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The kerosene whale

April 27, 2011 Leave a comment

The kerosene whale is the world’s only source of lamp oil. In addition to the highly sought after, and highly flammable, eponymous oil, it provides source material for a wide variety of waxes, preservatives and mordants. Its baleen is used in fashion, in combs and for magicians’ quills, its jawbones make perfect howdah bows for the larger dinosaurs and its eyes, pickled, can be sold at good prices to alchemists. Unsurprisingly it has all but withdrawn from the shores of civilisation: whaling expeditions must now venture far out into the uncharted Sea of Tar to find their prey.

Only fully mature whales have the huge subcutaneous mixed oil deposits that make hunting profitable. Now that kerosene whales have begun traveling in pods up to a score strong, those adults are protected by juveniles who, lacking the large nose-bulbs of their parents, are confident to attack the ships sent after them, sometimes co-ordinating their strikes to capsize large vessels and drag sailors down to the depths in whirlpools.

Whalemen and sages agree that the whales have changed their behaviour because of human hunting. Most dismiss as paranoid raving the suggestion that they are reacting specifically to the use of live kerosene whales as floating bombs in the recent wars. How, they ask, could the whales know? They are, after all, only monsters.

Update: of course the sages could resolve this problem if only they had City of Iron’s whale speech.

High INT, low WIS

April 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Stephane Breitwieser, noted art thief, has been caught trying to sell more stolen art after he went to prison, wrote his memoirs and became world famous for doing exactly that.

Now White Collar would have you believe that the way out of this mess is a high CHA, but I say the most successful con men are the ones who never get caught. In other words, respected practitioners and citizens, not lowlife imitators.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? What use is a thief that everyone knows is a thief (or an assassin, while we’re about it)? And here’s my counter-proposal to Jovial‘s and others’ thieves: don’t make it a split class like OA’s ninja. Instead, ditch the thief class but award specifically thiefly xp every time anyone of any class does thiefly stuff. Sneakily, so the other players don’t see. And it has to be dishonest, secretive stuff: finding and disarming traps should be roleplayed, and boring or standard traps shouldn’t be in your dungeon anyway. There, I said it. No more bomb disposal experts, because bombs are most fun when your players, with no specialist skills, are the ones who have to figure them out.

Mechanics TBD. Don’t worry too much about balance, rate of advance, numbers of xp to award for this side game, the numbers for skill rolls – in fact I might abstract all such rolls to a save vs. whatever at your thiefly level. And maybe you have to amass N thiefly xp to get onto level 1.

Adventure seeds from this sorry art fiasco:

– a treasure evaluator is coming to town. Only you know the baron’s castle is full of fakes and fool’s gold. Deflect manure from a/c.
– it turns out your treasure is all fake. Oops. Only this gnome with the twinkling eyes knows about it though. Hey, where’d he go?
– fashions change, values go down as well as up. That’s a nice emerald necklace you got there, for 2 seasons ago. Maybe they still want that stuff in the provinces. Also, gold? Pfffff, since the mine opened up what we really need around here is steel. And food. You go find us some of that.
– Cugel’s in the slammer again, and he’s taking all your contacts down with him. Who knew the only cleric in town who could Raise Dead was also a big time fence?
– you know that Eye of Vecna you found? There’s a guy here calls himself Vecna… He says yours isn’t the real deal… He has 30 others he wants to compare yours with…
– where’d you get those scrolls? They say they do what? You wanna get that verified?
– funny, all those magic items worked fine in the shop.

The best tamper-protection I’ve ever seen on a magic item is around the rim of John Dee’s Holy Table, a kind of procedural True Name generator for all angels/demons ever: Merely to see the names of these entities is enough to make them manifest. And it’s in Enochian, so you have to have someone who can read magic script before you get to know you’ve let the monsters out.

The size of your brush

April 21, 2011 1 comment

Posting here will be infrequent and brief until I get my current chapter finished. Alas.

James M muses on class and skill based systems, and how the latter seems more appropriate for SF gaming.

My immediate objection is that SF is way too broad a genre/tendency to classify in this way. Sword and Planet seems to work just fine with classes (and the biggest sword and planet franchise of them all, Star Wars, seems practically to beg for classes – provided, as always, that you can invent your own classes as needed). A bunch of SF settings pretty much demand classes: anything kinda military has them built right in as job descriptions (Star Trek, anyone? How many classes were there in original Battlestar Galactica?).

But all these settings assume clear genres of action – a particular style of adventuring, certain well-developed archetypical roles for the PCs in the world – and all the ones I’ve mentioned have historically been represented by skill based systems or hybrid skill/archetype systems anyway.

WTF?

Take Traveller as a shining example. Like D&D, it was blazing a trail into unknown roleplaying territory. Like D&D it assumed a limited set of possible backgrounds for PCs, and those backgrounds often looked a whole lot like possible fantasy equivalents. Scout. Um, like Strider? Army/marines. Like a fighter? The novel, specifically SF category, Navy, was still easy to find fantasy equivalents for: somewhere between Pirate and Paladin, and defined by what you need to operate a ship.

But it didn’t do character classes. Instead you had to go through this whole minigame to get skill levels: it wasn’t enough to say “I’m a marine.” Even though the tramp trader/patrons/missions scheme was as ironclad in its way as the dungeon. Even though it assumed your adventures began with mustering out and had nothing to say about employment or unemployment in the civilian world. Even though, in its sketchy outlines, it encouraged you to paint your world with a pretty broad brush (while Star Wars pretty much only had size 36s available – if you want to run a game of subtle politics and/or subsistence farming in the Star Wars universe, good luck).

Why skills? I don’t know. I wonder, though, if there’s some sense that a man’s fate shouldn’t be decided for him in SF. I wonder if there’s some American Revolution thing going on here. Because back in the bad old days people thought in archetypes (so we’re told). And fantasy encourages a certain kind of brushwork (so we’re lead to believe) that tends to repeat old familiar gestures. And maybe in fantasy we create worlds that we wouldn’t actually want to inhabit ourselves, but which we appreciate as a kind of ballet or opera: something with a known level of artifice? (although see Robin Laws’ discussion on the gender politics of fantasy worlds for how well-recognised and tolerated such artifice really is). And maybe in SF there’s always more overt connection to our own world and way of life – some utopian dream or dystopian warning, and if we’re playing in those worlds then in some way we’re more concretely playing us, and there’s no way you’re judging me by my job.

Maybe. The real test of that idea would be Western games, and whether they use class or skill systems, but I can only think of Boot Hill and I never played it myself. My other hypothesis is that SF worlds tend to promise more open-ended play and therefore cannot be as well-defined as fantasy ones. There’s always some other swathe of planets or countries or peoples the stories haven’t visited yet, some other way of doing things, of interacting, and in the end a class is a closed set of ideas about what you do in a game – the tools you bring to bear, that fit you for a specific context. What’s Conan the Destroyer going to do when he gets to Starfleet Academy? (and on that point see Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles). And maybe that’s why skills seem to fit them better, because as a Modern Man you know you always have to retrain. Brash Pilot? It’s a job. One day you’ll settle down and become a responsible pilot. Or fisherman, until you can get that stardrive repaired and get off this  uninhabited swamp.

Pirates, privateers or psychopaths?

April 14, 2011 4 comments

So Eric Minton of The Mule Abides has been wondering what to do with players who slaughter their hirelings once the horses are loaded, and Cyclopeatron’s been worrying about how the sleep spell turns his players into sadists and murderers. In short, why do players act like psychopaths, and what should you do about it?

The comments show the obvious poles – do nothing, that’s the game on one side and punish them mechanically on the other, and a larger punishing camp who want the pain to be felt in the idiom of the game-world. Although so far the extent of that re hirelings seems to be have the free market sort it out (make reputation count, have hirelings sign on with other groups who sometimes bring a few back alive, reduce the quality/usefulness of the hirelings who stay with the group). The most popular solution seems to be to reduce the mechanical motivations for hireling slaughter (by decoupling xp from hireling wages) and to make sleep less useful.

I think the root of the problem lies elsewhere. St. Yossarian’s comment on Cyclopeatron avers:
your actions should always be defined in context, with the social mores of the world, region, and dungeon in which your gameplay is taking place

and then proposes a bunch of ways in which the world might act back against PC-perpetrated outrages against those mores:
Do the goblins refuse to surrender, knowing there’s a party of people around murdering defenseless goblins in their sleep?Do the goblins raise a huge party and slaughter the children of Pleasantshire in retribution for the slaughter inflicted on their hunting party?

That’s fine, if there’s a world out there with mores to act back, and if the players have some mental model of that world that expects consequences. But very often those worlds are woefully thin backdrops to the real action, which happens in a purpose-built, limited-consequences, racialized funhouse heterotopia, made specifically to support pyschopathic behaviors – what happens in the Tomb of Horrors stays in the Tomb of Horrors. In particular, very often PCs have no social role to play at all outside the dungeon. They are defined functionally, by the means they use to extract cash from monsters: fighting, stealing, fighting with magic or fighting/turning/healing. They may possibly belong to guilds. They may possibly get hit up for taxes and tolls. They may be given jobs to do by the local lord. But none of this gives them any more traction in the world than the Man With No Name or High Plains Drifter. They don’t expect to find romance or support dependents or receive gratitude from the populace even enjoy their famous carousing (which tends to wind up in fights. Ahem).

And that’s pretty much a definition of pyschopathy or sociopathy: the PCs don’t engage with the world or other people like they matter because they can’t see them mattering: it’s a problem of suspension of disbelief. The DM who is disturbed by torture or summary execution is probably working with Kantian ideas – bad acts are bad in themselves – modified by racial categories – killing goblins isn’t bad – which they take for granted because it’s their world. They know where they’ve drawn the lines between the people who matter and the ones who don’t. But the players are in a landscape that consists only of threats. Villages are cute scenery because they are low-threat areas, but they have little to do with the reward system of the game.

I propose a different, not very OS solution: get the players to define their social role and history. They aren’t fresh out of the character mills. They have mothers and maybe kids. And they aren’t PCs, nor even “adventurers:” nobody considered themselves an “adventurer” until the 19th century had made the East safe and pliable enough to support such a conceit. Are they bandits, pest control, defenders of the faith, knights errant or what? Mike Monaco reckons “pirates” is a good description for his players, and I think that’s probably true of most groups conceptually but it’s already a big step up socially from where most groups are today, because many pirates drew up constitutions to maintain peace and order among themselves, because they knew their categories between hunter and prey weren’t all that reliable and they planned, many of them, to retire some day and actually spend that loot.

Maybe more desirable than “pirate” (or bandit/gangsta/warlord) is “privateer.” History is not authoritative, but it does come up with good ideas, even for handling dungeoneering groups, hireling fees and murderous employers. A sailor on a Dutch privateer in 1600 could expect 2 months’ advance, one share of all loot (compared with the captain who could get 4-8 shares) and compensation in the event of being disabled or killed, paid to a named beneficiary. They also organized their own insurance cooperatives, to bail them out if they got ransomed by slavers. All this was handled by independent agents so everyone knew it was equitable. If you signed on you got a license to kill, pillage and spend, as long as you only did it to enemy forces. You weren’t generally required to keep prisoners alive but you could face legal consequences for abusing your own people, and those prisoners might be worth money or influence back in town. And you got benefits, both on the job and back home: privateering was a respectable business. It could even be heroically patriotic. It could lead to riches, good marriages and political power – a direct stake in the business and government of the city, region and state. And you could keep sailing and adventuring while you did it. Don’t fancy becoming a burgher with a little garden and a Calvinist governess for the kids? Malay and Bugis captains around the same period had similar career paths and social status while evoking more of a piratical or Beowulf vibe. Think it all sounds too modern? Warrior cultures the world over, from the Masai to Beowulf’s Geats to pre-Islamic Bedouin tied their fighting men to the communal hearth: you brought riches back from the unknown and you made them valuable by exchanging them back home for reputation. Through your mighty deeds you fed and protected the village, under your watch no poor child went hungry, and the men who went out with you did so to share in your success, not because you paid them a pittance like the semi-slaves of early modern merchant shipping, but because you were showing what heroism was.

Just imagine that.

I aim to pay my Joesky tax in the next post with a bunch of real-world solutions to the hireling hiring problem, and extra-disgusting ways in which people could get forced into dangerous, dirty jobs, all courtesy of the Dutch East India Company.

Learning from Las Pokemons

April 14, 2011 3 comments

It’s a recurring theme over here that no matter how old school you are, there’s something you can learn from other games of the past 1-10-20-30 years, and that the other Most Popular RPGs are worth mining. In particular, that that denigrated gesamtwerk Pokemon has rich veins laced through it.

One of those veins is the massive palette of attacks available in the game. Some of these are common, some are unique to particular creatures. A bunch are more or less the same, or identical except for being tied to one of the “elemental” types (of which there are 17: take that, Galen). Many don’t make any sense. But that still leaves a couple of hundred that are distinctive and that can turn up in the most surprising places. So here’s a list of pokemonious adjectives to suggest game effects, to apply to your next goblin, orc or slime, to select with your favourite randomizer and to mix things up a little out in the chaos wastes:

1: constricting, 2: venomous, 3: fiery, 4: screeching, 5: surfing, 6: burrowing,
7: vampiric, 8: confusing, 9: ghostly, 10: terrifying, 11: enervating, 12: sticky,
13: charming, 14: infuriating, 15: seductive, 16: intoxicating, 17: paralyzing, 18: invisible,
19: stealthy, 20: regenerating, 21: soporific, 22: freezing, 23: disarming, 24: snatching,
25: scratching, 26: biting, 27: electrifying, 28: possessing, 29: psychic, 30: oracular,
31: multiplying, 32: shrinking, 33: fast, 34: heavily laden, 35: sleeptalking, 36: dream-eating,
37: rooted, 38: leech-seeding, 39: hypnotic, 40: stone, 41: tenacious, 42: hard-shelled,
43: bellowing, 44: weather-controlling, 45: teleporting, 46: distracting, 47: flying, 48: iron
49: outraged, 50: thorny, 51: caltrop-strewing, 52: fleeing, 53: character-hurling, 54: leaping,
55: extravagantly-tailed, 56: deafening, 57: blinding, 58: self-destructing, 59: amnesiac, 60: lucky,
61: clear-bodied, 62: oscillating, 63: fast-learning, 64: mimicking, 65: meteor-summoning, 66: elemental-bolt-throwing,
67: gripping, 68: guillotining, 69: whirlwind-attacking, 70: binding, 71: whipping, 72: acidic
73: fog-generating, 74: slave-taking, 75: rock-throwing, 76: earth quaking, 77: meditative, 78: agile,
79: protective, 80: clockwork, 81: licking, 82: sludge-bombing, 83: mattock-swinging, 84: soft-bodied,
85: self-transforming, 86: gas belching, 87: dive-bombing, 88: dizzy, 89: boomerang-wielding, 90: continuously-improving,
91: spiteful, 92: surprising, 93: destiny-twinned, 94: preternaturally-enduring, 95: milk-drinking*, 96: bell-striking,
97: tag-teaming, 98: moonlighting, 99: pursuing, 100: misleading, 101: shadow-sneaking, 102: power-stockpiling,
103: anticipating, 104: equipment-seizing, 105: helpful, 106: roleplaying, 107: erupting, 108: camouflaged,
109: glowing, 110: lustrous OR lustre-destroying, 111: dancing, 112: crushing, 113: cannon-carrying, 114: crying,
115: trail-sniffing, 116: tickling**, 117: water-spouting, 118: plant-controlling, 119: unflappable, 120: gravity-increasing,
121: whirling, 122: grenading, 123: cover-exploiting, 124: magic-proof, 125: bodyswapping, 126: trick-room-luring
127: potion-flinging, 128: telekinetic, 129: gravity-ignoring, 130: bardic, 131: acrobatic, 132: retaliatory,
133: sacred, 134: web-spinning, 135: light-controlling, 136: demon-dealing, 137: steamrolling, 138: gear-grinding,
139: techno-blasting***, 140: relic-singing, 141: secret-weapon-bearing, 142: glaciating, 143: icicle-spearing, 144: fusing,
145: skin-shedding, 146: cauterizing, 147: flinch-inducing, 148: monster-vomiting, 149: land-parching, 150: crockery-breaking.****

* I kid you not. I’m guessing it’s milk with knives in it, like Alex and his droogs drink to get them ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.
** funny to everyone who’s never been set on by a nightgaunt. Think how incapacitating it can be. Imagine it happening unexpectedly. Figure out why they’re doing exactly this. Creep your players out.
*** no, I don’t know. I’m thinking they’re blasting you with some technological gizmo rather than deeper house, but do what you feel, man.
**** like scorned Latin women in 60s movies or Greeks at weddings? Maybe. Or maybe those pots contain something you don’t want released.

Believe it or not this is pretty selective. I deliberately didn’t include Leek Slap, Horn Hazard (inappropriate?), Bench manipulation (definitely inappropriate), Boyfriends (too specific), or Afternoon Nap. Do The Wave and Eggsplosion were excluded on grounds of taste, though if you’re playing T&T, by all means go for it. Continuous Fireball I consider to be an unattainable piece of cheese for a long campaign. Magnum Punch was just too nostalgic, even for me. And Sporadic Sponging is something I try to avoid.

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Cughell’s cupiditous ciosc

April 7, 2011 1 comment

In the Friday mosque at Firuzabad they tell of a bold, ingenious and prolific thief, who would set himself up in front of another merchant’s stall in the market and sell their goods, magicked up for him by an enchanted shop-front he plastered over his victim’s. The wares he sold would crumble to dust or melt into smoke hours after their purchase – when the gulled buyers returned to confront the thief he would inevitably be gone or, so wilder rumours claim, might be seen folding his trick shop-front up into a little wooden case, before running off into the tangled crowd. Those repeatedly tricked added details to the story: the shop-front was only paper thin but it looked just like the closed shop it covered over – some claimed they had even been allowed into back rooms for tea, or to examine rare and valuable items. It could be recognised by the dove that always cooed from a cage at the front. And the wares always closely resembled those of the real, closed shops that the thief had obscured, so that many distinguished old hajjis have been banned from the market for fighting with shopkeepers that they insist have swindled them. Stories from other cities and markets differ in small details: one centres on the thief’s distinctive turban, another on his parrot, a third on the curious lightness of the bogus goods. Some storytellers purport to be the thief’s erstwhile friends – they say the thief was himself a respectable, upstanding man but that after he acquired the shop-front his mind turned to greed and trickery. In Firuzabad the thief has now not been heard of in a month. There is a rumour that the vizier has him imprisoned, and has confiscated his remarkable kiosk.

A philosophical post about armour class

April 7, 2011 1 comment

John Carter is never truly naked, for he retains his wit.

Trollsmyth posted this about naked warriors.* Admit it, we all like them. Naked, or unarmoured, or even lightly armoured warriors account for several characters important to the source (ahem) literature.**  I blame the Greeks. But D&D hates them and stamps them into the dungeon floor. Even the monk, who should be totally woo-woo invincible if you follow the Hong Kong filmography gets to be about as good as a guy in crappy old scale mail that a first level fighter wouldn’t go near unless he was stealing it from the gnoll that imprisoned him and stole his plate mail.

Now admittedly, much of that nudity is a visible expression of badassery: these guys are so mean they don’t even wear armour! I get it. It makes sense. But your PCs will pass on that badassery, thanks, because the dice of D&D are final arbiters, and reducing your chance of taking damage by 5% in every single combat round beats all arguments or show. And so the noble warrior of the hills becomes a laden-down pragmatist, and doesn’t it make more sense to ambush those orcs than face them head on? And frankly it would be best to knock em all out from behind so we can slit their throats in safety. And those are your heroes and that’s the game you’re playing. Which is just how some people like it but not always and not everyone. And winning through superior technology may be “true” but it doesn’t help us tell satisfying stories of forza vs. frodo: instead it helps us tell colonial stories. Which, again, might be fine for sword v planet, but might not be the life-affirming nostalgic-nationalistic expression of prowess you were looking for. (I’m not here to judge: I’m just saying there are different goods people want their games to deliver, is all.)

I don’t have a ready answer for the bigger issues of psychopathic anti-heroism.*** But on today’s smaller issue, I’m going to confess a terrible thing: I have no idea just how much help armour should be in a fight. And I suspect Gary didn’t either. Sure, there’s historical precedent. It all makes common sense. But there are anti-precedents, too, and anyway it’s not about history it’s about what you want in your game. I think Gary ranked a set of different armour types from an encyclopedia according to gut feel (prejudice) and assigned numbers ’til it felt like a simulation. The result is a tall tree of possibilities crowned by one best suit of armor that does more to ensure a 1st level character’s survival than the next n experience levels.

Simulationist? Maybe. Satisfying? Depends. Under 1e armour rules any MU or thief who doesn’t walk about in plate mail is a fool: take it off when you want to do your special juju.**** Unless goblins in your world don’t shoot people in the back. Choose spells that aren’t quick-fire ambush-foilers and hire a bodyguard to replicate that magic missile.

And the rest of the game – which is all abilities and threats on arbitrary scales – is built around a plate mail standard, because it’s there. Goblins are crap because of plate mail. Artillery is a crock because of plate mail.

It needn’t be. Just change the AC numbers for armour. They’re not sacred. Or change your D20 for a D30 and change all base to hit numbers (by, say, +7). But most of all (and I love this about Trollsmyth’s post) play up other factors that make the choice of armour a trade-off, a matter of strategic deliberation, rather than a no-brainer. Allow improved AC for dodging, cover, shadows, levels, surprise/preparedness. Armour restricts your senses, making you easier to surprise, and clanks, making it harder for you to surprise others. It slows you down and tires you out. It’s harder to taunt the other guy into a foolish rage if you’re wearing a full helm – I’m guessing turning undead and rallying hirelings might be similar. I’m not going to say what will work for the game you want*****, but consider this: how lightly would you put a +3 sword in a first level dungeon? Plate mail (400gp at the market) is a +6 shield.

Or change the world. Outside historical games, historical precedent is useful for 3 things: 1; sparking creative ideas, 2; helping suspend disbelief and 3; establishing a common language of expectations (when you agree on your history/terms). With long-term players #2 is the problem here: their prejudices are set by familiarity with one system. Trollsmyth’s rationales are partly aimed at fighting that. I might just change the technology – lightsabres or ghost blades will cut straight through your breastplate. Or metals are so scarce that even swords are like diamonds: wooden spears are the order of the day, and obsidian-chip swords. And trust me, you don’t want a breastplate made out of obsidian chips. Yow.

* Beware the video link: features unchained wild women.
** Note: despite video link above this is not a plea for chainmail bikini gaming. Not. At. All. But it is a plea for diversity: plate mail is the standard in D&D, nothing else makes sense. That’s a decision that pulls the game away from a whole load of swords and whatever source material. Why would we accept that tyranny? Next you’ll say there can be no rayguns.
*** Alignment didn’t work out so well, and Vampire, which tried to keep its characters aware of an abyss of unplayable animalism, seemed rather to invite them to jump into it. Worst of all is the Cthulhu party, who know that no matter how depraved they become, there are worse depravities awaiting those who don’t do what it takes (and I so want to run a CoC game where that itself is the trap).
****Bracers of defense? Now you can Arnie around in a loincloth? Sorry, it’s more practical to give them to all those MUs and thieves to shorten their boot times. Makes me wonder what class Wonder Woman is.
***** though I would collapse all kinds of flexible metal mail into one category in a heartbeat, and maybe distinguish them by other factors, or maybe not. And maybe turn shields into a saving throw of some kind. Then I could say, for instance, all leather/cloth armours: AC -1. All flexible mails: AC -2. Solid/magic mails: AC -3, and dodge/shield is a saving throw with a penalty equal to your AC bonus.
****** You promised me nudity and all I get is hectoring systems blahblah! WTF!!!1111! Here. Eye candy.

MOST DISTURBING THING I LEARNED THROUGH ALL THIS: General Butt Naked. Right up there with the Tonton Macoutes and the wildest stories about Idi Amin. Sit down before you read it.