Monday, March 26, 2012

Party of One: Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls Through the Breach

In order to play Open Design's new adventure, Matthew J. Hanson's Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls through the Breach, one only needs a pen, some paper, and a standard assortment of dice (actually just 1d6, 1d8, 1d12, and 1d20). That is because it is part of their new series, Party of One, a (Pathfinder-compatible) collection of choose-your-own-adventure style solo adventures. Anyone who has read this blog long enough knows that I have major affection for choose-your-own-adventure solo missions, so when I became aware that this had been released, it was an easy buy. Add to that that it was only $3, and it was even easier. I ended up printing it out so I could flip through it more naturally than scrolling up and down in the pdf; it is a shame that the pdf was not linked, so when it said "go to 73" you couldn't click that and be taken to 73. It is also a shame that, despite there being a "character sheet" attached at the end with abilities, it does not have check boxes for the additional items, secrets, and abilities you pick up along the adventure, as that would have greatly have streamlined the process. It also makes a major mistake in indicating that only a d6, d8, and d20 are required: d12 rolls are quite common, and as we all know 1d12≠2d6.

Minor complaints aside, however, KBGB (that name is far too long to type out each time) is a surprisingly nuanced, engrossing adventure. The premise is simple: you are a dwarf who has just joined an elite guard for your city, and the night of your celebration it turns out that you will be pressed into service much sooner than you expected. There is a ghoul attack in the street, and it very quickly turns out that it is not an isolated incident. Through tracking clues, you learn more and more about the attacks and their implications for your entire city. And, of course, you can pick up items, information, and allies along the way.

I say that this is (Pathfinder-compatible) because it doesn't really seem, to me, to distinguish itself as really at all distinctly "Pathfinder." It presents rules as they become relevant, and always gives you a small stat block for you, your allies, and your enemies each time you must be pressed into battle. It has the overall flavor of any generic, vaguely OGL-compatible adventure out there, and at least to any part I discovered that was about where the comparison stopped. I suppose that's why it is labeled as Pathfinder "compatible," since anything OGL can be easily adapted for that system. Nevertheless, I don't want to be bogged down by semantics before I can say that I did, in fact, really enjoy the adventure.

By the time I am writing this, I have run through it four times; each time managing to get a little bit further into the mystery and intrigue that is KGBG. The first couple of times I managed to succumb, rather early, to terrible dice rolls, rather than end up making any sort of terrible decisions on my own. However, as I pressed further, a shocking betrayal resulted in my death once, and then my imprisonment again. KGBG ends up being "hard." Frequently you have to go up against multiple enemies, and you are limited to only one attack per round. Battles rapidly turn into attrition and prayer (o spirit of the dice, hear my call: turn up below 12 on the enemy's turn). Your armor class is high, which makes ordinary attacks endured by the ghouls a bit easier to weather, but there are enough other enemies that you are constantly on your toes. The adventure seems to reward audacious and brash behavior (befitting of a dwarf) over caution and stealth; ghouls are, after all, pouring into the city, and the sooner you can do something about it, the better. Each decision you make seems to have major ramifications, and I feel like I have probably only skimmed the surface of this ten page adventure, so up to this point I'd still label the replay value as "high." Plus, depending on the choices you make, it might be all over for you in under ten minutes, so you can knock it out while you're waiting for something else. All in all, I'd give this one a solid B+, and I look forward to further entries into the Party of One series (and maybe a bound book containing all of them at some point in the future? eh Mr. Baur?).

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Rogue Space: The Dark Frontier, by Christopher Brandon

After receiving my copy of Rogue Space: The Dark Frontier in the mail from lulu and reviewing its contents, I have some additional comments to make about Rogue Space. Unsurprisingly, there is very little different from the PocketMod-sized basic rules, but some differences do, I believe, require comment. The most obvious change right away is in hit points. Rather than getting a set amount of hit points, as in the basic rules, you instead get a set+HD sort of mechanic. Though, the die type doesn't change (as this game exclusively uses d6's), but the base number does. Warrior gets 1d6+6 on one end, and Technician gets 1d6+2 on the other end. It averages out to about the same in the long run, but adds a little bit more variability. I'm not sure which version I prefer. It definitely adds survivability to the Rogue and Technician type characters.

Before launching more into the substance of the book, I'll address some cosmetic issues. First, regarding the art: half of the art is great. It was custom-made for the book by the author's wife (?). It's got a consistent style, she's a great artist, and it's of a sufficient resolution to not look off when printed. The other half of the art, I can't be so positive about. It's largely public domain, low-resolution 40's/50's pulpy-style art of generic space exploration sort of settings. It's reminiscent of the art that's plastered all over the covers of my Alan Nourse and Theodore Sturgeon novels from that time period. This is not necessarily a bad thing; I happen to love pulpy space art (and the genre), and that's why I've collected those sorts of novels. However, the problem is the resolution. The problem is that these are obviously low-quality, compressed, low-resolution pictures that have been expanded to fill the space on the page, and the result is aliasing, pixelation, and a generally washed-out appearance. Too bad. I think that a lot of that could probably be solved by rinsing the pictures through the posterize tool in GIMP since they're pen-and-ink or lithograph style pictures; fewer levels of grey, cleaner appearance. But I digress.

I really hope that the stock art is just placeholder material for when the artist (Valerie Brandon) can replace it with some more of her great, stylized, distinct artwork. Though I've spent a whole paragraph complaining about it, I'll conclude by saying that it's not even that bad. There are only a couple pictures that are bad enough to groan at, and that's a better track record than even Chaosium (some of the art in Call of Cthulhu is shameful, and has been reprinted for 20 years). If Rogue Space ever gets another update, with more art from Valerie Brandon and any rules updates, I'd probably buy another copy. Valerie Brandon's art is also pulp-influenced, so it's at least not inconsistent with the stock art. However, in parting for the art section, it does decidedly lead the reader to assume that the game is "supposed" to be run in a pulp style, which is not necessarily the case. I'm honestly not sure what the long-term plans are for this game, but I'l say that, even despite these reservations, I'd categorize everything in the book, visually, as "good enough." You can download most of the relevant stuff for play from the website anyway, so the low resolution doesn't hinder that.

The book itself is standard lulu fare: 8.5x11" printer sheets perfect bound between a high-gloss light cardstock cover. I managed to spill my tea on it shortly after opening it, but the glossy cover was able to resist all of the potential liquid damage, and cleaned up well. I got a little bit of waviness on the bottom where the tea touched but I clamped it and it looks fine now. I honestly feel like, given the amount of material and the thinness of the book, I'd have preferred it to be in a different format, like 6x9" like the Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition; but I have no idea what options are available from lulu and what that does to the cost. I'd probably have preferred, overall, for there to be less art as well. There's at least some sort of graphic on nearly every page; some is helpful as it directly reflects something written on the page, but a lot of it is filler. Anyway, at this point I think I'll take off the editor hat at this point and put it in the drawer. And then lock the drawer. And give someone else the key for safe-keeping so I don't get any ideas about putting the hat back on. Oh, before I put the hat away, I will say: I did not spot any spelling or grammar anomalies, so at least in that regard Brandon's got a leg up on some major RPG publishers. Ok, hat away.

On to the rules. For the purposes of this review, I will distinguish between the two rule sets. The original, the PocketMod Basic Rules, I'll call PMB. The expanded, book-sized rules I'll call TDF (for The Dark Frontier). There is not terribly much different between the two, but there's enough that the distinction, I think, is reasonable to make. There are a couple conflicting concepts regarding initiative in the book. In PMB, initiative is determined by 2d6+current HP. In TDF, on one page, it says there is no initiative and players all declare their actions resolve them simultaneously. On the following page (under the Combat heading) it has the PMB rule of 2d6+HP. I guess (thanks to a commenter for pointing it out) that I'd still stick to the 2d6+HP rule under Combat for combat situations, and relegate the simultaneous resolution system for noncombat situations where time is still a factor. However, I'd still be tempted to break that into initiative order (since two people might be working on the same thing, and the order by which they perform their actions would have an effect on the time it takes to complete the task), and in which case I might make the initiative count current HP+relevant skill bonus. But that might be a bit too simulationist for an otherwise pretty easygoing and "abstractified" game, so nevermind. :)

Other additions to the combat system, plus a greatly expanded weapons and armor section, plus even more non-combat and supplemental items, are all very welcome. These sort of details, while not exactly necessary, are great starter ideas and I'm glad to see them. TDF also includes rules for disruptor-type weapons (remember how I was talking about that in my PMB review?), which includes a save-or-die mechanic that I really like. I can't off the top of my head remember any instance where someone survived a direct blast from a Klingon disruptor, but I'm sure it happened at some point because Star Trek is like that.

Reading through The Dark Frontier, perhaps on account of the pulp art, I was thinking that it would be more appropriate for a Star Trek: TOS sort of game, rather than a TNG sort of game, as I was thinking with the PocketMod rules. This might be also because of the sorts of items which are described as well, but I think it just goes to show how very subtle changes and details in the writing can (inadvertently?) lead the reader off in different directions.

In reading the PMB rules, I was constantly thinking that modding the game with some elements from Diaspora would probably make it more fully-realized, and give it more of that old school Traveller sort of vibe. Upon finishing the TDF book, which includes details on ships, sectors, and space travel, adding in any Diaspora elements seems less necessary. But, since 2d6 (which Rogue Space uses) and *dF (which Diaspora uses) both map out in a bell curve, the two are probably pretty easily compatible; one could probably even adjust Rogue Space to utilize 4dF instead of 2d6 and have to change virtually nothing else.

You can occasionally track the influences that Brandon had while he was writing the book, and that helps to give an idea of the sort of directions he was thinking of going with the game. For instance, in the example for how to develop an alien playable character, he outlines a sort of "Space Elf." However, it sounds remarkably like a Vulcan (and not an Eldar, shame on you for immediately thinking that when I said Space Elf!). In the section on developing alien enemies, he outlines an Alien Xenomorph, from the eponymous science fiction film trilogy (I refuse to acknowledge the existence of Alien: Resurrection, or either of the AvP films). In the section talking about psionic characters, he refers to them as psykers (which may or may not lead to complications from Games Workshop).

A few more notes, in brief. There is a choose-your-own-adventure style sample adventure in the book. I've already expressed multiple times how much I love these and encourage their inclusion as gameplay-introduction tools in RPG books, so I won't go on about that in length, but suffice to say, it's great, and almost has a Lamentations-of-the-Flame-Princess-in-space sort of feel to it. There are rules on building NPC robots, putting together and statting out ships, creating PC and NPC alien races and threats, and creating unique sectors, star systems, and worlds (remember how I said Diaspora was no longer necessary to augment this?).

Brandon does seem to love his anagrams for stats. PC stats are abbreviated FASER (Fighting, Acquiring, Scientific, Empathy, and Repairing. Ship stats are abbreviated SHIPS (Structure, Howitzers, Interior, Propulsion, Shields). Alien types are abbreviated HAIKU (Humanoid, Animal, Insect, Known, Unknown). Alien sizes are abbreviated TSARZ (Tiny, Small, Average, Really big, ZOMG!). Alien stats are abbreviated PTTPSZMVARDMHPSP. Ok, thats not an anagram. No, alien (enemy) stats are one-liners highly reminiscent of any retroclone you can probably name, so it's very easy to understand even without immediatly knowing what the letters are for. I think that "Howitzers" as a stand in for "Ordnance" is a bit forced, especially because "Howitzer" to me very highly suggests a particular kind of light artillery between a full-sized cannon and a lighter-still mortar. Plus, having two S's, tsk tsk. When I was reading it, I was thinking, why not HOLES (Hull, Ordnance, Logistics, Engines, Shields), or HOPES (Personnel). That's a joke; SHIPS is fine. It's self-referential, which is a kind of punning that I can get behind. Additionally, ZOMG! as a size for comparison is something I will be laughing about for a really long time. Anagrams are memorable, and I bet without even trying anyone who reads this will be able to remember those stats now. It's certainly better than Shadowrun's shameful "BARSCILWEdgeEssMInitIP" (which I remember, in part, as "Bar Skill? Ew!).

Lastly, there's a brief section (reminiscent of the Savage Worlds books), on a "sample" setting, Pirates & Peril, plus a short adventure within that setting. These two things help tie together all the pulp artwork throughout the book with a pulp setting. The book ends with links to other bloggers who have developed their own Rogue Space material, which is, I think, a fantastic touch. Shout outs make the world go 'round, plus, as I've said again and again, the style of the game is pretty limitless in the kind of setting you can create with it.

As Savage Worlds is my go-to for just about any sort of homebrew, inpromptu modern fantasy sort of game I'd want to run, I think Rogue Space will take that role for any sort of spacefaring, heroic kind of game. Warhammer 40K, Stars Without Number, Diaspora, Traveller, and others I think have their place, but for me, Rogue Space rises to the top as a great little universal system for playing among the stars. The rules take about 5 minutes to explain, creating a character takes even less time, and then you can just get right in to it and start having fun (without 400 pages of special conditions to wade through). All in all, I'm glad to have randomly downloaded the original a few months ago, and I'm doubly glad there's a book to buy with expanded rules. I'd recommend checking it out to anyone who likes spacefaring sci-fi.

Edited to add: The PocketMod rules that I have been referring to are apparently an outdated version. There is practically no difference between the "big book" TDF rules and the PocketMod Basic rules in terms of damage, hit points, or armor at this point, so the distinction between PMB and TDF is less important now, upon review of the most recent PocketMod version. I downloaded the basic rules some months ago, read them, forgot about them, and then only recently decided to revisit them. I must apologize for any confusion related to pointing out differences where there are, in fact, no longer any differences.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rogue Space Role Playing Game, by Christopher Brandon

I like the simplicity that is Christopher Brandon's mini-RPG Rogue Space. The Basic Rules are available free for download, and you can print them out in a clever little pocket-sized mini-booklet. There is a "complete" rulebook available for purchase on lulu (a bargain at $7.10), but I haven't received it yet.

Rogue Space is a rules-light RPG system that allows for a great variety of play styles, and great flexibility for running one-offs, or pick-up games. You can boil the rules down into just a couple minutes of explanation, and then every test is just 2d6+relevant attribute against a target difficulty, and then you succeed or fail. It utilizes a more abstract, modern approach to abilities; rather than having an ability score which then has a derived score to apply to the roll, all you have is your "modifier," which is probably just 0 or 1. The result is very similar to the method used in FUDGE or FATE at its core: a roll of 7 (after modifiers) is a success for an average difficulty test, and mitigating circumstances can raise or lower the difficulty by one or more degrees. Opposed tests are similar: both sides roll, the higher number wins. There are options for adding in more boiled-in modifiers for combat, but at its core that's all there is to it. Weapons deal a fixed amount of damage when an attack hits, from light (2 dmg) to extra-heavy (8 dmg). Armor reduces weapon damage by a fixed amount along similar lines.

Personally I think that this system lends itself most readily to a Star Trek style game style; landing on alien worlds, interacting with intelligent species there, occasionally having to get in a phaser fight or rapid flight back to the shuttle. Star Trek, though, in particular, is pretty loose with consistency in what phaser hits are deadly, and which are ultimately grazing blows. A great example of this is the Next Generation episode "Starship Mine" where Geordi LaForge and a Red Shirt both get hit by the same weapon in a similar location. LaForge is fine (though in pain and temporarily disabled), but the other guy is dead. This can pretty easily be explained under Rogue Space mechanics: neither character was armored, and let's say the phaser was a "medium" weapon and dealt 4 damage. If LaForge (a technician) had 4 hp, then the damage would have knocked him out, but he would not be dead (represented by negative hit points). But if the other guy only had 2 or 3 hp (not unreasonable for an NPC), that would have reduced him to below zero hp and he would have perished. Additionally, Rogue Space allows for nonlethal damage. One could also houserule in that, since the other dude was severely drunk, the alcohol would have dealt a point of "nonlethal" damage that made him more susceptible to phaser fire, and it dealt more damage than it more than usual. Most rules modifications are like this: you add one here, subtract one there.

I'm stacking lethal damage on top of nonlethal here, rather than keeping them in separate tracks. My reasoning is essentially that it makes more sense, to me, that if someone was beaten to a bloody pulp with fists and clubs they wouldn't be in great shape. It might not be deadly, but they're not going to be able to do the same things as an uninjured person. And certainly, if that pulped person were to take another hit from something more nasty, they'd probably have a much more high likelihood of going down than someone fresh. Given that initiative in combat is determined by the dice roll plus your current hp, severely injured characters are mechanically "slowed" as well, which supports this assumption about damage stacking.

One can easily get lost in details at this point; if a character is wearing light armor, for instance, and is shot by a gun and the damage is all soaked by the armor, do they still take a point of nonlethal damage from the kinetic force applied to their bodies through the armor? Are there different types of armor to protect against kinetic damage, piercing damage, burning damage, etc.? Using Star Trek as an example again (can you tell I've been watching it recently?), Star Fleet does have "riot gear" when they send in the heavies, but it seems a direct phaser blast still takes someone out, armored or not. Klingon disruptors add another level of complexity, since they seem to ignore armor completely, or at least are powerful enough to pierce through anything less protected than a tank. A disruptor is a small, handheld weapon, which means it probably only qualifies as a "light" or "medium" weapon at the most, but the damage is certainly much more severe than the average phaser setting. Shadowrun and other games have "armor piercing" values for weapons; perhaps certain kinds of energy weapons would ignore a certain number of armor points when figuring damage.

Rogue Space Basic only has three classes: Warrior, Rogue, and Technician. I don't like these names. For a science fiction game, the fantasy roles of Warrior and Rogue don't really "fit" for me; especially because Technician, given the other ones, just seems like a stand in for "Mage." I propose changing the names to Soldier and Scoundrel, for a more archetypal Star Trek or Star Wars sort of feel. Technician is fine, since it hearkens to someone who works in a more scientific or technical station on the ship. Plus, there are psionic rules available optionally as well, so you could easily build a Jedi (for a Star Wars style game) or an empath (for a Star Trek style game). I believe that some people have even developed a 40K addon for this system, which I think just goes to show exactly how flexible it is. For this reason I can't imagine even doing something like Mass Effect wouldn't be unreasonable.

One rule I would change, however, is luck. As it stands, the luck rule (which is optional) dictates that a person can re-roll one dice roll per session. This seems a bit underwhelming. I propose having either a luck "points" system, or else tracking luck and experience with the same points. In order to level, as the rules are written, your character must survive 3 adventures and then can add 1 point to any of the attributes, or to the hit point total. So in other words, one adventure is worth 1 xp, and you need 3 xp to level. Under a unified mechanic, players could "burn" one of their xp (or more) to add a point to their result. It might mean that they don't level with everyone else, but if the other option is dying, it's a small price to pay; it's representative of that character escaping from the deadly situation, but not unscathed. It would also allow the characters to burn a whole level in order to survive from a situation (equal to 3 xp) and, optionally, take a defect to represent their narrow-miss, or a "permanent injury." This makes it a bit grittier than Star Trek usually is, so I don't think many people would miss it if it wasn't there. Regardless I would want luck to play a larger role in a Star Trek (or Star Wars) style game, just because of the nature of the types of heroes in those shows.

Using the experience-burning method of figuring luck could also be applied to more than just dice rolls. Perhaps someone takes lethal damage that would kill their character. They could burn some experience to reduce the damage until they are merely unconscious. This would support a Star Trek style "main cast" character approach, where the characters can survive very unlikely situations relatively unharmed, unless they are Tasha Yar. Although... if a character is going to die, there's not much reason to not burn levels to keep them alive, since if they die those levels are lost anyway. Some sort of constraint might have to be imposed to limit runaway abuse of this system. The up side to character death is that a character can be rolled up in literally seconds, and then could easily be introduced as a new ensign, smuggler, or technical staffer to pick up the slack.

Anyway, this was only intended to be a more or less brief overview of one of the possibilities for adding on to the very smart and simple efficient rules that is Rogue Space, but I got a bit carried away. I'd love to actually run a game of this, either as a one-off or longer, to see how it works, especially how some of these proposals for add-on rules I've made in this work. I have already ordered the extended rules, and I'll have another review of the complete set once I get that in my hands.

One additional note: Apparently this PocketMod version that I am reviewing here is an older version than what is currently available now. In my version, damage is all set values. In the most recent version, they are randomized (light, instead of just 2 set damage, is 2d6, drop lowest, for instance). There is not a date on it, but it says "Copyright 2011 C.R. Brandon." Hit points are the same; random in the present version, set in the previous version. I'm honestly not sure which version I prefer.

Friday, February 3, 2012

[Secaelia] Concluding Thoughts

This project over the past couple of weeks to build a functional, playable game world based only from a set of relatively loose rules and a series of minor assumptions has proven, at least to me, how incredibly flexible a rules-light role playing system can be. While there is something to be said for a well-developed, well-supported established game setting (such as Pathfinder's Golarion), I find that a development of a personal game world from the ground up is infinitely more satisfying, if not more time consuming. One of its unexpected perks is giving the Game Master just a little bit more flexibility with what sort of things happen within the game. Any time there is an established setting which players are very familiar with, there is the risk of wanting to do something in the game for the purpose of advancing the narrative, but then being called out on it because it doesn't fit with the locale. A bit more care must be taken in an established setting, but the results can be, in my opinion, just as rewarding.

While there are rumors that the implicit setting for the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons is going to be the Forgotten Realms, I do hope that they stick with the 4th edition (and before) tradition of having the game more or less be setting-free. I liked how 4th edition had individual locales (such as Hammerfast, or Vor Rukoth), and a lot of the books had "flavor text" which referenced nebulous events in some unnamed, unelaborated shared world, but there were not any formal maps until after Essentials came out and it got its own published setting, the Nentir Vale. I believe that there is a lot of virtue to having a world where there is shared mythology and some degree of "history" to tie some of the races narratively together, but leaving the cartography off of it. It is remarkable what the human imagination is capable of concocting when it is given only a limited amount of data to work with.

It's not exactly a new idea to create a game world within which one might want to play oneself, but I hope that at least some of these ideas might be beneficial contributions to the act of world-creation overall. If I ever were to have the opportunity to run an OD&D style game, it would be set within this world, or something similar. I'm always trying to come up with new or different ways to interpret or perceive "base" classes and races, so hopefully these last two weeks will contribute meaningfully to that theme.

Overall, I'd love to hear feedback one way or the other, including constructive criticism on what I might improve upon, change, or straight up throw out. Please, leave a comment!

[Secaelia] Thoughts On More Dangerous Wizardry

I missed my post yesterday so there are going to be two today.

Magic-users, whether human or elf, follow the track for learning spells as indicated in the Swords and Wizardry (or Labyrinth Lord) manuals. Each spell they have prepared they can perform once a day, and then they will need to rest and prepare the spells again. This is the limit to what a magic-user can perform safely. However, any magic-user can attempt to cast any spell which they have already expended, successfully or not, and risk corruption. Each time they attempt this, they must first roll against an increasingly difficult threshold of success. The GM can set the exact mechanic, but I think it would be reasonable to make the caster roll under 50% on a percentile roll, and then each additional time reduce the percentage by another 10%. In other words, if Elric the Grey has already cast Magic Missile once, but is in a jam and it would be very helpful to be able to cast it again, he may do so, only first rolling under 50 on a d%. If Elric wants to cast Magic Missile again, this time he must roll under 40, and so on.

On a failed roll for a second spell attempt, the magic-user first takes the spell's level in HD damage. In other words, if a human magic-user fails on a level 2 spell re-attempt, he immediately takes 2d4 damage; if he fails on a level 8 spell, he takes 8d4 damage, etc. Depending on which version of the rules you are using, an elven magic-user might take [x]d4 damage as well, or [x]d6 if the elf's HD is a d6. This damage cannot be blocked or reduced in any way, and if this reduces the character to zero or fewer hit points, they fall unconscious immediately, but do not naturally deteriorate at -1 HP per round as with bleeding out. However, if they are physically struck or hit by another damaging attack and reduced to negative their level in hit points, they will die as usual. If the damage they take from failing the spell is enough to kill them, they will die.

In addition to this, they will take one permanent defect as a sign of their corruption by magic. This should ultimately be determined by the Game Master, but the extent of the disfigurement should reflect the strength of the spell. A magic-user botching a Magic Missile, for instance, might come out of the experience with permanently blackened fingertips, or a slight lingering scent of tar or boiled cabbage. A magic-user failing Confusion might suffer a permanent 2 or 3 point reduction in Charisma, might randomly forget one of their prepared spells for the day, or inadvertently attack an ally. A failure with Hold Portal might cause doors to randomly lock or unlock, likely at inopportune times. Regardless, the Game Master should keep note of these and should not be afraid to use them when the players least expect it. Certainly some spell failures will have more severe effects than others, but that is all part of the gamble when re-rolling a spell.

Finally, if a spell is re-rolled after being expended and the result is a failure, that spell may not be re-rolled again until it is prepared again. In other words, a magic-user who continues succeeding against cumulatively decreasing odds may continue using the spell, but a magic-user who fails a re-roll loses the spell AND suffers a serious deleterious effect. A failure after multiple successes might be more "serious" in its sign of corruption to represent how hard the magic-user had been pushing it, at the Game Master's discretion. It is also up to the Game Master to determine whether a magic-user knocked unconscious by their own spell backfire should be more difficult to rouse than a character stunned by other damage.

The damage taken upon a failed re-attempt is representative of the overexertion caused by the magic-user performing something "unnatural." The spellbook is a profoundly magical and otherworldly sort of item, and in preparing a spell, one provides an avenue for the "blowback" of the spell to dissipate. Without the spell's place in the spellbook, the recoil is more and more difficult to control. The corruption caused by a failed spell attempt is representative of all of that potential, formless magic energy being drawn out of the Aethers, but then the magic-user losing control or focus after having become excessively exhausted, and the energies misfiring backwards on the caster, with strange and unpredictable effects.

However, "corruption" does not have to be negative. If one prefers, one can make a percentile roll any time a spell re-roll is failed, with a 3% or 5% (or something) chance that something beneficial happens instead. Maybe a magic-user is attempting Magic Missile, only Fireball comes out instead. Magic does not obey the same set of laws as everything else in the world, so the Game Master is encouraged to allow unusual things to occur.

This has not been at all play-tested, so I have no idea of the plausibility of these mechanics in a real game setting. I'd hope that the danger of major corruption would be enough to offset a magic-user from deviating too far from the ordinary 1-spell-a-day mechanic, but it of course doesn't account for the player who is a glutton for punishment and has no problem at all with putting all the other players in a tight spot. This also assumes the "set and forget" style of casting that does not first require a success or to-hit roll; if using this style of mechanic, one can probably substitute a cumulative -2 modifier on that to-hit roll each time the spell is re-attempted.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

[Secaelia] Player Classes and Options

As mentioned previously, this assumes the third printing of the Swords and Wizardry rules, which I believe are still available in the form of the "white box" which you can download here. In the third printing, which was dated 2009, the only classes were Cleric, Fighter, and Magic-User, and the demi-human races functioned much differently and had fewer options. With the fourth printing, elves also may become thieves, and rather than the class being something inherent about how the race functions, the fourth edition assumes that each of the demi-human races have a set of classes that are available to them and thus they "multi-class" when they are using different abilities available to them. It also removes level limits on demi-humans in favor of multiclassing limits.

The playable classes of Secaelia are Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, Thief, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. For an example on how to incorporate the Thief class into Swords and Wizardry rules, see the excellent example drawn up over at Akratic Wizardry or the "White Box" S&W rules (Refer to this page here for the Thief rules, plus much more). All subsequent material here will assume a "White Box" Thief, but the Akratic Thief is compatible as well, and indeed influenced the naming of the Thieves' Guild in this setting. Halflings can dual-class (just like Elves can alternate between Magic-User and Fighter) as Thieves; a character may also be a Gnome, in which case one still uses the Halfling template, however one may make stylistic changes for flavor. Here I will assume that, despite Halflings and Gnomes being different races, they are functionally very similar. Perhaps Gnomes may have a racial bonus on thievery over the innate abilities of Halflings, this is up to the GM.

Players should be made aware that playing as a Magic-User, Dwarf, Elf, or Halfling, or, to a lesser extent, a Thief, will present unique roleplaying opportunities due to the nature of the world of Secaelia. However, Clerics will be accepted nearly everywhere, and Fighting-Men if they seem reputable, and not like mercenaries. A party led by a Cleric, who engage in virtuous deeds, may have their reputation precede them, and open up unique and beneficial opportunities for them in more densely inhabited areas of the world. Dwarves and Elves may encounter discrimination based upon their race, while Halflings and Gnomes might originally only curry temporary disbelief. By and large, however, all Demi-Human classes are accepted within most Human society.

On the same token, Magic-Users are nearly universally held to be suspicious, and often being suspected of being a Wizard is a worse crime than being suspected of being a Thief. Nevertheless, using one's magical powers to help an individual or a village out of a bad situation might earn more renown than otherwise as the townspeople are impressed by a Wizard on the side of justice or righteousness (which many of them might have previously considered an impossibility). However, they will not overcome their prejudices rapidly, and a Wizard might have to work extra hard to distinguish him or herself as one of the "good guys."

Most Thieves belong to a secret society of thieves called the Sons of Akrasia. Membership includes knowledge of a secret language known as Cant, and an understanding of the secret symbolic code of Glyphics. Additionally, other members of the Sons of Akrasia will not rob them, nor their associates, nor those who have been designated by them to be off-limits (through verbal communication with Cant, or visual identification with Glyphics). Any Thief who is a member of the Sons of Akrasia can indicate any variety of things with Glyphics, and there are a wide number of symbols in the shared iconography; things like "keeps jewelry unprotected," "nosy neighbors," "loud pet," "leaves for extended periods of time," "corrupt constabulary," "judge," "experienced fighter," "strict penalties for thieving," etc. They are all symbols to communicate to other thieves what areas in what towns are good, or bad, for their trade. The symbols periodically change, so while it is possible for others to determine what the symbols mean, it is more difficult to keep up on the changes. The same goes for Cant, which is highly complex and constantly changing. Information is distributed through the thieves' network, and few are left in the dark for too long.

The last thing to note about thieves is that members of the Sons of Akrasia apppreciate the artistry of thievery, and do not consider themselves thugs. They attempt to avoid actual violence and harm, and conduct themselves according to their own special code of ethics. Most people who participate in robberies are not members of the Sons of Akrasia, and instead are just thugs or criminals. The Sons of Akrasia are, technically, criminals by their nature, but consider themselves to be a cut above the rest both in style and ability.

Halflings and Gnomes are adept at thievery, and are eligible for membership in the Sons of Akrasia, but nevertheless the organization still is overwhelmingly human. Dwarves are opposed to organized, sanctioned thieving by their nature, but nevertheless still do occasionally become desperate enough to participate in criminal activity. However, they are not eligible to become members of the Sons of Akrasia, and do not become Thieves. Elves may, with the Game Master's assent, take up thievery; in this case, players must refer to the fourth printing rules on multiclassing as opposed to the White Box rules. Thievery is something that comes naturally to elves, on account of their natural dexterity; however, other elves might disapprove of their choices, as thieving is not, to elves, an honorable profession.

A GM may optionally award the party points for notoriety and renown, in lieu of more conventional alignment, in order to keep track of how outsiders may perceive of them. In this case the points should not be intertwined; a party should be able to earn points of renown independent from notoriety, to represent a chaotic temperament over and above a lawful one, for instance. In other words, rather than characters choosing to be Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, their deeds may be judged as being Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, or Good, Neutral, or Evil. Regardless of the axis by which their deeds are judged, the GM can track whichever criteria they deem relevant and use these "notoriety" and "renown" points to color their social encounters as they establish themselves more as adventurers and heroes (or villains). Notoriety, for instance, might make it more difficult for them to hire Hirelings, while renown might make it easier. Renown might stimulate the local blacksmith to offer the group a special discount on his wares, while notoriety might make him shut up his shop when they are in the area. It is up to the GM as to whether characters will be able to "work off" points of notoriety, and also whether players will be aware of the actual count of notoriety or renown points at all.

The membership of a Thief in the party should not immediately cause an increase in notoriety, either, unless the party collectively agrees before the game begins that the Thief character is particularly audacious or noteworthy. However, a level one individual most likely will not have had ample opportunity to distinguish oneself in this way, so to already be notorious would be an exceptional quality. The same goes for parties which include a Magic-User character. That character's presence alone should not contribute to notoriety, unless they act in a way that is blatant, dismissive, and flaunting; in other words, unless they act in a way that is expected of wizards. Conversely, if a party contains any demi-human, they may get an "automatic" point of notoriety or renown, depending on which area of the world they are in, by the simple fact that they are travelling with that type of character.

Monday, January 30, 2012

[Secaelia] Introduction to Player Options

Last week was dedicated to developing some key aspects of the world of Secaelia, in order to establish the reasoning behind some of the fundamental assumptions about how the game world works. I began with some basic ideas, such as "wizards are dangerous," "the world is full of monsters," "magic has ramifications," "not everything in the world is natural," and "there are still some safe places." Once I had just a handful of basic statements, I just freewrote to see if I could just see where the logical extensions to those statements ended up, and I think overall the world ended up much in a place that seemed interesting and cohesive, but, more importantly, preserved a lot of the basic assumptions implicit in OD&D/Swords and Wizardry. Chief among these is that humans are "more important" than demi-humans.

As far as the human emperors are concerned, the demi-humans have been cordoned off into reservations that the emperors "allow" to exist. But from the demi-humans' perspective, things are very different. They are not interested in the affairs of the hot-headed, destructively ambitious, and short-lived humans (at least at this point in history), so they choose to just mostly keep to themselves, work (as it pleases them), and mainly just see how these humans end up. It's reminiscent of the Tolkienesque world that informs so much of D&D's past, but, I hope, is unique in some respects. I didn't want to "ruin" demi-human characters as much as make them more interesting and difficult to play. The level caps on demi-humans I guess reflect their unwillingness to excessively meddle in the affairs of the humans; once they hit their cap, that's about time to retire back to their mountains, forests, or glens and let the humans continue to do their own thing. The time of the elves and the dwarves has passed.

The whole basis of this world hinged pretty heavily on this article here, which was what gave me the idea to make wizards become corrupt by their powers, and then use more magical powers to preserve themselves. It's not a new idea, but I found this iteration, however brief, to be particularly evocative. It's a bit more sinister than the Dungeon Crawl Classics version of magical corruption in that it's reversible, but only via the suffering of another, probably innocent, person. It also, to me, makes a good prefab excuse for the reasoning behind Vancian magic. There are certain limits for magical power, and going beyond those limits has disastrous effects. At some point later this week I'll probably have an article on magical corruption as pertains to player characters.

The project for this week is to discuss actual mechanical aspects to this particular world as it pertains to player characters, and so these sort of issues will necessarily have to come up if I want to take my own assertions about how the world works seriously. Besides the fact that the exercise will probably be fun, of course. Another thing to mention is that I am writing most of this with the Swords and Wizardry, Third Printing (Internet Edition) in mind. Matthew Finch, the author, has recently released a Fourth Printing that makes quite a few changes in how characters work, especially in demi-human characters, and also introduces the Thief as a core class, which was absent in the previous version. One example of the demi-human differences is that in the Third Printing, elves level according to 1d6+1 for Fighter levels and 1d6-1 for Magic-User levels. In the Fourth Printing, elves level according to the average between 1d8 and 1d4. For the time being, I am going to continue to assume the "Third Printing" rules, since I am more familiar with that ruleset. At some point I may release an "errata" sheet to accommodate for the difference between the older and newer editions of the game, since I'm not sure whether it is still possible to find the Third Printing now. However, everything should still be compatible with Labyrinth Lord.

Friday, January 27, 2012

[Secaelia] Threats to Stability and Peace

Some scholars have speculated that the the extent of warfare over previous generations has built up a "negative" energy surplus, which is what is responsible for not only the commonness of undead in certain parts of the world, but also for the ubiquity and aggressiveness of other kinds of monsters in formerly inhabited areas. Others have argued that these changes are simply a result of the waning influence of humans in many remote areas, who in the past were an effective enough deterrent to these monsters from wandering too far afield from their own dominions, but now are too weak to have the same sort of effect paired with the unchecked activities of necromancers and other evil magic-users. Regardless, it is true that kobolds, goblins, orcs, and other humanoid threats, which were once nearly exclusively subterranean in their habits, have begun spending a considerable amount of time above ground, harrying caravans and impeding the rebuilding effort of many abandoned cities, trading their weakness and sensitivity to light for sheer numbers in their raids.

Encounters with insects, rats, and other scavengers, grown to enormous size, are increasingly more frequent, leading many to believe that they, too, are the result of crazed experiments by wizards. They have infested many otherwise habitable buildings, so as people move back in to the abandoned cities there is often a dangerous and time-consuming fight with the beasts in order to render the places fit for human occupation once again. Many prospective homesteaders will pool together their money to hire a group of adventurers (or mercenaries) to root them out.

Some necromancers and wizards have rendered regions all but uninhabitable, but the total number in either nation that can cause significant, potentially world-altering difficulties probably number under ten. The worst problem are the less powerful, but ambitious wizards who might be a little more overzealous and audacious in their pursuits for power. These corrupt wizards carry out strange magical experiments on usually unwilling individuals, creating monstrous abominations out of formerly human subjects, either living or dead, and occasionally both. There have been unsubstantiated reports from some remote areas of terrible beast-men having been seen hobbling around, obviously undertaking some ineffable errand for their wizard-masters. Despite the fact that many of the world's problems are probably directly attributable to wizardry, evil wizards themselves are practically never encountered. They choose to hide behind their works, holed up within their towers and freeholds, protected by their own magical wards as well as, frequently, the bureaucracy and good graces of the empires, which themselves turn a blind eye to all but the most gratuitous violations of human decency.

One of the stereotypes of evil wizards is that they traffic with beings far beyond the ken of ordinary mortals, and draw even more power from these dark dealings. Sometimes, this is even slightly true. Many wizards will have devils or demons bound to them as advisers, protectors, or even servants; their estates may even be protected by hell hounds, worgs, or blink dogs. It is beyond the capability of even the most powerful wizard to control a baalrochs, but some nevertheless fool themselves into thinking they can maintain a "mutually beneficial association." Even the lowliest of devils will not willingly serve a human master, and will readily turn on them when presented with free will, a change in conditions that is no longer beneficial to their interests, or simply a better offer from another interested party. Indeed, many devils, once summoned into the world, will simply bide their time until they can overwhelm their "master," and then kill them, escape, and live freely in the world. Some even are able to maintain a disguise or glamour and put themselves into positions of power and influence.

Surprisingly, dragons, even great dragons, are a far rarer sight than ever before. While in the distant past there are countless stories of the devastation dragons could wreak upon towns and cities, nobody can now remember an instance in recent history where a dragon was even seen, let alone attacked any place. Some speculate that the dragons have entered into pacts with the leaders of the empires, and are being plied with victims and treasure in exchange for stability and protection, while others even go so far as to believe that the emperors have subjected even the dragons to their rule. It is up to the game master to describe what has actually become of the dragons; perhaps they are as more common as ever but dragon attacks are carefully concealed by government propaganda, or maybe they have entered into tenuous agreements with the corrupt and bloated governments and, for the time being at least, are sated by the frequent offerings of prisoners and gold. Regardless, dragon encounters should be exceedingly rare, and perhaps scaled up in difficulty even from where they are already to reinforce that they are incredibly powerful creatures, even in youth.

Finally, all manner of foul things, from slimes to jellies to toxic mold await adventurers in long-forgotten ruins or within underground caverns. These things very rarely are seen above ground, since the sun causes them to burn and evaporate very quickly, but as long as they are not exposed to that, they can be surprisingly hardy. They are seldom seen in association with other monsters, such as orcs or goblins, as they tend to want to clear the slimes out for their own safety when they take up residence in a new place. However, due to the special nature of undead (especially skeletons), slimes are much more commonly found in proximity to them, since they do not view each other as either a threat or as food.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

[Secaelia] Wizards

Perhaps the biggest fear which the average person has on a day to day basis is of wizards. Wizards are immensely powerful beings, known for their corruption, wickedness, and hideous appearances, and who committed great atrocities on behalf of the empires in the latter days of the wars. There is a common belief that there are no lawful wizards, the entire lot of them being motivated only by greed, envy, and their own inherent depravity. Powerful magic bears a corrupting touch to all who would wield it, and only the most powerful wizards are able to do away with its most deleterious effects. These wizards are able to pass those corruptions off by polymorphing their wheals and scars and strange afflictions onto unsuspecting victims or prisoners, or by simply transferring their consciousness wholly into another body, leaving their former, broken bodies behind. Wizards can therefore appear to be any person, any age. People are especially wary of the infirm or deformed, since natural deformation can greatly resemble magical corruption.

Since the end of the wars, many wizards have built towers amidst the wastes, and travellers who know better steer far clear of these accursed dominions. While wizards are not technically subjects to the nations within which they dwell (being granted special autonomy for "services to the empire"), many are paid off by the respective domains to attack, spy on, or harry the other. Most simply take the money as bribery and don't waste their time on such trivial matters, but others have proven to be very dangerous lapdogs for their patrons, leaving mayhem and havoc in their wakes. Oftentimes armed mobs will attempt to remove the magical threat from their areas, though these are seldom successful and usually just result in more subjects to experiment upon; since wizards often are celebrated by the powers that be as heroes of the empire, these mobs are considered criminals, despite the fact that they are just trying to protect themselves. Most troublingly, some wizards have even infiltrated remote villages, slowly manipulating the inhabitants until they are all under the wizard's control, and function as no better than thralls or herd animals to the wizard's whim. This is not even to mention those especially dark wizards who practice necromancy. While some of these stereotypes about wizards' wickedness might be exaggerations, it is clear that there is ample evidence to give wizardry a bad reputation. Any traveller suspected of being a magic-user, therefore, even a dabbler, is usually detained, questioned, tortured, and often banished or put to death.

Despite all of the negativity surrounding magic-users, there are many who practice their art in secret, or use it for good. One who can conjure a fire from thin air despite driving wind or rain, or can entangle a powerful beast with invisible threads, can be of great assistance to adventurers and scavengers. Some who have "proven themselves" again and again can even be accepted by their community; it is uncommon, but not excessively rare, to come across a town with a "village witch" or "wise man." It is representative of the state of the world that such wielders of power can be seen with such great ambivalence.

Additionally, those who are able to work miracles, such as divine clerics, are nearly universally held in high esteem. Despite most clerics being peaceful, studious types who seldom venture out beyond the walls of their monasteries and places of study, there is a whole class of stouter folk, dedicated to casting out evil with great prejudice wherever it crops up in the world. These battle-clerics accept exacting strictures, such as never wielding a sharpened weapon, and frequently tithe a large portion of their spoils back to the monasteries in which they were raised. Since it is believed that their powers to repel darkness and evil come as blessings directly from their gods, they are careful to remain faithful to their beliefs. The common belief is that clerics are by their nature solemn, prayerful, and stern, but in reality they come in as wide of temperament as anyone else, as long as they are strong in their faith. Some very skilled wizards even disguise themselves as clerics, working hard to mask their arcane energies as divine miracles, in order to practice more publicly.

Despite there being many different "kinds" of magic users, most are just simply referred to as wizards. "Wizard" is also used as a sort of insult; referring to someone as a wizard is like saying they are heartless, cruel, or insane. The most dreaded of all wizards, however, are necromancers. These are the worst, most insane, most corrupt, and most dangerous of all wielders of magic. Despite these being, often, the most powerful magic-users around, they are shunned and reviled, and hunted down by agents of the empire. For this reason, many necromancers create hidden lairs underground, or deep within caves, or even in disguised mausolea within graveyards. Some tales are even told of necromancers who have created hidden fortresses on coastal islands and reefs, or on alluvial islands in rivers, keeping their activities invisible under a magical veil.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

[Secaelia] The Demi-Human Races

While there are tales of great nations of dwarves and elves in the distant past, these are merely legends now. The demi-human races have mostly faded away. The elves dwell deep within the most ancient and primordial forests, and are reputed to have worked their own magic to ensure that none survive the trek to find them. The dwarves remain holed up in their own subterranean lairs, hidden amidst never-ending labyrinths of tunnels and traps, seldom being seen above the ground. The halflings and the gnomes are hardly seen at all, leading many to believe that they have become extinct; that is, until one or several wander into a town to trade, and then disappear once again. None of the demi-human races are common anywhere in the world, though it is most common to find them within Eflart, as often as servants or bondsmen as traders, travellers, or adventurers. Elves, because of their natural talents with wizardry, are often treated with a combination of disgust, disdain, and suspicion; dwarves, because of their reputation for deceitful, violent, and troublesome tendencies, are also often shut out of many establishments; halflings and gnomes, due to their preternatural ability to get in and out of unlikely places and situations (which lends itself readily to thievery), are also often watched very closely whenever they enter a town or city.

There are very few demi-humans who dwell permanently within human cities. Many who do have indentured themselves into service for some reason or another. Some appear, for all intents and purposes, to just be simple shopkeepers and artisans, who have an honest living and who endure the occasional jeers from those who have negative opinions of their race. Even fewer eke out a dishonest living as thieves, scoundrels, and highwaymen, as the penalties for those of their race found guilty of such crimes are much steeper than their human counterparts; this does not deter many, however, who hold that the most important policy for a criminal is to never get caught. The vast majority of demi-humans found within the human world, however, are itinerants, adventurers, and factotums. Very few attempts are made to create alliances with demi-human nations, wherever they may be. But neither have there been many attempts to entirely subdue them and tie them to the yoke of human sovereignty. There is a story of one of the princes of Ruvirion once ordering a forest where elves were reputed to live be burned to the ground. The forest burned, and shortly afterwards he himself was found burnt to ashes in his own bed. Ever since, there has been a policy of non-intervention in place; elvish and dwarvish enclaves are considered sovereign territory within the two empires, given to this right by sworn imperial edict, and required to abide by all imperial laws and customs (and to agree to surrender to imperial authorities upon noncompliance to these laws) as soon as they set foot out of their designated habitation areas and into imperial territory.

Most interaction between humans and demi-humans is cordial, and without incident. As one goes nearer to the capitals, anti-demi-human propaganda is more prominent, and hostility towards demi-humans is more commonplace, but throughout most of the known world, whether Estia or Ruvirion, there is no bad blood. Many humans within the empires may consider demi-humans to be inherently "inferior" to them, and certainly might question the demi-humans' seemingly immediate decisions to surrender to the human empires, but actual anti-demi-human violence is uncommon. Humans of larger cities might deface shops owned or operated by demi-humans, or shout negative slogans at them in public, but these types are usually punished when caught in the act. Still, demi-humans are, according to imperial law, second-class citizens, and do not have the same rights and privileges as humans wherever imperial law is being upheld. This is not to say that many towns actually observe these laws when not directly being observed or governed by imperial forces, and many have very strongly pro-demi-human beliefs. Nevertheless, those who are not accustomed to the presence of demi-humans might display fear, hostility, suspicion, or confusion when required to make contact with them.