[FATE] Poison/Disease draft rules

One thing I’ve felt somewhat lacking in the FATE rules is a satisfying mechanic for “toxins,” which for purposes of gaming abstraction is the category I use for all persistent damaging effects.  Poison and disease certainly fall into this category, as do curses, acids, bleeding wounds, DoTs, and so forth.  What follows is a draft attempt at coming up with such a mechanic.

All Toxins have the following attributes:

  • A “strength” value, which could be called “toxicity” or “virulence”
  • A stress track, called Persistence
  • An attack interval
  • An onset delay

The toxin’s strength value specifies which of the subject’s stress tracks is attacked.  Toxins are resisted via Vigor or Resolve, as appropriate.  Particularly nasty toxins may attack more than one stress track.

A toxin’s Persistence is a measure of how hard it is to shake.  A subject will be harried by the toxin until the toxin is Taken Out via Persistence stress; see below for the exact mechanic.  Toxins do not suffer from Consequences.

When a subject is exposed to a toxin, he rolls Vigor or Resolve versus the Toxin’s Strength.  Failure means that the toxin has taken hold.  The subject gains a temporary Aspect relating to the toxin’s presence (e.g. “Curare poisoning,” “Sick with the flu,” “Cursed”), which persists until the toxin is removed.

After the onset delay has elapsed, and every attack interval thereafter, the referee and the subject make an opposed roll.  The referee rolls the toxin’s Strength while the subject rolls the appropriate defensive stat.  Shifts gained by the toxin are applied to the subject’s appropriate stress track; spin scored by the subject is applied to the toxin’s stress track.

Stress inflicted by toxins can be mitigated by Consequences; however, Consequences incurred due to toxins cannot be removed via natural processes while the toxin persists (though they can be treated by advanced medicine or magic, for example).  If a subject suffers stress from a toxin beyond what his stress tracks can handle, he is Taken Out as normal in a manner appropriate to the toxin (usually death, but sometimes paralysis or unconsciousness).  Subjects that are Taken Out, but not killed, via toxin continue to roll against it every attack interval; they remain Taken Out until the toxin is shed.

Additional exposure to the same toxin adds one point to the toxin’s Strength and Persistence.

Examples

Curare

  • Poison, injury
  • Strength 3 vs Health
  • Persistence OOO
  • Interval 1 minute
  • Onset 1 minute

Curare is a brown, sticky paste-like poison prepared from various alkaloid plants native to the Amazon basin.  It functions as a muscle relaxant and kills via paralysis of the diaphragm.  Appropriate Consequences involve muscular weakness and slowed reflexes.  A subject that is Taken Out via curare poisoning is completely paralyzed, and cannot breathe or move any part of his body.  Subjects in this state typically die within a few minutes, but can be kept alive until the toxin wears off via artificial respiration.

Influenza

  • Disease, airborne
  • Strength 1 vs Health
  • Persistence OOO OO
  • Interval 12 hours
  • Onset 1 day

Influenza is a disease transmitted via mucus contact, often in the form of aerosolized particles.  It varies in severity; the statistics presented here represent an “average” flu.  Symptoms (and appropriate Consequences) involve weakness, nausea, fatigue, cough and sneezing, and body aches and soreness.  Influenza kills via extreme immune response, which leads to high fever and internal swelling.  It also weakens the immune system, rendering the subject vulnerable to pneumonia and other diseases.

Drow Poison

  • Poison, injury
  • Strength 4 vs Composure
  • Persistence O
  • Interval 1 hour
  • Onset 1 minute

Drow poison is a powerful sleeping drug commonly used by dark elves.  In susceptible individuals it tends to induce unconsciousness after one minute; this unconsciousness usually lasts for several hours.  In hardier subjects the poison induces transient drowsiness, slowed reflexes, confusion, and delirium.

Ravening Curse

  • Curse
  • Strength 3 vs Health
  • Persistence -
  • Interval 1 day
  • Onset immediate

The Ravening Curse is a powerful enchantment that causes a subject to rapidly lose weight, stamina, and muscle tone whilst provoking a powerful, insatiable hunger.  The subject is compelled to eat constantly and yet continues to lose weight.  The curse is frequently fatal, and persists until removed.

A better alignment system

Well, perhaps more a “different” system than a “better” one.  The 3.x alignment system has a lot going for it — the two axes help to cover a lot of ground, and on the surface, at least, it’s fairly simple, but contains a fair bit of depth and subtlety for those who really want to dig into it.  On the downside, its ambiguity is sometimes a weakness.  Also, there are at least two or three of the alignments that real-life humans simply never hold to.  (Seriously, there isn’t a person in the world who is Lawful Neutral.  Javert is a caricature, not a character.)

The problem I have with 3.x alignment is twofold — one, that there isn’t really a matter of scale.  A Chaotic Evil barbarian reaver is “just as evil” as an actual, literal demon.  Okay, not precisely true, as the demon has the “evil” subtype and the barbarian presumably doesn’t.  So this is a minor complaint.  The real issue I have is that the alignment definitions are really very unclear.  Distinguishing between Lawful Good and Neutral Good, for example, can be quite difficult — both are definitely in the “good guy” camp, archetypically, but … one is more concerned with being law-abiding than the other?  I mean we all know that those Chaotic Good types will happily flout any laws that get in the way of their own fun, so long as nobody is getting hurt in the process (making CG the “philosophical hedonist” alignment), but where’s the line between Lawful and Neutral Good?  I don’t have a good answer.  Ditto True Neutral — there are quite a few different ways to interpret TN, and none of them make sense for a creature with moral agency.  And then there’s the question of just what it means to be Lawful, in general — the hallmark of Lawful is obedience, but obedience can take many forms.  Monks, for example, have to be Lawful because of their personal discipline, but does this mean that a monk can’t be a bandit?  Why not, as long as he stays disciplined?  Good question, but I don’t think any self-respecting DM would okay the idea of a Lawful Good bandit.  On the other end of the spectrum is the paladin — obedient to a lord and the law of the land, but could a paladin also be a slob?  Completely personally undisciplined, equipment in poor repair, etc?

In my view, the alignment system could stand a bit more transparency and simplicity.  In addition, I tend to think of alignment as more like “roleplaying notes,” or something more similar to the Nature/Demeanor system of World of Darkness.  If alignment is going to have any in-game effect then it should be rewards along the lines of Willpower or FATE points or the like, not XP penalties and vulnerability to certain magics.

I’m not in favor of scrapping subtypes, since those are useful.  In fact, I’d support expanding the system — give me a good reason why paladins shouldn’t have the “good” subtype.  Holier-than-thou is basically their entire character.  But in general I’d limit them to beings that are defined by their goodness or their evil — humans, no matter how Hitleresque, simply can’t be evil the way a demon can be evil.

An unstated premise here is that humans, and moral agents in general, always believe themselves to be acting rightly.  Even when they’re doing something they know is “wrong,” they don’t generally actually believe they’re doing evil — they’re simply indulging a part of themselves that they know doesn’t toe to the societal “party line.”  An orc is just doing what orcs do — this doesn’t make them any less of a threat to medieval “law and order,” but it does differentiate their brand of “evil” from that of beings that are literal embodiments of the very principle of corruption.

Bearing all that in mind, I’ve come up with seven new alignments that I think pretty effectively cover the full range of realistic human attitudes.  And that’s what these are — attitudes.  Ethoi.  Moral philosophies, rather than metaphysical keywords.  Most people in the world will fall under one of these seven categories, to wit:

Valorous: Concerned with doing the right thing, obeying just laws, and keeping to an explicit code of ethics.  Disciplined, obedient, respectful, chivalrous.  The alignment of knightly ideals and bushido.  It is a high bar to clear, requiring a good deal of self-examination.  Valorous characters will frequently spend time reflecting on their past behaviors, always seeking to act more in line with their personal philosophies.

Honorable: Honorable characters keep their word and help those in need.  They pay their taxes and obey the law.  In their day-to-day behavior they might appear virtually indistinguishable from the Valorous, and indeed there are many similarities between the two.  The difference comes in their degree of self-reflection and self-discipline — Honorable characters simply aren’t as concerned with the ideals of virtue and self-mastery.  For the Honorable, it is enough that they are upstanding citizens — they leave the navel-gazing to the philosophers.

Dominant: Into power, generally for its own sake.  Likes being in charge of any given situation.  Pays a lot of heed to social convention, particularly where power structures are concerned.  Ambitious, seeking to climb to the top of whatever hill might present itself.  May or may not be concerned with the needs and wants of political, social, or economic inferiors, but in the end, those with the Dominant alignment will always sacrifice questions of the “greater good” for the sake of more personal power.

Selfish: Makes decisions primarily based on personal gain.  Holds little concern for rules and restrictions unless paying heed to such rules is absolutely necessary.  Might care about others, but self-interest always comes first.  The Selfish person is greedy and generally cowardly, though if he craves glory then he might seem reckless.  If he seeks power, it is as a means to an end.  A Selfish person is driven by his appetites over and above all else.

Libertarian: The Libertarian is where the Honorable and the Selfish overlap.  His moral philosophy can best be summarized as, “an’ it harm none, do as thou wilt.”  The alignment of thieves with hearts of gold, the Libertarian is generally anti-law, anti-restriction, and anti-authority.  Flouts social convention and societal expectation.  May still hold to a personal code, but that code will be deeply personal.  Does genuinely care for the well-being of others, but may or may not take risks to protect said well-being.

Savage: Respects strength and nothing else.  Follows leaders he perceives to be stronger, attempts to dominate those he perceives to be weaker.   Quick to indulge in threats and violence.  Not necessarily “evil,” or otherwise cruel, but definitely not what polite society considers “nice.”  Typically has no regard for law and order, and little use for civilization.  May or may not harbor protective feelings for those weaker, particularly if they openly recognize him as the stronger.

Amoral: Probably the trickiest alignment for a human to play, it nevertheless deserves a place on the list.  The truly amoral character makes all decisions based on non-moral criteria — physical needs, logic and reason, relative difficulty of the respective choices, whims, anything that doesn’t involve a conception of “right” or “wrong.”  Acts out of need and typically ignores or actively rejects notions of authority.  By definition, has no concern for the well-being of others — or possibly even himself.

As far as use in a game goes?  Well, as I said, these alignments are primarily intended to be roleplay notes.  Yes, there is significant overlap between many of them, but that’s by design.  In a sense, a person’s alignment is meant to be a representation of their moral sine qua non – whatever the one thing is that is most important to their moral identity.  But wanting power above all doesn’t mean you’re generally dishonorable or lacking compassion, just as wanting to be a good person doesn’t mean you don’t break the speed limit from time to time.

So, did I forget anything?  What do you all think?

Humility

I came across a game blog earlier today.  It’s written by one Ryan Macklin, a professional game designer, who got into the hobby in 1995 (or so he claims).

In other words, I’ve been into RPGs a good five years longer.  And here he is, professional, making money, winning awards.  And here I am, hack DM.

Not that I’m bitter or resentful, oh no — from what I read, his stuff is fantastic and insightful.  He’s a better designer than me (in that he actually designs rather than cobbling together bits and pieces from others’ brilliance), no question about it, and that’s okay.

It’s good for there to be people out there who are better than you.  It gives you something to strive for.

The bit that troubles me, though, is that I have no Goddamn idea how to get better.

Sometimes you can clearly see the star you navigate by, and you can chart your course based on those who have gone before.  But in this instance, I’m … it’s like I can’t even see the ocean, or the boat, or anything but the stars.  Like a huge chasm that I’ve no idea how to cross.

Ultimately I’d like to contribute, to make my mark.  But I’ve really no idea where to begin.

The Icons of Azeroth

13th Age and I are BFFs for life.  I think I might like it better than FATE but nobody tell FATE I said that, okay?

Anyway, I had this idea while I was driving from Texas to New Jersey that if you wanted to run a tabletop World of Warcraft game you could really do a lot worse than use 13th Age’s ARCHMAGE system to do it with.  Now, granted, someone (Blizzard, probably) put out a WoW RPG a long while ago.  It was just your standard d20 clone, nothing remarkable about it.  And yeah, just using d20 would work fine.

But we can do better.  That’s why we’re here.

There might be a couple posts’ worth of material in this idea.  To start with, I’d like to see if we can come up with a solid 13 Icons for Azeroth.  Icons, for those not in the know, are the “Masters of the Universe” in a campaign setting — they’re the movers and shakers, the leaders and conquerors.  But an Icon is an archetype, or an office, more than an individual — if an individual Icon dies, in many cases, another can take on the mantle.  (This is not always true — while the Dwarf King, or the President of the United States, are examples of Icons who could easily be replaced, the Great Gold Wyrm and Hitler are not.)

So who are the Icons of World of Warcraft?

The Warchief of the Horde: This one’s obvious.  The leader of an entire faction of people definitely has the global reach to be considered an Icon.  Interestingly, though, the flavor of this Icon changes depending on who the Warchief actually is.  The Warchiefs of old were clearly along the lines of the Orc Lord, as was Garrosh; while Thrall and (one hopes) Vol’jin seem to be taking the office in a new direction.

The Lich King: Again, obvious.  The path to this Icon was different than in 13th Age, but the end result is the same.  The tenor of this Icon has changed somewhat from the “old days,” now that Bolvar’s put on the helm; still, the Lich King endures.

The Black Prince: Wrathion fills a Prince of Shadows-type niche here, but from the “other end” of the Rogue arts — he’s more the “master of assassins” than he is “beggar king.”  Either way, he definitely keeps his fingers in all the pies.

Guardian: Possibly a vacated Icon, depending on if you want to count Med’an (I don’t); regardless, the Guardian played a strong role in the history of Azeroth, and given that Med’an continues the story, it’s possible that there could one day be a new Guardian (who isn’t a total Sue).  This role is closest in tone to the Crusader — a being of great puissance whose purpose is keeping the demons in check.

Leader of the Kirin Tor: I don’t know if this office has a “proper” title, like Archmage; regardless, I think that the organization’s reserve of magical power and global reach warrants the inclusion of its leader as an Icon.

The Banshee Queen: While Sylvanas ostensibly has no more power than any of the other faction leaders, she earns a spot on this list thanks to her agenda of “murdering everything that lives.”  She remains technically subservient to the Warchief, but we all know just how hollow that obeisance is.  Sylvanas could be cast as the Lich King, or perhaps as the inheritor to the Diabolist — either way, she’s the current face of evil on Azeroth.

The Prophet: I’m going to go ahead and include Velen on this list only because he shares an agenda with Wrathion — both of them foresee the coming of the Legion, and both of them are frantically searching for a way to stem the tide.  This forward-looking attitude sets Velen apart from the other leaders of the Alliance, and inclines him, in principle, to involve himself in the wider world.  However, his pattern of inaction renders his position on this list shaky.

The King of Stormwind: I’m going to give Varian a pass on this one as well.  While the Alliance doesn’t have a titular leader, it’s apparent that, for the time being, Varian is the de facto head of the faction.  Including him as an Icon is shaky, though, because his ascension to that kind of power is very recent, and there’s no guarantee that Anduin would enjoy the same prestige were his father to die.  (In fact, Anduin would likely rise as a new Icon – the King-Priest.)  Nevertheless, in contemporary Azerothian politics, Varian has the cachet to be an Icon.

The High Druid: Malfurion might not have an actual title but he fills this Icon’s shoes fairly reliably.  He’s important enough that he commands the loyalty of non-elves — his prestige, in fact, crosses factional boundaries.  Like the 13th Age High Druid, there might not always be one — but for now, there is, and he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Thrall: I think Thrall qualifies as a Great Gold Wyrm-esque Icon.  Sure, there’s only one Thrall and there will only ever be one Thrall, but like Malfurion, he is powerful and respected.  The Horde still looks up to him as Warchief Emeritus, and even the Icons of the Alliance remember the days when they fought together as ersatz allies.  Players from either faction would happily accept quests from Thrall, and this, I think, makes him Iconic.

The Demon Queen: Azshara’s still out there, somewhere.  Given her power, and the threat she represents, I’d be at least moderately surprised if she didn’t show up as the villain in the next expansion.  If Azeroth still has a Diabolist, it’s almost certainly her.

So there’s eleven.  There’d be more but we, as players, have a pattern of murdering the hell out of villainous icons.  The Destroyer (Deathwing).  The Lord of Twilight (Benedictus).  The Blood Prince (Kael’thas).  The Betrayer (Illidan).  The entire Black Dragonflight, who would have easily been Azeroth’s Three.  The only reason there’s still a Lich King is because there must always be a Lich King.  You get the idea.

So why aren’t the rest of the faction leaders included?  Why no Elf Queen or Dwarf King?  Essentially because, in my opinion, as Azeroth currently stands, those leaders aren’t important enough to be Iconic.  Take Tyrande, for example, or Lor’themar.  While both of them command great influence among their own people, that’s really as far as that influence goes — as players, the only time you take quests from Tyrande is when you’re leveling through Teldrassil.  Even as blood elves, you don’t interact with Lor’themar at all during the endgame.  Other than the ones mentioned above, the faction leaders just don’t have the global presence to be Icons.

How about the dragons?  Well, prior to Cataclysm, the Aspects would certainly have been Iconic, Nozdormu and Alexstrasza in particular.  But now, stripped of their station, the great dragons are merely dragons.  Their part in the story seems to be over.

World of Warcraft is an environment in flux, and necessarily so — as the story changes, so do the players.  As a result, Azerothian Icons may rise and fall with more regularity than those in 13th Age.  Nevertheless, it’s fairly easy to spot them, and it’d be quite straightforward to make use of the system to integrate them into a campaign.

Next: adopting 13th Age classes.

Site Updates!

We’ve made a few small changes here at Words of Power.  Nothing too drastic — they’re all quality-of-life changes enabled my the fantastic functionality that comes with WordPress.

For starters, this is a change I’ve been wanting to make almost since day one: you can now access the blog by going to the top page!  I’m assuming the old URL will probably still work, as will any RSS feeds you’ve happened to set up.  But from now on, to visit the blog, all you have to do is type sandmangaming.com into your browser.  Um.  You all know how web browsers work, what am I saying.

Change two!  Permalinks!  Every post can now be linked to using its title, instead of having to use the post ID.  A nice little change, I think.

Finally, all of the tags and categories can be accessed directly.  If you want to, say, see everything I’ve said about D&D, you can go to www.sandmangaming.com/tagged/d&d.  If you want to see all of the posts under the “Game Design” category, go to www.sandmangaming.com/category/game-design.

So have fun playing with the new toys.  I’ve got a few updates simmering in my brain-space, and I’ll be inflicting them upon sharing them with you presently.

EDIT: Turns out that in fact you can’t access the site at /blog anymore, and you’ll need to update your RSS feeds if you want to see future posts.  Sorry!

What’s the Buzz?

And we’re back!

No need to go into the details of the hiatus.  A shift in personal priorities, a lack of time, a new job, ill-advised liaisons with various MMOs…obstacles were encountered, endured, overcome, and we have re-emerged, triumphant, the heads of our enemies on pikes, lamentation of their women, etc.  You know the drill, I’m sure.

So where are we, gaming-wise?

Preparations are underway for the launch of a new campaign with my long-time gaming group.  I’ve hacked together yet another Promethean set of rules variants for 3.5, and the group in general will be building the campaign setting using the Dawn of Worlds rules with (of course) a few additions and changes.  Because we can’t play anything straight, oh no, I think I have a geas against that or something.  Why not just switch to Pathfinder?  Partially because I haven’t had the time or inclination to fully-absorb the rulebooks the way I have with 3.5.  Partially because I still have the sense that 3.5 is a slightly more flexible system, which may or may not be relevant in the future.  Pathfinder seems to have addressed most of the problems of 3.5 by adding more rules, making things more specific, more situational, more dissociated mechanics.  Maybe that’s my impression merely because I haven’t absorbed the rulebooks yet, maybe not.  I digress.

Yes, starting a new campaign.  A lot of that is because the previous campaign just felt lackluster; we were running a game set in my Zodiac campaign universe, but it didn’t really seem to be going anywhere.  Also because I’ve been reading a lot over the last few weeks, and I want to introduce some of the new ideas I’ve had into a brand new, fresh game that comes without any design baggage on my part.

Regrettably, my job keeps me away from home for weeks at a time, so play, for the foreseeable future, will remain infrequent.  I’m hoping to at least partially address this through the incorporation of some downtime rules, which I’ll touch on in a minute.

At the moment, that’s all the gaming I can manage.  I did play a session in Carter’s OSR game but that was months ago, and I’m almost never around on Sundays so I can’t really count that as an active game.  Nevertheless, I still think fondly of Don Ximen, and there’s a good chance he’ll be showing up elsewhere.

So, what have I been reading?

Well, first of all, I got hold of the revised FATE book.  It was something I kickstarted and it arrived a few months back.  The book itself is solid, and it is conveniently half the size of standard RPG books.  Unfortunately, I haven’t really read more than the first two chapters.  The second chapter gives some good advice on getting a campaign started, which is conveniently-timed.  Given that it’s FATE, I’m sure the rest of the book is going to be awesome.

What I’m reading right now is Pathfinder’s Ultimate Campaign.  It’s a book of resources for generating character backstories, handling downtime, building kingdoms, managing reputation, and a bunch of other systems that don’t necessarily have to do with the meat-and-potatoes of daily adventuring.  There’s lots of good stuff in there, most of which I’m probably going to steal in one form or another.  It’s also making me want to start actually reading the other Pathfinder books, if for no other reason than I want to know what some of these classes I’ve never heard of are like.  (Sage?  Oracle?  Gunslinger?  Good stuff.)

I think the thing I’m most excited about, as I mentioned before, are the downtime rules.  While the details haven’t been hashed out yet, I’m hoping I can talk the players into, say, 2d6 months of downtime between sessions, which we can handle on the Obsidian Portal site.  I’d like to see the characters involved with building businesses, getting involved with investments, managing reputation and fame, really becoming part of a living campaign world.  Perhaps, if their ambitions tend in that direction, I’ll even have them found a kingdom.  The book provides what look like solid rules for all that nonsense, and I’m eager to see how it turns out.

The other book I’ve been reading through is Pelgrane Press’s 13th Age.  You might have heard of this, it’s been a pretty big deal recently.  I ordered my copy before I was even halfway through the PDF.  There’s so much good stuff in there, the system is so interesting to me personally, that I kind of want to play in a game rules as-written.

Others have spent a lot of time talking about 13th Age and I can’t really add anything to that on a critical level.  On a personal level, the things that appeal the most to me about the game are twofold: firstly, its built-in mechanisms for having the characters relate to the Powers of the world (what the book calls Icons).  Second, there’s a lot of emphasis on description and roleplaying rather than pure mechanics.  It’s a halfway point between FATE and 3.5, and especially for my gaming group, I think that’s right in the sweet spot.

I’ll be stealing a few things in particular.  Firstly, the Icons.  Icons are, as I mentioned, the movers and shakers of the campaign world.  To be an Icon is to be an archetype, a living title; to be sure, Icons can change or be killed, but a new Icon arises, or a new hero inherits the position of the previous.  (The king is dead, long live the king.)  This mechanic slots in nicely with Dawn of Worlds’ Avatars — the one becomes the other, and Avatars that players create during the Dawn session will become the Icons for the campaign.

The second thing is the Backgrounds.  This is such a beautiful, elegant way to handle skills, I think I clapped with delight when I first read the section.  Essentially, instead of having specific skills, you have Backgrounds which describe a job, special training, or an unusual experience your character might have had before becoming an adventurer.  (For example, instead of having Bluff and Diplomacy, you might have “Junior Diplomat to the Kingdom of Barrowbrook.”)  Then, when a situation involving a skill check comes up, you explain to the DM why one of your Backgrounds would have given you some ability in that area.  If the DM agrees, you roll your Background like it’s a skill.  Otherwise, it’s just a flat ability check.

There are a few more things I’m stealing, but this entry has gone on long enough.  I just want to mention the Escalation Die: this is a mechanic whereby the characters gain an increasing bonus to attacks and damage the longer combat goes on.  Usually the NPCs don’t share the bonus, but important ones can.  This is cool.

The one complaint I have about the game is that it incorporates too much from 4e.  Too many dissociated mechanics, “encounter powers,” “daily powers,” things like that.  I’ve never liked the notion of encounter powers and I’m not overly fond of daily powers, except in very specific circumstances.  Nevertheless, that’s more a matter of personal preference than flawed design.

Anyway, that’s where we’re at.  Thanks to everyone who has read this far, and to everyone who’s stuck around during our long sleep.  You rock! \o/

It’s January!

That means it’s time for another of my monthly posts!

Trufax.

Trufax.

Yeah, it’s been more than a month since I last updated.  Mea culpa, I’ve been neglecting everything on the web in favor of working six days a week, then changing careers, holiday and family stuffs, etc.  I haven’t been attending to any of my hobbies for the last month and a half — no WoW, no martial arts, no writing, no music, no anything else …

Well, that’s not exactly true.  But I’ll get to that.

To my longtime readers (both of you!): we’re not dead, merely sleeping.  In fact, while I’m not promising anything (as my CG alignment demands), there might be a bit of a renaissance here on the site over the next few months.  This would be because the aforementioned change in careers, while it is going to interfere substantially with actual game time, will also afford me an awful lot of time to do nothing but sit and think.  While driving a 40-ton tractor trailer, which I’m sure is the perfect time to let the mind wander a bit.

Because I’m going to be on the road quite a bit, regular face-to-face game time is going to be at a high premium.  It’s my plan to transition my current game over to Skype or, possibly, Google Hangouts.  I welcome commentary and suggestions from anyone familiar with the ins and outs of that kind of gaming, as my only experience comes from Skyping a single player into a tabletop session (which was suboptimal).

So what have I been up to, RPG-wise?  Well, those are posts in themselves, but I’ll touch briefly on a few major points.

My regular gaming group just wrapped the hexcrawl/dungeoncrawl game we’ve been running since July.  There were some good times and good adventures, and I got a nice system down for further games in that vein, but it was beginning to drag and I’ve had my fill of fantasy for a bit (curse you, Peter Jackson).  So after the party took control of an oasis from a pack of gnoll slavers, thus finally securing a location for their exploration company to use as a new vanguard and base of operations (and becoming quite wealthy in the process), we decided to call it quits.

I haven’t been able to attend any of the local OSR sessions since summer, unfortunately, as I’ve been scheduled to work every single Sunday since then.  I’ve also pretty much lost contact with everyone in that group, more’s the pity — though I hear they’re doing quite well.

I mentioned earlier that I haven’t been neglecting all my hobbies.  Turns out I still have time for world-building, when the mood strikes me, and what I’ve been working on (because I’m categorically incapable of coming up with new ideas and am able only to riff on the good ideas of others) is a Star Wars/Star Trek/Firefly nerdgasm mashup game, built on (what else?) FATE.  We rolled characters last session and should be starting play this coming Friday.

So that’s the last six months in a teacup.  I hope everyone had a great holiday season, and I wish everyone a blessed 2013.

Concerning dragons

I just saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night.  I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised — in my opinion, it was an excellent movie with very few flaws, and that’s about the best you can really say about a movie.  I’ll be writing a review of it elsewhere, though, that’s not what this post is about.

Those of you who are familiar with the source material know of the dragon, Smaug, and how he’s an ancient terror, considered nigh-unstoppable.  I don’t think it’d be considered a spoiler for me to say that he’s portrayed as such in the film — a monster even the mighty, mystical elves are afraid of.

This brings us to the perennial question: are dragons best portrayed as Smaug-like, unstoppable juggernauts of death and destruction, or as surmountable loot-bags?

People have argued this before.  I’m not going to link to anything because I’m sure a cursory Google search will reveal hundreds of posts on the subject.  It’s also an unanswerable question, since it depends on context — in a loot-based, combat-heavy game, such as your average dungeon crawl, dragons have to be slayable otherwise most of the fun is lost.

The thing of it is, though, I think that your standard D&D dragons are really both.  In his excellent article, “Calibrating Your Expectations,” Justin Alexander points out that 3rd edition D&D (and, arguably, earlier editions) display remarkable fidelity with “real life” if you accept that there are no real-world people who are higher than level 5.  The creators of E6 ran with this idea and developed an entire game structure around it.

Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth, while being settings that contain all the tropes of high fantasy, are populated almost exclusively with low-level characters.  Mr Alexander persuasively makes the point that Aragorn can be adequately represented as a 5th-level character, and Gandalf, effectively an angel, displays nothing that would peg him as higher than level 10 (though it’s nice to see him actually throw down in the newest movie).  Against a group of 3rd-to-5th-level dwarven fighters, even a middle-aged dragon is an almost-unstoppable threat.

I actually have to plead a bit of mea culpa on this one.  I’d posted earlier about how absurd a bog-standard fighter seems to me in the heart of a dungeon.  Given this re-calibration of my expectations (and seeing The Avengers), I have to say that I was thinking about it the wrong way.

A dragon is a monster, death incarnate, for mortal men.  But characters cease to be mortal sometime between levels 5 and 8 (depending on class and system).  They traverse the boundary between hero (i.e. Hawkeye or Black Widow) and superhero (i.e. Captain America or Tony Stark and his magic armor).  And while Thorin Oakenshield might be powerless to stop a dragon, Iron Man has a much better chance.

So that’s how dragons are both terrible monsters of old, and speed-bumps standing between players and their loot.  It’s not a matter of the creature, it’s a matter of whether those fighting it are mere mortals or superheroes.

Monocultures

monoculture_farming

It’s a common trope for there to exist monocultures in speculative fiction.  For those unfamiliar, the term “monoculture” is used to refer to the principle that “all elves are the same,” i.e. they are all artistic, magical, dwarf-hating hippies.  Though the “hippie” thing might better refer to the popular depiction of gnomes, but I digress.

The usual complaint is that this sort of thing is unrealistic.  After all, monocultures don’t exist within the real world — we have a wide and disparate array of cultural memes, some shared by fewer than a hundred people.  Obviously intelligent creatures don’t form monocultures.  The very idea is obviously the mark of a lazy writer — even Tolkien introduced variety into his fantasy races.  (Seriously, Tolkienian elves aren’t a monoculture — Rivendell and Lorien are pretty different.)  Right?

Well…

Take a look at a village of five hundred people.  A fantasy village, now.  Those people are all going to have the same culture, right?  You could meet one person from that village and it’d be safe to assume that person would be a representative sample of his local population, with respect to traditions, taboos and cultural norms.  He’s a member of the culture, and on the village level, that culture is a monoculture.  And that’s okay, nobody ever questions that.

So how large can you get before it starts to be a problem?  The village principle certainly still applies to a town, and even to a city.  While at the city level you have more individual variation, the people are still largely united by a tribal identity.  They’re still all part of the same culture, even if the edges are a bit fuzzier.

Let’s think bigger.  In ancient Greece, you had a lot of city-states.  The Athenians were different from the Spartans, but assumptions could be made about you if you grew up in Sparta.  So each of the city-states clearly had their own culture.  But all of the city-states shared their identity as Greeks, since they all spoke the same language.  So which is the culture?  The city-state culture or the “Greek” culture?

I’d argue that the “cultural identity” starts to break down at about the city level.  There’s a number thrown around, perhaps a hundred thousand people, beyond which governments start to get bloated to the point of being unable to accomplish anything.  Beyond this number people start to lose their identity as a tribe.  They stop identifying the people beyond that number as “us” and start identifying them as “them.”  So maybe a hundred thousand people is the limit to how big a culture can be.

But we don’t think that way, do we?  Sure, our “own” culture might only be a hundred thousand people, but we Americans tend to really buy into cultural stereotypes.  All Russians are dour alcoholics.  All Polish are dumb alcoholics.  All Irish are violent alcoholics.  All Germans are jovial alcoholics.  All French are snobbish wine-drinkers.  (Amazing how often alcohol seems to figure into things.)  Each of those “cultures” has well over a hundred thousand people.

It’s tempting to define culture by national boundaries — even though we know intellectually that those stereotypes aren’t representative of the culture in question, we still buy into them.  We still think that way.  But our stereotypes are writ even larger than that — our own culture has a big problem with Arabs.  Granted, that’s not a culture so much as it is a stereotype, but the two ideas do have some overlap.

And now for the other end of this.  It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Western culture is coming to dominate the world.  We export our movies and music to markets everywhere on Earth.  English is, if not thede facto lingua francaof the world, one of the top three.  You can’t go anywhere on the planet where you’re not within a day’s travel of a McDonalds.  The advent of the Internet and free trade is only accelerating this kind of cultural sharing and assimilation.

It’s not a matter of if we are moving towards a planet-wide monoculture, but of how long it’s going to take to get there.

There will still be regional differences.  Hot dogs from Rochester will still taste different than hot dogs from Watertown.  But I would bet that, within a hundred years, you could pluck any random human from the population and that human would be as accurate a snapshot of the world culture as any Muscovite is of Moscow’s culture today.

Therefore I would argue that the idea of a monoculture isn’t as weird or unlikely as the critics would claim, particularly within works that portray information-rich civilizations.  It’s slightly more absurd to apply it to elves and dwarves, I’ll agree, but I have a couple thoughts on that.

Firstly, what causes culture?  It’s being around it every day.  That’s why Western culture is spreading across the planet like a virus: you can’t escape it.  It’s in the media.  It’s in advertising.  It’s on the Internet, and it’s not going away.  The only reason there are so many cultures in the world is because travel used to be difficult and dangerous.  Ideas couldn’t spread as quickly and easily as they do now.  But in a magical world, a fantasy world, many of these obstacles are removed for the sake of adventure.

Likewise, the fantasy races that are most often presented as monocultures tend to be very long-lived.  This means that the effect I just detailed is going to be even more profound, since ideas have much longer to spread.  It also means that the “seed” culture from which the racial cultures were derived isn’t going to have had as much of a chance to drift.  (Recall that all humans once came from the same valley in Africa — cultural drift is what has caused such insane diversity.)  This lack of drift is compounded by the fact that most fantasy worlds haven’t had millions of years for cultural drift to even start happening — when your oldest elves can remember the forging of the world, it’s suddenly no longer so implausible that all the elves in the world have the same cultural markers.

So maybe the idea of the monoculture isn’t as far-fetched as we tend to assume.  Maybe it’s actually the more likely scenario given the factors in question, and our modern, highly-but-increasingly-less-balkanized culture is the exception.  Maybe the real mark of lazy writing lies in not asking why there’s a monoculture, instead of just putting one there in the first place.

Food for thought.

Draft Teamwork Rules

There are many situations in which characters can (or must) work together in order to Get Things Done™.  Maybe they’re searching a room as a group, or trying to sneak as a group past some monsters.  Maybe they’re all working together to forage, or each doing their part to blaze a trail.  These are some of the circumstances under which these rules can be used.

These rules assume a d20-esque rule set, a skill system, and some manner of Advantage rules.

Definitions

Whenever a group of characters is working together to accomplish some extended task, these rules come into play.  In those circumstances, one character is designated the Leader and the other participants are designated Contributors.  The Leader will generally have the highest score in the skill being used, but not always, since in order to be a Leader, the character must be trained in some kind of leadership skill.  The specific skill necessary varies, but should be something that could be used to get people to work together, e.g. Diplomacy, Empathy, or Intimidate.

In order to be a Contributor, the character must simply be trained in the skill in question, or the skill must be able to be used untrained. Finally, each Contributor must be able to communicate with the Leader in some intelligible way.

System

The Leader first makes his Leadership check, using one of the relevant skills as noted above.  This check is always modified by Charisma even if it usually uses a different attribute.  The DC of this check is 10, but the Leader takes a point of Disadvantage for every Contributor beyond the first.

The Contributors then each make the skill check that they are assisting with.  The DC for their check is the same as the default DC of the task, modified by the Leader’s margin on his Leadership check (i.e. subtract the Leader’s margin from the task DC).  Each Contributor who succeeds on this check grants the Leader a point of advantage on his final skill check, while each failure grants a point of disadvantage.

Finally, the Leader makes the actual, final skill check in question.  His success or failure on this check determines the outcome of the group action.

Examples

Virek the rogue is trying to sneak his allies past a pair of goblin sentries.  He has the highest Stealth check of anyone in the party, and also has ranks in Empathy, allowing him to act as Leader for this action.  The others, not being sneaky types, have to make do with their DEX modifiers to act as Contributors.

Virek first makes his Leadership check, using Empathy modified by his decent CHA.  He has four Contributors, so the check is made at a three-point Disadvantage.  Nonetheless, he rolls well, and manages a result of 16, beating the DC by 6.

The DM has determined that the sentries have a Perception score of 15.  Virek’s margin of success was 6, so the target DC for each of the Contributors is only 9 — within striking distance for all of them except the heavily-armored Naormain the paladin.  Munchaus the wizard rolls a 12, Buliwyf the cleric gets a 14, Legandir the druid manages a 19, but Naormain’s armor penalty reduces his roll to a 4.  These results mean that the group provides Virek three points of Advantage and one point of Disadvantage for his action check.

Finally, Virek rolls Stealth against the goblins’ Perception of 15.  He has two points of Advantage on this roll, meaning his result is 19, handily beating the goblins.  Virek and company are able to sneak past the sentries and move onto the next part of the dungeon.

Rationale

I wanted a system that reflected the ins and outs of working as a team — one that takes into account the fact that more people are harder to corral effectively, but more talent brought to the party generally increases the chances of success.  The initial Leadership roll determines how effectively the leader is able to marshal his “troops” — if he does so effectively, the troops have an easier time contributing to the task, while if he is ineffective, disorganization and mutual interference make the task that much harder for everyone.

Why not just use the Aid Another rules?  Because they don’t take quality of leadership into account, for one, and because they don’t cover group activity.  A case in point is the scenario presented above: Virek, using only Aid Another, could assist only one of the party members in the sneaking.

Aid Another still has its uses.  Combat, for example, probably wouldn’t be a good application of the Teamwork rules, though there’s no good reason why they couldn’t be used as such.  Likewise, any simple, immediate task involving only two people is probably better-suited to Aid Another than teamwork would be.