Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How To Be A Writer

I'm going to be participating in NaNoWriMo this year, so don't expect a whole lot of posting from me in the next 30 days. I'm going to try to post something here, but I've never done this before so I don't know how much time and thought I will have available for other things like this blog. I do have Goth of the Week posts queued up for the next few weeks, so at least those will show up. Maybe I'll make posts about how many words I've written, but I can't guarantee that.

I've got a lot of resources available to me, from books about the specific contest (one written by the founder of NaNoWriMo, actually, which is basically a motivational seminar in book form - very helpful, actually, as far as I can see) to books on plot - and gaming tools like S. John Ross's Big List of RPG Plots and Mythic Game Master Emulator. Writing a novel in this way is actually rather like the improvisation involved in gaming, where I won't know at the start how everything is going to go, except perhaps in vague outline.

One of the important "rules" of NaNoWriMo (there's really only one rule: WRITE!) is to let yourself suck. Shut off the inner editor and just get words on paper. I've joked that I plan to spend the whole month writing "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." over and over, but I don't have the ability to live in an empty hotel for the month.

I also plan to keep up a schedule of watching TV and movies on occasion (hooray for Netflix), in order to keep my creative juices flowing through inspiration from other sources. My goal in this is to work on stylistic issues, so hackneyed plotting, cardboard characters, and hokey situations are perfectly acceptable.

Anyway, the idea of letting yourself suck may also be a useful idea for gaming. It's all too easy to work on setting and adventure until the end of time. For it to be played, which is pretty much the point of a gaming setting or adventure, it has to be let go. Everything can be prettied up at the table, after all, just as the novel gets prettied up in the rewriting phase. (How's that for a cheap attempt to shoehorn gaming content into this post?) The point is that the way to be a writer is to write, just as the way to be a gamer is to play games.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Experience Points

Every once in awhile, discussion about experience points resurfaces. I don't think I'll bother with the main discussion (which is about experience for exploration), though I will point out Talysman's post on the subject. Instead, I'll just lay out what I think should be included in experience points for D&D-like games (and some of these can be raided and modified for games that use different experience point values), as well as games like Pendragon that use similar values but call them something else (Glory, in Pendragon).

First, it should be understood that experience points are pretty much the same thing as victory points in wargames and miniatures games. What they represent in games can vary, but my own take is that they are a measure of the character's significance in the world. So, I can have my experience point awards disconnected from the things that would make a person better in our world, such as training or practice, in favor of things that make a character more interesting.

So, let's start with the traditional ones: 1 experience point per money unit acquired (gold pieces or whatever; I like the silver standard, so it would be per silver penny in my games) and 100 per hit die of foes defeated (modified by special powers).

Now, "defeating foes" can be expanded to mean more than just killing them in combat. Rescuing someone can give experience points based on the level/hit dice of the rescued party. Turned undead can be treated as defeated foes. Convincing a character or creature to do something significant by non-magical means can also be treated as defeating a foe. This wouldn't be something like "convincing" a merchant to sell you something, but perhaps convincing a king to go to war would fall into this category.

Experience for treasure gathered should only be given when the character spends the money for goods or services. In addition, some expenditures that give no direct benefits in game terms should give extra experience points, such as Jeff Rients's Carousing rules or Claytonian's variations (including Martial Training, Holy Sacrifices, and Esoteric Research).

Next, experience should be given for travel. Talysman's system at the link above seems a little complicated for my tastes, so I'd probably just go with giving experience for each map hex entered for the first time by that character, at a rate of 5 experience points per 5 mile hex or 6 per 6 mile hex (or 3 per 1 league hex, if I'm using that scale instead, as seems likely). I don't think that exploration of dungeons needs any specific experience award, since the value of such locations is based on defeating the foes and gathering the treasures within.

On the other hand, some locations should be worth an experience bonus just for visiting them. The Referee should set a value for various locations from 100 to 1000 experience points, with more given for more famous, powerful, sacred, beautiful, remote, or whatever sites. Going to the site and spending at least a day in the immediate vicinity (which implies sightseeing, examining, exploring, and so on) gains the experience bonus, but each site can only give its bonus once to a particular character. These bonuses should be made known to the players when the site is made known to them, so that the players can make rational choices about searching out such sites. That said, some sites might give experience points when discovered, if the discovery is also the first time the characters (and their players) hear of the site. This experience point bonus might completely replace the travel bonus of the above paragraph, or it might be in addition to it.

Training under a famous master should give an experience point bonus. Finding such a master and studying under him or her for 1d3 months gains a bonus of 50 experience points per level of the master. Special masters can increase that bonus at the Referee's discretion, up to 100 experience points per level of the master, but may require certain prerequisites from the character, while inappropriate masters cannot train a character at all. For instance, a tengu might give 50 experience points per hit die to normal fighter-type characters (if such a character can convince the tengu to train him at all), but 100 experience points per hit die to a kensai or shugenja (being character types closely associated with tengu in folklore). Meanwhile, a famous mage cannot train a fighter at all, but only magician characters. Keep in mind that this is not normal training, but training under a famous master of the art. As such, it should be difficult to gain such training, either because the master is remote, already has many students, or whatever. The character has to earn this training by dint of effort (whether just getting there or convincing the master of his worthiness).

Success at competitive activities should gain experience points, depending on the contest. Winning a race gives maybe 100 experience points (or less, for a minor race), while being champion of a tournament might give 1000 experience points, plus the value of defeated foes. Higher values go to the more prestigious contests. This might also apply to elections, so that someone elected to office might gain experience points based on the significance of the office.

Special minigames might give experience points, as well, such as in a romance minigame which might give experience points for succeeding at various stages of wooing a mate.

What are some other objective goals that might give experience points?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Goth of the Week: Halloween Edition

Happy Halloween! Thanks to Erin Palette! I've no idea where she found it.

Request For Assistance

If anyone out there has an "in" with, could you let them know two things for me, please? First, I am completely unable to post through their current Captcha system - all of my attempts, no matter how carefully I match the Captcha, come out as failed attempts. Second, there is another megadungeon out there which I've just learned about, The Dungeon Under the Mountain, a ten-level systemless megadungeon.

Edited to add: Over at Dreams in the Lich House, Beedo has something to say that should be of interest to the megadungeon crowd.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Obscure Games: Realms of the Unknown

I haven't done one of these in a little while, so it's time for a review of another obscure game that hardly anyone but me has heard of. This time, Realms of the Unknown, a strange little game that came out in 1991. Written by Timothy A. Dohrer and Gerry Evenwel III, they claim that it had been developed and playtested over the previous 10 years, so I imagine that it was first played in 1980 or so. In their introductory notes, they claim that hundreds of people had played the game, and that for all that time the rules were never written down. I can certainly believe that, but it does seem to indicate that a number of the more complex parts of the game (such as the more advanced mass combat rules) must have been written specifically for the published game.

Anyway, the idea of the game is that the players each represent a single city or other population group (I think of them as clans or small tribes). It's never spelled out explicitly, but I imagine that the players specifically represent the gestalt of all the rulers and other influential people of the population group. In the basic game, each player is given a sheet which details the various resources to which they have access, such as population (divided initially into "men" and "protected population", 35% the former and 65% the latter), food, raw materials such as animals or minerals, and manufactured goods such as weapons or tools. These are the resources with which the player will set out to… do whatever he likes.

There are no turns as such in the game, though time is tracked. The main suggestion is that time should pass at a rate related to real time, though at an accelerated rate. The baseline suggestion is that one week passes in the game for every 24 hour day in the real world. At any time, a player can send an Order to the Referee. Orders are of several types, though each is really just a codification of the sorts of things that can be attempted. There are Exploration Orders, Production Orders, and General Orders (which comprise everything else). An Exploration Order might be, "Send 10 men, each armed with a bow and 40 arrows, on horseback, to the east. They will carry enough food for a two-month journey. They will travel for four weeks and then return to [the City] with the information they have gathered. Their assignment is to map the area and look for any interesting resources (animals, metals, or natural). In particular, look for iron in the foothills." A Production Order is simpler, assigning some population to produce an item or items, giving the items requested, the resources required, the population assigned, and the time it should take. For instance, "100 swords, 20 iron units, 10 men, 4 weeks." A General Order might be, "Have 50 women from the Protected Population put in charge of civil defense in [the City]. They will be referred to as civil officers in times of emergency." An Order can also be defined as a "Standing Order", which will stay in effect until countermanded (though this is probably not recommended for most Production Orders).

Most Orders are adjudicated by the Referee as she prefers, but combat is covered by a mass combat system. In this, each soldier is given a basic rating of 1 (or 0.2 if Protected Population). Training and equipment multiply this number by a varying amount, so that a soldier with "Level A" training (the first level after "Untrained") has a modifier of 2.0, a Longsword has a modifier of 1.5, a Wooden Shield 0.10, and Chain Mail 1.25. The equipment values are added together, increased by 1, and multiplied by the basic level given by the type of population and level of training (it is, in fact, possible to train Protected Population as soldiers). In our example, the basic training value of 2.0 would be multiplied by 1+1.5+0.1+1.25=3.85, giving a final value per soldier of 7.7, making each such soldier a match for almost 8 untrained, unarmed men. There are then moderately complex calculations to determine how many troops are lost, how much equipment is destroyed in the battle, and so on. These involve factors ranging from the materials from which the equipment is constructed (for loss factors) to the tactical and strategic considerations of the battle (for personnel losses and victory determination). The Referee is supposed to perform these calculations, and then provide her players with the results in a more narrative form (though the results in numerical terms should also be provided, to whatever degree that they would be available to the players' populations).

Other factors covered in the game include agriculture and animal husbandry, mining and prospecting for resources, lumbering, and so on. There is a surprising amount of information covered in the two published volumes (the Player's Manual of 24 pages, and the Realm Controller's Manual of 82 pages, including index). Some of the data given I don't particularly like, myself. For instance, a unit of metal is defined as approximately a cubic foot of the material (in most cases, hundreds of pounds; for instance, a cubic foot of iron weighs about 490 pounds), while produced items take up a surprisingly large amount of the materials (a pair of Longswords, according to the rules, require all 490 pounds of iron in a unit to construct). While a certain amount of loss should be expected in manufacture, the fact remains that a Longsword weighs less than 5 pounds, making the losses in the range of 98%!

Anyway, the idea of the game is really good. There are additional rules covering technology levels, specialists (people who have advanced skills that normal people can't perform, such as Engineers or Military Commanders), population morale and health, economic strength, and other such important considerations. Various sections include more advanced (and bookkeeping-intensive) variations. There is discussion of general physical traits of populations (so that, for instance, it would be difficult to infiltrate a spy into the upper command of a racially homogenous society that appeared different from one's own people, meaning that it would have to be more indirect, such as hiring a traitor from that population to do so). There are, however, no rules for magic, other than some notes about interplanar gates between Realms, and a note that the individual Referee could include magic if she wishes. There are some useful logistical notes, such as what to do if a player needs to take a leave of absence from the game (the player should give a general outline to the Referee and let her run the population for the time of absence), how to coordinate multiple Realms connected by gates, and so on.

Like early D&D, there is much that is unexplained, much that is confusingly explained, and much that could (or even should) be house-ruled. It is, like the LBBs, a glorious mess of a game. It should have gotten more exposure, but more traditional adventure-based role-playing games were pretty strongly entrenched by the time this one came out, and players had become accustomed to more well-written and "complete" games.

How would I run it? First, I'd scrap many of their precise numbers, replacing them with factors taken from (mostly) GURPS Low-Tech and supplements, or from other games such as Chivalry & Sorcery or Pendragon that have detailed domain management rules. I'd probably replace the mass combat system with one derived from one of these other games. Other than that, though, the basic framework seems really good. It might even play better online, as a sort of play-by-email type game, with a central website providing publicly-available news about game events. After I do some other things, I might even try it.

(Images taken from

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ten Curses For Magic Items

The Hope Diamond
Over on Tenkar's Tavern, one of the commenters to a post on magic items noted:

[I]n my games… Magic swords are always intelligent, always have additional powers, always aligned, and always have Ego.

Other magic items are always cursed. They can still be used, but there's always some danger or drawback associated with them. I try not to let them feel "reliable".

I think that's an excellent idea. Magic items in stories are frequently mixed blessings at best, and this would be a good way to present that. I do think that there should be some exceptions, such as the gifts of the elves, but the idea of an item that gives a benefit but takes a toll seems quite sound to me as a way to keep the players from becoming overly powerful too quickly, to prevent the issues of "predicted power level" that recent editions of D&D have fallen prey to, and to keep magic items mysterious and full of wonder. So, here's a short list of possible minor curses that can be added to magic items:

  1. The person who carries this item has a strong scent, allowing those who track by scent to follow the path unerringly, and causing a 1 or 2 point penalty to reaction rolls in social situations.
  2. The owner suffers a 1 point penalty to all rolls related to one of: combat (excluding damage), reaction rolls, saving throws, other. If the owner tries to get rid of the item, it will mysteriously reappear on his person unless he can get another person to voluntarily take it from him.
  3. If exposed to disease, the possessor of this item has double the normal chance of contracting the disease.
  4. Unintelligent carnivores will always attack the possessor of the item, no reaction roll required. (Or, the reaction roll can be at a penalty if the Referee prefers.)
  5. 10% of any money acquired by the possessor of this item vanishes without trace. If the possessor tries to get rid of the item, it will reappear as in curse #2.
  6. The person who carries this item cannot move faster than half speed. This affects both base movement rate and movement rate modified by armor or encumbrance.
  7. If given a choice of targets, undead will choose the bearer of this item over other possibilities.
  8. Followers of anyone who has used this item in the last 30 days halve their natural loyalty value. After 30 days of not using the item, loyalty returns to normal.
  9. The possessor of the item becomes addicted to it. If it is not used in a 24 hour period, the possessor takes 1 hit point of damage. Withdrawal requires not using the item, and making a saving throw against paralyzation or poison each day for 6 consecutive days. Failing a saving throw requires starting over from zero. Hit point loss continues to occur until the addiction is broken.
  10. The item has an alignment, Ego, and purpose just as a magic sword.

There are certainly many more possibilities. If you have some, please share them in the comments, or make a post on the subject yourself. If you do, please come back here and let me know where the post is.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

That's Weird

All of the stats for this blog have been reset. I don't know how many hits this blog has received any more, nor can I see how popular individual posts are. Ah, well. Now the stats will be restarting from zero, I guess. Blogger.

OK, that's even stranger. The "Popular Posts" gadget in the sidebar still shows the posts that had the most views, and the "Total Hits" gadget is still working. Perhaps the whole thing will work itself out.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Goth of the Week

I know some fantastic women. I want to tell you something about her and her husband, but the facts would seem like an exaggeration. I'll just say one small thing: between the two of them, they can fluently speak and read more languages than I can remember.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dammit, Kickstarter!

OK, so I had pretty much decided that I wouldn't back any more Kickstarters until next year at least. They are pretty easy to promise money to, and they end up being like popcorn. It's hard to stop once you start, and there's always the risk factor involved. Still, I like the concept, and now a Kickstarter has come around that I feel like I need to risk.

So, Kevin Crawford of Stars Without Number has a new project that he's setting up, called Spears of the Dawn. It's an old-school RPG set in a fantasy Africa, so the setting is immediately interesting and different. It breaks the common wisdom that gamers won't buy fantasy that isn't basically either European or Japanese (and rarely Chinese). I love that. It breaks the common wisdom that gamers only want to see white people in the art. I love that. It is going to release all of the art used in the game to the public domain, so that other games can use it. I love that. That's three points in its favor, so it already has a step up over traditionally published games, and much more so over Kickstarter games.

Then there are the other points in its favor. The game is already written, so there won't be a long wait for that to happen, with all of the uncertainty involved in creatives. It's also mostly laid out, so it should go to print pretty quickly once the last of the art is incorporated and paid for (which is the point of the Kickstarter).

With all of that going for it, I just couldn't resist kicking in for one more Kickstarter this year. Maybe you'll want to, as well.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

How To Make A Superhero

When I am writing up the FBI Guide entries, I have a process that makes the whole thing go by more quickly. As I noted in the comments to the entry on Rainbow, my process is basically to roll up the stats, pick a set of powers that fits the character role in my head, roll the values of the powers, and figure out the rest per the V&V rules. It's amazing how quickly that goes, actually. The thing is, though, that there is more to the process than the simple mechanics of making a character. Each one has to fit into the world that exists (primarily) in my head.

The first thing I do, actually, is make a list of names, basic power outlines, and so on. I try to alternate male and female characters (and if I can't for whatever reason, I work hard to make it up in subsequent entries). Sometimes, the name will inspire the powers, sometimes it is the power group that occasions the name. A few of the characters are inspired by specific photos, by characters from comics or movies, from other games, or even a few taken from V&V materials directly (I probably won't be posting those here, though, since I doubt that it's legit to simply take the already published stats and republish them here; the names are in the first FBI Guide entry, though). Occasionally, I delete one or more if I come to think that they won't fit the tone of the world. For instance, I recently removed one Davy Jones from the list because I didn't want to deal with the implications of more than one death-bringer (spoiler!) If I haven't based the character on a picture, then this is the point where I hunt around to find one. Google's image search is the most important tool here.

Have you noticed what's missing yet? The detailed background of the character is, to my way of thinking, one of the least important elements in a superhero setting. The characters are, more than in most settings, symbols. As a result, there may be some broad aspects of their backgrounds that are important (but not necessarily!), but the details can be filled in almost at whim. So, the last step is to write up some kind of history for the character. This may also include figuring out the mundane name of the character, since that is usually not nearly as important as the code name given by the FBI Guide writers.

So, what I'm saying is that superpowered characters are more like metaphors, and this is reflected in the way that I create them and integrate them into the setting.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

[Other Blogs]A Tremendous Harvest!

Haha! My phone camera sucks.
Well, and the lighting is bad.
Wow! Not only was there an excellent article about story games for me to link to today, there's also this article comparing old school and newer gaming styles through a fortunate instance of having a precise parallel example of play. I love it when there's a lot of interesting discussion about gaming out there.

[Other Blogs]Tour des Coeurs

Every once in awhile  I point to someone else's blog because I think that they address an issue in a better way than I could. This is one of those times.