Thursday 31 July 2008

Not D&D

James Maliszewski and Brian Murphy have been posting lists of "RPGs other than D&D" which they like. Here are mine:

  • Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP). This is a gritty, low-magic, gloriously detailed game, with brutally violent combat and a meticulously realised world. Some people say that it doesn't 'feel' like a Middle Earth game should, but I've never understood that. The atmosphere of the thing, from the art to the text to the mechanics, seems saturated with Tolkien. I love the fact that everything is open to you, too: the idea that you can be a Haradrim, an Uruk-hai, or an Easterling was like a breath of fresh air to me after all the finger-wagging and moralising of 2nd edition AD&D.
  • Cyberpunk 2020. The game I've probably played most after D&D; I spent a ridiculous amount of my teenage years on this thing. It's grotesquely, awfully, irredeemably broken, from the core mechanic to the equipment to the roles, but oddly enough my friends and I never seemed to care. Hunting cyberpsychos with railguns was just althogether too much fun.
  • Shadowrun. I spent a ridiculous amount of my teenage years on this, too, and for a long time it vied with Cyberpunk 2020 for the mantle of my favourite game. But I hear that in recent years the game has rather lost its way a little. That's a pity, but I suppose deep down I always looked on Shadowrun as something of a guilty pleasure. At 14 or 15 I wasn't at all keen on genre-bending, or at least thought that I oughtn't to have been (I was much too serious for that, dontcha know), so the fun I had with Shadowrun was always tempered by a healthy dose of shame. Looking back now that attitude was utterly absurd, but I still have to cringe a little at the thought of fat geeky guys with beards pretending to be elves in a William Gibson novel. That last bit seems like just a step too far.
  • Changeling: The Dreaming. I don't like White Wolf games, as a general rule, and especially don't like the World of Darkness ones. It's all too emo, and too politically just so. But I do like Changeling: The Dreaming, which was by far the most original setting of the bunch and full to bursting with great ideas. It was done with impeccable taste, too: the production, art, writing and tone were absolutely perfect for what the designers were trying to achieve. My only real criticism was that the thing was easier and more interesting to read that it was to play - as with a lot of White Wolf games, there were never enough (for me) examples of what a Changeling game was actually supposed to be like.
  • The Burning Wheel. This just does what it says on the tin, for me: it's a rules-heavy, setting-lite, gritty fantasy game, and it works. You have to invest rather more effort into it than I'm used to, but with a good group all that energy pays off.
  • Risus. I love Risus. In fact I would go so far as to call it my favourite game, if only I had more opportunities to play it. It's always billed as a 'comedy game', and though it works for that, I've never been happy with people limiting it to just a 'beer and popcorn' deal. With the right group of players the game can do absolutely any sort of genre or tone, and a damn sight better than a lot of other rulesets out there; I'm forever scheming of ways to use it to run Arthurian fantasy, ancient Mesopotamian mythology, Pacific exploration name it.
Tell me yours!

Wednesday 30 July 2008

If Only...

When I was about 13, I really wanted to be that guy.

Even now I occasionally feel a twinge of sadness that I'll never be able to patrol an icy waste on the back of a giant lizard. Life can be crushingly unfair sometimes.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Play by Email, and Losing Touch

Glutton for punishment that I am, I think I'm going to start up a new play-by-email campaign. If and when I do, I might advertise it here, so keep your eyes peeled.

It's no exaggeration to say that play-by-email is the only reason why I'm still in the hobby. I don't get to play face to face very often, especially over the past five years that I've been in Japan, and with the marital and work commitments I have. There are quite a lot of English-speaking role players over here, but finding the time and opportunity is tough.

Moreover, when I first came to Japan I'd actually been away from the hobby for four or more years, and had lost touch entirely with what was going on. When I first started playing PBEM games back in around 2003, believe it or not I didn't even know that a Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition had been released. I was astonished to find out that TSR no longer existed, that there was no more Planescape or Dark Sun or Al Qadim, that half-orc barbarians were now core rule characters, and that play was now dominated by something mysterious and awful called an attack of opportunity. It was only through a now (sadly dead) site called that I came back to the fold and started involving myself in rpgs again. My first game was a 3rd edition one that lasted for two years and was thoroughly enjoyable, mainly because the DM was good enough not to bother enforcing most of the rules. I played a dwarf fighter called Gorky, who spent most of the time insulting his comrades and charging around swinging an axe. I was re-hooked.

Play-by-email is a funny thing, of course. It's not to everyone's tastes. But it would be wrong to call it a poor imitation or alternative to tabletop play. It's just different - like comparing television and radio. You don't remember the great sessions, because there aren't any sessions. Instead, you tend to remember fun interchanges (carried out over the course of a few days!) or great posts people have made. And the brilliant thing is that you can go back and review those great posts in years to come. (I run a game that's now over three years old, and I'm looking forward to one day downloading the 4000 or so posts everyone has made and reading the whole sprawling madcap thing together.) This isn't possible with tabletop role playing, much as I wish it was.

The anonymity is interesting, too. I've 'known' some of the guys I game with for over four years now, but I have no idea what most of them do or even how old they are. They're just "the guys". It's an odd sort of relationship that you develop with somebody who you know almost nothing about outside of the game - not exactly a friend, but a kind of comrade in arms. Surprisingly, it isn't an unpleasant thing. It's strangely pure, in a way. You both like to game, and that's the beginning and end of it.

Saturday 26 July 2008

Points of Light: Rant #654

Blimey, I've been a bit ranty recently, haven't I? Race, women, rpg fiction, barbarians, the hobby itself... Well, when you're on a roll, why stop?

Today's rant will be about something called 'Points of Light'. I expect most people who read this blog will be familiar with the phrase, but for those who aren't, it's a supposed design-philosophy thing the D&D 4th edition designers have dreamt up, which is meant to take the game in a new direction. Essentially it can be summed up like this:

The world is populated by a variety of intelligent races, strange monsters lurk on other planes, ancient empires have left ruins across the face of the world, and so on. But one of the new key conceits about the D&D world is simply this: Civilized folk live in small, isolated points of light scattered across a big, dark, dangerous world.

Okay, you're thinking. So far so good. D&D, and in fact most fantasy in general, has always been about that, right?

Exactly. D&D, and in fact most fantasy in general, has always revolved around "points of light" settings. It is absolutely not a new key conceit about the D&D world which has just come along for 4th edition; it is in fact The Oldest Trope In The Book. You're telling me the Conan stories, Ill Met At Lankhmar, the Chronicles of Amber, heck, even Viriconium can't be classified as "
civilized folk [living] in small, isolated points of light scattered across a big, dark, dangerous world"? What about Middle Earth? You don't get much more "points of light" than that. How long were Aragorn and the hobbits travelling between Bree and Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring without seeing a single other person? It was weeks, I think. In fact, I would go so far as to say that thinking of a non-points of light fantasy setting in fiction is actually pretty challenging. Possibly those terrible David Eddings books... That's all I can think of offhand.

This is doubly true when you set aside fantasy fiction and just think about D&D settings, especially homebrew ones. Rich Baker goes on to expand on the brave new 'Points of light' world:

Most of the world is monster-haunted wilderness. The centers of civilization are few and far between, and the world isn’t carved up between nation-states that jealously enforce their borders. A few difficult and dangerous roads tenuously link neighboring cities together, but if you stray from them you quickly find yourself immersed in goblin-infested forests, haunted barrowfields, desolate hills and marshes, and monster-hunted badlands. Anything could be waiting down that old overgrown dwarf-built road: a den of ogre marauders, a forgotten tower where a lamia awaits careless travelers, a troll’s cave, a lonely human village under the sway of a demonic cult, or a black wood where shadows and ghosts thirst for the blood of the living.

This sounds like every D&D setting, homebrew or otherwise, which I have ever played in. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the above description pretty much sums up a D&D campaign. When were we not playing 'points of light' games?

It makes me a little angry sometimes. What do they take us for? And yet the majority of D&D fandom seems to have lapped up the phrase as if it actually is something innovative and unusual. Do none of them actually read fantasy fiction? Or remember the campaigns they played five or ten years ago? Or is it just really easy to pull the wool over their eyes? I've said it before: worrying times in D&D land. Worrying times.

Friday 25 July 2008


Okay, so I've done race in two recent entries. Now it's time to turn my hand to women in gaming. This post is mainly inspired by this thread, about female berzerkers.

First things first, the whole fighting-woman cliche (you know the one - ripped, nubile young female, leanly muscular, hyper-sexualised, probably bisexual, and yet of course uber-sexy) has totally passed me by. It's one of those fantasy/sci-fi tropes that I just Do Not Get. (Like elves. And vulcans.) Now don't get me wrong - I yield to no man in my liking of nubile young women. In fact, in my liking of women full stop. But I'm old fashioned enough to like my women to be women, thankyouverymuch, not simulacra of men. The idea that such female characters somehow strike a blow against sexism is utterly laughable to me, given that they do exactly what feminism was supposed to fight against (see women as objects - in this case sex objects).

At this point I expect some snarky reader somewhere is thinking "I bet he's just so insecure in his own masculinity that he feels challenged by such female characters." To that I can only say: Damn straight. I don't like my masculinity being threatened, especially not by women. Having it threatened by other men is bad enough! Why any man would fantasize about a woman stronger, fitter and faster than them is utterly beyond me. And at the same time, why any woman would want a man who was weaker, less fit and slower than them is also completely mind-boggling to me in the same way that, say, foot-fetishism is. Well, I never pretended this post was going to be objective!

But be that as it may, and like it or not, some people like to play tough-girl women in games. To this I say, great, go for it, if that's what you want to do, but let's be realistic about it. Tough-girl women are NOT likely to look like this:

She ain't hurting anybody. No, tough-girl women in the real world mostly look like this:

And I would argue that if were are interested in striking blows against sexism, we should be depicting more East German shot putter-type women both in our play and in our art. Because doing so would send out the clear and simple message that we all (claim) to believe in: It doesn't matter what a woman looks like. Which is the opposite message to what role playing games mostly send out today.

Thursday 24 July 2008

At 31 I Was the Captain of a Galleon - I was Poseidon's New Son

A snippet. Stephen Malkmus, of Pavement fame, once wrote a song called The Hook, which starts off with the immortal line: "At age 19 I was kidnapped by Turkish pirates - Mediterranean thugs..." I was just listening to it for the first time in a few years.

And by coincidence, I just posted over at my long-running thread about Pirate Gith.

The D&D gods seem to be trying to tell me something. It's time, they whisper seductively in my ear, to run a game about pirates...

We had no wooden legs, or steel hooks/we had no black eye-patches or a starving cook/we were just killers with the cold eyes of a sailor/yeah just killers with the cold eyes of a sailor...

Wednesday 23 July 2008

A Short Post on RPG Fiction

Good rpg-inspired fiction. Why hasn't there been any?

Oh, there has been entertaining fluff. Lots of entertaining fluff: what are R. A. Salvatore or Weiss & Hickman if they aren't amusing nonsense? (I think that even at the age of about 13, when I was first reading the Dragonlance Chronicles, I knew they were nothing better than amusing nonsense. I'd finished The Lord of the Rings about three times by then, and like to think I got the difference between the two.) But why has there never risen up out of the ether anything that is really worth reading? Something more than a mindless way to pass the time? The wikipedia entry I just linked to says that there have been 190 Dragonlance novels - a figure that boggles the mind from every direction - but I'll wager virtually none of them have been more than potboilers.

There is China Mieville, who I've talked about at length before. His books don't directly have anything to do with rpgs, but he's at least open about the fact that he was a gamer and his experiences impacted on his fiction. He's an exception, though. By and large, there exists a strange, and wide, gulf between "proper" fantasy/sci-fi/horror fiction and fiction related to games (and also films and TV series).

I wonder why this is. Is it just a case that the best writers are worried they'll be constrained to the rpg ghetto? Possibly. I suppose if I was a writer brimming with confidence in my abilities I'd rather be known as a good writer than a good D&D (or whatever) writer. It's likely also a problem with the publishers, who are probably more willing to stick with tried and tested methods (the Dragonlance and Drizzt cottage industries being a case in point) than experiment with something new - which is what good writers usually do.

Still. It's unusual that while there is so much cross-fertilization between fiction and rpgs, that cross-fertilization hasn't resulted in anything approaching a Great Book as I would understand it. Or even a properly Good Book. Is it maybe the case that us gaming types invest all of our creative energies in the hobby itself, leaving nothing to spare elsewhere?

Saturday 19 July 2008

On the Formation of a Gaming Philosophy

I've been discussing character classes with Rachel in the comments to this entry, and as a corollary to that conversation started thinking about why I look at RPGs the way I do. If I had to sum up my role playing philosophy, I suppose I would paraphrase the late great Gary Gygax and say: "Why let game designers and writers do your imagining for you?" In other words, I believe that the amount of fun you get out of the game has little or nothing to do with the wide variety of rules, variations, and supplements which most games are accompanied by. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that the less rules, variants and supplements you have, the better. 3.X D&D was crushingly unfun for me because I just could not be bothered with the wide range of feats and skills I was forced to choose. And that was only in the core rules. The later supplements made that problem thousands of times worse.

But why do I think like this? I recognise that my view of gaming isn't objectively better than any other. This is how I put it to Rachel:

Strange as it may seem to say, I think my D&D philosophy mostly came about due to economics. My formative D&D experiences all came about when I was an adolescent, and then teenager, with basically no money to spend on books and supplements. One set of core rules between us was about all my friends and I could afford. So we had to get creative with what we had!

I come from a working class background, and like most kids growing up in Liverpool in the 1980s and 1990s, our family was far from being financially secure. We weren't on the breadline, or anything, but times were tough. I just never had any money to spend on games, and neither did my friends. For a long time we survived on just the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual and DMG. (We didn't even have a PHB, and just made up characters from what we could glean from the DMG and remember from the Basic D&D set. I've still never owned a single module for any version of the D&D game except Monte Cook's Dead Gods.) One of us eventually bought the Cyberpunk 2020 core rules, then another bought Shadowrun, and we made do with those, until our later teenage years arrived when we could get part-time work and buy much more of the stuff. (Most kids our age spent all their disposable income on cheap super-strength alcohol and pot. We were after more mind-blowing stuff than that - in the form of the entire Planescape line and Runequest II.)

Anyway, that's a roundabout way of saying, my formative gaming years were spent making the best of a pretty threadbare collection. I'm really glad that it turned out that way, because it forced me to rely more on my imagination than what was in books. There's probably nothing superior in my imagination than anyone else's, but maybe I feel more confident in prioritising it above rules and sourcebooks. I think that's probably true of most gamers of my generation.

Friday 18 July 2008

Asian Gaming

RPG Pundit, the writer of The Most Famous Uruguayan Gaming Blog on the Planet, recently re-issued an old post of his on 'Caucasian Adventures' and games set in East Asia. It's basically a broadside leveled at the creators of the satirical concept-game of that title. 'Caucasian Adventures', for those who don't know it, is supposed to to illustrate the inherent 'racism' in RPG depictions of East Asia, by being a laughable and stereotypical 'European'-style adventure as seen through the eyes of a non-Caucasian. It was created by a few of the smart-alecky types over at Story Games.

Let's say straight away that I have a vested interest in this topic. I live in Japan, work as an English-Japanese translator, and am married to a Japanese woman, so I feel that on this (rare) occasion I am reasonably well qualified to comment on the subject. (Let's also say straight away that I detest most anime, am turned off by manga, and view 'traditional' Japanese culture with great skepticism. Just to be clear.)

Anyway, on with the post: I hate the idea of 'Caucasian Adventures'. To a certain degree I can appreciate the sentiment, because I routinely notice racism towards East Asian people in the Western media - the kind of ignorant (not hateful) aren't-those-small-people-with-funny-eyes weird? sort of thing that would be viewed as patently unacceptable if directed towards Black or South Asian people. And I also appreciate how awful games like Legend of the Five Rings are: naff imitations of Japanese society with a thin veneer of cultural accuracy which is actually utterly wrong.

But RPG Pundit is right on the money with both of his main points. First, to quote him directly:

So hey, fuckers, you want to make a REAL statement about how bad all the "oriental adventure" sourcebooks for RPGs have been? MAKE ONE THAT DOESN'T SUCK. Because I have news for you bucky: making what amounts to a bunch of cheap shots while feeling all self-righteous about how non-racist you are is all just a load of bullshit, and doesn't actually do anything of worth.

There's nothing I can add to that except to say 'amen'. Caucasian Adventures comes from that same awful, sophomoric impulse that drives the postmodern/poststructuralist movement generally - endless, masturbatory, self-congratulatory criticism that creates precisely nothing interesting or of lasting value. I mean, I detest Legend of the Five Rings, but its writers can be safe in the knowledge that they've created a fun game that thousands of people have enjoyed playing, whereas all the creators of Caucasian Adventures can feel happy about is the fact that they're morally superior and politically 'right on' - and have a vaguely funny title page.

RPG Pundit's second point is more interesting:

[The creators of CA are] wrong because the "western" version of the Kara-tur type asian-stereotype setting isn't "Caucasian Adventures" with two WASPS lounging around on their yacht; the "caucasian" version of "oriental adventures" is Greyhawk. Its the Forgotten Realms. Its Space:1889, Fulminata or Roma Imperious, its Deadlands and Call of Cthulhu, and any other shitload of RPGs that are "inspired by" medieval or other western historical periods.

Because RPG writers haven't made "Oriental adventures" full of mistakes and occasional stereotypes because they're evil and racist; they've done it just because they didn't give a fuck about historical or anthropological accuracy. Because RPGs aren't about that. RPGs are all about the cheap stereotypes.

I think he's 90% right. Any criticism of sourcebooks like Oriental Adventures (or, say, Al Qadim) falls flat on its face when you consider the fact that RPG settings have played even harder and faster with European culture down the years than they have with any other. Legend of the Five Rings is full to bursting with egregious stereotypes, jarring anachronisms, nonsensical garbage and ham-fisted attempts at the Japanese language. But Greyhawk is even worse! As RPG Pundit says, there is no need for satirical works like 'Caucasian Adventures' because they already exist - they are 90% of the fantasy RPG sourcebooks that have ever been written.

Where I object is when Pundit declares that "RPGs are all about cheap stereotypes". I don't accept that; while cheap stereotypes are fun and easy, I have to say that I partly think role playing is all about acknowledging cliches while at the same time transcending them. Games are generally chock-full of stereotypes - the heroic knight, the silent moody ranger, the rebel without a cause, the hot bisexual vampire-slaying high school girl, the man or woman 'with a past', the bumbling wizard/scientist/clergyman... But at the same time those stereotypes develop into unique personalities very quickly. We start off with a rough sketch because it's quicker and easier that way and we want to get on with the game. But during the course of events the character gets knocked around and battered into something approaching a fully-realised, three-dimensional person, with a history and a personality forged "in fire and blood" (as the saying goes). And that's all to the good.

Thursday 17 July 2008

The Master of D&D Art

Jeff Rients has been going all posting pictures crazy over the last few days, focusing on Bill Willingham. It's got me inspired to put up some of my favourites. Now that generation - Willingham, Roslof, Otus, Trampier - were much before my time, but I was lucky enough to get into the hobby during a period when (to my mind) the greatest D&D artist ever was at work: Tony DiTerlizzi. His pictures in the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual were a huge factor in what attracted me to the game; I can still remember paging through that book and gazing at those pictures enrapt, racing through all the possibilities. (Well, I skipped over most of the Jeff Butler stuff...)

So, a few favourites from the Master:

This is the Best Gnoll Picture Ever, in my opinion. The iconic Gnoll, if you like; the Platonic Ideal Gnoll to which all other Gnolls aspire. I love the ragged cloak, the hyena-like hunching stature and the understated nature of the piece - he isn't about to murder somebody; he looks more like he's standing on a hilltop, surveying his territory and mulling over what a Gnoll chief might do next with so many acres of fine real estate.

I love the seething rage on this werewolf's face. He looks desperate to kill, tear and destroy. Like he's just finished ripping somebody's throat out with his bare hands, and found that instead of being sated, all he can think about is his next victim. As with the Gnoll, he's also understated - unlike the ripped, cut, body-builder werewolves of later D&D and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, this guy is skinny and truly wolf-like - with terrible hunger. He feels more like the werewolf in Prince Caspian: "Where I bite, I hold till I die, and even after death they must cut out my mouthful from my enemy's body and bury it with me..."

You don't get much better than this medusa. I love how she wavers on the line of sexiness and ugliness: She's like an imitation of beauty which hasn't quite made it. I'm sure that's intentional on DiTerlizzi's part. Again, it's also a study in understatedness. The picture isn't trying to look awesome; just communicate a mood, which it does admirably.

And this is probably my all time favourite. The Troll to end all Trolls. Communicates ravenous hunger, wiry strength, disdainful cruelty and alien savagery all at once. I love it.

Tuesday 15 July 2008

I Hate Barbarians [Warning: Rant]

I hate the Barbarian class in D&D. Really, strongly hate it. Its very existence is enough to drive me to near apoplexy.

Of course, I respect the wishes of people who want to be the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of Conan. I just don't accept that they should be catered to with their very own special class.

Why? Two reasons.

1. I'm a subsriber to the 'less is more' view of classes set out in the 2nd edition DMG:

Some players want to create a character class for every profession or ability--jesters, witches, vampire hunters, vikings, mountaineers, etc. They forget that these are really roles, not classes.

What is a viking but a fighter with a certain outlook on life and warfare? A witch is really nothing but a female wizard. A vampire hunter is only a title assumed by a character of any class who is dedicated to the destruction and elimination of those loathsome creatures.

The same is true of assassins. Killing for profit requires no special powers, only a specific reprehensible outlook. Choosing the title does not imply any special powers or abilities. The character just uses his current skills to fulfill a specific, personal set of goals.

Before creating a character class, stop and ask yourself, "Is there already a character class that can fill the niche?"

This philosophy was thrown out of the window when WotC took over and D&D turned into an exercise in "builds". (Although oddly enough 1st edition had made a similar error, albeit one with different end results.) But it really is the only way that makes sense to me in order to optimise simplicity and flexibility: a set of core classes (four, or eight at a stretch) on which all adventuring professions are based. You want to be a viking? Okay, you're a fighter from a certain society who likes raping and looting and drinking mead. You want to be a scout? Okay, you're a rogue or ranger who has found employment in an army as a pathfinder. You want to be an alchemist? Okay, you're a wizard who has an unhealthy fascination with lead and mixing potions. You want to be a barbarian like Conan? Okay, you're a fighter from Cimmeria. With big muscles.

No fiddling around with silly multi-classsing, no flicking through multitudinous sourcebooks, and best of all, no barbarian class. Everyone's a winner.

2. "Barbarian" isn't a class, anyway. Firstly, "Barbarians" don't exist. They never existed. The term was always laced with racism, like "savage" and "primitive" were, and it's best relegated to the history books where it belongs. "Barbarian" is acceptable as an in game term that characters and NPCs use, but it shouldn't be enshrined in the supposedly neutral core rules of a game. (I don't expect this view to be widely supported, because last time I mentioned it - on an online rpg forum - I ended up generating a wall of angry replies beyond all reckoning and proportion, and was bizarrely accused of being a racist myself. Still, it's a view I hold, and because my PhD topic is at least partly related to it I feel obliged to stand up for it.)

But secondly, and more importantly for our purposes, even if you don't think the term is pejorative, "Barbarian" still isn't a class. It's a term for a society, or a race of people. Even pulpy "barbarians" have their shamans, bards, elders and what not - so where do they fit into the remit of D&D barbarians? Nowhere: a Barbarian is a big muscly guy in a loincloth who likes to hit people with a broadsword. Ridiculous. You might as well have a "city dweller" class (because all city dwellers are the same, with exactly the same abilities, right?) or a "rural" class, or I dunno, a "working class" class. "I'm Dave and I'll be playing Patrick von Rasmussen, a Level 1 Rich Person."

(At some point here a hawk-eyed reader will be thinking, "But noisms, aren't you a big fan of the Rules Cyclopedia and BECMI D&D, which had race-as-class for the demihumans?" Well, yes I am, but that's a different thing; I'm arguing here within the rubric of AD&D, in which there is no such system. Also, race-as-class works in BECMI D&D for a whole host of reasons I can't be bothered going into.)

Indeed, the fact that it did away with the barbarian class would be reason enough alone to prefer 2nd edition AD&D above all others, were it not for the fact that TRS chickened out and reintroduced them in a supplement after its release.

It would also be reason enough alone to prefer fourth edition, were it not for the fact that I don't like a single other thing about it.

Monday 14 July 2008

Give Me Your Ideas! Right Now! You! The Reader!

So I'm plotting out my Labyrinth Lord sourcebook, and I'm thinking that the setting - stone age Australia, light sprinkling of Cthulu mythos - is not exactly conventional. I know that only yesterday I was rambling on about role players being incredibly creative, but I also know that the further away you get from genre tropes, games tend to become more difficult to just pick up and play. Beyond the 'standards', things require more thought in order to make them work. (I have my fare share of games that I've really wanted to run but never been able to work out quite what to do with. An example being Changeling: The Dreaming: Great ideas, setting and core rules - but what next? What is a Changeling: The Dreaming game?)

So what I'd like to do is include, in the OzCthulu appendix, a Big List of Adventure Hooks that a prospective DM will be able to glance over and get ideas from. They are going to be a mixture of 'regular' stone age adventure ideas, plus more 'Cthulu-esque' ones. (I mentioned this to Arcona in the comments to a previous thread.) But in order to create this Big List, I'm going to need lots of ideas. This is where you, the reader come in. Give me as many or as few as you like, but give me something! You'll even get a credit in the final free pdf.

I'll start.
  • There is a cave in the local range of hills which nobody is supposed to enter by long tradition. Maybe there are rumours that it's haunted, or it's supposed to be sacred, or something like that. But two young children from the band have gone missing, and they were last seen playing around the cave entrance. Someone is going to have to go in and look for them. And it turns out that the cave is really the start of great labyrinth of tunnels....
  • A beast has been sighted, which nobody has seen before. It killed a hunter last week, and it has been decided by the elders that the thing has to be tracked down and killed - because nothing is more dangerous than a carnivore which has developed a taste for human flesh.
  • Last night, a star fell from the sky and hit the desert some miles away. The elders want to know what it is.
  • The peoples far away in the North have exhausted their food supply and taken to cannibalism. The habit has gradually transformed them into ghoul-like wendigos, and they are spreading Southwards.
So let's hear them!

Sunday 13 July 2008

Why I like D&D, Reason # 1567

One thing that non-role players rarely give us (as a collective) credit for is the creativity that goes into our hobby. In popular culture, role playing is seen as somewhere just below Sunday School and Morris Dancing in the coolness stakes, and its players are viewed as uniformly fat, smelly and socially inept. This is doing us a great disservice. Many of us are fat, smelly and/or socially inept. But we are also, most of us, creative and imaginative dynamos.

Unusually, given its reputation in the wider RPG world as the most cliched and unimaginative game going, D&D has probably the most innovative players of all. (By virtue of the size of its player base, it probably also has the most uninspired and insipid players, but that's by-the-by.) As some of you may know (I've mentioned it ad nauseum), I've been writing a thread on in which I'm going through the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual monster-by-monster, doing a little commentary on each. When I started the thing it was supposed to be a pure nostalgia trip, but over time it has evolved into possibly the most concentrated collection of weird and wonderful ideas that currently exists in the world. Almost none of it is down to me - it's all been contributed by dozens and dozens of different commenters riffing on each other's ideas and volunteering thoughts. We're not even half way through yet and already there are getting on for 1,100 replies.

Some examples:
  • Old Johnny in the lake, the crayfish demigod - a gargantuan crawdad worshiped by a cult of backwater peasants whose faith has transformed him into an actual deity.
  • The Voice of the Storm - a legendary figure or group of figures who travel across the world sewing confusion, hatred and fear in the aim of starting wars and civil strife. This is for the sole purpose of providing nutrition for Tempests: Living storms who feed off the blood of people killed in combat.
  • A re-imagining of gnomes as filthy vermin who live in the lairs and bedding of giants like oversized fleas.
  • Farmers secretly breeding ankhegs as a kind of super-powered earthworm fertilisation system for their land. The only catch being that the ankhegs have a habit of killing farmhands and travelers - which the farmers explain away by blaming on an innocent local band of mongrelmen.
  • The definitive solution to why blue dragons are blue - it camouflages them against the sky from below; the electricity coursing through their bodies prevents them from becoming a black silhouette.
  • Elephant paladins of Ganesh and sperm-whale arch-magi.
  • An ancient ruined city whose very mortar was made of living sandlings - who, driven slowly insane by time, are gradually shuffling and vibrating the place into dust.
Ideas like these make me proud to be a D&D player. What other hobby allows you to tap into such seams of raw creativity?

It's time for the hobby to get an image overhaul. Not through 'kewlness', which is what the design team at WotC seem to think is the Big Leap Forward. No: We should be stressing what a massive headtrip the thing is and how it allows you to come up with literally anything you want, and run with it. That's a game, surely, that anybody would be interested in playing.

Friday 11 July 2008

OzCthulu Spoiler: Craft Magic (Part 1 - Body Paint)

I've been working on some different kinds of magic for OzCthulu. The system will basically break down into three varieties - Craft Magic (mainly performed by the Artist class); Divining Magic (performed by the Elder class); and Dreamtime Magic (performed by the Shaman class). [NB: I've put up details of the Shaman class already, but I'm saving the Artist and Elder classes for the playtesting release.] This is the first part of the Craft Magic section, detailing the use of body paint. Comments welcome! It seems like it might possibly be too complicated, and also unbalanced (I haven't play-tested it yet).

Craft Magic

Body Paint, Carving and Rock Art are some of the most powerful means of spellcasting available. Those of the Gatherer class can perform some limited Body Paint magic; those of the Artist class can perform all three varieties, and in more powerful and expressive ways.

The power of art work is a product both of the level of the artist and the time taken in preparation. Thus, a roughly hewn carving by a minor dabbler will perform very weakly, whereas an intricate design produced over the course of a day by a master will be extremely powerful.

Body Paint Magic

Body Paint is most often used to identify the clan group a person belongs to. However, it can also generate powerful effects if painted by a skillful artist; the colours, dots and swirls echo in the Dreamtime, conferring supernatural benefits on the wearer. It takes 1 hour to daub a wearer in paint, and the wearer can either be somebody else or the painter themselves.

There are three kinds of Body Paint Magic:
  • Protective: Protective body paint lowers the Armour Class of the wearer, in accordance with the following:
    • Level 1-2 Artist or Gatherer: 1d3 point bonus
    • Level 3-4 Artist or Gatherer: 1d4 point bonus
    • Level 5-6 Artist: 1d6 point bonus
    • Level 7-8 Artist: 1d8 point bonus
    • Level 9+ Artist: 1d10 point bonus
    • For each additional hour spent, the dice result can be increased by 1 up to the maximum value of the dice. Thus a level 7 Artist who rolls 4 on a d8 can spend another hour to increase the amount to 5, another to increase it to 6, and so forth, but he cannot increase the amount above 8.
    • Paint gradually fades over time. Its level of protection decreases by 1 rank per day.
  • Warding: Warding body paint gives bonuses to the saving throw of the wearer.
    • An Artist or Gatherer of level 1-3 can confer a +1d3 bonus to one of the wearer's saving throw ratings (rolling separately each time); an Artist of level 4-6 can confer a +1d4 bonus to one saving throw per two levels; and an Artist of level 7-9 a +1d4 bonus to all saving throws. These wards fade over time in a similar way to protective paint.
  • Blessing: Blessing body paint gives bonuses to the attack and damage rolls of the wearer.
    • An Artist or Gatherer of level 1-3 can confer a +1d3 bonus to either the hit or damage roll of the wearer; an Artist of level 4-6 can confer a +1d4 bonus to both the hit and damage rolls of the wearer; and an Artist of level 7+ can confer a +1d6 bonus to either the hit or damage roll of the wearer, or +1d4 to both. These blessings also fade over time.
Artists of level 1-3 can use only one of the above methods on a wearer. When they reach level 4-6 they can use two. Above level 7, they can use three at a time.

Gatherers can only ever confer one of the benefits on a wearer.

Note: Protective Body Paint magic might seem unduly powerful at the higher levels; but keep in mind that it is in lieu of actual armour. Except for shields, armour is extremely rare in the OzCthulu game.

I'll be putting up some more details in Craft Magic (Part 2 - Carvings) and Craft Magic (Part 3 - Rock Paintings) entries some time over the next few days.

Thursday 10 July 2008

Dice Superstitions

Somebody has put up a thread about dice over at the rpg site. It's tongue-in-cheek stuff, but it says something interesting about gamer culture that I've often noticed: The prevalence of dice-related superstitions. Dice are a lot of fun - but at the same time there is a kind of fetishization of the little blighters that I think most of us share; we do not readily understand them (the results of a roll are a mystery - impossible to predict) and that fundamental uncertainty has a bewitching effect. In that respect we are like ancient tribesmen who dream up elaborate explanations for changes in the weather ("It's raining because Snake-on-the-Water cheated on his wife!"), because their true mechanics are unknown and unknowable.

My own superstition about dice is, as I posted in said thread:
"When I buy new dice I have to integrate them into the gang by rolling them at least a dozen or so times in different combinations with my older ones. My dice are a team, and I won't tolerate non-team players." When I say 'at least a dozen or so times' I am probably cloaking the true shape of my neurosis - I actually roll my new and old dice together more like fifty times, the very day I buy them. If I don't do this, the new dice might not properly integrate, and this could ruin the chemistry of my dice rolling when it really matters. (If you think that's weird, you should meet my old DM Chris. His dice-superstition was to put his d20s in the freezer for a few hours "as an example to the others" if they consistently turned up poor results.)

I've done this for as long as I can remember. As with most such superstitions it probably got its start due to fluke (I happened to be rolling new and old dice together just before a particularly lucky session), and it is now maintained entirely due to terror. Terror that if I stop, there will be dire consequences for my gaming from now until kingdom come. Granted, I have had lucky and unlucky sessions since the superstition began. But if I stop performing the ritual, it might be the case that I never have a lucky day ever again.

I also believe that dice-related superstitions are one of the only, if not the only, situations in which Pascal's Wager really makes sense. You don't lose anything from such beliefs. Getting on the good side of the dice Gods costs nothing. Of course, you might be wrong; the superstition could be meaningless. But the potential ill-effects if it happens to be true and you ignore it are too terrible to contemplate.

Blaise Pascal says: Tell me of your superstitions.

Another Spoiler

Another OzCthulu class. A Shaman's magic is going to revolve less around blasting things, and more around curses, blessings, summonings and subtle influences. In fact, I'm not going to have a magic-missile casting "blast-y mage" type class. It just doesn't fit.


A Shaman is a man or woman who has begun to understand the mysteries of the Dreamtime. They use this understanding, which slowly develops over the course of their lives, to manipulate the mundane world. This is done through contact with the Dreamtime - something only a Shaman can achieve.

Shamans are also the story tellers and entertainers of the band. Expert performers, they pass on their people's accumulated wisdom through stories and song.

Shamans can use killing clubs and spears.

Special Abilities: By far the most important ability of Shamans is their contact with the Dreamtime. This is detailed in the Magic section.

They also have the following special abilities:
  • Supernatural Knowledge. Shamans develop an awareness of the supernatural as they grow in power in the Dreamtime. They become intimately aware of goings-on in the spirit world. If a Shaman encounters something supernatural, or hears about such encounters from somebody else, he can roll against Wisdom on a d20 to see if he knows anything about the situation, or the spirits involved. This is similar to the Gatherer's Knowledge skillset.
  • Inspiration. Shamans can inspire others with their storytelling. Before a fight, or a physical or mental trial of some kind, a Shaman can think up a tale or legend to instill his comrades with courage and fortitude. A successful roll against Charisma on a d20 allows his comrades to gain +2 to their saving throws for the duration of the next encounter. In order to use this ability, the Shaman and his comrades must be undisturbed for five minutes.
  • Mesmerisation. At 3rd level, a Shaman gains the ability to mesmerise animals through song, eye contact, or body movement. He must make a successful roll against Charisma to do this, modified according to the situation. If successful, he can influence the disposition of the animal by calming it (i.e. making it non-aggressive) or frightening it (i.e. causing it to flee).

Requirements: Charisma 9
Prime Requisite: Charisma
Hit Dice: 1d4
Maximum Level: None

Shamans use the Magic User experience table from the Labyrinth Lord core rules.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

OzCthulu Spoilers

Here are rough sketches for two of the classes for my OzCthulu Labyrinth Lord supplement. In total there are going to be six classes, but these are the most basic - the Hunter and the Gatherer.

The Hunter

Almost half of a band's members will be hunters. Hunters are most often male, although they can be both sexes. They are the strong arm of the band - the ones who kill prey and fight off enemies. They are usually powerful in combat, but their true expertise is their ability to endure. Hunting large game can involve running for tens of kilometers, waiting motionless for hours in the hot desert sun, or diving underwater for minutes at a time.

Hunters can use any weapon. Beginning at 5th level, they get a second attack per round, gaining additional attacks every 5 levels after that.

Reaching 9th Level: When a hunter reaches 9th level, he may become the leader of his own band, taking control of a territory and a small group of men, women and children. Or he may assume control of the band which he is a member of.

Special Abilities: When hunting (page 46, LL core rules), Hunters will succeed on a result of 1-4 on a d6. In addition, they will only encounter a wandering monster 50% of the time. They also have the ability to track (see below.)

Requirements: None
Prime Requisite: Constitution
Hit Dice: 1d8
Maximum Level: None


Hunters are experts at following a trail - usually they have been doing it since they were children. If a creature capable of leaving a trail has passed through a wilderness area, a hunter has a chance of being able to follow its tracks. To do so, he has to make a roll equal to or under his Wisdom. The DM can modify this by up to +10 or -10 depending on the difficulty of the situation. (For example, tracking a snake moving across rocks at night is nigh-on impossible, but tracking a monitor lizard across flat sand is childishly simple.) He can then follow the trail indefinitely - until it ends - provided that he moves at half his movement rate, doesn't enter more difficult terrain, and isn't interrupted by attack. If any of those events occur, he must make another tracking attempt.

A hunter also gains information about the nature of what he is tracking. While he is tracking, he can make an identification check, which is another roll against Wisdom. At level 1-2 he can tell the kind of creature and an approximate number; at 3-4, a species and how recently the trail was made; at 5-6 the probable size and age; and at 7-8 the pace of movement.

Hunters use the fighter experience table in the Labyrinth Lord Core Rules.

(I was aiming to reproduce AD&D 2nd editions rules on tracking from the Ranger's Handbook, but was unsure of a) the legality or b) the complexity. Also, although I like those rules, there seem to be some flaws in it which I've hopefully corrected - namely to do with identification.)

The Gatherer

The other half of a band's numbers will be Gatherers. Gatherers are usually women and older men, but they can be of either sex. Where Hunters travel long distances in search of large prey, Gatherers remain close to the band's territory and have an intimate, detailed knowledge of food and water sources in the area. They spend their days digging for roots and tubers, gathering fruits and berries, hunting small animals, fishing, and preparing food. Where Hunters are specialists, Gatherers are jacks-of-all-trades, with a wide range of skills.

Gatherers can use any weapon.

Reaching 9th level: On reaching 9th level, a Gatherer may become an elder of a band, which makes her the adviser to the chief, with pastoral responsibilities for the entire group.

Special Abilities: Gatherers have skills and knowledge which are of vital importance to survival. They start the game with three skillsets:
  • Knowledge. If a Gatherer encounters something in the natural world, it is likely she knows something about it from either experience or hearsay. She may roll against Wisdom (modified according to difficulty) to remember information about, or speculate on the nature of, anything she comes across. The amount of information revealed is chosen by the DM based on her level and the dice roll. Examples might include the knowledge of whether a certain plant is poisonous or not, or what kind of animals are likely to be encountered in a given geographical area.
  • Craft. Gatherers make almost everything that the tribe uses. This includes weapons, bowls, clothing, paints, tattooing needles, fishing nets, spades and more. Whenever a Gatherer wishes to make something she must roll against Wisdom to see if she can find the necessary materials and construct what she wants. Most items can be made within d6 hours.
  • Communication. Unlike Hunters, who spend most of their time silently tracking prey, Gatherers spend much of their time in social activities and become expert talkers and listeners over the course of their lives. They can roll against their Wisdom to detect lies, detect alignment, and to sense the emotions or motives of a given person.
When foraging (Labyrinth Lord core rules, page 46), Gatherers succeed on a roll of 1-4 on a d6, and only encounter a wandering monster 50% of the time.

Gatherers also have the ability to body paint and to tattoo (see Magic section.)

Requirements: None
Prime Requisite: Wisdom
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: None

Gatherers use the thief experience table from the Labyrinth Lord core rules.
Body paint and tattooing are methods of harnessing the power of the Dreamtime. I'll detail them in another spoiler, or possibly leave it for the completed supplement. I'll also be expanding on the three skillsets - Knowledge, Craft and Communication - as they seem a little vague.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Race in D&D - Touching it with a Barge Pole

Monte Cook had some interesting things to say yesterday about race and sex in D&D. (Well, he said 'race and gender', but that word has always pissed me off. Like when people say 'guesstimate'.)

When I worked at TSR [he writes], there was always basically a truism in cover art--the central figure had to be a white male. Most of us actually helping to create the cover art, either by conceiving it or actually creating it, hated that kind of outlook, but the powers that be believed that our audience was entirely white males and they needed someone that they could identify with on the cover.

As he rightly notes, this was absurd for two reasons - the audience weren't all white males, and more importantly this is a game in which people pretend to be elves, dwarves and halflings. He then goes on to detail the creation of Regdar, the iconic fighter from the D&D 3e core rulebooks. Apparently at the time of conception Regdar was supposed to be a dwarf, but at the last minute, without any consultation with the writers, he was suddenly changed into a human white male by nefarious marketing types. And thus the racist undertones in D&D were perpetuated.

Let's say straight away what needs to be said: Monte Cook is being a bit disingenuous here, because despite his excuses about nonhumans being nonethnic and "just dwarves" (or elves or whatever), it's quite clear that the initial dwarf version of Regdar was going to be a white dwarf - i.e. a short, stocky, muscular bloke with a beard, but one with caucasoid features nonetheless. So Monte Cook can hardly claim to be a paragon of political correctness or racial equality. At best, he just tried to avoid the issue by making the iconic fighter a dwarf and thus sweeping all issues of race under the carpet.

That said, the whole issue of race in D&D is just about the biggest minefield for well intentioned people that you can possibly think of. Let's imagine that the 3e designers had decided to make the iconic fighter a black male; you only have to think for about five seconds before obvious nightmare accusations become apparent. The D&D designers think that black men are only suitable to be meatshields! They're just trying to throw a bone to other ethnicities! They're just pandering to the political correct lobby! And so on and so on.

I have two conflicting feelings about this. Firstly, D&D is undoubtedly at root a European fantasy game. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, given that it was written by descendants of Europeans and its setting is broadly 'medieval Europe'. In view of that, I don't really mind it being mostly about white people. People can create settings that are based on other areas of the world if they wish (and it's something I've often done in the past) in which case obviously their characters will be of other ethnicities, but in its standard form it makes sense for the art in the core rules to feature mainly white people.

But on the other hand, it is also undoubtedly the case that white people are a minority of the world's population. Now, fantasy worlds are fantasy worlds, so that shouldn't really be relevant. But I suppose there is a school of thought which says that the core rules of a role playing game should be as generic as possible, and if that is the case its art work should contain people of different ethnicities, in amounts proportionate to the populations of all the different ethnicities that exist in the world. That depends on whether or not you think D&D should have an 'implied setting' (or should just be a neutral set of rules).

At the end of the day, I suppose the "game where guys with beards pretend to be elves" point is the most telling. D&D is about make-believe. I most often make-believe that I'm a dwarf. That doesn't mean that I want to be a dwarf. Equally, if I play a blond Teutonic paragon, that doesn't mean that I'm an Aryan supremacist, and if I play a Zulu it doesn't mean I'm making a political statement about how we're all just the same underneath. All I'm doing is picking characters who seem like they are fun to play.

So while I take the point that always having human white male fighters on the covers of core books is slightly dubious, nor do I see it as a serious issue that strikes at the heart of the game. A better solution would be to just have a dragon on the front, actually. In a dungeon. That would be the most representative.

(It should be noted that the 4e PHB has a sexy woman of unknown racial origin and a Dragonborn on the cover, which if you are of a certain disposition is much worse than a white male fighter. It seems to imply that women are only allowed on covers if they're sexy, and combined with the Klingon-esque Dragonborn it states in no uncertain terms that "This is a game for adolescent boys." Luckily I'm not of that certain disposition, so I just think it's a nice picture.)

Monday 7 July 2008

Zangband, ToME, and the Roguelikes

A week or so ago, a meme about gaming influences was floating around. I cited five straight off the bat without really thinking too long; it's clear I was being an idiot because I completely left out Zangband, my favourite Angband variant and also my favourite ever computer game. (It's about the only game I've never become bored with, in fact - I first started playing it at about 14 and haven't stopped since.) Zangband is now no longer being developed, but it has evolved into Tales of Middle Earth (ToME), which is just as good, anyway. If you've never played any of these games, I truly envy you. As with people who've never read Viriconium, or who've never seen The Insider, I'm incredibly jealous that you have the chance to come to the games fresh and discover the wonders contained therein, whereas for a jaded old hand like me they no longer hold any surprises.

What are Zangband and ToME? Well, they're Roguelikes: Games in which you take on the role of a character traveling around dungeons killing things and taking treasure. What distinguishes them from just about any other genre of computer game is a kind of beautiful simplicity which masks great complexity. Picture an @ sign (that's you) moving around a randomly-generated dungeon killing 'o's (orcs) 'T's (Trolls) and 'd's (dragons) and you'll be able to get a rough idea of what game play involves. But what you won't appreciate until you actually play is just how much is going on, and how realistic and powerful the game engine is. (Get hit by a fireball, and your scrolls and spell books might be destroyed by the fire; eat the wrong kind of mushroom and you'll see hallucinations; throw a potion of sleep at a gang of orcs and it will act like a sleep-causing grenade).

The best thing about Zangband is its 'everything including the kitchen sink' approach. There's no purity of vision involved, unless "let's put in whatever the hell we want" counts as such. In this respect it's very much like older versions of D&D. The central theme is based around Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, but the game incorporates elements from everything from H. P. Lovecraft to the computer game Doom: It's a game where high-level characters at the lower depths of the dungeon can expect to be challenged by Colours from Outer Space, Star-Spawn of Cthulu, Warriors of the Dawn and rocket-firing Cyberdemons, and where you might end up clearing a room of Uruk-hai one moment before having to kill a pack of Sheriff Lobos the next. It's a game where one of the deadliest enemies in the upper echelons of the dungeon is called The Disembodied Hand That Strangled People; a game where you'll have to kill Calvin and Hobbes to get lower than dungeon level 10, and a game where an Ancient Red Dragon is scary, but Barney the Dinosaur is scarier still.

I didn't used to appreciate this kind of cross-genre weirdness outside of computer games. Role playing was always a serious business for me, whether I was playing AD&D, Shadowrun, Werewolf: The Apocalypse or Traveler. To a large extent, it still is. But nowadays I'm more willing to entertain the idea that the 'everything including the kitchen sink' approach can add a new level of creativity, interest and fun to a game. In a way it's a big part of the influence on my OzCthulu game - where I'm mixing stone-age gaming with Call of Cthulu. In another it's at the root of the attraction I hold for Risus, which allows genre-mixing like no other game. But I suppose its main effect is in the sheer, riotous enjoyment that it brings across in its reckless, mad creativity. The desire to put in everything that the designers liked, regardless of whether it would 'fit', is infectious. I definitely plan to start mixing up my genres with my D&D games sometime soon.

Sunday 6 July 2008

On Humanoids

Jim has once again put up a thoughtful post, this time about the moral ins-and-outs of the slaughter of humanoid creatures in D&D. He says:

Don't shy away from [the questionable morality of killing kobolds], but don't water down the issue by just making the humanoids simply "misunderstood," either. Milk it for all the drama that it's worth.

He then goes on to recommend a number of different ways of messing with players' moral compasses for the sake of drama, including orc-meat, orc-children, and bounties on humanoid scalps.

This hits a chord with me. I've always believed that there should be more to a game than just the unthinking murder of 'evil stuff'. But at the same time (as I think Jim is alluding to) I believe that it is important that good and evil should exist as objective things in the fantasy genre: Even if you tweak the tropes, there should always be an awareness that irredeemable evil can and does lurk somewhere. Now, it might be the case that you want to have an evil dwarven emperor, morally ambiguous elves, and neutral/isolationist orcs in your setting. That's fine; to be encouraged, even. Likewise, it's important that not every 'evil' creature should be utterly steeped in sin, and that not every 'good' one should be a paragon of virtue. If you want a friendly goblin guide for your players during their journey through the mountains, all to the good. But objective evil does exist, and is a force in the world that sometimes has to be fought.

The key, I believe, is in making evil believable. I won't have any truck with what I read recently on a Story Games thread, in which it was advocated that:

The usual 'enemy races' are actually materialized negative energy from purification rituals- goblins are evil thoughts, orcs are evil deeds, hobgoblins - evil laws, and kobolds? Good deeds undone.

I don't necessarily think that is a bad idea (it's actually quite a good one for a certain kind of game) but it really isn't my scene. I don't want my orcs [or whatever the 'evil' races are in the campaign world] to be 'materialized negative energy' or personifications of 'bad deeds'. I want them to behave in 'evil' ways because it makes sense to them to do things that way. Why do orcs want to eat human babies? Because they're hungry, and they don't see human life as remotely precious. Why do they torture? Because they think it's fun, and it has religious significance. Why do they make war? To gain more resources for themselves.

This has the added advantage of allowing players and humanoid opponents to interact in more sensible ways. The party comes across a bunch of hobgoblins laying waste to a village; of course, they step in and try to stop them. But on another day they come around a bend in the road in the middle of the wilderness and are confronted by a different group of hobgoblins who are just out hunting. Because both the players and the monsters are rational, it's perfectly possible for both sides to negotiate without resorting to senseless killing. And the game world seems richer and better as a result.

I think this is what troubles me most about the 'minion' rules in 4e. (I keep breaking that promise I made to myself not to talk about the new edition. Dammit.) Minions are there to be killed. That is the meaning of their existence - to die and make the players look good by doing so. I know that this is deliberate and the designers have made it explicit that all notion of an independent reality outside of the players has been thrown out of the window. And if that's what you want from a game, more power to you. But the very idea of 'minions' is anathema to the type of thing I'm interested in. Monsters aren't just there to kill and die. They're there to be interacted with in my games. That implies a whole world going on outside of the player characters, which just doesn't chime with the idea of minions.

Saturday 5 July 2008

More on Maps: One I wish I'd come up with...

You come across some interesting things on the net from time to time, don't you? How's about this for a fantasy setting - The Map of Humanity:

I highly recommend you click on it and have a zoom around. Eurocentric, perhaps, but nevertheless an item of crazed genius. I don't quite know what to make of it other than that - other than to say I'm going to straight away put it in my file of "Setting ideas that are just too difficult to envisage pulling off, but which I take out from time to time and gaze at mutely."

(That file also included my abortive attempt to turn Borges' Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Recognition into a campaign setting - more on which I think I'll write at a later date.)

Friday 4 July 2008

My Map: Let Me Show You It

James at Grognardia posted an endearing map which his 14-year-old self drew for a D&D campaign. I love maps; I love looking at them, drawing them and thinking about them - which I'm sure is a trait I share with 95% of the role playing fraternity - and James' has made me think about sharing one of my own.

Unfortunately, I have none which my 14 year old self drew here with me in Japan. I wish I did. They would be mighty embarrassing to look over now, of course; when I was 13 or 14 I was still very much of the Forest of Death/Mountains of Doom/Desert of Destruction Fighting Fantasy school of place-naming. Nevertheless, it would have been fun to look at a few of the old campaign settings. (There must be a hundred or more in my parents' loft.)

So in lieu of one of my older efforts, here's a very recent one, from a play-by-post game I'm still running. It's a map of Moluche, the seven hobgoblin Kritocracies by the sea, and their surroundings:

This is done with my current favourite method of map creation: taking snapshots from Google Earth and rotating, chopping and variously mutilating them into something workable. The seven Kritocracies are Mapuche, Nguluche, Koniyiin, Koninguun, Pefimi, Peynguun and Peymuun. To the south is a wilderness area dominated by primitive Lizardfolk tribes, and to the South-East the lands of the Duergar. Moluche has been devastated by centuries of internecine strife between the Kritocracies. Much of it is now a desolate wasteland, strewn with the detritus of war - abandoned fortifications and trenches, mass graveyards, and exhausted mines. Only Peymuun, the richest and most powerful, retains its forest cover to any extent.

I wish I could remember where I took the snapshot from. I believe it is somewhere in the Arabian peninsula, rotated at an angle, although I could be wrong.

Thursday 3 July 2008

More on Aspects: Dreamtime Points in OzCthulu

A while ago, in fact in my first ever entry in this blog, I made a post about FATE-like aspects for use in D&D - except with mechanics similar to the Belief Points introduced in The Planewalker's Handbook. (One of the best ever D&D supplements, by the way, now available for the criminally low price of US$4.00 as a .pdf from Paizo. If you don't own a copy - you owe it to yourself to get it.)

My idea was that instead of using the rather banal aspects of FATE, and the sledgehammer simplicity of the beliefs in The Planewalker's Handbook, it would be more profitable and interesting to base one's character's "Dynamic Facets" (as I called them) on quotes from Shakespeare. So that, for example, a character who had the Dynamic Facet "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more" would gain points whenever he put the needs of his nation, tribe or clan above the interests of anything else - especially if it caused him trouble. He could then spend those DF points to improve the results of dice rolls in the future. Another example I liked was the Dynamic Facet "There is some soul of goodness in things evil"; a character who had it might gain DF points for, say, sparing the life of a captured hobgoblin in the name of trying to convince it to reform itself.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that I might include the idea as an optional rule in OzCthulu. (I really should come up with a different name lest people get the wrong idea; sirlarkins has already mistaken it for a mixture of Call of Cthulu and The Wizard of Oz.) Not by using the Shakespeare-quote thing. I still love that idea, but it doesn't really fit the mood of the setting. Rather, I'd like some way of emulating the effect that the Dreamtime (the parallel reality in Aboriginal myth) has on 'the real world' and, likewise, the way that 'the real world' impacts on the Dreamtime.

My basic idea is this. The Dreamtime is seen as moulding Aboriginal society's laws, stories, language, customs, religion and art. If it can do this, is it not just a short stretch to see it having slightly more concrete effects - by, for example, influencing the success or failure of an individual's actions?

In other words, I'm thinking that whenever a character does something in line with his or her own personal Dreaming (that is: character, beliefs, philosophy, spirituality, what have you) in an exceptional and extraordinary way, he or she could get a "Dreamtime point" which could be spent in the future to automatically succeed on a given dice roll. But the opposite could also be true; whenever a character acted against their own Dreaming, they would automatically fail a dice roll determined randomly by the DM (e.g. by rolling a d20 and saying that 'your 9th [or whatever number comes up] next roll will automatically fail').

The key, as I noted in my Shakespearian Aspects post, is that the DM shouldn't award points willy-nilly for simple things. A character whose Dreaming is I can never back down from an argument shouldn't get a point for just bickering with the other characters. Dreaming points should only be given when a character does something in the name of their Dreaming that runs counter to common sense and has a serious impact on the course of events. They would be rare rewards, given out maybe at the rate of one or two per adventure. I think they'd be a nice mechanical way to emulate Dreamtime beliefs, with the added bonus of not harming the simplicity of the ruleset. I'll do some more refining of the concept as I go, though. (The next target is to narrow down what I mean exactly by "a person's Dreaming".)

Wednesday 2 July 2008


I know there's nothing new under the sun, and everything, but blimey, I really thought I had an original idea there.

My 'take' for OzCthulu is going to be different, but still, imagine how galling it was to find a link to the above product and read this:

TERROR AUSTRALIS includes three roleplaying adventures, "Old Fellow that Bunyip," "Pride of Yirrimburra," and "City Beneath the Sands," as well as extensive information about the Aboriginal inhabitants, their mystical concept of Dreamtime, inhabitants of the Dreamtime, Australian history, transportation in the 1920's, contemporary Australian slang, famous hauntings, and a special chapter analyzing the Dreamtime (Alcheringa) in roleplaying terms. Intended as a roleplaying supplement and useful in for any roleplaying game, TERROR AUSTRALIS also contains many pages of illustrations and maps to intrigue any Australia buff.

Bloody Chaosium. Why do they have to be so darned creative? Oh well, I'll press on with LL OzCthulu regardless.


In other news, there's been a bit of talk about a section of Dragon Magazine #364, in which the 4e design team are quoted as saying:

In past editions, we'd describe things like cave slime as if the DC of the Acrobatics check to avoid slipping in it were an objective, scientific measurement of its physical properties. "How slippery is cave slime? It's DC 30 slippery." But setting a fixed number like that limits its usefulness -- cave slime would be too challenging for low-level characters and irrelevant for high-level characters. In 4th Edition, we tell you to set the DC to avoid slipping based on the level of the characters, using the Difficulty Class and Damage by Level table. So when 5th-level characters encounter cave slime, they'll be making a check against DC 22, but 25th-level characters have to make a DC 33 check.

Does that mean that high-level characters encounter Epic Cave Slime that's objectively slipperier than the Heroic Cave Slime they encountered in their early careers? Maybe. It doesn't matter.

I'm getting so sick of the double speak from WotC: "In past editions, we'd describe things like cave slime as if the DC...." No, in past edition, singular, you would have. It's like they can't resist the opportunity to take sly digs against older versions of the game, even if it means being economical with the truth in the most obvious ways, like acting as if 'past editions' and '3.X' are the same thing. (It reminds me of that awful article on Treasure in 4e, which I happily can't find a link for, where about half of the word length was devoted to painting a patently ridiculous picture of 2nd and 1st edition in a snooty and obnoxious way.)

Having said that, I really don't know what to make of this intelligence. It certainly ruins verisimilitude, but then again, since when has there ever been true verisimilitude in D&D? My major concern is that, well, a 25th level character is practically a demigod. What sort of a demigod slips on cave slime?

Does this mean that, for example, a 1st level and a 25th level rogue who want to climb the same wall have to use different difficulty checks? Or that a 1st level and a 25th level fighter who want to kill the same goblin have to use different 'to hit' targets (or whatever 4e uses)?

Concerning times in Dungeons & Dragons land, my friends. Concerning times.

Giant Maneating Flatworms

We had one of these in the apartment last night:

Lovely, eh? It's a land planarian: a species of flatworm with a serious agenda for world domination. Originating in Asia, it is now spreading through the Americas and Europe, leaving a trail of dying earthworms in its wake. So what's a DM to do? Stat up a giant one, of course:

Giant Land Planarian

Slithering through thick forest topsoil, this blind, predatory, hammerhead worm searches endlessly for human or animal flesh. Completely blind, it operates by scent alone.

The Giant Land Planarian can reach up to 12-18' in length as an adult. It attacks by winding itself around its victim, covering it in thick mucus, before inserting its tube-like mouth into the unfortunate's body and sucking it dry.

The monster's most impressive trick is its ability to regenerate. It automatically recovers hit points at the rate of one per turn, and can only be properly destroyed by fire or acid. On a successful critical hit with a slashing weapon, the body will break at the point of attack. Parts of the body that are severed immediately begin to grow into new individuals; the creature's remaining hit points should be shared between the two portions according to length. New individuals regenerate at the same rate as the main body; by the time they have gained 10 more hit points they have grown a new head and a new mouth with which to feed.

The creature has no eyes or ears and operates by an exceptionally keen sense of smell, so it is never surprised.

Giant Land Planarian

Climate/Terrain: Temperate and subtropical forests
Frequency: Rare
Organization: Individual
Activity Cycle: Any, usually nocturnal
Diet: Carnivore
Intelligence: Nil (0)
Alignment: None (Neutral)
No. Appearing: 1
AC: 4
Movement: 12
HD: 6+6 - 9+9 (depending on length)
THACo: 14 - 11
No. of Attacks: 1
Special Attacks: The Land Planarian attacks by constricting its foes and sucking them dry. On a successful hit roll, the creature causes no damage, but immediately rolls again to hit. If the second roll succeeds, it can entwine itself in its victim and begin to feed. It drains the blood and organs from its target at a rate of 8 hp per turn through its tube-like mouth. The creature will not relinquish its hold unless it has lost 90% of its hit points or it is confronted by fire.
Special Defences: See above. The Land Planarian suffers only half damage from bludgeoning and piercing weapons. It takes double damage from fire.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

OzCthulu - the Outline

I've been working on the idea for an Aboriginal-Cthulu setting for quite some time. Originally I conceived of it using AD&D 1st edition rules, then later Microlite d20 and afterwards The Window (quite a nice little rules-lite system once you get past the overbearing elitism). I think Labyrinth Lord will be a nice fit, because it strikes the right balance between simplicity (which AD&D 1st edition doesn't have) and structure (which is where The Window especially is lacking). I haven't decided whether to make it classless or not as yet; we'll see where my instincts lead me.

What do I want to get out of the setting? Here's a smattering of what I've been thinking of including at various times:
  • Ancient Australian megafauna. That's non-negotiable. Giant Wombats! Marsupial Lions! Giant Tasmanian Devils! Best of all: A bird called Bullockomis Planei, the 'Demon Duck of Doom'.
  • Great Old Ones and Outer Gods. This is going to be a game which is set in the dawn of human time, analogous to our world 60,000 years ago, and is supposed to catalogue mankind's first conscious encounters with the beings of the Cthulu mythos.
  • The Dreamtime. A parallel existence, 'more real than reality', whose happenings have mysterious and powerful effects in the 'real world'. Characters who can have contact with the Dreamtime and the beings that live there, and encounters and adventures in which the player characters have to enter it.
  • Dungeon delving! Because it wouldn't be D&D otherwise. The setting is impossibly ancient, but the world is more ancient still - with endless cave systems as old as time itself. What lives inside them? What forgotten creatures, present at the beginning of creation, still lurk in the depths?
  • The Bunyip.
  • Spirits of place, which have to be pacified and placated before they allow you to pass through their territory.
  • Yaramayahoo - giant tree frog vampires which swallow children, regurgitating them as yaramayahoo themselves.
  • Executioner-assassins who can pursue their quarry with relentless accuracy and possess the power to kill them with a touch.
I've started getting excited about it again, writing those ideas out. At the moment things are so amorphous that it's difficult to get a fix exactly on what I want, but everything that I have, I like.