Monday, June 28, 2010

Encounter Critical scenario starters (d12)

1.  What if Cobra Commander was trying to conquer outer space?
2.  Remember how near the end of Excalibur ol’ Merlin became a dream ghost?  Somebody really ought to go into the Dreamlands and rescue that guy.
3. What if the galaxy was patrolled by the Justice League of the Federation (Kirk is Superman, Spock is Batman, etc.*)
4.  Re-watch The Wizard of Oz and keep repeating to yourself this mantra: A Primitive Robodroid Pioneer with a War Axe.  Enlightenment will follow.
5.  What if vampires were sort of anti-Kryptonians, i.e. powerless in yellow sunlight but ultra-rad under the rays of a red sun?
6.  Take a romantic comedy/chick flick/etc. and reuse the plot in deadly earnest.  (Example: Steel Magnolias involves a woman who may not survive giving birth to her dynasty’s heir, a rich heiress who spends her money on whatever catches her fancy, a grumpy witch with a giant hound, a crazy woman who makes cakes out of exotic animals, a doxy who finds religion and Tom Skerritt with a gun.  Seriously, you could make a whole friggin’ campaign offa that flick.)
7.  What if black holes were really the feeding orifices of some extradimensional predator?
8.  What if Galactus decided that the Death Star was too big a threat to his food supply?
9.  What if 2010: A Space Odyssey ended with Earth being invaded by giant cannibal space babies?
10.  Samuel L. Jackson survived that fall in Episode III, he’s got a wicked pirate hook hand and he’s organizing the dregs of Coruscant undersociety to kick some Imperial ass.
11.  Three words: Ork-Melmac War.
12.  What if Harry Mudd sold your favorite planet to the Daleks?




*Please forward all photoshops, sketches and cosplay pics of Wonder Woman Uhuru to jrients at gmail dot com.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

ONE ILLAR

Today my family took our weekly visit to the public library.  I was perusing the religion shelves of the nonfiction section when I noticed something.

Came to the religion section seeking enlightenment. Found a dollar instead. Thanks for the mixed messages, universe!
Finding a wayward buck at the end of a shelf full of Buddhism struck me as kinda funny. But then I reach for the bill and see that something's stinky in ol' Denmark.

WTF?
The above image has not been monkeyed with, at least not by me.  Someone scanned in a dollar, edited out the middle of it and printed the results.  Trying to figure out what the butt-heck is going on, I flipped the abbreviated bill over.


Okay, mixing serif and sans serif fonts like that is dubious, but I appreciate the sheer hucksterism, the 50's era Madison Avenue-style 'Burma Shave!' attitude at work here.  Then I noticed something that I sincerely hope was simply an oversight on the part of the artist:

Jesus wept.

Never have the letters T-A-T-E been more sorely missed.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Friday, June 25, 2010

handy chart, work in progress

Here's a handy chart of where to find each level of the Fight On! megadungeon.


For the life of me I can't find my copy of number 8 right now.  Where the hell did I put it?  Someone with their own copy handy please leave a comment with the name and page number of the level therein.  EDIT: issue 8 info added.  Thanks!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

new Fight On! stuff! huzzah!

There's a sweet new issue of Fight On! now out (pictured right).  Among the articles in this issue is my contribution to the FO! group megadungeon, which will probably end up being the only level of the Darkness Beneath with a 50% chance of Captain America.  Click here to go order a print copy Fight On! issue 9.  Or visit the Fight On! lulu storefront where there are lots of cool specials going on.  For the month of June all back issues are on sale or you can get two limited time hardbound compiliations (featuring issues 1-4 and 5-8 respectively).  Very groovy stuff!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Shatnerday

Friday, June 18, 2010

Imperishable Fame, part 4

Today I will finally talk about dungeons and non-dungeon adventures in my version of a Proto-Indo-European setting.  Yes, there will be dungeons despite no predecessor civilizations to build them.  More on that in a bit.

As a rule of thumb (or maybe even a hard and fast rule, I dunno) adventures would alternate between dungeon and non-dungeon sessions.  I want more mythic quests and social-fueled adventures than I normally run in D&D, ranging from the mundane to the completely epic.  I might even start out non-dungeon scenarios by rolling on a chart like this:

1. Crap!  Some outsiders have made off with the cows and/or women!
2. Hey!  Let's go to the lands of the next tribe over and steal their cows and/or women!
3. The king needs us to go consult a faraway oracle.
4. A monster is on the loose, scaring the cows and eating the herdsmen.
5. Accompany the king's son to a distant tribe, help him woo their princess.
6. A great warrior has died.  Go compete in the athletic contests held in his honor.
7. War!  Those cow-stealers from over the hill are back in force.  This time they want to conquer the joint.
8. War!  We're sick of those guys over the next hill.  Let's just stone cold conquer them.
9. Why is the river suddenly flowing the wrong way?
10. A ghost is haunting a certain place or person.  Find out what the ghost wants.
11. Somebody stole the sun!  Get it back before we all freeze!
12. A king has died and his throne is open to whoever can pass a dangerous and/or nonsensical test.

Obviously this list is just meant to be inspirational.  Once a campaign starts rolling a lot of this sort of thing writes itself.  All it takes is one bad reaction roll from a king (or one good one from his daughter) to set a whole crapload of adventure in motion.

Anyway, on to dungeons.  The dungeons of Imperishable Fame weren't built centuries ago by mad wizards and insane geniuses, as is the default D&D assumption.  Instead, imagine the creation of the world as the act of freezing chaos into a fixed shape.  Dungeons are the pockets of liquid chaos left behind by the freezing process. "You see, to be quite frank, Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It was a bit of botched job, you see.  We only had seven days to make it. And that's where this comes in."

Therefore, dungeons are meandering labyrinths full of nonsensical monsters because they are the physical embodiment of pure chaos leaking into the world of mortals.  I already make dungeons with irrational layouts as I tend to roll a lot of dice when making dungeons (which out to come as no big surprise to my regular readers).  But I think I would need to try even harder to make dungeons crazier under this set-up.  Also, mechanical devices such as standard dungeons doors, crossbow traps and pirate chests full of treasure would have to go in favor of big rocks that need to be herculesed out of the way, random rock falls or gouts of lava and maybe nuggets of gold or veins of gemstones.

Additionally, I think the monsters both in and out of the dungeons would follow the guideline set down by Jim Raggi in his seminal designs notes to the first editions of The Random Esoteric Creature Generator: don't use the same monster twice.  If one dungeons is infested with orcs, that's the only place in the campaign world where you can fine the orcish dudes.  I'd probably make an exception to that rule of thumb for dragons, but initially I probably wouldn't use more than one specimen of each of color of dragon.  If the PCs kill the red dragon then congratulations, they have killed The Red Dragon.  If they don't kill it, eventually it will mate with one of the other dragons (or gods know what else) and the world will soon be crawling with the critters.

I don't think I want a single megadungeon for this campaign.  Rather give me a collection of minidungeons of one to six levels apiece.  Borrowing an idea from my old Mungeon of Moom, each dungeon would have an off switch of sorts, a means whereby it would stop giving birth to creatures of chaos.  Heck, maybe finding the off switch would involve the place collapsing or blowing up in the third act like some bad action movie.  Any particular off switch might be relatively straightforward, like "kill the dragon at the bottom of the dungeon", or it might be more complex like "woo the derro queen and make an honest woman out of her, leading her people into the upper world and merging your tribe and hers".

In the next installment of this series, which will probably be the last, I'll talk about death, multigenerational rules and how to actually achieve Imperishable Fame.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

An Armor Problem

There are three types of basic armor that have appeared in D&D from the very beginning: leather, chain and plate.

When you say "plate" I imagine this:


Whether we're talking about half plate, plate mail, full plate or whatever, Excalibur is the first thing that pops into my head.

Similarly, when you say "chain" my brain thinks this:


For better or worse, there it is.

But I don't have any sort of platonic ideal of leather armor locked in my head.  Anybody got any suggestions?  Part of me thinks that leather armor could be safely dispensed with, based solely upon the fact that it leaves little more impact on me than "what thieves in D&D wear".

(The Imperishable Fame series will resume tomorrow.)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Shatnerday is looking pretty fly

He stole that jacket from Bizarro World's version of Number 6.

Big thanks to Max Davenport for the link to these screenshots from the 1974 non-classic Impulse.

Friday, June 11, 2010

imperishable delay

I had hoped to complete the Imperishable Fame series in a solid week, but preparations for a Rients family trip this weeken have squeezed out my blogging time.  So I've got at least two more posts that will have to wait until next week.

Rest assured, Shatnerday will continue unabated.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Question of the Day

I've got some thoughts on Imperishable Fame's dungeons I want to type up later tonight, but first I want to highlight a question from an earlier installment in the series.  (The comments have been super-awesome by the way.  Keep those tough questions and neat observations comings!)  Anyway, here's richard's question:
So I wonder; are your PIEs "modern?" making their own way in progressive, eschatological time?
My first reaction to this question was "Man, do I even know what the crap this means?" But I guess since I imagine a forward arrow of time, with the PCs making changes (improvements? that's up to them) to the campaign world, the answer is a tentative 'yes'. On the other hand I've got some ideas about tying the PCs to destiny where you take the destiny rules from  "Believe it or not, Fantasy has reality" (Dragon #40, August 1980) plus Pendragon style multi-generation rules to make destinies that can be fufilled even when you are killed by rats at level 1.

Maybe you've got some ideas you'd like to share in this regard, richard?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Imperishable Fame, part 3

Today I'm going to do a little stream-of-consciousness writing on classes and races in my vision of a Proto-Indo-European campaign setting.

Fighters - All are members of the upper tier of society, basically kings, chieftains and their families.  Three distinct groups fall under this heading.  The Werewolves are an initiatory society made up exclusively of unmarried men and adolescents.  They dress up in wolf skins, howl at the full moon and often make nuisances of themselves.  Think soccer hooligans with spears.  Married warriors are Brothers of the Axe.  Most of them don't actually wield battle axes in battle, but the weapon is ceremonially important enough that at least one PIE culture is called the Axe People.  How could I not use that?  The third group would be an Amazon order.  Note that all these groups would be mechanically identical.  I just want some additional social dimensions for the fighter types.

Clerics - I could see maybe using the default cleric class if the adventure strayed over to the Nile or the Fertile Crescent, but the local divine casters would all be druids.  The cleric is just too citified for the barbaric people I'm imagining.  Furthermore, I think the default alignment of the society will be Neutral.  Law represents the organization principle of the city dwellers.  PIE society would see itself as being organized as a mediating force standing between the fires of Chaos and the ice of Law.  Also, druids are cool.  The druids represent the middle class in the society.  Everyone participates in the religious life of the community, but these folks are specialists in ensuring proper observances and crafting correct ritual objects.

Magic-Users - I mentioned yesterday that since there's no writing, spellbook-based M-Us are replaced with the wizard as epic poet.  Herb over at Places to Go had some good thoughts on this subject yesterday.   I'd only add two more things.  M-Us would be allowed to wear armor and wield spears just like everybody else, though they couldn't cast a spell with a helmet on.  My reasoning for this change is simple: when an enemy tribe's host comes over the ridge it's everybody's job to protect the community.  Busting mad rhymes does not excuse you from this obligation.  The other thing I would point out is that magic-use is a lower class gig.  M-Us are all basically the sons and daughters of shepherds.  Learning poetry while minding the flock is one of the few sources of upward mobility.

Thieves - These guys are right out.  The world is sorely lacking stuff to pick, as both locks and pockets have yet to be invented.  Stealing is something that anyone of any class can do.

Demi-humans - These folks would be unlockable content.  The only way an elf, dwarf or halfing could join the party would be if the PCs find an enclave of such people and befriend them.  Even then, I'd only allow a single token demi-human in the party at a time, or maybe a pair of twins.  Befriending the demi-humans won't necessarily be easy, either, as they aren't initially friendly to humanity.  Think of it this way: the difference between an elf and a hobgoblin is how well your reaction roll went.  Dwarves would be the grumpy little jerkwads from Nordic mythology.  If you can bargain with them maybe they'll make you a magic item.  Halflings might be homo floresiensis, which would probably end up playing out as cannibalistic mini-sasquatches.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Imperishable Fame, part 2

Before outlining some of the ideas I have for Imperishable Fame, the Proto-Indo-European campaign setting I introduced yesterday, I thought I'd take a moment to spell out a couple working principles for this project. 

Principle #1: Pseudo-history rather than pre-history

Although I'm digging into linguistic, literary, anthropological and archaelogical material to fuel this campaign, I'm not trying to teach Intro to Proto-Indo-European Studies here.  The point of the exercise is to use this stuff to power a fantasy adventure campaign and as such I have no more loyalty to the source material than a GM running a typical Pendragon campaign would have to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.  In fact if I was running Pendragon (which I have a couple of times) I'd be equally influenced by the films Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  The original source material is a vehicle, not the destination.

So, for example, S'mon asked in the comments to yesterday's post "Where would you set a PIE campaign? AIR the origin point is still in some dispute, but I'd suggest the western Caucasus/eastern Black Sea shore area - eg western Georgia and Abkhazia - gives interesting terrain and a variety of options."  The short answer is "somewhere in the central region marked on this map of theorized Indo-European expansion":


But the long answer would actually be "In a mythic realm that inevitably simplifies, mythologizes and just plain screws up the central region marked on this map of theorized Indo-European expansion."  Because the geography involved will be taken as informative rather than prescriptive, so I'm giving myself permission to make changes that serve the campaign better.  And I'm also giving myself permission to make some mistakes and not fret about it.  Similarly, I will make hash with all the other source material, sometimes by intent, sometime by ineptitude.

Principle #2: This is D&D, dammit

There's a fine line between a set of house rules and a whole new game and I can't give you an objective criteria for that sort of thing.  Whether that's because I'm a noodlehead or the simple reality that this issue devolves to aesthetic considerations, I don't really know.  All I know is that when it comes to D&D I have a part of my brain that seems to act a lot like Socrates' daemon: I can tell when something has gone too far, but that intuition doesn't provide much in the way of positive information.  So when I say "this is D&D" what I really mean is "this did not set off my internal 'not D&D' detector".  That means every new mechanical gew-gaw introduced has to pass this simple test.

I could take some time here to outline a best guess as to what constitutes, to me, core parts of D&D.  I'm going to resist that temptation because I really don't want to clog up the comments section arguing these points.  Especially when you could yank any one of those 'core parts', replace it with some 'obviously superior' mechanic, and still end up with something I could recognize as D&D.  I suspect that's probably because D&D isn't a shopping list of mechanics and concepts to be checked off one by one, but rather an operational paradigm/gestalt/synergy/[insert buzzword here].

The other half of the "This is D&D, dammit" principle is avoiding the alienation of players.  I have a great bunch of players who deal with a lot of idiosyncratic shenanigans that, for better or for worse, dot my games.  But I'm not one of those Svengali-GMs with hypno-players that will follow me absolutely anywhere.  I hear the Cult Leader thing is a great gig if you can get it, but my players are pretty much regular people wanting to play regular D&D.  Some days they dig my little experiments with the art form, other days they politely put up with it and get on with killing orcs.  Therefore, any innovation has to pass both my own mental "is this D&D?" filter, but also "will this be the straw that breaks the players' brains?"

Principle #3: No apocalypse

Default D&D is post-apocalyptic in nature.  Full stop.  No qualifiers.  I support this bald assertion with the fact that most campaign worlds I've seen aren't Eberron-style magic-as-tech affairs.  Furthermore, most versions of the game support the existence of artifact and relics as examples of uber-awesome magic items that no PC can make.  And where do you think all those monsters got all those gold coins?  I submit that they are from some long lost (read: Roman) empire that came crashing down on everyone's head.  D&D as Tolkien Plus Howard Plus Swiss Pikemen Versus The Dragon At The End Of Beowulf just doesn't make any friggin' sense without Númenor/Atlantis/Rome lurking in the background.

But in this campaign I am intentionally screwing with the default set-up.  The Tower of Babel?  Hasn't been built yet.  Forget about looting the ruins of Ancient Egypt or Sumeria; Those guys finished building their first cities last Thursday.  And the Great Flood may happen during the course of the campaign.  Furthermore, I'm rejecting Atlantis and Mu, not because they couldn't be of great service to a D&D campaign, but because I'm making an artistic choice to do something else.

The most obvious place this decision creeps into the campaign is in terms of treasure and magic items.  Coins haven't been invented yet, so treasure will be mostly in terms of things like household goods and jewelry done up in precious metals.  Many hoards will come with claimants to ownership, like all the people who got up in arms (literally) about Smaug's treasure.  Look at it this way: if a dragon kicked your grandpa out of the house, wouldn't you want the family heirlooms back no matter who slew the damned thing?  At the dawn of time, few manmade objects would be ancient enough to have their legal claims of ownership rendered indeterminate.

Under this plan the initial array of magic items would be limited to manmade stuff only a few generations old, which could invoke the same 'Hey, I'm the rightful heir of your treasure!' problem, or stuff made by the gods and given to humanity as a boon.  Retrieving the Axe That Totally Shoots Lightning Bolts And Was Made By The God of Thunder from the bad guys seems like a pretty good way to score some of that there Imperishable Fame.  The upside of the initial paucity of magic items is that I would make item creation easier than most pre-3.0 games.  There's no Staff of Wizardry lying about from the bygone days of the Lich Empire, since there never was a Lich Empire, but I am totally onboard with a PC magic-user being the person who created the original Wiz Staff.

Spells would work the same way, since there aren't any musty old spellbooks lying around.  In fact, there aren't any spellbooks at all.  The core campaign culture is completely illiterate.  M-U's take the form of epic poets who have memorized a vast corpus of magical lore and spend each morning meticulously loading their short-term memory with the passages they will recite for the day.  That means you can only steal a spell from an M-U by overhearing them casting it.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Imperishable Fame, part 1

This week I'm going to try systematically developing a single concept over a series of posts, which I don't think I've done in a while.  (Or depending on how stringently you define 'systematic', I've never done it.)  More than once I've outlined in a post or two an idea for a campaign setting of some sort, but the World of Cinder is the only milieu I've really gone any useable distance with.  My Mutant Future setting developed organically, with very little forethought and the Ruins & Ronin island I was working on collapsed under the twim ambitions of working with too broad a sandbox and trying to come to grips with another culture.  The latter case is instructive and leads directly to the original inspirational material for this week's campaign proposal: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Just so we're on the same page, I should take a moment to explain that English, the Germanic languages, Latin (and hence all the Romance languages), the Celtic languages, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and many, many other tongues are generally held to all spring from a common linguistic source, a partially reconstructed language often called Proto-Indo-European.  The PIE language is only partially reconstructed because no native writing from the Proto-Indo-European era (say, 5,000-4,000 BC) has survived.  Probably they didn't possess the art of writing but maybe they just didn't record anything on a medium that could last 7 millenium.  Either way, the American Heritage Dictionary of Yadda, Yadda, Yadda identifies PIE roots held in common among multiple successor languages.  For a simple example, counting "one, two, three" in English and "une, deux, trois" in French both go back to something like "hoino, dwo, trei".

FYI: This guy is awesome.I first got this book back in the early nineties and every few years I dig it back up and read through it.  My wife caught me reading it a few weeks ago and mocked me on her Facebook page, but I eat this crap up.  I know it's uber-nerdy to read a dictionary from cover to cover, but I really dig soaking in the foundational elements that bind together Homer, Beowulf, the Viking sagas, the Vedas and everything that followed them.  And it's less than 200 pages long, so my oddball behavior isn't quite as obsessive as reading a normal dictionary front to back.  If I've lost you in all this amateur academic nonsense I should also point out that the Kurgan from Highlander was totally a Proto-Indo-European dude.  The Kurgan people were probably PIE speakers and noted for burying their dead under mounds, also called kurgans.  Whether they were really sadistic sword-swinging badasses is not attested in the record, as far as I can tell.

Anyhoo, one passage in the Dictionary always gets me thinking that one could use Proto-Indo-European to accomplish the same thing that Professor Tolkien does with Elvish.  Obviously it wouldn't be as polished as the worlds of Tolkien or M.A.R. Barker, but that won't stop me from absconding with their methods if I can.  Here's the passage, which I scanned rather than typed to preserve all the baroque diacritical marks:


So based upon the above text, here's the elevator pitch for the Imperishable Fame campaign:   At the dawn of Western civilization it doesn't matter whether you live or die, it's how you die that is important.  Will you overcome death via the immortal poetry of the weavers of words, or will you survive as a holy force, a semi-divine boon to future generations?  Only the mightiest of heroes and the bravest of deeds can achieve Imperishable Fame.

More tomorrow.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

a seventh stat

The introduction of a seventh stat (beyond Str, Int, etc.) in Terminal Space got me thinking of the general idea of stat expansion.  There's been a crapload of games that expanded the general range of stats to achieve finer distinctions, such as splitting Dex into Reaction Time and Agility or whatever.  What I like about Terminal Space's Tech Level stat is that it introduces something new, a new focus for characters and therefore the overall campaign.  Another great example of this is the Wizardry stat introduced in Tunnels & Trolls in the little tin box edition.  The Wiz stat solves the T&T conceptual problem where all wizards were built like Arnold Schwarzenegger because previously Strength was your spell point stat.  More interesting to me is that by having Intelligence split from natural magic ability (a la Chaosium's house system and Encounter Critical) you can have a spell-dude that has a lot of raw power but not a lot of smarts.

It seems to me that Comeliness, introduced in a Dragon article and later canonized in the original Unearthed Arcana, was pretty much a failure of a new stat.  The fact that it was basically split off from Charisma indicates to me that it was never needed to begin with.  Did anyone ever have a situation where they thought it was important to mechanically clarify that someone was an ugly charmer or a dull beauty?    I just couldn't get worked up about that.

Speaking of Unearthed Arcana, its pages also contained a percentage-based random social level chart, so that you could determine whether your PC was an upper-class twit or a no-good bum.  Had that chart taken the form of a Social stat rolled on 3d6, I think maybe people would have taken it more seriously.  The Honor mechanics in Oriental Adventures and HackMaster would feel more palatable to me if they worked on a 3d6 scale.  Even going up a down more often than the other six, contextualizing Honor as one seventh of the core PC abilities would better fix Honor as a Big Honking Deal.  As it stands, Honor all too easily melds into the background of secondary and tertiary stats on the charsheet.

So while the basic six stats look sufficient for most D&D-type purposes, Terminal Space makes it clear to me that introduce new basic character abilities can work.  The key seems to be sticking to a 3d6 scale like the others, not overlapping with existing abilities and, most importantly, only introduce a new stat if it says something interesting about your campaign.

One final aside: I don't like Luck stats very much.  The normal dice rolls are where Luck enters the PC's life.  Having an additional Luck stat seems like metaphysical double dipping.