Friday, September 28, 2012

The marriage of rules and setting

Reading some of the recent D&D Next articles, I'm struck with the endeavor to (re)define classic parts of the game without admitting they're creating a new setting. Take the recent article on Minotaurs, for example.

Minotaurism is now a curse (or at least dark pact?) relating to Baphomet. Or it could be, depending on who wins the concept battle. But what does this buy us for the game?

Without a setting, they're designing for nothing. A nice take on the Minotaur, possibly, but where does it fit in the grant scheme of things? Well, there's not a grand scheme for it to fit.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Episodic Games, not Epics

As a teacher, one of the hard things to learn is to tell a complete story in a lecture. You don't want to just keep plodding through the material in the book, but make sure each day starts with an introduction and ends with a conclusion. I think an RPG session should be very much the same.

This can be hard, because you want to plot out a nice epic. You have a vision of the end. Its one of your best ideas and showcases all your creative genius. But ultimately, I think this view of an RPG is somewhat flawed.

I'm guilty of this sin too. In the Dark Sun game I finished running a year or so ago, I had a great plot which answered a question for me about why a wooden spear killed a sorcerer king. I decided that the other sorcerer kings orchestrated it. The Heartwood spear wasn't a holy primal artifact, but dragon-forged. Everyone knew what Kalak was attempting with his ziggurat. But the other sorcerer-kings knew that they would be in danger if they acted together. Like a big game of chicken, no one would be willing to expose themselves by making the first move. So they set up mortals to do it.

A nice plot, but that doesn't help with each individual game session. I tried to plan things about the one piece of the puzzle that I wanted to reveal each game. Early on I planted the seeds so they would know that the sorcerer-kings each hated a different race and even tried to exterminate their enemies. I had a race by the different factions to find the Orbs of Kalid-Ma, the artifact that Kalak was using to attempt full dragon transformation, and also the Heartwood Spear which disappeared (confusing people to no end with talk of spheres and spears). Some games, however, fell short of that mark, I'm sure.

Part of the problem, I've come to believe, is 4e's emphasis on the encounter. I found myself plotting encounters much more than stories. The plot was in the background while encounters took more planning. It was easy, but that's one thing that left me feeling dissatisfied with the game. This is why the one-hour game session goal of D&D Next is so appealing.

So I've come to believe more and more than an RPG session needs to be treated more like a short story. Like a good episode of a TV show. Each revelation of the larger plot can be a shard in each adventure, but a session should, in general, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That can be really hard with 4e, where you're more likely to plot the 3 encounters you'll have time to run.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rule of Law: Regional Focus

One of my favorite RPG settings is Fading Suns. I routinely forget about it for a year or so here and there, but I keep coming back to it. One of the things I admire about it is the way the just about every story you can think of can be told with the setting. High fantasy world-saving stories, alien prophecies, zombie apocalypses, mythic quests, gritty and dirty politics... It's got it all.

But what does having that much room buy us? And alternately, what is the risk in breadth? And can we avoid some of those risks?

A game with a narrow focus is likely to be able to have better key mechanics. I slightly yearn to play Trail of Cthulhu for a good investigation game (with rules designed for investigation games!).  This type of game, however, is probably no good for anything other than they're designed for though, whereas Fading Suns can handle a lot.

With the Rule of Law, one of the things that I envision is the Chinese Rome notion, where all roads lead to the Empire. The Empire is a melting pot of cultures, but is still threatened by barbaric hoards and the diabolical (maybe even literally devil-bound) Elven Kingdom. I like the freedom to tell and retell the great myths and stories of human history. I worry that the game/setting might lack focus, however. In a game with everything, what's to stop the players from rolling up a paladin, infernal warlock, shaman, and inquisitor? How do you fit characters from the Arabian, Chinese, Incan, and Iroquois cultures in the game together?

That's why I'm interested in building a small number of possible regions for a focus, and using alignment for the party.

Monday, September 17, 2012

How many systems does a game like D&D need?

I've written before about unique class systems in D&D, but how many should there be? Clearly older editions, like Second Edition, had a bloat of independent systems. Third edition did wonders to try to unify many of these with the d20 mechanic (pick up a d20, roll high). Fourth edition rolled back some of these systems, or at least rolled them higher into the game's math. The early classes from the first two players' handbooks (and some from the third) followed the same template of at-will, encounter, and daily powers. But each class had its own unique (and often lengthy) list. Also, systems like feats and action points had every class participate, though feats might be restricted.

I think spells are one great system where powers can be shared. Even if there is a distinction between Arcane and Divine (And Primal? And Psionic?) magic, allowing classes like the sorcerer, warlock, and wizard to share spells means that no one class will get all the support (I'm looking at you, 4e Wizard/Mage/Witch/Sha`ir/Bladesinger especially compared to the artificer, swordmage, runepriest, and seeker). I think 4e discovered this in the essentials run, but it would have been great if there were more power-source based powers that all martial or arcane classes could share.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Rule of Law: Halfbreeds, Quadroons, and Octoroons in D&D

D&D has had half-elves for much of its life, and the archetype has a history in fantasy literature. But I'm also interested in adding some more variability in terms of race into my games.  I'm curious about how best to implement some similar racial options. So following some earlier thoughts I have on race and racism, I'm still thinking of this. I'm not talking about half-dwarves, half-goblins, and half-halflings. I'm talking about what happens to the children of half-breeds: the quadroons and octoroons.

D&D 4e Half Elves
Why bring up these antiquated terms? Well, its not like the quarter-breeds or eighthbreeds are a mysterious concept these days. I'd like to think that the world cares less about one's parentage than they did 50 years ago, but there's probably places where it is still quite important, and not just for acceptance in certain religious or cultural communities. As far as the terms go, there's really no 100% politically correct or even 100% unoffensive term to describe people of mixed origins like this. I'm going to use these two because they seem relatively inoffensive (You don't imagine that's the last word anyone hears as they're being murdered) and are somewhat descriptive such that someone, given the context, could reasonably guess what a quadroon or octoroon is.

I think these "races" also bring up issues of family history, potentially more than just the regular half-elves and half-orcs. Sure, you can spin a great tale about someone never knew his orc father, or the illicit love-child of an elven princess. But what about their children? What prejudices will they face? Not every character needs to deal with issues of racism, but I like the fact that it could be there and the game might address it, if not including rules for it. It also expands these niche races a bit. If the elfborn include not just those with an elven parent but also an elven grandparent... well, now you have more options that are mechanically distinct. You have another option for playing a character with elven heritage than the standard half-elf. And it keeps the racial mixing, unlike the reimagining of half-orcs that we see in D&D 4e.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Creating Characters: Lifepaths, Carrots, and Flaws

I've been speaking with some friends about creating characters lately, and my thoughts on the matter are changing a little.

I've definitely been in games where people portray rather flat characters. And I've seen a variety of mechanics in different games (Vampire and the other WoD games, Fading Suns, D&D, etc); none of them completely eliminates PCs who are bankrupt of all personality.

What would help this though? Well, some players are probably beyond help. Or, they're at least more than a simple trick or two away from a character with goals and motivation and personality. I've also seen people improve after playing for a while with different groups. It can happen.

Let's assume there are some remedies for flatcharacteritis. What are they? We can see some in character creation. Some games, like Fading Suns and Burning Wheel, have life paths. So you actually grow a character from cradle to the first adventure. Were you poor or wealthy? A city boy or a country kid? The priest who ministers to a flock will have different abilities than the monk in the abbey. Reign does this with a random roll system, so you have important events but you have to structure them into a story. But its all the same sort of approach: building a background and giving mechanics for it. This approach is nice because you get it all done right away

Monday, September 10, 2012

Necromancy and Necromancers in Heoric D&D

Necromancy has always been a popular subject in RPGs and fantasy fiction. Usually, necromancers and undead are the villains. So when I look at the Necromancer theme/specialty in the new playtest, I'm a bit unsettled.

First, its great that they include it. 4e went far too long without a good mechanical way to support this archetype. Reflavoring can only take one so far, though the Shaman did relatively well as a necromancer type. It doesn't even take much searching to find a small host of third party OGL necromancy products, so the necromancer is probably popular/iconic enough to warrant some treatment in the basic D&D rules.

3.5/OGL products:
  • Hollowfaust: City of Necromancers (Sword and Sorcery Studios)
  • Necromancy: Beyond the Grave (Mongoose)
  • Encyclopaedia Arcane Necromancy (Mongoose)
  • Secret College of Necromancy (Green Ronin)
  • The Dread Codex (Adamant)
  • The Dread Codex 2: The Necromancer's Tome (Adamant)
  • Necromancer's Legacy: Gar'Udok's Necromantic Artes (EN)
So why does this new necromancer theme grind my gears? Simply put, its not a necromancer.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rule of Law: Race

One of my goals with the Rule of Law setting is to be able to explore some complex social, moral, and philosophical issues. So tying these questions into the basics of the fantasy world is a high priority to me. Race is one pretty clear way to bring up some of these issues, particularly social class and racism. But some philosophical issues also come to the fore.

First, the game is art. And art is one way that we not only try to express ourselves, but to explore how we feel. RPGs are a different kind of art, and they let us explore things differently than more physical forms like painting or sculpture. An RPG is also entertainment. But good literature or poetry both is an attempt to express the human condition and a type of entertainment. An RPG need not be any different in that respect. So when I write that I think racism is an interesting topic to explore, I mean that we can use RPGs to explore these all-too human feelings.

But racism exists in this world, and to assume it doesn't exist in a fantasy world ignores the sorrow that exists here and now. Portraying non-humans in an RPG, or at lest in the Rule of Law, should give one a sense of how marginalized people might feel, or how easy it is to hate someone just because they're different.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Classes for D&D Revisited

I've posted about class lists before, but my ever changing thoughts on the matter are here again. Since my big document o' thoughts has things listed differently, I thought I'd take the time to think about the changes that I've made any why. I should also note that this list is somewhat setting-specific. There's no need for some of these in a setting based on the Incas or Celts, for example. I think that these fit a really broad setting that incorporates traditional western fantasy but also some non western (specifically East Asian and Southeast Asian) fantasy elements.

I currently have six class groups: Warrior, Knight, Scoundrel, Magician, Priest, and Ascetic.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Rule of Law: A Chinese Rome

One of my beefs with a lot of the fantasy worlds floating around these days is that they're pretty euro-centric. That's not necessarily bad, but it leaves out a lot of concepts and archetypes that I'm interested in exploring.
Could this represent a Druid too?
One of may favorite aspects of Fading Suns is that you can use the setting to tell so many stories. Sure, at heart its a sci-fantasy space opera game, but you can tell stories of zombie plagues, dirt-farmers who barely leave their hometowns, or spaceship odysseys. The setting is so broad that its hard to find a concept that can't fit with a little modification. From intergalactic hobos to alien freedom fighters, its got just about everything.

So that's where I'd like to take the Rule of Law setting that I originally developed with some friends a few years back. The term that I'm using is Chinese Rome. And the idea behind that is things are familiar, but also new. Crucially, grounding things in the familiar is important for me.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Party Coherence

I've been reflecting a lot on D&D lately (I partly blame Antagonist Relations), specifically on the history and rules. But the game is really in the playing. A ruleset is a tool, better for some tasks than others. But any rule set will generally get the job done. What we don't really see rules for in RPGs, however, is party coherence.

I'm not sure why that is, but I suspect it stems from the general lack of social rules and cooperative attitude that games like D&D engender. What is party coherence though? My ideas on this are colored by my old LARP experience.

See, I used to play LARPs at conventions. These weren't long-term things, just one four-hour game. But the social interaction there required a skeleton of player knowledge. This was generally done by a lengthy list of the characters in the game and a short description of your relationship to each one. So-and-so was your brother in the Mafia family, or in your delegation at the peace conference. So-and-so was your rival, the person you wanted to take down. Without this basic background info, you were lost in this type of political intrigue game.

Some of the people who ran those games also ran D&D games at convention I used to frequent. And you see the same sort of thing in a convention game. My favorite one had my friend JG as my daughter, and I suspected that this other guy that I knew was playing my son that I put up for adoption. Instantly I had connection to the rest of the party. It was awesome.