Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Yes I Just Collated Loads Of Stuff From Other Blog Entries

My post yesterday spawned some excellent responses, and also some great comments. Rather than go through them all in detail I thought I'd summarise the best ideas and add my comments. Lots of them are Zak's, but that's because he's the type of person who has 50 ideas a day and 51 of them are good. 

1. Never make monsters "scalable" unless they're basically humanoids with levels like the PCs and so the PCs can tell them apart as characters.

This is spot on. Nothing makes a dragon - no, scratch that, any monster - less interesting than being able to fight it at 1st level and win. It is for this and many other reasons that 4th edition D&D wins the noisms prize for All Time Most Banalifying Game System Ever.

2. Finding an NPC cleric willing to heal you is fucking hard and generally involves some creepy religious thing happening. Because miracles are rare.

Yes. I indulged in some of it on this very blog, but while this sort of thing is fun to think and write about, nothing will kill a sense of mystery faster than making spells and miraculous healing something that can be bought for loose change. If you want somebody to cure your disease, let alone raise one of your comrades from the dead, there needs to be a price that isn't about money. There needs to be Zak's creepy religious thing happening or there needs to be a sacrifice of considerable time and effort and personal safety: think geas, not "it costs 200 gps".

3. Make [the players] cross a threshold (a clear in game threshold "Are you sure you wish to travel down the secluded mountain pass") before having them fight the fantastical. 

I like this idea and it reminds me of the Wizard Knight, which, along with Jack Vance's Dying Earth and Lyonesse stories, and M. John Harrison's Viriconium cycle, is probably the key "fantastical fantasy" text. In Wolfe's cosmology there is Mythgarthr, the middle world, where humans live; Skai, Kleos, and Elysion (the realm of the Most High God) above it; and Aelfrice, Muspel and Niflheim (the realm of the Most Low God) beneath. Much of what is "magical" and "fantastical" comes from things of the other realms seeping through into Mythgarthr or people accidentally or purposefully moving from Mythgarthr into them. There is plenty of scope for a fantastical D&D campaign here, where adventurers deliberately delve into the dungeon which is really a gateway to lower realms, which follow different rules and whose inhabitants are mysterious and dangerous.

4. Recreate monsters - especially the humanoids. Keep them physically and statistically the same, but recreate their culture.

A simple one, this, and obvious, but it bears repeating. Why don't most DMs do this? Because they're lazy and unimaginative. I'd go further than -C, though, and say that recreating monsters doesn't have to mean keeping them physically the same, either. Hence stuff like this.

5. No "chain of humanoid enemies". Goblins are weird fairy tale monsters with their own empire, gnolls are slavering barbarians, jackalmen wear robes and know magic, crowmen are semidemonic and rare, white leopardmen serve a Frazettastyle ice witch and bugbears and hobgoblins and what-all are bizarre unique things you haven't met yet.   

I've written about this recently anyway, but the whole goblin-hobgoblin-bugbear-troll thing is just the blandest, lamest, weakest thing ever unless you can find a way to really make it interesting.

6. The technique...of providing no standardized monsters or magic items points the way to a game system where the rules of the mundane are known to the players, but the fantastic elements are an idiosyncratic revelation from game to game. Yes, creating the fantastic is hard individual work for the DM. But the alternative, especially with experienced games, is a group of players who ready the oil when they see a troll, who can find out exactly how much every gland in every dead monster corpse is worth, and for whom the only surprise is tactical, not strategic.

This is a post in its own right, but stuff like the Forge helps with this. Yes, the names it comes up with are a bit formulaic and sometimes never work, but they provide food for thought: the beauty of it is you just keep pressing the 'space' bar, and even if you don't use the names they give you ideas.

Finally, there's something I'd like to try myself, which is to use tarot cards as a randomizing device. I'm imagining something like this: get a deck of tarot cards and assign certain abilities to each card (Death is a save versus death attack; The Lovers is a charm person attack; etc.). Then, when you have just come up with a monster, draw a card at random. Bingo: it has that ability, whatever it is. You then just have to come up with the physical expression of it.


  1. "Finding an NPC cleric willing to heal you is fucking hard and generally involves some creepy religious thing happening. Because miracles are rare."

    I'd expand this, and stress the material components of magic user spell casting. Two spells might be the same level, but the cost of casting them might be quite different. It's not just a question of doing a bit of revision in the morning. Powerful spells need rare components, which might involve some kind of quest, sacrifice, or moral compromise.

  2. I am very intrigued by all these ideas, and I enjoy reading them.

    But (and I say this with only a modest amount of relish): "Believe it or not, there are systems out there which [are directly geared towards a 'fantastical' world, without exhaustively cataloged and detailed monster manuals] and where the rules actually support this.

    Why not play that type of game rather than resorting to all these shenanigans with D&D, whose rules absolutely do not support it?" [For clarification/context, see noism's 5:59 comment on this thread http://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com/2011/09/faking-it-or-youd-better-be-al-pacino.html]

    I'm hoping that throwing that comment in your face doesn't come off as pure dickishness. I only bring it up because it struck me as more than a little unfair in the earlier context.

    I think if you're excited about morphing D&D into a more fantastical game, you should be a little more accepting of people who employ quantum-ogres (and the like) to morph D&D into a more collaborative-story-style game.

    Again though, thanks very much for starting this conversation, which I am hugely enjoying.

  3. DrBargle: I'd agree with that. Spell components get played down too much in D&D as a general rule.

    Ivan: Touche!

    But, there's a difference (but I would say that). What I'm talking about is marrying what makes D&D (the micromanagement of resources, the strategizing, the abstracted combat, the experience levels, the dungeoneering) with a sense of the fantastic. And I don't think there is a game out there that does do that.

    Whereas there are games which do what Kevin's players seemed to really respond to - i.e. the ability to create and tell a story.

  4. Well of course that's your reply.

    No *true* Scotsman would play a storytelling variant of D&D, but he would gladly play a fantastical variant.


    (I take your point regarding the existence or non-existence of such games, however. I don't really know anything about non-D&D RPGs, so that aspect of my devastatingly clever comment was purely a shot in the dark.)

  5. The problem with spell components is that they get reduced in many games to mundane stuff that the wizard needs to buy next time he's in town; they may as well just list a cost in gold pieces and cut out the middle man.

    (I seem to recall that this is what they do in D&D4 for the non-combat spells.)

    The correct way to do it, of course, is have the spell components only available through further questing.

  6. @noisms

    I like #3


    Personally, no published setting is the setting I want to be playing,so what's the dif? No matter what I play I'll be tossing out the setting and making it my own.

    D&D doesn't actually need ropers for the rules to work.

    But then so why D&D anyway? why not nay other thing?

    1. D&D is like English for me--maybe it's not the best language in the world and maybe it wasn't written just for me to say what I want, but it's the one people here speak, and I can get it to do what I need, so I don't feel a need to switch.

    If instantly everyone in the universe knew all systems and they were all equally easy to teach I'd probably be playing Rolemaster. But it's not a big sacrifice.

    2. As the last 30 yrs have shown, it's a very flexible system. Every Grognard who has ever aid "Well you can't do ____ in D&D has been proven wrong at least once". It's the ultimate chassis.

    3. You can also talk about those hacks with other people and get feedback in a way you can't with, say, Rolemaster or GURPS or Palladium Fantasy.

  7. It's fun to talk about how you speak english and then demonstrate you can't in the same sentence.

  8. Zak,

    I completely agree on all counts. I think the language analogy is excellent.

    It's also easier to find other players for D&D.


  9. David,
    I think the sort of answers you choose to give to the romanticist fantasy issue is focusing heavily upon the mystery side, and maybe not enough upon the core subject. You can find rules and rulings to get over the classic D&D tropes, Zak has given quite a few, and you did as well in your building of Yoon-Suin. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Realms of the Crawling Chaos or the DCC RPG do as well. I'm a bit afraid of providing a slightly discordant voice here, but to come to the point, it seems a bit like tinkering to me instead of facing the real question.

    Which is: how can we get rid of the Simulationist/Naturalist parts of D&D? You're actually very close to James Maliszewski here, who seeks the same in the regeneration, or long-forgotten seeds maybe of what he calls the Golden Age. As far as I'm concerned, everything went astray when we became obsessed with dungeon ecology and when we confused verisimilitude with historical simulation, which led to the incredibly absurd articles we got in Dragon issues like Ecology of the Bulette or of the Rust Monster. When we, as DMs, had to explain how those orcs in area 33 fed and went to the loo and had to make that consistent with what everybody could read upon D&D orcs, we've lost all the magic that powered D&D as a romantic game.

    This is all about building a shared mythology, that players could accept as the actual play unfolds it. It's exactly what IAWA is about, and it succeeds with its choice for evasive wording and sheer simplicity. Carcosa, with its hit-points system, rituals and weird places, does as well in a different way. I could say that the Swords & Wizardry White Box supports very strongly this agenda as well, if only because of its art, which evokes rather than shows.

    You can “weird” the setting and the adventures as much as you want, make monsters, items and spells unique ad nauseam, you won't eventually get anywhere so new until you shake the basis of the system itself, maybe by going for something so simple that aiming for Simulation would be absurd. Rolling 1d6 for all weapons, like Holmes did, is a Simulation nonsense, and a strong romantic choice. This is what I mean.

  10. And this reminds me a lot of Vincent Baker's Storming the Wizard's Tower and the fantasimilitude notion he's developped inside.

  11. Zak: I take that point. Actually I remember when you got into a mini-argument with the cannon puncture guys about that, and this kind of rehashes the ground gone over in that.

    Kabuki Kaiser: Excellent points, and I agree. I think what you say about simplifying the rules is spot on: D&D's rules in their original form were very abstract. Not as abstract as IAWA's, but still far more abstract than the standard today.

  12. I like this project a lot, Noisms, and I guess a key reason for a lot of people moving on from all editions of D&D (from at least AD&D on, anyway) is this sense of the banal that comes with it. To add one point and one question...

    Ditch magic item tables: in my Compromise and Conceit campaign I was working on a heavily modified version of d20 and, aside from simple bonus weapons, I never used a magic item that was not unique (using the term correctly, not to mean that the magic items I invented were either clever or cool). D&D does precisely the opposite. All those tables in the DMG do exactly what I was doing in my post on the cost-effectiveness of clerical intervention - they turn the game into an exercise in managerialism. I'm sure there's a way to systematize magic-as-technology without demystifying it, but I don't think D&D did it.

    And on this note: maybe the problem with this banalization is not D&D, but the publishing model. The dependency on splat books and content for income forces game companies to produce more and more of the sort of thing we see in the DMG: how-to guides and tables. I'm thinking here that a lot of other systems - Rolemaster, Traveller and WFRP2, for example - do this, and end up with much the same banality underlying their work (Traveller is slightly different because the context is SF, and equipment lists are suited to that context, but still I think it supports my point that the publishing model drives this).

    So I would guess we just need to retain our creativity and try not to treat the core rulebooks as canon. Which I think most people commenting here have already worked out. But that's hard because - much as you and I disagree about my criticisms of various books in various other canons - I think every literary or artistic field needs its canon, and its hidebound adherents to same.

  13. Per Zak's comment: "2. As the last 30 y[ea]rs have shown, it's a very flexible system. Every Grognard who has ever [s]aid "Well you can't do ____ in D&D" has been proven wrong at least once. It's the ultimate chassis."

    That gets an 'amen.'

  14. A sad note on all those "ecology" articles: they started as jokes. The first one, "The Ecology of the Piercer," appeared in an April issue of Dragon, and wasn't meant to be taken seriously; it was a silly essay about a silly monster. Then loads of readers wrote in and said "Wow! That explanation was great! Give us more!" And the over-explanation of everything was set in motion...

  15. "Then loads of readers wrote in and said "Wow! That explanation was great! Give us more!" And the over-explanation of everything was set in motion..."

    It's the clash of the needs of the game, and the desire of the gamers for game-related fluff akin to the "Atlas of Middle Earth" and "Star Trek Enterprise Blueprints" products for those media properties.

    There's a place for Ecology... articles as entertainment, I think, as long as they're taken as optional. Or perhaps as products of unreliable sources.

  16. Indeed––TWK is a great source for rpg material.