Wednesday, May 8, 2019

My Gaming Life, An Update And A List

My campaign of GURPS set in my own world of the Deindustrial Future is winding to a close. I have committed to running another GURPS game after that, this one being about superpowered humans in the modern day. It's going to try to explore some of the disrupting influence of superpowers, which should be interesting, in the sense that I would not want to live in that world. I  am increasingly certain that, while I still like GURPS quite a lot, it is dropping down my list of favorite systems pretty fast. Still, some settings I want to do are easier to do in that game than in others, since other games would require inventing and writing down game statistics for things and such, where those statistics already exist or are easily customizable in GURPS. It would be so much better if there were some reasonable way to randomly generate characters. Also, GURPS allows for some superpowered characters that are not possible or are difficult to depict in other systems.

I have a friend, a great Lovecraftian fiction fan, who has decided to give running Call of Cthulhu a try, and he is learning very quickly and doing very well. So, that's a second group, and one that is growing. I'm finding that to be a lot of fun too.

One of my players for the GURPS game is now running AD&D 1st edition, attempting to play mostly by the rules as written (no psionics, a few other small changes). We've had two sessions so far, one spent doing a large combat mostly so that we could get the feel for how the AD&D combat rules as written work in practice. It's so much easier than some people say to use weapon vs. armor type, weapon speed factors, charge rounds, and so on. Even so, since it was completely new to some of the players, and years since those of us who had ever played that edition had played—and even then, we weren't really playing by AD&D rules, but rather a streamlined form of B/X or BECMI using the AD&D tables—the second session was completely taken up by that one combat, as we looked up various pieces of information. Even there, we missed important information about how Clerical Turn Undead worked in that edition, but we'll get it next time now that we know.

Playing AD&D has, perhaps paradoxically, re-inspired me to work on my update to Fantasy Wargaming. To do that properly, I think that I'll need to play it as it is in order to see how things work and understand how best to approach any changes. It's been since 1982 or so that I last played that game, and my memories of it are a little foggy. I do remember that the game worked just fine, so it's definitely not "unplayable", as some allege. I do think that there are some areas that I will be changing pretty drastically, such as formalizing fatigue a little more given how important it is as a limiting factor on some activities, changing wounds to conditions instead of a pool of points, maybe tightening up the magic rules some. I have a feeling that I would want to tighten magic back toward things that were supposed to have happened, either as actual magic or as miraculous events given the close affinity of religious miracles with magic in the system, rather than the very wide-open system given—or perhaps I won't, and maybe just tighten up the rules some as they stand, or even work out a way to make it even more flexible. The question is how I am going to manage to get some play of that game in, given the limitations on which days of the week I have available for gaming. I have some ideas on how to make that work, so we'll see if I can get that working.

Which does remind me that I still plan on returning to the series on real magic and how it can be depicted in gaming. Let's just say that the source of inspiration for that series has gone silent for the moment, though I expect it to begin nagging at me again any time.

I've committed to finishing up my conversion of the meta-tasks of the Marc Miller's Traveller (aka T4) supplement Pocket Empires into MegaTraveller equivalents, even though I have no ability to test the rules. That is going slowly but surely.

I've been occasionally noodling around with ideas about running a PBEM game of Realms of the Unknown, which would require me to set up a better record-keeping system than I have managed to put together yet. It's definitely been moved from the back burner to somewhat active development, though. I'm not sure how the setting would look yet, as I'm probably going to wait to work on that until I have more useful tools for that sort of thing.

So, given that my gaming priorities have been changing now that I am back to gaming mostly regularly, let's give a new list of my top 10 games, or really top 12 but who's counting:

1: MegaTraveller and classic Traveller (tied)
2: AD&D 1st edition
3: Fantasy Wargaming
5: Chivalry & Sorcery (2nd edition, though other editions are fine)
6: Hârnmaster
7: Aftermath!
8: Cyberpunk 2020
9: Swords & Wizardry: White Box and White Star (tied)
10: Villains & Vigilantes 2nd edition

Honorable Mentions: Flashing Blades, Adventures Dark & Deep, Space 1889, anything Basic Roleplaying but especially Call of Cthulhu (and I guess I haven't mentioned that the player who is running AD&D has been low-key hinting that he'd like me to run RuneQuest 3rd edition, which he loved when I ran it many years back, so that's another thing that is impinging on me; if I did, I'd have to choose whether to run it in the default Fantasy Earth*, Glorantha, or a setting of my own design that I've had simmering for a few years and is in fact a development of the setting I used for that game of so many years ago), Lords of Creation, The Arcanum (1st or 2nd edition, I haven't seen 3rd or the 30th anniversary editions yet), In Nomine, Guardians (the superhero RPG based on original D&D), Delving Deeper, Pendragon, Lace & Steel, Marvel Superheroes RPG, Realms of the Unknown.

Settings that I am working on to varying degrees of effort: the GURPS superpowers one, an authentic-medieval one with monsters and such set around the Third Crusade for Fantasy Wargaming, a feudal-medieval-authentic world based on the 20 kingdoms of the SCA that draws loosely on the actual history and notable events of that illustrious organization plus added fantasy (this would be intended for any of Chivalry & Sorcery, Fantasy Wargaming, Pendragon, or Hârnmaster, or really any game that can handle an authentic medieval feudal setting), a setting based on the world of Lords of the Middle Sea—which is an obscure wargame that Chaosium published back in the '70s—and a more detailed deindustrial setting set some time in the further future that doesn't rely on so many fantastic elements as the one that I am currently finishing up. I've also spent a few brain cycles on the Flanaess Sector idea, but it hasn't really gone anywhere lately.

Yeah, as usual, I have put way too much on my plate, but hopefully I can actually turn some of it into practical use.

*The Fantasy Earth setting for RQ3 was set somewhere roughly around the 8th or 9th century, probably, given the territory available to the Byzantines in it.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

James Smith's Family Needs Assistance

The family of James Smith, whose sad passing I had the misfortune to report, is trying to raise money to cover funeral expenses, as James had no life insurance or other resource for that purpose—not surprisingly, perhaps, considering the untimely age at which he passed. James did a great deal of work promoting and aiding old school gamers and gaming, and I think that this is certainly a time where we can give back.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

RIP James Smith

Though many of you will already be aware of this, I feel like I need to say something.

It is with heavy heart that I report that James Smith of Dreams of Mythic Fantasy has passed away. He was a wonderful addition to the online gaming blog community and to the gaming community generally. He will be greatly missed.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Thinking Of Superhero Games

Reviewing Heroes & Heroines, along with an upcoming superpowered game that I have, caused me to think about games designed to cover people with extraordinary powers. As it happens, at the moment I am not very fond of a lot of them. Champions suffers from a very clumsy game system, made worse by having to learn the system and spend a lot of time to create characters. This last is also a problem with GURPS Supers, but at least that system has developed into a very clever one that manages to deliver more "realism" for less effort than any other game I can think of. It's currently the one that I am planning on running my upcoming game in, but this post is part of a process there.

So, here are the games that are interesting me at the moment, along with links to where to get them.

Villains & Vigilantes — this is currently available in a new edition titled Mighty Protectors, but I haven't had a chance to evaluate that edition yet. I am mostly interested in the 2.1 edition linked here. For one thing, there are no point-buy systems in version 2.1, and I understand that Mighty Protectors has fallen prey to that seductive mechanic. One of the great things about V&V was always that it was just a matter of generating basic stats, rolling up—or choosing—some powers, and filling out the front-loaded calculations. That's part of the reason that I had the FBI Guide series.

Guardians — This is a little attempt to portray what the Original Adventure Game might have looked like if the authors were more interested in comic book superheroics than pulp fantasy. Like V&V, creating a character is more about picking a set of powers than spending points. That's really good from my perspective.

Supergame — The point-buy mechanic for creating characters is less intrusive here mainly because the game is very fast and loose. Still, it's less interesting to me than others in this list, mainly because of the weird, calculator-intensive rules (seriously, you roll d% and multiply that as a fraction of the base damage to find out how much damage you actually do, but only in hand-to-hand combat). Also, like most point-buy games, the players have to learn how play works in some detail before they can really create reasonable characters. There is a supposed third edition of the game now, but it is apparently a complete rewrite by new authors that only keeps the title.

Heroes Unlimited — I feel weird putting this in my list, since I really got most of my experience of it in the first edition, which we mockingly called "Heroes Limited" due to its inability to really handle the genre well. I understand that the second edition has fixed that issue, so I am bringing it back into consideration for my table. A major advantage of the game is that players can pretty much choose to use any of several character creation systems, from relatively freeform to relatively point-buy.

Marvel Super Heroes — The main disadvantage here is that the game is out of print and pretty expensive on the aftermarket. On the other hand, the PDFs at the Classic Marvel Forever website are more or less designed to be printed out, so that's an option. Still among the best possible superpowered games out there. Just don't roll on the tables in the Ultimate Powers Book, since they're really badly done. The selection is great, though. Pick your powers, I guess, and work out the power levels with the Referee.

Heroes & Heroines — This is a really unlikely choice for me, since it suffers from multiple problems such as being out of print, using a point-buy system, and so on. Still, it's not totally off the table for me because the sketched-out system is a perfect place to land a "rulings not rules" game. Still, Guardians is probably a better choice there.

GURPS Supers — Look, this is the only game that can actually handle Wolverine's adamantium-laced skeleton, and frankly I've had some of my superpowered NPCs inspired by the list of advantages and powers in the game. It's also the only game in print that can, more or less, do Dune just off the shelf, including weird things like having access to ancestral memories. The Supers supplement includes, among other things, the best discussion of Precognition as a superpower in a game that I have seen. If nothing changes, this is the game that I will be running. If only it had options to not be point-buy. Also, Wildcard Skills annoy me and the templates here rely on them to a degree, to the point that it's difficult to root them out of some of the templates—guess why I'm considering other games.

Mutants & Masterminds — I am not really fond of D20 games, except that they've allowed retroclones and such to happen, but this one seems alright. Mainly, I'm interested in the Paragons setting, which is pretty close to what I intend for my setting, and the Mecha & Manga supplement covers magical girls, which I do love. It runs a line between point-buy and not by allowing the player to effectively create a new class for their superpowered character or choose a pre-designed, relatively generic one, and then using that in a D20-like framework. Still, Guardians, and for that matter V&V, seems to cover most everything here and better.

Savage Worlds — On the one hand, the dice mechanic revolts my statistics-oriented mind, but on the other hand all of my players are both familiar with and fans of the game. Less intrusive point-buy system, but still a point-buy system. I'll leave it on the table as an option, maybe. I'll have to look at the superpowers system first. I have a suspicion that it isn't robust enough to cover some of my more outré characters.

Man, it sucks that Golden Heroes and Super Squadron are both out of print and in-demand enough to be really difficult to get. Not that I'd necessarily pick one of those, but they would provide a couple more options that wouldn't be terrible.

So, what other superpowered games that don't rely on a point-buy system—or which have a really compelling reason to consider them that outweighs the point-buy system—am I missing?

Saturday, March 2, 2019

[Obscure Games] Heroes & Heroines

It has been a long time since I've written anything in this series—the last actual review of a game was in May of 2015!—so it is time to dust it off and give some attention to yet another game that hardly anyone has heard of. This time, we're going to address another superhero game, Heroes & Heroines, one of the more ambitious games of the '90s.

In the early '90s, comics had been suffering a bit after the crash of the (mostly) black & white indie comics of the '80s, and mainstream comics were shoveling out increasingly boring storylines. Worse, creators were starting to realize that they deserved a lot more from their creations, both in terms of creative control and financial reward. This led to the rise of "creator-owned" comics, many of them attached to the new publisher Image Comics. In addition, some of the smaller publishers decided to make a bid to take over some of the superhero comics market that was so thoroughly dominated by Marvel and DC. For instance, Dark Horse began its line of "Comics' Greatest World" superhero-comics, and Continuity Comics tried to forge a world by attempting major crossover events between its titles, giving the world the "Deathwatch 2000" and "Rise of Magic" storylines.

Into this ferment stepped a first-time game designer and publisher, James E. Freel III, whose publishing company, Excel Marketing, decided to try to make a splash by licensing as many of these smaller attempts as possible and putting them all into one game system, titled Heroes & Heroines. As the back cover marketing copy said, "No need to buy single or no licensed Comic Book Role Playing Games anymore!" The "single licensed" games that refers to, of course, were the Marvel Superheroes RPG from TSR and DC Heroes from Mayfair Games. The "no licensed" games referred to the likes of Champions and Villains & Vigilantes, or really any other superhero RPG of the time, all of which presented their own settings, unconnected to any actual comic books.

Heroes & Heroines was quickly followed by three supplements, The Maxx, based on the critically-acclaimed book from Image Comics, Deathwatch 2000, which covered the Continuity Comics crossover event featuring the likes of Ms. Mystic, Samuree, Monolith, and so on, and Comic's [sic] Greatest World, adding the characters from Dark Horse's superhero world such as Ghost, Barb Wire, Titan, and Division 13. Unfortunately for me, my ex-wife got The Maxx in the divorce, while I kept the rules, and I never did get either of the other two supplements. I ordered Comic's Greatest World recently from a used book store across the country, but it's still shipping, and it seems that no one in the world is currently offering to sell a copy of The Maxx supplement for the game.

The game itself is surprisingly simple and intuitive. Instead of a "strength" stat, a character is rated for how much weight, in pounds, they can bench press. This isn't really the best choice for an overall strength measure—I'd probably choose overhead press, whether strict press or push press, as a reasonable measure—but it is the one most often used in comic book write-ups when companies publish encyclopedias of their characters, and it's probably fair to estimate overhead press as about 80% of bench press. Intelligence is represented by IQ, which is rated just as real-world IQ tests present their scores, with an average of 100. Other stats don't come from real-world values, but are still fairly simple to eyeball for a given character or person.

Superpowers and skills are similarly straightforward. If a character can teleport, they buy the teleport power. On the other hand, if they pass through dimensions, they buy the dimension travel power. Which costs 5 points less but tells the reader to refer to the teleport power for details, for some reason? OK, the game could really have used some editing and development. Anyway, as noted, characters are designed using a system of points. The extensive list of powers helps in some ways but is a problem in others.

Different powers provide different Attack Ratings, Defense Ratings, and the Mental equivalents. Comparing the Attack Rating of the offensive power to the Defense Rating of the target on a chart gives the chance on 1d20 to succeed in the attack. Damage is subtracted from pools of Hit Points and Mental Hit Points, with a pool being reduced to zero causing the character to fall unconscious, while reducing the Hit Points pool to -8 kills the character. I am not sure why that value instead of, say, -10 or whatever. Taking a large fraction of the character's total Hit Points in one attack has a chance of Stunning the character.

There's not a lot more to the game. At this point in my gaming career, I find that refreshing. I am somewhat attracted to games that are only the barest of frameworks right now. We can point to the original edition of D&D, which was similarly very bare-bones in its approach, relying on rulings by the Referee to handle other situations.

The biggest annoyance with the game, for me, is the lack of editing, which is made worse because Freel is one of those writers who have picked up a lot of very idiosyncratic spellings and usages.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Quick Administrative Note

I've removed the blog associated with a certain person from my blogroll here due to the accusations of abuse and other activities made against him by his former partner and several associated women, and corroborated by others. I believe them.

I hope that the company most associated with that individual does the right thing, but given the owner's association with Jordan Peterson I don't necessarily hold a lot of hope that they will. If they don't, that'll be too bad. They have made good products, ones I am still happy to own.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What Is Magic? - Part Two - Spirits

In my last post on the topic, I started to lay out a catalog of what magic was to the people who practiced it. It sort of got out of hand there, which isn't surprising since I foolishly embarked on this series without a real plan. Flying by the seat of my pants is sure fun, but let's see if we can get this thing back on track. Note that this is a very speculative post. There is only a little consensus on what spirits "really are". These are some of my thoughts on the subject, and they are necessarily incomplete.

One thing you might have noted is that I left a large part of magic to "spirits". You might also have noted that I left a really wide open space for what a "spirit" actually is, mentioning both entities of the sort that we can communicate and interact with, and also "energies" of astral powers. As I re-read what I've written there and the library with which I began this series, I noticed that I left out an important strand of thought, that of "mythorealism", the idea that myth can and does incarnate in the waking world. I do want to emphasize that this is only one model among several, though, and I am not making any particular endorsement by discussing it in this post.

In the mythorealist view, as I imperfectly understand it, "spirits" are the relationships between things. When we develop a pattern through art and tradition, we can see that pattern existing as actual instances of orally-told stories, written texts, works of art, natural occurrences, and the like. So, we find a person that we call "Thor", who is manifest as stories, statues, rolling thunder, and so on. But these things aren't Thor, are they? They are stories, statues, physical phenomena. On the other hand, the relationship we have with these things is an entity in itself. In point of fact, we can develop a relationship with that relationship, which is another level of the matter.

So, more generally, what is a spirit? We can think of a spirit as a non-physical entity. Nearly every metaphysical outlook includes room for non-physical entities. Even the most strict materialist includes "organizing principles" or "emergent properties" or an "implicate order" such as the "rules" that make gravity manifest as one thing while making gamma rays manifest as another thing. Scientists codify these rules as mathematical operations, but those are descriptions of the non-physical entities, not the things themselves. There are also relational systems, which are sometimes called "software", which are not the same as the physical systems which manifest a particular set of software.

Other outlooks describe spirits as other things, from the naïvely prosaic idea that spirits are just like material entities only made out of some unknown and immaterial substance—which is the way that most games treat them, perhaps because it allows spirits to be modeled with only slight modifications to the normal game rules; I am particularly interested in the few exceptions, even when the games that do so are not necessarily very good otherwise, and I will get to the gaming precedents as this series goes on—to the sophisticated concept of relationships mentioned above, to concepts of psychological fragments existing as processes within our material brains, and so on.

Probably the most common approach to understanding spirits is a psychological one, in no small part because our experience of spirits, for those of us who do experience them in a way that we express in that manner, is one that occurs largely within our minds. That is, not having a material existence, people can't usually observe spirits with material senses like sight and hearing. Or, if they do, many will attribute the experience of a spirit to a sort of gestalt of perceptions, such as when a lonely, windswept moor manifests a different spirit than a hot, humid jungle.

Some magicians posit a relative impermeability between the level of existence on which spirits exist and the material world we experience with our physical senses. So, in this model, a spirit has an existence on the "astral plane"—or whatever the particular magician calls it—which can't affect the "physical plane" directly, but instead causes changes in the physical world by indirect means such as influencing beings that exist on both "planes" such as humans. On the other hand, some thinkers have pointed out that spirit-like phenomena can and do sometimes leave physical traces, which has been termed the "daimonic". Items like the Simonton pancakes—a set of four apparently-normal pancakes that Joe Simonton claims were given to him by the occupant of a strange flying object that landed in his yard—or the tiny shoe found in Ireland that exhibits wear patterns exactly as if it had been worn for some time by a tiny person, not to mention the instances where radiation has been detected at alleged "UFO" landing sites, or where UFOs themselves produce radar reflections. The daimonic is sometimes absurd.

Some such "daimonic" traces are clearly hoaxes. The Patrick Harpur book I mention in the library post, Daimonic Reality, includes some discussion of the photos of "Doc" Shiels, which have been pretty thoroughly examined by the periodical Fortean Times, with the conclusion that they are probably fabrications, and of course the examination in that book of "crop circles" has been undercut by a couple of groups who have come forward to claim that they have been manufacturing those unusual artworks—it's probably worth noting, though, that none of the groups making the "hoaxing" claim have been able to replicate more than a simple circle while under observation nor any of the various epiphenomena that are related to the circles, and at least one person involved has openly wondered what it is that drives him to make the circles in the first place. For that last, keep in mind the above idea that spirits operate through influencing human behaviors.

The "all in the mind" theory still leaves ample room for some strangeness. One magician wrote a book with the subtitle It's All In Your Head … You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is, which lays out some of the issues in a pithy way. One formulation of this argument is that the brain is less like a computer and more like a radio receiver. Now, keep in mind that any metaphor for how the brain works is one fraught with parochialism. That is, every era has a model of the brain that draws on whatever the currently-fashionable technology might be. In the 19th century the brain was an engine, in earlier times a pneumatic vessel, and so on. So, even if the metaphor of the computer is more attractive, still a brain is not a computer. In any case, in the "radio receiver" metaphor, the brain receives something from elsewhere that contains or manifests consciousness. The brain might store things, perhaps in the sense of a "warehouse" of sensory impressions, or perhaps a holographic "hard drive" of sense data, but the experience is still one of consciousness. Certainly, we know that each instance of remembering is a remanufacturing of the original experience, one that alters to some extent whatever it is that the brain stores. If the brain is a receiver, though, we are left with the question of where it is receiving from. A magician might answer that there is another "level" of existence, another "plane", from which consciousness emanates, though some magicians would argue that consciousness is also from the "spirit plane".

And this doesn't exhaust the models available to us, though it runs through most of the major ideas. Which of them is correct, if any? I have no idea. I tend to favor the "emanated consciousness" model to some degree, but I am also attracted to both the "relationship" and "psychological" models—with the proviso that spirits are probably not local to any particular brain or psychology, even where they might manifest in such a "place".

So, let's talk about some of the gaming models for spirits. At the moment, I am mainly interested in the models provided by RuneQuest, HeroQuest (the Gloranthan RPG, not the Milton Bradley board game), GURPS, the HERO System—particularly the 4th edition supplement titled Horror HERODogs in the Vineyard, Fantasy Wargaming, and Magic Realm, the board game from Avalon Hill. RuneQuest, GURPS, HERO SystemFantasy Wargaming, and Magic Realm all offer a similar model of spirits as something basically like a material being, only composed of some immaterial substance. That is a fine model for gaming, as it is easily incorporated into the rules and allows for a wide variety of interaction with the setting of the game. HERO System does present a somewhat different method for spirits to move and interact with their environments that is worth examining. The particularly interesting outliers here are Pendragon and, though as games they are not nearly as interesting, HeroQuest and Dogs in the Vineyard.

Pendragon and HeroQuest offer a similar approach to spirits, though in a sense it is hidden in the rules of the former. A character is able to develop "Passions" in Pendragon, which are relationships such as Love, Loyalty, or the like. However, a character can develop a relationship with an abstraction that does not otherwise appear directly in the game, such as "God" or "The Red Company"—while the latter may exist as a group of ruffians or adventurers, the members of the group are what interact with the setting directly. While HeroQuest doesn't call them "Passions" (as I recall at the moment, without looking up the details), there is a similar mechanism to describe a character's relationships.

Dogs in the Vineyard is, in my opinion, a nearly-unplayable game—one significant obstacle I found was that you are supposed to describe what is happening in a challenge, but you can't actually know what happens in the challenge until the challenge is over since that is when you determine "consequences" incurred during the challenge. However, its concept that an area is affected by a particular spirit, which can influence the course of challenges indirectly by favoring one side or the other in a broad sense, is one that I want to find ways to adapt.

Now, these last few paragraphs describe models intended for gaming purposes. I think that they are useful in helping to illuminate how we think about spirits, though, since they are required to be relatively comprehensive in ways that thinking about the topic abstractly doesn't require.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Games That Influenced My Current Understanding Of RPGs

I'm still working on the follow-up to the "What is Magic?" post, describing what spirits are, exactly. I also need to write up the events of the Deindustrial Future game, where the players' characters fought off a major assault by the forces of the antagonist—or antagonists, as the case may be—and realized that they may have been making some bad assumptions about what is going on. However, because I want to post something before the end of the year, this will be a simple social media game about my history in gaming. All it really is is a list of "games that influenced me", but I want to include some commentary to make it worth your time to read. Without further ado, and after the first two in no particular order:

  1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition - This was, of course, the first RPG I played, before I had even heard the term "RPG". I learned a lot about gaming from this, in part because I had no idea what I was doing. It was where I learned that having followers is a good thing. It was where I learned that maybe you shouldn't trust your fellow players, but also that you could generally rely on them if they weren't dicks. I learned what it means to be able to attempt anything, even if you might or might not succeed. Some of those I would count as life lessons, too. I learned that resource management is a fun game in itself, even if it took me years to be able to articulate that lesson.
  2. Traveller - Since it was the first game I'd ever run instead of just being a player, this is where I learned the value of Referee tools. Random encounters, rumor tables, world generation procedures, and so on mean that the Referee can concentrate on the arc of the story and leave the details up to the dice. This has served me as well in learning what the value of divination is outside of gaming, too.
  3. Call of Cthulhu - This is where I learned that even a single rule, if properly designed, can thoroughly change the experience of the game by altering the approaches that the players will tend toward.
  4. Champions - I didn't know it at the time I was playing it, but this game taught me that point-based character creation is terrible. Even if the intent is otherwise, it encourages players to find as many loopholes in the system as they can. This is also called "system mastery", and it continues to infect some games to this day. Some games revel in that, such as Pathfinder, while others, such as GURPS, try to minimize it.
  5. RuneQuest, 3rd edition - Proved that it is possible to use points to generate characters and not have it be awful. On the other hand, it does this by limiting the point use to only one segment of character creation, the skills of the character. Technically, I probably learned this with 2nd edition and with Call of Cthulhu, but I really like 3rd edition RQ and wanted to include it in this list.
  6. Marvel Super Heroes - I learned that the description of a power—what Champions calls "special effects"—is very nearly as important as the mechanics of the power. I also learned that the direction of complexity that I was heading deeper into was not necessarily the best direction.
  7. Pendragon - There are other ways to play a game is what Pendragon taught me about gaming. Adventures can be had without making "adventuring" the centerpiece of the game. Instead, adventures can serve a larger purpose of supporting the play of families and the exercise of power politics.
  8. Hârnmaster - This game taught me that not every situation affecting a character is best simulated as a pool of resource points, but that conditions applied to the character are often the better tool to use. Also, that characters don't have to be high-competence to be fun to play. Other people learned that latter lesson with Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing, but this game was my lesson in that.
  9. Flashing Blades - Here I learned that the proper focus of a game is on the players' characters, even if the events being portrayed are larger than those characters. I also finally came to understand the lesson that I should have learned in Traveller or even earlier, that character development is not necessarily something that affects stats and skills.
  10. GURPS - Taught me that the math in the game is important, but that it should absolutely not be something that the players have to deal with much. It should be baked into the system as much as possible.
  11. Lace & Steel - Here, I learned one part of the lesson that even small things can make an adventure more fun, by helping to immerse the players into the setting. In particular, the concentration on the small indignities of travel, and how this encourages characters to choose to pay for better accommodations when available, taught me about the little things that matter to characters.
  12. Swordbearer - Like the previous entry, I learned that even seemingly minor elements, presented correctly, can add immeasurably to play, with travel being another area treated especially well, in this case by detailing how things like setting and striking camp, the condition of the travelers, weather, and so on affect matters. I also learned that sometimes finances are better handled abstractly, since the characters shouldn't be worrying about every last copper piece and so neither should the players, at least in some settings.
That gives an even dozen games, though I could have included more. I learned things from Chivalry & Sorcery, Fantasy Wargaming, Vampire: The Masquerade, TORG, Rolemaster, and many others as well, but I have to stop somewhere. That's not even counting the negative lessons—other than Champions, which I think was one of the most important lessons—such as the WotC editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Linear Fighters, Quadratic Magic-Users

I have been working on the follow-up to the article on magic, but it has gotten out of hand a couple of times as I keep finding myself going off into tangents. It's a big topic, but I am trying to boil it down.

But today I am going to talk about AD&D and other D&Ds.

A big complaint some people have about the way that game is balanced is that Magic-Users increase in power at an increasing rate throughout their careers, while Fighters tend to increase steadily. This is formulated as the Fighter improving on a linear basis, while the Magic-User improves on a quadratic basis. It certainly does seem like a conundrum, since Gary Gygax was writing AD&D on the basis of many, many hours spent running the game at a real table, for hundreds of players. How could he have missed something so obvious?

As with many things, the answer is right there in the rule books.

Gary knew that Fighters and Magic-Users had different focuses for their careers. Each was, after all, a statement by a player about how they wanted to interact with the game and setting. Everyone knows this. The other classes, Cleric, Thief, and so on, are all later attempts by various players to come up with a particular and new way to approach the game and setting, usually based on a particular fictional role model. Clerics were to be Fearless Vampire Slayers in the vein of Van Helsing in the Hammer Dracula films, Thieves were largely the Grey Mouser from Fritz Leiber's stories (and, yes, a little bit of Vance's Cugel the Clever too), Monks were an attempt to model Shaw Brothers wuxia films, Rangers were Strider/Aragorn. Later, the Barbarian was to be Conan.

The thing is, this was supposed to be a model for the character's whole career, not just a set of powers that were nifty. How did Gary see these characters spending their late careers?

The Cleric, of course, would be a fantasy Bishop, in charge of a holy temple with all of the attendants that implied, as well as believing peasants who would provide an income through their labor. This reminds me that AD&D is also explicit that the majority of the world does not have a class or level, and so most religious leaders are probably not able to cast spells, though perhaps more people who are able to are drawn to holy orders and so there would be more than among the general populace. But I digress.

Thieves become leaders of organized crime institutions, obviously.

Magic-Users, it seems would retire to a tower, presumably to pursue their studies, but they would also have a body of laborers who would fund them in exchange, it is to be supposed, for protection from threats.

Which means that Fighters should probably also have a body of laborers to protect in exchange for tax monies. Like, I would say, a noble. And what is the source of a noble's power? The number of swords they can command. And that is exactly what a high-level fighter gets access to: a loyal troop. But they only get this power if they pursue it by clearing a barony of sorts. This is where many players lose the plot. There is a perception that only hardscrabble adventuring is fun, that the logistics of running a small domain make the game bog down into boredom.

But D&D was a wargame first, and the people who played it were wargamers at heart. For many, the whole point of play was to get to where they could command fantasy troops. Exercising power means dealing with other power-brokers in the setting, which means more opportunities for adventure, not fewer, since a baron can surely equip an expedition into a ruined castle, but murderhoboes can't usually broker deals that affect the lives of thousands or more.

But this still doesn't explain the Linear/Quadratic disparity, I can hear you say. Magic-Users, the argument continues, are still more powerful at any given level.

It is true that an individual Magic-User up against an individual Fighter will have a great advantage, with some abilities that the Fighter will have difficulty countering. That said, AD&D introduced a system whereby a Fighter could prevent the Magic-User from casting by interrupting the ritual. In addition, there were requirements for material components, as well as motions and words, that made the Magic-User's job a little more difficult. Adding these together, along with the overwhelming power of masses—one thing that people learn quickly when designing wargames rules that attempt to duplicate the D&D combat system on a mass scale is that even the most powerful of heroes will have a hard time against tens or hundreds of opponents. Swords & Spells, Battlesystem, and others found that they had to emphasize the abilities of heroic individuals, or alternatively games like Delta's Book of War learned that most D&D "heroes" weren't even worth representing on the battlefield as separate figures. Even powers like a Magic-User's spells, which seem overwhelming at the individual scale, turn out to have only small effect at the battle scale—enough, to be sure, to be worth simulating, but they only steer a battle in relatively subtle ways.

Meanwhile, the loyal troop attending a Fighter steer the battle very directly.

Myself, I think that a character should get experience for the money that they take in by taxing their domain. This encourages them to expand their domain and keep it safe from threats, since the more people they protect directly affects their experience gains. That would also encourage players to play the endgame for its adventuresome qualities instead of avoiding it in favor of more dungeon-delving, murderhobo adventures. More likely, these days, I'll simply give players experience for money spent rather than collected, but I won't make any distinctions about where they got it.

And money spent on a castle is money spent.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Administrative Note

I've been writing a follow-up to the "What is magic?" post, going into more depth and detail. For now, though, I would like to note that I've turned on comment moderation for all comments on this blog. The spam has gotten worse over the last couple of years, and lately they are homing in on the newer posts that had remained unmoderated here. As a result, I'm going to have to approve all comments for at least a little while. Sorry.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What Is Magic In The First Place?

In the last post, I presented a library of sourceworks to serve as a foundation for an understanding of magic that could apply to the Middle Sea and Sundaland settings, as well as future incarnations of my Deindustrial Future setting. Partly, I wanted to clearly differentiate my approach from that of another occultist and gaming blogger, whose series on "Real Magick in RPGs"—yes, that is the spelling he uses for the word—is worth reading, but presents the topic from a very partisan perspective (much as that author's politics! ZING!) which can be quite misleading for those who take it literally and without a wider view. I won't link it because the author is kind of a jerk, but it's easy enough to Google that series up.

To figure out how magic works, we first need to know what magic is. This is an incredibly difficult question to answer definitively, and the more so as it is examined more closely. For my purposes, I will assume that "magic" is what historical magicians or magician-like people thought that they were doing. This isn't a hard and fast definition at all since it requires us to look at what "magicians" do in day to day life, and that is simply not possible from our vantage point here in the early 21st century. Even as recent an era as the 1980s remains somewhat opaque since our main source work on practicing magicians from that period has a number of methodological problems.

To our benefit, a number of magicians wrote down, in outline at least, descriptions of how they pursued their practices. While there is some obscurantism in many of these works, a lot of the codes have also been written down and others have been broken.

For simplicity, I am going to focus on the (very) Late Antique, Early Modern, and Modern eras in Europe, say from the 7th century or so on through into the 18th or 19th, and even the 20th and 21st to a degree.

Earliest in our period and location, we find the Greek Magical Papyri and the Demotic Magical Papyri (PGM/PDM). These are a collection of various papyrus manuscripts that record in quite close detail the practices of magicians of Antiquity, with some of the practices perhaps originating in prehistory. We do not need to examine this in detail, however, and will only note in passing that there is a clear line of transmission from these manuscripts into later European magical works. If you are interested in pursuing this further, I'd suggest Betz, Hans Dieter - The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Skinner, Dr. Stephen - Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, and Smith, Morton - Jesus the Magician. Those would get you started.

Another source text, roughly contemporaneous with the PGM/PDM, is Sefer HaRazim, a collection of Jewish magical practices involved with conjuring the spirits of the dead, appeasing them, exorcising them, and so forth. Our interest here is mainly to show that there is a melting pot of practices in the eastern Mediterranean region, from Egypt to Greece, that resulted in a basic pattern of what would become the central magical practices of Europe for centuries to come.

Because of the way that books were circulated in Europe prior to the introduction of the printing press, there are lines of tradition that we can consider, rather than necessarily individual titles. So, for example, there is the "Solomonic" line of texts, which include books that find their ultimate origin in the Byzantine magical text known variously as Hygromanteia (Ὑγρομαντεία), Solomonikê (Σολομωνική), or The Magical Treatise of Solomon, among other names. However, these books vary greatly in the exact text, with some leaving parts out, adding new parts, or rearranging sections. The Solomonic books make up most of the magical texts that exist, but there other others such as Picatrix, which finds its origin in an Arabian text titled Ghayat al-Hakim ("Goal of the Wise"), translated initially into Latin then into other languages; the similarly-named but different traditions of the Cyprianus, or Swedish Svarteboken, which lead to the Braucherei tradition, also known as Pennsylvania Hex magic, among others, and the books of magic that attribute themselves to St. Cyprian of Antioch, the "Necromancer Saint"; the Faustian tradition, which consists of a number of texts that seem to be based on the legend or play; variations of the Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim; and a few others. Some of these are among the strands of tradition that form the various African Traditional Religions as practiced in the New World. More recent years have brought a few further texts such as the infamous Necronomicon, widely available in a mass market edition from Avon Books; The Voudon Gnostic Workbook by Michael Bertiaux and related books; the various works of "Chaos Magick" theorists and practitioners such as Peter Carroll, Phil Hine, and others; various texts on "witchcraft" of varying quality, some connected with the religion known as Wicca and many not; the practice known as "Huna" developed by Max Freedom Long; the Thelemic and other texts associated with Thelema, many by Aleister Crowley, though a lot of more obscure books written by others; the Thelemic works have their origin in a strand of tradition known as the Golden Dawn, which owes at least a portion of its practices to the works of Éliphas Lévi; the rediscovery of Dr. John Dee's 16th and early 17th century magical manuscripts in the 19th century was another influence on the Golden Dawn and Thelema, but that collection also forms a tradition of its own. In addition, there are folk magical practices, some recorded relatively faithfully—such as in the Rev. Robert Kirk's manuscript The Secret Commonwealth, published in an abridged form in the 19th century, then in a more complete form in the 20th—while others can only be seen dimly from the point of view of people antagonistic to them such as the records of witch and werewolf trials mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries. And this really isn't a complete catalog.

This anarchic mass of textual data is difficult to assimilate. However, we can point out a few common practices throughout. First, there is "Spirit Magic", in which various "spirits"—whatever we may come to mean by this—are interacted with in various ways. This can be through divination of various sorts, the perceptions of a sensitive "medium", or even full-on possession, as with "channeling" or the practices of various African Traditional Religions. This includes practices which purport to direct or determine the influence of "astral energies"—sometimes called Astral Magic—and the practices known as "theurgy" which are designed to align the practitioner with some spiritual power. Further, the practices known as Natural Magic, which intend to direct the powers of natural objects such as herbs and stones, or even the more sophisticated methods of the Alchemists, can also be seen as directing or assessing the spirits of those objects. Some forms of Natural Magic (and the same is true of Astral Magic) intend to take advantage of psychological processes, such as a similarity of appearance, but others rely on real or apparent physical properties.

Second, there is divination that is not apparently related to spirits. This is a difficult distinction to make, though, and only becomes more so as the idea of spirits is examined more deeply. However, the idea of viewing locations at a distance, which some now call "remote viewing", has an ancient pedigree. Other forms include "oneiromancy", or the interpretation of dreams, scrying, inducing various sorts of altered states of consciousness, and various forms of sortilege, or casting and otherwise manipulating lots, cards, sticks, dice, or whatever, among other things. This is a major topic of its own.

Thirdly, we can identify what we might call "Psychic Magic", or "magic" that is related to altered states of consciousness. This crosses over to "Spirit Magic" and "Divination" considerably, but includes other practices such as the "berserk" state, self-hypnosis, and induction of hypnotic states in others. There are other examples as well.

Finally, there is the practice of "Illusion". This is exactly the sort of thing that modern stage magicians do. The thing is, it turns out that a lot of magical practices occur on a purely internal, invisible level. Sometimes, that internal, invisible matter needs to be dramatized, and so we find practitioners engaging in allegedly "fraudulent" (though, notably, the only perspective from which there is fraud is from a naïve, predetermined, materialist one; other perspectives will emphasize the efficacy rather than any theoretical metaphysics allegedly underlying the practices), but nonetheless effective to some degree, practices like "psychic surgery" or the like.

And here is a point for a quick digression. Everyone has a metaphysics, whether they understand it consciously or not. This is the model of how the universe works that allows a person to comprehend the things that happen around them. There is no known way to prove one metaphysical model over another, except perhaps by comparing effectiveness—and that only shows a relative effectiveness by whatever definition of "effective" is employed, not any final determination of objective validity. But this is another essay entirely. For our purposes, let's just agree that a non-materialistic model of the universe is at least possible, and so the universe of the magician is not a prima facie impossibility.

I may have missed some other practices, but these seem like the central four to me. This model offers a primary place for "spirits", which leads us to the next question: what, exactly, is a "spirit"? That is a good question for next time. Also, at some point I need to get more explicit about the gaming connection. I'll get there.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Continuing To Evolve An Approach To Magic - Introductory Library

For both the Sundaland and Middle Sea settings, and perhaps for future iterations of the Deindustrial Future setting, I want to keep refining my approach to magic. I've never been very fond of the lightning bolts and fireballs approach of D&D and its derivatives, even though I understand the process that got it there. I'm also not really that happy with the exploding chests ("I think I will take your heart, Kerim Shah!") and rays of energy approach of Conan and the like. I want magic to be subtle, but still effective.

To that end, I have been trying to work out an approach that retains the mystery of magic and the spiritual world, but also would allow me to replicate something like the way that magic is perceived in the world we live in. Clearly, there are magicians. Equally clearly, there are people who employ those magicians to do something for them. What it is that they do is the area I want to try to approach for my games and stories.

As usual for my process, I want to start by providing a library for anyone who might be interested in a similar approach. Mostly, it's books by people who seem to think that magic is a real thing that can have real effects in the world, but some of it is by anthropologists who study people who seem to think that way.

  • Child, Alice B. and Irvin L. Child - Religion and Magic in the Life of Traditional Peoples - an excellent overview of the subject from an anthropological perspective.
  • Couliano, Ioan P. - Eros and Magic in the Renaissance - Prof. Culianu's work regarding magic, or rather his apparent practical application of the principles to the political situation in his native Romania, may have resulted in his assassination in a bathroom at the university where he taught. In any case, perhaps the best introduction to the realities of magic as it was understood by at least one famous Renaissance-era magician.
  • Dunn, Patrick - Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age - an attempt to provide an explanation for magic, different than some others here, but definitely worth looking into. Dunn has other books on the subject as well.
  • Greer, John Michael - Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology - one attempt to lay out the practical boundaries of magic from the point of view of one practitioner. Different people are of the opinion that there is more or less permeability between different "levels" of existence, and that there are more or fewer levels in the first place, but this offers a pretty basic outline of the general concept.
  • Greer, John Michael - A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism - a polemic argument in favor of spirit beliefs.
  • Harpur, Patrick - Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld - an essay toward a reconciliation of materialism and spiritualism through some strange ideas indeed. Like a lot of similar works, ends up talking about flying saucers, by necessity.
  • "IAO131" - Naturalistic Occultism: An Introduction to Scientific Illuminism - in addition, the author maintains a website here. An overview of those elements of traditional magical practices that have correlations with neuroscience and similar disciplines.
  • Keel, John A. - Operation Trojan Horse: The Classic Breakthrough Study of UFOs - sometimes titled UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse, Keel penned one of the more interesting books on a phenomenon where some of the stranger details make more sense from a spiritual/animist perspective than a materialist one.
  • Keith, William H. Jr. - The Science of the Craft: Modern Realities in the Ancient Art of Witchcraft - tried perhaps too hard to reconcile science and magic. Ends up going down a quantum mechanic-esque rabbit hole. Some of the ideas serve to provide an introduction into the fringes of science that lead to difficult questions about the materialist assumptions regarding reality.
  • Lecouteux, Claude - Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages - I'll let this stand in for a great number of works by Lecouteux. An excellent introduction to the ideas that underpin Northern European magical ideas. He has a number of excellent books on the topic, some still awaiting translation to English.
  • Luhrmann, T.M. - Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England - Luhrmann was castigated by her informants after the fact for betraying their confidence, and she chose to "explain" elements of her informants' testimony from her own perspective. This is both a detriment and a benefit, as it gives a partial explanation of magic that is palatable to those with a modern materialist set of assumptions, but it also caused her to miss a lot of what was going on. Really needs to be supplemented with some of the other books in this list.
  • Paper, Jordan - The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology - a description of spirit belief from an educated insider.
  • Pócs, Éva - Between the Living and the Dead - spirit beliefs in Eastern Europe.
  • "Skallagrimsson, Wayland" - Scientific Magic - an attempt to define magic as a product of altered states of consciousness. Pretty good, but as a result of its central thesis it is unable to cover more than a fraction of magical practices.
  • Walsh, Brian - The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex - an analysis of an early anthropological essay regarding native spiritual beliefs in Northwestern Europe.
  • Wier, Dennis - Trance: From Magic to Technology - the author has a number of other books here, but I haven't read any of his others.
  • Wilby, Emma - Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic - an overview of the matter as it existed in recent history in largely English-speaking regions.
So, that's my introductory library. I could add any number of other works, such as those which include recorded testimony of accused werewolves in Europe—you might be surprised to find out how prosaic their claims really were—or the large body of texts on NLP, hypnosis, and stage illusion, among other topics. I didn't even touch on the literature about entheogenic substances and practices.

Anyway, next time I'll get into how I think that magic should work in my settings.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Re-Approaching The Middle Sea

A few years ago, I published a few articles on a world I called the Middle Sea World. You can find most or all of the posts at the Middle Sea tag here. Anyway, I sort of let it fall aside as I was doing too much worldbuilding for the original idea, in part because I had no group to play with at the time.

A few days ago, as I picked up my copy of Lords of the Middle Sea (the original inspiration for the map, if not the setting), it occurred to me that the setting of that wargame was pretty interesting in itself. Also, it makes a thematic parallel to the Sundaland setting I mentioned in the last post. Sundaland is set in the distant past, when the sea levels were lower than today, while the Middle Sea is set in the future with sea levels that are much higher.

As a quick aside, Lords of the Middle Sea was inspired by a story titled "The Great Nebraska Sea", the text of which can be found here along with a map that was inspired by the story. Obviously, there are differences between the inspiration and the Chaosium wargame.

Map used in Lords of the Middle Sea
Anyway, in the game there are six factions, four of which are player positions. These are the resurgent Aztec empire of the Nahuas; the remains of Catholic Mexico, pushed further to the North; the horse-riding nomads of Transwyoming stretching from the Pacific Northwest to the peninsula above the Nebraska Sea; the seafaring, warlike petty kingdoms of the Wardoms of Appalach, recently united under a single king; the small (and neutral as regards the players) nation of Centerline from the land formerly in southern Wisconsin up into the former Minnesota; and the great seagoing Arks of the Salvar clans based out of islands that were once San Francisco and the Ouachita Mountains, also neutral in regard to the players. Each faction has a different advantage: the Nahuas have large cities and so can recruit more troops from them, the Transwyoming peoples can maintain larger forces of light cavalry, the Wardoms of Appalach have larger numbers of warships available and more access to large, submerged cities to ransack for lost technology if they can hire the Salvar Arks, and Mexico—holding onto the remains of North America's helium reserves—has not only the only source for building dirigible airships, but also the single largest source of victory points at the very start of the game.

Each of the player factions also has a King, who can travel either with a small military retinue of around 600 elite soldiers or incognito. Each has its benefits and hazards, and the King can change from one to the other in various circumstances. As Kings gain experience by performing quests, winning battles, and so forth, they can "level up" to become a Hero-King or even a Sorcerer-King. Hero-Kings may choose one special ability from a list, while Sorcerer-Kings can use any ability on the list—but only one per turn. Quests can also lead to lost Libraries, which give special benefits to the faction that possesses one. Similarly, salvaging lost technology provides benefits ranging from permanent increases to all of a faction's combat statistics through an increase in the faction's treasury and other bonuses.

A really rough version of the map of the Middle Sea
world—notice the difference
For me, I don't much like the Nebraska Sea part of the setting. There is the wonderful image of the Godwall, a thousand-foot cliff along the coast where the land collapsed to create the sea, but it's not enough to save the idea for me. I like the simple plains sloping gently up out of the Middle Sea toward the Rockies. It gives me the option to place more factions/kingdoms too.

I can combine this with some of the deindustrialized future ideas I have, too. Drawing on the concept from GURPS After the End where higher technology exists but is increasingly more expensive, while a Renaissance level of tech is more easily sustainable, that lets me include even more exotic ideas like enormously expensive alcohol-fueled aircraft—maybe biplanes!—mounting machine guns fighting helium-filled dirigibles carrying smoothbore guns and sailing ships armed with anti-air black powder rockets. Characters will probably carry flintlock or matchlock guns, with swords as sidearms to meet opponents who survive the gun volley, though some might spring for the expense of a black powder caplock revolver instead, or perhaps even take on the continuing expense of cartridge ammunition.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Deindustrial Future Update And Sword & Sorcery Campaign Setting Idea

After spending some time healing up, the characters started to question the spirit of the former Town Marshall, learning that Joe's father was the person in town who was most involved with conjuring spirits but little else. After deciding to go out to Joe's farm, they were distracted by a disturbance at the blacksmith's down the street. Arriving and asking for information from the Deputy Marshalls there, they learned that the blacksmith had been disemboweled and ritualistically mutilated.

Finally getting out to Joe's farm, the characters found themselves walking into a siege. Quickly dispatching four of the ranch hands, they got into Joe's house and assessed the situation, determining that at least ten more ranch hands had surrounded the house. At this point, we ran out of time.

I like sword & sorcery fiction. A lot of the early works drew on the occult history outlined by Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy movement. This is especially true of the proto-sword & sorcery fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The correspondences between the races and structures of Barsoom and the speculations of Theosophy are complete. H.P. Lovecraft derived many of the concepts of his weird fiction from the same source, and Robert E. Howard—arguably the originator of sword & sorcery—drew on the material both directly and through adopting ideas from Lovecraft.

This is great, except for the fact that the occult history of Theosophy is also intensely, deeply racist. That the authors in question also had such ideas didn't make anything better.

I do think that drawing on occult histories as a basis for sword & sorcery fiction is a great idea, but unfortunately the Theosophical one cast a long shadow over the twentieth century and even into the present one. However, there has been a recent attempt to move away from the methods and ideas of Theosophy in crafting a new occult history.

Occult histories are a useful technique that are intended to assist creative approaches to data by creating a structure at odds with the accepted ideas. By creating an approving context for concepts that are disapproved by the intellectual authorities of our society, they allow for questioning of things that are conventionally accepted. Whether this is a good idea or not is up to you, but I think that it's at the very least useful for creative works.

As it happens, there is a recent attempt to forge a new occult history that draws on both cutting edge and fringe archaeology instead of the fringe Indology that informs the Theosophical one. A "chaos magician" named Gordon White recently published a few works, among them Star.Ships. Despite the title, the book explicitly disclaims the idea that extraterrestrial aliens had anything to do with our world. Instead, it lays out an argument that world history and prehistory is better explained from an animist perspective than a materialist one, and offers a history that incorporates everything from the "impossible" mesolithic site of Göbekli Tepe through Gunung Padang, strange anomalies about the Pyramids of Giza to the weirdly specific coincidences of astronomical mythology around the world—such as why just about everyone from Europe and Asia through to North and South America associates Sirius with canines—and more. Recently, a find of petroglyphs in India that seem related in style to other petroglyph finds, and which date to the appropriate era, seem to provide further support for the idea. Whether a stepped pyramid identified in China bears any relation remains to be seen, though the dating makes it seem unlikely.

Notably, for my purposes, it lays out some of the possibilities of a prehistoric civilization in the Sundaland region, which is now largely beneath the waves after being submerged at the end of the last Ice Age. The civilization would have been a mesolithic hunter-gatherer society which, if White's ideas are examined, had a sophisticated shipbuilding culture with advanced astronomical navigation and possibly advanced social organization. Its influence, then, would have spread across the ocean, from the Middle East and Nile Valley to southern Asia, up into China, Japan, and the Philippines, across to the Pacific Islands, and even to South America. If Göbekli Tepe was related to this culture, then its influence might even have reached to the Anatolian peninsula and so maybe even into the Old European cultures.

Players and readers don't seem to get very excited about Stone Age cultures, though, so I think that it would be worthwhile to suppose that the Bronze Age got a very early start in Sundaland. Like Howard's Hyboria, this allows for city-states and armies at a time when, as far as we know, they were not particularly likely in the real-world prehistory. Since some people connect the idea of Sundaland with Plato's story of Atlantis—among other things, the dates happen to match up, where other theories of Atlantis require assuming that the dates were wrong in some way—we can equate orichalcum "mountain copper" with bronze, which seems to be the trend today anyway.

Anyway, a lot of details still to work out, but it seems like it should be an interesting sword & sorcery setting. With ancient serpent people and the occasional Pleistocene—or even earlier—monster, along with the Flores Island "hobbits", there is plenty of room for the kind of weird adventure that makes for a rolicking story.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Just Updates

Turns out that I am not able to run two games concurrently, so the MegaTraveller game went on a long-term hiatus almost immediately.

Scheduling issues have kept us from meeting much in the last month or so.

I'm probably not going to write up the fourth session of the GURPS Deindustrial Future game in detail. It was a lot of investigation, then the players tried to visit the ranch boss who seems to be the cause of the troubles they've been dealing with. On the way, one of the ranch hands fired a musket at the group as they rode up the road to the ranch, hitting Clementine and severely injuring her. The ranch hand ran off to a fate unknown to the players. When they confronted the ranch boss, it quickly became apparent that the town marshall had visited earlier and been killed, as her spirit was still hanging around and attempted (badly) to communicate with Caleb, one of whose talents is the ability to act as a spirit medium. The marshall's spirit has followed the PCs back to town and is quickly learning how to be an effective ghost.

The nominal fifth session was a mostly administrative one. I discussed how the adventure is going with the players and learned that the reason Caleb's player hasn't really been using magic much is that he didn't know some of the aspects of the Path/Book system, so I helped him out and now all of the PCs are loaded up with amulets and blessings. Both of the injured characters have been given Succor and have healed up in a matter of a few days.

It's been my observation that the Path/Book Adept advantage is priced far too cheaply. After some quick calculations, I think that it should be set at either 15 or 20 points per level. I won't make that change in the current campaign, though I will likely adopt it in the future when using that magic system.

As the current adventure nears an ending, I have been thinking about what to do next—whether to continue the current setting or start up a new one. I'm pretty interested in starting up a new setting for a different sort of adventure with the option to return to the Deindustrial Future one. Something with more melee weapons and fewer guns maybe. The players seem to be interested in continuing with GURPS, which I can live with. Maybe I'll shift back into high gear on the GURPS Greyhawk concept. Or maybe I can do a GURPS Voodoo/Illuminati/Cabal mashup with plenty of wuxia martial arts and spirit warriors.

Alternately, one of the players was in the game when I ran RuneQuest 3rd edition (that's the one from Avalon Hill) a number of years back. He has generated some interest among the other players by talking it up pretty glowingly and I have been playing around with an idea for a setting that uses systems developed for that game.

Or, as you may recall, there's that long list of other ideas I've had, and I have an even longer list sitting in my files right now.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Adventure Design Consideration

Still haven't written up the Deindustrial Future episode 4 report, and we played a game of MegaTraveller set in a small-ship LBB77-style universe of my own dicing. I should write that one up, too.

I've been reading a few reviews of adventures lately that pick on one thing: adventure space "wasted" on things that the Referee can make up themself. On the one hand, I can see this. It wastes space that could be used for something of more value, or else could be edited out to save on the size of the product. That's fine and all. The thing is, though, that I want those things. I can for sure make up the contents of a kitchen or pantry, but sometimes in the heat of running a game I don't want to make them up. I want something I can look at and just lazily pick. That's why I'm paying for an adventure instead of writing it myself. If I have a better idea than what is written, then I can supersede* their material with my own.

For example, I'm reading a review of Spires of Altdorf for Warhammer FRP 2nd edition. It talks about how some info on what might happen if you fight, sneak, or interact with the locals in a location, but complains that some of this info is given for mundane places like streets or generic tenements. Honestly, I have other things to think about when I'm running a game, and really appreciate having some suggestions in the location material. One of the things that I loved about City-State of the Invincible Overlord was the suggested encounter for every street. Those things really help provide a sense of what the city is like to live in and move through.

And yes, a generic "dungeon dressing" table like the ones in the DMG is really helpful, but I think that such tables are even better if they're tuned to the specific setting. So, I guess that I'm just disagreeing with one of the frequent points of Joseph "Against the Wicked City" Manola and Bryce "tenfootpole" Lynch. Adventure writers, please keep providing mundane set dressing for us lazy Referees.

*Fine, I give up. It's a dumb spelling, but I'll submit to it. For now.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


We've played a fourth session of the Deindustrial Future game, but I haven't written it up yet. Here's something to tide you over.

Illustration: Walt McDougall, The Salt Lake Herald, February 22, 1903

Seems like an interesting critter. Anyone want to stat it up for one game or another? Feel free to post it here or to your own blog. If you post it to your blog, give me a link here if you wouldn't mind.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Deindustrial Future, Session 3

Our Story So Far

After the eventful night, our heroes decided to set off back to town in the morning in order to do some research on the copper fragment, the German manuscript, and Joe's property. Since he had things to do in town, Joe offered to give them a ride, which the characters gratefully accepted since Caleb is not a strong walker and Billy was still suffering from the stabbing he received in the saloon fight. The ride into town was uneventful.

Deciding to split up, Caleb decided to look into the manuscript at the library while Billy and Clem went to the local blacksmith to see if he might have any ideas on the copper fragment. The librarian, Charles, offered a letter of introduction to a woman named Ursula who he thought might be able to read the manuscript, as she came from Germany when she was a young woman. This turned out to be the case, and she discussed the nature of the manuscript with Caleb: it is a book involved with summoning particular spirits.

Meanwhile, Billy spoke with the blacksmith. It turned out, conveniently, that his hobbies included chemistry and metallurgy, so he was able to give an analysis of the metal fragment and indicated that it was nearly pure copper. Unable to find out much more, Billy and Clementine decided to check in with Joe, to make sure that he was OK.

As they approached the general store where Joe had said he was going to be for much of the day, they realized that there were three men, one at each end of the block and one leaning against a post across the street from the general store. As Clementine approached the doors of their destination, a fourth man stepped in front of her and barred her entry. Clementine tried to ask why he was in her way, but the man only told her to get out of town and that she wasn't welcome. Around this time, Billy noticed that the man at the far end of the block had disappeared, and the other two were walking toward the pair.

Clem, realizing that she wasn't going to get much further, attempted to shove the swinging door into Gordo, the man blocking her, and knocked him a bit back into the general store. He pulled out his gun and took a shot at her, but missed. Billy turned to face the two other men. Suddenly, a shot rang out from a building in the next block and one of the men fell down, shot in the back by a mysterious benefactor. Billy swung his staff at the other man, knocking the pistol out of his hand and pretty seriously injuring his arm.

Deciding that Gordo had upped the stakes, Clem drew her own pistol and planted three bullets in his chest, running inside to make sure he stayed down. When she went in, she managed to avoid being hit by another gunman inside, Alfie. After making sure that his opponent was running away, Billy decided to follow Clementine inside. As he did, he noticed a mystery man, hopefully their mysterious benefactor who stopped one of the attackers, approaching from a hotel in the next block.

Once inside, Billy chased down Alfie, but decided to charge him directly. Alfie put a couple of rounds into Billy's chest, knocking him out. Meanwhile, Clem and the mysterious stranger flanked Alfie and took him with only one more shot fired. Tying up the two prisoners, Gordo and Alfie, they took care of Billy and found Joe and the general store's owner hiding behind some shelves. They were discussing what to do and how to send for the town's Marshal, Marnie, when I started getting exhausted from the heat and decided that I needed to end the session. The mysterious stranger vanished in the confusion. Billy was taken to the town's doctor and given some healing elixir. Experience points were portioned out.

On the whole, I was happy with this session, though I am not sure how the players felt about it - they seemed happy enough. I was happy that we got to see how missile combat works in GURPS, and I offered an important tactical tip to Billy's player: don't get in front of a gun. Billy was fine and behind cover, and even had a good path to flank Alfie, but his player decided to run six yards straight into Alfie's gun's sights - a full move with no attack allowed that turn. That led to his character going into negative HP, in part because he was still injured from the knife wound of a couple of days (game time) ago. I suspect that this was left over from the player's extensive history of playing Hero System, which is perhaps a bit more forgiving of such heroic, direct charges.

I've talked the players into letting me run a Top Secret game as well, so that's what we'll be playing next.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

An Observation And A List

I don't have much to say right now. The holiday meant skipping a week for the game I'm running. Still, I have thinky thoughts.

First, I haven't seen anyone say this as bluntly as I think it needs to be said. Games that don't have skills, and even some that do, should be run with one major principle in place: characters succeed. If it's in question, roll a d6 (or maybe a Saving Throw in Swords & Wizardry and related games). If it involves people's reactions, make a reaction check.

When a character in D&D in any of its varieties before 1.5E tries to do something, it should generally just work unless it's ridiculous. This is even more true in versions that don't have a variation of the Thief class. No Thieves and you want to pick a lock? Did you buy lockpicks? Then you do it. Maybe a roll of 5-6 on 1d6 will cause the lockpicks to break after opening the door. Want to bust down a door? You do it (with a wandering monster check). If the DM says that the door is particularly tough, roll 1d6 with a modifier for your Strength, and a 5 or higher busts it down. If it's particularly complicated (hunting through a library for a particular manuscript, for example), maybe refer to the character's background and make a ruling based on that. In fact, setting a general background (Conan the Librarian!) might be the one thing you could add to character creation, where AD&D 1E has Secondary Skills for much the same purpose. Something technical like forging a sword would require an appropriate background, for example.

The same principle applies to other games. You're playing Traveller and you want to rappel down a wall? Do you have some rope? Then you do it. You want to convince someone to help you? Roll a reaction check (if you have some appropriate skill, maybe that will help modify the roll).

The general idea is that characters are generally competent to carry out the plans that their players make, for the most part.

Anyway, for the second point, here's a list of games that I have come to think have really stood the test of time, as it were. Games that I still like on the whole. A lot of these games work a lot better if you apply the above idea:

Amber Diceless Roleplaying
The Arcanum
Call of Cthulhu (up through 5.5E or so)
Chivalry & Sorcery (1E and 2E, though there have been some recent unofficial versions based on those that are great too)
Cyberpunk (2013 and 2020)
D&D/AD&D (up through 2.0E/Rules Cyclopedia; after that, it gets weird; retroclones and similar variants elsewhere)
Empire of the Petal Throne
GURPS (3E revised and 4E)
In Nomine
James Bond 007
Lace & Steel (I think; I only played it once, still it looks good)
Lords of Creation
Pendragon (I prefer 4E, unlike other people apparently, but the other editions are great too)
Rolemaster/Spacemaster (I guess they're calling the good edition "Classic" now)
RuneQuest (never met a version I didn't like, yet)
Space 1889 (the GDW version, and I actually like the system; it's pretty much the only time other than WEG Star Wars that I don't mind dice pools)
Star Trek RPG (FASA; I can't say that it's great, but it does the job well)
Star Wars (West End Games; one of a very few dice pool games that don't suck)
Star Wars (WotC, though it isn't as good as the WEG one; nearly the only use I have for D20 system)
Stormbringer (4E is the best, after that they messed it up)
Top Secret (original, the 1981 second edition, and the Companion)
Traveller (classic LBB77/LBB81/TTB/ST and MegaTraveller)
2300AD (I actually like the system)
Unknown Armies (I can't run it, apparently, but the ideas are great; maybe I'd be better at running it today)
Villains & Vigilantes (I haven't played Mighty Protectors yet, so I can't speak to that edition)

Games that I haven't played, but look good:

Big Eyes, Small Mouth (specifically Sailor Moon, Ghost Dog, and Revolutionary Girl Utena)
Celtic Legends
Dungeon Crawl Classics
Silent Legions
Stars Without Number (I'm pretty excited by the Revised Edition)
Starships & Spacemen (2E looks better than 1E)
Swords & Wizardry (White Box mainly, but the others are OK)
White Star (S&W: White Box in a galaxy far away that isn't Star Wars we promise)

Games that would be good but need development:

Fantasy Wargaming
Realms of the Unknown

You'll notice a distinct lack of White Wolf games, Shadowrun, and Burning Wheel. That's because dice pools are dumb, in general. No Hero System because it's just too scattered for me these days. Also no Savage Worlds, which I might be being unfair about - I suppose that I have to play it more. And no goddamned FATE.

I might have missed some. If I didn't include your favorite system, ask me why I didn't. It might be an oversight.

NOTE: As time has gone on and I remember more games to include, I have been adjusting these lists slightly. I've also removed one because the author chose to associate themself, even if outside of gaming, with alt-right personalities. The alt-right may be "just joking" about their white supremacy, but I don't find it funny. I've removed another pending the reaction of the company to abuse allegations in regard to a particular individual.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Deindustrial Future: Sessions 1 and 2

The group of players, as I noted before, chose to play in my Deindustrial Future game. To save you from having to follow the link, I described it there as follows:

GURPS Deindustrial Future - I presented this as a cross between Stephen King's Dark Tower series and Fallout without the nukes. The setting is the future a few hundred years after our civilization runs out of petroleum to fuel it. While electricity, and technology, does exist, the large-scale networks of power transmission and transportation infrastructure do not. Characters have access to items up to TL7 (most TL8 items require far too much interdependent, and so unavailable, infrastructure), but cost 2x as much as normal for every TL above 4 (roughly the 16th-18th centuries), which is the maximum easily sustainable technology level. The culture is heavily influenced by the American West, simply because that's easier to get everybody on the same page, but the world is split into, effectively, city-states and tribal chieftains - not unlike Europe's Migration Era after the fall of Rome. There's also some magic of a relatively subtle kind ("Path/Book Magic" for those of you who know GURPS) along with spirits, and alchemy of the standard GURPS sort ("snake oil") along with some other things like Gunslingers and traveling preachers of a sort.
I've refined this in play to note that there's still a sort of rump USA, based around where New York City exists today (well, a little inland of that due to rising ocean levels), but it bears a similarity to the USA we know in the same way that Byzantium in the 11th century bore a resemblance to the Roman Empire .  Either way, the players have started the game in the Illinois Kingdom, one of the more organized states of deindustrialized North America.

The three current player-characters are:

Caleb: a wandering Druid, notable for his extremely short stature.
Clementine: a Gunslinger.
Billy: a member of the Guild of Salvagers, a group of people who are somewhere between recyclers and archaeologists. Also a student of the martial arts. Caleb and Clem are friends of his, and often travel with him.

Because this game is a more cinematic take on the subject than other approaches I might have made, players started with 200 points. None of the players has played fourth edition GURPS previously (which did play a role in the selection of the game, as they like to broaden their experience), and I have never run or played fourth edition, though I have been reading it for several years. As a result, some of our rules-heavy play, such as combat, goes slowly and with a lot of page-flipping to make sure that things are remembered (this phase of learning to play a game is one of the many reasons that I do not like PDFs, which are even more cumbersome in practice than paper books if there's more than one to consult). I have taken the How to be a GURPS GM book's advice and limited the rules that we're using, though I have also chosen to jump right into GURPS Technical Grappling from the start. We've had some bobbles (notably that I misapplied some Technical Grappling elements), but we're getting into the groove.

We're meeting every other week in theory, usually every two to three weeks in practice.

As the game opened, the characters were on a journey to a meeting of the Salvagers' Guild at a small town on the edge of the Illinois Kingdom. Travel-weary, they had stopped in a saloon around a day's travel from their final destination to relax and prepare for the final leg of their travels. The saloon filled up with a few people when a group of six rowdies (we'll call them the McSomething Boys, due to their fairly generically thuggish nature) came in, taking up a table and generally making a noisy ruckus. Shortly, one of them started harassing a lone farmer named Joe, which quickly led to the others backing him up. The characters decided to intervene and a bar fight broke out.

Caleb threw a beer mug at the instigating McSomething Boy as he was jacking the famer, Joe, against the wall, causing him to lose his grip on the farmer and turn around to face the new threat. Billy grabbed one of the boys in an arm lock and found himself threatened by one of the others who had pulled out a knife. Clem decided not to use her pistols in order to not escalate the situation further, as two of the Boys came for her. Meanwhile, farmer Joe and the other saloon patrons scrambled for the exits as well as they could, while the bartender and server rushed to protect whatever bottle and glassware weren't out on the tables.

The players did win the fight, though the knife-wielding McSomething Boy stabbed Billy for a big chunk of damage. The whole fight took around 20 turns or so, or maybe a bit less (one of the players estimated it at 12 turns - I lost track and didn't record it well enough to know for sure). It might have taken a bit longer if I were using the "Last Gasp" rules on combat action, which I do hope to get to at some point. The town Marshal, Marnie, arrived to take custody of the three Boys who hadn't already made a run for it. The players learned, both from her and from questioning the Boys they'd captured, that the Boys were employees of Richard, a local ranch magnate who had been trying to take over Joe's land.

(Because we are new to using the combat system, that took up the first session of play. From here, we move on to the second session.)

Deciding to leave Billy to recover from his knife wound, Clem and Caleb asked Marnie, the town Marshal, where Joe's farm was located. She let them know, but asked if they could stay in town until next week when Judge Pike would be back, so that they could testify. They agreed, then headed out to Joe's farm to learn what they could. Due to Caleb's short legs, the journey to the farm was about two hours of walking. Meeting Joe's wife as she was hanging out laundry, she directed them to the back field where Joe and his son, Dick, were watering the crops, it being midsummer.

Interviewing Joe, they learned little more than they already knew, but Clementine's sharp gunslinger vision allowed her to notice a figure crawling from a pile of boulders at the top of a hill in the northern part of Joe's land. After asking Joe for permission, they started to approach cautiously, but when it seemed as though the mystery person looked directly at them, she took off at a run to try to catch them, with Caleb following as best he could. Unfortunately, by the time Clem arrived at the hillcrest, all that remained were some tracks heading off into a wooded area. When Caleb caught up, they considered following the tracks, but decided to check the boulder pile first. They found a hidden tunnel that led underground into a room which had two tunnels leading off from it. Clem climbed down to investigate while Caleb waited on the surface. The first tunnel led to a small room with a table on which were a bowl filled with a dark liquid and two candles, one on either side of the bowl, plus a small item made of a rooster foot with some feather tied to it. In the flickering candlelight, she didn't notice that there were also chalk markings on the table, though they would discover those shortly when Caleb would be brought down with a full torch to examine them.

Down the other tunnel, Clem found a small wooden elevator powered by a pulley system. That's when she called for Caleb to come help, first showing him the table, which he surmised was involved with spirits in some way, though he didn't recognize the specific set of symbols used. He also noted that the dark liquid in the bowl was wine.

With Clementine operating the pulley system, Caleb descended into the darkness and found that the elevator went down to a small room with three narrow tunnels leading off from it, generally in the direction of the stream that runs along the edge of Joe's property. Exploring all three, Caleb determined that one led nowhere, but the other two seemed to intersect a large vein of apparently pure copper. Most surprisingly, despite the moist conditions due to the proximity of the stream, the copper had no verdigris. Caleb used some tools lying in the tunnel to cut out a chunk to show Joe. After discussing the matter with Joe, the players decided to spend the night since it was getting late, in part so that they could protect the farmer if anything further were to happen.

In the morning, they set out back to the town, but Caleb, deciding to make the journey despite his injury, met them halfway. After being told about the copper vein, they all headed back to Joe's farm so that Billy could ask permission to take a piece to examine in town. During the ensuing discussion, the players learned that Joe had recently taken ownership of the farm from his uncle's will, and that there were a number of boxes of Joe's uncle's papers in the attic. Deciding that examining these might prove useful, the player grabbed a few of the many boxes of papers and started going through them. Caleb found a stash of apparently occult manuscripts written in German, but the rest of the papers they were able to examine before it got dark were of less interest. As the sun was starting to set, Clem noticed the glow of a fire in the fields!

As the farming family scrambled to prepare buckets and the water-cart, Caleb called on the weather to bring rain to help extinguish the fire before it could spread to do much damage. Between the rain, the fact that it still wasn't quite harvest time, and the water-cart, the fire ended up burning less than an acre of the wheat crop. The players surmised that the inopportune conditions for burning the fields might indicate that whoever was behind it may have been rushed to action, perhaps by their presence. At this point, we decided to break off the session. We'll next meet the week after the Fourth of July.

Overall, the players seem to be happy with the story and I'm certainly having fun slowly doling out clues about what is happening. I'm still not happy with my incomplete mastery of the rules, but I am also letting myself make mistakes so that I can learn from them.