Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Little Realization About Tolkien's Mythopoeia

I've had this wonderful book, The Tolkien Reader for years and years. I bought it originally to read the utterly charming story of "Farmer Giles of Ham" and "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil". I never bothered to read "the boring stuff". What a pity!

As it happens I ran into a post the other day mentioning that an essay by Tolkien named "On Fairy Stories" was well worth a read, and when I went to find it on the INtArWeBz for whatever reason I was unable to find a copy of it that wouldn't have cost me two legs and an ear. I despaired of finding it easily or cheaply.  I decided just now to try again and located a free PDF of On Fairy Stories on my first try - I have no idea what happened months ago when I searched for it the first time. Be that as it may, when I first tried to find it several months ago I couldn't find a copy for less than $55 and I had despaired of reading the essay any time in the foreseeable future.

However, a month or so later an unrelated thread mentioned something interesting about Tom Bombadil which brought me back to my copy of "The Tolkien Reader" and as I was browsing through the book I noticed the heading of some of the pages which read "On Fairy Stories".  I never took notice of it before. In this edition "On Fairy Stories" happens to not be listed in the table of contents, and so I completely missed that it is in there at all, and I should probably say that I don't think I would have much cared even if I had noticed it.  When I bought the book originally I was looking for inspiration for Characters, and was entirely focused on Farmer Giles and Tom Bombadil, and not on some stuffy essay, even if it was by Tolkien himself. And yet, to my delight there it is. How lovely! How many years this book sat on my shelf with this fabulous essay in it waiting for me I can not say. Many many.

Of course I started reading it immediately. Now, while the essay itself is fascinating to be sure, I'm really only two pages in at this moment, but the thing that really sent my mind whirling, and the cause of this blog post, was to be found in Tolkien's 'Introductory Notes' of the essay, in which he wrote:

"They ['The Tree and Leaf' and 'On Fairy Stories'] were also written in the same period (1938-39) when 'The Lord of the Rings' was beginning to unroll itself and to unfold prospects of labor and exploration in yet unknown country as daunting to me as to the hobbits. At about that time we had reached Bree, and I had no more notion than they had of what had become of Gandalf or who Strider was; I had begun to despair of surviving to find out."

What is this?! Why, I had always been under the impression that Middle Earth had been completely created in Tolkien's mind in the full glory of the Silmarillion by the time he'd started writing the Lord of the Rings. I imagined that it sprung from his mind like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully grown, clothed and armored! Of course I had no basis for that belief I realize now. I guess it was an assumption based simply on my recollection of the entirety of the story fitting so well together like a hand in a glove. It seemed to me that he must of written it after all of the facts of Arda were well known to him. And yet, here we are in 1938-9 during his first writing of the adventures of Frodo and his friends having just reached Bree, and at this point Tolkien doesn't even know who Strider was or where Gandalf had gone off to! Well, well, well. That's a huge and happy surprise to me.

For those who might like a wee bit of a refresher on the sequence of Frodo's Adventure* thus far it is as follows (just for fun):

4/12: Gandalf arrives at Bag End.
4/13: Frodo learns he has the One Ring and decides to leave the Shire.
9/22: Frodo turns 50.
9/23: Frodo leaves Bag End.
9/24: Frodo is nearly caught twice by one of the Nazgul and meets Gildor in the Woody End.
9/25: Frodo learns of his friends' intention to accompany him.
9/26: Frodo and his companions travel through the Old Forest and come to the House of Tom Bombadil.
9/28: The Hobbits are trapped by a Barrow-wight. Frodo resists putting on the Ring.
9/29: Frodo meets Aragorn in Bree.

None of which is germane to my realization in particular, by the way, so I will veer back to my point before I get lost in the details of Frodo's journey, or worse, the grand sweep of the history of Middle Earth itself.

What I find so interesting, actually, is the realization that while Tolkien was writing, he considered himself to be a fellow traveler within his own world, exploring and discovering it at the same rate and pace as his main characters. Really? Why, that's much the same way I have been discovering and exploring my own World of Elthos all these years! I had no idea! In fact, I thought all along for these many years that I was doing it quite wrong, and that should good old Tolkien find himself gazing over my shoulder from his lofty perch in the heavens, he would have frowned with furrowed eyebrows at my sloppy and faulty method of Mythopoeia (what I commonly refer to as World Weaving).  Instead, I know now that he would have been beaming brightly, as we share a common methodology for World Weaving after all.  I follow along with my players as they explore my world, too, and sometimes we all discover certain things about it at the same moment.  Which of course is quite a bit of the fun of the thing.

On the other hand, I have to say that a lot of Elthos is already structurally there in my notes or in my mind.  But there are vast areas that remain unknown to me, waiting to be explored.  In fact, it was because I was curious about the region north of Glendale, a trickly little place named Hobbington, of which I knew only a scant few facts, that the campaign began back in 2009.  And we've discovered quite a lot about it since then, I can say.  And it's been a great deal of fun.

One of the things that I like about this method of Mythopoeia is that I have often found wonderful bits of what have felt like mystical serendipity while World Weaving along side the players.  It's always rather exciting with "Aha!" and "Oh my goodness, wow!", although I will be the first to admit, it is also rather risky in its own way. There is, after all, the ever-lurking problem of Story-Errors that I may accidentally introduce as I go along.  What if should I forget some important connection that I thought of while driving to shop for dinner three days earlier (yes, that happened while playing my last game session)?  Or perhaps I might inadvertently create a conflicting set of facts at some point without realizing it? This can happen when you approach your world as a living breathing thing that you are co-discovering with your players while you play the game.  Unlike dear Tolkien who could go back and re-write back in what he forgot, we must make due as best we can with the error as it happens. Perhaps the story heads off on an entirely unexpected direction (it often does). Or perhaps we can mend things with a little bit of story-glue to patch over the error (which is what I did that last time).  The risk is that we must edit the thing live during play.  Revisions are difficult and fraught with problems. The greatest of which is that our players might get the idea that we don't really know what's going on - heaven forbid!

Either way, what is so great and grand and lovely about all of this, for me, is that idea that my Mythopoeia is actually quite a bit more like Tolkien's than I ever imagined.  I always had this notion in the back of my mind that the entire world should be fully fleshed out well in advance, with all the histories of the Gods and Races well rehearsed in the GMs mind before the players ever step foot on the World.  Well, I thought, if you want to do it "right", anyway - the way Tolkien did.  How much comfort it gives me to know I was wrong about that!

So for GM's who are embarked on the quest of Mythopoeia I want to let you know that the Grand Master and founder of the art, J.R. Tolkien himself, went about it as an exploration and discovery while following along side his main characters during the course of their adventures. And it turned out gloriously in the end, didn't it? So take heart, and forge ahead! Grand things await if you are patient, not too hard on yourself, and keep your eyes peeled for those wonderful serendipities that come along now and then. Carry on my fellow travelers, carry on!


* - A Timeline of Frodo's Journey

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Dragon God's Head

A recent drawing I have completed for the Elthos RPG Core Rules Book. Came out pretty nice, so I thought I'd share it here. :)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Notes on OD&D - Part 29

So, where were we? OMG... it's been how long since my last post?! WOW! Time is absolutely ZOOMING! Ok Ok. Well, nothing to do now but carry on where we left off last time. Here we go. On to the next and final batch of 6th Level Spells!

Men & Magic
  • p31 - Explanation of Spells - 6th Level

Death Spell: An incantation which kills from 2-16 creatures with fewer than seven hit dice. The creatures must be within the area of 6" (180') x 6" to come under the spell. Range: 24" (720').

Short and sweet. I think it is safe to say that this is the Ultimate Weapon for MUs in the Original D&D arsenal. So lets look under the hood at the tiny but powerful engine there. Under 7 hit dice, eh? What's that give us? Let's take a look*:

Less than 1 HD
Archaeopteryx
Bat, Normal
Bee, Giant
Centipede, Giant, Black
Centipede, Giant, Pink
Falcon
Rat, Normal
Rat, Giant
Skeleton, Animal, Small
Snake, Viper

1 HD
Bird-Man
Deer, Red
Dog, Hunting
Dog, Wild
Man, Bandit
Oon
Orc
Skeleton
Skeleton, Animal, Medium
Snake, Cobra
Stirge

1+ HD
Ape-Man
Beetle, Giant, Fire
Cave-Man
Ferret, Giant
Man, Wild Berserker

2 HD
Bat, Giant
Deer, Reindeer
Dog, War
Ghoul
Green Slime
Horse, Donkey, Mule, or Pony
Horse, Riding or Wild
Mustard Mold
Oon (2nd level)
Orc, Lieutenant
Snake, Asp
Snake, Rattlesnake
Spider, Giant Crab
Troglodyte
Zombie

2+ HD
Ape-Man (2nd level)
Beetle, Giant, Bombardier
Camel, Bactrian
Camel, Dromedary
Camel, Leaper
Fish-Man
Horse, Light Warhorse
Hyaena-Man
Lizard-Man
Snake-Man
Wolf

3 HD
Crab, Giant
Frog, Giant
Fungus, Shrieker
Fungus, Violet
Harpy
Horse, Draught
Hyaena, Common
Lion, Mountain
Lycanthrope, Wererat
Man, Bandit, Lieutenant
Musk Ox
Oon (3rd level)
Orc, Captain
Skeleton, Large
Snake, Python
Snake, Giant Water
Spider, Giant Black Widow
Spider, Giant Ogre-Faced
Tick, Giant
Wolverine

3+ HD
Ape-Man (3rd level)
Ape-Man Alpha
Bear, Black
Boar
Cave-Man, Sub-Chief
Crab-Man
Dwarf
Grey Ooze
Horse, Heavy Warhorse
Man, Wild Berserker, Sub-Chief
Pegasus
Pterodactyl
Shadow
Snake-Man (2nd level)
Spider, Giant Trapdoor
Spore-Man
Toad, Giant
Vhuurmis

4 HD
Ant, Giant
Ape, Albino
Aurochs
Blink Dog
Deer, Giant Elk
Gargoyle
Gelatinous Cube
Ghast
Lycanthrope, Werewolf
Night-Gaunt
Oon (4th level)
Scorpion, Giant
Spider, Giant Wolf
Wight

4+ HD
Ape, Mountain
Ape-Man (4th level)
Eagle, Giant
Fish-Man, Sub-Chief
Gibbering Mouther
Gorgon
Hippogriff
Hyaena-Man, Leader
Lizard, Giant Draco
Lizard-Man, Sub-Chief
Snake-Man (3rd level)
Snowman, Abominable
Weasel, Giant
Wolf, Dire
Wolverine, Giant

5 HD
Ape, Carnivorous
Cockatrice
Crocodile
Eel, Electric
Hell Hound
Hyaena, Giant
Hydra, Aqua-Hydra (5 heads)
Hydra, Pyro-Hydra (5 heads)
Leech, Giant
Lion
Lizard, Giant Chameleon
Man, Bandit, Captain
Man of Leng
Ochre Jelly
Oon (5th level)
Orc, Chieftain
Owl Bear
Rust Monster
Skeleton, Animal, Large
Slithering Slime
Snake, Giant Python
Tentacular Horror
Troglodyte, Chieftain

5+ HD
Ape-Man (5th level)
Bear, Brown
Cave-Man, Chieftain
Man, Wild Berserker, Chieftain
Snake-Man (4th level)
Spider, Giant Phase
Wraith

6 HD
Beetle, Giant, Stag
Cloaker
Lizard, Giant Tuatara
Lotus Woman
Lycanthrope, Werewolf, Superior
Manticore
Oon (6th level)
Shark, Great White
Skeleton, Giant
Snake, Giant Asp
Tiger
Whale, Killer
Wolf, Winter

6+ HD
Ape-Man (6th level)
Basilisk
Daemon, Succubus
Elder Thing
Gorgon, Greater
Lizard-Man, Chieftain
Mi-Go
Minotaur
Mummy
Nightmare
Snake-Man (5th level)
Snowman, Abominable, Alpha
Troll

RIGHT-O. THAT IS SOLID, BRO!!

But to be complete, lets take a look at what that doesn't cover as well. Here we go:

7 HD
Ghost, Banshee
Griffin
Hydra, Aqua-Hydra (7 heads)
Hydra, Pyro-Hydra (7 heads)
Lizard, Giant Komodo Dragon
Oon (7th level)
Otyugh

7+ HD
Ape-Man (7th level)
Bear, Polar
Fish-Man, Chieftain
Snake-Man (6th level)
Spectre
Wyvern

8 HD

Aboleth
Ape, Albino, Superior
Daemon, Class I
Daemon, Class V
Elemental, Air, Class I
Elemental, Earth, Class I
Elemental, Fire, Class I
Elemental, Water, Class I
Fomorian
Invisible Stalker
Octopus, Giant
Oon (8th level)
Salamander, Fire
Snake, Giant Cobra
Tiger, Sabre-Tooth
Tree-Man, Adult
Will-o’-Wisp

8+ HD
Ape-Man (8th level)
Bear, Cave
Snake-Man (7th level)

9 HD
Chimaera
Daemon, Class II
Daemon, Swine
Hydra, Aqua-Hydra (9 heads)
Hydra, Pyro-Hydra (9 heads)
Lamia
Oon (9th level)
Salamander, Ice
Whale, Narwhale

9+ HD
Ape-Man (9th level)
Automaton, Flesh
Ghul
Snake-Man (8th level)
Vampire

10 HD
Black Pudding
Colour Out of Space
Daemon, Class III
Fomorian, Chieftain
Ghost
Giant, Frost
Great Race
Oon (10th level)
Remorhaz
Rhinoceros, Woolly
Roper
Shambling Mound
Thew Wagon
Tiger, Sabre-Tooth, Superior

10+ HD
Ape-Man (10th level)
Minotaur, Superior
Minotron
Snake-Man (9th level)

11 HD
Daemon, Class IV
Giant, Fire
Oon (11th level)

11+ HD
Ape-Man (11th level)
Automaton, Clay
Snake-Man (10th level)

12 HD
Aerial Minion
Behir
Crocodile, Giant
Cyclops
Elemental, Air, Class II
Elemental, Earth, Class II
Elemental, Fire, Class II
Elemental, Water, Class II
Lich
Mammoth, Woolly
Naga
Oon (12th level)
Shoggoth
Sloth, Ground
Slug, Giant
Squid, Giant
Tree-Man, Old

12+ HD
Ape-Man (12th level)
Snake-Man (11th level)

13 HD
Daemon, Class VI

14 HD
Giant, Frost, Jarl
Purple Worm

14+ HD
Automaton, Stone

15 HD
Crab, Monstrous
Giant, Fire, Jarl

16 HD
Elemental, Air, Class III
Elemental, Earth, Class III
Elemental, Fire, Class III
Elemental, Water, Class III
Mammoth, Woolly, Superior
Sea Serpent
Tree-Man, Ancient

16+ HD
Automaton, Iron

18 HD
Squid, Colossal
Whale, Blue

... um wait. Uh. That's a shiton of monsters that the very Best of the MU class can't touch with this. I mean that's A LOT OF MONSTERS the World Famous MU with the Shaznitz Death Spell can't even scratch with the thing. Better not bring him along for those Epic Level adventures, then cause, well, he's going to be pretty embarrassed, don't you think?

Ok kidding aside, this is a solid and lethal offensive spell that will crush 2d8 trolls in a flash. We can't sccoff. That's baddass to be sure. That it won't scratch a Monstrous Crab or a Fire Giant, or even a Griffin is perhaps a frustration on those higher level adventures to be sure, but should we really balk at that? I'm not sure. I would imagine that combinations of other MU spells can handle pretty much anything the system can throw at our hapless party. Or so I would expect. But maybe not. After all, what do you do when you're on the high seas and you encounter a 18 HD colossal squid? There you are, sea sick next to the fore mast watching the tentacles from the sea scooping up men 4 at a time and dragging them to the briny depths. You look forlornly at the party MU, and he looks forlornly back. There you both are... seasick, helpless and then the colossus crushes the hull for good measure. Maybe you have a Beowulf with you and he leaps into the sea to do battle with the great beast of the deep. If not, well, I dunno how you deal with it. Well, of course that's not really the case. The MU casts Lightning Bolt which does as many dice damage as the MU's level. So if the MU is 18th Level then hell with it - that thing is not going to want to mess with our ship for long. And if that doesn't do the trick he can then cast FireBall of the equivalent damage. And if that doesn't seem to do the trick, why not use the old Hold Monster trick? There you go. And if all else fails, our friendly neighborhood MU can fly away. Hey, at least someone gets to survive and tell the tale. But as far as Death Spell goes... well, for higher level monsters it's a wash, but lethal and a half for the entire lower level monster set. I'm good with that, frankly.

I rate this spell 5 Stars out of 5 for lethal effectiveness. Yup. I take this spell fo shizzle!

Next!

Geas: A spell which forces the recipient to perform some task (as directed by the Magic User casting the Geas). Any attempt to deviate from the performance of the task will result in weakness, and ignoring the Geas entirely brings death. The referee must carefully adjudicate the casting and subsequent performance of the geased individual when the spell is used. Duration; Until the task is completed. Range: 3" (90').

Mmmm... that is pretty nasty. It's not a charm where the person has no control over their own actions, but if you don't obey, you die. Nice. The Range is a bit short so you better get that Geas off before the recipient can reach you, I suppose, or you might wind up with a sword in yer gizzard, wizard. But still, lets assume that Geases are given to those who are somewhat willing to accept them. In mythology it was pretty much something that old withered hags handed out that put Kings and Heroes in an awkward position. Things like "You may never eat dog meat". And meanwhile there might be a general taboo against refusing hospitality as a guest in someone's home. This is pretty much what happened to CĂș Chulainn, and it didn't go well for him. So in the sense of tradition this spell is something used by the subtle and the wise to thwart the ambitions of the proud and the powerful... or something along those lines. Anyway, for the blunt and the ruthless there is always Charm, which kind of works a little more succinctly, in my opinion. And then there's Hold Person as well. I'm not sure why I would rather choose Geas over Charm, actually. But heck, it's kind of cool in an old worldish sort of way. I'm down with it. But it doesn't seem that essential. Take it if you want to be more classically in tune with the mystical woah and travail of it all, I suppose.

I rate this spell 3 Stars for usefulness.

Next!

Disintegrate: This spell will cause material of any kind - other than that of a magical nature - to Disintegrate(!!!). It will blast a tree, dragon (if it fails to make its saving through against magic), wall section, or whatever. Range 6" (180')
.

Woah! Ok, Colossal Squid, that's it - you are toast! Or not toast. You're un-toast! Ok, you get the idea. Now THIS is the ultimate weapon of the Magic User against all things Higher Level than 7 HD. Of course you have to get past that pesky Saving Throw. Let's check that out, shall we? So let's posit our 18th Level MU. He's a total badass with Disintegrate. Here comes the colossal squid. So how do we determine what the saving throw for our colossal squid vs Disintegrate is? We don't. It's not specified in the rules. Later editions and commentaries however come to the rescue. An article of the Strategic Review, 1975, explains that:
Saving throws for monsters are the same as for the appropriate type and level of man, i.e. a balrog would gain the saving throw of either a 10th level fighter or a 12th level magic-user (the latter based upon the balrog’s magic resistance), whichever score is the more favorable for the balrog. A troll would be equal to a 7th level fighter as it has 6 dice +3, virtually seven dice.**
So there we have it. 18th Level Fighter Saving Throw vs Magic = 8 or better on a 20 sided die = 60% chance to make the save. ***

On the other hand, in the same thread it states that in Chainmail, which is mechanically fused to OD&D, the rule for saving throws was that monsters get no saving throws vs magic unless specified in their descriptions. So in this case our Colossal Squid ... is not described per se in the OD&D books, nor in Chainmail. So we should probably conclude that it goes under the heading of Sea Monsters, and these do not get a specific Saving Throw in the rules book.

Whww. So yeah. Good bye Mr. Squid. You are UN-TOAST.

I rate this spell 5 Stars for effectiveness. Take it! You can't go wrong.

Next!

Move Earth: When above ground the Magic User may utilize this spell to move prominences such as hills or ridges. The spell takes one turn to go into effect. The terrain affected will move at the rate of 6" (180') per turn. Duration: 6 turns. Range 24" (720').

Ok. Yes. That's hefty. When you need to remove a wall from yonder fortification during your honorable King's next war... this is your spell, bro. I'm sure the ingenuity of our Magic Users knows no bounds when it comes to this spell. I see nothing wrong with it, and it probably comes in quite handy at times.

I rate this spell 5 Stars for usefulness.

Next (and last)!

Control Weather: The Magic User can perform any one of the following weather control operations with this spell: Rain, Stop Rain, Cold Wave, Heat Wave, Tornado, Stop Tornado, Deep Clouds, Clear Sky.


Hey, any Magic User worth his salt should be able to control the weather, right? And heck it comes with Tornado! The only question is ... what does Tornado DO, exactly? Not defined. So that leaves it up to the GM to decide. But really, no matter what, a Tornado is a hell of a thing to throw at your opponents. And besides, being able to make it rain... that's a life saver for many peoples in the world. I'd say this is worth taking in order to firmly establish your street cred as a Magic User of no-small import in the world. Go for it.

I rate this spell 4 Stars for usefulness.

And that concludes my coverage and commentary on the Spells of OD&D.  Next up: Clerical Spells!

References:

* - Monster list ruthlessly pilfered from http://odd74.proboards.com/thread/8502/list-monsters-hit-dice

** - Quote obtained from: http://odd74.proboards.com/thread/2826

*** - Saving Throws: https://elthosrpg.blogspot.com/2015/11/notes-on-od-part-13.html

The Elthos Project

Well, it feels like only a few days have passed, but in fact it's been months of hard work. The Elthos Project is a vast and sprawling concept that includes not only the lovely Elthos RPG Core Rules Book (PDF), but also the Mythos Machine web application. The two of them together comprise the heart of the project. And yet there's more to it than that. The project also embodies the concept of Professional Gamesmastering, as well as the Literary Role Playing Games, for which I have founded two Societies. The two are related in that Professional GMs will probably want to include the Literary RPG skills in their tool set, but not all GMs who desire those skills will necessarily wish to go Pro with them. So I have kept the two concept separated, despite the additional complexity in terms of organization.

The Elthos Project is a broad and expensive idea that seeks to cover a lot of territory. In order to pull this off I have a broad front strategy by which I seek to make incremental progress one step at a time on all four fronts. The purpose, overall, is to help the hobby to grow and mature into something that is not only fun for geeks and people who like funny dice, but for everyone who likes a good story. And that's a much wider audience. But how to get from here to there? Well, my plan has four parts.

The first is to create a simplified traditional rules system that is flexible, and generic enough to support as many kinds of Worlds and Genres as possible. To the degree possible I want to do so without losing the foundations of the game, which is, for those who don't know, the old fashioned tactical wargame from which D&D emerged in the late 1960's and early 70's, of which Chainmail by Gygax and Arneson is the primary and best known example. My goal for the Elthos RPG is to fuse the best elements of traditional wargaming with those of story based gaming.   Hence it is focused on fast action game play, and a rich yet simple Character generation system.

The second part of the plan is to provide with that rules system a unified GM prep utility in the form of the Mythos Machine. It has as it's foundation the Elthos RPG rules system, and allows GMs to both create and maintain their Worlds, Adventures and Characters in a centralized location online. It also allows players to create their Characters there, and provides them with all of the Character related tools they need to maintain their character's equipment, skills, powers, histories and perspectives. Thus the Mythos Machine provides comprehensive support for the Elthos RPG.

What the Mythos Machine does not try to do at this point is what other online services are doing in terms of providing play interfaces, such as Roll20. It leaves the battle mapping to others who are providing those services. That said, lately I have been experimenting with Tabletop Simulator and it looks very promising for allowing me to build feature rich 3D interface functionality between it and the Mythos Machine and I'm evaluating doing so at this time. So stay tuned for those developments as I think that this may well be the future direction we take.

Thirdly on my plan is the Literary RPG Society which has a focus on exploring methods for enhanced story telling via RPGs. No, I do not mean so-called "Story Games" which has taken on a hugely political taint in the world of RPGs. Instead what I mean is that traditional RPGs can, despite accusations of the opposite, provide rich story telling and our goal is to demonstrate how, and why. What makes RPGs different than their Wargame cousins, in fact, is the story aspect of the game. This dates back to the division between Gygax and Arneson at the foundations of the hobby, and has been a bone of contention between two factions of the community ever since. What the LRPGS hopes to accomplish is to reunite the two disparate points of view with the claim that, yes, you can have the best of both worlds. And we are in the business of seeking ways of doing so. I believe I've had some wonderful successes in this endeavor and so it is my firm belief that it is not only possible, but hugely beneficial to the enjoyment of the hobby. Is the story aspect necessary for RPGs? No, not at all, and that's a proven fact. But can it enhance the enjoyment of RPGs? Yes, I certainly believe so. And the point of this is that by expanding into this domain, wisely and without political rancor, we can improve the hobby and expand it to a wider audience. Examples of this are abounding at this point, as we can see a new modality of play is emerging on the scene in the form of Live Streaming of games. What makes these compelling, when they are compelling, is the story aspect and character interplay in these productions. I think there's a huge amount of potential in this category and the LRPGS hopes to help people realise it.

Lastly is the most controversial of my project plans. The Professional GM Society. None of the other aspects will raise as many eyebrows as this one, I suspect, once it gets going. Right now we have a community of almost 200 GMs who are all in various ways endeavoring to bring themselves up to the professional level of Gamemastering and charging for their services. A lot of players out there will probably be alarmed by this development. On that I have two things to say: 1) the GM typically puts in a huge amount of work into their world that you enjoy the fruits of and should probably help to contribute to if you want to see higher quality games at your table. 2) the PGMS is specifically shying away from the proposition that we should try to convert existing players over to for-pay clients of our games. Nope. We realize that is a losing proposition and our conclusion has been that we won't be attempting it. So players who are playing for free now should expect to remain safely ensconced for a long time to come. However, to argue that GMs should never get paid for their services is not something we GMs of the PGMS can agree to. For one thing every other art form has professionals who provide top quality way-above-average services for a fee. And some make quite good money at it. And they all started at one time as hobbies. Music? Painting? Poetry? Literature? Film? Yup, all started once upon a time as hobbies. We see no difference between this and GMing, except that GMing is newer than the rest of them. And we feel that now is the time to step up and professionalize our skill such that for-pay RPGing becomes a thing. At least for some GMs who are willing to put in the effort and take the risk.

Perhaps you can see how all four of these aspects form one comprehensive whole which is the Elthos Project. I hope you will help me in bringing this to life by giving the Elthos RPG a chance and checking out the Mythos Machine.

The current status is that we are almost finished with the Core Rules Book and will be selling it on DriveThruRPG, and possibly on Lulu and Amazon (TBD). I don't expect it to cost a lot, but we wont be giving it away for PWYW either. We need money to make the Elthos Project come to life, and the Core Rules book is intended to help subsidize the project, and we're hoping that people will be willing to chip in by paying the modest price for the Rules Book. Conversely, if you find yourself wondering how you can make a bigger contribution (you might actually think this entire concept is worth supporting) then please take note of the handy "Sponsor" section on the right panel of this blog and feel free to contribute whatever you feel like.

The Mythos Machine is currently in Open Beta and you are very welcome to come by and check it out. It will be the central hub around which all other activities will orbit going forward. Right now it has the core system of the Elthos RPG programmed and is somewhere around 95% finished. We need feedback on it to find out where the bottlenecks are, locate any code errors, and learn from the users what it will take for it to serve the needs of Elthos GMs more completely. That said, at this point it is highly functional, feature rich, and extremely useful in terms of saving GMs time on Prep for their games. I know because I use it myself and it saves me countless hours of prep time. It also keeps all of my world's history and information online which means I can access it from anywhere. So at a coffee shop and come up with another great adventure hook for my latest campaign? No problem. The Mythos Machine is there for me. And I hope it will be there for you, too. I'd also like to note here that you can use the Mythos Machine's World Weaver Studio for other systems if you wish, to create your own worlds simply by bypassing the Elthos RPG related aspects in the Gamemaster's Toolbox. How you use the utility is up to you, but I would recommend trying it with the Elthos RPG aspects as well... it is a pretty good system for fast play and rich character generation. And the Mythos Machine allows you a great number of configuration options to shape your world the way you want. Everything from how many dice for character generation to creating your own weapons, armors, skills and pretty much everything else for your world. Anyway, please take a look if you're at all interested. You may like what you see. And if you do - please provide feedback! Thanks. :)

In addition, via the Professional GM Society I will be working towards creating a venue for Elthos on the Tabletop Simulator platform that can be used by myself and other GMs to run both professional and hobby games. Hobby first, I should imagine. I think the potential there is high and we're working on developing the necessary tools to allow GMs to quickly and easily create 3D RPG worlds there and integrate the Elthos RPG into the game play with direct feeds of Character data to the TTS system. Again this requires time, and time, as Einstein once proved, equals money with his little known yet all-pervasive equation T = $.

I will also be hoping to create workshops for GMs via the Literary RPG Society for enhancing GM skills in relation to story and character development and providing other useful services via this organization. This aspect is one that has been on the stove for a long time simmering quietly in the background. I plan to focus on this in the years to come, and eventually I see this as a greater part of the Elthos Project. But this one will take lots of time to develop and won't happen immediately, although if you are interested you are more than welcome to join in and promote the concept with your ideas, observations, and advice to other GMs on the topic.

Ok, that's my statement for September 2016 on the Elthos Project. Thanks for reading this far. :)

Lastly I want to thank all of the Open Beta testers for all of your excellent feedback thus far! Every bit of feedback is very helpful! Thank you!

Links:

Elthos RPG Mythos Machine website: http://elthos.com

PGMS Website: http://professionalgamemastersociety.com/

LRPGS Community on G+: https://plus.google.com/communities/101579906998277448016

Monday, August 29, 2016

GRRR Review: Rewind - Temporal Tales



Here is my 2nd Review for the Game Reviews Round Robin (GRRR) kindly organized by Eleri Hamilton.

Rewind: Temporal Tales
Copyright 2015 by Todd Zircher

The dragon’s massive wing smashed into Robert’s shield and sent it flying. He watched as it clattered against the far cave wall, which is why he was too slow to react to the muscular tail as it whipped around and broke his neck. With a jolt he woke-up in the straw; he was back in that stinking stable wearing his filthy peasant clothes. Again. *sigh* It was going to be that kind of day.

And so Rewind kicks off with a bang and a twist and thereby gives you a hint as to what the game is about. But first, the technical stuff. The PDF Rules Book is 14 pages, featuring clean but sparse formatting with no images except for one rather faded looking photo of the table setup for the game. So not much to see here, but let's presume that the content is worthwhile enough to read through without eye candy, shall we?

The game is a version of The Protagonist (show or the book, neither of which I've heard of, so think Groundhog Day) for solo or single player where one person plays the protagonist time-looper, and the other person plays the Gamemaster. Both methods of play are described. The game can be played in any genre or setting, and you the player decides which (or the GM). To get started you answer the Five Questions, which set up the scenario. Who, What, Where, Why and When. There is some advice provided on how to think about each of the questions, and a few examples afterwards. Pretty straight forward. Here's an example of the examples:

Who: Gordon Moss
What: Stop Earth from getting destroyed
Where: Nellis AFB, Las Vegas, Area 51
Why: Temporal rip in the fabric of space/time
When: 1960’s America

Next up: Create your Protagonist. The rules for this are as light weight as I've ever seen. There are no requisites, just descriptive information such as looks, history, Skills, etc, and lastly Rewinds, which are points you accrue during play. Starting off you have 0 Rewinds. Here's a couple of sample Characters from the book:

Name: Grace “Lucky” Strickland
Details: Grace is in pretty good shape, she still runs at the gym, she keeps her red hair short
History: Communications major and news reporter
Skills: Library research, talking to people
Mastery: none
Stuff: Stylish clothes, wireless professional microphone, can of mace in her purse, smart phone

Name: Major Gordon “Blackjack” Moss
Details: Gordon has been flying a desk for too long and probably fills out his old flight suit in unflattering ways. His black hair is always closely cropped and his nose and teeth are slightly crooked.
History: USAF Officer with a Meteorology degree
Skills: Piloting, bluffing
Mastery: casino games
Stuff: USAF dress uniform, keys to a Ford Fairlane Skyliner, leather wallet with $18

Next comes Action Resolution rules. Any time the outcome of an action is in doubt, you can roll two regular six sided dice, add the results of the dice together plus any advantages/disadvantages, and check the Time Table (conflict resolution table - ie "what happens this time?"). Rolling low is bad, rolling high is good. You can modify the roll with Advantages or Disadvantages, and stack them, with a maximum of +3 or a minimum of -3. Easy peasy.

Now for the (slightly) tricky part. You are going to be looping through these events over and over again because your character is stuck in a time loop. So you can use your foreknowledge of what is about to happen to try to create advantages and avoid disadvantages each time you loop through, thereby altering the chances for a successful outcome. Or you can take the previous outcome and keep going with it, and there's no need to roll.

While playing you may (and probably will) run into forks in time. So you will use index cards to keep track of the time line. You put a number in the upper right and lower left corners to track which point in the sequences the card represents, and write down notes on the card, such as Where and When. At some point along the way the Character may either get stuck in a dead end, or die. At that point you put a black dot on the card to show it's an end point, and you give the Player a Rewind Point for their troubles. You then start over at card zero, and keep following the same path until the Player gets to a point where they want to make a different decision. At this point there is a time-fork and you create a new card and note the time branch on it. Perhaps the author says it more clearly than I can:

Start back at the zero card. If you make the same decisions, walk on down the chain of cards until you get to a point where you want to change the future (or is that the past?) For example, if you’re on card 2 and you want to try something different and create a new branch, pull out a new index card (let’s say it is card 7) on card 2, write a 7 next to the 3. Now card 2 can branch to card 3 or card 7. On card 7, write down the number and the details of the new encounter. If you survive/succeed, connect that to card 8 and so on.

So far so good. So basically, if I have this right, you go through a time-loop trying to find a solution to your problem, and along the way you get killed or stopped dead in your tracks and each time you get a Rewind Point... which you spend as a kind of Skill Learning Points. 2 Rewinds allow you to add a skill and another 2 allow you mastery of that skill. Eventually you either have great skills and can beat the odds, or your figure out the solution and Voila - you escape the time-loop and win. Or at least told a good story. Hopefully.

There is a little bit about world building, but basically it says that the GM and player can collaborate in the process, and there's not that much else to the advice. You are expected to come up with interesting plots, and if you're the creative type with some time travel sci-fi in your blood then you should be able to do it.

The author then provides some Tips and Tricks, and advice on how to play a Solo game. I'm not sure how fun I would find the Solo game, but with a good and creative GM I could see this as interesting. I might even use the core concept of the time-fork tracking for my own game (my players are currently dealing with the dread Chrono-Felidae, which are time-loopers par excellence, actually). The author recommends, if you need ideas, to use Oracles (random wandering monster tables, or the like) which you can find in older versions of RPGs, or just do searches for interesting images on google, or using a tarot deck or ordinary playing cards. There's a few pages of inspirational card deck related imagery/story invoking lists related to suits and card numbers. In other words if you're looking for evocative ideas for your game, look around and grab from whatever sources seem handy for giving you interesting ideas.

Here's a couple of random dice generators that might help that the author created:
http://www.tangent-zero.com/zero_dice/zero_dice.htm
http://www.tangent-zero.com/zero_tarot/zero_tarot.htm

I tried the first one, and didn't think all that much of it, but then again, I think my brain has enough interesting time travel ideas not to need these tools.

The book wraps things up with some additional advice about playing for the fun of story, and some extensions to the game that might be considered, as well as a list of inspirations for the concept of the game: A few time loop movies: Groundhog Day, Timecop, Christmas Every Day, Camp Slaughter (also known as Camp Daze), Christmas Do-Over, Salvage, The Last Day of Summer, Timecrimes, Repeaters, 12 Dates of Christmas, Source Code, Mine Games, About Time, Edge of Tomorrow, Project Almanac, I Do! I Do! I Do!

The last few pages are an extended example of play showing the various mechanics points in action.

Overall, I'd say this is an interesting, if a bit limited idea, and one that I will probably make use of, though not exactly as the author intended. But the mechanic of time-line tracking is an interesting one, and worth the price of admission in my opinion. Other than that this is a pretty bare bones no frills RPG which may very well turn out to be a lot of fun for those who enjoy a whole lotta Deja Vu.

If you want to get a copy you can find it here on DriveThruRPG and it's PWYW: Rewind: Temporal Tales (PDF)

Ok - that's it for my 2nd GRRR Review! Stay tuned for the last one, hopefully tomorrow or the next day. :)

Monday, August 15, 2016

GRRR Review: Christmas Ninjas

Here is my 1st Review for the Game Reviews Round Robin (GRRR) kindly organized by Eleri Hamilton.

Christmas Ninjas An RPG of Ninjas, Fighting for Christmas, Who Are Also Rock Stars, by Mendel Schmiedekamp. - 10th Anniversary Edition, 2016

First the rules book is a 10 page PDF, with a small set of somewhat silly looking graphics. The layout however is well organized, clean and easy to read, and that's a plus.

The Back Story

Christmas Ninjas comes across as an adorable and whimsical game probably designed for children or very childish adults (inebriated). It starts with a fictional historical timeline that covers the major events of the 'War to Save Christmas'. There are a much maligned bunch of ninjas on the front lines. They are fighting ... Santa Claus and his legion of Secular Elves. "Some say the ninjas are terrible musicians, though the magic of the 80's hair bands is but a shallow reflection of the Christmas Ninjas' talents." Though some say they are heartless killers, they struggle day and night to fight Cancer (the astrological sign). Um ... yeah ... so you get the idea. Kinda crazy whimsical, and an adorable and highly original way. There almost seems to be a political message behind the crazy, but to be honest it's an almost and I really couldn't figure out whether it's there or not. But references to a war on Christmas (a real political issue), and mentions of Fox News and Nazis gives me the vague (and slightly disturbing) feeling that below the surface lurks a political agenda.

Next with that introduction there comes a short chronology in years which includes things like:

3712 BCE Mythical founding of the Order of the Christmas Ninjas, founded by Master Gingerbread.

2016 BCE - Death of last Gingerbread heir, beginning of the preeminence of the Panda Bear Masters, when no human ninja proved capable of leading the ninjas.

1233 BCE - Saturnalia Wars begin.

784 BCE - Saturnalia Wars end with uneasy truce.

27 BCE - Christmas invented.

129 CE - First successful Christmas, due to assistance of Saint Nick and his elven followers.

1734 CE - Great Betrayal - Santa Claus and his elves attack the ninjas, driving them out of the Christmas Fortress. They hide in the Black Hole Sun Mountains and begin to rebuild under their new panda leader. Global decline in panda population begins.

So you can see there is a perplexing/amusing historical backdrop. Die-hard Christians, and those who respect other people's religions may take umbrage at this game. So beware. It's heretical.

The Rules

Whomever plays the Christmas Ninjas takes on the role of GM.

Christmas Ninjas get a selection of Jutsu to choose from. You roll 3 dice when using it. Examples are:

Croonjitsu applies to the uses of the voice, whether singing, persuasion, or fast talking. Every team of Ninjas should have a Crooner for Rocking Out.

Gayjitsu applies to knifeless cooking, as Christmas Ninjas are prohibited from using any sort of blade by the No-Hair Code.

Lawnjitsu applies to thrown weapons, especially lawn darts, and ninja meditation dice.

Christmas Ninjas are good at stealth and eating. They are not good at anything without a Jitsu (from the list). That includes technology, disguise, animal training, or flower arranging. It is mentioned that there is a set of lost scrolls of lost jitsus, however, so ... one guesses that other skills may be learned by Christmas Ninja under some circumstances. There's also an amusing set of Dishonorable Techniques which Christmas Ninja shouldn't be good at, but are anyway, and using them adds an extra die to the roll, and grows 1 inch of hair (which turns out to be important). They also know how to Cheat Death, but this grows 6 inches of hair (which is bad).

The rules on Page 3 then go on to talk about creating Christmas Ninja. You pick a species: Human, Panda, or Penguin.

Here's an example:

Penguin
Penguins are the perverse creations of Dr. Ernesto Sellers, former owner of the ninjas current home. They have only recently been permitted to become Christmas Ninjas. Penguins get Halibutjitsu, Gayjitsu, and 3 jitsu of their choice, 3 Balance, can take 4 Wounds, and start with 1 inch of hair.

You then choose Jitsu, the number of which you get is according to the Species you chose, and then assign Merry Weapons which include "a metallic crochet needle for combat". You choose a name. And now you are ready to start a Mission.

You start by resupplying, choosing a Fuel, and a Leader (called "Lutenist"). There's a paragraph explaining Hair, and what it means in the game. Long hair is bad. The longer the badder. There's a list of dirty deeds which will cause hair growth including attacking with a forbidden weapon (1 inch), consuming unclean fuel (1 inch), killing a Christmas Ninja (4 inches), etc. At 2 feet of hair the Christmas Ninja is expected to commit honorable suicide with their metallic crochet needle. Christmas Ninjas have it tough, you know.

On to the Rules, starting on page 4. The primary mechanic is a dice matching system. You roll your dice, the GM rolls her dice, and unmatched dice are balanced for use in alter rolls. You can pretty much use any kind of dice you want, including FUDGE dice, for which a little chart is provided. For unlearned Jitsu you roll 1 die. For learned Jitsu you roll 3 dice. The GM will roll a number of opposing dice reflective of the skill level of the foe; the higher the skill level the more dice. Due to the variability of the dice selections I don't think it's very easy to provide a very effective analysis of the odds. However, as the mechanic is relatively simple, I imagine one would quickly get a feel for it after a few tries. A set of handy charts are provided to show the results.

On page 5 we come to the section titled "Rocking Out & Other Special Occasions". This includes "Difficult Actions", "Dangerous Actions", "Meditation", "Rocking Out" and "Leadership", and for each how to handle them mechanically (with special rules dealing with things like Fighting Cancer). To give you an idea of the nature of the rules I will provide you this example from the text:

Dangerous Actions
When fighting or doing daredevil stunts, such as jumping out of a penguin ornithopter without a parachute, getting zero successes means not just failing the roll, but incurring a wound. Wounds accumulate until a ninja has taken three, or four for a penguin. Any further wounds cause a ninja to die, unless she or he cheats death and immediately
grows 6 in of hair to remove their current wounds. All wounds are healed between missions.


So you get the idea. Whimsical is the best word I can think of to describe the intended style of the game, and I think you can by now see why that is.

On page 6 we get our selection of Merry Weapons, which include a Halibut (yes, the fish), as well as possible Gay Fuels (no, not that kind of gay), which include Twinkies and Cheeseburgers. We will presume that our Christmas Ninjas rank in as Chubby. There's also Forbidden Weapons which include Uzi machine guns, just in case you find yourself in need, but they cause 1 inch of hair growth to use, as mentioned earlier. There's also Unclean Fuels which can be any food that is not listed, and also heal wounds but cause 1 inch of hair growth. Yup.

On page 7 we come to the guts of the thing. GM's advice on how to build Missions. The missions should relate to defeating Santa and his Legion of Elves who are described as being like Legolas but dressed in holiday cloths and carrying Uzi's. You can also go after the much hated Hair Bands (traitors!), or defeating Cancer (those born under the dread astrological sign). The characters typically get air dropped from a penguin ornithopter. Throw some enemies at them, which may include ravenous shoppers, and robotic toys. Gay fuel must be consumed through the course of the mission, or your Ninjas will get hungry. Then there's a final blowout battle with lots of Rocking Out and other silliness. The surviving Ninjas will make their getaway in a Fox News van.

A handful of example missions are provided to get you going. Here's one:

"Seek out the Lost Temple of the Lost Scroll of the Lost Jitsu in the Black Hole Mountains (they are filled with hair bands)."

Here's another:

"Investigate an unexplored sub-basement of the Christmas Ninja's base and recover any of Seller's experiments which could be of use."

There's additional GM advice on handling Stealth and Initiative. Then follows the proclamation to get out there and save Christmas, followed by various helpful lists for the next few pages under the title of "GM Curious Facts & Prompts".

The lists cover such things as Fights, Not Fights, A Twist to the Mission, General Weirdness, Christmas Elves, Some Lost Jitsu, and some Fictional Cancers of Note. An example of the notes in these lists: "YULE brand Christmas cookies, made with real wasabi. Which makes them unclean food a ninja can consume without growing hair."

Finally, there is a clean and easy to use Character Sheet at the end.

Summary: To be fair, the entire silly thing was a product of a high speed design challenge conducted on New Years Eve of 2005/2006. We can suspect there was plenty of inebriation involved.  Hence this is a very silly game, probably best played while in an exuberant mood while imbibing a variety of mind altering substances. Which is not to say it won't be fun - I have a funny feeling that with the right bunch of friends this is a truly hysterical game. :)

To download the Original version of Christmas Ninja PDF (4 pages) and see the dawn of silliness for yourself you can find a copy here: Click Me for Christmas Ninja Silliness

I was unable to find an online version of the 2016 version for your linking pleasure, but I have reached out to Mendel and if he wishes to provide an online copy I will be happy to include a link to it here.

Edit:  This note is just in from Mendel: "This review is based on a preview version of Christmas Ninjas. Presently in production is a version with The Great Cookie Swap adventure and better, but no less silly, illustrations. The new version will be available on DriveThruRPG.com in a few months."

Ok that's it for the Round Robin RPG Review #1. Woot!








Sunday, July 31, 2016

Some Thoughts on Theater of the Mind Combat

In response to this thoughtful blog post by Jeffrey Dufseth on Theater of the Mind at houserule.com, I have this rather TLTR-for-a-comment reply. Before I begin, I want to apologize in advance for a rambling post as I'm going to try to think through this as I write. That said, here we go.

TLTR? The upshot is that the question of Theater of the Mind vs Tactical Combat is one of game style focus. Theater of the Mind lends itself to the story aspect where the narrative is the primary concern, whereas tactical combat lends itself to the game aspect where fairness and adherence to the rules of the game are primary.

This is a more complicated question than it sounds on the surface, at least in regards to the Traditional style of RPG play. The issue is one of fairness.

Yes, Theater of the Mind is great, and it has all the virtues ascribed to it in Jeffery's post. But what I feel is missing is the question of victory or defeat in regards to game-fairness. When you play Theater of the Mind combat, the players must rely on the GM's descriptions to determine what tactical options are available. The GM may or may not be able to describe the scene in a way that makes the tactical options clear. Could the Party hug the shoreline and still remain out of range of the archer's vollies? What battle maps do is ensure that accurate tactics are played out, so there is no question as to whether or not what happened was actually fair. In the Theater of the Mind game, the players have to rely on the GM's word in this regard. What happens, for example, when the players, based on an incomplete or inaccurate visualization of the battle choose to follow the shoreline, but in the GM's mind the distance was not as far as the players imagined? "You all hug the shore line for 30' but are then cut down by a volley of arrows!" I can hear the players protest, "But their archers were out of range!", to which the GM answers, "No, but your characters thought they were!" "Unfair! Unfair!" is the outraged cry from the player's side of the table.

Lets assume for the sake of argument that the GM was right about that. The player's didn't know the exact range and they guessed wrong in regards to the distance. Let's say they even checked with the GM before hand asking "Are the archers far enough away that we can dash along the shoreline" and the GM, after rolling a perception check or the equivalent, said "You think so", but the roll was bad, and so they had inaccurately estimated the distance. And as a result there was a TPK. In the GM's mind this is a case of "fog of war" and the uncertainties of actual combat. And yet, I can imagine that the players would be upset.

"That's bad story! Now we're all dead, and that's not heroic!"

"That was unfair! We should have been able to tell!"

"You gave us bad information, which amounts to cheating!"

And this is the problem with Theater of the Mind combat. It puts the GM in the awkward position of having to either allow the party to die due to poor tactical choices, or safeguard them "for the sake of the story".

What makes this complicated is that it depends on the psychology of the players and GM as to whether or not it will work out well for everyone involved. If you're playing a Story Game and the assumption is that The Heroes Always Win because that's a good story, and the GM ensures that because the tactical environment is vague and therefore the PCs will in fact always win, somehow (with of course the appropriate amount of "risk" added in the narrative so it seems like they might get killed, but they don't) then this style is fine. As long as everyone is on the same page as to expectations it's great. The players romp through thinking they are taking risks, and the GM is pretending they are, dealing out just enough damage and pretend rolls to make it seem like that's true, but in the end protecting the party from calamity. And this works quite well for some groups.

Another option is that the players accept that in their Theater of the Mind game they could get killed by virtue of the fact that they didn't understand the tactical situation in the same way that the GM did, and decline to argue about it when they get killed. In other words they accept the Fog of War assumption and instead of complaining they say "Oh man! Wow! We all got killed that time! Hah! That was cool! Let's roll new characters and start again!"

Such players as this are probably not all that common. Most people I know will feel some consternation in that situation, and express it in the form of a cry of "Unfair!" in one form or another. And even if it's one or two players in the group, the accusation of "unfair" can spoil a game, and turn into an argument. This is in fact somewhat of a risk from the GM's point of view, and one most GMs would prefer to avoid. And this is why some (if not many, or most, even) GMs will feel forced to go with the first option of pretending the battle had risk, when it didn't.

Another option is that the GM really gives out truly accurate narrative descriptive information to the degree that the tactical information is so clear as to provide all the options to the players, and in addition, when the players do happen to lose, they don't resort to the "unfair" argument, but accept it. This however, puts the burden of proof on the GM if things go south for the Player Characters in the combat. It is very easy for the players to later think that the GM didn't provide quite enough information for them to make the best tactical choices. Gamemasters know that it is hard for players to accept defeat without a certain amount of angst. After all, when the tactical environment has been narrated, it's all too easy to come to the conclusion that the narration wasn't clear enough when things turn south for the party - which can lead to an argument and possibly spoil the game. But again, if the players are sincerely cool with the risk of their character's dying for lack of accurate information that they would have had with a battle map, then it's fine. If not, then Theater of the Mind is risky.

And this is the problem that Battle Maps solve and as far as I know the primary reason why GMs like Battle Maps. It takes the burden of covering for the players bad tactical decisions off of them and places them on the players.

What it comes down to is this - if Theater of the Mind is only good when the Player Characters win, and "unfair" when they don't, then the GM can either fudge on behalf of the players, or take the heat when they make a bad or unlucky decision. It is easy for the players to mistake an unlucky decision for a bad one in this case, and this is risky from the GM's point of view. But if the GM is cool with the principal that "Story Comes First" then the results can be tilted on behalf of the players and Theater of the Mind works perfectly. If the GM, however, is oriented towards the idea that RPGs are a game, like chess with dice, or a wargame, then Theater of the Mind may turn out to be a poor choice. The same thing is true, of course, if the players are oriented towards the Game aspect, but in this case the roles are reversed and the players may wind up resenting the GMs buffering for them in order to ensure "good story".

So for Theater of the Mind to work, both the GM and the players have to be aligned on the purpose and style of the game as being Story focused with an emphasis on The Heroes Win because that's "good story". In which case the question of dice-cheating doesn't come up because "Story Overrides Dice".

Battle Maps are used to ensure that the tactical considerations are clear to everyone to the end that the game is played fairly, and there is no blurry gray line between bad tactical choices and bad luck.

It is also worth mentioning, briefly, that in the 'RPG as Game' style of play, the GM is the adversary of the players. The GM sets up the context and details of the opposing forces, and the players try to defeat those forces during the course of the game. So there is no getting around the adversarial relationship between the GM and players so long as the Game aspect is important (unless the GM makes all opposition completely randomized - ie all encounters are rolled as random encounters so the GM is not actually setting up the confrontations but the dice are. However, I don't see many games, if I've ever seen any, actually, where this is the case).

That said, I should also add that even with Battle Maps, sometimes the situation is such that the players may lose, and STILL feel that there was unfair GMing involved. For example, maybe they thought their opponents were weaker than they actually were, and when they lose they think it was a product of unfair GMing. "You made it sound like the Orcs were weak and a bunch of pushovers!" So even with Battle Maps GM's may be subject to the accusation of "unfair!", although it should be clear enough that there is far less of a risk to the GM with a Battle Map than without one. And it should be evident that the purpose of Battle Maps is to prevent the GM from being caught in the perilous gap between Good Story and Fair Play.

So the upshot is this - if the game is Story oriented and the GM is willing to buffer on behalf of the players for the sake of story, and battle is not actually risky though it is given the appearance of being so, then Theater of the Mind is a good option and both the players and the GM will be satisfied. If on the other hand the people playing feel the Game aspect as important, and the players are not willing to accept that their characters may get killed due to the their misunderstanding of the tactical situation as it is narrated by the GM, then Theater of the Mind is risky. Each group needs to decide for themselves what style of game they want to play, and what their acceptance level of risk is.

And lastly, the real problem for many games is that the GM winds up stuck between both styles of play. On the one hand the GM wants a Story oriented game where the Heroes are victorious because that's "good story", and on the other hand the GM wants there to be actual risk during the game play. These are conflicting goals. This situation often results in the GM pretending there is risk, when in fact there is none, but not feeling comfortable with the pretence but doing it anyway "for the sake of the story". And this kind of game amounts to a kind of magic show where the GM is hiding the lack of risk behind a pretence of risk during combat. I will also say that in my experience most of the GMs I know actually play this way, and most players I know are cool with that because the level to which they are being buffered is unclear to them. And I will also add that in most cases that I know, this style of play, what I think of as The Parlor Trick style, is perfectly fine, totally common, and despite the deception, a heck of a lot of fun. Just like magic shows are a lot of fun. As long as you don't poke your nose into it too far, everything works fine and fun is had by all.

If you want a fair tactical game where there is actual risk and tactics matter, then you should probably use Battle Maps, and take your chances that your characters might get killed. If you want a good story use Theater of the Mind, but forego the idea that the dice actually matter because it is more likely than not that the GM is buffering for you so you won't shout "unfair" by the end of the game.

I'm frankly not seeing a way to have both at the same time, good story and fair tactics, because fair tactics includes the bad luck that might cause the heroes to get killed. Battle Maps, however, at least give the players of a fair tactical game a chance - they can look carefully at the map and make good tactical choices. That's a lot of fun, too, like chess.

Both styles of play are fun. But you need to understand what the choice entails and choose one or the other. Or play the Parlor Trick style, which is also fun, but as it is a kind of cheating (like a magic trick is a kind of cheating) you have to agree not to look into it too closely or you will spoil the game.

Ta-Da!