Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The GM as Magician

Just a brief rumination that occurred to me while driving home today. There's a lot of tips about how to GM better games. And that's all well and good. But keep in mind something as you GM - you are like a magician to your Players. Well, I should caveat that by saying that it varies to a certain degree depending on the type of game your running. The more Narrative your style of game, the more Magician you become.

How so? Well you set up encounters. You create Maps. You create NPCs. You act them out improvisationally during the course of the game. No one knows really exactly what is going to happen because the Dice and the Players conspire to change whatever plans we may have had. And so improvisation is required.

But what the Players don't know, and in my opinion shouldn't know, is exactly what's been planned, and what's being improvised. They know its a mix. But they don't know how much of a mix. And that's a good thing, and should stay that way. Because one of the things that brings interest and excitement to the game is the idea that the GM's World is this real "other Place" that you can use your imagination to venture into. And when that works and you achieve some level of Immersion - it's awesome. Provided of course that the GM's World is actually awesome. But that's a different point. What I'm suggesting is that the GM should not divulge to the Players what his 'tricks' are... any more than the Magician will show you how he does a coin trick. The moment he does - the mystery is finished. You may have learned a trick, but you've lost the Immersion.

So unless you are teaching a new GM the tricks of the trade - don't tell your Players anything about what's going on behind the curtain. It's more fun for them, and probably improves the quality of their experience overall.

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Difference Between Computer and Table Top RPGs

Everyone knows that Computer RPGs and Table Top RPGs are different.  And we usually talk about that in terms of graphics vs imagination.  And that's a valid point, of course, and probably the biggest difference, or at least the most obvious.

Another difference, though, and one that I find even more interesting, is that CRPGs are designed from the point of view of Action and Suspense through mechanisms that are wholly different than TTRPGs.  First off TTRPGs are typically (I don't know if there are exceptions) turn based.  They are an offshoot of tactical war-games.  They are Strategic or Tactical in nature.   You plan your moves, you think carefully, you plot out distances and make calculations based on math.  Then you move and your characters take their actions.  The dice are rolled and outcomes are determined and described.

Conversely, in CRPGs you move fast, you run towards the opponent, rapidly assess whatever skill or spell you're going to use or "fire" and twitch your way to ever-loving glory.   It's fast paced fun and exciting.

So between the two games where do you get suspense?  In one you get it from the live action element.  In the other ... and that's the interesting part.  For Table Top RPGs you need to do something extra to gain the element of suspense.  You need to build a story.  You need the Characters to be invested in that story, and you need to build suspense in the Players by cultivating that story in such a way as to make them, at some point, sit on the edge of their seats ... and when you do that, you've achieved a particular kind of mastery in Table Top RPGs.  It's not about system.  This kind of mastery is about story telling.

When I Gamesmaster I try to build up towards climactic events that will along the way create a mounting suspense among the players.  I do it by emotionally involving their Characters in the story.  For example, recently a Character named Hermel was essentially a retired hero.  He saved his town from the bandits, uncovered a mystery or two along the way, helped to eliminate a dangerous gang from the local town, found the girl of his dreams and, well, was satisfied.  He didn't want to take any chances on adventuring his way into self destruction.   Understandable!

Yet the world goes on.  And adventure was calling his name.  Mostly because there is a new campaign brewing.  A very interesting one.  Right near the village where Hermel settled down and started his farm and family.

So one day adventure came looking for Hermel and his friends.  It came in the form of a Town Hall meeting.  Hermel waited outside, not wishing to get himself involved.  At the end of the meeting the bad news was told.   While the town had been prospering after the elimination of the Bandits, and the building of the town wall (at Hermel's suggestion), and the opening of a local sulfur mine (by one of Hermel's adventuring Compatriots Ishcandar's father, the wealthy Mr. Rockerfellah) ... there were problems.  Hermel stood outside patiently waiting.  It turned out that there had been kidnappings recently.  No one knew by whom.  Three children had been taken in the past three nights.  During heavy storms.  Right out from under their parent's noses.

It began raining.

Hermel looked at his lovely wife who was seated next to him on the bench outside the doorway of the the Town Hall.

"Did we leave Peaches (his daughter's nickname) at home?" he asked.  "Of course," said his wife, but before she could finish the sentence Hermel was already running full tilt towards the commons beyond which, at the edge of the village, his farmhouse stood in the darkness.   "Peaches!" he yelled at the top of his lungs as he ran.  "Peaches!"

The towns folk, who all knew Hermel quite well, ran outside.  There was a buzz around the hall, and some ran after him, while others ran to their own homes to check on their own children.  Hermel's wife, Apricot, gathered as many friends as she could quickly muster with a shout and ran after her husband, her dress dampening in the increasing rain.  The wind began to howl.  The rain came down in pelts.

She was gone.

And so Hermel wasted no time in finding the thin trail of odd shaped tracks that lead him and his friends into the wilderness...

And that's how suspense gets built with story.  It's fabulous fun.

And for me, that's the big gigantic difference between Computer and Table Top RPGs.  I can do that with my Table Top RPG.  I can't do anything like that whatsoever with my Computer RPG.

Monday, November 24, 2014

My Thoughts on The Trouble with Movement Rates

I just read "The Trouble With Movement Rates" over at ((nil) is (not(null))) Blog, and that was a thought provoking reminder of my own experiences with the problem of movement rates in my game. I think I'll chat a bit about it here.

A conundrum I've run into about movement in my World of Elthos was revealed not too long ago (after three decades) when the human Player Characters in my campaign got shrunk down to tiny size. At one point they were crossing their back yard when they encountered ... ants. They were at roughly the same size as the ants at that point. And this become a bone of contention for a brief period while I worked out how to handle movement.

My movement charts show that humans move 6 hexes a melee or about 36 feet every two seconds or so (at a sprint). Whether or not that's entirely accurate was not the problem ... it was that ants have a movement of 1. But when shrunk down, what is the relative movement of humans to ants. Of course I made something up, and that worked fine for the game. But it left me wondering about how to do this in a legitimate way going forward. Given the possibility of shrinking and growing, I contrived to think of movement (and also other requisite based issues which are other symptoms of the same problem of relative scales, such as strength) as relative to whatever the predominant race of my world is were the races set at the same size. Thus humans are 6 and that's the base. Ants are 8 actually because with so many legs they move faster than humans if they are the same size. Kobolds, which are already roughly the same size, or close enough, are 4, and correspond to hobbits who for whatever reason I also thought of as slower than humans on account of their smaller legs. Just kinda makes more sense to my mind. Hobbits as fast as elves would mean legs that move at hyperbolic speed. I can't take that. Anyway, Giants, relative to humans, are x times larger, but were they the same size they'd be 6. So therefore their speed is a factor of their increased size. Humans are on average in my world 5 feet tall. Thus a giant who is 30 feet tall is six times faster than a human, and therefore his movement will be 36 hexes per melee, or 216 feet every two seconds.

That said I have Dwarves as slower than humans, and Elves as faster. Goblins are as fast as humans, but Kobolds and Hobbits move at the same rate as Dwarves. Horses move twice as fast as humans (though in thinking about it they probably should move three or four times as fast). Wolves move twice as fast as humans as well, and about the same speed as horses (I don't know if that is real-world accurate or not, but that's what I've got). Ghouls are faster than zombies. Zombies are faster than skeletons. However, zombies are really hard to kill and don't get tired. Skeletons are even harder to kill and don't get tired either. They're also horribly single minded, and they usually are attached to some dreadful force that has animated them and will show up and do bad things as well. Slow as molasses though. So my thinking in terms of monsters is to more or less balance out movement with other factors. I also take into account these days that movement for different races is effected by terrain. And that's a big deal. Humans do not swim at the same speed they can sprint. So there is water movement and land movement. Birds don't swim as fast as they can fly. So there's water, air and land movement. And for some races they don't move nearly so fast on land, air or water as they do in molten lava. And so on. So I have a big table that maps movement on terrains by race. That's a pain to look at, frankly, and I'm pretty sure I didn't finish it. But I did get a start on it, and I do think it's basically the correct, albeit unwieldy solution.

Of course in the Elthos RPG each GM is called upon to create their own worlds, and so it will be perfectly normal for some worlds to have fast hobbits, and some worlds to have slow hobbits. I'm down with that. It's fine. We all have different visions in our heads as to what is what, after all, don't we? I think that should apply to movement as well. But the key to my innovation on this is that movement charts show the relative movement to the predominant race of a given terrain. That's because humans can't fly, so their movement in the air is zero. Making other race movement factors relative to humans would, mathematically speaking, but a bad idea. So I'll pick a bird, like the Eagle, for that. Lava? Salamanders, probably, or devils maybe. Not sure. But each terrain type will probably get its own Base Race against which movement will be determined. And so, if a human does happen to learn to fly, his speed will be relative to Eagles.

And of course when it comes to oddball monsters like lions with human heads and wings and stuff ... well... Lions move on the land at 6 times human speed, in the air at 8 times eagle speed,  and ... you get the idea.

Ok, that's all I got on that. Curious what you may think of this solution, and any advice or ideas you might have.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Elthos UI - One Small Step

1st Ajax call of Elthos
I don't usually write about technical progress with the Elthos RPG website, but this advance is kind of a big deal for the UI.  Finally, after a long time of working on other more fundamental aspects of the project, mostly on the back end, I have made a number of forays into the UI / UX space.   My first major accomplishment (those who know how easy this actually is, don't laugh please - I didn't know until I tried it myself) is the implementation of JQuery Ajax to call a (don't laugh please) WebMethod and provide a data table that shows up in a label on the form.

For those not too in-the-know about this sort of thing, it means that the page does not "postback" to the server, but instead smoothly glides the data onto the page unobtrusively.  So the page no longer vanishes and then reappears with the data.   And it's a much nicer User Experience. 

Now that I have that down, I can make advances towards generally improving the UI (that is User Interface).  I'm pretty excited about this.  It represents a sea change in how Elthos will be managing data going forward.   Of course, that sea change won't happen overnight, and I have a bunch of alternate paths to explore before making a final decision on whether or not to use WebMethods, or WebAPI, or WCF technologies.  All of them do the same thing, and there's pros and cons apparently for each.  But still, I made my first WebMethod call successfully today, and its implemented on the production server and works rather nicely.  I'm delighted!  :)

Ok, now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Elthos Cosmology Encapsulated

This diagram illustrates the conceptual framework of the Elthos World ... it includes the relative positions of both groups of Deities - the Cosmic Celestials and the Archetypes.

The Cosmic Celestials operate in the Realm of Divine Ideas, above the conscious mind.  The Archetypes, on the other hand, operate in the realm of the ID, below the subconscious mind.  Wilderness adventures will have a tendency to relate to themes pertaining to the Cosmic Elkron, and quests of the upper world.  Delving into dungeons and caverns will conversely explore the realms of the subconscious mind, and ultimately, if one goes deep enough, the realm of the Id.   So the higher or deeper you go the more mystical the nature of the exploration becomes.

The Cosmic Celestials are represented by Zodiac and Planetary signs, while the Archetypes are represented by the Major Arcane cards of the Tarot Deck.  Each Archetype has a corresponding Celestial.  So if you were to imagine the two groups of Ekron overlapped they would form two disks divided into twelve pie slices, and both disks forming two concentric circles, as can be seen below.

The Cosmic Celestials are pictographically represented here on the back face of the Elthos Tarot Deck. 

The Archetypes are represented in the Major Arcana of the Deck, and here's an example.

So what we see here is that this Major Arcana card is the Archetype of The Magician, and is associated to the Planet Mercury and the Zodiac Sign of Gemini. 

How this all plays out in terms of Elthos, the world, is that the Elkron are Cosmological Forces of the upper and lower realms of the Mind, and personifications of the Alignments to which they are associated.  They war and ally with one another in accordance with their natures and the movement of the Planets and Archetypes as they perform the Dance of the Spheres.   This all happens at the Cosmological level of the Campaign wherein the purposes and circumstances of the Elkron are charted. 

That said, it has been very rare for Player Characters to advance high enough or deep enough to experience or comprehend the true nature of the Dance of the Elkron, or even more than a passing glimpse of it.  However, it is there nevertheless, ever in motion, ever synchronizing elements of the back story with elements of the plot line.  It's quite an exquisite system in many ways.  Some day I do hope to rationalize it well enough to put into a book and explain to other GMs how it works, and what one might do with it.   Until then, however, its to be taken as a kind of philosophic art that enhances the Elthos world in some mysterious way, as yet quite unfathomable to the Player Characters (or other GMs).  Perhaps some day a particularly stellar mage will arise in the Campaign who will begin to make sense of it all.  

Monday, November 03, 2014

Hobbington Campaign Plot Map (2012)

This is the plot map that I created towards the end of the 2012 Hobbington Campaign.  It shows all the main Characters and Adventure / Villain Groups, and the primary locations in the Campaign.  The arrows show the movement of the Groups, and colored boxes show the related groups.  As you can see, towards the end of the Campaign, after about 24 games or so, things had gotten a bit complex.  This map helped me a great deal to keep track of the story in terms of plot lines and tidy up the loose threads by the end of the 38th game session, which concluded the campaign with our heroes victorious.  It was  a great campaign, and this map helped a lot to make it turn out that way.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Elthos Book Art - Toad Attack

Another bit of side-page art for the Elthos Core Rules Book ...

Somewhere in a cavern deep and dim... a monster toad lashes out a tongue of slime faster than the eye can see.  With a tremendous Thud our hero loses his sword and in an instant is gone. 

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Dragonflies in Aerial Combat - Elthos Book Art

One more bit of artwork for tonight. I hope this will do for a corner or edge of the page, perhaps.

Three Dragonflies in aerial combat, possibly with invisible Fey Knights on their backs. Possibly. Quite possibly!

I'm not sure I dare attempt to make the Fey Knights visible! If I do try and it works, I'll re-post this later. For now it may simply do as is. The thing is, Fey Knights tend to prefer to remain unseen by mortal eyes.  They may object to my attempts to draw them... in which case they will come out looking more like goblins than knights, and that wouldn't do at all.  Not at all.

Western Style - More Artwork

Damn Jack Blain
Another possible entry for the Elthos RPG Rules Book.  Western Genre.

Damn Jack Blain was a Desperado who lived out on the fringes of the Black Sands Desert.  He made his living rustling cattle and robbing stage coaches with the Kestler Gang, until became their leader when he put Robert Kestler in his grave with a single shot through the right eye.  He ranged the desert country causing trouble for a while until he was gunned down by Kestler's sister, Jane.  She put a hole through his head, left him to be eaten by coyotes. 

Elthos Rules Book - The Philosophers

Another possible addition to the Elthos RPG Rules Book artwork... this one is intended to go along a left or right side border of a page.

I chose for this one a medieval theme to balance to the other themes that lately have tilted towards Space Genre. This drawing was inspired by a glance at a leaf decoration in The Book of Kells. It's intended to mimic the concept without attempting to duplicate the exact details of the style. I like the subject matter, which is the debate between Heaven and Hell, and raises questions therefore of morality and alignment.

Not everyone is all that interested in playing with alignment these days, but I think this is because the Alignment system as originally given was somewhat flawed in design, and lead a lot of games into something of a bog. I've worked out a system to handle alignment in Elthos, and I do think it works fairly well.

In any case, the purpose of this post is to show the illustration, not debate alignment systems. So there you have it. I think the next drawing will be one of plants, vines and fanciful insects, perhaps. We'll see. I never know exactly what is going to happen when I begin a drawing. I usually have an idea, and then wind up a bit surprised in the end at the results. This one is a classic case of that. I don't mind that method, by the way. Some artists know exactly... I don't. I like to be a bit surprised, too. I think its more fun in a way.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Space-Ranger X

Another Space-Genre drawing for the Elthos RPG Rules Book...

Somewhere beyond the edge of the Galaxy, Space-Ranger X is collecting samples of deep space artifacts that might lead Dr. Greenstone's team of Super Scientists to unravel the strange happenings near Oswaldia in the year 150NK... and determine the best course for the Elthos World's migration through the Cosmos...

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Elthos RPG Rules Book Drawings

A few drawings that I made for the Elthos RPG Rules Book. We're working on final layout now.

What I really love about this hobby is how many different arts it brings together. Between the story writing, improvisational acting, history and science study, map making and artwork, well, its just a fabulously creative endeavor.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Petroglyph of Elthos II

Another petroglyph somewhere in Elthos. This one is rather a bit of a mystery, as no one knows the context of the story depicted. It is thought to be far more ancient than the first petroglyph but even this is uncertain. Further study is required.

Petroglyph of Elthos

This depicts, for those who are knowledgeable about such things, an ancient battle between the Scorpion God and the Monsters of the underworld, which the Scorpion God won with the help of an army of archers the God had cultivated for the war. The cultivation of this army was planned a very long time ago in the Dawn Age, long before the Elkron had created the races, while the world was still being formed during the Great Tectonic Wars. The Scorpion God was victorious and so he rules the underworld kingdom with Claws of Iron, and the Sting of Poisonous Death.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Kobolds of Elthos

The Kobolds of the Red Hills are hardly known by the human world, and that's a problem.  It wouldn't be a problem, except that the Kobolds are annoyed, and so they're making it a problem.  The reason they're annoyed is because they prefer to be left alone.  But as it happens, the humans just keep expanding into new territories, and building new villages and towns out where the Kobolds have been wont to live for all these many eons.  Why it's just bound to rub them the wrong way, don't you know?

Kobolds come in two varieties.  They're either Woodland creatures that emerge from the hearts of old broken trees, or they're Earthland creatures that emerge from rifts in the ground.  In fact this is why Kobolds are known so well by miners.  The name Kobold, as you may have guessed, comes actually from the word Cobalt, the element, which in its pure form is a hard, lustrous, silver-gray metal.  You might think this therefore this sort of maybe makes Kobolds a kind of Elemental. And in a way you would kind of sort of maybe be right about that.  In the World of Elthos, they're even called parum elementarium by the Alchemists.  It is even said that Kobolds can transform themselves into Cobalt when they so choose.  Well, at least those that emanate from Earthland.  It is likewise said that Kobolds that emerge from the hearts of broken trees can turn into wood, and often do so during the day, looking for all the world like old mossy tree branches with funny faces.  At night both kinds of Kobolds transform into their 'little human' forms and, well, kind of run amok, really.  

Now among Kobolds there's not only two distinct branches of the family, but there's two distinct societies as well.  And the two do not get along at all.  One branch is called the Su'unkar, and the other branch is called the Shi'inkar.  The confusing part is that the two branches are not divided by whether or not they are Woodland or Earthland creatures, but rather instead by the philosophy of their Clan Elders.  And there's a whole lot of Clans among the Kobolds   

The Su'unkar are not really the big thinkers of the Kobold world.  They're more interested in the enjoyment of their meager material pleasures.  In fact, the Su'unkar call themselves "the soup eaters", on account of their love of soups.  Yes, they really do love soup, those guys.  And this reflects their disposition and inclinations about life.  They try to enjoy what they've got.  Now you might wonder where they got the idea of making soup from to begin with.  Yes, from the humans, of course.  In fact this is also reflective of their disposition and inclinations.  They like to imitate the humans, and in fact do try, more or less, to get along with them.  They call the humans "little brothers", and love to mimic human traits and society.  So these are the kinds of Kobolds that you'll find wearing vests and shoes and little hats with feathers and such.  They can usually speak a little bit of the human language, with a rather atrocious accent, but passably understandable to most people who have a little patience and time on their hands.  But even so, most humans won't really have much truck with Kobolds of any variety.  This is because they can be pretty damn annoying.  Kobolds love to play a little game they call "Tricks & Traps".  It's not an especially nice game, but they do think it's terribly funny.  Sometimes, even, people get killed.  But this just makes the Kobolds laugh all the more.  It's not very nice, actually.  But Kobolds view humans, really, as interesting little bugs that recently showed up in the world, and they kind of enjoy playing with them the same way human kids might enjoy playing with ants, or other harmless insects.   For them, it's really just a form of amusement.  A morose and dangerous form of amusement, but still... can we really blame them entirely?

On the other side of the divide we have the Shi'inkar.  Now these are the true thinkers, the wizards, the old ones and the formidable sorcerers of the Kobold world.  And they're frankly up to no good at all.  Running into them is most often a bad thing, and quite perilous.  Fortunately, there are actually very few of them, so the risk is small that anyone will actually see them.  However, that doesn't make them any less terrible.  They're kind of like the Su'unkar in that they like to play "Tricks & Traps", but in their case the tricks and traps are rather enormous, and slow moving, and sometimes take centuries to unfold... but when they do a whole lot of people wind up dying.  They're the source of all kinds of troubles for the human race over the centuries, though in most cases the humans never found out the true causes of their demise.  And oh my how those old and wicked Kobolds can laugh, and laugh, and laugh.  In fact it's said by some that the greater storms coming off the Oceans, the ones that are truly destructive, have in them howling winds that are the laughter of the Elder Kobolds.  So, yes, friend, you really wouldn't want to meet any of the Shi'inkar.   But if you do, just remember, whatever they're doing, you should try your absolute best to derail it.  Because whatever they're cooking up is meant to do you, your family, your friends, your town, your province, and your entire race as much harm as they can think up.  

Anyway, that's a little bit about Kobolds in Elthos. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Elthos Web Application Overview

This does not represent all of the features, but does give a basic overview of the primary features.  The purpose of the application is to help the GM organize their materials and make game preparation faster and easier. 

There are a number of time saving features that are not shown above that should be noted.   Here are a few:
  • Auto Generate Adventure Groups, Monsters and NPCs including assigning GM selected "default equipment" based on Race and Class, according to the GM's preferences.
  • Print World - allows the GM to print out in one document all of the relevant materials for a Table Top game in one package, including World - Place - Campaign - Adventure descriptions, Maps and Images, and Character Stats in convenient tables.  
  • Combat Matrix - color coded matrix that compares Combat Capabilities for each member of two groups against each other member of the opposing group.   Physical or Mystical can be shown.
  • Experience Gains Calculators - for Skills and for Combat.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Some Thoughts on the Future of RPGs

I'd like to present these ideas to the community of Role Players and would be curious to hear other people's thoughts on this.  I feel that RPGs represent a new art form and that the state of the art is in its infancy.  I'd like to ruminate on the topic for a bit.

RPGs are a new art medium akin to the canvas, the printing press, and film. They present a structure upon which a new art form has been created in the last light of the 20th Century. They bring together a set of skills and prior art forms, mixing them together into a new combination that has not been seen before. Storytelling, cartography, improvisational theater, mathematics, history, science, and fantasy have been co-mingled in an infinitely variable medium in order to create a form of entertainment that can be as immersive as a great novel, as exciting as a joust, as thoughtful as chess, and as funny and charming as the best theater. Can be. However, up until very recent days Gamesmastering has been, despite its joys, an indisputable burden. Creating a World and managing a game are hard work.

Recently, though, we’ve begun to see a new set of tools online that seem to offer help with the various aspects of GMing that make it difficult. And even better tools are on the way. These tools will make it easier over time for Gamesmasters to create and host their worlds, either at home with their friends or online for anyone who is connected to the Internet. Roll20, TavernKeeper, Obsidian Portal, PC Gen, Fantasy Ground and Realm Works, to name a few, are software applications that take various aspects of the GM’s tasks and either automate them or help manage them. New systems will come online as well. Among them will be mine. It’s a system called Elthos RPG. I’m very proud to be among the pioneers in this new art.

I believe that the future of RPGs is very bright. The reason why is because no other activity brings together such a plethora of skills and arts into one comprehensive whole and makes something as fabulous as the social experience of creating a story with your friends. While many RPGs focus on combat and tactics, there are others that produce amazing stories out of the game play. It is toward these experiences that I think the future is leaning.

I imagine a future in which Gamesmasters will be able to host worlds online for thousands of players at a time. Teams of Gamesmasters will be able to co-create and co-GM these worlds, keeping them alive with ever changing story lines, and building histories out of what the Player Characters do. I envision being able to play in these worlds via optical interfaces that bring together artwork, music, and story craft into one comprehensive medium upon which Gamesmasters and World Weavers will be able to paint fantastic universes. We will no longer go to the movies – we will be our own main Characters in the movies… or in the game.

I believe that to fulfill this vision some Gamesmasters will rise to a level of skill and mastery of the art that will allow them, compel them in fact, towards a career of Professional Gamesmastering. And I think that the confluence of creativity and skills necessary to do so, along with the tools that are being prepared for it, will bring us into a new age of creative endeavor where the lines between authors and actors, artists and musicians, story tellers and the audience will blur and dissolve. We will become the art, and the art will become us.

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this grand experiment and experience. I look forward to this future with great anticipation.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Some Thoughts on RPGPundit's Gnostic Musings

The thoughts that follow are a response to RPGPundit's post on his blog, titled “Real Magick” in RPGs, Continued.. To recap Pundit's post briefly he is writing about how one might go about creating an RPG Rules System for "Real Magic" the way it is actually practiced by real world Magicians.  He's done a lot of research on the topic, and has really great insights, which are absolutely worth reading.  So I have to recommend reading his post before you read this reply.   It's worth the time you'll take to do so.  And what I say below won't make very much sense if you don't read his first, as well.  This post started out as a reply, but then I felt it became too long to reasonably post as a comment on Pundit's blog, so I am posting it here. 

Additionally, you may want to read my previous post on the Elthos Alignment System as well, as this explains the basis of some of my comments to follow...  Ok, here we go...

I really admire Pundit's concept. It contains a number of really great insights and it raises truly fascinating questions. Here are my thoughts on it.

One is that I don't think every Gnosis is produced necessarily by what I would call a "Shock". Some events, like Satori, are simply an experience of Enlightenment, and so calling them a "Shock" would not necessarily reflect the nature of the experience, which may be more like a sudden awakening to truth than what we think of as a "shock" (ie - a harmful jolt). I'm not sure what word to use that would cover both extremes ... Illumination might work, as it suggests throwing light on something. Sometimes it can be shocking, sometimes it might be revealing. So I can see an Axis of the impact of Illuminating experiences.  When Pundit uses the word "Shock" by the way, he means that it jolts you out of "normal" consciousness.  My objection is that exiting "normal" consciousness is not always best described as a "shock" though it certainly can be.  I prefer something more of an umbrella term.  Illumination may be better for me.

Another distinction I’d like to draw is that I don’t think that Gnosis only comes from the Illuminating ‘shocks’ or ‘satori’. It was said by Jesus that “unless ye become like these little children, ye shall in no way find the Kingdom of Heaven.” My feeling is this is an allusion to the idea that children, infants in particular, are born into a state of Awareness that gets diminished over time. The Quest for Gnosis is the Quest to find what one has lost, and no longer can remember. So in that sense I question the proposition that Gnosis is a product of “Shocks” but rather I wonder if the “Shocks” don’t actually work the other way – they are the ‘Hard Knocks” of life that eventually whittle away Gnosis, and so by the time you are a rational young person who goes to school and does their homework on time, you’ve significantly lost touch with the Mystical / Spiritual Universe. So I’m kind of tossing that around in my head as well. It seems to fit in with my thoughts regarding the use of the word “Illumination” for events that cause Gnosis. “Shocks” might be considered as events that diminish Gnosis and produce Ego, instead. Still tooling, but that seems like it might work for me.

Another thought that this brings to mind is that I think there is a conflation in Pundit's analysis between the Spiritual and the Magical impulses. I might prefer to separate those two. To my mind the Spiritual path is related to the quest for Enlightenment. On the other hand, while Magicians may wish to seek "Oneness with the Universe", for them the problem may be one of over-adherence to the Ego, and hence perhaps the Magician is really seeking Power, not Enlightenment.

In my original Elthos Rules system (prior to the ODS), I had a distinction between these two in the realm of mysticism, in so far as there is a mystical energy called Mana. This can either be aligned (by a God, aka Elkron), or unaligned, requiring the will of a Magician to shape it into a useful form. Clerics are those who draw on the Aligned Mana of their Deity, while Magicians are those who use their Ego to align Mana into a form themselves. In every case, it requires an Ego to Align (or shape) the Mana into a useful form. So for my concept I'd be likely to want to separate the quest for Enlightenment (Gnosis) from the quest for Power (Ego), and this would be the fundamental distinction between the Spiritual and Magical paths.  As such Clerics would be trying to subdue their Ego in a drive towards Gnosis, while a Magician would be trying to enhance their Power by augmenting their Ego, with a disregard for "whatever Gnosis might be".  Not that I would, as GM, sit in judgement ... both have their uses, and both are necessary in the Universe. After all, even the Gods have Ego, and without Ego there would be no development of civilization, no social interaction, and basically nothing much of interest at the finite level of existence. Then again, it also clearly causes problems as well. But that's the nature of life, and those conflicts are a natural by product of distinction to begin with, and without it we would, as beings, not have the opportunity to surpass our current state, learn anything, and evolve.  So in my view, both Gnosis and Ego are imperatives of the Universal Order.

So from a system point of view I am thinking of the following based on Pundit's insights, but with my own slant on it.

Awareness (Gnosis --- Ego)
Rationality (Sanity --- Psychosis)

Compulsion, for example, would be one of any number of possible effects of psychosis.  Other possible effects could be hallucinations, delusions, and/or schizophrenia.  (As an aside I should say that these would be very interesting to Gamesmaster.  Would you tell the Player "Your Character begins to suffer from psychosis"?  I think I would rather play it out ... so I explain the Character sees such and such white rabbit on the window sill with a red ribbon and red pupils and it stares at him and then hops away.  The Player wouldn't necessarily know if the Character is suffering hallucinations, or if the rabbit is some mystical totem he's been obsessing over meeting.  The possiblities are endless, and rather amusing, so long as it is handled well.  And of course, that utterly depends on the style of campaign, the genre, and many other factors besides.)

On the Sanity side I agree with the idea that Pundit puts forward that to be a socially successful person you need to have Sanity.  People who are in a state of Gnosis, but have no grounding in reality, wind up being, from the point of view of everyone else, weird, incomprehensible and ultimately unapproachable.   And yet Society needs people who have achieved Gnosis in order to learn what to aspire towards.  Concepts of Peace, Justice, Goodness and Compassion all come from those who had once upon a time achieved Gnosis, and Society owes an everlasting debt to them.  Otherwise we would still be living with The Law of the Jungle, wherein only Might Makes Right, and that would, in a word, suck.

I think for this system I might consider having 0 as the center point, and positive and negative values on each end of each axis, lets say 10 to -10.  So with this in mind I could give a Character a value such as (2, -2) which would suggest a Liberated level of Gnosis, yet a falling into some kind of mild form of psychosis (a tendency towards Obsession, for example, would certainly do).

Such a system would parallel my Elthos Alignment System and make it easier for me to integrate into my existing game rules. It also strikes me as a somewhat simpler framework than what Pundit suggests in that I would have fewer variables to account for and maintain, but would not necessarily lose any of the flexibility of his design, nor its basic fundamental insights.

In the modified framework, the pursuit of Magic would suggest a trip down the Ego Axis, while Clerics would be heading towards Gnosis and ultimately Enlightenment should they get so far. To my mind this division makes a certain amount of sense, although I admit, it is certainly debatable.  Pundit may completely disagree.

That said, we should note that my suggestion would be in direct contraction to the Magician's conception of himself as someone who is seeking "Oneness with the Universe".  To this one might say that the Magician is living in the Illusion of self-justification, which would fit in neatly with Pundit's comments about the consequences of ultimate Ego. The Magician thinks he has embarked on the path of Enlightenment, but this is simply an Ego-Delusion. He is really in pursuit of the Will to Power, and his "True Will" is the endpoint of that goal. This could be contrasted with the Cleric (of whatever religion) who is seeking to subsume himself in the "Oneness" of his God, and whose goal is not "True Will", but "True Self", which sounds the similar, but isn't quite the same. That "True Self", ultimately, is God, and by this the Cleric seeks to unite with God and thus, "do God's will", not his own.

This raises another interesting issue… one could argue that by pursuing a Pantheistic religious path down a particular Alignment path (where ultimately the various Elkron of each Alignment resides) one is not getting any closer to Oneness either. Philosophically, I would say this is quite likely true. The answer to this may be that all of the Elkron of the 16 Alignments are really only partial reflections of The One True God, who embodies all of these things in the Great Oneness that is All. So Clerics in the end will either become “One” with a particular Alignment’s Elkron, or perhaps they will truly make the leap towards Universal Truth and find Enlightenment itself, which is Oneness with All.

But what about Good and Evil Clerics? This also needs to be reflected on. We have Evil Alignments, and Evil Elkron, do we not? There so there are those Clerics who want to unite with an Evil Deity, perhaps out of the anguish of their personal pain and a hope for revenge against those who they feel wronged them, or because they believe that True Power is to be found there, and so their Will to Power may compel them in that direction. Or perhaps the Evil Clerics are those who have fallen off the True Path, failed to "Cross the Abyss", and have consequently fallen prey to their "Black Brother" within, and thus have marched far down the path of both Psychosis and Ego. It makes me think there may be a one to one correlation between the Alignment Grid and the Mystic Disposition Grid.  Possibly, possibly.  I'm not sure.  I will  have to think about that more.  If so, and they overlap, then maybe there is no need for two separate systems, but I can incorporate both concepts into one system.  Perhaps.

Lastly, what are we to say of those who are not mystical at all? Those who perhaps have a relatively normal existence, who do not rise above the common lot? I would place them toward the center of the grid, hovering around the 0, 0 region of the chart.  While we can understand them not achieving Gnosis, nor falling headlong into Ego, nor Psychosis, why do they not achieve Sanity? Because perhaps real Sanity, ultimately, requires a deep level insight, and a certain amount of Gnosis is required for that.  The rest of us, as it happens, are simply normal.  Some good, some bad, some understanding, but still caught up in our egos.  Sometimes sane, sometimes not so sane.

Anyway, all of that said, I want to compliment Pundit and say thank you for some really wonderful writings on this topic. It’s really thought provoking, and who knows? Maybe I will derive an adjunct system for Mystical Evolution out of it, or fuse one into my existing system. 

Much more tooling required, though, of course. But still, I feel there are good seeds here to cultivate. So once again, Pundit, thanks!  Great stuff!  :)

And now, to reflect on all of this ...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Thoughts on Contemporary Fantasy Artwork

This is a response to a google+ conversation I had with Erik Westmarch here. My reply felt a bit too long for a Google+ comment so I thought I'd put it over here on my blog instead. Let the controversy begin.

Previously Erik had written:
It's more than just power escalation within the game. That's an issue too, and I like 5E's solution to flattening the total sum of bonuses you can get, but that's really not the problem with the art.

The problem with the art, in my view, is exaggeration. The very size, musculature and abilities (why are his eyes glowing?) are exaggerated in a way I associate with certain comic book style artists.

Here's a picture that's supposed to be Conan which is just over the line for me:

The muscles and the ax are way too exaggerated. More than they need to be. That guy is easily twice the size of Schwarzenegger, who was already huge in the way only massive amounts of steroids can produce.

And why do that? Is this guy really not intimidating enough?


This Captain America

Not this Captain America (Seriously. That guys head!)

You can also see this progression over time.

Here's Elminster in AD&D 1E

And by the time you get to 3E Elminster (who's a wizard, I note) has shoulders as broad as Sylvester Stallone for no apparent reason

And then by the time we get to Pathfinder, Wizards look like this, apparently

I mean, what the hell? How heavy is that globe at the bottom of his staff? Why even have a glass globe on the bottom of your staff? What's with the retarded posture? Is it supposed to be cool?

E-gads this is sort of frustrating because I don't have the words for it. Maybe Zak S or another of the talented artists in the OSR could put it better. But I want PCs that look like real people in extraordinary circumstances, not comic book characters posed for the camera in the middle of an action shot.

I guess I didn't express myself well enough the first time around - my point was that the inflation / exaggeration (which are part of the same problem) in the game has a parallel in the artwork over time. It's a difficult point to express easily. They're not directly linked, but they are a product of the same emotional drive - to One Up the previous thing. In one case it's the art work, in the other case it's the in game stuff. In both cases I think the Impulse to Inflation is a product of cultural trends that are more pervasive than in just RPGs.

This exaggeration of RPG Art can also be seen in movies as well as comics. And my guess is contemporary novels, too, but I haven't had time to read much contemporary novels lately. I think this points to a cultural phenomenon, and not just RPG artwork.

What it strikes me as off the top is that it represents our culture's shift away from a simpler more peaceable mentality toward a flashier, gaudier, and more power-oriented society. People are attracted to (at least it is assumed they are, and certainly the cultural decision makers are) a bigger, more bad-ass, more violent vision of ... well, in a way, of whatever. Everything is flying to the extremes. I mean we have Sharknado now.

Um.... um... uh... WTF is that?!
It's taken two steps beyond the absurd. And if I were a psychoanalyst I think I would be noting that it's probably a result of some pretty significant neurosis at the cultural level.

I expect that these are debatable points, but I think there's something a lot less friendly about the current strain of culture, and that the former epoch was somehow more down to earth, and emotionally easier to deal with at a personal level. I mean, if I stumble on the wizard from the earlier epoch I'm probably inclined to be a bit wary, perhaps, but curious enough to sit down for a cup of tea with that guy and try to learn something. By the time we get to the Pathfinder Wizard I'm staying hidden behind the tree and praying that thing doesn't notice me.

Another point you alluded to is that the new construct, as represented by the outlandish stances of the overwrought Characters may be expressed most succinctly as "Poser" style. It gives the impression of people posing. They are posers. And as such they're fakes.  Or at least they appear to be standing in poses that we associate with posers.   But then again ... if you were bristling with the purple coruscanting energies of the Wild-Wierd, you might have to cock your head back, arch your fingers and spread your legs wide so you don't get blown over, too.  Possible.

What I am more interested in is a sense of down-to-earthness in our gaming. Sure it's fantasy, as some people will argue, and therefore "not realistic" to begin with. But the wall between fantasy and reality should be hazy, not stark. When I play for immersion I don't look to suddenly get zapped into comic book land. There is a certain gradual shifting from the real to the unreal and back again that makes fantasy actually immersive. The kind of fantasy that makes wizards into Hyper-Powered Combat Artillery Units for the purpose of blasting out 100 dice of damage per melee is not the same fantasy as George MacDouglas, or Tolkien, or any of the great fantasy writers produced in years gone by.

I think our contemporary styles with their garish over-the-top displays of power and gaudy reliance on Ultra-this and Omega-that create world visions that one can view with two raised eyebrows and say "oohhhh" and "ahhhhh"... but, can you really find yourselves immersed in those worlds? Maybe. I supposed there must be people who do. Or maybe not. I don't have any way of assessing that at the moment. I'd be curious to know, though. I suspect that Gamism would more likely have replaced immersion, and since for Gamists there's no expectation of immersion to begin with, they simply don't think there's anything else to be gained from the art style other than "oooohhh" and "aaaahhhh", and "ok I rolled a CRIT!". Possibly.

Not that there's anything wrong with Gamist style.  It's just different.  And maybe when D&D took a turn (pretty early on) towards the Gamist side of the spectrum, the artwork naturely took the turn with it.  Possibly.

The Narrativist style, though, is in it's way, a more subtle beast, trying as it does to illicit immersion.  And for that the atmosphere, and the artwork supporting it, should be more subtle.  More old-fashioned, if you will.

Friday, August 08, 2014

On the Elthos Elkron-Alignment System

The Elthos Tarot
The Elkron-Alignment Concept

  • The Elthos Metaverse has 4 Cardinal Alignments. Good, Evil, Law and Chaos.
  • The 4 Cardinal Alignments form the four points of a compass. North (Good), Evil (South), Law (East), Chaos (West).
  • As you go around the Compass it is divided into 12 Sections. Each one represents some combination of the 4 Cardinals.
  • For example in the upper right Quadrant you will find Good-Law, Neutral-Good, and Lawful-Good.
  • The Compass is then divided into two circles. An inner Circle, and an Outer Circle.
  • The Inner Circle Represents the Planets (in relation to Greek myth the Olympians - in Elthos 'The Young Elkron').
  • The Outer Circle Represents the Constellations of the Zodiac (the Titans - in Elthos 'The Elder Elkron').
  • There are 12 of each. And Each of these Represents a Celestial Elkron. So there are in total 24 Celestials.
  • The Compass Disk is also divided by Upper and Lower Regions.
  • The Upper Region are the Celestials.
  • The Lower Region are the Archetypes (ala Carl Jung) which are represented by the Major Arcana of the Tarot.

Thus each Tarot Card represents both the Archetype AND the Celestial Elkron associated with that Alignment. When you look at any Major Arcana Card in the Elthos Tarot Deck you will see both the Celestial and the Archetype in the images.

Every Elkron is associated with a set of Correspondences (gleaned mostly from ancient tables of correspondences, and some modern). Trees, Animals, Monsters, Gems, Colors, etc. are given for each Elkron.

Story Map showing Elkron References
What this aspect of the system is used for is Symbolic Inner-Story Guidance, and allows the GM to use symbolism in their World, should they so choose, that remains constant, and has the virtue of being linked into a unified system of the Elkron. This allows for mystical game play that is a little bit more than simply making up stuff like "The Oracle says that you must go to the Temple of the Moon", but instead allows you to add symbols that have actual meaning within the context of the Elkron. I have used it for this in the past and it's worked out very well. However, that said, I have not made extensive use of this aspect of the system, and there are a number of options on the table as to how to best use it.

That said, I asked Jason Moser to create a Tarot Deck for me, and he's done a spectacular job embedding the Symbols from the Correspondences table into the imagery of the cards.

Also note... in ancient times and modern there is a disparity between the number of planets and the number of Constellations. There is also a disparity between the number of Major Arcana Tarot Cards and the Constellations. For the purpose of Elthos I resolved this by adding two Tarot Cards (The Unicorn and the Dragon), and one Planet (Planet X, aka Elkor - the Planet of the Elkron). This allows the system to mathematically balance, and produces a coherent system. Without it the system would not be feasible. Therefore the Tarot Deck is 'The Elthos Tarot', and is probably useless to any modern astrologer (unless they happen to be open to the idea of Planet X (Nirabu), and two new Tarot Cards (highly unlikely, though I have had some reactions from Astrology lovers who thought it a remarkable innovation and wanted to use the deck - so it's hard to say).

Game Mechanics of the Alignment System

The Alignment Grid is set up with the 4 Cardinal Points of Good, Evil, Law and Chaos as a Cartesian Grid. The Grid is 100 x 100 points. Alignments are written as (1, 1) which would be read as (1 Law, 1 Good). Since the number are equal it would be in the Neutral Good segment. (-4, 3) would be (-4 Chaos, 3 Good) or Chaotic Good. (3, -4) would be Evil Chaotic (because the Evil is the larger number it predominates). All sentient Beings in the World have an Alignment.

Actions in the game are defined by their Alignment effect.

There are two Axises of Alignment: The Moral Axis (Good - Evil) and the Metaphysical Axis (Law - Chaos).   All Actions have a Moral and Metaphysical value.

For example. Robinhood steals from the rich to give to the poor. His action on the Metaphysical axis is Chaotic (theft), while on the Moral Axis it is Good (charity).

The Empress
The Moral Axis is composed of Motives. What the Character's motive for doing something is determined, and this motive determines if it is Good or Evil.  Good motives are things like Friendship, Generosity, Justice, etc.   Evil motives are things like Greed, Cowardice, Glutton, etc.

The Metaphysical Axis is composed of items pertaining to Legality, either Socio-Political, Natural, or at the highest level Metaphysical (or Cosmic Law). Chaotic Actions are things like Theft and Murder. Actions that are Lawful are things like Joining the Military and Obeying the Governor's Command. Building a Library, or founding a Kingdom are Lawful. Destroying such institutions would be Chaotic. Each of these are given a point value in a list that is on the website, but not published anywhere else at this time. The point values range for 1 for minor actions and motives to 4 for Major ones. The scale is between 1 and 100.

Thus during the course of the game the Player Character will do things that may have Alignment
implications. For example, John the Cleric gives alms to the poor. That is Charity, and is Neutral in terms of Law and Chaos. So he goes up 1 point on the Good Axis, and if he started out at (0, 0) he is now (0, 1). As Characters do things in the world their Alignment changes according to the nature of their deeds. I have found that MOST characters wind up hovering around the middle of the grid near Neutral because most people happen to play chaotically, sometimes doing good deeds, sometimes doing bad deeds, sometimes lawful sometimes chaotic. However, some Players choose to focus on getting their Character to hoof it along one alignment path and so their actions remain consistent and so over the course of the game they make Alignment progress. John the Cleric for example, often give alms to the poor, and helps the needy, helps to fight evil monsters and provides the temple with money for new construction. After a while of doing this, and NOT doing things that would undermine his Alignment path, he achieves distinction as a Good Lawful Cleric.

As Characters move along the Alignment path they gain the notice of the Elkron. At 10 points in any direction they become "Observed". At 15 points they may be "touched" or contacted in a dream or otherwise. At 20 points they may get a Power of the Elkron. Etc. It is also to be noted that as the Character moves in one direction, they are simultaneously gaining the notice of Oppositional Elkron on the other side of the Alignment Spectrum.

Current Status of the Alignment System

The system itself is setup in the Web Application. Alignment Changes are tracked and calculated as part of Experience Gains. So the Experience Gains may be "John the Cleric gave 10 dollars to a beggar", for which a record is made that he is at -10 Dollars, his motive was Charity and the Metaphysical aspect was "neutral". He went up 1 Good Point. This all works very nicely in the website and is easy to work with, or ignore if the GM is not interested in this feature.

The Elthos Tarot Deck is completed and printable. I had 10 Decks printed. They came out beautifully.

Work that needs to be done on it:

1. I do not have any formal rules on Powers that Elkron may Distribute, but Powers are those that work like Miracles but can use either Mystic Points OR Life Points to cast (optionally).

2. Powers may be unique to the Elkron, but I do not have a List of Unique Powers at this point. I will at some point, however.

3. I do not have any formal rules on how Elkron will respond to the migration of Characters on the Alignment Grid. It is GM Fiat.

4.  Ironing out the numeric values of the various aspects mechanically.

I have the intention to write an Elthos World Weaver's Guide that helps to explain the Alignment System, the Elkron, and how to World Weave the Tarot Deck into the Symbolism of the GM's World (if they so choose).

My intention to date has been to have a separation between the World Weaving Guide and the Core Rules Book (though you are right to point out that I do have a thread of overlap, which I agree can and should be removed from the Core Rules). My thinking is that some people may want to use the Elthos RPG as a whole. Some may want to use the Mechanics alone, and not use the Tarot or World Weaving materials. Some may want to use only that, and not the mechanics. As such the Web Application is divided into "The World Weaver's Studio" and "The Gamesmaster's Toolbox".

I hope that all is clear enough.

Here is a link to the Elthos Tarot Deck - Major Arcana

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thoughts on Fear and Courage for GMs

Over on The Gamesmaster Academy (on Roll20 Forum) a new GM posted his Campaign concept (you do need to join the GMA to read the post, sorry) which I thought was a great and ambitious idea. After describing his concept he asked "How do I make the helpless powerful again? What is perfect? What is beyond magic? how do I instill fear and courage at the same time?"

This is what I wrote...

I see what you're looking for and this is a very ambitious project for a new GM! I like it. But it is very tricky to do what you're looking for, and I would not expect to be able to achieve it in one shot. You might think of it in terms of changing moods and feelings over the course of the campaign. At first you want them to feel powerful. Then you want to show that no matter how powerful you may think you are, in the end there is always something beyond you who can easily defeat you. Then you want them to start from the beginning and build their characters knowing both that they can become powerful, but never the most powerful thing there is. This will, if all goes well, teach them to play their Characters with some perspective and humility, whether they are powerful or not. I like the concept. Again though, this is a real challenge to pull off well. The challenges you will face have to do with 1) players rarely do what you expect them to, or feel the way you think they should 2) in a game of probabilities and dice things can always go in unexpected directions. For example, you give them level 20 characters and they go out and fight something that they should be able to defeat - but woopsie bad luck - they die there and never even meet the Assassin. Stuff like that happens all the time. Another problem you face with this idea is that it is, by your design, a railroad adventure, at least in the beginning. That's a set piece scene where the characters actually have very little freedom, and the GM is "railroading" them down the track of his or her intended story line. All to good purpose and for the story, of course. But seldom do players like being railroaded, and will most often try to jump off of the train - hence, problem #1. So yes, very ambitious. I like the concept. It will be challenging. Best wishes! Keep us posted as to how it goes, and feel free to ask specific questions.

As for instilling fear and courage at the same time... remember, courage is the overcoming of fear in order to do the hero's work. They both come in the same package. For most ordinary people they are consumed by fear, and can not rise to the level of courage, but for every courageous act, fear was what they overcame to accomplish it. So your real question is "How do I instill a sense of fear, without making it so overwhelming that they players give up?" And again, this too is tricky. Courage is a very personal act. It can't be faked. The thing you are afraid of must be something that is worthy of being feared. Courage comes when you determine to overcome that fear and find some way to defeat the opponent, even when it appears the opponent is overwhelming. It is an act of will. Ultimately courage must be born of the will within the individual. The GM can not, and probably should not, instill courage into their players. They can simply present challenges that they know could be over overcome IF the players rise to the challenge and determine to make their characters overcome their fear. Again, tricky to pull off, but definitely possible.

So the first part of that equation is "How do I make my players feel fear?" And that is something that can be done with a couple of techniques. One, make the opponent a real challenge. The monster must be tougher than the Characters. Two, introduce the monster in a way that inspires dread. Think of horror movies and how the Director builds up the story so that at the point you encounter the monster you're on the edge of your seat. Follow that kind of pattern and be careful to build your scenes with plenty of Descriptive Narrative setting the mood by describing the scene verbally with plenty of detail. Tell the players what they see, what they hear, what they smell, and set the mood by describing the lighting, the weather, and anything that adds to the narrative the elements you want to instill in their minds. In this part of GMing you are setting the stage, like a Director. Show them, for example, the scene of the last horrible crime the monster committed and describe the dreadful details in a way that lets them know that "Whatever did this was - Powerful and Horrible". Set the scenes and build up towards the encounter with the monster. Through this process you can instill fear... and from that provide the players with the opportunity (but not guarantee) to achieve courage.

Very interesting project. I look forward to hearing how it goes. :)


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Some Rumminations On the Never Ending Revisions of D&D

I have been following this thread on Google+: Original Post ... One of the later comments by Vincent Florio caught my eye:
"The newer the editions AKA "the more crap they pile into the books, and the less imagination is needed.. its all presented for you... no need to think. If its not written, it can't happen." Editions."
Which got me thinking ...

This trend started, I suppose, with AD&D, and continued at pace with a steady stream of new editions, total rewrites, and world-crushing changes every few years.

But for Pete's sake - Why?  Because, I suppose, that was TSRs business model, and WotC/Hasbro have simply kept the thing going in the original and most obvious direction. Nothing new under the sun here. If your business model is "we sell rules books for a game" then you're going to have to update, change, re-write, and new-ify your rules every so often, or you will go out of business. So every few years you're going to have to tacitly admit "The old rules from last version totally suck! But our NEW Rules are teh Awesome!" Over and over again. Of course.  It's obvious.

D&D rules went from a relatively light weight game with three small (but highly magical) booklets, to a heavy weight game with many books, tons of rules and tons of (needless) complexity. They then realized how sucky all that was and came up with the next edition, which promised to be much better, except it wasn't. It just was sucky in different ways. Why? Because it's too complicated. So the next edition had to be produced. This one also sucked, but in totally different ways than the previous two. Each time it seems they fixed some things, and broke other things. And each version, of course, has some people who learned that Edition first, and so for them it's "home", and they like it. And that's a good thing. It's kept the hobby alive. And I'm glad for that. It's a fun hobby and I think it's fabulous. I like it to thrive. So don't get me wrong - though I'm complaining about it, I also am glad it happened. 

This was not the only possible business model for TSR/WotC/Hasbro, by the way... but it's the one they chose, and the one everyone lives with.  My beef with it is that it could have been better than this.

On the positive side had they chosen a more efficient business model there may not have been room for the Godzillions of Indie RPGs coming out all the time. There might not have been a need for them.  So that's another good thing that came out of the mess.

Ah? What would the alternative business model have looked like? Ok. I think I have an idea... It could have focused first and foremost on working out an actual rules system that is clean, elegant, flexible, modular and efficient.  Step 2 would have been to produce modules that could be plugged into anyone's world, free of timelines, and any kind of backstory roots so that each GM could use the module for it's ideas and characters, and flexibly modify it's backstory to fit into their own world. But of course, I don't think they considered it. Meanwhile, the modules market died off quite some time ago.  It seemed robust at first, but then for some reason people stopped buying D&D Modules.  I'm not quite sure why, but I asked around, and the answers I got went something like "I couldn't easily figure out how to fit it into my World... so I started making my own adventures and that worked fine for me after I got the hang of it."   Hmmm... interesting.  Does that mean there's no market for Modules?  I suspect there is a market for them.  If they are done right.  That's just a hunch, though, and I'm far from certain about that.  I might experiment around with the idea and see if there's anything to my theory.

Anyway, I think that this was Gary Gygax's vision for the future of RPGs but I suspect it got derailed by the business forces that assumed control of TSR and kicked him off the board. So after that they didn't quite run the thing into the ground, but more like they ran it into the misty fens and it's been slowly grinding away there ever since.  Revision after revision of something-fixed-something-broke.  Or something like that. That's my take on it, anyway. Frankly, I never really got that into the various Editions of D&D because I had taken a different Gamesmastering path from the outset.

Homebrewers from the days of old foresaw all of this and avoided it by following Gygax's advice from the introduction of 'Men & Magic'.
"These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors." - Gary Gygax, Men & Magic, p. 1
We interpreted this to mean that we should take the first three D&D books as a template and build our own systems from there.  "Grown your own".  So we did.

I remember discussing the future of RPGs with one of my fellow GMs back in 1978 and we concluded that the TSR business model would inevitably lead to exactly what happened. We shrugged and said "We have our own worlds and our own systems to run them. Tether us not to thy never-ending revisions, oh TSR! We deny thee!" and that was that.  We were staunchly Anti-TSR.  Happily GMing our homebrews ever after.

Naturally, I encourage GMs to do likewise. And it certainly seems that many do. Which is why the Indie RPG scene is so robust, I think. As for the rest - hey, you know what? If you have fun and enjoy it, then you're doing it right. There is no such thing as "BadWrongFun" in my opinion. Just remember, though, if you ever wind up feeling stuck ... there's plenty of alternatives out there.  And Grow Your Own is one of them.  Just go back to Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Wilderness Adventures and fix the bugs your own way.  The possibilities of a simple and elegant solution to RPG rules are myriad, and probably infinite.   Try it.  You might just find you really enjoy creating your own rules.  I did.  It was fun.  And I'm kinda a fan of what I put together.  It certainly works for me.  And my players have over the years given me plenty of reason to believe that my system works wonders.  So ... I encourage my fellow GMs to try it.  Grow Your Own.  It's great.

As for Vincent's point, I agree... it certainly does seem that they are progressively removing the need for people to use their own imagination, and attempting to provide us with a system that allows us not to have to think.   It's a failed proposition, of course, and counter to all that is good about RPGs, but that almost seems besides the point.  It fits their business model, which now has advanced to a new level of retardation.  Not only is it imperative that they change the rules, but they seem to also have  concluded that they must dummy down the rules in order to expand their customer base outward to those who have no imagination to begin with.  What we might call "The Ignorant Masses".  I suspect that WotC has decided that those people absolutely need a rules system to tell them exactly what to do, how to do it, what to think, and how to imagine everything.   Of course they haven't gone quite that far, and so there's room for creativity in the game... but there's a trend at work here, and I think Vincent put his finger on the pulse of the thing.   WotC/Hasbro seems to have come to the conclusion that they should be making a pencil and paper tabletop video game, because that will expand their customer base.  LOLRZ.

On the other hand, WotC might not agree that this is what they are doing.  I wouldn't be surprised if the designers of D&D E5 are highly convinced that it really is a great new system that solves the problems of all the previous Editions.   But then again I also wouldn't be surprised if they're not sitting in the back room groaning about the Pointy Haired Boss and how many bone-headed things they were forced to do to keep Upper-Upper-Upper Management happy.   I'd certainly be curious to be a fly on the wall over there at D&D HQ and actually find out what they're really thinking.   But from my point of observation it does seem like things went off the rails long ago, and that's pretty much why.  In the same way that the rules of a game are determinant of how the Players will behave, the business model of a company is determinant of how its products will evolve.   And this business model was just plain BadWrongFun.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Western Knights - The Twin Gunmen

Drawing by
Milo Barasorda

This is my character Flint Westwood, and Chad, his evil twin.  Or is Flint the evil one?  At this point it's a toss up.  You'll see why.

The story thus far... Flint and Chad were Shanghaied in Britain by the Imperial Merchant Marine, and put to work as galley slaves.  Arriving in New Albion (America) they discovered that the town of Kennsington was ruled with the same Totalitarian Brutality as the motherland.  They were shoved into a battle as cannon fodder when a local tribe, the Kawuki, dared to attack the settlement.   Flint, Chad, and Albedo Ray (another member of the original Galley crew) fled the battle in an attempt to escape the settlement, but were tricked and fell into an ambush of knights by a mysterious character they chanced to meet in a dark alleyway who promised them freedom.  They were questioned and tortured, but the three of them proved to their captors one essential thing - they could think for themselves.   And so their captors revealed that they are The Resistance, and so the three amigos joined forces with Lord Kennsington's twin brother, the rebel, and took a mission to go to town and report back the results of their latest sabotage attack.

Having found out all they could about the explosion that took out one of the Imperial frigates in the harbor,  they decided to jar the townsmen's sense of stability by putting up a crudely drawn picture of the boat sinking with a sunny face above.  This resulted in the town Militia rounding up all of the Indentured Slaves and killing them.  The Imperium tolerates NO free thought.  Period.

Fortunately, Flint, Chad and Albedo were rescued by one of the knights of the Resistance, and brought back to the secret encampment.  From there Flint and Chad decided to leave town and strike out Westward to see if they could learn, and report back, more about what lay beyond the hills, and more about the Kawaki Indians.  They slid past the guards, through the woods, and up into the foothills.  Along the way Flint saved Chad's life by shooting the head off a rattlesnake that was coiled up ready to strike down his brother.

After some further trekking through the hill country they ran into another outlaw.  This man has serious emotional problems, among them being generally frightened out of his wits by other people.  He also is a dreadful liar, and a trickster.   But Flint didn't find that out until too late. The only clue he had was that the man was excessively evasive.

They also ran into a horror.   In the hills thereabouts there is a fog that rises out of nowhere and engulfs people.  Within the fog one may chance to see a horribly large black wolf.  It may or may not attack, and in this case it merely watched and then faded away from each of them.   Unfortunately, when Chad was engulfed, and Flint was running from the fog being followed by their new "friend" stabbed him in the leg with his knife!   WTF?

Well, the mist-wolf faded away, and they caught up with the stabby friend, and after much debate decided to keep company with him after all.   As they marched they put him in the middle rank between Chad and Flint.

And so ... Flint gave the guy a whack over the back of the head with a branch to teach him a lesson... and nearly killed him by accident.  His intent was to merely teach the miserable fellow what it's like to be sprung on unexpectedly by your supposed friend.   Maybe he learned something.

And that's the story thus far.