Thursday, April 29, 2010

Researching Cthulhu - Part 1: Horror

Picking up where I left off in my formula for Icosa (Elric + Cthulhu) it's time to visit the realm of horror that is the Cthulhu Mythos. I don't know why, but I'm really attracted to the idea of marrying fantasy with horror. Maybe it makes the heroes more heroic: standing up to the terrors that leave others running home and crying for mommy.

I think the seed of this idea was first planted after reading through Monte Cook's d20 Call of Cthulhu. The last section of the book was deticated to incorporating these horrors into an existing D&D campaign. It painted a facinating image of dark Druids and evil Clerics devoted to these mad gods of cosmic Chaos. I was hooked.

Coupling Cthulhu with Elric seemed natural after reading Moorcock's eerie description of Arioch, Duke of Hell in his natural form: a roiling mass of pure Chaos that would do Shub-Niggurath proud. Perhaps Elric's Chaos Lords were simply the Mythos in another guise.

My limited experience playing Call of Cthulhu has endeared me to the Sanity mechanic used in that game. I think it does an excellent job of instilling in the player the horror that comes from knowing dark secrets that should best be left alone. This seems to be a nice counterpoint the nigh-immortal and fearless heroes of modern fantasy. It makes those that survive to tell the tale more special when compared to other adventurers.

Swords & Wizardry has no built-in mechanic to handle Sanity, but it should be easy enough to reverse engineer. S&W already has the single Saving Throw which simplifies matters: a failed save indicates Sanity loss. Sanity itself can be a composite stat made up of (Intelligence x 2) + (Wisdom x 2) + Charisma. Failure means roll as many d6's as the horror rates on a scale of 1 to 6 and subtract those points from Sanity; i.e., horror rated 3 would cause a player failing a save to roll 3d6 and subtract the total of the dice from the PC's Sanity. Successful save could still cost Sanity points on some sliding scale. The scale here will depend on how frequent these horrors will be used. Too steep and I can guarantee a high rate of madness.

The frequency of these horrors is something that I'll have to play with. I expect to run into some as the players go delving into deep dungeons; the deeper they go, the worse it gets. I will really have to see how my players dig this. I have to remind myself from time to time that the low end range age of my players is 8 to 13. I'm not out for giving them nightmares, but they claim to enjoy books like Goosebumps and American Chillers. I hope to find a happy medium.

That being said, I do like heroic adventure. Unlike Lovecraft's bleak tales of helplessness in the face of cosmic horror, I want the PCs to be the only thing that is standing between Chaos and humanity (elfity? humanoidanity?); I want them to have a chance. Where Lovecraft's protagonists were leafs before the storm, I want the PCs to be mighty oaks. With deep roots (levels) they may be able to weather the coming hurricane and act as a protective bulwark for those seeking safety behind them.

More and more this campaign seems to be about the battle between Law and Chaos and surviving said battle. Perhaps the PCs can plot their own course through these stormy, tentacle-infested waters. How will they choose sides and what impact will that have?

Here's an interesting side note on Alignment as it relates to this campaign. Since OD&D was about Law, Neutrality and Chaos, I found this great (and strangely appropriate) post thanks to Grognardia on how to run OD&D Alignment from Jeff Rients.

Thats enough Chaos for now. Time to turn in before I fail a Sanity check. Next time around I'll be looking at a staple in Lovecraftian horror: ancient books of evil.

Follow Your Bliss,

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, April 23, 2010

Copy Cat

Some say there are no original ideas under the sun. Maybe it is true or maybe truly original ideas are very hard to come by. So it was no surprise to me as I was reading through James Maliszewski's blog, Grognardia, that I started to see some similarities between his Dwimmermount and my Icosa.

I stumbled on James' blog early on in my search for my RPG roots. He is well known and respected for his work. His blog was initially a reaction to the release of D&D 4th Ed. He, like me, went back to his roots of gaming to the first game he played, a much early edition of D&D. Plumbing those depths he created Dwimmermount. He was even so kind as to list his influences in designing that setting as a response to a post by James Raggi.

I've started from the premise that by picking specific influences I would create a unique and unusual setting. It seems that from the same starting point similar settings will develop. Now I know that not every influence of Dwimmermount will affect my progress with Icosa, but I do enjoy seeing how he progressed and using it as a benchmark for my progress.

I especially curious to see if I come to some of the same choices that he did. James started with Swords & Wizardry (Core Rules rather than White Box) just as I did. He has ultimately made the move to Labyrinth Lord with some additional material to supplement what he needs. As I've stated before, I'd rather start with a bare minimum of rules and add to it as campaign play dictates.

So for now, I'll keep going with my influences and see where that leads me. From time to time I will post ways in which Dwimmermount development seems to be mirrored in Icosa as well as seeing where we diverge.

Follow Your Bliss,

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cutting Edge Weaponry

A while ago my youngest son had asked me why it was that clerics were not allowed to use swords and bows. I explained, from rote memory, that this was part of game balance as well as trying to emulate a particular archetype. He cocked his head at me which usually means he's not buying it.

Frankly, I don't like my answer either. I was spoon fed this explanation after years of playing and haven't really questioned it for a long time. I decided to take a long look at it since I've been formulating my plans for Icosa. I'm taking the 'question everything' approach.

Obviously the original three classes in OD&D (fighting-man, magic-user and cleric) were meant to bring to life a particular type of character from swords & sorcery literature and/or medieval history. The fact that magic-users (wizards) were limited to so few weapons and so narrow an archetype has rankled players for decades. Clerics too seem to be too narrowly focused.

My original thought was to free up at least the choice of weapons. S&W White Box gives 1d6 as the range of damage for all weapons (+1 for large weapons and -1 for small weapons). With every weapon essentially having the same mechanical effect, why not abolish weapon restrictions?

This line of thinking stems from the belief that amount of weapon damage is tied to the various classes - high damage weapons to fighters, average damage weapons to clerics and low damage to magic-users. This doesn't hold much water before some of the revisions in AD&D. Still, the White Box rules, based on OD&D, seems to level the playing field, so why the restrictions?

I stumbled on the answer as I was looking for aspects of D&D that would support elements of the Cthulhu Mythos. I was flipping through the listings of magic items searching for magical tomes when it hit me - magical weapons. The magical weapons, as well as other items, were clearly aligned with specific classes. Fighters get the widest selection of magical weapons, but they are the sole users of magic swords, the most common item in fantasy literature. This is why clerics can't use edged weapons - niche protection. So if I want to open up weapon choices in classes, how do I remedy this without seriously unbalancing the game and keeping the fighter's niche intact?

The solution seems pretty simple. Weapons of a magical sort could be used by any class just like normal weapons - a +1 sword works equally as well in hands of any of the classes. However, a sword +1, +3 vs. Dragons will only grant the additional bonus (special ability vs. Dragons) when wielded by fighters. A +1 blunt weapon that destroys undead will only act as a +1 weapon in anyone's hands except for clerics who can call upon the special ability. This opens up a world of variety now. The possibilites are endless for magical weapons (or armor) that only grant special abilities when wielded by a specific class or race.

Now this is not really a new thing. The venerable Holy Avenger has special properties that could be tapped by Paladins in AD&D and there have been many, many items before and after it that have done the same thing. For me this realization is the completing of a circuit in my brain that will let me do what I wanted to do with S&W for Icosa and not break the game. Now my son can have a sword-wielding, arrow-slinging cleric and not steal the fighter's thunder. Personally I'm looking forward some sword- or axe-wielding magic-users slinging spells into the fray. Maybe next I'll look at letting the magic-users wear armor (sacrilege!).

Follow Your Bliss,

Monday, April 19, 2010

Digital Frontier - Part 3

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that Rob from Accidental Survivors invited me to play in an ongoing play-by-wiki game over at Obsidian Portal. This is a take on play-by-forum (which I did a little OWoD Vampire forum play back in the day of Prodigy) and was sparked by a post from Ken Newquist over at Rob is running the game using Mutants & Masterminds. So, as promised, here is the low down...

The Game

Mutants & Masterminds (M&M) has been around for a while now and has cemented it's position as the premier D20 supers game. The game is versatile and well supported in it's second edition. I've yet to come up with a super I couldn't stat out using this game system. I've game mastered and played both the 1st and 2nd edition IRL and had a great time doing so. I could go on and on about the game, but this post isn't so much a review of the game as it is of its application to the play-by-wiki (PBW) approach.

Let me make note before we go much further that Rob has stated that the current game is an experiment. Based on suggestions that Ken made in post at Nuketown, Rob is bringing the game to life over at Obsidian Portal. We all, players and GM alike, are feeling our way through play. Some elements are more collaborative storytelling and others more game-y.

First things first: the characters. We created Power Level 6 heroes. This sets the tone and feel for the game. PL 6 is below the typical starting level of 10. This fits in the range of street-level characters; these 'supers' will either be highly skilled/well-equipped 'normals' or possessing some small set of powers. This fits in nicely with the setting Rob chose - Freedom City.

Freedom City is normally home to some heavy hitters in the M&M world, but Rob has chosen to set the game during the setting's Iron Age. The year is 1985. In our world, comics were darker and populated with all manner of anti-heroes. This is the world into which The Raven was born.

Technical Aspects

I'm a self-acknowledged min/max-er when it comes to M&M. I like to feel that I get the most out of every power point. This leads to some intense character creation. In the past I've used a spreadsheet program for doing this. This time when I used it didn't seem to work very well when it came to the powers sheet. I may have too new a version of Microsoft Excel. I did not try the Open Office version.

Upon suggestion I tried Mutagen! a free Java applet for M&M character creation. The website that offered a download is now gone, the yahoo group is all but a ghost town, I don't believe the program is in active development, but I got my hands on a copy. It had a short learning curve and seemed to do the trick. The stat block in the character page (linked above) for The Raven was generated using this app.

Now the PBW is very similar to play-by-forum (PBF). You post something that relates to what your character is doing. The cool thing is that we're all editing the same wiki page of text. We build the story interactively. The down side is, like PBF, there can be down time between posts since not everyone has the same amount of free time. I have been guilty of that as I was away from my computer for a week, so The Raven didn't do much.

One of the things I had to get used to was how much I should write. I started off only writing a few lines, basically explaining one action. Rob pointed out that we had more authorial control and should expand. I loosened up and seemed to have found a nice rhythm.

Obsidian Portal also includes a die roller. We've used this in a couple of combat situations to relate the effectiveness of an attack or skill use. I'm interested to see how it gets used when more of the players are involved in the same scene.

I'm also able to create my own pages for things like my alter ego's apartment. and list off some supporting characters. The linking feature of wikis proves quite useful. For example, if Rob introduces an organization into the story, he create a page relating what is known about that organization without slowing down the narrative.

As a result of Rob posting about his experiment, Obsidian Portal upped his membership to the Ascendant level. This means the campaign gets forums, email notification and more maps. We're in the process of trying out all the fiddly bits. I recently posted the first two forum topics and we'll see where that goes.

After a little bit of back story development, Rob is kicking off Vol. 1, Issue 1 of Freedom City: Shades of Grey. Something very cool about this is that it looks like he is running two stories side-by-side. My thought is that the two groups of heroes will eventually meet up and interact together. But the possibility always remains to easily spin off a side jaunt or Shag & Scoob (spit up the party) if need be.

So far, smooth sailing. I'm in a mind to try running a PBW myself. If I do, I'll be sure to post it here.

Follow Your Bliss,

Friday, April 16, 2010

Digital Frontier - Part 2

Well, I was able to join Rich, Arnold and Scott to play a game of Fiasco, by Jason Morningstar, (you can download a preview sample of the game here) as part of Rich's Monthly Pick-up Game. This was another on-line playing session. Fiasco has been described as 'Coen Bros. the RPG'. The tag like for the game says it all:

A game of powerful ambition & poor impulse control.
The Game
I think Fiasco was a great game. Technical difficulties aside (see below), I think it was easy to learn and fun to play. I had no problem picking up what to even though I did not have game book as a reference. I have listened to several podcasts that talked about the game prior to playing and was able to look over the setup 'oracle' before the session so that did help. It also builds on a skill-set common to many indie games (scene setting, pushing the plot to get a reward).

The game is best played with 4 players (which we had although others were slated to play but had to drop out due to technical or scheduling difficulties). Each player uses various tables in the setup to build and define relationships and aspects that will come into play in the upcoming game. The setup tables are referred to as Playsets. These Playsets are grouped by an overall description of where and/or when the story of the game takes place. Our group decided on using the McMURDO STATION, Antarctica setup (even though it was actually played like more of an Alaskan outpost by tacit agreement).

One of the neat aspects of the Playsets is the almost infinite flexibility and re-playability of the tables. I heard that players around the net started drifting the game by building their own Playsets. Bully Pulpit Games is showcasing a different Playset every month. (Interestingly enough, the oracle-like Playsets makes me want to play In a Wicked Age).

Play progresses around the table with each player taking a turn at setup but allocating values of randomly rolled dice to the various aspects of the Playset. Once that is done players take being the focus of a scene. The play can decide to start the scene and leave the outcome up to other players (which determines the color of die that will be awarded - White if the outcome is good for the focus player or Black if it is not) or letting someone else start a scene so the focus player can decide the outcome.

In the first two rounds around the table players give the die from the outcome to one of the other players at the table. Then the players take these dice and allocate them to the Tilt (much like they did in the Playset), which may dramatically change the direction of the story. This is followed by two more rounds for each player around the table before the outcome is decided each character at the end of the game.

Technically I got hosed with my final score of 0 (subtracting the totals of two sets of colored dice), but I really enjoyed the outcome. I wasn't so much into the game aspect of watching what color dice I collected and worrying about where to push my dice. It really was a fairly invisible mechanic. I was much more interested in the story that was being created.

I think the ease of play in learning the game speaks volumes about the strength of the game as well as the players facilitating this session. I believe I was the only one who had no prior experience with it. Even then, I was diving in very quickly in scene framing and lending to the madness of the story as it unfolded.

I love the gm-less aspect of the game. Minimal setup and shared world-building makes this a perfect pickup game. I could easily see it being a fall back for a regular group when some of the players can't make it. I think the freedom of minimal mechanics made the game sail. It is amazing what you can do with so little framework. It really pushes the paradigm and definition of 'rules light'.

On this one play of the game I can enthusiastically recommend it to any that have found enjoyment in creating rousing adventures when everything goes pear-shaped. I won't go into the specifics of the story (ask me some time you see me at a convention), but I will say there was much laughter generated throughout play.

Technical Aspects
Rich set up a Google drawing doc to track relationships and other aspects of play. Overall I think this approach worked well. I believe Rich did most of the editing during play, although the rest of the players did attempt to edit as well which led to some duplication of efforts. I think having everyone be responsible for a specific aspect of that doc, such as relations and objects added by that player, might have sped setup.

I like that there is now an artifact after the game to be able to look back on (published to the link above). It would be interesting to see if there would be an easy way to expand that document to include the changes that happened as play progressed, like adding in each of the NPCs and their relation to the main characters and eventual fates.

Again we used the dice roller at Catch Your Hare. This worked very well for tracking and allocating dice to the Playset, Tilt and Outcome. We also made good use of the chat feature within Google Docs so we didn't have to keep switching back to the Skype chat window post links and track events.

Technical difficulties were limited to some awkwardness in having all of working on the same document and Skype breaking down for some players. Apparently it's not a Skype game unless someone can't get tuned in. I had the same difficulty at the end of the session I mentioned last time regarding the Skype signal. The audio really went down hill after 12:00am. Thankfully we were wrapping up at that point.

I enjoyed gaming with this group of players. I'm sad that some of the players who wanted to play were not able to due to technical or scheduling difficulties, but there are hopefully more opportunities to game with everyone.

Next month we are talking about playing Polaris. I am very psyched to play this game (provided everyone else is on board as well). Another gm-less game, w00t!!

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Digital Frontier - Part 1

When I was talking about my New Year's resolutions one of the things I wanted to do, but don't think that I mentioned it there, was to do some on-line role-play gaming. I've recently had the opportunity to do some of that thanks to Rich Rogers over at Canon Puncture. Rich invited me to play in a monthly pick-up game on-line. Last month we played a great game of Mouse Guard and this month we'll be trying Fiasco.

In addition, Rob from Accidental Survivors invited me to play in an ongoing play-by-wiki game over at Obsidian Portal. This is a take on play-by-forum and was sparked by a post from Ken Newquist over at This game is run using Mutants & Masterminds. (More about this soon)

The Mouse Guard game was played using Skype. This allowed us to join an on-line conference call so that we could all converse. This worked very well at first. I'm pretty sure that I didn't have the latest version of Skype since I use it so infrequently. I didn't want to chance running an update right before play for fear that it could make matters worse.

The call worked well and the three of us (myself, Rich and Arnold) were able to get up and running very quickly. As the game wore on, I noticed more of a breakdown in the connection. We were on-line for over two hours on the same call. It could have been my laptop, it could have been the software, but it was extremely noticeable by the end were I was missing about 30% of the dialog. I was able to keep up, but if we had gone on much longer I would have lost much of the dialog. Needless to say I will be updating before we next play.

Skype also let us text each other for out-of-character discussion. This was especially nice for posting links and other relevant information. This was not used very heavily but it did help as a way of keeping track of various conditions of play.

For Mouse Guard we also used a dice roller at the Catch Your Hare! website. This was a great tool. It allows multiple players to all log into the same dice rolling session. Each of us could also color our dice so that it was easy to tell whose dice they were (we chose our dice color based on each mouse's cloak color). It also allowed for multiple labels to be placed around the screen so that dice could be pulled aside and still be visible for reference. On occasion there was a little delay when someone would 'roll' before I saw the dice, but no real hang-ups; there was a 'set password' button that acted as a screen refresh.

An interesting aspect of this play was player discussion without the GM (Arnold) listening in. When it was time for Rich and I to plan our scripting for the various encounters, Arnold would remove his headphones and step away from his PC to plan his moves. This was, in a sense, stepping out of the room.

Overall it was great fun for a number of reasons. Rich and Arnold are great players. It was my first time gaming with them both and I had a blast. It was also my first play of Mouse Guard. I had read the book, but playing brings a deeper understanding to the game. The adventure Arnold wove was fun and challenging. I would not (and will not) hesitate to game with both Rich and Arnold again and I definitely want to play some more Mouse Guard too.

Tonight we gathered again in the digital world to play the GMless game Fiasco. Me, I love me some GMless games, so I'm excited beyond belief. I'll be sure to update here very soon. Look for a post about Rob's play-by-wiki game as well soon.

Follow Your Bliss,

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The a-ha moment

This past Monday my youngest son told me that the Back to D&D Basics campaign session from the previous night was his favorite to date. When asked why he responded that he had an a-ha and suddenly knew how to play his cleric.

Up to now, my 11 year-old has preferred fighter types when he played D&D he would charge into battle and hack and slash through the enemies. His favorite character to date is his Warforged fighter from my oldest son's Eberron campaign. But when we rolled up characters for Back to D&D Basics his stats seemed to lean toward being a cleric. So that's what he became.

During his rise through the first 4 levels he was lamenting various aspects of his character: no spells at first level, only healing and protective type spells, and (the most troublesome) no edged weapons. He frequently tried to push his way to the front of the battle, but was often relegated to the back because the dwarf and elf had the first rank covered. His sling stone attacked missed more often than it hit.

He had great difficulty in seeing what he was bringing to the party. He didn't see how his curative spells let the party adventure longer. He had picked up a magic mace from a Chaotic cleric that drained levels. I informed him that use of that ability would cause him to move away from Neutrality and toward the alignment of Chaotic. This frustrated him so much that last session I offered to let him roll up a fighter to swap out for the cleric.

But then they had an encounter with a captured hobgoblin. His cleric was the only one who spoke that language, but my son did not feel confident that he would ask the right questions, so the player of the dwarf offered to ask the questions to have my son's cleric repeat it in hobgoblin.

This could have been hand-waved and let the dwarf's player ask the hobgoblin (me) the questions and my son would not have had to do anything, but instead I said this (or something to this effect):

If you repeat the question exactly as the dwarf said then just nod your head, but if you want to ask anything different then ask your question. Once the hobgoblin answers, if you repeat it exactly as he says just nod your head, but if you want to say something different say what your character says.
The group suggested passing notes, but I didn't want to slow things down. I reminded the players to not let their knowledge of what was transpiring affect anything their characters did. So off we went.

The dwarf said:

If you answer our questions honestly we'll free you as long as you promise to never return here. If not, we will slay you as we did your chieftain.
The cleric said:

If you answer our questions honestly we'll free you as long as you promise to never return here. If not, we will slay you as we did your chieftain which will make my god cry.
Wow. I didn't want to disrupt the flow of play, but internally I was taken aback by his modification. Questioning continued and the cleric took charge of the hobgoblin prisoner. As the hobgoblin started leading the party through their cave complex they encountered more hobgoblin guards.

The cleric stepped up with his prisoner and told them that their chieftain was dead and the party was willing to let them leave peacefully if they promised never to return. I decided to let the hobgoblins' reaction be decided by a roll. The first roll indicated that the would not attack but that they would growl and wait one round to hear what the cleric had to say. Also the next reaction roll would be at -4.

The cleric spoke to try to discourage the hobgoblins from attacking. I changed the modifier to -2 to show that his talk had some effect and then I rolled the dice. With the modifier the result was a 2 which indicated the hobgoblins attack.The hobgoblins won initiative and opened fire on the party with crossbows. Two bolts found their home in the captured hobgoblin's chest. He fell dead to the floor and the cleric was crest fallen as the fighters of the group rushed past him.

This was his a-ha moment. He knew how to play his cleric now. I don't think we'll need to roll up a new character for him and I can't wait to see what he does next time we play. I'm so pleased I got to see this moment first-hand.

Follow Your Bliss,