Dead bodies everywhere

Feeling not particularly happy today, I looked through all the books, DVDs, and games I have for something cheerful. And realized that the only thing I have that would somehow fit that description is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Pretty much every other piece of entertainment is about a world that consists mostly of huge piles of corpses and is about a protagonist tryint to prevent those people who still live from being all horribly killed by monsters, aliens, or super evil soldiers as well. Even the funny stuff I have generally has the world in shambles and most people dead, like Zombieland.

There are a few things I’ve enjoyed that are genuinly funny and happy, but those are nonsensical comedy that doesn’t really has anything to say about anything. Except perhaps about the value of friendship and love in a nauseating corny way.

And it isn’t just that I’ve only bought dark stuff over the past 10 years. All the good movies and games of recent year that I know about are ultimately about endemic suffering and everything either being shit or about to become shit if the hero can’t prevent it. Isn’t there anything intellectually engaging that isn’t about suffering?

Main regions of the Ancient Lands

Earlier this week I wrote a post about rethinking my approach for dealing with the both physical and cultural geography of the Ancient Lands. I’ve never been anywhere close to happy with the geography of the setting and I think I now figured out why. The traditional fantasy campaign setting “satelite view” map very much conflicts with the sword & sorcery and space opera approach to setting design I am using. So right now I think I am not actually going to do a true world map at all. Instead there will be just a very rough and sketchy outline for the major landmasses. All the actual content regarding settlements and landscapes is confined to a number of relatively small areas, which get covered in considerable detail. These will be comparable to Icewind Dale, Ferelden, the Eldeen Reaches, Skyrim, Tatooine, Tuchanka, or any other of hundreds of “countries” you encounter in fiction outside of roleplaying games. The ones that I cover may not necessarily be the most densely populated or most representative regions of the Ancient Lands, but I am picking them by how well they are suited as places for adventures. Big fertile lands of peaceful farming villages are not really places either players or GMs would care about.

A good reason to have accurate world maps for fantasy settings is for judging travel distances and to see what kind of places and areas you’ll be passing through on a long journey to another region. This can be quite important information for some campaigns, but in a pulp campaign like Sword & Sorcery or space opera it normally doesn’t matter at all. Some weeks or months have passed and then you’re standing right next to the place you wanted to go to. The journey itself doesn’t really play any role in these genres. It’s the parts with the villains and the old ruins that matter, the rest is glossed over. Doing a good world map poses a lot of challenges (even if it’s just a continent or part of one), but for a setting like the Ancient Lands where it is not needed, it really isn’t worth the effort. And I think not having an accurate map actually enhances some of the themes and the overall atmosphere of the setting.

Currently, all the material I have crated over the years seems to come together very neatly in 16 thematical and geographical regions. The layout is very simple, consisting of a single long coast that runs from north to south with the land in the west and the ocean in the east. Similar to the American East Coast all the way from Greenland to Florida, or the eastern coast of Asia. Continue reading

Witcher RPG in 2016?

So apparently there’s a Witcher RPG in production to be released at some point next year. It’s being done by R.Talsorian Games and will be using the Fuzion system the company has been using for many other games. I am not familiar with it, but having taken a look at the basic mechanics and looked up popular oppinions about Cyberpunk v3, Artesia, and Bubblegum Crisis I am really not impressed. Consensus about games using the Fuzion system seem almost universally to be that they are greatly done books but all suffering from a pretty bad system. Well, most people to whom a Witcher RPG will appeal will already be very familiar with the setting so wonderful presentation won’t be much consolation.

Looks like another case of “Great License stuck with a bad system” this year, after Conan and John Carter. If I’ll decide to run a Witcher game, I’d simply use Fantasy Age. That thing seems to be almost tailor made for that setting and is so much simpler and lighter.

Reconsidering the role of place in the Ancient Lands

When it comes to working on the Ancient Lands, probably the most difficult thing about it has always been the subject of places. Cultures, Creatures, and Cosmology have always been my greatest strengths and I am totally in love with what I have created over the last four years. But places have never really worked out and after all this time I still have no real map for the whole setting.

I think a major part of that comes from the Ancient Lands being in many ways the synthesis of two different kinds of fiction: Fantasy RPG settings and space opera videogames. I always had in mind a reincarnation of Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect in the form of a bronze age Sword & Sorcery world. A concept I still fully believe in. Mass Effect is born directly out of Star Wars (so they could continue their game series unbound by a license) and Star Wars is a direct descendant of the John Carter novels with a bunch of old Samurai movies thrown in. And John Carter really is the granddaddy of both Space Opera and Sword & Sorcery. They are two divergent branches from the same root and at their very heart they tick the same and follow the same logic.

The cognitive dissonance I am struggling with is how these two main sources deal with maps. Fantasy roleplaying games are obsessed with maps of very high detail, while space opera doesn’t have any. And it doesn’t need to. Everyone travels by space ship and using hyperdrive. When distance doesn’t matter, relative position is meaningless as well. Now you are here and next you are there. That’s all there is. Somewhat paradoxically, even with a whole galaxy as the environment, the setting always only extends as far as the eye can see. These universes are so mind bogglingly huge that trying to write down everything is impossible, so nobody tries. Fantasy RPGs are different. They very often opperate by the unspoken logic that you can indeed catalogue every single major settlement and prominent landmark of an entire continent on a single page. Which is of course preposterous, but nobody really thinks about it or questions it. When creating a fantasy world, the instinct is very powerful to start with a map. But in this particula case it completely doesn’t work. The most important Space Opera element I want to capture is the sensation of vast emptiness of space. Having a satellite view map of the setting directly contradicts that and cancels it out. I think I now realize that a traditional RPG map can not work for the Ancient Lands.

When you look at Star Wars and Mass Effect, “worlds” really just consist of space ports and landing sites. And perhaps a short footmarch away from those. For a while that was an approach I tried to work with. But the bronze age setting focused on tribal society is meant to deal primarily with the villages in the wild, with the big cities being more like fancyful stories that most people never get to see, so I soon abandoned that. Of course, how would you make a map based world the size of a continent that consists only of small and mostly generic villages? That also is completely doomed to fail, but I guess I never really thought about it until now.

It seems that a completely different approach is required to tackle this. One source I will be going back to for this are the two great sandbox settings by Kevin Crawford, Red Tide and . I think that seems like a very viable approach to what I have in mind. Maybe I’ll also give Stars Without Number another more careful look. It is clear that I can not create an encyclopedia of all major and interesting settlements. Instead I think I should rathe concentrate of creating a good but overseeable number of towns and villages that serve as examples of how these usually look in the Ancient Lands. Not just as templates for making campaign specific locations, but also as completely functional sites to be used for adventures. But I think the main focus should really be on describing both cultures and environments in sufficient detail to give a good sense of their identities and dynamics. Within reason, of course. Something like a 120 page book for each culture would be nonsense. But say perhaps three or four pages for each of the 20 cultures? Add to that a section on different types of wilderness environments, a good number of full page settlements, and a bit about technologies and magic and you got a good size setting book that is both complete and not overwhelming. Some kind of map is of course still needed, but it can be a really crude one that only shows major land masses, main ports, and the largest mountain ranges. Like actual ancient and medieval maps did. Sadly I don’t remembe where, but a while ago I read a good post complaining about the wrong assumptions that are being evoked by most fantasy maps and how they put players and GM in the wrong frame of mind, assuming a world of extensive and complete geographic surveying. This might be a great opportunity to try out some different, more “oldschool” types of maps and seeing how they affect the experience.

A first look at the Fantasy Age Basic Rulebook

Fantasy Age has been out for about two weeks now and while I have not yet had the opportunity to get real experience at how well it runs in longer campaigns, I’ve been spending a lot of time examining the system and trying out various things with it. Trying my hands at creating some of my own custom content and seeing how the game behaves in actual combat situations and what differences different numbers make in practice. You could say I did extensive lab testing, but no field testing yet.

GRR6001The Adventure Game Engine started six years ago with the first release of the Dragon Age RPG by Green Ronin. The first set was followed up with a second one two years later but for some reason unknown to me the final third set kept being delayed for a very long time. Being split into several sets that were released at a snails pace and being a licensed game for a specific setting probably were major factors why the game never become a huge success, but even despite these circumstances it became quite well known and pretty highly appreciated. With the Dragon Age game wrapped up, Green Ronin decided that the basic rules system of the game is good enough to use it for other games as well. The new edition of Blue Rose will be using it, as well as the new Titansgrave setting. And finally, there’s also a generic fantasy version of the game, which has been released as the Fantasy Age Basic Rulebook. For which, unless I am mistaken, there will also be a Freeport campaign setting book.

The AGE system is pretty much the RPG I always wanted. If I would have made my own roleplaying game (and I’ve given it some thought for quite a while), this is pretty much what I would have wanted to make. The game uses a simple base mechanic of 3d6 + Ability Score + Focus and other modifiers. It’s very similar to Barbarians of Lemuria and also the d20 system in this regard. But I think using 3d6 for the dice part works best. Since rolling very high or very low is very unlikely, even small modifiers of +1 or -2 make quite a signficant difference; much more so than when using a d20. The result of that is both a bit more predictability (which always works in favor of the players) and also that you’re generally dealing with much smaller numbers. In d20 games it is not uncommon to end up rolling 1d20+37 as you’re regularly heaping one another +1 here and another +1 there to make a real difference. The AGE system is much more small scale in that regard and you only need to keep track of a few major factors that change things in your favor or against it, instead of lots of tiny modifiers that are irrelevant by themselves and only really matter if you have lots of them.

Like the d20 system, or more accurately, similar to the d20 system, the game has three character classes. Warrior, rogue, and mage. This provides some useful structure during character creation and character advancement and makes things a lot easier on the players, especially new ones, than games like Runequest, Shadowrun, GURPS, or Atlantis. But the three classes are also very open and only losely defined, which is in clear contrast to Dungeons & Dragons where your class usually sets you on a pretty straight track. The base classes in Star Wars Saga Edition are a good comparison, except that AGE has no multiclassing or prestige classes. Much more important than your character class in defining your character are the nine ability scores. These are mostly the same as in the Dragon Age RPG, with Communication, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Perception, Strength, and Willpower. However, the Magic ability from Dragon Age was removed and a major change between the two games, perhaps even the biggest, is the addition of the Accuracy and Fighting abilities. One problem that became apparent with Dragon Age was that it is very easy to get your Strength or Dexterity scores pretty high. If you were using a weapon that uses Strength, you both get a high chance to hit and deal a high amount of damage. If you concentrate on Dexterity you get a very high chance to hit with your weapons and also become very hard to hit at the same time. It also meant that any monster that is really strong also keeps hitting almost all the time, which often is not what you want. Many huge monsters would best be given stats that makes them very clumsy but extremely strong in those rare cases where they do happen to hit you. Creating the Accuracy and Fighting abilities accomplishes just that. These two abilities determine the hit chance with light and heavy weapons while everything else is still covered by Strength and Dexterity. Some people have said that it would have been sufficient to just make a single Fighting ability and that having Accuracy as a second one wasn’t needed, and I can see the reasoning behind it. But I also don’t think having nine abilities instead of just eight is a bad choice either. Having tried out how the game performs in actual fights, I think this change was really an excelent idea.

Continue reading

Themes in Worldbuilding, Part 1

The last weekend I have been watching a couple of videos on Youtube by Noah Gervais, in which he takes a closer look at the design of several classic video games and goes into a lot of detail. The games he covers happen to be many of my personal favorites and so much of my apreciation of the videos probably comes from him having very similar tastes to mine. And he’s talking a lot about things that essentially go into the subjects of worldbuilding and the methods of turning themes into actual gameplay and narrative. One observation that particularly stuck with me is how the visual design of Bioshock is not just drawing on designs and aesthetics from the 50s and 60s but overdraws them to the point of carricature. And it works perfectly.

This got me to think about some campaign settings for RPGs that I’ve very long appriacted for being extremely rich in atmosphere and with a very distinctive art design, specifcally Planescape and Dark Sun. These two settings benefit greatly from having most of their art, and in the case of Planescape all of its art, done by a single artist. You may not know who actually wrote the Planescape campaign setting (though I recently learned that it’s by Zeb Cook, who did lots of other magnificent things), but if you’re familiar with the books, you know Toni Di’Terlizzi. The writing is great, but his artwork and overall visual design is really what makes the setting. Planescape wouldn’t be what it is without him. That is nice and good when it comes to making movies, videogames, or big budget roleplaying games that can afford to commission hundreds of pictures, but it’s not much use to hobby creators, novel writers, or simply people who run their own campaigns at home. I brought the subject up in a short but highly productive discussion on the Giant in the Playground forum and I think it really brought some very significant things to light.

Drawings and paintings are nice and good, but it’s not just the art that makes amazing settings with a strong sense of wonder and mystery. At best, the art supports a setting that already has very solid writing. What really makes a setting stand apart and develop a strong individual identity and aesthetic are strong themes. Ravenloft and Spelljammer don’t have any remarkable visual art in their books, but they still get mentioned among the most memorable RPG settings all the time. More generic settings like Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Golarion, and Tamriel of The Elder Scrolls are not generic because they use well know elements like dwarves, elves, orcs, dragons, and unicorns. I think it was Goethe who said that great writing is not about coming up with a truly original plot, but to tell the story in a way that it never has before. And these generic settings don’t really have anything new to say. The Dragon Age series uses the same old generic elements, but it still stands apart because it presents those elements in a new way. And the key to making the presentation of a world very strong is the heavy use of themes at all levels and in all facets.

What do I mean by themes? I don’t simply mean that Dark Sun has a desert theme or Legend of the Five Rings an asian theme. Good (narrative) art always has something to say. It needs a central idea, a consistent mood, or even an actual message that ties all the elements of the world together. But themes are often very abstract things. Topics like “courage”, “compassion”, “self-destruction”, or “delusion” all sound very interesting, but how do you create a city that is about courage, monsters that represent self-destruction, or a power group of important people whose theme is delusion? And how do you create stories that are dealing with these themes without being too much in your face and preachy? That has always eluded me. But in the early 90s, TSR, a company with a very shaky history regarding product quality, was able to produce a good numbers of outright amazing settings year after year for quite a while. I don’t believe it’s coincidence or an amazingly gifted person who was in charge of hiring the best people they could possibly get. And at that time, they didn’t really have a lot of existing works to use as references. No, I believe there’s actually a method behind it which everyone can use once you understand the basics behind it.

Continue reading

No more D&D for me, please

I feel like I am done with Dungeons & Dragons. I started with this game 16 years ago and while I had a lot of great fun playing, I stopped being thrilled about the rules very soon after. The d20 system just seems excessively over-engineered, and the older AD&D system is just a total mess. But the d20 system was the over-engineered devil I knew inside out and the vast majority of other RPGs I’ve come across over the years were even less suited to my needs. It’s not like I wanted to run Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder games, but there just wasn’t anything there to replace it with.

B/X was a bit of a pleasant surprise, being a much more lightweight version of the incomprehensible chaos of AD&D. But even if you replace the magic system and fix the way attack rolls are made, it’s still the basic D&D system at the core. The system where characters start extremely fragile and you have double your starting hit points at 2nd level, tripple your starting hit points at 3rd level and so on. Using a d20 as the standard die for attack rolls, ability checks, skill checks, and saving throws is certainly an improvement over using d100s, but you still end up with a game of pretty big numbers you have to juggle around. And because of those two things, the gameplay changes quite a bit as your characters progress. At lower levels you can’t fight giants and by the time you’re able to deal with giants goblins are no longer a threat. And if you play relatively rarely with a moderate pace of level advancement, a great number of possible adventures only becomes possible after you’ve been playing for a very long time. And my campaigns usually go only two to three years. Except for the one time we played a published adventure for high level parites and started at level 16, I’ve only seen characters reach 10th level once. I almost never got to use dragons, giants, and demons. And all those huge piles of magic items!

At it’s very heart, this game is made for dungeon crawling and tactical combat. And that’s just not what I want or what I need. E6 was an interesting patch and I heard the 5th edition actually adresses some of the things I’ve long been having problems with. But there is still so much about the game I can’t stand anymore. Alignment is what I consider the worst idea in RPG history, and the magic system can’t emulate any other kind of fantasy. As someone said a while back, “Dungeons & Dragons really only can represent Dungeons & Dragons.” And I just don’t plain like this style of fantasy.

Planescape and Dark Sun are wonderful settings, which I still enjoy and consider among the best that were ever made. Planescape completely embraces the strangeness of the D&D system and commits full to creating a fictional world based on its assumption. That works for me. Dark Sun does almost the opposite and shoves all the conventions of the game out of the window. It’s a great world, which I think actually works perfectly well using entirely different rules system to play it. And I still like the old Baldur’s Gate games. But not because of being Dungeons & Dragons, but despite it. There are so many compelling things about them, that I can live with the mechanics being weird. And being a videogame, I actually don’t have to bother with the mechanics at all. That all happens invisible from me inside the computer.

The most interesting thing currently happening with D&D are the creations of the OSR crowd. Say about the rules of the old editions whatever you want (and I want to say “they are crap”), but there were a couple of good ideas that are very much worse being reexamined again to learn lessons from them. “XP for treasure” being one of them, and of course the highly important “Rulings, not rules”. The effect of using Encumbrance and tracking supplies is also a very interesting one, as is the whole idea of wandering monsters, morale, and reaction rolls. And of course, there’s been a good number of very intriguing settings and adventures in recent years, which are being released for use with various retroclones, but really exist mostly independent of the rules. While I think the old editions of D&D are terrible, the general ideas of the Oldschool style are still very intriguing. So I’ll still be keeping an eye on what the OSR people are doing.

Just no more 1d20+14, please.

AGE of High Adventure

I’ve been reading the Fantasy Age Basic Rulebook for the last week and I am really quite taken with it. It feels a lot like an expanded version of Barbarians of Lemuria in many ways, being somewhat more complex but using a very similar approach to how to design and run a game. Though the options for races, specializations, spells, and monsters are very generic, the rules and mechanics of the AGE system have really won me over. It’s a fantasy RPG like I would have done it myself, if I would attempt to create my own game. When someone in a forum thread pointed out that Fantasy Age is a game he’d run pretty much without houserules, I realized that this pretty much goes for me as well.

But to run a Sword & Sorcery game with Fantasy Age, there’s still a few tweaks I think work very well for it:

  • Normally in Fantasy Age, characters get training in a number of default weapon groups and that’s it. (Warriors get two additional groups later on.) For Sword & Sorcery I feel it’s entirely appropriate to allow rogues and even mages to become somewhat decent with bigger weapons. So when characters are able to take a new weapon group Focus for either the Accuracy or Fighting ability when gaining a new level, they can instead pick training for a new weapon group. All characters can get both training and the Focus for a weapon group this way (though obviously at different levels.
  • “Magic” weapons and armor of the Uncommon and Rare categories are not actually magic. They are simply made from superior materials and with advanced craftsmanship. Only items of the Legendary category are actually enchanted.
  • In a Bronze Age or Iron Age setting, the Black Powder, Dueling, and Lances weapon groups would not be available. In the Heavy Blades group, two-handed swords might be removed and the bastard sword replaced with a kopis or falcata.
  • When using experience points, the default way to award XP for an encounter is to judge how hard the player characters had to fight for their success. In a Sword & Sorcery campaign, the amount of XP can instead be based on how heroically, impressive, and flashy the players were fighting. This encourages the players to not play it safe but to constantly try to do things that are entertaining and impress the GM, even if they are reckless and foolhardy.
  • Since Sword & Sorcery characters generally have few possessions, are frequently broke, and there isn’t a lot of things to buy with money in Fantasy Age, you can easily run a campaign in which money plays no role at all. However, an exception can be made for unusually and extremely valuable treasures, such as a gold idol or a giant ruby. Since their monetary value has very little meaning to the players, you can still use this classic element of pulp adventures by rewarding them with experience points instead. Whenever the players manage to get their hands on such a special treasure and manage to sell it, award them 400 XP as if they had overcome a Hard (or Heroic) encounter. If they somehow lose it again before selling it, they get nothing. Finding such special treasures and successfully getting them to a town and sold can be thought of as an optional bonus objective that doesn’t have much to do with the main subject of the adventure. This encourages players to still look for valuable loot and break into well protected places to satisfy their greed, and also can make for great side-adventures if they somehow happen to lose one or having it stolen.

My approach to running Sword & Sorcery campaigns

Someone was asking me about advice for running a Sword & Sorcery themed campaign in an RPG. Since that’s a pretty open question regarding a rather wide topic, I thought this might be a good subject for a full length post.

I think the first thing here would be to establish what I specifically mean when I am talking about Sword & Sorcery. Unlike most names for fantasy sub-genres, Sword & Sorcery has an actual and pretty specific meaning. Not everyone is using it the same way, but in this case we know exactly who created the term and what his intention was by doing so, so we can actually say that some people are just using is wrong. In 1961, Michael Moorcock wrote in a letter printed in a magazine that it would be a good idea to somehow distinguish the kind of fantasy he and others were writing from works like The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. They are all “fantasy” but drastically different in many, and perhaps even most details. In reply to that, Fritz Leiber wrote that he thought a great name for the subgenre would be “Sword & Sorcery”. And later he somewhat elaborated by saying “The best pulp Sword and Sorcery writer was Robert E. Howard”. So the actual definition of Sword & Sorcery could be said to be “Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock and specifically not Tolkien”.

But that doesn’t actually tell us what makes Sword & Sorcery what it is, which is necessary when you want to capture the spirit of Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock either in writing or running a roleplaying game. Now I admit that there is some validity to statements like “Those are just lables, don’t blindy follow old conventions, be creative and don’t immitate”. But in reality you often see works that are cool and you’re able to tell that there are other cool works that are similar, but you can’t put your finger on it what it actually is that makes them both similar and cool. Saying that you want to “create Sword & Sorcery” is not creative bankrupcy or being a sellout. When you want to play Heavy Metal or Blues, there is a good deal of established conventions that make the genres what they are. You don’t have to follow every single one of those conventions, but you have to follow most of them or the result will be something completely different. Same thing with fiction. A really great attempt at a definition of Sword & Sorcery heroes does not come from me, but is actually from Joseph McCullough, and I think he really quite nails it. A Sword & Sorcery hero is someone who is a.) using decisive action to b.) to pursue self-motiavted goals while c.) standing outside the normal rules and conventions of society. And pretty much everything else about the genre follows from that. Continue reading