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:

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 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, 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.


Monday, July 25, 2016

Notes on OD&D - Part 28

Time for us to take the next step forward! On to the next batch of 6th Level Spells!

Men & Magic
  • p30 - Explanation of Spells - 6th Level

Lower Water: Utterance of this spell causes the water level in a river or similar body of liquid to drop 50% of its depth for ten turns. Range: 24" (720').

Um. That's a 6th Level spell? Really? Um... I don't know about you but this one is not on my "Must Have" list... at all. Nope. This seems like a totally wasteful spell to take as I can not think of any time in the past 30 years of gaming that I would have needed to lower a body of water 50% for 10 turns. I am guessing though that it's intended to allow troops to pass over waterways like rivers where otherwise it would not be possible. Let's remember that D&D 1st Edition was a military miniatures wargame, and things like River Crossings had a bearing on troop movements. That, of course, no longer (afaik) has much bearing on how RPGs are played, but if we harken back and consider the potential utility of this spell in that particular context then perhaps it begins to make more sense. Ok, on the assumption that I'm kinda guessing right about this, I would still say that as a 6th Level spell, this one is more or less shite. Why? Well because reducing a river 50% will not necessarily allow troops to cross, and doing so for 10 turns only even moreso limits it's potential usefulness. An army can not cross even a dry river bed in 10 turns. So, yup. Pretty much shite all the way around. I guess you have to have some shite spells in the list so that people can feel good about saying "Nope, not that one."

I rate this Spell 1 Star out of 5 for uselessness.


Part Water: A spell which will part water up to 10' deep for a maximum of six turns. Range: 12" (360').

Goodness no. That's pretty much just as bad, and pretty much for the same reasons, although at least if you actually part the water then the troops can certainly pass through, as opposed to "maybe" for the previous water barrier passing spell. So this one is a minor improvement. But it only will only part water 10' deep. Sorry Moses, this ain't gonna be so easy after all. Yeah, I think this one is only a thin silky blond hair better than the last one.

I rate this Spell 1.01 Stars out of 5 for uselessness.


Slightly Shift Water A Little Bit Spell:  This spell moves one gallon of water an inch or so in any direction the Magic User wishes for 1 turn.  Range: 1" (30').

Hehe... Just kidding!


Projected Image: By means of this spell the Magic-User projects and image of himself up to 24" (360') away, and all spells and the like used thereafter appear to originate from the Projected Image. Duration: 6 turns. Range: 24" (360').

Hmmm... 6th Level? Um, hey, Gygax, old buddy... what's up with the super-underpowered 6th Level Spells? My MU has gone through hell and high water (literally) to get to a level where he can select even one of these puppies and ... this is the selection? Seriously? This is ok useful, to a certain degree, but still... I'd have thought this would make a perfectly fine 3rd Level Spell, frankly. Not 6th. Don't waste my time with this one.

I rate this Spell a 2 Stars out of 5 for uselessness.

NEXT!! (come on, come on)

Anti-Magic Shell: A field which surrounds the Magic-User and makes him totally impervious to all spells. It also prevents any spells from being sent through the shell by the Magic-User who conjured it. Duration: 12 turns.

Well that one was looking promising, until the joy-diminishing caveat that it doesn't allow spells through in either direction. That's like jumping inside a tank, only to find that all you can do is drive around because you're totally out of shells (see what I did there)? Can I say that this too is a Booooooogus spell? Ok, let me think this through here. Maybe Gygax really, really, really didn't want Magic-Users to be too powerful. So the list of 6th Level spells is designed to make Magic-Users lose heart, and fall into despair, maybe? I don't know. If I'm going to take on that much risk, and commit to that much of a long slow haul up Levels to get to the point where I can get my dirty little hands on some 6th Level (that's the Maxi-Premium-Top-of-the-Line spells, btw) spells, and they turn out to be this crappy and mitigating... yeah, I'm going to be preeeety disappointed. And next game I'll be playing a frikkin barbarian with a two handed broadsword with the words "I Kill MUs" on his shield. Just sayin.

Also, almost as an aside, the description doesn't tell us what the diameter of the Anti-Magic Shell is. Can it fit more than one person in it? The whole party? Well, from the description as written it seems to suggest (strongly) that only the Magic-User can fit inside the Anti-Magic Shell. Yay for the MU. The rest of us? Oh, yeah well you guys are SOL. Sorry bout that. :p

I rate this Spell 3 Stars for usefulness (its not horrible, but ... meh. Not impressed after all)

Ok, that was depressing. I'm going to stop there. BUT ... I notice from a quick scan that the last 5 Spells actually do look promising! Let's keep our fingers crossed that good old Gygax doesn't screw the pooch on those as well, eh? :)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

RPG Worlds as Embodiments of Philosophy

It seems to me that every RPG rules system, and style of gamemastering, selection of back story, dispositions of characters all combine under the umbrella of the Gamemaster's philosophy. The world itself becomes a reflection of the GM's philosophy.

In some cases, such as science fiction, the philosophy is concealed to some degree behind the forefront of whatever the science aspect of the fiction regards. However, despite this appearance, any amount of investigation will likely soon reveal that all of the same aspects apply for science fiction as they do for any other kind of fiction or fantasy. All worlds embody the philosophies of their authors.

In our day and age things have become angst ridden due to the ever present anxiety under which we all are living. Ever since the 2000 stock market crash, which was the dot com bubble bursting, the red flag that told us we are heading into troubled waters, we've suffered a near continuous series of calamities. The Sept 11, 2001 saw the beginning of the Twilight War between Islam and the rest of the world. Then the 2008 Financial Collapse, nearly destroying the entire economic structure of the West, and perhaps the world. And more recently, the Syrian Civil War resulting in a humanitarian and refugee crisis throughout all of Europe, not to mention the ravages of civil war. And all of this is due to conflicts of philosophy both large and small, and spanning the breath and width of civilization. Philosophy, as it turns out, is important. In fact, it governs everything. When philosophies collide we get disasters. However, when Philosophies unite and harmonize we get peace and order. And to a very large degree the choice is ours. It has always been so even from the most remote times of antiquity.

GMs imbue their Worlds with their philosophies. They must. It can't be helped. And it's not a bad thing. Unless those philosophies are so tainted as to pose a danger to those who adhere to them or those around them. Then, of course, it is indeed a bad thing.

But the GMs I've known have chosen to create worlds whose philosophies remained covert, and yet interesting, and often amazing for their originality and depth. I've not been bored in any of them.

On the other hand, I've played in some worlds where there is very little in the way of philosophic content, and generally focus on things like combat tactics and loot. Which is just as fun for me as the next guy. But I also like the other, more literary, if you will, aspect that is also possible in RPGs. It is this potential of literary quality of RPGs that I find truly fascinating, and why I think RPGs hold so much promise for the future. They are in and of themselves a new and wonderful combination of game and art form, drawing in a all manner of skills into one complex yet cohesive activity. I count it among the most brilliant of mankind's inventions to date, along with orchestral music and the wheel.

So the result is that the philosophy of the GM's World is going to have a lot do with how it is perceived by the players. To a large degree it will determine how much, and what kind of fun they have exploring it. They experience the philosophy through all of the events in the world that the GM narrates, as well as the character descriptions, tone of voice, and so forth. 

Some GMs will do this overtly, and it will be quite clear what the underlying philosophy of the world is. It may be something as simple and straight forward as "The Rule of the Strong Prevails", and that's it, or any similar one dimensional viewpoint. For those Worlds one expects to encounter monsters and villains, kill things and take their loot. Because that's the nature of the World. And the players therein share in that nature, or I should say philosophy. Which is of course to be expected.  The RPG is a social event, and takes place within the context of friends.  It would be natural for them to share a common viewpoint. A common philosophy of life.  And so when the game, the world in which they play embodies that philosophy, and this is the game they enjoy because they are familiar with it and it suits them.  Which is all well and fine, naturally.

In other cases the GM may be more circumspect, and the philosophy may be more nuanced and less overt for that reason. These kind of GMs might have several competing philosophies embedded among the races and peoples of their Worlds.  And those philosophies might become the subject of a wide range of Role Playing opportunities for the GM and players to explore.

So different Worlds are going to have, in other words, entirely different characteristics, and in fact entirely different meanings.  A world whose underlying philosophy is nihilism will have entirely different characteristics than one whose philosophy is utopian in nature.  One might have the story revolve around a Dark Lord whose war forces are ravaging the world out of lust for power, and that is the primary underlying story, while another might have the rise of an Athenian style Space Empire at the height of it's glory.  It entirely depends on the philosophy underlying the world's creation.

When we understand this facet of RPGs we can better understand our options, and navigate more purposefully through the experience of this shared collaborative story making we call Role Playing.

If the GM has a sound philosophy, something profound and of interest, then that GM's world will be interesting. Well, to those who might take an interest in such things. Of course not everyone will, and so some players will glance over the underlying aspects of such a world and take little note of it. The philosophies of the GMs shimmer beneath each world's narrative layer, but the truth is, quite often we take little notice of it.  And that's perhaps a bit of shame.  What's going on beneath the surface may be more mysterious and rewarding than the dragon's horde we send our characters off to acquire.

Some GMs will wind up experimenting. They will adopt different philosophies for different worlds in order to try them out and see how that function. In that sense some worlds will become testing grounds for all kinds of philosophic hypotheses. For example, one GM might wish to explore a comparison between democracy and monarchy. Another might wish to examine a particular theme in romantic literature. The possibilities are infinite.

So when I think about world building, I think about the nature of the underlying philosophy I'm imposing on it, and I think about my players and what they may find interesting, and what might make for an interesting mystery or fascinating puzzle, and it gives me something to ruminate over for a few months while we play out the campaign. It also gives me insights in regards to how my players react to the world, and what they come away thinking.

So as I see it, RPGs can be a bit more than simply a bit of hack and slash and murder hoboing about the landscape. I'm not saying that isn't a perfectly fun way to play RPGs, but I am saying that there are other approaches to it, and of varying levels of sophistication.

The Literary RPG Society's primary goal is to collaborate on, brainstorm about, discuss and experiment with techniques that will help GMs derive more interesting worlds, and ones that may more easily result in stories that contain literary elements, or works of artistic merit in their own right. We are a collaborative society of GMs who wish to contribute to the art. Please join us if you feel this is something you'd like to contribute to.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Whitewode Township - Tactical Map - Final

This is the latest, and final, tactical map for Whitewode Village - the West Gate.  Currently there is an army of Gnolls west of the town beyond the marshes, guided by, and aided by, the Military Commanders of the Pechs (an ancient Deep-Stone race, older than the Dwarves).  The town is being defended by two factions of Witches who seem confident in their ability to ward off the Pech Magic.  But the Gnolls?  That's new.  And who knows?  Stay tuned.

Notes on OD&D - Part 27

Time for us to advance!  On to the first of the 6th Level Spells!

Men & Magic
  • p30 - Explanation of Spells - 6th Level

Stone to Flesh: This spell turns stone to flesh, and it is reversible, so as to turn flesh to stone.  It is particularly useful in reviving characters who have been "stoned" by a stone monster.  it is permanent unless a reversed spell is used.  Range: 12" (360')

Well, not terribly exciting, if you ask me.  Though if we think about it this could be used in a variety of ways if you think creatively.  Obviously, using this against your enemies by petrifying them would be handy.  It doesn't say how long it takes for the spell to take effect, so that's a variable that would probably make a pretty big difference if you try to use it in combat.  As GM, I would probably adjudicate that it takes up to a full minute for it to completely take effect, and give it a roll of 1d6 melees.  I might say that after the 1st melee the victim can no longer actively fight and is rooted to the ground.  So that usage would probably be quite effective.  Especially since it can be cast at a distance of 360'.  Dang.  Not bad.  Of course it only affects one character at a time, but what the heck.  Nothing here says it couldn't take out a dragon, or a beholder, or a lich.  I'm thinking this is a pretty kick ass spell. frankly.  And then of course on the other side, you can use it to rescue your friends who may have been turned to statues.  But that seems like the kind of use that would come up only rarely.  It's the reversal that makes this thing powerful, imo.

I rate this spell 4 out of 5 Stars for usefulness.

Reincarnation: A spell to bring a dead character back to life in some other form.  The form in which the character is Reincarnated is dependent upon his former alignment (Law, Neutrality, or Chaos).  use a random determination on the Character Alignment table, and whatever the result is, the reincarnated Character is that creature and must play as it.  If he comes back a man, determine which level in that class and similarly check level for reincarnation as an elf or dwarf.

Hmmm... Well, that's certainly better than just being dead, I guess.  And since there's obviously a chance you could come back as a human that's not too terrible.  On the other hand, depending on the character's alignment you could come back as ... well ... anything.  That includes Dragons, Trolls, Beholders, and all other monsters.   Wow!   Actually, that makes this, depending on your luck, pretty damn kick ass.  Since the reincarnation is totally random among all possibilities you could also come back a skeleton, a kobold, or black pudding.  Yay.  Exciting.  I think this is a fun spell, and would really serve to spice things up in the game. On the other hand, I have to admit, as a Magic User I'd probably not care for this spell that much.  I'd only get to use it once in a blue moon when characters got killed, and then there's a very good chance that the reincarnated character won't quite be happy with the results.  Meh.  I'm not too excited about this spell for that reason.

I rate this spell 2 Stars for usefulness.

Invisible Stalker: The conjuration of an extra-dimensional monster which can be controlled with merely a word from the Magic User who conjured him.  The Invisible Stalker will continue on its mission until it is accomplished, regardless of time or distance.  They can not be dispelled once conjured, except through attack.  Details of the Invisible stalker itself will be found in the next volume. 

Woah.  That's definitely bad ass.  Let's check out the details.

INVISIBLE STALKERS: As previously noted (Vol 1) these are monsters created by level 6 spells, uttered directly or from scrolls.  They are faultless trackers.  They follow continually until their mission is accomplished at which time they return to the non-dimension from whence they came.  Until their mission is completed they will never vary, and must be destroyed by attack to be stopped, although a Dispel Magic spell will also work.  The referee should note, however, that Invisible Stalkers resent missions which entail long periods of continuing service such as guarding a Magic-User for a month, a year, etc.  They will then seek to fulfill the letter of their duties by perverting the spirit.  For example: An Invisible Stalker is order to "Guard me against all attack, and see that I come to no harm." In order to faithfully fulfill his endless duty the Invisible Stalker will hae to take the Magic-User to its non-dimensional plane and place him in suspended animation, and assume this is accomplished whenever a 12 is rolled with two six-sided dice, checking either daily or weekly as the campaign progresses.

Yow. A couple of things stand out.  First and foremost, the rule from Vol 1 contradicts the rule from Vol 2 on the point of the Dispel Magic. That is a clear contradiction there.  Aside from that, though, this is a pretty awesome spell.  One assumes that Invisible Stalkers should be used for stalking someone... presumably a foe or rival.  "Go forth, thou thing of dread, and slay my enemy, the Duke of Frothmoore!"  I don't think there's any doubt that this would be a perfectly acceptable mission for an Invisible Stalker.  One wonders, though how this would work if the Invisible Stalker is sent after your adventure party by an enemy Magic-User?   What powers and weapons does the Invisible Stalker have?  I'm not sure.  The description is certainly not clear on those points.  Lets poke around.  Ah. Found the stats in Vol 2.

Armor Class: 3
Move in Inches: 12" (360')
Hit Dice: 8
Treasure: Nil

That's an AC equivalent to Platemail (without shield).  This is one tough hombre!  He moves super fast, he's really hard to hit, he's got a lot of Hits, and worst of all - he ain't got no loot at all!   Dang! Dude that's just cruel.

So now back to the question.  We still don't know what kind of attacks he executes.  I'm going to assume he uses ... a long bow.  Why not?  I would if I were him.  I'd also give him a back up weapon in case long bow is not suitable.  A long sword.  Magical, probably.  Why not?  He's extra-dimensional, and we know he has access to magic of some sort because he can cause Suspended Animation.  While we don't know exactly what that means as it is not a Spell listed in the spell list for MUs or Clerics, we can suppose that it is magical.  Let's suppose it is.  This implies that the Invisible Stalker has at least some access to some kind of magic.  I say he gets a magic sword.  Ok, that's cool. Now what happens.  He stalks the party from afar until they come to an open area which gives him a good vantage point from which to shoot his long bow from a safe, protected and invisible distance. Thwap!  The MU goes down with an arrow through the neck.  The Stalker then waits.  The party scrambles around trying to get a bead on where the attack came from.  Meanwhile - Thwap!  The Cleric goes down.  Etc.  The Invisible Stalker, taking advantage of his, um, advantages, would be a miserably effective party killer.  Relentless, merciless, and highly efficient.  Even if they could manage to figure out where it was shooting from, attacking and killing it would be ... a challenge.

Used as effectively against one's opponents... yes, I think this would be quite effective.

I rate this spell 5 out of 5 Stars for usefulness.

Ok, that's good for today.  I pick up on the next set of Level 6 spells next time, and then we move on to Clerics.  :)

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Notes on OD&D - Part 26

Ok, finally back to OD&D. Sorry for the delays recently, but a lot has been going on here. Ah, nevertheless, lets continue on with the next 5th Level Spell...

Men & Magic
  • p30 - Explanation of Spells - 5th Level
Cloudkill: This spell creates a moving, poisonous cloud of vapor which is deadly to all creatures with less than five hit dice. Movement: 6" (180') / turn according to wind direction, or directly away from the spell chanter if there is no wind. Dimensions: 3" (90') diameter. Duration: 6 turns, but the cloud is dispelled by unusually strong winds or trees. Note that the cloud is heavier than air, so it will sink to the lowest possible level.

Ok. That's solid. Let's take a quick look at how solid.

Five Hit Dice creatures or less includes the following: Goblins, Kobolds, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Gnolls, Ogres, Skeletons, Zombies, Ghouls, Wights, Wraiths, Medusae, Gargoyles, Centaurs, Unicorns, Nixies, Pixies, Dryads, Gnomes, Dwarves, Elves, Pegasi, Hippogriffs, Green Slime, Yellow Ooze, Light Horse, Horses (all kinds). Also included are lower level men, some lycanthropes, insects, and large animals, all of whom have variable hit dice.

Ok so that's a hefty range of creatures. Now lets see how many that comes to, potentially. I'm going to assume that on average 1 creature can fit in a 5' space, though this is clearly quite variable. But lets take human size as average just for argument's sake. The dimensions are 90' in diameter and we will assume a circle shape. 6362 sq feet. 6362 / 5 = 1272 creatures. Since it can move at 180' per turn, which is twice it's diameter which means it can cover two of it's lengths per turn. So that comes to 1272 x 2 creatures per turn. 2545 creatures per turn, for 6 turns. That comes to 15,269 creatures in total before the spell dissipates. So we're looking at a spell that can potentially kill a small army in six turns. Granted all conditions would have to be right for this to happen, such as the army would have to situated in a 90' wide column stretching out in a straight line for 1080 feet, in the direction necessary for the cloud kill to pass over them all. Yet still, even if this isn't the case, the spell is frikking powerful, and well worth taking, even if conditions will never be absolutely ideal, and even though it can't kill creatures such as trolls, giants, Spectres, Vampires, Cockatrices, Basilisks, Gorgons, Manticoreas, Hydras, Chimeras, Wyverns, Dragons, Purple Worms, Sea Monsters, Treants, Rocs, Griffons, Invisible Stalkers, Djinns, Efreets, Ochre Jellies, or Black Puddings. It is still nevertheless the most powerful killing spell thus far. I say take it.

In addition, there are no stated downsides to this spell, and no limitations listed. Which is why I included Skeletons and Zombies on the list of things it kills... even though technically they're already dead, and so a cloud kill in theory shouldn't have an effect on them. But this is magic, and the poison is magical in nature and, well, them's the rules as stated. So there you have it.

Just make sure that you're party members are not in the path of Cloudkill, and the enemies are. Watch those winds carefully, Bub. But take this spell. It's a whopper.

I rate this spell 5 Stars out of 5 on usefulness.

Ok, I'll take a stab at the next spell too.

Feeblemind: A spell usable only against Magic-Users, it causes the recipient to become feeble-minded until the spell is countered with a Dispel Magic. Because of it's specialized nature the Feeblemind spell as a 20% better chance of success, ie lowers the magic users saving throw against magic by 4, so that if normally a 12 or better were required to save against magic, a 16 would be required against a Feeblemind. Range: 24" (720').

Feeblemind, therefore, is a spell designed to take down your opponent's Magic Users. And it comes with a hefty 20% bonus, too. And a pretty descent range, too. What the definition of feeble-minded is, exactly, is left to the GM to decide. Does this mean they become a sputtering imbecile? Or just too stupid to know that they shouldn't answer all of your questions truthfully? Doesn't say. But most certainly it would prohibit them from casting spells, and/or doing other useful things. So we need to take this with a grain of salt, as there's a lot of variability in terms of how the GM will interpret what the effect is.

I'd rate this spell 4 Stars for usefulness and still recommend it. But take Cloudkill first. That's my advice.

Ok, last one for 5th Level spells and we call it a day.

Growth of Animals: A spell which will cause from 1-6 normal-sized animals (not merely mammals) to grow to giant-size with proportionate attack capabilities. Duration: 12 turns. Range: 12" (360').

Ok this one sounds cool at first, but here's the catch. Nothing says the animals once enlarged will behave in any particular way. Animals can be highly unpredictable, especially when surprised. Growing to giant-size all of a sudden might just freak out the animals, and who knows what they could do. There is certainly nothing here to suggest that they will automatically become your friends and attack your enemies. They might even turn on your own forces. Who knows? They're animals. Unpredictable.

I rate this 3 Stars for Usefulness.

Ok, that's it for 5th Level Spells. The last leg for Magic will be the (undoubtedly) mind blowingly powerful 6th Level spells, which will be coming up next. Stay tuned (for hopefully not too long this time).