Monday Pointers: May 31, 2010 Edition

D4:In Reverse World You Bring a Knife to a Gunfight
Jeff has an interesting story about the beginning of a 3.5 game set on this map. The amazing thing was having allowed players to generate characters then bring them there was a bit of a mismatch.

D6:Christopher Columbus Didn’t Shop Here
That map above came from a source of strange maps. The Lost State of Jefferson would be a great piece of background for Privateers of the Anglo-Mexican War. Perhaps some of the Privateers decide a kingdom in the Pacific Northwest beats statehood.

A new alignment chart

One of the most influential books in my life is The Principia Discordia. I read it thanks to gaming and unlike many read it before I read The Illuminatus! Trilogy, although that is as much an accident of availability as anything.

Like most people influenced by it I have a particular favorite section, The Curse of Greyface and the Introduction of Negativism. The core idea of the section just, that we could put order and disorder as well as creation and destruction on perpendicular axes and get four state, just grabbed me. As a diagram it looks like this:

For those who were around for Holmes or have read the Strategic Review issue with the five alignment chart you’ll realize they’re somewhat familiar.

I have used this chart in designing games, specifically a Mage: the Ascension game set in Berlin either in the mid-60s or the early 80s. I saw the four factions of MtAs in terms of this chart. The Traditions were disordered creation and the Technocracy was ordered creation. The Marauders were the brutal, chaotic destruction and the Nephandi, the cool ordered destruction. I liked the idea both because in casting the Technocracy as a whole as a force for good it changed the nature of the war somewhat. I also thought layering order/disorder and creation/destruction on top of Cold War Berlin had the potential for some exciting interactions. Sadly, this is another random campaign idea that didn’t come about.

It would be easy to map the chart to D&D alignments, especially the Holmes five section chart, with creation equal to good (the rest should be obvious). While easy I’d consider this a cop-out to a degree.

More interesting to me is layering this chart on top of something like James M.’s thoughts on the three tier alignment. Now we have both creative and destructive civilization set against both the rampaging destruction of demon inspired hordes (human and otherwise) as well as the beautiful, alien, and artistic fae. In fact, this chaotic creativity version of chaotic good would open the door to elves drawn more from fairy tales or games like Changeling than the bog standard Tolkien derivatives. In fact, the original D&D elf, with the ability to change classes every day, seems to fit this model more than the happy go lucky freedom fighter chaotic good of today.

Alignment is a place where the OSR can really make their mark much like the Indie scene has with ideas like humanity. Philosophical books serious, humorous, both, and neither abound and they aren’t always non-fiction (anyone think Starship Troopers isn’t a philosophy book?). Trying mining one for its core moral conflicts instead of just taking the alignments we’ve inherited. You’ll be surprised what you find.

Random Campaign Idea: The Crowned Heads of Europe

This is a bit different from my last two random campaign ideas as it could be more accurately called failed campaign ideas. I tried to run this once and failed, mainly because I had this skeleton but no flesh for it. Run with it if you find some flesh but please let me know how it goes.

To be a king is to have power. To be the King of Jerusalem is to have great power.

What? There has been no King of Jerusalem in almost a thousand years? My dear girl, you underestimate the power of blood. Your family has served the true kings of Jerusalem since Baldwin took the throne in 1100, which was the true millenium.

Juan Carlos? You might as well claim that the Lamoral heir is the legitimate king today. Just because Juan Carlos actually sits on a throne does not make his claim real anymore than that Elizabeth’s seat makes her the true Queen of England. We all know that Franz Bonaventura is the true title. That is why you served those three years on his staff.

Why do I prattle on about empty thrones or pretenders to powerless ones? I suppose you believe their money or their land is where the real power of these people lie. In calling their titles powerless you betray a hole in your education. The very hole you were sent to me to have filled.

Thrones, empty or filled, legitimate or userped, have power. They have mastery of their realms both on this world and the others. And just like the servants of the holy their retainers have power in those other realms as real as the power they have here.

Your service has shown us you can properly serve as a retainer. Now you will learn to become a legate.

Magic exists. However, it is not worked through the will of any single person, no matter how great, but in the name of those things that transcend us all. Great religious and secular leaders serve as conduits to the Great Realms for some of their followers. However, the greatest power are in those leaders who form a linage. Washington, Robespierre, and even today Obama are grand conduits to those realms but their power, or more specifically, the powers of their legates passed (or will pass) with them.

The legates of a family that has set atop a throne for a hundred years, however, will last as long as it is championed. The thrones of dozens of kingdoms in Europe still have claimants long after their and thrones settled for centuries still have pretends to preserve and use that power. You are a legate, with the powers and responsibilities of one of the royal families in Europe.

The idea behind The Crowned Heads of Europe stemmed from my interest in Emperor Maximillian of Mexico and the article on Pretenders in Wikipedia. I imaged a world of mystical intrique centered around the magical power inherent in royalty that was wielded by their retainers. Specifically, I saw a kind of shadow war among still enthroned royal lines and pretenders to no longer existing thrones over objects of power, support of pretenders, and perhaps even temporal authority to maintain their mystic powers.

My original campaign attempt was a Unisystem game centered around the death of the Pretender of Jerusalem whose family had, during the post-war period, established themselves as the actual crown in the mystic realms. With his death the other claimant families spied the possibility to supplant them setting off a race to obtain items of power, alliances with other royal families, and perform certain rituals. Had I thought of it at the time I would have drawn on Tim Powers’s novels, specifically Last Call and to a lesser extent Earthquake Weather but I did not.

It’s About Sticking with Your Choices

James Maliszewski has asked about advanced old school games. His basic contention is that old school does not equal rules light. While he is true in chronological terms, and even uses the obvious example of just about anything published by Fantasy Games Unlimited there is a problem with including these games in the modern old school cannon.

The modern old school definition seems to have settled out onto three basic pillars. They are do it yourself, rulings over rules, and player skill over character skill. You can arguably add a four pillar which is literary sources over gaming sources. Advanced games strike directly at two of these, rules over rulings and player skill over character skill. The first of these should be fairly obvious while the second may not be.

To briefly cover the case for complex rules emphasizing rules over rulings you have to ask why more complex rules exist. In general they developed for two reason, which are somewhat interlocking. The first was realism, more correctly called verisimilitude. This was a major concern across the wargaming community throughout the 1970s and when wargamers began creating roleplaying games the concern crossed. Among readily available games today that date to the period the classic example of this is Rolemaster, most specifically Arms Law. The second reason is to cover all possible cases. The full Rolemaster system is also an example of this. It has twenty armor types, tables of modifiers, and hundreds of skills to cover every possibility in action and characters.

This last point shows how this starts to attack the player skill over character skill paradyme. This is really an extension of the process that brought up the theif. Complex games, with their breakdown of character abilities into finer and finer points as well as creating more situational modifiers encourages players to optimize against the rules set as opposed to optimzing against the situation. When you have a simple game the player’s do not have a laundry list of possible advantages and have to interact with what the judge describes. When you do have that laundry list players are encouaged to listen to the description through a filter created by that list.

At this point I have to ask, why is D&D3 not old school? I don’t think it is, but the only existing pillar it seems to really violate that complex older games like Rolemaster do not is the literary influences over gaming influences. Yet, I think most people will agree third edition was not old school even if it was recognizible as part of the family.

I think the difference, the fifth pillar, is up front choices versus continuous choices. In old school games your upfront choices were much more limiting than in new school games. Rolemaster opens every skill to every character and there are no per level forced abilities. In fact, leveling in Rolemaster beats the complexity of any third edition I played (although I quit before the insane prestige class prep that seems to have characterized late play based on my reading). Yet, a Rolemaster character is much closer to a pre-third edition D&D character in terms how his class defines him. He won’t multiclass, has no prestige class to graduate to, and will pay a high penalty for going outside his core skillset in terms of overall abilities. While you might emphasize character skill more that player skill in more complex old school games that skill is still more narrowly defined. When you choose to play a fighter of some kind you are playing a fighter at level ten, not a fighter/sorcerer/cleric hybrid who is going to join the Order of Draconic Lightbringers for some weird capabilities. Sure, your fighter is a two handed weapon specialist who knows ten psychic healing spells while their fighter is a bowman who also mastered savate for when the drunken dwarf calls a bar fight, but fighting is still their defining characteristic.

What really interests me is how we can apply this insight to make D&D3 a much more old school game. Perhaps d20 is the jumping off point for the advanced old school James is looking for.

Monday Pointers: May 24, 2010 Edition

D4:Mandrake Goblins
Last week I described the return of Scott Driver as the best blogging news of the year. His new setting blog, Mandragora, has the same wonderfully non-stock gaming fantasy ever. I figured highlighting his first creature description would give people a chance to really see why I’m so happy about this.

D6:My Character’s So Called Life
Meanwhile, in the Valley of the Blue Snails, we have a traumatic adolescent background generator which is itself a follow-up up the traumatic childhood background generator. The later has a very funny sex determination method. As a fan of life path generation I’m always happy to add a new set to the collection. Actually, the tone of these might fit very well in a fairy tale setting like Mandragora.

D8:Riding the Rails to the Great Sandbox
I wasn’t sure about including this as I doubt I have any reader’s Zak doesn’t and it is a tad old. That said, he deleted his great weird vs. noir post that I wanted to include so I figured including this would given me an excuse to point out the missing one anyway. That said, Zak’s explanation of campaign styles is both the kind of theory you’d expect over at The Forge while at the same time actually being useful for creating and running your game this Friday.

Note on “What I’m Reading”

As I’m sure you’ve noticed I have a “What I’m Reading” sidebar with links to the books at Powell’s (yes, I’m in their partner program).

Traditionally I’ve only listed fiction that would seem to have a gaming bent there, but that’s far from all I read.

Today I decided to add the non-fiction book I’m reading right now, Seth Godin’s Linchpin. The reason is much of the book is about work that is also art. Godin defines art as a personal gift that changes the receiver. While I’m not 100% happy with that definition it, and much of Godin’s discussion, applies to roleplaying games in my mind.

This blog actually has an elevator pitch. The one line version is the subtitle above:
Championing tabletop role-playing games as the most accessible form of public creativity and self-expression.

A book about art and connection and creativity is certainly one that fits that pitch. I tend to read books about creativity, self-expression, and art. From now on I’ll consider them fodder not only for Dark Etiquette but this blog as well. That includes adding them to “What I’m Reading”.

I promise not to subject you to my computer and mathematics reading, however.

Inspirational Art: Nicolas Poussin’s The Dance to the Music of Time

While nothing I can come up with is likely to match Anthony Powell’s series of novels I think gamers can draw inspiration from Poussin’s painting.

At the center the four seasons dance in a circle, while facing outwards, to the music played by an angelic, but aged, time (who may be flanked by his successor) while a heavenly host rides across the sky. That host might be the sun, but also could be ceding rain.

I think this could be an interesting encounter in a Heroquest game or epic level D&D (Masters BECMI, Epic 3.x, or Epic level 4th). Do the characters need the seasons to succor them? Does disturbing their dance affect the world? Perhaps they are just an encounter en rote to the chariot in the sky?

Regardless, Poussin’s painting, along with many classic styles (and related school) provide an alternate set of imagery to stock D&D today. I love the metal imagery circa 1980 of D&D, the OSR styles of Otis, and the 80s/90s Elmore styles. I’m not a fan of dungeon punk. Still, a large part of my heart is in Pre-Raphelite, Art Nouveau, classical, and early 20th century book illustrations (as someone following Inspirational Art posts would see).

I think we’re missing a visual language that influenced several of the masters (Dunsany, for example) or was created by them (William Morris). If the OSR is to move in new directions instead of repeating the past, perhaps this should be one.

Random Campaign Idea for Fourth Edition

Being in a 4E game winding down this week and next I was trying to think of what would make an interesting 4E campaign idea. Having loved Jeff Rirnt’s Fourth World idea I wondered if I could adapt another pop culture property to it. So I present:

Crusade Beyond the Door

The hermit told you of a holy relic, the door frame of stable of Bethlehem, and a strange property it had. Tonight the stars would align just as they had the night of Christ’s birth. In fact, this was the first time they would since that holiest of nights. In aligning the door frame would be filled with a door not of wood but of the spirit and give access to another world.

“We can walk bodily into heaven,” one of your party asked.

“No,” he said, “for that is the provence of the Lord and the greatest of the prophets alone. You, instead, can walk into a world in need of the light of Christ even more than this land.”

So you thought. You remembered the brothers from Venice who disappeared into the desert in search of the Grail. You remembered Baldwin and his success in succeeding Thoros of Edessa. So you came, along with your companions and others to that dark cave on the night in question.

And there the hermit was suffused in brightness and revealed to be more than a hermit but Sariel. As he stood before the frame it rippled with light.

“Beyond this doorway live men lead astray and enslaved. Beyond this doorway men are enslaved by those decended from the daughters of men seduced by those of the host of heaven. Beyond this doorway lies a destiny greater than you can know and a crusade of great holiness,” he declared to the assembled host.

And with that you stepped through the doorway into a great courtyard in a dark building. You soon realized you were alone in a dark and abandoned city on a great island. Yet one of the wizards among you also realize they could open the doorway by a set of runes. Now you prepare to step through it again to seek the destiny Sariel proclaimed.

Initial characters are members of the First Crusade who have stepped through a magical gate into another realm. Initial classes allowed are Cleric, Paladin, Avenger, Invoker, Fighter, Ranger, Warlord, Warlock, Wizard, Bard, or Sorcerer. Actually, I’d consider omitting Ranger as I don’t see it fitting the Crusader theme. Divine classes should fit a generally medieval Catholic Christianity.

Adventures generally are found beyond the gate in the City of the Nephilim. Beyond the gates are lost tribes of man, ruins and remenants of races from before the Flood, pagan gods and their followers, and most of all the Nephilim themselves, the children of angels and the daughters of men. They both rule and feed upon men creating a climate of fear. Yet men, being men, are not united against them and having been so long removed from the light of the Lord lack the faith to do so. Allies and friends among them can provide new and different characters covering all of the available options you wish to allow. This would be a great campaign to try out The Chatty DM’s ideas about changing characters in the campaign without character death (at least I think it was his idea).

The thirty level story arch is mostly likely to follow the war against the Nephilim. Heoric tier adventures would be finding items, making friends and allies, and locating information about the Nephilim. By the paragon tier the surviving members of the host (which should include the PCs) should begin overcoming second tier threats such as the pagan gods and evil men in order to allow good peoples to unite. The epic tier will be the quest to take the war to the heart of the Nephilim’s empire and the defeat of their Emperor themselves (and learning the secret of his paternity in the process).