Friday, June 27, 2014

Why don't wizards rule your campain world?

Why don’t wizards rule the world?

Why don’t unscrupulous members of the class that can scry to determine when their opponents are at their weakest and then teleport to destroy them, assume political power? 

Sure, there is some exaggeration to this depending upon your preferred set of crib sheets, unspoken assumptions and thumbed volumes (aka the rules).  Ars Magica is one of the few that takes this fairly seriously.  But how many campaign worlds, especially of the faux medieval type, fail to provide an answer to this question?

It’s on my list of standard questions when evaluating campaign worlds.  Jeff asks “who is the mightiest wizard in the land?” I wonder, “and how come he hasn’t decided that the crown on the king should be his?”  I mean, there’s enough gold and gems in that gaudy thing for a buttload of spell components even if you’re not looking for an upgrade in headgear.

So, for my upcoming campaign, here’s my answer:

The Edict

XXX_TBD  (what’s in a name?), god of law and founder of the Empire, declared that arcane magic, “sorcery” was to Chaos as ‘lascivious hairstyles were to the seduction of men from their vows of chastity’ and banned its practice.  The god, in his wisdom, provided the Empire with adequate amounts of hellfire and damnation to enforce this in its borders and the expansion thereof.
Centuries have passed and the Empire was not what it once was, and the apparent lack of hellfire and damnation that XXX_TBD had provided is only one of so many causes.  None of the other gods, whether lawful or otherwise, had such harsh condemnation of arcane magic, even if they were never too fond of wizards; wizards being mortals that had the temerity to re-arrange the physical world in ways that the gods thought should only be their purview.

But XXX_TBD’s priests are still preaching this gospel in so many pulpits across the scattered remnants of the Empire.  The coincidence of so many calamities that could have indeed been the work of arcane magic, from Farmer Brown’s sadly infertile Bessie to the Creeping Death have also played their part.
You want him over for dinner?
While few citadels of the Empire have the strength to enforce the Edict strenuously, especially to the more proficient practitioners of magic, most folks in the Empire have reactions against arcane magic.  Even more enlightened folks and the occasional enlightened (or greedy or desperate) ruler are rare.

So, when magic is practiced within sight of folks, a reaction roll is made.  (Typically, reaction rolls are: 
roll 2d6:  2-5: negative, 6-8: uncertain, 9-12: positive)

If Positive, either Avoidance or a Request is made according to the strength of the reaction.
If Negative, then Offense is taken according to the strength of the reaction.

Mild:  Avoid eye contact or seating, ignore if possible
Middling:  Back away, make warding signs against magic, choose the other side of the street
Strong: Flee in panic, taking others with them

Mild: Gossip about the event to others
Middling: Request that the wizard fix some malady or lack that hasn’t or can’t be addressed by local clerics for whatever reason
Strong: Plead that the wizard fix some malady or lack that may be great in scope

Mild: Announce the presence of the wizard and stare them down.
Middling: Demand the wizard leave.
Strong: Attack.

How the use of the magic affected the observers of course matters – but not to the point of being welcomed.  Excepting clerics of the god of law, player characters are not bound by this widely held but not universal reaction.  Those few NPCs that have the strong innards required to accompany fool hardy adventurers into the metaphorical dark will only be somewhat influenced by this phobia, and if magic aids them and the party’s survival the phobia will be erased.  A fumble or mistake in magic could lose this favorable disposition. 

I not only want an answer to why wizards aren’t in control – they’re not welcome by most society.  I also want magic, and magic practitioners to reasonably be rare and feel that much more mysterious.  Yes, yes, clerical magic will exist, as will magical items created by clerics and gods.  But on the whole, even in a game of murder hobos, I want a certain f’d up feel to the world.  One way to make sure that this is clear to the players is through rules.  I hope it's fun and not just meaning that I'm a twisted person to DM this way.

Other ways to answer questions of why there aren’t more wizards, especially wizards in positions of power?
Critique of my proposal – other ways to achieve these goals

Monday, May 26, 2014

New Megadungeon Seed - The Trail of the Trickster

The real seed of this idea sprang from playing in Desert Scribe's Holmes megadungeon some months ago.  Something of a funhouse aspect of the dungeon was expressed in the "guestbook" in the dungeon entrance which each character had the option of signing.
A cool device, I thought.  But DS didn't actually have a book for us to sign there at the table.

As campaigns come and campaigns go, I'm working on a new dungeon.  So now I've got the chance to steal the Desert Scribe's conceit and take it further: get a physical book that the players could sign as their characters.  Especially as I intend to run this dungeon for a variety of different players, the book itself could be an interesting artifact that people could look forward to reading and signing.

I'll have to look at Pike Market, Etsy and the Freemont Market for hand made book makers and drop a dime or two for a nice book.  Something that will make an impression.

Too much?

Next though is what's the megadungeon's origin?  The old "ruined dwarven mine, over run by humanoids" won't cut it.  And while "a wizard did it" always works, it's been done.

So, who else would be tickled to have a guest book at every entrance - the same guest book, no matter the entrance?

Well, the Trickster.  Perhaps I've known Loki from stories like this where the Trickster side shows through, instead of the recent movies that depict him more forthrightly evil.  But if Loki or whatever stand-in I pick for the Trickster archetype  (Coyote?) were to create a "huge ruined pile"  (rip), the possibility of a fun house dungeon would be rather large.  Perhaps the Trickster even (ala Loki and Baldr) planned to trick others into a conflict, say a god of Light and a god of Darkness.  It's a start.  Now, whether that's step 1 of "how to host a dungeon" or some thing that happens to the Dwarven Fortress is another question.

Not having a world or a pantheon yet (and plenty of campaigns never need them), I'm tempted to go for the Baldr and Loki conflict as a more contemporary event; contemporary in the sense that it didn't happen a mythological age ago but one of the precipitating events for the local apocalypse and collapse of empire.  Would the dwarves of the world be followers of the Trickster, so that there is no end of odd mechanical strangeness in the tunnels they dug for the millenium's most epic practical joke by the Trickster?  And what other factions and beings would be attracted to the power and magic left by the gods?

Of course, what are the consequences of signing and not signing?  I'm thinking that there will be specials and factions that react positively to those that have signed the book truthfully.  And of course, some that won't.  Which and why?  Good questions.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

House Rule for Last Will and Testament

This was prompted by this post on death

Character's Last Will and Testament Rules
Characters can have a will naming an out of game family member as a beneficiary of their wealth.  If the rest of the party fulfills that will, then the player's next character receives that wealth in starting experience.
If dead character has an unfulfilled will and is not buried in a ceremony on consecrated ground, there is a chance that the character's spirit will rise as an undead spirit of level and abilities appropriate to the character and their death.

I'm thinking about these rules in the context of a city/megadungeon campaign with a large player community.  
There's always a question of what level to start a replacement character.  The common OSR answer has been to start at 1st level, while more recent styles of play replaced characters at the current level of the campaign.
It's also always a bit odd how party members fight over the belongings of a deceased former friend.  Together, these rules would give a party in-game reasons for treating their dead comrade in a more familiar fashion.

Of course, parties are free to ignore these rules and the consequences.  In fact an evil party, with an evil priest, might not be adverse to another undead creature in the dungeon.

What do you think?

Friday, March 28, 2014

RIP DAT - and FYI.

The world and the gaming community has lost another gem, one which might have been returning to us.

Many others have posted wonderful recollections of his work, including this rare picture.   I've never seen that one before. Thank you.

I feel forced to add what is in part conjecture.  If bringing up other topics into your gaming offends you, I won't apologize. I think this story shows how your different worlds are connected.

Trampier seems to have died from cancer which was only discovered in his recovery from a stroke.  I can't say for sure, but according to this article, the vast majority of taxi drivers (Trampier's occupation) don't have health insurance.

Two years ago I lost a cousin to cancer which had grown to an advanced and nigh-untreatable stage because he never got health exams because he did not have health insurance.

I won't say that Trampier would still be with us if he had health insurance (he might have) or that health insurance and the resulting accessible care would have saved him.  But accessible care does save people's lives.

Whenever I see benefits to raise money for figures in various communities due to health problems, I try to give.  But it turns my stomach at the necessity for this.

We prematurely lose artists of all stripes because we as a society do not provide for each other what every other industrialized nation provides to all its citizens.

We lose other artists whose work we never get to see because they are stuck in creativity stifling jobs so they can have security for themselves and their families.

A social safety net for all allows people the security to take risks for their lives and their work.

I hope that as we toast Trampier as an artist, a gamer, a worker and a person that we can also remember that this tragedy and so many others might not be necessary.

Thank you Dave, you were gone too soon.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Very Enigmatic Obelisk

Have you ever made a dungeon and then ran it months or years later and not made any sense of your notes?  Not that you couldn’t read them, but you just didn’t have ANY CLUE as to what you were going on about.

Once your memory goes, forget it.

This happens to me more lately.  Not just because I’m getting to be an old fart, or that I design (and run) while a bit soused, but because I give my players free reign to go where they want.  They’ve found 6 separate entrances so far, each with many branches and their own character.  Often they’ll switch from one to the other for whatever reason; they don’t have enough clerics, another player has a map for an area, they heard a rumor, they have a goal in mind, etc, etc, etc.

That’s by design.  But it does mean that I’ll make something, more than what they explore, and then they won’t come back to it for months or more.  Sometimes I’ll have warning, sometimes I won’t.  It makes DMing interesting. And enigmatic.

So last week they went to another entrance to the ‘abbey’ (what my players call my megadungeon) and I found something surprising to me the DM.

All over this level of the “Abbey” is a notation:

"enigmatic repeating obelisks" (each 50%)

I haven’t the foggiest what the obelisks are for, or what they have a 50% chance of doing.  They are indeed very enigmatic.

This portion of the dungeon is a former lair of a Suel necromancer, beneath the haunted Pholtan abbey meant to guard the evils within.  These areas in particular are inhabited by several competing cults of various death gods, each claiming that the evil dead power within is from their deity.  One faction is actually just hedonistic and uses the undead as tools to make life easy.  Plus there are connections to the Ghoul Kings lair, an oracle that paints possibly prophetic murals on the walls, golden statues to gods, etc.  And after last week when on a player’s request I randomly rolled a charisma for a priestess of Incabulous (god of plaques and other nasty deaths) I got an 18.  And she got away in a spell of darkness so she’ll be down there too.

I wonder if SHE KNOWS what the obelisks do?

 Eh.  Maybe they'll go someplace else tomorrow.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Old School Dislikes

Elrad of Back to the Dungeon asks 3 questions about what we like and dislike about "Old School Games" (tm).  Avoiding the question of "what is an old school game?" and including Castles and Crusades and Dungeon Crawl Classics to Hackmaster even, I thought this was good for discussion.

Back in the day, each table had it's own house rules, the way that DM and group interpreted and molded the game to their campaign.  One of the cool things about the OSR (as opposed to most games of 4th and 3.x) is how we're returning to that.

We have an embarrassment of riches of old school game systems.  One of the advantages of so many variations, covers if you will, riffed off of the D&D base is that we can pretty much mix and match, cut and paste, and agglutinate a set of rules from our prolific diversity.

Here I've expanded some of my answers to Elrad's questions.

So what are some of the features of different Old School Games and their clones that you dislike and why?

I dislike to hit tables and THACO, so I use the d20 base to hit that's found in Castles and Crusades.  I use that because it removes more of the math.  The players usually have one number to add to their die-roll and their called out result compares directly to the armor class I have for the monster.  I have found it to be the fastest in play for me.

I hate non-weapon proficiencies (NWP) as the worst possible implementation of skills/talents/feats. By defining something as an ability you deprive others of it.  If you allow a character to choose "Mapping" as a proficiency do you allow others to map?  NWP systems typically allow only a few opportunities to choose them; a couple at first level and then not every level after that.  This would be fine if they were by definition all heroic level abilities.  But if they are mundane?  You're not letting players choose very simple courses of action that they could imagine normal characters performing.  I prefer free form stunts and try to encourage players with them.

I also confess to liking maps and miniatures. It's part habit from DMing too many years of 3.x and part reaction to an old school DM that couldn't keep player positions in his head and had very misleading sketches and descriptions and a tendency to "gotcha".  However, I must admit it can slow down the game both in my presentation and in players spending time choosing their precise square.

DO you have a house rule against the disliked feature?

With the variety of different old school rule sets, I've been able to choose one that more fits my style. I think that this is a great time for the OSR precisely because we have so many choices.  I've not even read them all.  In fact, if anyone thinks that system X (Blood and Treasure? Dark Dungeons?) would better fit my play style, by all means point me to it.

However, even after picking the base system I preferred, I do dislike some aspects of C&C: encumbrance and surprise/perception checks. I have houseruled in modifications of other systems (Lamentations-style encumbrance and 52-pages surprise.)

How many of you use a miss-mash of many rulebooks and systems? 

See above. I'd steal bits from DCC and Hackmaster too if I could get my co-DM to agree to it.

I'd also steal the different demihuman racial classes idea from ACKS.  However, I'd want to use it to emphasize how freakin' weird the demihumans should be.  

What is your final system or lack thereof like?

I'd really like to implement a tightly-bound armor class system and use 2d10 instead of 1d20.  I'd prefer a bell-curve over the flat resolution system.  I think it would be a better match for the slow leveling and generally gritty play that I prefer.  That would take some work and the result would be a bit outside the old school family; not in aesthetics but it would limit how easily pieces from other games could be mixed and matched with it.

I confess I love extreme fiddly detail in magic systems. That's part of my draw to DCC.  In fiction, your source of magic matters and there's great "play" (ie, choice and consequence) in it. 

My ideal system would also allow the DM to seamlessly dial detail in and out: from a mapless free form system all the way to a Hackmaster second by second combat resolution depending upon the nature and level of the challenge. If it's primarily an exploration or negotiation challenge, a grid is imagination-draining and time consuming without benefit. Same for a few goblins to a mid-level party - nothing dangerous or interesting in that combat. But a "boss" fight? A detailed combat system can be fun then. My ideal system would help the DM present different challenges in different ways (allowing the players to choose their method of course.)

What is an RPG game breaker that you cannot tolerate?

I dislike disassociated mechanics and intense character building.  But that's why I prefer old school games. However, a good DM and a good group could still draw me into playing 3.x or 4th edition.

Really, for all that I've talked about rules in this blog post, DM skill, DM and player style match, and group compatibility matter more for my table fun.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Torchbearer: Old School Dungeon Crawl? Late notice of kickstarter

Torchbearer is an incarnation of the Burning Wheel/Mouseguard rules designed for what is now understood to be the original dungeon crawl game: exploration and resource management.

I've never played Burning Wheel or Mouseguard.  As I became aware of them, I was developing my taste for lighter rules and mechanicless narrative.  On the other hand, these are very thoughtful gamers.  The kinds of challenges that they present are at the core of Torchbearer game play are ones that I've been trying to present in my own games. 

From an interview:

The cramped caves, the oppressive dark, none of that came across the way it felt in an actual cavern.
“I wanted to make a game where caving and dungeoneering felt like a big deal,” he says, “where your character could be cold and wet and feel the oppressive weight of the dark.”


How much food and water will you pack? How many candles, torches, or flasks of oil will you stow in your pack? All of these basic essentials are used up over time and unless you can replenish them, says Olavsrud, “things will start to go very poorly for your character.”

In other words, if a cave troll doesn’t get you, dying of thirst or starvation just might.

“It gets even more interesting when treasure becomes involved,” Olavsrud adds. “You need to fit treasure in your pack somehow. It often requires discarding valuable gear.”

The game hinges on choice, consequence, and conflict, and your inventory lies at the heart of each expedition.

 I could steal that sentence for the aims of the dungeon crawls I'm running.

Here's a character sheet:

The conditions lead me to believe this is a very gritty game.  "Dead - may not use wises, tests, or help", uh-huh.   I've been dubious of mechanics that limit choices or simulate fear, but the way some of these are expressed "Angry, can't use beneficial traits" and "Afraid, can't help or beginner's luck" are interesting.  But there's a lot here I'm sure I don't get the implications of: it's been decades since I've played a game with dice pools (Shadowrun first edition, I think)

On the other hand, I have a distaste for handling some of these challenges with abstracted checks.  I don't want players to think about what die pool they will expend to meet a challenge, but how their character would physically negotiate the obstacle.

I'm intrigued enough to get a pdf of the kickstarter.