Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hola! Es el chupacabra!

A few days ago, the excellent Noisms posted an interesting challenge on his blog. Take 2d6 randomly-selected creatures from a bestiary of your choice (randomized with real randomy randomness), assume they're intelligent, and build a campaign world where they're the dominant races. Let's do just that.

I get 10 creatures. Whoo.

My chosen bestiary? The Penumbra Fantasy Bestiary, published in 2003 by Atlas Games. This is a solid and worthwhile choice for several reasons: it's got a robust array of inhabitants; it's one of only two bestiaries I own; most importantly, I wrote a little of it. (One of Noisms's commenters used Borges, which is an awesome idea.)

The lucky contestants:
Njuzu: "A particularly intelligent and territorial race of aquatic elemental creatures." Shapeshifters and critter-controllers.

Kr'awn: "A race of horrible beings resembling a patchwork of humanoid and salamander... all are twisted and deformed." Many have a mutation of dubious value; a few subraces w/powers exist.

Poukai: "An enormous man-eating bird resembling a toucan." Ten feet tall and possessed of a bloodcurdling screech.

Ice Lion: "Fearsome elemental predators... the embodiment of the killing cold of the winter tundra." Big mean kitty with cold powers.

Makara: "Both types of makara [crocodile and shark] have the ability to transform their upper bodies into illusions of other creatures, in hopes of luring victims into the water where they can attack." A water theme is shaping up here...

Dryad: Two new subraces, one for wicked earth dryads (itnala) and another for hardened warriors who outlived their trees (shethala)
Chupacabra: "The elusive 'goat suckers'... they resemble large, long-snouted dogs with big eyes, needle-like claws, and large bat wings." I could not be happier.

Hive Spider, Juvenile: "Once the hive spider has entered the body, it devours the brain matter and creates a nest. It then takes control of the body..." which later becomes a grotesque spider-headed monstrosity. Makes me think of Dax from DS9 gone horribly wrong (or horribly right?).

War Dragon: Moderately intelligent dragons used as servants or partners by warlike humans. My favorite part is the breath weapon -- a war dragon just vomits the rocky contents of its gizzard at you.

Celenian: "A race that looks much like a werewolf in its hybrid form... celenians often are to be found stalking and killing members of evil races." Kind of a blah creature to end on, although some of the moon mythology in the entry is interesting.

My only regret is that my race, the victim-flaying skin-wearing xipitotec, didn't get rolled up. Now to see if I can make some kind of a campaign out of this mess.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pretend, damn you!

In case you're interested, a couple folks have written short essays about RPGs and pretending. They're worth checking out.

This is what Monte Cook says about pretending. He's one of the Big Dudes in RPG design -- co-wrote 3e D&D, lead designer on 5e -- so his thoughts could shape the hobby for years to come. The takeaway quote:

"It's honestly one of the biggest barriers to more people playing the game, but it's something we seem to talk about only occasionally. We talk about making the rules simpler, the game more fun, or the books more accessible, but we probably don't spend a lot of time talking about how most people (again, over the age of about 12) don't know how to pretend."

This is what the AV Club says about pretending. The writer, Todd VanDerWerff, is apparently doing a series on exposing himself to "nerd culture," a label that fails to fill me with joy. Making a set of goofy hobbies into a shared culture/lifestyle has consequences... that's for another day. Here's the takeaway quote about his paladin Lenore considering giving up her alignment to receive her freedom from a lich:

"It’s possible, I realize, to put myself in two different places. Todd thinks it would be cool to see what happened if she turns evil. Lenore knows she’d never take that deal. And in that instant, I can see what this whole role-playing thing is about, why it holds so many in its expensive thrall: For an instant, you aren’t seeing with your eyes. You’re seeing with someone else’s eyes. And it’s intoxicating."

Both essays skew toward pretending-as-playing-a-character, which happens to be exactly what I like. But there are other common kinds of pretend: exploring imaginary environments, making stuff up and watching it instantly become narrative canon, etc. I've argued before that this is what sets RPGs apart from other pastimes. There, I called it "simulation" since I was using GNS theory as a reference point. A better term, perhaps, would be "emulation." Roleplaying excels at letting you Feel Like X for almost any value of X.

I've roleplayed with a handful of people who didn't like to pretend. Not just that they were uncomfortable or inexperienced; they honestly didn't enjoy doing it. They were, without exception, the dullest players I've ever known. Dunno why they even got into the hobby if they were just going to treat it as a boardgame.

Maybe that's the audience for the new Battleship movie.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Escape From White Plume Mountain

For absolutely no reason, I was thinking about White Plume Mountain this morning. Alert readers will recall that I'm not a fan of this D&D module. It scratches an itch that I don't have. Perhaps you love it. That's cool.

What I was thinking about this morning was one of the fundamental flaws in this type of adventure. It's something that doesn't seem to be discussed by The Great RPG Thinkers, but it's a crucial omission that's common to funhouse dungeons like White Plume Mountain. What do all these critters eat?

"But Matt," you may say, "a wizard did it! The place is sustained by magic! Please suspend your disbelief at the door as you descend into a labyrinth of subconscious terror and..." by now I'm already rapping on the table to interrupt you.

We can debate the relative merits of "a wizard did it" another day. That ain't the problem here. Ditto for the fatal blow that this kind of dungeon strikes against one's sense of verisimilitude. The problem is that if the monsters don't have a food source, I can't exploit it. By detaching White Plume Mountain's inhabitants from such day-to-day concerns as what they eat and where they sleep and how they spend their time when they aren't waiting for some moron to wander into the mountain, the module deprives me of several promising lines of attack.

Anyone who's played Cyberpunk or Shadowrun knows that, in order to get into The Secure Location, you dress as a delivery guy. Who's the delivery guy for White Plume Mountain? Beating him up and taking his place would be an awesome adventure. I'm sure a competent GM could work that out on the fly. But a competent module-writer could also have included a few sentences about it, saving us some trouble when our players have a brilliant idea like that, and also getting paid more on a per-word basis. Exploiting the real-world-ish behaviors of fantastic critters is a promising line of thought.

EDIT: I know some people who worked with White Plume Mountain's author, Lawrence Schick. He is, in fact, a very competent designer and writer. But I still think the module needs some background logistical stuff. Maybe 250 words of it; at 2 cents/word, that's another $5 for Lawrence right there.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Return of the DMG

We continue our quest to see what common ground, and what grounds for divorce, can be found between me and the esteemed Gary Gygax. I think we're up to...

P. 75 -- Out of nowhere, a herd of combat-matrix charts thunders across the middle of the book! In its midst are a couple that deal with psionics. I don't have a lot to say about the specifics of AD&D's take on psychic powers. I do say, when running a D&D game, that psychics aren't allowed. Unless you're my friend Kevin, who really likes psionic characters, and also happens to be my wife's brother, so I have a vested interest in Kevin's ongoing happiness. Yours? Not so much.

It's not that the system is bad per se, or that it lacks balance or anything like that.* The problem is that psionics feel wrong when stacked up against Vancian wizards and fightin' clerics. You can find some thematic and mechanical overlap with the latter two's spells-per-day, the need for rest, the idea of bargains with powerful inhuman entities... and then along comes this weird sci-fi-ish point-based system that, when next to those guys, is screaming "I'M AN OPTIONAL GAME MECHANIC! LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOKATME!"

What would be cool? A D&D game that only uses psionics for magic. No arcane, no divine. I think you'd get a bloodier version of the Deryni Chronicles. Someone should do that.

P. 80 -- Around 1979, there was enough debate about saving throws that Gary spent 7 paragraphs justifying and defending them. I wonder how much of this was necessary, and how much was an excuse to say "personae" a few times?

P. 81 -- Certain tubby lycanthropes have all the luck.You'll have to wonder how.

P. 82 -- Another extended defense of hit points. I grasp -- and even like -- the idea that characters have some resistance to damage beyond a small pool of points based on Constitution or its equivalent, whether it be luck or divine favor or the reflexes won by hard experience. This particular mechanic isn't how I'd do it, but people of goodwill can differ. What strikes me today is this sentence about an example 10th-level fighter: "It will require a long period of rest and recuperation to regain the physical and metaphysical peak of 95 hit points."

When's the last time you saw a high-level D&D character have a long period of rest and recuperation? You never have. That's not how the game has evolved. A pity. I think hit points, character mortality, healing magic, and several other things would work better and be more fun if we viewed hit points as a privilege rather than a right.

P. 83 -- I'm trying to skim for a sample every few pages, but this has been a rich vein. Now we've got a 20-item list of different insanities that can affect your character. It's almost devoid of game-specific mechanics and it's not using a current version of the DSM-IV -- so it's perfect for that Call of Cthulhu game you've been wanting to run.

P. 84 -- People who whined and moaned about how complicated CR was in 3e had clearly never read Unca Gary's advice on calculating XP.

P. 90 -- "The 'reality' AD&D seeks to create through role playing is that of the mythical heroes such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Kothar, Elric, and their ilk."

Kothar? I know most of the biggies. I collect many of these writers. Who the devil is Kothar?

Also, good luck trying to play Conan or the Mouser or Elric in old D&D.**

P. 92 -- "Another nadir of Dungeon Mastering is the 'killer-dungeon' concept. These campaigns are a travesty of the role-playing adventure game, for there is no development and identification with carefully nurtured player personae." Historically, I suspect this advice has been honored more in the breach than anywhere else. Also, if you're playing the Gygax-said-personae drinking game, do another shot now.

P. 94 -- A brief section on peasants, serfs, and slaves is followed immediately by a sample dungeon. The lack of transitions, whether text or layout, is like drifting onto a rumble strip. I'm awake now.

Sample map with 38 chambers, in the traditional D&D style that my wife describes as "drunken dwarvish architecture." Map key. Very detailed writeups of 3 chambers followed by an (Etc.). Quick rules on movement, detecting stuff, doors, concealed doors, secret doors -- there's a door fetish here -- and then we launch into an archetypal extended play example. I've seen this one elsewhere, I think; it's some kind of abandoned sunken monastery. In this version, the bulk of the dialogue is between the DM and a "Lead Character." Odd, to the modern reader, who is perhaps accustomed to allowing everyone to address the GM as desired.

It's a pretty good play example. Not my kind of gameplay, I can tell, but it lays out the writer's expectations very clearly. I've always hated it. The content and structure are fine, but then we have the bit on page 100. Our sample gnome is above everyone else when he discovers a secret opening. As it opens, he fails a surprise roll, gets bushwhacked by a quartet of ghouls, is paralyzed, and then by GM fiat, he's just eaten. End of the game, gnomey! Hope you weren't having fun!

This always takes me back to age 9 and my first roleplaying experience. It was some form of D&D, maybe even this one. What I remember most is how excited I was when I got home, rattling on and on to my bemused mother about how great my character was and all the things I was going to do and all the things I was going to make and all the wonderful plans I had now. Why kill that? Why take away the character? All our gnome did was have a clever idea about how to open a secret door. It seems kinda shameful to just throw a pack of ghouls at him and turn him into gnome-kebab because he failed one unexpected saving throw.

...well, I can see several pages of charts about NPC character traits coming up. Good time for a breather.

* I haven't played/run with enough D&D psionicists to be sure, but my spider-sense tells me that this system is unbalanced in every version of the game I've encountered.
** On the one hand, yeah, you can house-rule that stuff in. On the other hand, if I have to house-rule the cool stuff, why buy someone else's game in the first place?