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Goodman Games stole my idea

June 15, 2011

before I came up with it.  Clearly this means that they are in possession of a time-tunnel and the HYBRID-RPG guy is on to something after all (bless his fractured soul.)

Anyway, I downloaded the Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, and whaddyaknow, HIS clerics can pray for random shit too.  The main difference between his system and mine is that my strictures are applied to making sure players don’t try it too often (once every ten sessions being the optimal amount of time), while making the results of the prayer pretty much up to the DM, whereas Goodman’s restrictions lie in making a granted prayer contingent on a dice roll (a “spell check”, in his system.)

That’s kind of an interesting difference, isn’t it?  I suppose that it comes down to two visualizations of the same process:  my rules assume that a prayer is directly beseeching the DM for his/her favor and not the “gods of chance”, so to speak, and Goodman sees it as a question of pure probability.  Oh well, what can I say?  I have ABSOLUTELY no problem with DM fiat, and I figure that if any character should get a little extra fiatitude it should be the cleric.

The Laws of Thrax: Clerics and Miracles

June 11, 2011

Every time I try to talk to someone it's "sorry this" and "forgive me that" and "I'm not worthy"...

You know what’s generally just all around awesome?  House rules.  I love house rules, and that’s a huge part of why I love Swords & Wizardry/OD&D/LotFP/etc.  Sure, you can and should house rule any system, but these games EXPECT you to do so and are simple enough that you can screw around with them without fear of making the whole game go wonky.

So, from time to time, I’ll be putting out some of the rules from my own game, for the purposes of discussion or inspiration or degredation or whatever.

Today:  CLERICS AND MIRACLES.

Two sessions ago, my cleric player got into trouble and  died.  Well, it was pretty clear that she was going to die, but at the last second the player said “I pray for mercy!”  Okay, so she did, and I decided that her goddess would shed a bit of the divine light and allow a re-roll on the Death and Dismemberment Table, and lo and behold, the cleric lived.

And that just seemed *right*, you know?  I mean, clerics should just be able to pray for things, any kind of thing, and sometimes their god should hear it and perform.

A few evenings later, I came up with some rules.

At any time, a cleric can pray for something… ANYTHING.  “Please heal my broken arm/cure my disease/save me from death/turn this water to wine/give the king syphilis/curse the peasants with a plague of flies/part the red sea”, anything at all.

The first question is, does the god hear the prayer?  The cleric has a cumulative 10% chance per session that has passed since the last prayer attempt.  So if she prayed for rain last game, the cleric has a 10% chance of being heard, but if it has been 10 sessions since the last time she has a 100% of getting through.  And please note, this is since the last prayer attempt, whether successful or not.

Okay, so the god has heard the prayer.  Now what?  Well, the DM has to decide what happens, and that’s it.  If the character is higher level, “devout” and asking for a reasonable thing in line with the god’s area of influence (“Please Diana, goddess of the hunt, send us a fat stag so that we will not starve in the wilderness”) then it should work.  But if, on the other hand, the character is not particularly devout, a low level and/or asking for something that’s kind of a big deal or outside the sphere of influence of the god (“God of the Sea, please set that tower on fire”), then no, it’s just not going to happen.  And if that cleric should have recently sinned in the eyes of his god or is asking for something completely unreasonable, then a full on curse or a good ol’ fashioned smiting is in order.

Which brings us to the next question:  What constitutes “devotion”?  And that, I’m afraid, must be left up to the individual DM and player, because I like my house rules nice and simple.  But, in general, the player should be making some effort to appease his god from time to time in a manner that seems appropriate to that god’s area of influence.  If he worships a god of the hunt, then prayers of thanks after a successful hunt, animal sacrifices, and feasts of wild game are perhaps in order.  If he worships the god of war, then there better be some combat related rituals (meditative sword sharpening?  bathing a mace in blood?)  And, I would say, the more complicated a ritual and the more resources it consumes, the more pleasing it is in the eyes of the deity.

What makes a request “reasonable”?  Again, that’s up to the DM, but the more mundane the request, the higher its likelihood of being granted.  A 1st level cleric could probably get away with praying to heal himself, for instance, and a 15th level cleric who has given his god lots of sacrifices and performed many complicated rituals costing tens of thousands of gold pieces could call for an avenging angel to descend from the heavens and rain fire on his enemies.  It’s up to the player to try and gain that worthiness, and up to the DM to decide if they have.

If any readers should wander over to this lonely little corner of the OSR blogosphere, please drop me a line and let me know your thoughts on this rule.

WTF LotFP?

June 2, 2011

I don’t QUITE know what the repercussions are, but it seems like a good sign for the scene when one of the OSR systems catches the attention of a non-gaming site like Something Awful.  Congratulations on being made fun of, Mr. Raggi!

The Birth of a Macguffin

June 1, 2011

Like this, but eviller.So, my game right now revolves around a classic device:  my PCs are being chased because they have this thing, this important thing that a bad guy wants real bad.  What’s interesting about this trope, recycled from a bazillion movies, novels, video games comic books etc etc etc? Nothing much, except that I never intended for this to happen.

From the outset, this game was meant to be a stripped down Olde Schoole Adventure.   My pitch was basically, “There’s this dungeon, see, and stuff inside it that your characters want, you know, riches and magic and stuff.”  Not to say that the game was generic, mind you;  I did my best to make the dungeon flavorful and interesting, I characterized Town as an Old West shithole run by an Al Swearengen analog, that sort of thing.  But there was no “plot” to speak of.

But then the PCs started asking around about the dungeon and the history of the Thraxian civilization, and at some point I had one of the respondents tell them about this book, this Concordia Infernalis (and honestly, I don’t even know if that’s proper latin, all I know is that it sounded cool when I wrote it down) that the Thraxians were supposed to have used as a sort of WMD during their many wars, and they got really interested.

Now, here’s what I had written down about the Concordia in my dungeon key, where I had just kind of stuck it into a secret closet as one more interesting thing the PCs might discover:

8 sickly green books, 1 red leather book.  Filled with horrific motifs and siturbing [sic] diagrams.  If a 5th level wizard or above studies them for three months, doing nothing else, they will learn to summon 8 demons who will do their bidding.  If a lawful character burns them, he/she will gain 1,000xp.  If a “good” cleric burns them he/she will gain 2,000 xp AND a permanent +1 to all hit dice.  Thus their god’s gratefulness is proved.

Not exactly earth shaking stuff, but when Ye Olde and Kindly Wizard told the PCs about this book, and about how it had been used by the Thraxians (I kind of played it up a bit more as they asked me questions, turning it into a weapon that could destroy armies more or less on a whim), the PCs began to treat the very idea of it with such gravity that it naturally assumed a more prominent position in the campaign.  They were always mindful of checking out the books they came across in their explorations, searching for clues as to the Concordia’s whereabouts, wondering what might happen if the Ratmen got their hands on it, wondering if they could destroy it if they found it first.

And then, one day, they discovered it.  And they had no idea what to do with it, finally opting to just leave it in its place, hoping that the deadly traps that had cost one of them a hand would serve as enough of a deterrent to keep their enemies from getting it.  But now they were worried.  When they added a powerful undead cleric (a, uh, “preserved” relic of Thrax) to that list, they got really worried.

What could I do?  At this point, they needed the Concorida to be a central element of the game.  Hell, with very little help from me, they had already made it a central element.  So, I gave them a little push.  Their employer, it turned out, had designs on the Concordia as well and betrayed them in a spectacular fashion (even if it wasn’t as fatal as it perhaps should have been), and boom, the game changed.

Now they’ve got this thing, and they’re running with it and being chased.  And, despite never having envisioned this twist, I couldn’t be happier.  This, to my mind, is how the game should work, it should be a synthesis of DM and player input and feedback.  Not like story planning sessions or anything quite so self-consciously meta-game as that, but rather a mutual adaptability.  Or, how about this?  Like a ouija board with several honest participants.  We are all touching the planchette and guiding it with subtle motions, but it seems to move of its own accord, to take on a life of its own and none of us really know where it is going to wind up.

The Void (and Session 25-27)

May 19, 2011

Good lord.  You know what’s hard to do during a semester of grad school? Play D&D. You know what’s harder than that?  Blogging about it.

So, four months later and I’ve played, oh, let’s say twice.  I know it was more than once, and it may have been as much as three times, but I’m going to stick with twice. Oh wait, no, it was three times. Definitely.  Because  I forgot about the thing and guy and killing and the death.

It’s just, Jesus. Obviously, my writing is the priority, after family, and really, D&D is way low on my list of stuff that has to get done, so really, I should be pleased that I’ve managed to do two sessions this spring.

Last time I posted, I was moaning about not having the resolve to kill off a player character that by all rights should have died.  And you know what I figured out? It doesn’t matter a goddamned bit that I didn’t. Oh, maybe it undercut the dramatic climax of that particular session, but D&D is a game that goes on past those moments anyway.  The next time we played, the players weren’t sneering at my pulled punch or anything, they just played. In fact, as they planned and plotted on how they were going to escape from Sylvester of the Yellow Robe’s machinations, I realized that they were pretty much as invested as a group of players could be in the scenario, so I really shouldn’t get too hung up on this stuff.

Besides, I killed that sonufabitch the next time anyway.

See, the PCs made the mistake of trying to flee certain death by running down the main road.  And like any good teleporting wizard hell-bent on a scorched earth revenge, Big Bad Yellow Robe had an ambush ready to go, one that I’d worked out the week before.  There was fire and screaming and a last second escape.  It was awesome, and it just so happened that the guy who’d escaped death in the previous session found himself cornered yet again.

This is where it kind of gets interesting. If you’ll remember from the previous session, it was in precisely in this circumstance that my DM hand had quavered before. That time, when I should have killed him, I instead had Yellow Robe polymorph him into a frog, a circumstance that only lasted until the next dispel magic spell.  This time, as Yellow Robe raised his luminescent hands, I faced the same choice.

So I had Yellow Robe polymorph the cleric into a frog again, but this time he scooped the cleric up and stuck him in his pocket. A subtle difference, but an important one.

Now here’s the best part.  The froggy cleric soon found himself facing an important choice of his own.  He was afforded an opportunity to escape after Yellow Robe had hunted down another member of the party (the fighter) and had him backed up against rushing River Thrax.  Yellow Robe was sure to kill the fighter, and then take the dreaded Concrodia Infernalis (the current Macguffin), ensuring destruction of… well, all the normal things that get destructed, BUT the frog-cleric could use the tension filled moment to make his escape from the wizard’s unguarded pocket!  And he did!

But instead of fleeing, he crept up the wizard’s robe, positioned himself just-so on his shoulder and waited.  When he saw the fighter preparing to make one last, desperate stab at the nearly invincible spell caster, the frog-cleric leapt!  And hit Yellow Robe square on the nose!  Disctracting him!  Just long enough!  For the fighter’s blow to connect!  Piercing through Yellow Robe’s chest!

The wizard fell to the ground, and managed with his last breath (and hit point!) to whisper his teleport spell and he was gone.

And alas, the noble frog was gone, too, disappeared to Yellow Robe’s tower, removed from the almost-dead wizard’s body and placed into a jar, with a few blades of grass and some crickets, by one of his evil servants.

Kind of neat, eh?  I mean, the way that one session’s “failure of resolve” can set the stage for a pretty dramatic and satisfying episode later on down the road.  True, the cleric is still not dead, but he is out of the game for the foreseeable future, and I love, love the way that his fate was based on a precedent that I had only recently lamented as a terrible mistake.  Perhaps that’s a lesson:  There aren’t really any mistakes in this game, just story developments that you didn’t expect.

Session 24: A failure of resolve

January 13, 2011

Last week’s session was *awesome*.  This week’s session… well…

As a DM, you make plans, you consider options, try to predict where a player might go and what they might do.  For me, an absolutely vital part of Olde Schoole Playe is the presentation of options.  There should never be one path, one predetermined outcome, never a dead end.  BUT it is important to remember that it is a perfectly valid option for players to ignore, skip over, or just not notice all of those options and find themselves in a situation that you either didn’t predict, or had hoped to avoid.
And that’s what happened this session.  I scattered a few escape hatches around, along with intimations of impending doom, and yet, the characters marched blithely forward and found the inevitable awaiting them with open jaws.  Here is the cliff’s notes version:

The PCs have been acting in the employ of a powerful wizard who wishes, more than anything, for them to retrieve an ancient and very dangerous artifact from deep within the Buried Castle of Thrax.  Recently, they discovered incontrovertible evidence that this wizard murdered a close ally of theirs.  Wishing to prevent ANOTHER villain from acquiring the item (actually, a set of 9 books), and deciding that the best course of action was to scatter the books in a number of places so that nobody could use it (sort of an opposite of your standard “assemble the mighty Rod of Kings!” quest, which I dig), the PCs got the items, and then brought them back to the surface.  Where the Wizard was waiting for them.  Now, as I said, they knew he was up to no good, and I had scattered both hints that he was monitoring their progress as well as potential means of avoiding the very dead end that they suddenly found themselves in, but they didn’t pick up on either.  So, wizard demands the books, they refuse and begin to run away. And all Hell breaks loose.

Which was, honestly, kind of kick-ass.  I mean, one fireball nearly killed all of them AND YET the PCs managed to employ a last minute, desperate distraction and delay tactic that allowed two of them to escape with their lives and several of the book volumes while the wizard murdered their comrade.

Here’s the weird thing, though.  My players seemed to have a great time, even though everything went badly for them.  Me?  I don’t know why exactly, but I feel really conflicted about the session.  Two things bother me, really–  First, I’m in totally uncharted water here.  I had allowed myself to believe that what happened couldn’t happen, that they’d either take one of the escape hatches I had set up for them,  or make one of their own.  They didn’t, and that should be totally cool, but I suddenly have no idea what the next few sessions are going to be like.  But here’s the thing that really bothers me–  Remember when I said that the wizard “murdered” the character who stayed behind to distract and delay?  That’s what SHOULD have happened, but painfully, shamefully, I didn’t go through with it.  Instead, the wizard polymorphed the character when he should have delivered a killing blow.  I feel like I should just turn my Olde Schoole Cred Card in right now.

Except–
A few days later, the players are still strategizing over email about how to deal with their particular problem.  In other words, nobody gives a shit about this “failure” but me.  The game goes on, they’re still having fun, and the only reason I stopped having fun is because I let some preconception about how the game should have gone, and how I should have reacted to a particular situation, bog me down.  That’s bullshit.

This game is about adaptability, about a story going in unexpected directions and becoming unexpectedly epic.  The lesson is that I just need to let it happen.

Next time though?  The mofo dies.

D&D as a folk game and the future of the OSR

January 10, 2011

So,  this exists:

These are collectible cards, sold in booster packs a la Magic: The Gathering, that offer players various bonuses during combat encounters.  The idea being that a player will purchase several packs and build up a deck in the hopes of acquiring certain rare and powerful cards to enhance their characters.  I note that they are explicitly optional, but I presume that they are optional in the same way that heroin might be considered optional:  when everyone else is doing it, you might be more inclined to give it a try, and once you start it’s hard to stop.  Hyperbolic, of course, but probably no more so than their business plan.
I guess you could say I’m not a fan.

But whatever, I don’t play that edition anyway, and the man who holds a gun to my head and makes me buy things filled his quota this month  by forcing my purchase Agricola, so no skin off my teeth.  But, but, BUT it does offer a bit of fuel to the fire for something I was going to post about anyway!

Here’s a definition:  “Folk games are a form of structured play, have an objective, have rules, have variability, and generally need no special equipment or specific playing area. Institutional games, on the other hand, are highly organized with codified rules, played in a regulation area, and generally require special equipment.”

Interestingly, early D&D,” a game for pencil, paper and miniature figures”,  meets the criteria for the former definition to a T.  Later editions, and especially 4th Edition, with its battle mats and online subscription model and rigid rulesets and now booster packs, have increasingly drifted toward the “institutional” end of the spectrum to the extent that the play experience of what is ostensibly the same game as that produced in 1974 has been radically altered.  This makes sense:  it’s hard to make money on the shape-shifting dreams of the public domain, which is where any “folk game” will soon find itself, BUT there is an immortality there that any game designer should be happy, on some level, to have attained.  D&D has always flirted with that promise, just look at the early Gygax editorials in Dragon where he fantasizes about a future where D&D has an eternal place on the shelf next to Chess, Checkers and Monopoly (a folk game with an institutional veneer), but the (perfectly understandable and by no means to be condemned) desire to make money off the IP has been an obstacle since the beginning.  Witness Gygax’s push toward standardization, his hostile actions toward companies that advertised their perfectly legal compatibility, and his increasing stridency in proclaiming what counted as “Official D&D” as the 80s wore on.  Of course, things would only get worse after his tenure, leading to an odd tug of war as the years wore on between a game that was special because of its ability to be “owned” by any group that cared to play it and an ever-increasing attempt to change the game so that players needed official products and support to do so.

Which brings me to a love-letter for the OSR:

The GSL/OGL/D20 thing planted the seeds, perhaps unwittingly, for a return to the “folk game” of D&D, but the Old School Renaissance were the ones who actualized the return, who more or less blew the doors down and gave the original game explicitly back to “us”, to the hobbyists, to the small gaming groups in both literal and metaphoric basements, and to any small-time designer who’d care to try tinkering with it.  To the “folk” if you will.  And if D&D DOES attain the immortality of poker or Mancala, or, yes, Monopoly (whose heart is still public domain) it will be in large part because of the OSR willingness to exploit the OGL.

So, when I see a post like Chgowiz’s, which expresses a real frustration with a lack of innovation in the OSR, I can’t help but think that he’s missing the point.  The OSR’s purpose wasn’t to innovate, it was to liberate.  No doubt, there are many talented people involved in this peculiar little scene, who have been brought together by a love of old style gaming and given a certain degree of confidence to pursue their designs by the success of the retro-clones.   And they may have some really knock-your-socks-off games in them that push the RPG envelope in new and unexpected directions, and like Chgowiz, I’m excited to see what they come up with.  But, I think it bears noting that when they do, their work will necessarily fall outside the scope of the so-called “OSR”, whose limits are already being pushed near to the breaking point by slightly altered spell descriptions and a changed thief-mechanic, not to mention a controversial plumbing of the Lovecraftian influences that have been a part of D&D since the beginning.

I don’t think I’m being very clear.  But what I mean is this:  the OSR should really be considered something that happened as opposed to a catch-all name for an ongoing design movement.  By choosing to view it as the former, it becomes a starting point for new and exciting things to come, whereas the latter makes it a category, a set of limitations, “rules” if you will, about what can and can’t be included, which is anathema to creativity.  So, when the innovators get to innovating, they should be willing to use the OSR as a rallying banner to promote what they’re doing, but with an understanding that the label should be abandoned the moment it acts as a limitation on their work.

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