Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking Back 2010

It's that time of year where we take a page from Janus' book and look back at the year that has passed and forward to the next. So I'll cut to the chase and start with my resolutions for this last year and see how I did.

First under New Things:

  • Run at least three different games at conventions - a big goose egg there. I only made it to one convention this past year (Origins for 1 day) and I was able to sit in on one game, but not run anything.
  • Put together a free RPG to run in libraries - another 0. I had started work on Demigods but was not able to get it to a playable version for testing.
  • Development on an Old School campaign - 25%. I started work on Icosa and managed to hammer out the basics, but ran out of steam.
  • Run introductory RPG sessions at library - 0. Other than the initial session in 2009 I was not able to get this moving. This failed primarily to my dependance on the second point above.
  • Run RPG for children under 10 - fail.
  • Illustrating my games/play - nada.

Score: .25 out of 6

On to Improvements:

  • Posting an average of 8x/month - 0. I managed to hit that mark 1 out of the last 12 months. I started out strong with 11 posts in January and spiked again in April with 7.
  • Posting adventure logs - 0. Didn't happen.
  • Games in Libraries Podcast - epic fail. I couldn't get my act together to make it happen.
  • Participation in RPG conversations - 25%. I started off strong and once again lost steam.
  • Logging my reading with GoodReads - 75%. I did very well with logging, I just had a tough time finishing books.

Score: 1 out of 5

Finally Continuing Items:

  • Continued regular play - Yes. I managed to have probably my best gaming year to date (even if I didn't always blog about it).
  • Continue exploring my passion - I would have to say Yes on this as well.
  • Strive for a balance in my endeavors - Ha! Ok, that was a bit sarcastic. I did strive (begged, pleaded and even groveled at times), but was not always successful. I'll give this one a 50%.

Score: 2.5 out of 3

So looking back this may seem like an awful year. Really, it wasn't. Maybe I was a bit unrealistic on what I was aiming for, but I gave it a shot. I'm not mad, a little disappointed, maybe, but I'm not going to beat myself up over it. So, taking what I've learned and looking ahead, I try to follow Casey Kasem's advice:

"Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."

So now with this review of the year under my belt (slightly smaller thanks to &, I can ponder my course for the next year. For that, check back on the other side of midnight.

Follow your bliss,

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Time Will Tell

It's been over two months since I posted anything to this blog, and while I use this space to think through some of the gaming-related ideas going through my head, there are a few of you out there in inter-web land that visit this space and interact with me. To those that do, I apologize for my absence.

There has been a serious lack of regular gaming going on in my life, and that has a lot to do with my general mood and lack of posting. I'm getting back into the swing of things with an on-line game of Apocalypse World, my Dresden Files game is shrinking to just be me and my boys, I'm figuring out what to play with my regular face-to-face group, and I may be running some old school fantasy games at a recently opened FLGS. Things seem to be picking up just as we head into the holiday season, when life in the States seems to be at its most hectic.

So what have I been doing with my time? I've been looking inward, using the time for thought and introspection. Another birthday has come and gone, the boys are a year older and one more step closer to moving out of the house, and my wife grows more beautiful with each passing day. I'm looking to see where gaming fits into my life without taking it over completely. I'm looking at the purpose of this blog and whether it has any beneficial impact in the grand scheme of things.

Only time will tell. I promise to keep those of you that do stop by to read my meandering thoughts posted.

Follow Your Bliss,

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Monday, September 13, 2010

Switching Gears: Dresden Files RPG

After a long absence at the Back to Basics gaming table, our crew gathered to discuss what to do next. I laid out some possibilities: finish Keep on the Borderlands, play Mouse Guard or Dresden Files, or have someone else step up and run something. My oldest son said he would run Eberron (3.5) and I offered to pick up Dark Sun if my youngest wanted to explore running 4th edition D&D.

After kicking this around for a bit, most of the table was ambivalent while my two sons were strongly promoting Dresden Files. Both had played in an awesome pick-up game at Origins (referred to in our house as 'Night of the Chupacabra') run by That Internet Guy, Ryan Macklin. My youngest was giving a pitch worthy of any used car salesman. The rest of the group agreed and the Dresden Files RPG we would play.

Before sitting in on the game at Origins this year I had not read any DF material. I was familiar with the FATE system from Spirit of the Century. After Origins I picked up the DFRPG PDF and started reading through it, hopping around to skim the topics that interested me. The game seemed very closely tied to the fiction, so I decided to give the books a try.

I burned through Storm Front and passed it off to one of the members of the B2B crew. He burned through it too and loved it as much as I did. I passed it onto my oldest son and he fell in love with it too. We got our hands on the second book and were not disappointed. I now turned back to the DFRPG to read it from the beginning.

After our group settled on DFRPG, I went to my friend's computer (we game at his house) and printed off the city creation worksheets. I had read the city creation chapter before we gathered so I felt pretty comfortable walking through this as our first session.

I've played games where setting creation is part of the process of play (Mortal Coil primarily) so I went into it with an open mind. I threw out several suggestions for a city to base the game in, including New York, Las Vegas and our hometown of Perrysburg. I thought that placing the game between the urban center of Toledo and the rural city of Bowling Green could be interesting. I was worried that we were straying too far from the urban setting of the novels. Thankfully the others thought it would be interesting as well. I like that our home was an island of safety between the encroaching urban center of Toledo and the dark and mysterious Black Swamp of Bowling Green (this gets fleshed out below).

We began to bang out ideas. We first came up with a Theme of urbanization and over-development. We didn't have to look very far and were able to name many real-world examples. We placed the (fictional) mayor of Toledo as the Face of this Theme.

Next we hammered out two Threats: the area known as the Black Swamp is the source of powerful black magic and that an outlaw biker gang is upsetting the delicate balance of organized crime. The Faces of the Black Swamp Threat are the opposing leaders of the White and Black Lodges, Native American circles of shaman. For the biker gang we chose the leader (a sorcerer to bring in another supernatural element) and his lieutenant. This will definitely be the primary Threat of the initial story arc.

Next we tackled The Balance of Power. This was probably the most confusing aspect of the the setting creation for the players to grasp. After a couple of attempts at explaining the idea behind it they finally latched on and we were off and running. We created, IMHO, a nice scattering of groups (I hope to soon post a JPEG of our graph or some other such document).

Finally we started filling in the Locations that we wanted to use. The gang really go into this. Some of the more interesting ones include Ft. Meigs, a historic fort from the War of 1812 that will be Accorded Neutral Grounds, and the Fifth Third Field, home of the Toledo Mud Hens minor league baseball team under which is lair to the city's vampires. The most interesting face we put to these locations is the ghost of General 'Mad' Anthony Wayne who haunts Ft. Meigs and keeps the peace there.

The fun didn't end there. One of the players discovered a local ghost story about Anthony Wayne. Seems his remains were were exhumed and moved to a new burial place. Along the way, some of the bones went missing. Now the Mad General rises to look for his bones. You can bet that will come into play.

Everyone is excited to get to playing. Next time we meet we'll work on character creation. I'll post the results soon

Follow your bliss,

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Meeting Gamers

Some of you may not know me well enough to know that I travel for work. A lot. While I'm a bit of an introvert I do enjoy meeting and talking with new-to-me people. Especially gamers. So I was pleased to meet another gamer on my most recent trip.

He was working the desk at the hotel I was staying at in downtown Phoenix. I had approached him because I needed information about getting to the airport the next morning to head home. As he answered my questions I noticed he was reading over a character sheet. An Order of Hermes character sheet from Mage: The Ascension, to be precise.

I asked him about it and he confirmed that he was playing in a Revised edition OWoD Mage game with his friends. I told him how cool that was and how much I love the original setting for Mage. We talked for several minutes about his game, the OWoD setting and getting back into play after a long absence. Talk quickly turned to technology, ebook readers and the iPad.

Eventually the client I was training arrived for our lunch meeting and I had to go, but, like a cheap whore, I scribbled down the URL to this blog and passed him the note. I walked away feeling very glad that I got to spend a few minutes during a long business week getting to talk about games with a fellow gamer.

This got me thinking about recognizing other gamers in the strangers around me. What could I do to let others know that I played RPG's to elicit further connection and interface? Is there an RPG 'gang sign' I can throw? Maybe some d20 bling? Obviously wearing my D&D t-shirt proclaims me as a member of the gaming set, but that is not exactly business attire when I'm working.

I think the simplest way to make that connection is reading gaming materials in public. Just as that character sheet clued me in that this fellow was a gamer, reading gaming material in public will let others know that I enjoy playing RPG's. Actual game books are best as they are iconic (and often very big and hard to miss). If I'm reading the Dresden Files RPG on my iPad (beautiful PDF that it is) someone has a to practically be looking over my shoulder in order to see what I'm reading. Nope, actual books are the way to go.

This also has the added benefit of inviting the curious on-looker to enquire about what it is at I'm reading. If the person is a non-gamer this gives me a chance to evangelize the wonders and magic that is the fantabulous world of RPG's. Three times a year there is the Read an RPG Book in Public Week. no reason to wait so long, grab a book and do it now.

I'm very interested in hearing how other folks proclaim their membership in the RPG Federation. Feel free to drop a comment on this blog post and share what you do to be recognized.

Follow your bliss,

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, September 6, 2010

Game Science Dice

GameScience Dice in action
Back at Origins I picked up my first pair of GameScience dice. After a busy summer I finally got a chance to give them a try. My oldest son offered to run Eberron (3.5) just so we could start gaming again. Between all the summer camps, travel, holidays and what-not, our semi-regular Back to Basics campaign had fallen by the wayside (as had my blog posting). Seems the only gaming I was doing was on Skype and there we used an on-line substitute to real dice.

So I dusted off Angus the Artificer and we picked up where we left off in the module Whispers of the Vampire's Blade. But before I could start playing I had an important ritual to complete with my new dice: coloring in the numbers. The opaque dice I selected at Origins (a nice dusty orange) did not come with painted numbers.

This didn't bother me in the least. See, the first (and second) set of gaming dice I acquired (and proudly still own) did not come with painted numbers either: the red Basic and blue Expert boxed sets of D&D. Those sets even came with a white crayon for the purpose of coloring in the numbers (yes, I still have the pieces of that original crayon in my dice bag; I'm working through this with my therapist); the GameScience dice did not. No biggie, I could borrow one from my boys.

(Some of you may be asking why I didn't use that original crayon for coloring in my new dice. Well, obviously, that crayon is only used for touch-up on the original dice. Yes, it is a sickness and admitting it is the first step to recovery.)

So, for the first time in 30 years I set to coloring in my dice. The artist in me settled on a dark blue-violet (I have to justify those years earning my BFA from time to time). I started with the d6, scraping the point of the crayon over each face. You see, the numbers on each die are indented, so, rubbing the crayon over these presses the dark wax into the recesses. It also sticks to the surface of the die; not very legible or pretty at this point. That is where the tissues come in.

The next step after coloring is polishing each die with tissues (a brand without lotion preferably, generic is preferred). Well, maybe not so much polishing as cleaning off the excess crayon. Throughout this process I'm turning the die over and over in my hand, feeling each side, each edge. In this way I'm getting to know each die. I notice at the edges are crisp and sharp. I also notice the rough spot where the die was broken off the 'tree' much like the parts of a plastic model kit.

This rough spot is a point of pride with the GameScience dice makers. It proves that the dice were not put through a tumbler to polish out the blemishes. Such polishing does smooth away the blemishes, but it also rounds the edges and results in unevenly-sized dice. By the way, that's also how dice with painted numbers are made: the dice are painted then polished to remove the paint from the sides while leaving it in the numbered recesses.

By the time I finished with my dice I was ready to start rolling. I gave each a few experimental rolls. I would drop each die from my hand at varying heights over the table. We were playing on a Chessex battle mat so it provided an even and slightly springy surface.

I was surprised to see that each die would bounce one or twice and then stop, even the d20. This was way cool. The sharp edges brought each die to a stop with a minimum of rolling. No more chasing run-away dice across the table. I could see that there would be much less sloppy die rolling in my future. As we played I paid attention to the results of each roll. While I did not try to stat the rolls I did feel that the results were suitably random enough for my tastes.

The end result is that I am very happy with my GameScience dice and I can't wait to get more. They have a great nostalgic quality and I can feel reassured that the dice are going to be impartial oracles. Now I wonder if the GameScience folks make Fudge dice too?

Follow your bliss,

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Origins 2010 Recap

I'm going to ease back into writing by giving my recap of Origins 2010. I spent Sunday, the last day of the con, with my boys exploring the exhibition hall, chatting with various games designers and playing a game of Dresden Files RPG. The family pass was only $10 for all three of us to get into the exhibition hall; Origins knows how to treat families right.

First I had a chance to chat with some very friendly RPG game designers: Fred Hicks, Ryan Macklin, Rob Donoghue, Jason Morningstar, Paul Tevis, Luke Crane and Brennan Taylor. Most I had met before and I was please to meet for the first time Jason (who promptly recruited me for his One Cool Thing video I posted about last time) and was able to share my recent experience with his game Fiasco. Rob was kind enough to share with me his experience reading and working with gaming PDFs on his iPad (I'm a convert now and looking to get one ASAP). It was fun catching up and chatting with all these great folks, but my sons were soon bored with dad yacking away.

Thankfully the exhibition hall had distractions to occupy them while I was talking. Doubly lucky was the fact that Ryan was looking for players for a pick-up game of Dresden Files. I had found out about the pick-up game from his Tweet the evening before. As the time neared it turned out Ryan had 4 slots open but 5 players counting me. Since I wanted my sons to experience first-hand a con game I opted to sit back and provide support as needed.

First off let me say that Ryan is a great GM. I don't know where he found the energy to run a game at the end of a long con, but he did a fantastic job. As Lead Project Developer for Dresden Files RPG, Ryan really knew his stuff. He was able to pull together some very wild ideas (a were-goat, a myth-busting organization called PENGUIN) and make it work. Ryan would go on to say the session was very Saturday Morning Cartoon-ish, but it worked, which says a lot for his mad gaming skills and the versatile FATE system Dresden Files is based on.

Let me be clear before I go too much farther that this is not a review of Dresden Files. This session was an introduction to us, but I felt very comfortable playing because of past experience with Spirit of the Century, even though I've never read one of Jim Butcher's Dresden novels. I'm coming at this from our overall experience of the game. I'm indebted to Ryan for making this such a cool play session for my boys.

I was pleased to see that my boys picked up on the mechanics of play very quickly. Their primary gaming experience to date has been D&D (Basic, 3.5 and 4). They were really sailing with the ideas of Aspects and making a fun story. Both really got into the story and their characters. They were talking about the game the rest of the day (especially El Chupacabra). This was enough to prompt me to get the PDF of the game when I got home. I'm interested in digging into the details as soon as time permits.

Now, it's not a convention if you don't spend some money. We all purchased some Game Science Dice. I've been interested in them since I saw the YouTube interview. I was pleased to see the opaque dice with unpainted numbers which hit that Red-Box-nostalgia spot. I can't wait to add them to my Back to D&D Basics campaign.

Well, that was our Sunday at Origins 2010 in a nutshell. That will have to hold me over till 2011. Next year both of my boys will be old enough to join me at GenCon. W00t!

Follow Your Bliss,

Monday, June 28, 2010

I'm back...

...from Origins 2010

Shout-out to Jason Morningstar who put this little film together.

More from me soon.

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Researching Cthulhu - Part 2: Books

For my next research topic it's time to delve into the deep and research the many tentacled Mythos of Cthulhu: ancient tomes of magic and dark deeds. Lovecraft's writing make reference to several books that have become staples of the genre. I'd like to use this element to add some flavor to Icosa.

As a departure from the typical 'spellbook' and to help add to the chaotic nature of spellcasting, magic-user spells will only be found scattered about in various texts rather than collected in a wizard's spellbook. Each player could have their own traveling spellbook from which to memorize, but I see these as notes and shorthand, it would not be sufficient for a magic-user to learn the spell from one of these traveling tomes. This would be the equivalent to the researchers notebook. I'm feel that this, along with few starting spells, will give the magic-users reason to delving into dungeons dark and dangerous. It also gives them a reason to have a home base where they can store their library.

These books can take many forms. They can be studies on a partiular subject, writings of many authors, perhaps an enclave or coven. They could be the mad ramblings of a magic-user whose mind has been lost or warped by the chaos he casts. So in addition to spells, the book should impart some knowledge. This knowledge is a way of slowly unraveling the mystery that is the history of Icosa. Spells in these books would be limited to one or two which are related to the nature of the work.

These tomes also help build the feel of an ancient lost world, one where magic was perhaps more prevalent than today in Icosa. This will help me introduce figures of note from history. Most notably I'd like to introduce famous magic-users through their works, ala Melf and Mordenkainen.

I believe the text of spells would be in an ancient tongue; except for possibly one ancient magic-using race, the language would be considered dead. This language is passed down from master to apprentice and would be considered secret. Magic-users could identify one another through the use of key words and phrases.

This approach will allow me to do away with Read Magic. Blasphemy you say? Isn't it required for reading magic scrolls? Well, no, because I'm not going to have magic scrolls, at least, not the one-shot magic spell variety. The reason for this is that I don't see a basis for this in any of the text I'm using as source material; magic scrolls feels more like a game element than a literary one. Magic is a language, you have to know the language to learn and cast the spells, so every magic-user will start out knowing this language.

What about clerics? Good question. My approach is that clerical spells (or prayers) would be written in a language specific to alignment. I envision Lawful clerical writing to be in something similar to Latin and Chaotic writing to be in an offshoot or distant dialect of the text used by magic-users. While magic-users could recognize the writing as coming from the same source as their spell-casting language, they could not read it and vice versa.

As mentioned above, these works would contain knowledge on various topics. This dovetails nicely with the various 'magical' tomes that increase statistics like Intelligence or Widsom (remember, in Swords & Wizardry, higher stats means faster advancement). These books could be written in other ancient languages that need to be researched and deciphered while the spell portions are written in the language related to the type of spells. this makes Read Languages a useful first level spell.

But I'm not sold on keeping Read Languages either. Without it characters will need to do research and that may lead to more explorations and lead to more adventures or be on the lookout to hire a knowledgeable sage. In an effort to keep the characters hungry and motivated to keep exploring, this idea is appealing to me.

Now this doesn't rule out a spell that would specifically encrypt text to be undecipherable. This could be used for special messages, secret tomes and such. Taken a step further, what if each version of the spell have a specific counter version in order to decipher it? This could lead to interesting adventure.

Or, instead of a counter-spell, what if it had a trigger word to display the text normally. I like this idea better because it gives players a reason not to kill everyone the come into contact with so that they can discover word they need to read the text. But, then again, if they do slay someone, that might be a good reason to locate someone who can speak with the dead.

Obviously clerics and magic-users would want to learn more languages. To keep it simple, they could learn an additional language for every point of Intelligence over 10. They could start with a default set and add others as they find the need. I see these two classes being the only ones assumed to be literate. Fighters would be assumed illiterate unless their background deems otherwise, such as a noble.

Well my sanity is holding out so far, let's see where this research takes me next. Perhaps to the land of Dreams?

Follow Your Bliss,

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,

Thursday, March 25, 2010

International Traditional Gaming Week

Well I'm almost too late for this event, but I'm getting it in under the wire. This week is International Traditional Gaming Week or ITGW. The idea is to get 'butts in seats' to play traditional or old school rpgs. This doesn't have to be D&D, but could be any of the retro clones or anything from the early days of gaming.

This week I ran my Back to D&D Basics campaign for my party and they are slowly making their way through the Keep on the Borderlands. So far they've run into kobolds, goblins and now are looking for hobgoblins. It's been a lot of fun and even my die-hard 3.5 players are really enjoying themselves.

So check with your Friendly Local Gaming Store and see if they're running and ITGW events. If not, maybe you can offer to run one. Download your favorite retro-clone and go to town. If anyone has any stories to share about their ITGW event, please post it into the comments of this post.

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Road of trials

Ryan Macklin responded to the egging from Daniel and myself regarding his love of Mage: The Ascension. He brought up one of the very cool features of Mage - paradigms. Paradigms are the ways in which Mages think about and perceive reality. The neat thing is that because a paradigm is personal, no one Mage's paradigm is invalid. Unfortunately what you get is differing options of what is the best paradigm; as if there can be only one.

What this does to the fiction and play of the game is degenerate into a battle of wills. Everybody is right and they're willing to fight and die to bring that paradigm to fruition. Essentially there are four different paradigms vying for control, which (rather neatly) breaks down into four groups vying for control: the Tradition, Technocracy, Nephandi and Marauders. The main groups in the game are the Tradition and Technocracy, a kinda magic vs science analogy.

But that's not quite right because Science is a form of Magick in this game. While the core book is written with the assumption that the players will be Tradition Mages, later sourcebooks expand the idea of playing Technocracy mages. Mr. Macklin points out rather nicely why this is a very cool aspect of the game.

My problem, one that I stated in the comments of Ryan's post, is that paradigm seems much more personal than a 'group think'. This individualistic point of view could spiral down into the various Traditions bickering and does not preclude in-house fighting. For a game, all this political positioning makes for cool play (not unlike the Camarilla of Vampire), but IMO doesn't serves the core principle of the game.

The subtitle of the game is 'The Ascension'. This could be interpreted in many ways, but I'm choosing to look at it in (for me) the traditional Sunday School mode - leaving the Earth behind to be raised up into Heaven. The game supports this with the Avatar trait. Remember, the Avatar is akin to the Mage's soul and a measure of how powerful their Magick can be. The highest rank of Avatar (10) equated to Enlightenment (and subsequently removal from play). But, as written, the game is really about (external) power and the struggles for even more (external) power (power = ultimate control of reality), not about Ascension as I see it.

All that is required to increase a PC's Avatar rating is XP. XP is gained through play and participation. Ok, but that doesn't seem very satisfying to me. For Ascension to mean something it must be achieved willingly, knowingly and, sometimes, at a price. There is a wealth of story potential in this idea. This is where I think I want to target my current RPG project: Closer to the Heart.

(Astute readers will notice this is not the name of the project I listed in my last post. It is still the same Game Chef 2008 game that I'm dusting off (Stigmata); I've just given it a new working title. It's still very much a moving target, but as I work to define it's purpose and scope, anything goes. Hopefully this name will stick for a while.)

Accumulating ranks in Avatar is very much like acquiring levels in D&D. Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with that approach if it supports the game's premise. If Mages increase their Avatar as they grow more powerful, so be it; but, if the Avatar is a measure of the Mage's understanding of their soul WHICH IN TURN grants more (internal) power as it rises, then the rules should reflect that struggle.

Nothing comes easy in life; it takes work and persistence. An inward journey of self-discovery and enlightenment is no different. Realization usually is the result of some event that produces an 'aha!' moment. So I think the raising rank of Avatar should also result from some in-game moment and not be relegated to a paperwork allocation of accumulated points. Just as the Vampire's Humanity slowly falls as a result of their failed actions to preserve their connection to the things that make them human, so should the rising Avatar struggle to climb as a result of the PC's actions.

I don't have anything more concrete at the moment to define this climb (or inward journey, as it were). This is part of my defining the scope of the game. I did have an opportunity to meet last week with my spiritual mentor and, while I did not make any progress on the mechanics of the game, I did come to the realization of broader aspects of the game:

  • The game is about helping people, not battling monsters
  • The characters in the game struggle against personal negative traits to increase their connection to their soul
  • The characters are trying to change the world and make it a better place
  • The game is about discovering and strengthening faith
  • The game has a personal cycle of progression that leads towards an endgame situation
I'll leave you with another source of my inspiration from the band Rush (the soundtrack to my life):

Closer to the Heart
Songwriters: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Peter Talbot, Neil Peart

And the men who hold high places
Must be the ones who start
To mold a new reality
Closer to the heart

The blacksmith and the artist
Reflect it in their art
They forge their creativity
Closer to the heart

Philosophers and ploughmen
Each must know his part
To sow a new mentality
Closer to the heart

You can be the captain
I will draw the chart
Sailing into destiny
Closer to the heart

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Happy GM's Day!

Today, March 4th is GM's Day, a time to thank the ones behind the screen. I would extend this to all RPG publishers as well, because without them, we'd have less awesomeness to bring to the table. Speaking of publishers, DriveThruRPG is having a sale to celebrate this day. Unlike the actual day, their sale is going on for a few days more. Check out their list of downloadable games at 25% off (that's a Fourth off, get it?)

Share photos on twitter with TwitpicDon't forget it's still Read an RPG Book in Public week. This morning I was reading my copy of Mortal Coil at The Flying Joe, my favorite coffee shop in Perrysburg.

Follow Your Bliss,

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Read an RPG Book in Public Week

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic Here's a picture of your's truly reading a book. In public. But not just any book. This is an RPG book (Mage: The Ascenction, 1st edition, if you must know). I had this photo taken today at one of my favorite coffee shop/used books stores in town: Grounds for Thought.

Why did I do this you ask? No, it wasn't to satisfy the curious that my hair is not multicolored as my Blogger profile pic presents. I did this as part of Read an RPG Book in Public Week. You can find all the details at's blog (link takes you to the blog post).

So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and read an RPG book in public and see it garners any attention. This is a great way to advocate for RPGs.

Follow Your Bliss,

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,