Saturday, 31 May 2008

Planescape Borges and the Library of Babel

I'm taking a break from discussing my new campaign, because I want to jot down some words on Jorge Luis Borges. I haven't read enough of his work to call myself a fan, but everything I've read I've loved; like China Mieville he's a writer who you can enjoy reading even if you disagree with the politics, and also like Mieville he has an irresistible affection for the weird that comes across in all his work (although of course Mieville has nothing on Borges).

I recently put a thread up on in which I speculated on using Borges' Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Recognition as the basis for a campaign setting; I intend to one day write the idea up for a system like FATE or a heavily doctored SOTC. Recently, though, I've also been thinking about The Library of Babel as something to use in a Planescape campaign. (The story is out of copyright, and a translation is available here, if you're interested. It's a highly recommended short sharp shock, of Argentinian-Magic-Realist weirdness crossed with a Socratic philosophical thought experiment; perhaps that's as much your bag as it is mine.)

The Library of Babel is a Universe of books. In it are exactly 251312000 volumes. Each book contains exactly 410 pages, and each page contains exactly 40 lines of 80 characters. No book is the same - their contents are made up of random letters, spaces and punctuation marks.

Now, most of the volumes are of course gibberish - just garbled text. However, it is also the case that the library contains some books of coherent text, by virtue of the fact that it contains every conceivable combination of letters, characters and spaces. Indeed, it contains not only every novel ever written, but some novels that have not yet been written; it also contains all variations on those novels - so that not only is a complete copy of, say, The Catcher in the Rye hidden somewhere in the middle of one of its volumes, but there is also somewhere a Catcher in the Rye with one different letter somewhere in the text, one with two different letters, one with three... And of course another one with one other different letter somewhere in the text, and one with two other different letters... And the same for every novel ever written. Every non-fiction book too, of course. And, more interestingly for our purposes - every spellbook.

You can probably see where I'm going with that.

The point of the Library of Babel, however, is that there is no catalogue. The books not only contain random text; they are also organized randomly. Whole sects of people live in the library, trying to make sense of it and quantify it, but the task is too great. They disagree not only on the system they should use, but also on the very philosophies underpinning the system; some go so far as to believe that even the random volumes - which make up the overwhelming majority of the Library's books - contain hidden meanings which, once deciphered, will unlock the key to a new reality.

This is perfect for a Planescape campaign, in which the characters are sent to recover a single mighty spell book from the Library. How do they find it amidst the effectively almost infinite shelves? How do they make sure the copy they have is perfectly correct, and not one of the multitude of volumes which contain one or two crucial mistaken characters somewhere in their midst? How do they deal with the mysterious denizens of the Library's honeycomb hallways and archives: the different sects and cults and philosophers, and the monsters who prey on them? How do they find their way around its labyrinthine shelves? What arguments occur between the Bleaker who revels in the apparent meaninglessness of the place, the Godsman who believes it will reveal the path to Godhood, and the Sensate who wants to read every one of its volumes?

It is the stuff dream Planescape dreams are made of, and the kind of thing that makes me wish that the thing was still supported. I guess it was always just too different.

(Incidentally, for those who've never read or played a Planescape product, and for those who tried it but didn't like it, check out last month's Godzilla Gaming Podcast [April 22, 2008]. In it there is a lengthy retro-review of the setting from two self-declared fans, and also a half-hour chat with the famous Monte Cook, who with Zeb Cook and Tony DiTerlizzi came up with most of Planescape.)

Friday, 30 May 2008

Sparkling New Campaign Idea - Part 3: The Ruling Council

The Complete Thief's Handbook is one of the best source books ever produced by TSR, and by extension for the D&D range overall. No, scratch that; it's one of the best source books ever produced for a role playing game, full stop. It's just full to bursting with goodness.

One of its many virtues is a section on how to randomly roll-up Thieves' Guilds. There are tables galore to tell you the relations of the Thieves' Guilds with other organizations, the general alignment of its membership, the type of rulership, and much else besides. With a little tweaking they're perfect for fleshing out an Adventurer's Guild too. Let's see what the Rulership tables dig up in helping me to flesh out the Owlery.

My first roll, on the Guild Rulership table, came up with Complex/Mix. Immediately, that's interesting. I think I'm going to go with a Ruling Council that ostensibly has a leader, the Guild Master, but the other Council members (d3+2 in number; 5 is the result) are trying to depose him. Why is this the case? Well, first of all, let's make another roll on the Rulership Style Table, which will give results on three axes (Strong-Weak, Cruel-Just, and Despotic-Populist).

The results are Fairly Strong, Fairly Cruel, and Fairly Despotic. Hmm, a little bland, but let's go with it. The Guild Master is a tough, respected veteran of many adventurers who, while you would not call him a tyrant, rules with an iron fist. His word goes, and the Ruling Council have been reduced to an advisory role under his rule. However, it is clear that the Guild Master is growing old. He won't be around forever, and already the Ruling Council are plotting their takeover and how they will run the Owlery once that he is out of the picture. This should allow for plenty of politicking and behind-the-scenes machinations

Now, I need to tweak the tables a little to suit my campaign, and make some rolls to determine the nature of the Guild Master and the Ruling Council members. First, levels; d8+8 for the Guild master, d6+8 for the Ruling Council. The results: 14, then 7, 14, 13, 10, and 7.

Now classes: I'll roll a d12. 1-2 will be a fighter, 3-4 a cleric, 5-6 a magic-user, 7-8 a dwarf, 9-10 a halfling, and 11-12 a thief. (I don't want any of them to be elves; the campaign is going to be elf-lite, for the simple reason that I would be a happy man if I never even heard the word 'elf' ever again.) And hey presto, we have a Magic User, a Fighter, a Halfling, another Halfling, a Dwarf, and another Halfling. Interesting. Already a pattern suggests itself: the Halflings and the Dwarf using their power and influence together, and hoping to edge out the two humans (the Guild Master and his loyal lieutenant?).

Finally, Alignments. Straight up d10 with 1 being Lawful Good and 9 being Chaotic Evil, with 0 a roll-again: NE, then LN, LE, TN, LE, CE. Well, that changes things a little! Without Good characters in there the whole tone of life inside the Owlery takes a dark and machiavellian bent. I quite like it; plotting and scheming will clearly be the norm. So let's flesh out these evil halflings.

The Guild Master, Durwent Slate. Neutral Evil Level 14 Magic User

Durwent was once a Magic User of some considerable power, and an imposing figure of a man, too; tall, barrel-chested, with black hair and beard flecked with grey and glaring, bright eyes. The years have started to dull him, though, as repeated chopping will an axe. There are whispers that it is only a matter of time before senility takes him, and already his temper is growing increasingly irrational, his conversation increasingly rambling.

The First Member of the Council, October Forestaff. Lawful Neutral Level 7 Fighter

October bas been a comrade and partner of Durwent's for many years; indeed it was October who nominated Durwent to be Guild Master when the previous one retired. He was adventuring with the older man from the age of 15, and looks up to him as a father rather than as to a friend or Master. He bears the brunt of Durwent's increasingly frequent rages with good grace, and does his best to foil the plotting of the other Council members in his own simple way. He was never one for politicking and prefers to deal with enemies at the point of his Guisarme.

The Second Member of the Council, Jettie Crackenridge. Lawful Evil Level 14 Halfling

Jettie is the older sister of another Council member, Jude. Both of them appear alike in temperament to outsiders, being calm and collected in all things. But where Jude's outward appearance is genuine - he is the mediator, forever non-committal - Jettie's apparent equanimity conceals an ambition and an arrogance to rival the blackest-hearted of Dragons. She wants to be Guild Master, and what she wants she takes - sooner or later. Like Jude she has unusual, amethyst-coloured eyes, coal-black hair and dark chestnut coloured skin. Nobody is sure where the two of them hail from originally.

The Third Member of the Council, Jude Crackenridge. True Neutral Level 13 Halfling

As his Alignment suggests, Jude is an unflappable, calming influence on the Council - always the first to advise caution and to allay hostility. However, his ultimate loyalty to his sister should not be doubted; like her he wants nothing but to see Jettie Crackenridge in the position of Guild Master. Where he differs is how to achieve it: Jettie wants to take the seat by deception and stealth; Jude merely wants to wait until it falls into her lap.

The Fourth Member of the Council, Gurt Brayer. Lawful Evil Level 10 Dwarf

Gurt is Brayer by name, and a Brayer by nature - loud, obnoxious, opinionated and rude. He sees himself as the natural successor to Durwent, being clearly the most intelligent, powerful and important member of the Council. Any day now he expects to be chosen as Durwent's heir when the old human stands down - and to not incidentally be the first Dwarven Guild Master in the Owlery's long history. His brash and blatant xenophobia and arrogance should not deceive the unwary, however. He is a canny fighter and knows the laws and regulations of the Guild better than any other - his special area of expertise being twisting those laws and regulations in his and his cronies' favour.

The Fifth Member of the Council, Freeman Joyce. Chaotic Evil Level 7 Halfling

Freeman Joyce is hated and feared by most of the members of the Council, but it is considered necessary to have him around "where they can keep an eye on him". In other words, it is better that he sit at the Council table than rabble-rouse and cause trouble in the great common hall amongst the ordinary members. Of course, he creates enough problems even so with his endless agitating and calls for revolution - although nobody is really sure what his ultimate goal is other than "shaking down the status quo" and "blowing the cobwebs out of the place". He is a rebel without a cause; an Iago or a Steerpike, sewing the seeds of strife apparently for the pure thrill of it. What he lacks in physical power he more than makes up for in his horrible charisma; it is his popularity amongst the more impressionable guild members that makes him dangerous.

I think that weaves together a few nice strands of intrigue for the PCs to get involved in as they grow in power and influence in the guild. Next up: the town where the Owlery is situated, and its immediate surroundings.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Sparkling New Campaign Idea - Part 2: The Guildhall and Library

So, Adventurer's Guilds.

Every guild needs a guildhall. That's a given. This particular Adventurer's Guild is located in a big, ramshackle old building that everybody calls The Owlery; it was built centuries ago at the behest of a forgotten burgher of the town who used it to breed a certain species of fish owl. (The descendants of those birds still inhabit the rafters of the building to this day, making their living by fishing in the nearby lake.) The Owlery is a sprawling labyrinth of a building, full of cul-de-sac corridors, mezzanines, false doors and spiral staircases which the original owner built to confuse thieves. These days it mostly confuses the guild's members, many of whom still can't find their way around despite having visited the place for years. It is full of collected artifacts that members have donated over the centuries, from huge vases to stuffed leopards to ancient paintings.

Inside The Owlery are offices of the guild's various Aldermen, Kerzenmeisters and other functionaries, several council chambers for meetings of the Ruling Council, a dormitory, a great Common Hall for feasting and carousing, and The Library.

The Library is a vast collection of diaries, letters, bestiaries, explorer's accounts, and treatises on any and every subject related to the Adventuring profession. It is the accumulated knowledge of dozens of generations of guild members, and is the organization's most prized possession. As such it is jealously guarded.

The Librarians

The Librarians are twenty-four in number; twelve replacements are elected every five years, and each Librarian serves a ten-year term. They are generally men and women of exceptionally trustworthy character, but nevertheless they are each bound to their duties by a Geas spell cast by a high-ranking Wizard member of the Ruling Council. Most commonly chosen are Wizards and Clerics, but prospective Librarians can be of any class. However, only those of a Lawful alignment may be chosen.

Librarians are typically of 6-9th level, and should be equipped accordingly. As well as their class and racial powers, they gain the benefit of a magical ring, of which there are twenty-four in existence. These magical rings are plain, made from copper, and are entirely unnoteworthy in appearance. They allow the Librarians to Know Alignment, Detect Evil and Detect Magic at will. Upon leaving their posts, the Librarians are expected to pass on their rings to their replacements.

The Golems

Five golems are placed in different locations in the Library. To the unknowing, they appear to be somewhat unusual-looking statues or artifacts, but they will spring to life should the Library need defending or should a thief be suspected. The first is a Gargoyle Golem who stands near the entrance. The second is a Glass Golem who is part of the stained-glass window on the fourth floor. The third is a Clay Golem who stands in a dusty corner under a staircase on the second floor. The fourth is an Iron Golem who is disguised as a suit of armour in the lobby. The fifth and final one is a Stone Golem situated between two book cases on the third floor.


Some books can be loaned for a period of one or two weeks, or a month. They are expected to be returned by noon on the due date, and the rules are very strict; one hour after noon has passed is considered too late. Every day that a book is overdue a fine of 10gp is levied. After a month has passed beyond the due date, the fine is ratcheted up to 50gp per day. After six weeks have passed, the penalty is a minor magical item or potion. After two months, the Librarians will "defer the matter to the Ruling Council", which generally means that the culprit will be found with a scrying spell and a Retriever summoned to recover the book.
Tomorrow: the Ruling Council.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

My Sparkling New Campaign Idea - Part I: Concept

I'm starting to think about maybe considering the possibility of just perhaps running a PBP or PBEM D&D Rules Cyclopedia game, so I can try out some of my recent crackpot ideas. The Big List of Things I Want to Include/Experiment With (TBLOTIWTI/EW) is as follows:

  • I want the campaign to be sandbox; There Shalt Be No Plot Arcs.
  • I want the flavour to be a kind of heady brew of Old School dungeoneering, Lovecraftian weirdness, Planescape-inspired philosophy-with-clubs, and 2nd Edition AD&D above-ground high-fantasy wilderness adventure.
  • I want it to embrace randomness, thus:
    • There will be random encounter tables galore, with a light smattering of random flavour event tables into the bargain.
    • There will be no Rolling of 4d6s and dropping the lowest or Rolling 3d6 and assigning to taste or any other such nefariousness; Stats will be generated on a "3d6-in-order, create-a-character from-there-and-make-the-most-of-it" basis.
  • I want to include rarely used (at least by me) monsters that my recent foray into the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual has unearthed, such as:
    • Giant Crayfish (of course)
    • Crabmen
    • Aarakocra
    • Kenku
    • Medusae
    • Blink Dogs
    • Displacer Beasts
  • I want there to be henchmen and hirelings - see this post, which Sham coincidentally made at the same time I started thinking about the idea.
  • I want there to be an Adventuring Guild.

The last item is one I haven't brought up in this blog before, but it's a concept that has slowly been growing on me over the last year or two. Until recently I'd been keen to pooh-pooh the idea that adventurers actually thought of themselves as a profession; most of my games had involved 'ordinary folk' being thrust by the vagaries of chance into doing whatever they were doing - or, at the very least, ex-soldiers and wandering tinkers and the like who were 'adventuring' in an unselfconscious way. I still prefer that type of campaign, I think, but I'm ready to toy with the idea that there is a class of people in "Blah Blah World" (I haven't thought of a name yet) who see themselves as Adventurers with a Capital A and treat it as an actual way to make a living (and get rich, or whatever).

I'll expand on this concept some more in my next blog entry; there are lots of ideas floating around inside my head (mostly to do with the Adventuring Guild's internal politics, rules, tax/fee systems, and Library of Adventuring) but I need to get a better fix on them before I start committing them to (digital) paper.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Dragonhood Down The Ages

Brian made an interesting post recently about the new Hobbit/Lord of the Rings prequel films. I'm looking forward to their release, partly because I'm a fan of Guillermo Del Toro's work, but mostly because I just love The Hobbit and think it actually makes a much more 'filmable' piece than The Lord of the Rings. Those films had their moments but were ponderous, over-long and full of misplaced humour that I just didn't like. That was an unfortunate consequence of the nature of the source material - which isn't a criticism of the books; Tolkien had no idea when he wrote them that anybody might ever consider wanting to turn them into blockbuster movies.

A lot of the discussion centres around Smaug, and I am given hope by Del Toro's encouraging noises in that regard:

Smaug should not be "the Dragon in the Hobbit movie" as if it was just "another" creature in a Bestiary. Smaug should be "The DRAGON" for all movies past and present. The shadow he cast and the greed he comes to embody- the "need to own" casts its long shadow and creates a thematic / dramatic continuity of sorts that articulates the story throughout.... One of the main mistakes with talking dragons is to shape the mouth like a snub Simian one in order to achieve a dubious lip-synch. A point which eluded me particularly in Eragon, since their link is a psychic one.

To me, Smaug is the perfect example of a great creature defined by its look and design, yes, but also, very importantly, by his movement and -One little hint- its environment - Think about it... the way he is scaled, moves and is lit, limited or enhanced by his location, weather conditions, light conditions, time of the year, etc. That's all I can say without spoilers but, if you keep this curious little summary you'll realize several years form now that those things I had in my mind ever since doodling the character as a kid had solidified way before starting the shoot of the film.

This is good stuff; a director who seems to understand fantasy and has genuine passion for the real deal, not its diluted derivatives.

Dragons have become almost boring over time. Actually, on this point I think I can see where China Mieville was coming from with his banalifying systematization criticism of D&D; Statting out dragons was a noble impulse on the part of the designers (what could be more iconic than adventurers slaying dragons - and how else to do that if they don't have Stats?) but it demystified and de-romanticised the things to the point where they became standard. Check out this picture from the 3rd edition Monster Manual, for example:

A perfectly acceptable picture (although with the slightly cartoonish look that characterised 3rd edition), but one that I'm sure you'll agree doesn't convey much in the way of awe or terror. It's almost anodyne.

I also blame the Dragonlance books, which were responsible for a lot that was bad about 2nd edition AD&D in general: over the course of those books dragons went from being terrifying ancient reptilian demigods to humdrum, ordinary, rather pathetic creatures - like overgrown, scaled, flying horses. Nothing could have been more bland than end-of-series Dragonlance dragons.

It wasn't ever thus. Compare the picture above, for instance, with the great John Howe's picture The Death of Smaug:

Admittedly the 3rd edition Green Dragon picture isn't an action shot, but I still know which of the two has more majesty, mystery, wonder and romance. I hope 4e goes some way to rectifying the problem, but I remain to be convinced.

Long Forgotten Tasks

A concept in fantasy monsterhood which I've always liked is the idea of creatures whose lives once had meaning but no longer do.

An example to explain what I mean: the first Viriconium book (I do rather seem to be harping on about the series recently; it must be getting around time for me to re-read it) contained a three-eyed, horribly powerful race of monsters who were discovered hidden in the icy North. The things were stronger and quicker than any human, and once reawakened they ravaged the entire world, killing anybody they came across and always leaving behind a corpse with the top of the skull sliced off and the brain removed.

Eventually over the course of the book it became clear that the things were automatons, created by an ancient, forgotten society for whom war was a kind of game. Part of the rules of that game were that the brains of the dead could be harvested and given new bodies, ready to fight on; the three-eyed automatons were vehicles for that brain-harvesting process. Even though millennia had passed, the society in question had faded into oblivion and the task had lost all meaning, the automatons knew nothing else except their gruesome work and once reawakened from the ice continued to pursue it with mindless efficiency.

At the same time, I'm reminded of the short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison. A central facet of that story is that the evil computer, AM, hates humanity at least partly because humanity created it for a purpose which is no longer relevant. It has lost its original purpose and now has no reason left to exist, but it has no choice but to continue to exist, for eternity.

These two different lines of thought have merged with another parallel line in this post I wrote, on Doppelgangers, and given me the idea for a small group of Doppelgangers who were created centuries ago by an evil archmage for some purpose or other. That archmage long ago died, but the Doppelgangers live on, still trying to perform the tasks - assassinations, spying, arson, theft - that he set for them even though they know that he is dead. They do this simply because there is nothing else for them to do and they know no other way to live; the desire and ability to create, to love, to enjoy, is not in them; it is not why they were created. Time has made them increasingly bitter and spiteful, as they have come to hate their dead maker for dying and depriving their life of any real meaning, and to hate the humans they live amongst for their weakness and frailties. At the same time jealousy for ordinary humans' simple and contented lives threatens to consume them with self-loathing.

The Doppelgangers

Flick, the Leader
Chaotic Evil Doppelganger
HD: 6+1
THAC0: 14
AC: 2
Number of Attacks: 2
Damage/Attack: By weapon, or 1d4/1d4

Flick has become the ostensible leader of the group. Stronger and more intelligent than the others, he controls them through a combination of manipulation, cruelty and magnanimity. He takes a horrible pleasure in spreading the chaos that his dead master desired, especially in murder; the power to take life is a heady drug to him.

Gin and Bear, the Twins
Chaotic Evil Doppelgangers
HD: 4+1 / 5+1
THAC0: 16 / 15
AC: 2 / 3
Number of Attacks: 2
Damage/Attack: By weapon / By weapon +3

Gin and Bear were created on the same day by the archmage, and so are called the Twins. They are bonded to each other in some sense, though not by love or loyalty - made from the same stuff, they act like two halves of the same soul, much as they wish it was not so. Gin, the female, is small and quick; Bear, the male, is strong and tough.

Rat, the Runt
Chaotic Evil Doppelganger
HD: 4+1
THAC0: 16
AC: 3
Number of Attacks: 2
Damage/Attack: By Weapon

Rat is the youngest of the four. Bullied incessantly by the other three, he takes his frustrations out on his victims in turn; he is a brutal sadist, even more so than the others, and his worst excesses have occasionally almost led to his discovery.

Monday, 26 May 2008

He would have wanted it this way...

Qwerty made an interesting comment in this post about starting a campaign at a funeral. Now, I happen to think that's a capital idea, and I absolutely refuse to let it be said that I don't know how to steal a good idea when I see one. A funeral provides both an instant link between the players (to the dead person) and, what's better, a plethora of options for getting them together for some sort of quest. It also gives me another chance to make up a random dice roll table, which I've discovered an inordinate liking for. So, without further ado, I bring you:

The Random Funeral Quest Table

The players start off the campaign at the funeral of a mutual acquaintance; they may or may not know each other. Before beginning, roll a d20 on the following table, and use it for the basis for the campaign, or the first adventure of it. (NB: For simplicity's sake I've assumed the dead person is male, but needless to say it could just as well have been a woman.)

1-3: The dead man was murdered, but nobody knows by whom.
4-6: A note was found amongst the dead man's possessions which apparently contained his last will and testament, and his last wishes. Unfortunately, aside from the title, the entire contents are written in a code and nobody knows how to decipher it.
7-9: When the dead man's corpse was discovered, a body part was missing.
10-12: The dead man was murdered, and everybody knows by whom. Unfortunately, the murderer is extremely powerful, extremely rich, and otherwise beyond the remit of the law.
13-15: The dead man's body was discovered in a room whose door and windows were locked from the inside.
16-18: The dead man was discovered hanging by the neck from the rafters of his attack; however, no suicide note was found and he had always given the appearance of being completely content with his life.
19-20: The dead man was discovered lying in the middle of a half-scrubbed out chalk circle.

Further suggestions welcome!

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Of Banalifying Systematization and Weird Golems

I do like China Mieville's books, on balance, despite wishing that he would just write stories with characters, rather than mouthpieces. I like the fact that they're intelligent and literate, and yet at the same time all about monsters and weirdness; it's a great combination and one I'd be aiming for if I was a fantasy writer.

It's not really a surprise to find that Mieville was a D&D player in his youth; I bet the majority of fantasy writers under the age of 45 were. Slightly more surprising is that he's perfectly willing to admit to it in interviews, even if he always prefaces such comments by stressing that he has "no desire to start playing again now":

Probably one of the most enduring influences on me was a childhood playing RPGs: Dungeons and Dragons [D&D] and others. I’ve not played for sixteen years and have absolutely no intention of starting again, but I still buy and read the manuals occasionally....I still love all that—I collect fantastic bestiaries, and one of the main spurs to write a secondary-world fantasy was to invent a bunch of monsters, half of which I’m sure I’ll never be able to fit into any books.

It's refreshing to hear a fantasy author at least go some of the way to half-way thinking about possibly implying that playing D&D doesn't have to involve being a socially inept, geeky, aberrant freak.

At the same time, I think Mieville has completely the wrong end of the stick when he goes on to say that D&D is a creatively stifling influence on fantasy (something M. John Harrison also hints at; see below). From the same interview as the quote above:

[One of the other influences on me] of RPGs was the weird fetish for systematization, the way everything is reduced to “game stats.” If you take something like Cthulhu in Lovecraft, for example, it is completely incomprehensible and beyond all human categorization. But in the game Call of Cthulhu, you see Cthulhu’s “strength,” “dexterity,” and so on, carefully expressed numerically. There’s something superheroically banalifying about that approach to the fantastic.

I think this is a fundamental error, given the lie by the sheer volume of weird and wonderful stuff that RPG authors, designers, and more importantly DMs and players have come up with over the few decades during which the hobby has been popular. Trawl through the forums at,, or the many gaming blogs out there on the web, and you'll soon realise that the exact opposite to Mieville's argument is the case: the systematization that comes hand-in-hand with RPGs and monsters is a spur to creativity, not a hindrance.

In view of that, I'm going to go ahead and stat up a monster vaguely inspired by a creature from Mieville's book Iron Council:

Moon Golem

The Moon Golem is crafted by only the most powerful archmages from the clearest light of a full moon. A silvery, intangible thing, with an outline somewhat like a man and somewhat like a bull, it attacks with horrible and inevitable slowness and grace.

Intelligence: Non
Alignment: Neutral
AC: -4
Movement: 6
HD: 14 (70hp)
THAC0: 7
No. of Attacks: 2
Damage/Attack: 3d8/3d8
Special Attacks: If the Moon Golem successfully hits with both attacks it grabs its target and crushes for an additional 2d10 damage.
Special Defenses: A Moon Golen can be hit only by Cold Iron weapons, or weapons enchanted to +1 or more
Size: Large (8-10')
Morale: Fearless (20)
Other: The Moon Golem is non-corporeal, and can pass through doors and walls without impediment. It attacks the same target relentlessly and will not stop until it is destroyed or its target is dead (whereupon it will immediately focus on another). When it is a full moon the Moon Golem is at its strongest, and on such nights it gains 2 HD and increases its movement to 12.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Sandbox Weddings

Realism and D&D make for uncomfortable bedfellows, as we all know. We probably shouldn't devote too much time to trying to make the game emulate reality. Even so, I've occasionally wondered why more DM's don't include the sort of background flavour events - weddings, festivals, religious ceremonies - that can really add to the feeling that the players actually are in a world, not just in a crudely drawn dungeon map.

I'm not sure why, but this idea for a short vignette as part of a sandbox campaign popped into my head last night:

The Hillfern Wedding

As the players approach the town (Hillfern, population 750, swollen to over 1,000), they realise that something is going on - they can hear the distant noise of laughter, music, and merrymaking. Finally they arrive and discover that most of the population of the town and the surrounding countryside is celebrating a wedding. (If they ask around, they'll find out that it is between the son of the mayor and the daughter of a prominent merchant, whose fathers have put on a feast for the entire town in a show of magnanimity.) It's mid-afternoon, so the population is in an advanced stage of drunkenness, as they've been reveling since morning. There are stalls everywhere hawking wares, ribbons and pennants festooning the houses, young couples getting up to who-knows-what in the alleyways, and vomit in the gutters.

Roll a d20 on the following table every so often while the players are in the town:

1-2: The players come across two men having a fight that has gone too far, as one of the combatants is just about to draw a knife...
3-5: One or more of the players spot a pickpocket stealing from a middle-aged woman's purse.
6-8: Passing a narrow alleyway, one or more of the players notice that somebody has dropped a pouch a few yards into the entrance, out of which a few gold coins have spilled. This is a trap: Two cutpurses (1+1 HD, Club) are waiting in the shadows to ambush anybody who tries to pick up the gold.
9-12: A pickpocket targets a random party member.
13-16: Close by, a horse takes fright, suddenly cantering off down the street while the panicked young noblewoman who was riding it clings on for dear life.
17-19: Somebody tries to assassinate the father of either the bride or the groom.
20: The party run across an old enemy.

Of course, this has limited mileage. Probably you could only make one roll on the chart as it stands before the players start to think, "Just what kind of a wedding is this?" - and a roll of 17+ will obviously lead to something bigger than just a vignette. The chart could do with expanding, too; I jotted it down roughly in the space of five minutes. But you get the idea, I think.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Old Johnny in the Lake - the Crayfish Demigod

I'm going to go ahead and post what I was mulling over while at work yesterday: I bring you the bare bones low down on an adventure location called Old Johnny in the Lake - the Crayfish Demigod.

(This idea first cropped up here, and was elaborated upon by kelvingreen and Milk.)

Old Johnny is a crayfish who has lived in the same lake for millenia, over the course of which he has grown slowly bigger and bigger; he is now roughly the size of a blue whale. The lake is a big and deep one - a Loch Ness or a Lake Champlain - and while Old Johnny used to live close to the shore he is now big and tough enough to roam the murky depths of his watery realm.

The people living around the lake worship Old Johnny as their god. They have worshipped him for so long, and done so in sufficient numbers, that he has actually become a god of sorts; an unthinking, voracious, alien god, but a god all the same. Old Johnny "knows only his own cold hunger" (Milk's line) and unconsciously wills his worshipers to assuage it. They do this by spreading rumours around the neighbouring lands that there are several giant crayfish, ripe for the eating, in their lake - and all are welcome to try to catch them for a small price in gold. Old Johnny then feasts on the unwitting adventurers, fishermen and thrill seekers who are attracted by these rumours.

Old Johnny: Neutral Gargantuan Crayfish
AC: -2
Movement: 6, Swim 12
Hit Dice: 16+6
THAC0: 4
No. of Attacks: 2
Damage/Attack: 4-24/4-24 (on a natural 19 or 20 on Old Johnny's 'to hit' roll, his claws have severed a limb; roll 1d4 to determine which)

The village itself is situated in an old, abandoned castle by the lakeside. There are around a hundred and fifty permanent inhabitants and worshipers of Old Johnny, forty or so of whom are combatants. They sometimes operate as bandits in the nearby hills, killing wayfarers or capturing them alive in order to feed them to their shellfish master.

Villager: Neutral Evil Human Bandit
AC: 8 (boiled leather)
Movement: 12
Hit Dice: 1+1
THAC0: 19
No. of Attacks: 1
Damage/Attack: 1-6 (spear)

Their current leader is Chief Graham, a tall, thin man with icy green eyes and a pallid complexion. He dominates the rest of the community, calling himself the Voice of The Claws and bullying or cajoling or bribing the other villagers to do Old Johnny's will whenever their faith wavers.

Chief Graham: Lawful Evil Human fighter
AC: 6 (studded leather)
Movement: 12
Hit Dice: 3+1
THAC0: 17
No. of Attacks: 1 or 2
Damage/Attack: 2-7 (spear) or 2-9/2-7 (broad sword and hand axe)

Chief Graham's wife, Lucinda, is the village wise-woman, shaman and priestess of Old Johnny - she guides worship and prayer to the crayfish and also functions as a kind of hedge witch and healer.

Lucinda: Lawful Evil Human Cleric
AC: 10
Movement: 12
Hit Dice: 2+1
THAC0: 18
No. of Attacks: 1
Damage/Attack: 1-4 (club)
Functions as a 3rd level cleric

A picture of Old Johnny's Lake with the abandoned castle in the foreground:

Old Johnny's lake can be part of a mid- or low-level adventure. If the former, the players will face combat with Old Johnny and the villagers; if the latter, it is more likely that the players will be trying to escape with their lives.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Role Playing in the Pastel City

I rather like the idea of a West Marches style game as it stands. But my mind wants to use the concept as a way to turn the least-role-playable set of fantasy novels ever (the Viriconium books) into the setting for a game.

If you haven't read any of the Viriconium books, first things first, you really must. Along with Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison is one of those fantasy writers who would be lauded from the rooftops by the literary elite if only he didn't spend all of his time in the fantasy/sci-fi ghetto with the other untouchables. The beauty and precision of the language in the Viriconium books has to be read to be believed, and as well as that, they're just wonderfully weird - genuinely visionary - and pretentious in the best way possible. (The central concept for the books is that reality itself has become so old that it is beginning to fade and fray; Harrison described it with the immortal line: "The World is a muddled old woman...what seemed clear to her yesterday she remembers only by remaking it.")

Viriconium is a city, but the most important point to remember about it is that it is never the same city twice. Each short story and novel has it in a slightly different guise - the name even changes, being 'Vriko' and 'Uriconium' in some pieces - and though certain locations within it (the Plaza of Unrealized Time, The Stair, Alves, The High City, the Trois-Vertes, the Luitpold Cafe) remain the same, their locations shift from tale to tale. This is also true of the characters, who are different from book to book even though the same archetypes reappear (the melancholy swordsman, the vicious dwarf, the ancient man who may not be human, the fortune teller woman, the queen). This makes the Pastel City pretty much a perfect fit for an urban version of the Western Marches concept - ad hoc games arranged on an irregular basis with locations, adventures and characters worked out by the players together. You might even say that the Western Marches concept supports exactly the philosophy behind the stories themselves, being a way of playing D&D where nothing is ever quite the same from week to week but a common thread somehow holds everything together.

The trick is getting the tone right. Viriconium manifestly isn't typical high fantasy fare. Indeed, to make it such is to fall foul of the very problem that Harrison himself indicates when he remarks that:

[The] commercial fantasy that has replaced them [i.e. Tolkien, Moorcock and the other "great modern fantasies"] is often based on a mistaken attempt to literalise someone else’s metaphor, or realise someone else’s rhetorical imagery. For instance, the moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, “Yes, but what did Sauron look like?”; or, “Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?”; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien’s images. You have brought them under control. You have tamed, colonised and put your own cultural mark on them.

It was this very tendency that motivated him to try to write something markedly different (indeed, opposite).

No, a Viriconium-based role playing setting would have to be something else entirely from the D&D worlds we know and love. For starters, the players would have to buy into the concept itself; but they would also have to resist the masturbatory kind of "narrativism" that is too often the result of trying to run a "storytelling game". (The Viriconium series tries to do something radically different with fantasy, but it is still at base about quests, fights with swords, and slaying monsters.) For another thing, they would have to be the kind of people who get a kick out of not quite ever knowing what is going on and moreover see that as the whole point, and that isn't to everyone's taste. Like me, they'd also probably have to be pretty pretentious.

I'm going to give the matter some more thought and see if I can better expand on what I think a Viriconium D&D campaign would be like to actually play.

Of Mice and Men and Rolling Up Stats

I've always thought that Point Buy methods of character creation - whatever the system, be it GURPS, Cyberpunk 2020, D&D or Rolemaster - are a bad lot. Not because of the usual complaint of munchkinism. Nor because it isn't very reflective of real life for everybody to be on a precisely equal playing field. No, it's just because I like rolling Stats so damn much. You can't tell me that totting up point scores and painstakingly working out exactly the character you want has anything like the mystery, the romance, the sheer joy of having 3d6 in your hand, rolling, and waiting to see what comes up.

There was an interesting post at Malevolent and Benign yesterday in which Max gave a kind of potted history of his life with D&D. I was amused to learn that I wasn't the only one who had an inordinate amount of fun as a teenager, by myself, just rolling up characters, drawing maps, writing up adventures that would never be played, and poring over obscure rule books. I suppose I could have got up to much worse by myself shut up in my bedroom. And that's as far as we'll go with that train of thought...

These days I don't have much time to do any of those things, and I don't think I've actually rolled up a character in years; these days, when I play, I almost always DM, and I never roll up NPCs (I just make their Stats up). Well, that's no good at all. I'm going to roll up a character right now, the way it used to be done. I have about a million d6 next to me right now, and I'm going to pick three of them at random and get rolling. Let's see what comes out:

STR: 8
INT: 8
WIS: 8 (!)
DEX: 9
CON: 10
CHR: 14

Okay, so that's why people don't like rolling up Stats. He/she is officially the most boring character in the world. Already we are into dealing-with-mediocre-Stats territory. But hey, at least he/she has a nice smile.

So who is this character going to be? Well, I still love the idea of Tony DiTerlizzi's AD&D Mouse Thief:

So here's one of my own.

Tobias Toptail, Gentlemouse Adventurer
Class: Thief Alignment: Neutral Good

STR: 8
INT: 8
WIS: 8
DEX: 9
CON: 10
CHR: 14

Tobias is an adventurer from a long line of adventurers - the Toptail family, famous from the Old Churchyard to the Weir by the Watermill and everywhere in between. The Toptails have raided farmhouses, organised anti-cat posses, climbed trees and swam streams for generations, and the stories of their adventures have been told to local mouse children for years. Tobias is desperate to live up to his family name, but has a clear problem: he is a mouse of very mediocre talents -as his quicker, cleverer, stronger and tougher brothers and sisters have been keen on telling him ever since he was old enough to want to join them on adventures. About all that he has on his side is general good natured amiability, a winning smile, and twinkling eyes, and he has had to rely on that more than once in order to survive.

That was a rainy Saturday afternoon when I was 13 or 14, that was. I would then put Tobias through his paces on an adventure through a randomly generated dungeon, perhaps with a couple of other rolled-up characters for company, and see what he came out with. What can I say? I was a geek, although chances are, if you're reading this, you were too.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The Changing Face of Blood-Sucking Wallachians

I came across this post on enworld this morning after clicking on a link at another site. No, don't worry, I'm not going to put up Yet Another Anti-4e Rant. Rather, I found myself reading the "spoiler" information on vampires, about half-way down the post, and suddenly realising how much D&D vampires have changed:

Vampires are no longer repelled by garlic or unable to cross running water. (Granted, for those of us using Van Richten's Guide to Vampires, they've been able to cross running water for over seventeen years . . . ) The art's recycled from the 3.5E MM, so yes, the example vampire lord is using a spiked chain. There's also a ritual for vampire creation by vampire lords--it involves an exchange of blood, killing and burying the victim, and a prayer to Orcus.

Personally I'm not a great vampire fan - I tried reading an Anne Rice book once, but the ennui was just too much for me - but I quite liked the monster's incarnation in older editions of D&D, because it tried to emulate all the old European legends: vampires could be unmasked by passing in front of a mirror, were scared of garlic, couldn't cross running water, could only be killed by a stake through the heart, and could only enter somebody's house if they were invited in. I enjoyed that mythical feel, and the way it harked back to old horror films and ancient childhood stories.

Nowadays vampires have a totally different feel in D&D. I suspect a large part of this is the influence of White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade, which along with the Anne Rice books and the Blade films completely re*vamp*ed (geddit?) the image of the creature in the fantasy/role playing community. Suddenly, in the mid 90's, vampires were too-cool-for-school, self-absorbed, emo-core, image-conscious supermodel types, rather than the suit-wearing Romanian nobles of old. They were the in-thing. At the time I was probably too young to notice, and wouldn't have cared much anyway (gothic horror has always left me cold), but I suppose at the time it was refreshing to do away with the old cliches. Nowadays, of course, the "new" vampire is a cliche itself (take a look at the art for the 3.5 edition vampire, for example, to see just how trite it has become) and so the "Old School" version (there's that phrase again) has a kind of retro appeal.

There has been quite a lot of talk of trying to create a "back to basics" feel for 4e, but obviously this hasn't been extended to vampires if the last vestiges of the old mythical version (dislike for garlic and running water) have been removed. Shame. I'd much rather see this in the 4e MM than the 3.5 edition picture linked to above:

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Animal Character Sheets and Wishing I Could Draw

What on earth is wrong with me? I'm much too old for this sort of thing. But I just can't get over how brilliant Tony DiTerlizzi's AD&D Mouse Thief character sheet is. My only hope now is that he follows through and makes equivalents for his Rabbit Wizard and Badger Warrior ideas, too.

I haven't read a Redwall book in, what is it, fifteen years? But there really is something to be said for that curious genre, which we might call Animal Fantasy (a genre which consists of the Redwall books, The Wind in the Willows and, er...that's it). I think a large part of the attraction for me is that I'm British, those books are British, and they hark back to a lost era of idyllic meadows on warm summer days, drinking cider while floating around the village pond on a rowing boat, the soft tap of cork on willow, Beatrix Potter, and Jennings. You should never estimate the power of nostalgia, especially nostalgia for something that you never experienced and probably never really existed, but which inhabits your national psyche like something you once collectively dreamed and can never quite forget.

It can't only be that, though; the other key to the success of Animal Fantasy is that it's undeniably Great and Awesome and Cool and Wicked. Look at this picture by Sean Rubin and tell me that it isn't. I just dare you.

Styles of Play and Making the Most of What You Get

There's been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about the creation of something called the Old School Gaming Association, which would have the stated goal of promoting the style of play and/or rulesets that are variously defined as "Old School", as well as uniting the highly Balkanized geography of Old School gaming under one banner of shared objectives.

I like the idea, but as others have pointed out, a big part of the problem is identifying what Old School actually means. What exactly is this "style of play" which Old Schoolers venerate and New Schoolers (for want of a better word) despise? What is the Shared Vision behind which we are all supposed to unite?

For me, what it boils down to is one passage in the 2nd edition Player's Handbook, which had a great effect on me when I read it as a 12 or 13 year old, and which you could say has informed my D&D philosophy every since. Now, bear with me. I know that, for many, 2nd edition D&D is the point at which Old School is no longer Old School. Be that as it may, the writers of that book had been playing what we now consider "Old School" D&D for years, and the edition they came up with had many points of continuity with the older versions of the game.

The passage in question is What the Numbers Mean, and it can be found early on in the book just after the descriptions of the various Stats and what they stand for. The writers introduce a character called "Rath" - a recurring, enigmatic figure who reappears at various stages throughout the PHB and the DMG, although in various different incarnations (rather like the Eternal Champion or the archetypal characters in Viriconium). Rath has rather 'poor' stats - a Strength of 8, Dexterity of 14, Constitution and Intelligence of 13, Wisdom of 7 and Charisma of 6 - but the writers demonstrate both how to turn those stats into an interesting character (twice!) and how to have fun doing it.

The key section is this one:

Obviously, Rath's ability scores (often called "stats") are not the greatest in the world. Yet it is possible to turn these "disappointing" stats into a character who is both interesting and fun to play. Too often players become obsessed with "good" stats. These players immediately give up on a character if he doesn't have a majority of above-average scores. There are even those who feel a character is hopeless if he does not have at least one ability of 17 or higher! Needless to say, these players would never consider playing a character with an ability score of 6 or 7.
In truth, Rath's survivability has a lot less to do with his ability scores than with your desire to role-play him. If you give up on him, of course he won't survive! But if you take an interest in the character and role-play him well, then even a character with the lowest possible scores can present a fun, challenging, and all-around exciting time. Does he have a Charisma of 5? Why? Maybe he's got an ugly scar. His table manners could be atrocious. He might mean well but always manage to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. He could be bluntly honest to the point of rudeness, something not likely to endear him to most people. His Dexterity is a 3? Why? Is he naturally clumsy or blind as a bat?
Don't give up on a character just because he has a low score. Instead, view it as an opportunity to role-play, to create a unique and entertaining personality in the game. Not only will you have fun creating that personality, but other players and the DM will have fun reacting to him.

Don't you just love that? It is exactly the spirit in which I think D&D should be played and in which I love to play it, and if I could define Old School Gaming it would be in one line taken from that passage: if you take an interest in the character and role-play him well, then even a character with the lowest possible scores can present a fun, challenging, and all-around exciting time. In other words, what is important is what you, as a player, bring to the set of dice rolls that make up your character. The game is about you making the most of what you get. Later editions of the game changed the emphasis to the power of the character, and that is where, I believe, the line in the sand between Old and "New" Schools lies.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Of Crayfish and Demigods

I'm currently writing a thread over at, in which I'm reading through the entire 2nd edition Monstrous Manual creature-by-creature, posting a short entry/review on each one.

After beginning the thread, I almost immediately noticed two things: First, the book is an absolute treasure-trove of plot hooks for adventures and campaigns. I would estimate that at least 90% of the monster entries have something in them that an average DM will read and instantly have fireworks of inspiration exploding in his brain. There is so much good stuff in there that it almost feels like cheating to own the thing; it becomes criminally easy to come up with brilliant adventure hooks. In a low-key way, I feel like The Beatles when they discovered LSD and came up with Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.

Second, I realised that I haven't been anywhere near as creative enough as a DM in my choices of monsters. For a long time I've been trying to get away from the regular pathway of kobolds > goblins > orcs > gnolls which adventurers tend to follow as they go up in levels and power, but I've mainly brought this about by making player character races, usually humans and elves, the chief antagonists in my games. I think generally speaking it has been well-received because of its novelty value by my players, but looking through the Monstrous Manual has brought home to me just how much I've been missing out on: the best alternative to trope monsters isn't to put a new twist on PC races; it's other monsters! This post in particular opened my eyes to the possibilities of radically different low-level D&D campaigns:

The way I see it [talking about the idea of a campaign incorporating stag beetles and ankhegs], the party is hired by a powerful merchant consortium. A huge swarm of giant stag beetles, their eggs transported to the food belts owned by these merchants either by malice or bad luck, are eating all the grain in sight. Without that grain, not only is there no bread for the peasants and princes alike, but the barley that would go to making beer for the dwarves, an important trade commodity with those surly folk. With no beer, the trade in fine dwarf-craft weapons would trickle out, and the dwarves might spitefully look the other way if raiding parties of hobgoblins or kobolds were to move through the outskirts of their territory to raid the merchants' lands...

So where do the adventurers come into this? After a few jobs just clearing out areas where the beetles are thick, the merchants realize that a more subtle approach needs to be taken to get all of the chittering menaces. Biological control. The party is then hired to delve into ankheg nests and steal enough eggs to introduce throughout the region; ankhegs are notorious predators of giant stag beetles, after all. But ankhegs in the region are nowhere to be seen. What sort of monster could be keeping the ankheg populations so small and eat their eggs...?

Absolute gold, and something I just wouldn't have come up myself. With nary an orc in sight, either. (Okay, it has hobgoblins and kobolds in, but those are easily replaced by, say, the tribe of Broken Ones who live just beyond the dwarves' lands.)

The thread has now taken on the tone of a kind of extended brainstorming session, where certain regular contributers can be relied upon to come up with the goods on an entry-by-entry basis. I don't feel guilty about yoinking any of their ideas, and as I happen to be in the middle of planning a Play-by-Post Rules Cyclopedia game to 'celebrate' (if that is the right word) the release of 4e, I can guarantee a large portion of the ideas from that thread will end up being incorporated. One of these is the riff on Giant Crayfish on page 36, part of which went:

[Me]: Giant Crayfish continue growing as they get older - which gives me an idea for a Crayfish which has lived in the same lake for millenia and is now the size of a blue whale. The people living around could have all sorts of legends about the beast, giving it the name Old Johnny or Big Bertha or something suiting.

[kelvingreen]: The backward villagers living on the shore of the lake worship the giant lobster as a god, sacrificing travellers to it every so often.

[Milk]: They've worshipped it for so long that it's become a god, albeit a small one. This demigod knows only its own cold hunger, and inspires that hunger in its followers. The villagers intentionally spread rumours to the outside world of a legendary giant crayfish that dwells in the lake, ripe for the catching, and watch as would-be fishermen go out onto the lake never to return.

In a strange way this coincides with an interesting little discussion in the comments section of the grognardia blog, regarding OD&D's conceptualisation of religion (or lack of it). As James, the blog's author, notes, in OD&D there really were no gods, at least originally - with a host of "demigods, godlings, saints, demon lords, and high devils" existing instead. The Crayfish-demigod-in-the-lake idea is very much in line with that tradition, and it has inspired me to use the "no real gods, just spirits and godlings" concept as the basis of religion in my Rules Cyclopedia game.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

The Nail in the Coffin, or Straw that Broke the Camel's Back, or Something Else

My thoughts on the upcoming release of 4e D&D have wavered from foaming-at-the-mouth hatred to ambivalence to apathy to tentative optimism, but today's news on alignments has, I think, absolutely and finally closed the deal. I categorically will not be buying or playing the new edition of my favourite role playing game.

In a way it's a relief to finally get that monkey off my back (or albatross from around my neck - I'm not doing well with my metaphors today). Let me explain why. I loathed, and continue to loathe, the 3rd edition of D&D and its bastard, scurrilous, spoiled and badly-brought up offspring, edition 3.5. They have no redeeming features for me; everything from the rules to the writing to the art makes me positively cringe to even think about. And yet some small nodule of atavistic loyalty to the game made me struggle my way through playing the new versions, which I have been doing for the last couple of years. Even though I was having fun in spite of the game rather than because of it, I persevered, because it was D&D and it was what most of the rest of the D&D-playing world was using, and I was part of that community and tradition and I still wanted to be part of it.

Well, I don't any more, and to be honest I like the new, strange feeling of release. Not only does the release of 4e D&D mean that I never have to even think about 3.5 ever again (and can hold a ritual book burning in the garden with my friends), it has blown away any desire to even bother keeping up with what the wider community of D&D players are playing, because my residual loyalty just can't cope with the kicking it has gotten from WotC over classes, races, tone, art, and now, finally, alignment. It's exhilarating. I can give up on keeping up, and it's good.

Why should messing with alignment be the final straw for me? I like alignment, sure, but I recognise it has always had frailties and problems. It has never made great sense in real-world terms, although it has had a kind of logic of its own, and I've never met two D&D players who've been able to entirely agree on what the different alignments represent. So what's the problem with WotC changing it for the new edition?

The reasons are multitudinous - or, at least, fourfold. They are:

  1. Most of the problems associated with alignment - it's unrealistic, it's too restrictive, it's used as an excuse by idiot players to get away with unreasonable behaviour like randomly killing NPCs or bossing other party members around - can only really be done away with by getting rid of it altogether. That is, if the designers had really wanted to solve those problems, they should have done so by the most expedient and sensible route - i.e. having no alignments in 4e D&D. The fact that they chose not to do this indicates that not only are they stupid, but they also lack the courage of their convictions (because I'm sure they pictured the howls of indignation that would have accompanied an announcement that alignments were now dead), and that is worse.
  2. The way they have rejigged the system is patently absurd. Admittedly I haven't read the Player's Handbook yet, but that isn't necessary to spot the patent absurdity, which is present in the terms used themselves. You see, the new system has Good. It has Evil. It has Unaligned. So far, so good; a three-way system like that would actually make some sense as a way to categorize characters and their behaviour, although in very broad terms. But they didn't stop there. They also introduced Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil, which instantly turns the whole venture into a mess. Here's why: The existence of Lawful Good but not Lawful Evil implies that Lawfulness can only be associated with Good. But if that is the case, then why not just collapse "acting lawfully" into the definition of Good? (It works the other way with Chaotic Evil.) So that's Problem A - it's incoherent. Problem B is that it's incomplete - Lawfulness isn't necessarily Good, and Chaos isn't necessarily Evil. They've instantly made it impossible for this nuanced view to exist among their players without completely reworking and house-ruling the system, and that's just daft.
  3. I hate myself for sounding like a crusty old sabre-ratting gout-ridden colonel, but I'm going to say it anyway: the whole thing just smacks of trying to be new and fresh for a new edition without having considered what D&D is about at heart. God damn it, but alignment is a huge part of the flavour and character and more importantly the tradition of D&D, and you shouldn't mess with that without good reason. Good reason would be "We want to completely revamp the game." Good reason is not "Ill-thought out and cack-handedly executed change for change's sake," which is what this new idea is.
  4. This is a more general point, but like everything else associated with D&D's release, this new take on alignments has been remarkably poorly marketed and promoted. It has followed the same pattern that every new tidbit has, by and large: A vague rumourmongering post of the kind I linked to above, followed by predictable outrage, wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the increasingly alienated old-skoolers - then a proper elaboration and explanation released a few days down the line (2nd of June in this case) which effectively amounts to "Yah boo, this is how it works and these are the reasons behind it! See, who looks silly now, eh?" And we're all supposed to say...what, exactly? Yes, game designers, you were right and we were wrong; how could we ever have doubted you?
The above makes me sound angry, but I'm really not anymore. I just can't summon up the energy to care about something that seems in a funny way specifically designed to alienate me. I won't be buying future editions of D&D, and that makes me sad - but the fact that I won't have to bother even attempting to like 4e makes me feel very, very relieved.

And in case anybody believes such thinking is an inexcusable retreat into masturbatory hermitude and grognardia, read this post over at James Maliszewski's blog for a great exposition on why it isn't.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Shakespearian Aspects

I was recently inspired by this discussion on regarding the use of Spirit of the Century style "aspects" to generate a mechanical bonus to playing in accordance with alignment in D&D games. (It is a concept which vivsavage intends to incorporate into his "real 3rd edition D&D" game Orcs and Ogres.) It's a fine idea, but as soon as I read about it I immediately was reminded of the concept of Belief Points as mooted in the original Planewalker's Handbook (created for the Planescape campaign setting). Belief Points worked on the basis that a character had a set of beliefs - usually more than one and less than five - which were so pivotal to their being that they gained tangible benefits from acting in their name. (One has to remember that, in Planescape, belief was powerful enough to shape reality.) It was a really interesting alternative to the age-old, dried-out and dessicated alignment system, and a way of reinforcing to players that although alignment was a useful indicator of behaviour, characters were much more than that in terms of their opinions and judgements and what they held dear.

At the same time, I've recently been re-reading a lot of Shakespeare plays in an effort to assuage my guilt at not being familiar enough with the Great Bard's work (despite having spent more hours than I care to remember studying his tragedies while at university). Probably because Shakespeare has consequently been bubbling away in my subconscious, these two cognitive threads (Shakespeare and "aspects") somehow became entangled in my brain and I've now managed to convince myself that it would be a great idea to use lines from Shakespeare as illustrations of beliefs/aspects in a D&D game. Examples I used in the thread were:

  • For a skeptical True Neutral: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
  • For a blood-crazed Chaotic Evil: Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!
  • For a secretive True Neutral: Demand of me nothing. What you know, you know.
  • For a vengeful Lawful Evil: If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge?
  • For a holy-avenger type Lawful Good Paladin: When the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of a tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with a hard-favour'd rage!
  • For a nihilistic Chaotic Neutral: Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
  • For the purest Neutral Good: In simple and pure soul I come to you.
  • For a miserly Neutral Evil: Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

How would this work, in theory and practice? Well, first things first, while I like FATE aspects, their purpose has always explicitly been the creation of a cinematic atmosphere - and this isn't quite what I want in a D&D game, despite the theatrical nature of the source material. (Pulpy high-jinks have their place in the world of RPGs, but introduce them into D&D and they always seem to turn the thing into the kind of unsympathetic Hollywood pastiche that makes my face cringe as if I've swallowed a lemon to even think about.) What I want is something more in keeping with D&D's history, atmosphere, and distinct flavour - a simple mechanic that will shore up and do something interesting with one of the most frequently criticised but at the same time most important cornerstones of the game.

Planescape-esque Belief Points will work better. Awarded on an ad hoc basis whenever the player does something really in keeping with their "aspect" - especially when the action flies in the face of what logic or reason dictate - they can be spent at a later date to gain automatic success on one dice roll. Simple to remember, easy to keep track of, and quickly adjudicated. The name "Belief Point" will have to go, of course. We're not talking necessarily about beliefs here, although they may come under the umbrella of the rubric. We're talking really about Dynamic Facets of a character, which unfortunately isn't as snappy either as "aspects" or "belief points", but will have to do. For now, we'll settle on the name Dynamic Facets, although this will be subject to change as soon as I can think of something better.

Some examples of what I'm talking about might work best to illustrate the concept:

Alaric, the Lawful Good Fighter, has the Dynamic Facet
"Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once." One day, the adventurers find themselves retreating from a fight with a gang of hill giants; badly outnumbered and outfought, they are rushing pell-mell down a mountain pass, nursing wounds and without spells. Suddenly, from up ahead, a new threat emerges - two of the hill giants have overtaken them and are now moving to head them off further along the pass. Alaric, wounded though he is, immediately launches himself at these attackers, buying enough time for the rest of his comrades to flee. He has been valiant in the face of cowardice - he gains two DF points from the GM (if he survives).

Durkheim, the Neutral Good Dwarf Priest, has the Dynamic Facet "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more." He puts his people and his home above all other considerations, even when this forces him into making great sacrifices and taking great risks. He will even go so far as to persuade his king to ally with the tribe of hill orcs who killed Durkheim's family, in the name of fighting off the greater evil of an attack by a necromancer's undead horde. He gains a DF point for doing so.

Gwen, the Chaotic Good Ranger, has the Dynamic Facet "
There is some soul of goodness in things evil". After a particularly ferocious fight she and her comrades find themselves with three captive gnolls. The rest of the party want to kill the monsters. But Gwen argues that they should be spared and released, and addresses the creatures in their own tongue, trying to convince them to abandon their brutal ways in return for freedom. She gains a DF point for making the effort.

The important thing to remember as a DM, I believe, is that you should only award DF points when something out of the ordinary or expected is involved. For example, if a character has the Dynamic Facet "thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat", he does not get DF points merely for picking an argument with the local innkeeper. But he might get one if he argues with the Queen of the Storm Giants over her judgement of a criminal which he considers unfair.

I'll be foisting the idea of Dynamic Facets on my players at some point over the next few months, whenever we get a new campaign up and running. Watch this space for details.