Sunday, January 24, 2010

Elric Explored - Part 2: Planes

Another staple of the Elric stories that I'm particularly fond of is the concept of many and varied planes of existence. This concept goes to the heart of the Eternal Champion stories. The planes take many shapes and forms. These were no doubt the inspiration of the inner and outer planes of ADnD.

First there are the elemental planes, inhabited by the four classical types of elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Elric visits these on occasion and summons elemental minions to do his bidding from these planes throughout the saga. The elemental planes are 'close' to some planes and 'further' from others. There appears to be no set hierarchy as to the organization and location of these elemental planes. Passage to and from these elemental planes happens most frequently through the corresponding Earthly element (travel through the sea to get to the plane of water, etc.).

The next most common type of plane is that of alternate timelines. The Eternal Champion exists in all the various versions of Earth; each one of these versions is a distinct plane that can be traveled to. Sister to this type of plane is the concept of time as a plane. This provides the possibility of travelling to the past or the future not only within one's own plane but other planes as well.

Then there are all the various realms of Limbo and discarded dimensions inhabited by all manner of men, beasts and demons. The possibilities seem limited only by the writer's imagination. Again, no order or pattern can be discerned. The relationship between each plane is unique as are the properties covering the physical and magical laws of a plane.

There is one last type of plane in these stories, the eternal city of Tanelorn. This city exists in all planes throughout time. It is the final quest of many heroes seeking rest from their adventures. This could be viewed as a mobile plane of sorts, it's location within a given plane may be static (beyond the Weeping Wastes), but it may not always be accessible. From within the city it may appear that inhabitants can exit the city to visit a variety of planes depending on where they happen to be 'anchored' at the moment. This last one is a favorite of mine because it matches thematically with one of my favorite comic book settings: K'un L'un, the birth place of Iron Fist.

Looking at SnW White Box I see that there is no spell for travelling between planes; this is as it should be. SnW has its feet firmly planted in the Old School Renaissance which holds that the adventurers should be heroic, but not superheroic. Heroes who can plane-hop at will is the stuff of comic books. Adventurers of the OSR do travel to other planes, but I see these trips are accidental or arranged by some powerful entity; they are not the stuff of everyday fare.

So this begs the question of how the PCs will be able to access these planes. First there needs to be natural conduits to various planes closely associated to the prime plane of the PCs. This could be a deep sea tunnel that leads to the elemental plane of water, a dark dungeon cavern leading to the elemental plane of earth, and so forth. Also natural conduits should exist to different times and alternate worlds. The most common means of this in the Elric stories is becoming lost at sea; the Seas of Fate bridge worlds and times.

Another means of access would be through powerful entities or agencies. Demons, elementals and beast lords may be able to provide access to various planes. Agents of a particular power may have a magical device that allows passage through the planes - again, the black ship that sails the Seas of Fate is a good example of this variety.

Spells that access various planes are not out of the question, but I would like to limit this as much as possible. Certain planes may be more accessible through spells than others, or may only be accessible at certain times or only through great sacrifice. This will remain to be seen as development progresses.

Finally the eternal city brings an interesting possibility to the mix. Since this city can theoretically be any 'where' and any 'when' it provides the possibility of players creating any imaginable character as well as a way of accessing many planes. There was a time that this would have really bugged me when preparing a campaign. The concept is too big for most games, I didn't want to have Jedi running around in my quasi-medieval world. But now, with a few more years under my belt, I'm not so sure that it bugs me. One final benefit of the eternal city, it provides me with a way of explaining why there would be a monk in a quasi-medieval setting.

Adventurers-from-other-worlds has a solid foundation in fantasy literature: the D&D players in Quag Keep, Holger Carlsen in Three Hears, Three Lions, John Carter Warlord of Mars. Murlynd, one of the hero-gods of Greyhawk is clearly from Earth's wild west. So I'm in good company here.

The Deities & Demigods books of ADnD was the first to put a basic form and order to the inner and outer planes. These concepts were later formalized in the Manual of the Planes. Both of these are fine works, but I feel they are too rigid for Icosa. I may be borrowing some concepts - elemental, etheral and astral planes - but I think I'll keep things loose and flexible. This will let me handle things on a case by case basis. This may need more firming up when giving more depth to the Contact Other Plane spell.

Next time around I'll be looking at the battle between Law and Chaos.

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, January 21, 2010

If You're Not...

I woke up this morning to read a most awesome post by Judd at Githyanki Diaspora. In that post he puts forth that if you are not having the best gaming of your life then you F***ed up. I'll let you read it in his words and let that sink in for a minute.


I used to think that my best gaming days were those during college - those carefree halcion days; not any more. I feel like every game I run these days is awesome. Not awesome in the sense of a 'perfect' game, but in the sense of being totally invested, totally at-the-table.

My one regret is that I don't play as much any more; I'm almost always the GM. And you know what? I F***ed up. It is totally on me that I haven't gone out and actively pursued more gaming opportunities as a player. You can bet I'll be rectifying that.

So I ask you, are you having the best gaming of your life? If not, why not and what do you plan to do about it?

Follow your bliss,

Posted with LifeCast

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Elric Explored - Part 1: Elementals

A few days ago I posted about my desire to create an original sandbox setting (codename Icosa) to explore with my players. I posted this simple formula: campaign = Elric + Cthulhu + OD&D. Well not it's time to start taking this apart and seeing what makes this formula tick in my mind starting with the first variable for inspiration: Elric.

I'm re-reading the series of books about the albino Eternal Champion by Michael Moorcock to get reaquainted with the setting. I read it long ago and found many things I liked about it. Back then I had approached the series as a result of the appendix in the DMG. Now I'm going through the stories again with more of an eye toward what elements (no pun intended) I like most and would like to use in Icosa. I feel this is an important first step to help me focus the tone of the setting. I can also then compare the elements I want to the game system to see what is supported and what needs further fleshing out.

Let me make it clear to start off with that I am NOT trying to recreate the Elric saga in my sandbox. That's already been done quite well and I have no illusions to outstrip that excellent game. I only want to borrow those bits and pieces that I (and hopefully my players) find cool.

Another reason I want to start this way is I like to design top-down. This may seem counter intuitive given the exploratory nature of sandbox play, but I need that top-down framework to provide the structure to work within. It establishes boundaries and gives me something to build upon. Hopefully that keeps things from feeling too random. I do plan to leave plenty of places to explore and discover as a result of play. To begin with, some areas of the world will only have a sentence or two at most to give it flavor without dictating reams of history. If you catch me creating long (ala Tolkien appendices) genealogies or histories feel free to call me on that. So let's get started...

The world Elric inhabits has a close relationship with elementals. By elementals I mean not only the four classics (earth, wind, fire and water) but also the animal elementals, those primal beings that are the epitome of their type. These beings are powerful entities that are called upon to do various things for those summoning them. Included under this heading are the demons that are summoned as well. These otherworldly elementals are fearsome and a powerful tool of any sorcerer.

Elric interacts not only with the more basic types of elementals, but with their kings as well. This presents a hierarchy of power that could prove interesting to tap into. PCs could make bargains at lower levels with some of the more pedestrian of the elementals and work their way up the chain as they gain power and experience.

Swords & Wizardry (SnW) has Conjure Elemental as a 5th level magic-user spell, something only a potent magic-user of high level can cast. This fits in for the most powerful of their type, but I posit a more diverse strata of beings, something that magic-users at various levels can tap into (role-playing possibilities galore) as they gain levels. This points to a possible variant of the magic-user that deals specifically with these other worlders (perhaps with charisma as prime requisite) or perhaps a customization of spell lists.

Elementals could also be a possible source of magic (a more thorough exploration of magic is required another time): Levitate is performed by calling on air elementals and Wall of Fire by calling on their fiery cousins. Also there is the obvious need for stating the various elementals that the PCs can interact with. SnW has the basics but a little more variety can go a long way to spicing up play and exploration. In all cases (spells/class/monster) SnW provides an open framework for developing these ideas.

I hope the inclusion and use of these elementals will help bring a facet of the fantastic to this setting: both dangerous and exotic like the fey of old. I want players to look forward to and, at the same time, fear interactions with the Elementals of Icosa.

As a final note, I'm looking for a name for this campaign. I want it to be something 'pulpy' for lack of a better term. I'm not too worried about it at this point. I'm sure something will spring to mind as I continue to explore the setting.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

10 reasons I'm thrilled my child is a role-playing game geek

The following was posted by a friend on facebook and reprinted here with her permission:
I love my 7-year old Dungeons & Dragons, World-of-Warcraft Geek boy!! Here are some of the reasons why role playing games (and [my son]) rock... 
1. Vocabulary Aquisition, using words like adjacent and dexterity if everyday conversations.
2. Leadership and Groupwork Skills, choosing abilities that will help the entire group succeed and choosing actions based on what will benefit the team.
3. Bad Ass Math Practice, subtracting hit points, understanding probability, and quickly tallying the most damage you can do with any combination of dice.
4. History Linkages, knowing way more than necessary about medieval weaponry and armor.
5. Quality Family Time, playing with mom, dad, [aunts and uncles]
6. Computer and Techonology Skills, helping brothers and friends create characters on dad's laptop, surfing the web for information and interesting youtube clips
7. Research, always looking things up in monster manuals and dungeon master's guides
8. Appreciating Mythology and Folklore, look out Homer!
9. Decision-making and good sportsmanship, let the dice fall how they may.
10. Passion, that gets him up at 6:00am on a Saturday so he can tell his mom all about the quest that they will begin that evening. Gotta love when sitting down and talking with mom ranks higher than playing the Wii.

Well said, thanks for letting me share this on my blog.

Follow Your Bliss,


Friday, January 15, 2010

Back to the beginning...again

In my New Year's Resolutions I talked about creating a new Old School campaign. Now I already run the Back 2 Basics campaign for my sons and our friends. This is using the D&D Rules Cyclopedia which is a wonderful system and I really have no complaints. I am using the out-of-print Karameikos setting so that I can run some classic modules (like B2 Keep on the Borderlands, X1 Isle of Dread and the Dave Arneson's DA1-3 Adventures in Blackmoor). This should keep us going for a while. Any play in my new setting will be outside this regular play.

Having these ready to run modules had been great because I can focus on play at the table with minimal prep work. However, it lacks a little bit of luster to me as a DM. I like to feel I'm creating something besides the play at the table. So I want to create my own setting.

As a result of this look back into my roots of gaming I've fallen in love with the Old School Renaissance. This has lead me to looking hard at all the retro-clones out there to pick from. It's wonderful that all are available for free download in a digital version, because now I can (legally) make copies for my players. The way we play now is all using the same book.

The version I am settling on is Swords & Wizardry White Box. I love how wide open it feels. I've also been doing a LOT of reading of Old School blogs and found many different ways to adapt the game to my needs. I think my goal will be to start with the White Box and add any information freely found on the web and then add original material as needed.

To me it is important to pick the system first because I feel the system flavors the setting. Since I've been reading so much of the inspirational material for D&D (books listed in the appendix of the DMG) it seems to make sense to go back to the beginning: OD&D. White Box is a good fit and feels the most right for what I want to do.

I think I'll be using Obsidian Portal again to keep track of the campaign world as it is built. I like its tools and I feel it provides an easy way to access the information. Once play begins I will be posting play reports in the Adventure Logs. I'll also be linking to any inspirational materials as is appropriate. For now the formula for the campaign = Elric + Cthulhu + OD&D.

Follow Your Bliss,

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tweeting...for what it's worth

I don't make it a habit of posting non-gaming related items in this blog, but I have to make a shout-out to Daniel who has been telling me for a while I should be on Twitter. I could never see the point - it was just one more way to social network and I needed another one of those like I need a one-sided die.

But after some prodding on his part I made the leap last week. I have to say it is quite fun. It was made even more enjoyable now that I tied it all together so that I'm covering facebook, tweets and notices of blog posts into one interface (for the technically minded see below).

So, for what it's worth, if you enjoy this blog and want to keep the conversation flowing, then feel free to look me up on Twitter: @CinderellaManJJ.

Technical note - I have my Twitter account set to send my status updates to facebook as well, which kills two birds with one stone. I follow tweets using TweetDeck on my PCs and iPhone. I also created a account to manage and track all my shortened URLs. Finally, again with a recommendation from Daniel, I've set up TwitterFeed so I can automatically tweet and update facebook when I publish a blog post. I'm still learning all the syntax, but I'm having a good time of it.

Follow Your Bliss,

Monday, January 11, 2010

You can't say that!

Ok, so Orclord and Canon Puncture seem to be my Muse of late. The same post that set my mind down the path thinking (and posting) about character death has now got me thinking about Out Of Character (OOC) dialog. This also relates tangentially to my last post.

At some game tables it is frowned upon to speak out of character. I have played in one game where all OOC conversation was signified by placing you hand on your forehead in the 'loser L' symbol. Very degrading, but did little to stem the flow of OOC.

The thing about RPGs is that they are cooperative. Players work together (usually) to complete common story goals - empty the dungeon, save a bus full of school children from dropping off the bridge, slay all the vampire you can find. Nowhere is it written that a player cannot make a suggestion to another player. "You may want to back your fighter up a step to set your spear for that charge."

Rarely have I been at the table where everyone (players not characters) is at the same level of experience when it comes to a specific game. In my current Back 2 Basics campaign I have two adults, one that has extensive 3.5 gaming experience (remember, we're playing Basic D&D here), the other that has mostly played MMORPGs. Of the three kids playing, my two boys have been gaming for roughly 4 years, while my friend's son is just starting out.

I think it's important for experienced players to share their knowledge with the newer player. This takes many forms: rolling up a character, choice of spells, where to take position in the battle to make best use of the character's weapon. There is still a lot of room for in-character talk at the right moments, and while I don't like the 'loser L' approach it is nice if you can somehow differentiate which talk is in or out of character.

Now at tables that feature more role-play may want to keep non-character chatter to a minimum. I get this. Unfortunately this often happens when only certain players are involved in a scene. In fact, it may be very important to keep distractions down so that the players in the scene can give it their full attention. Be respectful of others when they are in-character. If at all possible, hold your OOC comments until after the scene.

But there are times you just have to speak up. For example, what if one of the characters is trying to get past a guard by bluffing his way through. Perhaps the player forgot an important piece of information that will improve his chances. If appropriate you should remind the player of this info. What I don't like when this happens is that you inevitably hear, "Your can't say that! You're not there!"

My personal response is that this is a game, and players help each other out. If you want to be completely immersive then find a LARP to join. It is one thing to speak in character and do a cool voice, but is another to get all thespian on it. Let me be clear, that I'm talking about MY style of play here, not any recommended procedures. Your mileage may vary.

Another case in point. Last night one player wanted to break formation so that he could take a bow shot at an orc that closed with him. The other players started telling him not to do that because he would potentially expose the magic-user to an attack. It started getting heated and I had to quite it down. I reminded everybody that every player is free to make a suggestion to any other player, but that it is up to each individual player to decide what their character is doing at a given moment. When asked what he wanted to do, the player continued with his action of taking the step back. (The magic-user did not get attacked because all the orcs were dispatched before they could attack).

What I'm trying to say is that OOC should never be used to bully another player into doing something. I saw a player who insisted on sticking his hand into a snake nest to grab an egg, even after all the players voiced opinons that this was not a good move. One failed saving throw later and the player learned a valuable lesson. No one forced him to keep his hand out and the player had complete control of his character all the way up to the very end.

Follow Your Bliss,

Quoteable Gygax

The following is from p. 25 of B2 Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax (emphasis mine) in a section entitled Tips to Players:

Arguing among players will cause delays, attract monsters, and often result in the deaths of some or all of the members.
Wow, talk about a tough campaign! I mean, Gary brought monsters in to get rid of his most argumentative players! Reminds me of that scene from The Gamers movie that took TPK to a new level.

All kidding aside, this is more to illustrate the point of how little difference was made in early publications between the players and the characters in the game. I see this as another point in the argument that Old School games were meant to challenge the players and not their characters. Hence no lengthy tables of skills and feats.

Stories and Games

I got a nice compliment last night by a friend in our Back 2 Basics campaign. I had asked him to follow up with his son about what the son found interesting and fun in our sessions. His son, age 8ish, is being introduced to RPGs through this campaign and I was looking for some feedback. Anyway, the compliment was that the son liked the stories I told when we played.

I said thank you for the compliment, but have been chewing on it all morning. I'm glad that he's having fun, but he's not getting the buy-in. He's creating the story as well. This is his story. Maybe this is a concept that is too big to tackle at that age or maybe I just need to be more straight forward and say that "Hey guys, this is your story!" I'll let you know how it goes.

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Character Death

A recent post by Orclord and the resulting comments following the post has me thinking about character death in RPGs. It's a touchy subject and reactions vary by individual. I'm not proposing that I have any of the answers to the question of how to handle character death, but rather just exploring some of my thoughts and feelings on the subject.

One of the things that may affect the way a player reacts to this situation is based on how they are approaching the game. Putting on our RPG theory glasses, lets look at those approaching a game using Step on up (Gamism). In this approach the player may see the character as a resource, something that is controled and changed over the course of play. Losing a resource can be a major set-back; all the time spent acquiring experience points, gold, equipment, magic items, or what have you is lost and you must start over again.

This often isn't too big of deal because it was (hopefully) a fun ride getting the character to this point. It may be no worse that landing on a chute and having to work your way back up the ladder (to use a board game analogy); whip up a new character and more fun is on its way. If, however, the individual happens to be a very competitive person, then this could be a hard hit; they may be feeling like they just 'lost' the game.

I've been there. I've had a couple of characters that I've spent a lot of time on and then lost them to in-game death. When they died it really was a lot like losing a hard-fought competition. The worst was an AD&D campaign run by my friend Hank. We had a definite win condition: free our tribe from the desert. We died in the battle of the gatehouse and our people would not be released. It was pretty crushing and was, in fact, the end of the campaign so it was doubly hard. I did have a great time playing and though we never got into the double-digit levels he was one of my favorite characters. Stepping back I can look at the whole campaign as a tragic story, which leads me to my next point of view.

From a Story Now (Narrativism) perspective a character death must be viewed from the larger vantage point of the story that is being created through play. If the death served a purpose to further the plot of the story then it would likely not be a big issue for the player; it may be view with great enthusiasm for being able to achieve a sense of pathos in the game. If, however, the death had no story tie-in, then it may seem like a senseless waste and be very difficult to rebound from.

A lot of this will depend upon the game system used. Many indie rpgs give players lots of Story Now opportunities and greater control over plot. Sandbox play leads to Story After (making a story out of the actions that the characters experienced), but there is some opportunity for Story Now based on those occasions when a player chooses to let their character die. I had a first level character who, with very few hit points left, willingly sacrificed himself in order to delay the villain so the party could escape (ask me over a drink sometime, I love to tell stories). This was a character death I did not lament and I think that shocked the DM that someone would do that willingly.

That brings me to The Right to Dream (Simulationism) in which players will deeply immerse themselves into the character they are portraying. This is potentially one of the most difficult player deaths to deal with. If the game system is one supporting Story Now and the player has some control over the plot then they may deem it best for the character to die to fit the needs of the story. Like the example above, this shouldn't be a problem.

The problem comes when the death is unexpected (as most character deaths in traditional RPGs tend to be). In this case, the character is not a resource or a tragic protagonist in a story; the character is a loved one, cherished and adored. This can result in very emotional outbursts and possible fits of depression. In John Coyne's book Hobgoblin, the book opens with the protagonist playing Hobgoblin, a D&D-esque game. His character, a 20th level paladin, is killed as a result of an unlucky roll (ain't that the way it always happens). This is mirrored against the sudden death of the protagonist's father - illustrating (in my mind, at least) the level of loss the protagonist was feeling over his most beloved character.

Now you may be saying, 'Alright already! It's a game, fer cryin' out loud! Get a life!' Yes, this may be true. A good separation of fantasy from reality goes a long way to lessening the sting of a character death. However, I offer you this position: creating a player character for an RPG is like any creative endeavor - you invest a piece of yourself into it. There is no greater form of sympathetic magic. Add to this the time an energy spent on a character that has been played for a very long time and it is exponentially more difficult to divest yourself from those feelings.

Now, how can the blow of a character death be lessened? The best thing in my bag o' tricks is to talk about the game before you sit down to play; some folks like to call this a Social Contract. Before play, talk about the game, talk about the setting, talk about the genre and talk about the characters. Let players know how death works in your game. Let them know if there are any safety nets for character death, such as resurrection spells or cloning. This will go a long way to helping players keep character death in perspective.

And even then, all the prep in the world may not be enough to alleviate the pain of a character death. If you are bothered by your character's death, talk about it as a group or talk to your game master. And as they say, time (and a good psychotherapist) does heal all wounds.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Out with the old and in with the new

Well, it is time to get started again: new year, new resolutions. Inspired by the latest Canon Puncture Podcast, I'm hoping by posting my gaming & blogging related resolutions here I will have more accountability to sticking to what I say. Even though this is a time for new beginnings, a friend reminded me that everyday is a fresh chance to start over or continue working on your goals.

To make this a little easier I'm breaking down my resolutions into New Things, Improvements and Continuing Items. Without further ado...

New Things
  • I want to run at least three different games at conventions over the course of this year. I may run the same game at more than one convention, but I'd like to try to vary what it is that I'm running. Current candidates are Swords & Wizardry Whitebox, InSpectres, Faery's Tale and Demigods (see below).
  • I want to put together a free RPG for use in libraries based on the Percy Jackson series of books as a way to tie RPGs into reading. This will be a re-skinning of John Harper's Ghost/Echo which provides a simple and easy-to-teach framework for a storytelling game.
  • I will begin developing, playing and documenting an original Old School setting suitable for play with Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. All this exploring into my gaming roots has caused me to be bitten by the Old School Renaissance bug.
  • I want to run at least 4 introductory RPG sessions in a library. I felt I had great success with my last one and hope to continue the trend.
  • I want to run RPGs for children under the age of 10. I may do this as part of my convention play, playing in libraries or playing with children of my friends.
  • I want to start illustrating my RPG play. This means art for any setting/game material as well for any campaigns I'm running/playing. This is my personal challenge for Creative Every Day 2010. I found this through my friend Mick Bradley and thought this was a worthwhile pursuit. While most of what I do in this blog is creative, I, inspired by Mick, wanted to push myself further. I'll be posting my results for all to see.
  • I was posting on average about 4 times a month on this blog. I would like to up that to averaging 8 posts a month. Posting has helped me in working out a better understanding about what I like in RPGs.
  • I want to post adventure logs more regularly for my current campaigns. I started off fine at Obsidian Portal and then dropped off. I would like to post from both the GM and Player perspective for all my campaigns. I'll cross-link here for anyone interested in following my actual play.
  • At the close of last year I had started contributing to the Games in Libraries Podcast. This year I have stepped up as host and audio editor for the podcast. This will most likely be an annual rotating position, but I wanted to make sure this great podcast continued to reach listeners so I stepped up my participation.
  • I want to step up my participation in conversations related to my RPG passion, whether it be posting comments on blogs or forums. I will continue participate at The Escapist, Kids-RPG and look for a good forum for some Old School discussions.
  • I hope to be more disciplined in logging what I'm reading that is RPG related. I started off using an app in Facebook, but now, thanks to Daniel Perez's suggestion, I'm using GoodReads which has had the added benefit of putting me in touch with what my friends are reading.
Continuing Items
  • I want to continue regular play as both GM and player in campaigns with my children and friends.
  • I will continue to learn and explore my RPG passion though gaming, blogging and podcasting.
  • I will continue to strive for a good balance in all my endeavors. While I have only listed my RPG related resolutions I will be working on resolutions for other areas of my life as well.

Follow Your Bliss,