playing? Because serial play…accompanied by development, identification, and fantasy escapism…is desirable. We don’t want just a one-off game.

This isn’t Dungeon! where a player wins once after collecting 10,000 gold and returning to Start.

More on this later folks.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Beginning

I'll be quick because...well, it's Football Sunday but I've got a lot to do, including getting a gift and showing up to a kid's birthday party (scheduled for the same time as the Seahawks game? What's that all about?) something about breakfast and naptime and all the usual Sunday rigamarole. Yes, I'm back on "single parent duty," as a week after returning from Montevideo the wife is currently on a plane to NYC. Fortunately (?) the beagles woke us up at 6am or she would have missed her flight.

Play-testing of yet another “fantasy heartbreaker” began on Thursday night. Only had one player show up (thanks, Will!). Materials consisted of two pages of printed notes, a modified Keep on the Borderlands, two copies of Holmes Basic (for equipment lists), a couple D6s, a D20, and a case full of poker chips (because I didn’t have a chance to actually pick up dried beans from the supermarket, which would have been my first choice...have to remember to that this week).

Definitely a different game.

I spent a lot of this last week reading up on a couple recently published games: 13th Age and Dungeon World. There’s a good couple posts over at The Walking Mind discussing how these games (along with Cook’s Numenera) could act as easy transitional games for folks looking to move from D&D to “something else.” I, of course, have no interest in creating my own “transitional game” but what I’ve read I found interesting enough to at least take a look at these games…maybe I'll pick 'em up sometime this afternoon, if I get a couple more sales of 5AK to justify the purchase.

[ha…who am I kidding? If I can find any free time today, I'll probably be sitting in front of the TV or taking a nap]

Why am I not interested in creating a “transitional game?” Because I’m not really interested in transitioning gamers from one game (or one style or system) to anything else. I’ve made peace with Pathfinder, as I wrote a month or two back. People who love that game can and should continue their enjoyment. MY goal (as much as I have one…the concept is still pretty amorphous in my mind at the moment) is to bring non-gamers into gaming, table-top gaming, in the easiest and most accessible way possible while still:
  1. Playing up the strengths of the table-top game over computer games, and
  2. Firing the imagination of the participants (can’t be too abstract).

I like the system I’ve created. Despite the misgiving of some of my readers, there didn’t seem to be any issues with the game as a “class-less/skill-less” system.

Will, at least, didn’t have any issue with it…and we discussed (prior to play) how much he dislikes the “blank page of indie games.” Do you know what I mean? Where people are told during chargen: “pick five things your good at” or “assign 10 points between three descriptive phrases (that you make up yourself.” Some people dig the hippy-dippy, loosey-goosey-ness of games like FUDGE and RISUS…others (like Will) prefer a game with a bit more structure to ‘em. Me, too, for that matter…it keeps the game tight and focused, which is a lot easier for a lazy DM like myself.

[there are, of course, plenty of indie games that DON’T confront a player with a blank page, and you’ll find plenty of "structured" games…even “old school” ones…that have blank spots. Villains & Vigilantes have several powers of the “make this up yourself” variety, if I remember correctly]

Having said that, the magic system in the new project is a lot more freeform than what you’d find in any edition of D&D…or its retro-clones, or its pseudo-clones (the latter term being the one I’d apply to Five Ancient Kingdoms). And, of course, Will chose to play a magician of the “black magic” school. Duh…who wouldn’t?

Things ended up with quite the Clark Ashton Smith feel to it. “Nazaloth” showed off his sword skill by killing a pair of bugbears in Ye Old Caves of Chaos and then – after getting as much info as possible out of the corpses using some minor necromancy – decided it'd be a good idea to raise the corpses as large, hairy muscle. Unfortunately, that particular spell went awry and the ghuls, while raised, were much more interested in tearing apart their slayer than in following any orders. This resulted in a chase back to the entrance (where a group of recently freed slaves huddled awaiting their liberator) and tragic hilarity ensued.  Nazaloth eventually got the dead under control and directed their rage on some latecomer bugbears, while he led the surviving refugees down the side of the cliff, using a makeshift rope crafted from the guardsmen’s bedding.

The main system question Will had was regarding the development system...mainly, where was the "carrot" of advancement to drive the characters forward? It wasn't enough to start out as a competent character, there was an interest in becoming "something more,"or developing and changing over time. I have some ideas for this (it's tied to the "bean counting"...natch) but I have to tighten 'em up.

But really, I don't have time for writing about this at the moment. I just wanted to get a quick note our (I've been meaning to do so for the last three days but, you know...busy).

Later, Gators.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Damn...Wednesday already?

Hate to say it, but the week has been flying by with little productive action from me. I'm working on a little something-something that I hope to have in "test-able" form for tomorrow night...but we'll see what happens.

In other news: a quick search of the web found that Five Ancient Kingdoms has been talked up in a couple places, though the only new review I've found was on a French forum. Those who can parle francais are welcome to check it out here. It's fairly complimentary (thanks pseudo!), with his main gripes being A) the resolution of the artwork, B) the blandness/unoriginality of the introductory adventure, and C) the changing of proper names from their original (real world) analogs....especially irritating to folks who already have to translate the game into their own language (e.g. from English to French).

Regarding that last complaint...sorry. At my own table, I generally stick to the actual proper names, but for the 5AK game I wanted to emphasize that the setting is fiction, not historical. I'm sure there are folks who would take umbrage with painting certain cultures with an unflattering brush...but a fantasy game requires fantasy antagonists, you know? It's like my other adventure game (only play-tested once) that makes all the fine folks of Portugal to be heinous villains because...well, you know the justification for that is really a separate post topic. But there's a reason I haven't put that one up as a free download.



In completely rewriting the whole "fantasy adventure game" concept from the ground up, I find myself branching into territory that I have (for years now) been avoiding: namely the realm of gaming divorced from the concepts of "class" and "level." Ugh...gross. I like class and level, and I use it in most everything (Cry Dark Future and Clockwork being notable exceptions...but then, they're based off other RPGs that don't use class and level)...even such random concepts as DMI, post-apoc, and my supers game. Hell, even CDF has levels if not actual classes.

The problem with ridding oneself of classes and levels is you rid yourself of two very useful design concepts: an archetypal shorthand (chargen made easy) and a golden carrot (reward system). Unless you're trying to design a one-off (or otherwise short-lived serial) story game (i.e. premise addressing RPG facilitating the narrativist creative agenda) then all you're doing is setting up a sim-style game in which PCs just piddle around, in which the GM is either a dancing monkey for the players' enjoyment or a railroader extraordinaire. Neither of which I was shooting for, by the way.

Oh, and no...there's no "skill system" in the game. Get that out of your head!

So, I've been working on a different style of bean-counting reward system (literally...the mechanic is currently referred to as "beans" in the draft notes). In some it feels like I'm trying to reinvent other "chip-counting" systems like FATE or Savage Worlds...except that I'm not and the system feels a lot different from those (other than the beans).  Still...classless. The whole thing makes me decidedly uncomfortable. What's to keep players from making all sorts of random, dumb-dumb type characters?

The rest of the rules, natch.
; )

Well anyway...that's just what I'm working on this week. Who knows? Maybe it will all be scrapped by the weekend. At this point, I'm still shooting for something around the size of Holmes Basic.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Perfect Storm

It would be out of character for me to not at least mention that I was at last night’s Seahawks-Niners game, where even the sky itself seemed inclined to add to the noise and pyrotechnics with thunder and lightning. It was a good win against a good team…I won’t bother gloating, since there’s still plenty of football left to be played including the rematch in San Francisco. However, I will say I was proud to see so many fans stick out the weather, lending their voices to the cause.

My own son was in attendance (with stout ear muffs) and we considered sending him and mom home when the game was suspended with no timeline announced for resumption. However, he wanted to stay (after powering down a hotdog while sheltering under the bleachers) and stay we did. He yelled and stomped with the rest of us, and didn’t start getting squirrely till the very end…pretty good considering the extra hour tacked onto the game time. He’s a great kid…too bad this will be the last season he gets in for free (he turns three in January).

All right, that’s it. Back to the regular gaming-related posts.

[go, ‘Hawks]

Saturday, September 14, 2013


A couple days back, Anthony was commenting on my Cacodemon post when his brain went into a minor meltdown (I don’t fault him for this, BTW, as this kind of thing tends to happen to me all the time when I start musing and muttering). He wrote:
“On a related note, with regard to age of character, character level, whatever…I feel like I’m tired of levels! And perhaps anything related to character advancement! How about a game where the character you make is the character you make, for the entire time you are playing in said campaign. I mean, if campaigns have a tendency to crash and burn (with those decades-long campaigns being the exception to the rule, and trust me I doubt the veracity of those claims of long-running campaigns), then why not create a character that just advances in abilities, rather than have the seemingly superfluous add-on of an XP system. “I’m not quite sure what I even mean by all of that…maybe it’s related to my growing disdain for roleplaying games as being counting exercises. I’m tired of counting XP!”
 Anthony then goes on to write that he’s still interested in some sort of character development (actually, “development” is my word), that may not be necessarily in the traditional, linear, level-up fashion of D&D.

I understand his frustration. I do, really. It was about…oh…nine or ten years ago that I started writing a fantasy RPG that had an XP system that just went from 1 to 9, with each number representing a different, life-changing experience a character might have. For example, going to war for the first time or being crowned king. There were more than nine possible experiences, but a character was limited to nine…and each experience provided its own individual bonus or change or advantage to the character.

In fact, the milestone mechanic in Five Ancient Kingdoms is the direct descendant of this idea, though it was developed into its current incarnation through my (as yet unpublished) B/X Star Wars game, combining my original idea with the destiny mechanics (I think that’s what they’re called) found in the Star Wars Saga (D20) Edition. You can also see something similar in the old school game Villains & Vigilantes, where every “level up” gives you some mechanical advantage (chosen from a substantial list), in addition to bonus HPs and such. I incorporated something similar to V&V in my Land of Ice campaign setting for B/X.

In developing the milestone concept, both for B/X SW and 5AK, it was suggested to me that I return to my original idea of giving each different ‘stone some sort of related “power up.” There are a couple-few reasons why I rejected the idea:

  1. No matter how hard you try to make the game otherwise, some people are going to see certain associated power-ups as “better” than others. If a character gets a +1 to initiative and attack rolls because they’ve been “blooded in combat” that’s going to be more desirable (in a D&D-style game) than certain other advantages…unless you do the dumb-dumb thing of making ALL the various associated bonuses as being “combat-related” (see Saga Star Wars for that kind of stupidity in game design).
  2. Milestones were developed as a bonus for taking “extra action” outside of the normal loot/slay paradigm (rewarding players who engage the world, i.e. “going above and beyond”) but it wasn’t meant to distract from other adventure-related goals (i.e. finding treasure). At least not in Five Ancient Kingdoms since most Arabic folktales tend to fall into the category of “adventurer looking to get rich.” In B/X Star Wars, it’s a different story (and a topic for a different blog post).
  3. I still like the idea of variable XP totals between player characters as a gauge of “how well” players are doing in the game. I don’t like the idea of everyone “leveling up at the same rate.” Call me a curmudgeon if you like but I’m NOT of the generation where everyone on the little league team gets an award at the end of the year. I like to have comparison and variation and tracking individual “points” does that.

[hmm…this might be a good time to note that I am NOT a fan of the Chaosium/BRP system of development for precisely this reason. I don’t like it anyway because I find it to be too slow, too random, and too dumb (only going up), but placing the emphasis on skill use as the only means of “advancement” makes the whole game about finding ways to use those skills (to meet the reward requirements of the system) rather than exploration of the setting, which would otherwise seem to be the desired objective of the Chaosium game designers]

There’re some other pitfalls, too (which is part of why that experiment nine or ten years ago didn’t fly) but I don’t want to get into ‘em right now.

But as I said, I understand Anthony’s venting. It IS a pain in the ass to track and record XP, and the whole idea of linking not just effectiveness but game content to advancement is kind of shitty. I have a mage that wants to explore the astral plane…sorry, you don’t get access to a suitable spell for 12+ levels (and it takes weeks of play just to go up one level). Maybe your DM will let you find a cubic gate or magic portal in the course of adventuring, but otherwise you’ve got to commit to a few years of constant gameplay to open that content…assuming the group and DM are willing to stick together that long.

And, of course, this doesn’t just apply to magic-users. “My character’s a hero! When do I get to fight a dragon?” When you’re damn good and ready in about eight or ten levels…unless I’m a sadist of a DM. And this is, of course, assuming you find adequate equipment along the way. “But isn’t this Dungeons & Dragons we’re playing?”

It sure is. Which means you get none of that “big kid stuff” for a long, long time.

What folks should understand (and what I’ve tried to explain before) is that there are a lot of parts to the game that were not conceptualized by the designers when they first created the game, they were simply added and added and added IN PLAY to make the game “fun.” And a lot of the things that were added were not very well thought out and have caused all sorts of problems for all sorts of reasons over time.

The XP/level advancement system was NOT present from the get go. Arneson wanted a game of underground exploration and fantasy adventure; THAT was his objective. Napoleonic wargame maneuvers underground against the orcs of Sauron or whatever. It was only after a while of playing that players asked “shouldn’t we be getting better [i.e. more effective] at this exploration thing as we survive?” The objective of finding treasure/gold was ALREADY in place…it was a very small leap of concept to adapt that to leveling up.

And it makes sense…but it makes MORE sense when you consider the original scale. “Gygaxian ecology” wasn’t necessarily in effect from the get go. Who knows what giant piles of treasure were pulled out prior to concepts of scaling and “realistic” or “balanced” treasures? The scale of character advancement was different, too…from a "three level" system based on CHAINMAIL (no-name, Hero, and Superhero) to the level seven to twelve range found in OD&D (which quickly scaled up due to infinity potential, Monty Haul campaigns, and the potential of Odin as an antagonist).

2nd Edition AD&D tried to reinvent the game with a revised XP system, but that was pretty much trying to shut the lid on Pandora’s Box…the game needed a rework from the ground up if you wanted to restructure folks’ assumptions. 3rd Edition DID restructure the game assumptions drastically, by making the game entirely about combat (sure, sure…”overcoming challenges,” but those are mostly fighting monsters especially as PCs advance in level) with rewards (feats, spells, etc.) being related to the same (i.e. combat). 4th Edition was a natural “next step” from what had been introduced in 3rd Edition, even though people hated it.

But I’ve blogged about all this before. You can check out my various posts on advancement and development and Arneson’s Blackmoore, etc. scattered throughout this blog. The question isn’t really what D&D is or isn’t or what we’d like it to be. The question is this: given that you don’t like it, what are you going to do about it?

The question is not intended to be rhetorical and is directed at myself as much as any of my readers. Fact is, folks like advancement (not just development) of character. Arneson’s players asking him, “shouldn’t we be getting better at this?” is pretty solid evidence. I think it’s also safe to say that practical experience in one’s craft (in this case “adventuring”) is worth something…most would assume that the wet-behind-the-ears rookie isn’t as effective as the ten year veteran. But do you want the game to model the progress from rookie to veteran? I only ask because, you know, that’s what it does.

And some would say: “That’s the game.” D&D is about young Turks going into an underground world and looking for treasure, eventually becoming hardened vets. Fantasy Vietnam, right?  This doesn’t contrast too much with traditional folklore and hero tales, most of which combine “coming of age” themes with their tales of valor. The difference is in the effectiveness of the heroes in classic legends. Theseus may be on his first adventure, but he still manages to beat the Minotaur single-handedly (and bereft of armor or magical accoutrements). How many 1st level fighters can claim that?

[yes, I suppose one could say Theseus (in D&D terms) got incredibly lucky with his dice rolls, and it is because of this exceptional encounter that he is remembered as a legendary figure. But his is but one example of many, and don’t you want your characters to have the same “literary probability” of heroic achievement? Or do you want your game to be a crapshoot lottery when it comes to seeing if player characters’ names will be remembered?]

Again, we know what D&D is…maybe it's not the game we want to play. At least, not every day of the week.

Do you like variation and disparity in power levels between player characters? Do you think that “good play” (a whole ‘nother line of design theory) should be rewarded with increased in-game effectiveness? Do you want players to have to “pay their dues” before they can access “the good stuff?”

Think about your own fortitude for this last one: does making folks wait for content make the pay-off all the sweeter? Or does it simply frustrate the hell out of ‘em to the point where they want to play something else? Keep in mind that the DM has to wait, too…no excursions into the deepest bowels of hell when the PCs at your table are all under 4th level!

Personally, I’m not much for delayed gratification. That paradigm of doling out points and content over time may be a frigging godsend to the video game industry – who can turn players’ desire to achieve into a steady supply of subscription cash – but that’s the very thing that turns me OFF of such games. I don’t want to have to play and play and play just to reach a point where my character can ride an f’ing horse! Again, I understand that “that’s the game;” it’s just not the game for me.

SO…given all these thoughts, what do I want to do with my redesigned fantasy game? Do I want characters to begin their adventuring career as Harry Potter or as Elric of Melnibone? I’ve already said I don’t like systems like FATE or FUDGE because they’re not “nailed down” enough for my taste, and I certainly don’t want a point-based system like GURPS or a skill based system like BRP (chargen takes too damn long). I like the specificity and simplicity inherent in a random ability, class/level system…it may just be a matter of scaling the game properly.

I’ve talked about level compression before; I’ve also talked about cutting the “XP needed” by a factor of five or ten. It’s possible to write a game so that a “1st level” character has the same effectiveness as, say, a 4th level character (by adjusting HPs, saves, attack rolls, etc.) and making each step of advancement be the equivalent of going up two or three levels. That’s an easy enough fix.

But it still requires a system for awarding those levels, and that would generally be based on some type of “merited action,” whether we’re talking XP or the clearing of a dungeon level.

What if your character went up one level every time he or she found a stairway down? That might resolve some of the problems with the standard system (counting points, opening content, etc.) though it wouldn’t allow for much variation/discrepancy between characters. It would create an objective of exploration certainly; but it would also undermine the traditional premise of “treasure finding,” Maybe you want that, maybe you don’t.

All right, that’s enough for me to chew on for awhile…hopefully, these musings were useful to Anthony.
; )

Friday, September 13, 2013

Spell Works (Part 2)

Abstract magic systems can be a bit overwhelming for players used to more traditional (spell list type) magic systems. Plus it can just be tricky to provide the game information to know what is and isn’t possible…what fits within the scope of the game. To off-set this, you find many abstract systems will include a certain number or specific, named spells for players to choose. Ars Magica, for example, has each mage select a certain number of specific, named formula (spells)…though the presence of these spells does not prevent a character from  using spontaneous magic or developing new formula of their own.

On the other hand not all abstract systems do this. When playing Dresden recently, my pregen character simply had “air evocations” and “water evocations” and I was left to my own creativity in determining how this magic worked. For me, this provided a lot of freedom of expression and my character was damn effective…however, the other mage player ended up “sitting on the sidelines” most of the time, only using his magic in a reactive fashion (like offsetting the antagonist mage’s magic), despite having more raw power than my own character. Abstract systems don’t work for everyone.

But throwing a giant list of spells at players and saying “choose” can be at least as over-whelming as creative freedom.  The lists in D&D and other systems contain hundreds of spells…how would a new player be expected to choose their spell “inventory.” Usually, the offset to this is to limit access so that spells are digested in chunks: a 1st level magic-user in D&D only needs to worry about the magic-user spell list, and only needs to select from the 1st level spells. By the time the character reaches 3rd level (which might take weeks or months) it can be presumed that the player is fairly familiar with the level one spells and is ready to move onto to spells of the 2nd order of magnitude.

[my guess is that limited spell access in D&D has more to do with “game balance” and that particular game’s cosmology, but it DOES provide a mechanical way to introduce players – over time – to a gradually expanding content. Anyone who’s ever tried to start a “high level campaign” from scratch will know how painful it can be for a player to create a Start-at-10th-or-12th-level magic-user because of the time spent choosing spells]

On the other hand, some games with specific magic systems grant “full access” but simply limit the total number of options available to the player. A sorcerer in 1st Edition Stormbringer has the possibility of possessing every spell I the book (especially Melniboneans or the priests of Pan Tang)…however, the total number of spells is limited to summon elemental, summon demon, summon elemental ruler, summon beast lord, and summon demon lord. Yes, there are four different elementals and six different demons meaning the total number of spells is 13, but as the mechanics for summoning a fire elemental or water elemental is exactly the same (as is the summoning of an attack demon or a defense demon, etc.), it’s hardly a huge amount of information that needs to be digested by the new player’s brain.

For the “introductory” game I’m talking about, I find myself torn between the two possible types of system as each has a number of drawbacks.

Abstract System
- Requires a creativity that might be hard for a new player (aimed at kids, remember?)
- Has the tendency or propensity for making mage characters too effective, shifting focus and upstaging other characters
- Can be a bitch to design and explain/write (I’ve tried my hand at this before, more than once)

Specific System
- Can be a long process (with regard to time and page count) creating all inclusive “spell lists”
- Limits player creativity somewhat (I didn’t really want to include “spell research” rules)
- Not sure it works with the themes I originally discussed, unless I open access to the whole “spell book” (thus risking over-whelming the new player).

I will say that I find the idea of doing an Ars Magica Lite really distasteful. For one thing, Ars is already quite well done. For another thing, I’ve found Ars mostly unplayable as an adventure-oriented RPG (which is kind of the point of my game). Plus, this game ain’t going to be any kind of “historic fantasy” game…I already did that with Five Ancient Kingdoms.

But the system I was dreaming up before…a riff off B/X, natch…welp, now that I’ve been thinking and mulling it over, I can anticipate some possible problems. What I wanted to do was base spell knowledge (i.e. spells known) on a combination of INT, character level, and age…regardless of spell magnitude. However, that means providing access to the whole spell book – which might not be too bad if I limit the number of spells in the game, but I wasn’t thinking of something as small as Stormbringer. More like B/X with 60-70 spells spread between five and seven orders of magnitude.

I think…I think that what I need to do is consider a few things about the game before I actually start working on the magic system. I mean, I’ve got the basics in mind, and I should still be able to write it up…getting the geezers I want, at least in a house-ruled type B/X game. But I want to take a few moments to think about something someone brought up a little bit ago.

In fact, it might require another rambling blog post to address.
; )

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Spell Works (Part 1)

A few random notes first.

RE Sport: Congrats to the US national team in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in convincing fashion (and right on to all the gringos that came out in Columbus to support the team; I fully expected the stands to be a sea of green). Condolences to Mexico, birthplace of my wife…however, if you don’t get your shit together you’re not going to go far in Brasil anyway, even if you do make it through the New Zealand play-in. Jeez, Tri!

In other news: the Seahawks look good, and the Mariners have gone down the toilet. What else is new?

RE 5AK: All thanks to a couple people who’ve pointed out typos in Five Ancient Kingdoms. While I can’t correct the print copies at this point, the PDFs have been corrected and you can download the updated versions from DriveThruRPG…assuming you’ve purchased the PDF version (Book 1 and Book 2 are the only ones that needed fixing).

RE “Patriot Day:” Did you know how much gasoline costs in Venezuela? $0.25. That’s not $.25 per gallon; that’s $.25 per tank…like to fill up your SUV (lot of SUVs in Caracas) costs a quarter. Granted, Venezuela has reported oil reserves more than ten times that of the United States (276 billion barrels to 26 billion), but it costs me $50 to fill my fuel efficient car. Just a bit of trivia for folks.

Okay…back to work.

In yesterday’s post I said to “consider the desired end result.” What do you want wizards to look like in your game? Me, I want geezers and crones. Now, I realize that advanced age is no guarantee of knowledge or (Lord knows) wisdom, but for my money I want it to be a (usual) requirement of the former (i.e. knowledge) at the very least.

I also wrote that I didn’t want magical skill to be based on some sort of genetic hiccup…my fantasy world isn’t one of “muggles” versus magic-users. Most people just don’t have the time or inclination or resources or opportunity or dedication to learn the magical discipline. That’s why magic-users will tend to be older geezers – save, perhaps, for the occasional young prodigy or failed apprentice. However, these latter two will be exceptions to the norm, even as magic-users themselves are exceptions to the non-wizard populace. Got that?

All right, now that we’ve got that down, the next part of our design process is to consider the cosmology of our fantasy world. We know what our magic-users look like; now, we need to know what magic itself looks like. Not only that, but we need to start asking (and answering) questions about the game mechanics regarding magic spells.

Now just by the way, let’s understand that I’m not being incredibly original here: pretty much every fantasy heartbreaker published has provided a new and different magic system (i.e. different from the Vancian magic system in D&D). My gripe isn’t with Vance or his fantasy world…or even with the many worlds of D&D (Greyhawk, Eberron, Krynn, whatever). I just want something different for me, somewhat steeped in the lore and mythology of our own world’s pre-D&D fantasy.

Cosmology is the important word here, and probably one that requires its own separate post. What I mean by the term is figuring out how the “laws of the universe” works for your particular game world/system. For example, here are some of the aspects of magic in Five Ancient Kingdoms:
  • Spells are ordered in degrees of magnitude (i.e. “spell level”) just like D&D
  • “Miracles” are divine favors granted to saints and holy men. Magnitude measures greater miracles. Miracles don’t allow saving throws and are generally permanent in nature. There are a limited number of favors a deity will grant to a saint, with more prominent characters (i.e. higher level PCs) gaining more attention.
  • Magician spells tend to be transitory in nature and allow saving throws to resist. They wreck reality (or the perception of reality), but fade and are generally non-permanent. There’s a greater variety, and magnitude reflects the difficulty of learning and casting spells (higher magnitude are more complex and take longer to cast).
  • Spells are a product of knowledge; a magician may have committed some spells to memory and may have others in a written form. There is no limit to the number of times a spell may be attempted, but it must be performed correctly to take effect.
  • Witches' spells, being tied to the material world through their physical components can produce some of the same permanent effects of divine favors, though unlike miracles they still need to be performed correctly and they may be resisted (saving throws) like any magician spell.
  • While divine favors are granted, magician spells must be learned, found or created through research. Low level magicians begin apprenticed to a wizard who will teach them some magic; sorcerers are taught their magic by a demonic tutor who sticks with them throughout their career.
  • Spells (divine or not) generally produce magical effects…they do not deal damage like spells in D&D. Dealing damage is usually a product of combat (sticking people with a sword).

This cosmology works with 5AK because it works with the setting…it models what I want it to model. It does not include rules for long-bearded geezers because, well, magicians in Arabian folklore (especially female magicians) tend to be younger, spryer folks than what you find in northern European folklore (their not basing their archetypes on Wotan/Odin, I guess).

But now I am looking at that type of model so I want to take apart the cosmology and see how to make it work for this new system and the first order of business is this: abstract magic or specific?

Specific magic means “specific spells:” spell lists in other words. This is what you find in most fantasy RPGs, whether you’re talking D&D or Palladium or Warhammer FRPG. Often spells are listed by level (what I call magnitude) with higher levels being beefier spells, but you don’t have to do this. You could simply have a list of powers to choose from, which may or may not be more difficult to cast. Think of force powers in the old D6 Star Wars. Whether or not the spells are a resource (D&D’s Vance system) or utilize a resource (“mana points” or whatever) is irrelevant at this point.

Abstract magic means “spells on the fly;” there’s no set list. This would be games like Ars Magica or Mage the Ascension or The Riddle of Steel where a magic-using character has a number of “components” with which they can “build spells” as needed. For example, in Ars you combine a form (like “fire” or “body”) to a technique (like “create” or “destroy”) to make the spells you want (“create fireball” or “disintegrate person”). Mage is even easier: you have a level (from one to five) in a particular sphere of magic (“mind” or “travel”) and the level determines what you are capable of in that particular arena. Abstract systems require a greater degree of creativity on the part of the player and a greater amount of adjudication from the GM…they also tend to be games in which magic is the dominant force and focus of the game (which doesn’t necessarily work for a D&D like game featuring many different character archetypes).

[to be continued...sorry, I'm just a bit busy today]

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


What do you think of, what image comes to mind, when you hear the word "wizard?"

Is there some iconic character of the silver screen pops into your head? A classic illustration of some sort? Merlin? Gandalf? A video game persona you've been running on your favorite MMORPG? A medieval woodcut?

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that more than a few of my readers have their images of the “magic user” informed by RPG art, especially that of Dungeons & Dragons. Depending on how young you were when you were introduced to the concept of D&D, it’s quite possible that much of your mental pictures of “fantasy” were informed by D&D…or informed by art inspired by D&D.

My iconic wizard.
My own mental image goes back to something different, though. I usually picture the wizard off the cover of the Time Life Book, Wizards and Witches, which was one of my favorites as a child…despite not owning it.

[I don’t know if Time Life Books still publishes these types of series books. They used to be advertised in TV infomercials all the time…volumes on the Old West or WW2, for example. I knew a couple people who collected the “fantasy” series growing up and had a chance to peruse these books…later on, I was fortunate enough to pick up Wizards and Witches, the first volume of the series, in a used book store]

Wizards and Witches provides a lot of good, fun information on the magic users of folklore and mythology, collecting a number of stories from different cultures, not to mention containing many beautiful illustrations. Published circa 1983, this was the first place I discovered Baba Yaga and Vainamoinen and Faust, despite being a (young) veteran of D&D. But then, I was always drawn towards fairy tales as a child (even before D&D) and stories of knights and dragons and wizards and unicorns, etc. would get me amped up faster than a two-liter bottle of Coke. It’s probably why I read so much as a child…back then, books were the main place (or only place) to find such stories, which I devoured when I could get my hands on ‘em.

Anyway, wizards (as depicted in W&W) were pretty much always shown as older gentlemen with long beards and fantastic headgear…miracle workers, with a penchant for flamboyant garb, if an otherwise, respectable and learned “elder” air about them. And I daresay that one will find a similar theme running through the illustrations of the older D&D editions. Whether you’re talking Easley’s painting of “Ringlerun” on the re-vamped PHB (my go-to book for many years) or the Otus drawing on the cover of the Cook Expert set, the robe-and-beard chic instantly identifies an image as a person of sorcery.

Who are these geezers?

THIS is Dungeons & Dragons.
Take a look at the original cover of the AD&D PHB…beautiful and iconic and probably the best depiction of “what D&D is all about” just in terms of the action portrayed. Yes, we have a number of adventurers depicted doing “adventurous stuff.” Can you spot the wizard in the illo? My guess is you’d be drawn to this geezer here:

Withered much?
Now tell me: exactly what retirement home did the party knock over to get this guy on the team?

In my D&D games, I can’t ever recall seeing an “old” wizard. After all, nothing in the rules requires you to create a character that is anything other than a young adventurer in the prime of life…and considering the fact that most campaigns will see you starting at a low level (i.e. “with little magical knowledge”), who would want to play an old coot that’s still “learning the ropes?”

Even if you use the aging tables in the 1st edition AD&D DMG (we always did, back in the day), a first level magic-user has a maximum starting age of 40, and an average age of 30 or so. The guys on the cover of the PHB seem to about the right age for a group of adventures (20s and 30s that is)…except for the geezer with the staff and the long beard. How is that representative of D&D?

Answer: it’s not. But it IS representative of the iconic figure of the “old, bearded wizard.”

But those iconic wizards with the bent back and long beard are also miracle workers, full of might and power...or at least well versed in magical knowledge. If anything, the rules of D&D allow you to create a young magician and tell the story of how exactly he got to the old age, long beard, and powerful wisdom so often depicted in images and folklore.

Except to do so would make the other heroes likewise old and decrepit. Heroic adventurers (other than wizards) are supposed to be hale and hearty individuals in the prime of their lives…and unless there’s some sort of carry-over from campaign-to-campaign (with old, high-level wizards being “grandfathered in,” no pun intended) you’re never going to see that stereotypical geezer hanging with the young Turks. Well, maybe after an unfortunate run-in with a ghost.

But, okay, let’s forget the whole “geezer deficit” thing for a moment. Let’s ask WHY the archetype is typically portrayed in this way?

My guess (or theory or whatever) is that it has something to do with these individuals being wise and learned individuals. Knowledge and lore is, for the most part, only acquired with time and experience and wizards, having excessive amounts of knowledge (compared to the average person) must have been around for a long time.

[yes, there are some pretty young thang sorceresses to be found in folklore, but the really powerful witches – like Baba Yaga – tend to be portrayed as ancient crones, and more than a few of those female mages are said to augment their appearance with their magic. The main vanity of the male wizard appears to be the length and flow-yness of his beard]

I mean, I suppose they could all be half-demons aging backwards like Merlin or Benjamin Button…but then wouldn’t the stories be littered with child-size archmagi?

No, I think that wizards are supposed to be old and stooped due to the time it takes them to acquire and learn the magical knowledge that sets them apart from their fellows. In a pseudo-medieval world (like your typical D&D campaign) there’s no internet and a near total lack of libraries and “centers for higher education.” Knowledge…especially occult knowledge…is scarce and hard to come by. There’s a reason why your average villager isn’t learning a handful of crop-growing spells. It’s not that there’s a limit on magical talent in the fantasy world…it’s that there’s a dearth of learning opportunity.

And trying to get that learning is going to COST you, too. Being a scarce resource allows wizards to charge a pretty penny for their knowledge…and keeping that price high means keeping a lid on the supply. If the village does happen to have a hedge wizard or wise woman, they’re unlikely to want to train any new apprentices…at least not until they’re ready to retire as the local potion-maker of the region. Any type of “wizard school” is likely to only enroll the wealthiest of students…and knowledge will probably only be doled out by the spoonful, as the majority of an apprentice’s time will be spent doing chores around the tower or recopying ancient, decaying tomes…not to mention working in the gardens, cooking meals, satisfying the wizard’s more carnal desires, etc. Basically paying an exorbitant amount of gold for the privilege of being a slave; all for the promise of learning magic. Only the most intelligent of nobleman’s children are going to learn much of anything anyway…and only after a long time (and probably only after taking the initiative to do their own extra studies in snatched, spare moments).

Is it any wonder when sorcerers turn to supernatural means of acquiring knowledge? Including diabolic sources?

The idea of learning magic from Satan or his minions isn’t a new one, of course. Even outside of fiction, the Christian prohibition on working magic is in part based on the premise that its knowledge is procured from hellish sources (the other part of the prohibition comes from the separation from God that occurs when one attempts to acquire powers that should only be available to our Divine Creator). The word occult simply means “hidden,” and there’s a school of thought that such knowledge is hidden with good reason. The Faust story, retold often over the last several centuries, is the prototypical illustration of this.

Faust is an aged, learned guy who, being jaded and getting on in years, decides to make a pact with Satan to live out his last years with all the decadence that magic and hell can provide. Of course, this costs him his eternal soul…but then, that’s why it’s a morality tale. You learn Faust got the short end of the stick and you shouldn’t make his mistake (even in the Goethe version, BTW…Faust is only saved because of his actual repentance, and the kind of divine intervention no one should expect).

But D&D is a game, not a morality tale. I don’t kill people and take their gold in real life…my normal approach to “conflict resolution” usually involves establishing a dialogue and using a little empathy. Part of the fun of a fantasy game is gleeful immersion in the role of a “scurrilous rogue;” why wouldn’t you make a Fasutian bargain if it was available?

Assuming your character isn’t some do-goody paladin-type, of course.

Now, personally, I don’t think the concept of demon summoning goes very well with the Vancian magic of D&D. The pseudo-scifi-weirdness of Vance’s Dying Earth is…well, it’s a different animal compared to the spell working and conjuration found in many folklore tales. A character in Vance’s DE imprints a spell in his brain through memorization (duh) and “fires” the incantation like a chambered bullet, taking immediate effect. There’s no gathering of ingredients, no waiting for the right stars, no chanting and dancing and ritual…all things associated with magic in tales and literature (the only “instant” spells being…usually…associated with magic items, which themselves may have taken time to prepare)…unlike D&D’s Vancian magic.

Or rather, “unlike D&D’s Vancian magic as originally conceived.” Since the advent of AD&D, magic has become a bit of a hybrid, combining folklore with Vance. Spells have “casting times” often exceeding the “instant” time frame. Spells require “material components,” some of which require elaborate preparation. Whether this was done to make Gary’s world more “mythic” in feeling, or simply a matter of “game balance”…who knows? To me, the answer doesn’t really matter, because the starting point (i.e. Vance; see OD&D) doesn’t work for me. It’s a faulty foundation from which to derive the system of magic most folks now take for “D&D magic.”

Yeah, that’s the heart of the matter, and the crux of this post. I don’t play wizards in D&D, don’t much like wizards in D&D, because they don’t meet my expectations of what a wizard is or should be. How’s that grab you? I don’t want to play a 30-something dude with a sleep spell and maybe a charm spell imprinted on my brain…that doesn’t meet my world view when it comes to spell-casters. What I want are old geezers who can truck with demons and spirits and produce supernatural effects because of the occult lore they’ve accumulated over decades.

Is that too much to ask?

I mean is it? Does that wreck the “game balance?”

Let me tell y’all a story. There’s this little spell in 1st edition PHB called cacodemon…not sure how many of you are familiar with it. It’s a 7th level spell; its first appearance (maybe only appearance) in any edition of D&D is in 1E AD&D. It allows the magic-user to summon a single demon of the more powerful type (IV, V, or VI) and bargain with it for service…or condemn it to an otherworldly prison.

You may not be familiar with this spell…I wasn’t (even after many years of playing AD&D) until I saw it used in a game my younger brother was running for two friends. They were about age 12 or so at the time, and it was a fairly typical Monty Haul type game with high level pregens…the kind of game you run when you’re a young DM and have just gotten your hands on your older siblings supercool AD&D books. My brother’s buddy Mike was playing an evil mage (a typical character for this particular player), and when they got into a combat with some monster or other, Mike announced he wanted to summon a demon using cacodemon.

Unfortunately, the casting time is six hours so my brother (in typical young DM fashion) ruled the PC would be out of action for the duration while completing the summoning…presumably off in some corner of the dungeon. The combat proceeded with the other buddy (Brandon) in equally ridiculous fashion, and they all had a few laughs and a pretty good time. I had only been brought in for “consultation,” but having never seen the cacodemon spell in action, couldn’t really provide any great insights.

That was almost 25 years ago. It was the one and only time I’ve seen someone attempt to use the spell.

I like the idea of cacodemon, but I can’t for the life of me see any real application for it in the AD&D game. I guess it could be used like a suped-up invisible stalker, but there sure is a lot of work and effort needed considering its effect…including the need to discover a demon’s “true name?” Why go through the trouble, even to “imprison” the creature; you’d probably have an easier time simply killing the monster if you really had a bone to pick with it!

The presence of cacodemon…and spiritwrack, for that matter…is just odd to me. As I said, I like the idea of it (because, you know, Faust) but it’s a 7th level spell, requiring a 14th level character to cast it. And most 14th level characters don’t have much use for a 7+7 or 8+8 hit dice servant…especially one so resentful and dangerous and so limited in scope of duration. The time to summon such creatures should be when a character is of a lesser level…when the wizard is inexperienced and naïve, and believes the reward outweighs the risk. Not when the wizard can toss around disintegrate spells and14 hit die lightning bolts! I can only assume this is Gygax’s homage to Faust and other demon summoning in literature, and that it was given as a 7th level spell for purposes of “game balance.” Or maybe it was simply provided as a justification for high level opponent wizards to have demonic servants?

I really don’t know…what I do know is that in 25 years of play, I’ve never seen it used. In fact, I briefly considered trying to beg my way back into Alexis’s on-line campaign with  sole objective of playing a mage and trying the cacodemon spell (how many hit points would a Type IV demon have in his campaign using its size/mass?)…but upon realizing it would probably take 10+ years to achieve the required level, decided the “experiment” wouldn't be worth the amount of effort involved.

Such is the case with a lot of the “high level content” of D&D. You pick up the book and say, “hey, my character can control weather or teleport once I hit X level.” But the chance of hitting that level (and opening that content) is so remote given the normal parameters of table-top play, that you might as well save yourself the despair and skip the spell descriptions of any spell over the 4th magnitude.

Frustrating. Give me my old geezer who can at least do a neat thing or two. I’m willing to be aged and beardy if it means I can part the sea and call rocks down from the mountains. Hell, I don’t want to play a “young apprentice;” I want to play a wizened loremaster. Forget game balance for a moment…game balance is only a “problem” due to magnitude of spell being linked to ass kickery and putting wizards in the role of “fantasy artillery.” The whole damn class needs a paradigm shift, in my opinion. Which means, from a design perspective, starting from scratch once again.

Consider the desired end result:

-        Magicians should have enough knowledge to be (magically) effective throughout a game session.
-        Magicians should be old geezers and crones by default…unless you want to play someone young and not very knowledgeable/proficient.
-        Magicians shouldn’t over-shadow the other characters. Magic cannot solve every problem.
-        Magic has limitations and/or hazards; there are reasons for not using magic all the time.
-        Magic is not Vancian.
-        Magic is not confined to individuals who possess a special “magic gene.”
-        Magic is not artillery…or only in very limited circumstances.
-        Magic use requires secret knowledge.
-        Magic use requires belief and conviction.

I’ll be building from there. More on all this later.
"Come forth, Mephisto!"