Thursday, February 25, 2010

Journey of a thousand miles

Dammit, Daniel, what the hell did you start? I've already talked about how Daniel's love letter to Vampire: The Masquerade inspired me to write about one of my early paradigm-breaking games: Ars Magica. Now Mike Laff has taken up the torch to tackle his take on Werewolf. THEN come to find out that none other than Ryan Macklin has a sweet spot for Mage: The Ascension, a game that is also near and dear to my heart and my favorite of the original World of Darkness games. Here's Daniel calling from his box seats encouraging Ryan to join in the fray, to which Ryan replies, "I have no time!" quickly followed by, "I will require some egging on, so you know."

Ryan, I just went to the store and got a dozen or so right here.

When Mage: The Ascension first came out, early publicity made it look like a modern take on Ars Magica where magic was stored on hard drives and spells could be sent through a telephone or fax. That in and of itself was quite cool. The game that came out was nothing close to that. Well, that's not exactly true, but the author himself stated that the game took a radical turn in an unplanned direction.

In the Bibliography of the first edition of the game, Stewart Wieck speaks of how reading Robert M. Prisig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had an "unmistakeable effect on the design of this game." The game was no longer a game of modern magic, but became a search for Truth.

Mages awaken to the truth that reality is not static. If one has the proper vision and mindset and a little bit of know-how, reality can bend to the mage's will. At it's heart, this is no different than what Aleistar Crowley's definition of magick presented in Magick in Theory and Practice:
MAGICK is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.
But there is more to it than just that. There was a deeper Truth that each mage was seeking. Once awakened the soul, or Avatar as it was called in the game, would seek Enlightenment. Enlightenment was actually an achievable goal in the game. It was the title given to the highest ranking of Arete, the measure of a mage's skill in magic (I would say that Arete was the measure of the soul's belief in the Truth it was seeking).

How do I know that Mage is about seeking Truth. Stewart tells me so on pg. 21 of the first edition of the game (emphasis mine):
Mage characters are not the purveyors of parlor tricks and fireballs depicted by most traditional sources. Of course, in the course of day-to-day life, mages will most certainly evoke such magicakal manifestations - and would hardly be enjoyable roleplaying subjects if they did not. Even so, mages of the Storyteller System, and their magical powers, represent much greater philosophical truths.
Now here in the next sentence of the same paragraph is where I believe Mage: The Ascension drops the ball:
Such truths may never arise in a direct way within the game, but they permeate the setting nonetheless.
May never arise in a direct way? Why not? And what about Enlightenment and Ascension? It gets about a page worth of treatment that boils down to a process that a mage must go through to increase their Arete rating. I get the feeling in many games this was handled with a little hand-waving and a nod from the Storyteller (GM).

Please don't get me wrong. I LOVE Mage: The Ascension. I loved it enough to buy all the source material I could get my hands on. I do love the gothic punk setting with a little cyber-twist thrown in. But what happened to Mage seems to be the same thing that happened to Vampire (and possibly Werewolf): it became a game of super-powered lunatics battling across the universe. There were plenty of bad guys to fry with bolts of lightning and balls of fire.

To me, Mage was about a personal journey of discovery, possibly an inward journey reflected by the world around the mage. I can sum it up in a movie: The Matrix. When this movie first came out, I said to myself, "This is what Mage could have been." Neo's journey of self-discovered showed him the Truth. Yeah, I know, there were a lotta kick-ass fights and shit blowing up too. My point is, Mage could have been something more.

I think this urge to dig deeper into the Truth that Mages were seeking has been with me all the while. I never found a group to play the game in the style I was thinking. I think it all bubbled up during Game Chef 2008. In that year's event - the first and only such event I've participated in - I was inspired by Elizabeth Shoemaker's photographs to produce Stigmata: A Question of Faith. It is the only RPG design project that I have ever seen through to the end. It was a valuable learning experience in a number of ways, but I digress. I think Stigmata was what I wanted Mage to be: a search for Truth. In my game, Truth could only be found by helping others heal their pain which hopefully made your character's cross a little easier to bear. 

I kid Daniel that it's all his fault, but really, I started on this path a while ago. A recent post from Shaun, the host of This Modern Death, regarding doing some productive project during the 40 days of Lent has me taking a turn down a path I've not visited in a while.

I like to think I'm a spiritual person, while maybe not being overly religious (a distinction that I have only recently begun to understand). But faith is something I've always struggled with. As a result of Shaun's post I've decided to dust off Stigmata and work on it again, this time with some help. I've approached a friend of mine, a mentor actually and the priest that performed my marriage ceremony, to help get some of the religious elements of the game straightened out.

After talking to him about this last week I was firmly settled that Stigmata was a game about a spiritual journey. He asked me who the game was for. I answered, "For me...right now." Then he asked me a surprising question: can a game BE a spiritual journey? That is my homework until we meet again to discuss my Lenten project.

Which brings me back to Mage and Ryan. I feel that Mage at its core is about a spiritual journey. Much of the language of the first edition was steeped in religious trappings: the path to Ascension was filled with Epiphanies and Avatar is just another word for soul not to mention the Celestial Chorus. So this all has deep meaning for me.

And Ryan, I'm not sure if this is egging you on or not. I don't even know if what I'm thinking of when I look at Mage is even close to what makes you love the game. I know you're a busy man and the last thing I want to do is add more stress to your life. But if you are passionate about exploring the core of Mage, then I'm offering to take the journey with you. No pressure, no deadline. Whenever, whatever.

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Elric Explored - Part 5: Magic

I think this will be the last in my series before tackling the other side of the formula for my Icosa setting: Cthulhu. Magic in the Elric saga touches back on many of the previous parts of this exploration, but I wanted to give it it's own space to work through some ideas.

I've already spoken of the types of magic that result from summoning of elementals and other entities. This could be seen as channeling energy from other planes. In the Elric saga this is an exhausting task. The albino is not the only one who must rest after casting difficult spells. I'm not proposing any new systems here, I think the limit on spell casting is enough of a mechanic.

I still want to have 'regular' spell casting. The idea of learning ancient magic from dusty tomes fits right in. So I turned my attention to what is magic in general. Channeled energy is one form (which could work for clerical spells as well), but I want magic to be a force unto itself. I think magic will be Chaotic energy. Each spell is a formula master for directing Chaotic energy to perform a specific function. This seems to work well with the Vancian magic system of old school fantasy. Spells are limited by level because you can only hold so many in your mind at a time. As you progress in experience (levels) you are able to contain more spells including ones of a more powerful sort.

Spring-boarding off this idea I look back at my ancient civilizations and forward to Cthulhu. There will exist magic that is unlike anything currently in practice. These ancient spells could pose great danger to the caster (attribute/hit point loss) not to mention those around him - these spell are 'more' chaotic, if I can use that term. Gaining these spells will be the stuff of adventures. I think there will be spells of all levels that fall into this category, but more as you raise up in levels as well. This will require some research and play. I'm fortunate that S&W starts with a small list of spells, that it is easier to add on, rather than have to whittle away or reorganize a large list.

Another area that falls under the subject of magic are items of a magical nature. There are very few items in Elric that can be viewed from the traditional RPG sense as 'magic items'. Of course there is Elric's demon sword, Stormbringer as well as his Ring of Kings. But not much else. There was one mention of a suit of armor that was enspelled. This could have been a magical effect, like Mage Armor; I'm willing to go with that.

However, there were mention of items with a long history. For example, Elric starts out with the sword of Earl Aubec. We get a treat in the stories to go back in time to see Aubec use his sword. So what I'm proposing, is that most items of a magical nature are in fact items wielded by great historic icons. By being used in this way and passed down, they take on a magical quality over long periods of time. Most items in S&W are only +1 and that seems to fit. This also means that these 'named' items will have a history to them. adding to the depth of the world and setting. More work for me, but it's a lot of fun.

So this will bring the exploration of Elric to a close, even though I haven't finished the series as yet. I'll be turning my attention to the Cthulhu mythos soon.

Follow Your Bliss,

Friday, February 5, 2010

Elric Explored - Part 4: Twilight Civilizations

An interesting aspect of the Elric saga is that it takes place late in the history of that Earth. Elric's line has ruled for 10,000 years. The story often speaks of those that came before - the Doomed Folk. The Doomed Folk had an advanced civilization that rivaled anything that came after it - it may even have rivaled the gods. Magic, technology, nothing could compare to those halceon days millenia ago.

This is a theme that is found in much of the literature that inspired D&D. One only has to look to Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels (from which D&D gets its distictive style of spell casting) to see Earth in its last days as the sun slowly burns itself out.

The world of the advevturer is then ripe for exploring. There is now reason for there to be ruins; reason for delving deep in the earth for treasures long thought lost. This twilight world presents a mystery that cries out to be discovered.

Now, I have no desire (let alone the time) to catalogue thousands of years of history and geneologies like the good Professor Tolkien. I'm more then content to sketch out a few key events and leave the rest a mystery even to me.

Leaving big blank holes gives me room to add details as play progresses. I can take cues from the players and provide detail as needed. What is important here is having a solid framework to build on.

The framework is made up of those key events in the past. These events are designed to spark ideas rather than dictate history. They're jumping off points. It is also important to keep it loose because I do intend for there to be ways to travel to other times. If I paint in too much detail I may paint myself into a corner and not have any room for the players to explore and interact with the setting.

Another reason for leaving blank spots is that it requires less of the players to get up and running. The last thing I want is to have required reading before players can get going. Players need enough details so that they can make intelligent choices during character creation and the rest they learn as they go. Again, the setting info should act as inspiration not dictation.

Elements that will definitely be included are: a lost and sunken birthplace of civilation, powerful magic and technology of the ancients, forgotten civilizations still thriving in hidden realms, buried cities of wonder, and layer upon layer of history. The acumulated history that is somewhat acurate only goes back a few hundred years. Beyond that it's legends and rumors. And legend and rumors are meat and drink of hearty adventurers.

Next time on Exploring Elric: Magic!

Follow Your Bliss,

How I learned to stop worrying and love Ars Magica

Once again I'm inspired by Daniel Perez. His recent love letter to Vampire: The Masquerade has got me thinking of paradigm-shifting games I've played. And since this blog is about exploring my passion for RPGs I should probably talk about other games I've played besides D&D.

I was introduced to Ars Magica in 1987, soon after it's release. I was home after my horrible first year at Bowling Green State University. I was supposed to be working on my saxophone playing so I could re-apply to BGSU's School of Music. Instead I was floundering in indecision about my future.

I was spending much of the time I was not working one of my three jobs thinking about or playing AD&D with my friends. It was a time full of role-playing goodness. I had a subscription to Dragon magazine and devoured it's contents to learn new ways to expand play. It was in those pages that I first found Ars Magica.

I don't remember the issue and I have long since sold my back issues (and for that mater it could have been White Wolf magazine - if anybody knows, please let me know), but there was a short piece of fiction about a flame-wielding Magi. I like to believe that it was written by one of the games authors: Jonathan Tweet & Mark Rein•Hagen.

Anyway, the wizard in the story was unlike anything I'd read to that point. I found the use of magic in the story unlike anything in AD&D. After the artcle were two write-ups for the Magi. The first was a typical AD&D stat block. The other was for Ars Magica (AM).

I found the AM character sheet facinating, especially how the magic was portrayed as skills in various magical disciplines. Also, the AM Magi had mechanical elements on the character sheet to represent various disadvantages and story points. This is pretty commonplace now, but it was earth-shaking to me then.

I found an ad with information for ordering the game from an unknown company called Lions Rampant. I soon did the unthinkable: I ordered the book sight unseen on the merits of that story and the character sheet alone.

I received the book shortly before heading back to school at BGSU. I was living on campus while technically a Junior (uncool) and was working in a dorm as a Resident Advisor (even more uncool). I read the book cover to cover several times.

Even after reading it as I did i had a lot of questions. I found the address for the company and hand wrote a letter asking them all of my questions (this was before the Internet was the sprawling monstrosity it is today.

To my utter amazement I received a hand-written reply several pages in length (as I type this post I'm 25,000 ft in the air over Nebraska so I can't check to see which of the designers wrote the reply, I'll have to check when I get home - yes, I kept the letter inside the well-worn cover of the game book). He answered my questions point for point.

Let me point out here that Dragon magazine gave me the opportunity to write in letters and ask questions if I wanted. But that was D&D. I was very intimidated by the stature and history of that game and looked with hero-worship to Gary & crew. With AM I felt comfortable building a dialog - a relationship. I now know that this sort of relationship building is a staple of independent press games. I've heard Fred, Chad, Luke and others speak of it on several occasions. But back then...again, monumental.

Some of the things that made AM so cool in my mind: stats that were modifiers in and of themselves, impovisational magic, troupe style play, control of multiple characters in play and building the story colaborotively.

Sadly I only had one opportunity to run a game of it. My college AD&D group obliged me and let me start. We never got past character creation. Maybe I built it up too much. Maybe it requires a bigger buy-in from players. Whatever the case, it is one game that i regret never pursuing further.

But I think there is still time. I think I'll dust it off and see if the magic still exists between the covers. In it's day it was avant guard. Today is it passé? We'll see.

Next time, more Exploring Elric: Twilight Civilizations!

Follow Your Bliss,

Update: Find Ars Magica 4th Edition PDF free here at the Atlas Games site. Also includes free adventures, campaign and character sheets. No excuse now, time to Creo Ignem.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Lost Lake of Eagles Peak

While Tweeting about my travels this week, the esteemed Daniel Perez, of The Gamer Traveler fame, threw a challenge my way:
Your mission: find one thing from your travel and blog about it as inspiration for a game.
So I heartily took up this challenge. Travel is a great way to get inspiration for any of a variety of endeavors, including gaming. A recent family trip to Hawaii helped me formulate the Black and Burning Wastes of the Beast Men for Icosa (no, faithful readers, you didn't miss anything, I haven't gotten that far in the setting to blog about it yet). But here is what I came up with from this current trip: The Lost Lake of Eagles Peak. First the fact, and then the fiction.

I settled on Lost Lake, Park Range, Eagle County, Colorado. It is near where I'm staying, although work prohibits me from visiting it. I took the information from the linked page and let my mind wander...

"Old miners tell of the Lost Lake hidden somewhere in the lofty summits of Eagles Peak. Legend tells of the a dried up lake that once in a great while - in the dead of winter when the stars and planets are in proper alignment - will house an expansive frozen lake and the abode of Isrisator, the Ice Titan. When the time is right, his towering ice castle, Islinna, can be seen reflecting the scintillating colors of the Aurora Borealis.

"Finding the Lost Lake will not be an easy escapade. Even if an intrepid band of adventurers is able to gain passage through the foothills of the ram-headed Beast Men of Vorland, they must also contend with the Stone Giants that roam the mountains. And if they are lucky enough to get by the dim witted giants there are always the Giant Eagles for which the peaks are named.

"Monstrous obstacles are not the only things that adventurers must contend with, oh no. They must battle the bitter cold and the thinning air as they climb higher and higher. If they have an expert guide they mayhap avoid bringing down a thundering avalanche of snow that will surely doom their party. And finally, they must deal with Isrisator himself.

"Isrisator is touted as a wizard mastering all forms of magic dealing with snow and ice. If the adventurers are lucky, they will only be transformed to ice statues and put on display in the vast sculpture garden that surrounds Islinna. If unlucky, they will be flayed alive by Isrisator's ice hounds for sport...or worse.

"But, if they are well prepared and press any advantages they can muster, there is untold wealth to be had in the depths of Islinna. Greatest of all the treasure is the fabled Mirror of Zoorziet with the ability to gaze upon any where and any when. But be quick, or be transported away to whatever plane Isrisator calls home when not among the Eagle Peaks."


The planar conjunction which causes the Lost Lake of Isrisator appear is caused by a merging of the Negative, Air and Water planes - actual frequency of this event is left up the game master. As such, it is easier to summon elementals of those planes or of the para-elemental plane of Ice. In addition, all spells whose effects deal with cold or ice are maximized (maximum duration and damage as appropriate).

Isrisator is indeed a Titan sorcerer specializing in snow, ice and illusionary magic. His motivations and concerns are left up to the game master to determine to suit their campaign. If he is benign, Isrisator can be a great font of information; if not, he can be a terrible foe.

The Mirror of Zoorziet is a frozen pool in the lowest dungeon of Islinna. As such it cannot be removed from the castle without destroying it. However, the castle dungeons can contain great treasures from many planes and worlds as suits each individual campaign.

Other hooks for seeking the Lost Lake can include:

  • Seeking the spell Ice to Flesh to restore a party member to health
  • Seeking an ancestor that was believed to be made an ice statue in Isrisator's frozen sculpture garden
  • Seeking the perfect snowflake as a material component for spell, ritual or enchantment
  • Summoning a Lord from the planes of Water, Air or Ice
  • Gaining access to same said planes
  • Creating uniquely powerful undead
  • Learning the secret of immortality
  • Destroying a cursed magic item by shattering it against the diamond-hard frozen lake

I'm pleased with the outcome of this little mind exercise and look forward to placing it in Icosa.

Daniel, this one's for you. I hope your day gets better soon.

Follow Your Bliss,

Monday, February 1, 2010

Elric Explored - Part 3: Law vs Chaos

One of the central themes of the Elric saga is the constant battle between Law and Chaos. These two forces are personified by various Lords of godly power.Their push and pull causes the friction which turns the wheels of the worlds and keeps things in motion. In re-reading these stories I find I like this as a backdrop.

Michael Moorcock credits Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword and Three Hearts, The Lions as the inspiration for the forces of the Higher Worlds that inhabit the Eternal Champion's multiverse. In these stories Chaos is more than just evil and Law is more than just the good guys. These are primal forces at work.

It helps that Swords & Wizardry uses Law and Chaos as the default alignments. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with its nine different alignments seems to be too much over thinking. There is a beauty to the simplicity of the Law vs. Chaos dichotomy. And yet, it's not just a morality play. By taking the ideas of Good and Evil out of the equation, Law and Chaos achieve and almost elemental aspect.

And while they battle it out, it is not anything that one side should ever win. If either side wins it could be the end of everything, as put so well but Orunlu the Keeper, minion of Chaos, in The Weird of the White Wolf:

"We exist only to fight - not to win, but to preserve the eternal struggle."
Orunlu may actually be more astute than the higher Lords of Chaos which seem determined that this is a war to be won. Which just goes to show that even gods look at things through a lens colored by their (warped) perception.

Which brings us to the concept of the Cosmic Balance. Some would argue this is simply the Neutral alignment, but I don't think so. Neutral is just coasting along, neither caring nor worrying about the struggle. Being committed to Balance takes work. Sadly, Balance doesn't get a lot of screen (page) time in the Elric stories, but that's ok, because the real action is between the two big guns.

Finally there is the question of freewill. Elric feels that he doesn't have such a thing. He labors under a destiny placed on him by his patron deity in addition to his mantle as the Eternal Champion. If he had his druthers, he would be back in the palace with Cymoril leading a 'normal' existence as king of his people. That doesn't make for good fiction, so I'm glad things turned out the way they did, because I really enjoy the stories as written.

So what does this mean for Icosa? Well, since this is an Old School Sandbox setting, it is important for the PCs to feel free to go wherever they wish and follow what ever path they desire. This doesn't sync well with the notion put forth in the books about a hero's destiny. Heck, we don't even know if the PCs will be heroes. So how to reconcile the two concepts?

In Icosa, all PCs will start 1st level as Neutral, or to put in it in 4E terms, Unaligned. A PC may choose to align with Law or Chaos at any point after completing first level. This works on a couple of levels. First Clerics (not sure what form they'll take in Icosa, but for now we'll assume that it is as written in SnW) do not get any spells at 1st level. They must prove themselves to their deity to gain the spells and thereby lock in their alignment. If they do not act in accordance with their intended alignment, they may stay Neutral and progress in hit points and such, but not gain spells until they are able to show their commitment.

Second, there is no pressure to play a certain way. The players make decisions for the characters and these decisions will slowly accumulate over time to reveal a tendency toward one or the other alignment. Also, this process will lead to consequences based on their choices. A player may not believe that his character is Chaotic, but he may sit up and take notice when he is visited by a demon to be recruited into the ranks of Chaos.

This is all still very sketchy. I'm toying with the idea that characters that summon demons must be Chaotic, but that is still a little ways away. Ultimately I want the process of Alignment to be organic not something that gets locked in and seen as a limit on play. For those that think this approach ignores 'plot' in Old School settings I think that James Maliszewski of Grognardia fame says it best here.

Another thing that this struggle implies is that the Lords of Law and Chaos are involved in the affairs of men. At the very least they will be providing spells to their Clerics and dreams and portent to their followers. If the PCs play their cards right the Lords may even put in an appearance. That's something worth looking forward to.

Follow Your Bliss,