Some of the Other Ideas

Given I’m moving the blog to a project centric style and inspired by Redwald (which you are reading, right?) I thought I’d list some of the other projects I have in the hopper.

Return of Prior Ideas

House of Atreus: A return to the idea I’ve called space monks.

Demon Haunted World: Equal parts Buffy and Harry mixed in with a touch of eighties rock.

New Ideas

The Gernsback League: Working title for a science fiction superheroes setting in the marvelous future of 2525. The main influences are the other world of The Gernsback Continuum (not the story itself, but the world Parker sees), the visuals of movies like Just Imagine, and, of course, The Legion of Superheroes (which arguably initially was set in just such a future).

Miss Elizabeth’s Guides: An Georgian/Regency influenced space setting drawing heavily on British/French rivalry during this period as well as some Jacobite material. It would really constitute the other side of the cluster of my monthly Stars without Number game at the local D&D meetup (which began with the effort to make Lord Byron King of Greece). It is named for a popular series of travel books for young ladies in the setting.

Magical Jane: Which could easily be called the fantasy version of Miss Elizabeth’s Guides.

Personal Appendix N: Short Fiction and Why It Matters

In yesterday’s discussion of the canon for the May Project I said:

If there is one area the OSR dances around but I’ve yet to see someone directly address is the importance of short fiction. A large amount of what is considered primary source material for D&D, via Appendix N and other sources, is short fiction. The Dying Earth is an interlinked collection of short stories, for example. The Hour of the Dragon was Howard’s only novel about Conan and it comes in at 72,659 words making it short relative to the fantasy novels of today.

This brought two responses. First from Trollsmyth:

I’m very curious about this comment, however. I’ve always seen the bedrock of the OSR being the short stories of Howard, Lovecraft, CA Smith, Leiber, Vance, etc. Or, at least, the D&D thrust of it. How do you think this has been ignored? How is a foundation based on the short-form significant?

and the second from Scott:

Co-sign. I’d say Gygax was influenced as much or more by the fruits of Argosy and other short fantasy fiction markets than novels. Some of the bedrocks rarely or never worked long, and others such as Dunsany did some of their best work in short form.

which both wonder why I think this is ignored.

First, I did acknowledge, albeit indirectly, that this has been brought up if you read the full quote. However, my indirection is the reverse indirection of what I’m talking about. Many, many people have all discussed the key early sources for D&D but I can count on one hand how often the difference between these sources and most modern fantasy in terms of length is discussed. We’ve had long discussions on the transition from Conan the free-booter to Tanis Half-elven the Heroic World Saver with the introduction of Dragonlance. What we have not had is a discussion about how we moved from a canon built of a variety of tales whose longest tale is a 72,000 world novel and a canon which is made up of three books averaging 120,000 word each which form a single story.

Why is this distinction important? Because one of the most common way to express what an RPG is “it’s like a novel or movie except you’re the main character”. This idea creates a certain set of expectations. First is the highly detailed overall world. Second is the idea that the campaign forms a single cohesive narrative. Third is it emphasizes the importance of every event in the process to moving towards the common end of the narrative (digressions are possible in a cohesive narrative but it is rare in modern genre writing).

If we emphasized the source material made up of short stories as in “it’s like a series of short stories or a television show where you’re the main character” we would create different expectations. The most obvious difference is the lack of the larger narrative which everything has to support. Some modern TV shows, especially genre shows, have used narrative arcs of various strengths but even they have plenty of irrelevant to the broader plot episodes. However, it goes beyond that. Nothing detailed in Dragonlance early on existed for anything but its use the story. If this sounds similar to my points in memoir is story it is. Conan’s tales read much more like episodes in his own memoir than a novel.

If you don’t think what kind of sources we use influences our expectations let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say I wanted to set a game primarily based on Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar. Using Jeff’s rules I can have two fluff sources.

First, imagine the game setting I’d design if I based it on the Queen’s Own trilogy and the The Last Herald-Mage trilogy. It would be a very top level game. Most of the threats would be existential for my central kingdom. The characters would be primary heroes charged with “saving the world”. My setting details would high level discussions of rulers, borders, and long reams of history. Why would I have these things? Because much of these stories are centered on these things over smaller local details.

If, instead, my primary sources were Finding the Way and Other Tales of Valdemar and Sun on Glory and Other Tales of Valdemar what would it look like? I would be more likely to have inspiration for a bunch of individual locations whose broader connections would be more nebulous. I would know kingdom B was to the left and duchy C was to the right of my primary setting, but beyond B is good guys and C bad guys I wouldn’t have a lot of info on the relationships. Instead of a few big heroes, I’d have details and ideas on a lot of prominent figures who none the less didn’t dominate things. I would have a better picture of how characters fit into the setting without saving it.

Another dimension is the kind of campaigns short stories, series novels, and episodic TV inspire over epic novels. It is hard to imagine a sandbox if your only inspiration is The Lord of the Rings, novel or movies. It’s much easier to imagine a sandbox or episodic game when you’re reading the combined Conan novels or watching Star Trek: TOS. In fact, the linked Grognardia post about Star Trek: TOS is one of the few discussions about short fiction as RPG inspiration and why it works although even then James doesn’t discuss that directly.

If you go to the primary sources Gary et al uses this is obvious but that doesn’t always help. For one thing, if I’m interested in modern magical games I need a way to distill what makes Conan work better for designing a game than Tolkien. To take it to visual media why Space Seed is better inspiration than Wraith of Khan which is better than Undiscovered Country. Another reason it’s worth knowing if I want something more modern in its sensibility it helps to know that it’s better to use the short stories in my favorite world than the epic novels as we saw in the Valdemar example.

The May Project: Canon Part 2

Yesterday we introduced my May Project for blogging and added the gaming sources I’m use for it. Today, we move on to inspirational fluff.

3) Now you need some fluff to hang all this stuff on. Pick exactly three sources of campaign inspiration. Two of these sources should be recognizable as fantasy material, like selecting your favorite Conan paperback and maybe Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. Note that you are picking individual works, not entire bodies of work.

I’ve divided part three into two parts. The first is the easy part. I need to pick two recognizable pieces of fantasy literature (I guess movies, comics, ect. also count). I have shelves and shelves of material that qualify for this part. Selecting just two is the trick. Given the point of blogging is to highlight things you think are important or useful I’ll use that as a filter.

If there is one area the OSR dances around but I’ve yet to see someone directly address is the importance of short fiction. A large amount of what is considered primary source material for D&D, via Appendix N and other sources, is short fiction. The Dying Earth is an interlinked collection of short stories, for example. The Hour of the Dragon was Howard’s only novel about Conan and it comes in at 72,659 words making it short relative to the fantasy novels of today. Today the advice for a new writer is to aim for 100,000-120,000 words. With the complaints that most contemporary fantasy novels are badly redone Tolkien or RPG session reports (complaints I don’t agree with, btw…urban fantasy rules the roast with the lesser quest series in second) perhaps we should look to short fiction.

With that in mind I’m select my most recently purchased anthology, Sword and Sorceress VIII, edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley, the creator of Darkover. Admittedly this anthology is, itself, two decades old this year but the series remains popular. It has survived Bradley’s death twelve years ago with Diana Paxon and later Elisabeth Waters editing. Sword And Sorceress XXV was released last year and the next is due in November.

For my second work I’m also going back in time but to the period of Moldvay Basic. Robert Vardeman has written a lot of fantasy and science fiction novels. Although they are generally arranged in a variety of series the are all short and aren’t what I’d call world saving quests, although some have that element. I haven’t done a word count but looking at my book shelf they are similar in length to The Dying Earth. All are adventure story novels and are fairly quick reads. Vardeman is a work day writer in a prolific and simple style that I consider a direct descendant of the pulp tradition. Much to my surprise I have never seen him cited in any RPG literature although I remember a review of Cenotaph Road in Dragon.

I am going with City In The Glacier, the second book of his War of the Powers series. I haven’t read it in a couple of years, but it provides a strong inspiration for a dungeon setting as well as an interesting battle scenario between two primitive tribes that could be an interesting set-piece to add to a hex map. It also avoids one element of the series, a floating city, I’d prefer to avoid adding to the setting. Finally, one of the main characters is a dog sled driver in a grasslands region. The dog sleds are on rollers and I’ve always thought replacing horses and wagons with these sleds would be a fund twist for a fantasy world.

Your third fluff is meant to be the wild card. Pick something way out in la-la land for this one. Don’t even look at fantasy novels. That’d be too pedestrian. You want something like an issue of the Micronauts comic or the movie Krull or the Principia Discordia. Or a book like Barlow’s Guide to Extraterrestrials.

So now a wild card. Looking over at the DVD shelf Brotherhood of the Wolf is looking longingly at me, but gunpowder and horses don’t look like they’d mix well with some of the already selected fluff. While balancing the tensions is part of this exercise I’m not sure that’s one I want to balance.

Instead, let’s try comics. Science fiction or superheroes would be too much of an odd direction. However, how about some goths with a traveling show and monsters disguised as people? That could work very well and look, I have that. Gloom Cookie is exactly that and I have the first bound volume on the shelves. I think the crew could be an excellent core group in a city plus all the main characters except Lex could become rumors of evil tidings for the characters to hear. Plus, the Carnival Macabre will not only add a lot of flavor but can be a reoccurring source of information and oddity for the players to encounter.

So there we have it, three sources of fluff to go with my core rules and two supplements. Over May we’ll set what kind of sandbox I can build and have ready to go with just those items.

The May Project: Introduction and Canon

So, my project for May is designing the initial adventure and setting for campaign whose canon is selected accord to Jeff Rients’ Alchemical Proposal. I’m only aiming to create enough material to run initial characters and adventures. I want to leave enough open that the setting will evolve through play. As a result I suspect much of the source material will remain untouched.

I would like to use only things I have in physical form so I can use a banker’s box to hold it. This is an idea picked up from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit which I’ll discuss tomorrow.

1) Start with any ol’ D&D-esque ruleset, though a simpler system without alot of fiddly bits probably works better here.

Here I’ll be using Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Grindhouse Edition. This is a semi-exception to the physical form rule. I have the Deluxe edition and my Grindhouse is either in shipping or will be shipped this week. For now we’ll toss the Deluxe in the box until Grindhouse gets here.

2) Add some supplementary rules material. You’re primarily looking for new Gygaxian building blocks (classes, races, spells, monsters, magic items, etc) to drop into the game. In this recipe you want exactly two different sources for this stuff, one of which is easy to put into your game, like adding Mutant Future as a source of monsters and treasures to your Labyrinth Lord game. For the other one choose something that might be a little harder to fit into your system of choice without some work.

I like to call these the near and far supplements. For LotFP I will define a “near” supplement as anything written to be directly compatible with TSR D&D. The only conversion that will really be needed is armor class and perhaps a few other things like magic resistance.

The physical rule has the biggest effect here as my first choice, Monster Manual 2, isn’t on the bookshelf. I do want a monster book as this is one area where LotFP is pretty empty. I understand Raggi has done this for philosophical reasons but a collection of monsters is useful for me. One reason I’d like the MM2 is the players are much less likely to be familiar. The other is has the section on mapping rarity to custom encounter tables. In fact, that section is why I first bout the MM2 back in the day.

Lacking the MM2 and not wanting to use the Fiend Folio the next choice on my shelf is Monsters of Myth and Legend from the old Mayfair Games Role Aids line. It contains simple background and monsters from six different real world traditions: American Indian, Australian Aborigine, Chinese, Greek, Irish, and Norse mythologies. That looks like a good fit. It’s material can provide a basic outline for six different regions.

Now that we’ve picked a near supplement let’s look for a far supplement. Scanning the shelf I want something far not only in a rules sense but in a genre/setting sense. Instead of another fantasy book I’d like something a little different. I’m not interested into doing something more science fantasy like but maybe something from a horror or modern-mystical setting. Looking at the shelves two choices jump out at me, Mystic China and Through the Glass Darkly. Both books are from Palladium and are for their Ninjas & Superspies and Nightbane games respectively.

Looking through both books they both add several classes and quite a few magic spells. However, I’m going to go with Mystic China for a few reasons. First, while I’m not sure I want to use new character classes early out of the gate if I do at some point Mystic China’s are more than just magic user types. Second, while the idea of living magic is very interesting I’m not sure that’s a direction I’d like to take. Finally, there is some synergy in my two gaming supplements in that both try to provide some Chinese material. I doubt either is going to provide a real Chinese experience (Mystic China does provide a few pages on quick and dirty feel) but I’ve never run a campaign with an East Asia filtered through typical American rpg sensibilities campaign. Doing something new is always a good exercise.

Tomorrow we’ll move onto step three which is selecting a limited amount of fluff to use as inspiration. Then we’ll put it all in a banker’s box and post a photo plus discuss the banker’s box idea.

Personal Appendix N: T is for Two to Conquer

Two to Conquer is another Darkover novel sharing a setting Hawkmistress, although considerably later time wise.

It has stronger science fantasy elements combined with a weird Prisoner of Zenda type plot. The book opens with Paul Harrell, a criminal sealed into a stasis coffin, being summoned out of it to Darkover. He is the unique duplicate of Bard di Asturien and has been summoned to provide his duplicate. Bard is one of two leaders struggling to unite the Hundred Kingdoms. The novel covers the beginning of their union under the Compact achieved not by Bard, who is the novel’s principle character, but his rival Varzil the Good.

The book has several very game worthy ideas. The most interesting is the science behind not only the ability to summon Paul but why he had to exist: Cherilly’s law. The law states “Nothing is unique in space and time except a matrix; every item in the universe exists with one and only one exact duplicate, except a matrix stone.” A matrix stone is a stone native to Darkover (but also capable of being created) that amplifies psionic powers. Matrix stones and Cherilly’s Law could be a magical idea that could propel an entire series of adventures or even be a cornerstone of a campaign. Imagine a megadungeon which made prominent use of this principle.

There are a couple of other ideas that jump out at me. Among things in the Compact is the outlawing of distance weapons requiring those who intend to kill to place themselves at risk. The other is the novel recounts the initial interactions between the the Priestesses of Avarra and the Sisterhood of the Sword mentioned in the Hawkmistress entry which leaders to the Order of Renunciations.

Monday Pointers

D4:Old School Prestige Classes
This could meld well with Zak’s location based feats idea as well. Also, notice the blog itself is now part of the blogroll.

D6:Alernate XP
If I ever run True20 this might be what I use for advancement instead of the system Chronicles of Ramlar, despite the principle reason I own the later is its experience system.

D8:Magical Traditions
I like this quick and dirty way of determining spells for new characters. It would mesh nicely with the idea of having specialist magic-users from 2nd/3rd edition (easily portable to OD&D) be based on a tradition instead of a college. What if Hurgh’s spells are forever banned to students of Rhialto due to incompatible theories of magic?

Blogging A-Z and May

As the last week of the Blogging A-Z challenge begins I want to reflect a bit.

Despite having a gap and being one day behind excluding it I’m considering it a success. It is already my second most prolific month (the most is July 2010 at 33 posts), has the best comment average (although not the most comments), and I’ve had an increase in followers. Despite being prolific I’ve been pleased with most of the entries and consider a couple some of my best. Thank you to everyone who had read and commented and to everyone who has just read.

So, I’m looking at May and wondering what to do. In the past I’ve tried having the regular series on a given day but only Monday Pointers is even 50/50. Artist Inspiration had a good run on Wednesdays but has petered out. Buried Treasure remains buried and Silver Age Appendix N never took off but retroing it to Personal Appendix N would probably work.

What was different about A-Z was it was a larger project, part of a whole. A couple of the blogs I read do theme months and I’m thinking of giving something similar a spin. I think I’m going to try “this month’s project”, similar to what I had hoped to do with RDR this month but lost steam early on. My ADD is bad enough that unless it’s being played any project will have a hard time maintaining any momentum (see just about everyone I’ve started) but I think a “this is what I’m doing this month and then it’s done” will be a good combination of focus and allowance to have other interests.

I’ve got 3-4 ideas in mind, several of which you can blame on Jeff Rients. My three working or semi-working series would then shift to integrate into the project although Monday pointers might be a mix.

My May project will be in a separate post later today along with “T”, “U”, and “M”.