Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Why I love Elthos RPG

When I discovered D&D as a freshman in high school back in 1978, I immediately wanted to Gamemaster my own World. That was my instant reaction. I was duly informed that our town’s Society of Gamemasters was strictly Anti-Gygaxian (for a variety of reasons, not including that we didn't like OD&D, though we all admitted it had its flaws) and while you could use the three original rules books to do so, it was required that every GM create their own rules system. And so, Elthos was born in 1978. Naturally, like all good parents, I love my baby.

What Elthos had going for it in 1978 are still features that I like today. Elthos' foundations are loosely (very) based on the original three RPG booklets, and so it has the classic RPG tropes of Classes, Races, Hit Points, and so forth. Nothing unusual there. However, under the hood it’s a lot cleaner and more modularized than OD&D. What I wanted from my RPG was a system that could expand indefinitely without my having to add a new chart every time I wanted to add a new skill or weapon, or power to the thing. It uses a tidy little General Resolution Matrix as the core mechanic for what we moderns call "Conflict Resolution", the same one that I created in 1978. The idea is that every action has an associated Skill and conditions which create a Level of Difficulty. So the odds of success for all actions can be summed up as a ratio of the Skill Level vs. the Difficulty Level. It’s simple, flexible, and I'm pretty happy with it. Because, of course, it’s mine. Or maybe because it's a good system. Who knows?

Like most parents I dote over Elthos quite a bit, and have tried my best over the years to see that she develops into not only a wonderful rules system, but also a wonderful World. I am probably overly proud of her to some degree. The fact is, I have been Gamesmastering Elthos for a little over 30 years now, and I’m still having an absolute blast with it. RPGing is one of the best hobbies ever created. I honestly think so.

After a long stint real world adventures wherein I hitchhiked around America for about 10 years, and did some very fabulous world travel after that, I met a Japanese-German aristocrat-wizard going by the name of Count Lowengrin VIII, who gave me my first medieval classic as a gift; Tristan & Isolde by Strassboug. He suggested that if I liked it (which I very much did) that I should continue in that vein by following the trail of books listed in the bibliography. That led me on to other medieval classics such as Parzival by Von Eschenbach, The Quest for the Holy Grail, Sir Gwaine and the Green Knight, Piers the Plowsman, The Death of King Arthur, The Ladder of Perfection, and many, many others. After I devoured every medieval classic I could get my hands on in second hand book shops, I went in for Greek, Roman, Biblical and Sumerian Literature, finally circling back around to give Medieval another grand pass after about 10 years of prodding bookshelves across the country. So, another thing that I love about Elthos is that she has encouraged me to become something of a scholar on the topic of Classical Literature. Naturally, this all has helped me considerably with the story aspects of my game and it’s been quite illuminating in a number of ways I won’t go into here.

After my stint on the road I decided to go back to college and get a Bachelor’s Degree in History. I graduated with Highest Distinction and was accepted into the Fraternal Society of Historians, Phi Alpha Theta. This too was motivated by my love of Elthos as I wanted to be able to Gamesmaster Campaigns that had not only a literary flair, but were also, to whatever degree practical for gaming purposes, historically grounded, at least in so far as I understood things such as medieval engineering, how kings and queens operated amongst the nobility, what peasant life was like, and that sort of thing. I was interested in the grand sweep and panorama of the historical process, and how civilizations are born, thrive, get old and eventually die. The highlight of my college experience was my ‘Student Year Abroad’ wherein I found myself studying Ecclesiastical History, Latin and Medieval Studies at Edinburgh University in Scotland. That was utterly grand. I took the opportunity to travel all over Britain, Holland, France, Austria, Germany and Greece looking at ancient castles, ruins, cathedrals and cities. All to the good of my Gamesmastering Elthos. In addition to my study of history, I also became an avid fan and student of Political Theory and studied Thucydides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, among quite a few others. I was so enamored by Political Theory, in fact, I was offered a chance to skip taking a Master’s Degree and got accepted directly into the Ph.D. program for Political Theory at Boston College. I declined the offer, but Political Theory gained a strong undercurrent in Elthos. It’s a fascinating subject, that had it not been for Elthos I probably would never have encountered.

The Elthos World evolved over time, beginning with The Iron Legions of Telgar Campaign in 1978, and progressing to The City of Stone Campaign by 1986, and then evolving into the Korack Campaign by 1994, and finally the Hamfest and Hobbington Campaigns of the 2000’s. The style of the World is a fusion of medieval and celtic fantasy, Arthurian Romance, fairyland, and science fiction. It’s formed one continuous three decade story, some of which I took the opportunity to record and transcribe into several novel sized books (263,000 words comprise the written version of the 2011-2013 Hobbington Campaign). These books are enormously fun for me to read, and they may actually even be enjoyable in their own right. I’m not sure. But at any rate, I really enjoyed writing them and posting the chapters to my blog. So in this sense, I love Elthos because it’s creative inspirations take on myriad of forms, inspiring me to become a writer, artist, musician, cartographer, improvisational actor and a poet, all of which I’ve used in my games.

Naturally once I graduated from College I had to find gainful employment of some sort. History was not going to do, nor was Political Theory. These are wonderful studies, but in 1994 it seems increasingly clear that there was not going to be any money in either, and the best one could hope for would be a marginal chance of making a long term career as a tenured professor. That might have been an idyllic life for me, in theory, but other concerns turned me aside, not the least of which being that I had already spent 10 years on the road and so was about a decade behind in career building. So after graduation I was casting about for what to do. I hadn’t much of a clue, frankly. But once again Elthos gave me an interesting idea. In 1994 I began working slowly but steadily on developing Gamemaster Software. My desire to create Gamesmastering software for Elthos impelled me into my next career – Software Engineer. I mean how much can you ask from an RPG, really? I think I’ve gotten my money’s worth!

But still, the story goes on. In 1994, after a two month stint with my friend David Kahn learning the basics of DOS in Minneapolis, I began to self-study QBasic at my kitchen table after work, and created my first set of Gamemaster programs; a random monster generator, and my first on-screen hex grid with moveable “pieces”. At that point I had begun the (unexpectedly long term) task of programming the Elthos Rules into a Gamemaster utility I called The Gamesmaster’s Toolbox, in Visual Basic. Those of you who know my nom-de-plume may guess what my opinion of VB turned out to be ere the end of that process.

Thus my work on Elthos translated into a 20 year stint as a professional Programmer/Analyst at a mid-sized Corporation in Connecticut. All the while I tinkered away at the Elthos Program during my off hours. First I created a full blown and incredibly comprehensive Gamesmaster’s Toolbox in Visual Basic, which took me from 1994 until 2000 to complete. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of programming the GM Toolbox, and used that as impetus to teach myself database design, SQL, and ASP, all of which rocketed my career forward, and I think the project has some interesting features that I still haven’t seen anyone else tackle, Visual Basic, if you don’t know, is kind of a broken and peculiar language that people love to hate for good reason. And so, despite the Gamemaster’s Toolbox’s wondrous charms, in the end I couldn’t see sending it out into the wild, despite six years of work on it. It was simply too buggy and I figured I’d get buried under an avalanche of tech support calls. Oh well. Shrug it off and move on. Instead of putting it into the public domain, I simply chiseled away at it, simplifying the back end code, rationalizing the database structure, and adding what I felt were cool and interesting features for another six years. Yay for me. I’m pretty sure at this point history will conclude that I probably didn’t handle this in the best possible way so far as getting Elthos published is concerned. Ok, don’t rush me. I’m a slow-poke, I know.

All that said, I did do at least one very interesting thing with the Gamemaster’s Toolbox. I ran an RPG Game Club for kids through our local Community Center, and another one through private contacts, and in total made about $2500 Gamemastering overall. I wanted to prove that it is possible to make money at Gamemastering. The reason is because I’m convinced that in the future it will form the foundations of a new entertainment industry of live Gamemastering in conjunction with the advanced technology of the computer age. It’s a hunch, and I feel that with Elthos I was able to take the first step in that direction. So I can add this to the list of amazing things that Elthos helped inspire me to do.

Another thing that I should probably mention about Elthos that I really like is the Alignment System that I worked out for it. I was rather put off by the original Alignment System stuff from early editions of D&D because they seemed to be too static, and too restrictive on the Players. But I did like the concept of Alignment, I just wanted it to work differently. What I did was worked out a mathematical way of tracking Alignment, and using the idea the two axises to formulate a metaphysics that could form the basis of that system. So when Players do things with their Characters that have moral (good vs evil) or metaphysical (law vs chaos) implications I find out from them what the motive of the character was (can be things like 'friendship', 'altruism', 'revenge', 'adventurousness', etc) which have a Morality Rating, and that sets the Good / Evil value, and I assign the Metaphysical according to the the nature of the event. So for example, if Robin Hood steals from the rich to give to the poor, it is stealing which is Chaotic (-3 LawChaos), but the motive is Charity which is Good (+2 GoodEvil). That makes Robin Hood's action Chaotic Good, and his Alignment changes by that amount. So if he started the game at LC 4, GE 3, he would be at LC 1, and GE 5 when he does his thing. So instead of telling players "No, you said you're Lawful Good so your Character can't do that", I simply ask, "What was the motive?" and then chart it out. If the Player really wants a Lawful Good Character they can certainly have one - so long as their Character behaves accordingly. Naturally, when the numbers get to certain levels then the Deities may notice and begin to interact with the Character based on their Alignment. I should note that after 30 years or so of playing Alignment this way, I've found that despite what many Players say they want, most turn out to hover around neutral for most of their careers. Interesting.

Also, in relation to this, I wanted to have my Alignment System tie into my Metaphysical system for my World as well. To this end I spent a number of years researching the Tarot and Astrology, numerology and Kabalah to try to put together a system of symbols and correspondences that would serve a useful purpose for me as Gamemaster. A problem that I had GMing for the first decade or so was that I wanted to have some sort of underlying symbolism in my World that made some sort of sense. So when the Priest stood up on the dais and pronounced that the Eagle Flying from the West means that some great event was going to happen, that it would actually be symbolically significant, and if you as the Player understood the symbolism you could correctly interpret the events. Kind of esoteric, but I thought it would be a grand thing to have. So after a number of years of tinkering around with it I finally managed to work out which alignments fit with which astrological signs, and from that which tarot cards go with which signs and planets, and so on. The final result is the Elthos Tarot Deck. The artwork was done by Jason Moser, and he did an amazing job, and I think the Deck looks great. You can see the back facing card showing the Cosmological Map at the top of my post. It ties together my metaphysics and my Alignment System and gives me a symbolic framework which underlies the spiritual aspects of my World. Kinda fun. I've used it to good effect on numerous occasions and it's another thing I love about Elthos.

In 2006 I founded the Literary Role Playing Game Society in Westchester, NY, with the objective to tackle the question “How can we make our Worlds higher quality, and obtain more literary aspects with our Gamemastering?” So this was another offshoot of my work on Elthos, and through it I made a host of new friends with whom I held a long string of really fabulous meetings at our local pub talking Gamesmastering. Lots of great ideas came out of those discussions.

In the process, I realized it would be quite cool to have a mini-version of Elthos to try things out with in the pub, unobtrusively… my new goal was to make an RPG Mini-System. So I started work on a complete distillation of my original Elthos Rules, and came up with The Elthos “One Die System” that uses one six-sided die to run the entire game. It took me about three months to figure out how to do so with the required amount of elegance. Every aspect of the original rules was either shaved off, or shrunk down to tiny size. Attack Levels go from one to six. Armor Classes go from one to six. Weapons do 1d6 plus or minus 1, depending on size. The idea was to create a rules system that uses small numbers and as few charts as possible to run a full blooded RPG World. I wanted it to be genre-neutral as well so I could use it to run any kind of Campaign I may come up with in the future. Wild West with Magic? No problem. Sci-Fi with Space Giants? Yup, can do. And so on. And by using what I call tiny-numbers math it would also make it possible to Gamemaster the Elthos ODS in my head without too much strain. I wanted to get past the days of heavy number crunching and brain fatigue by the end of a gaming session. Those were the design goals for the Elthos ODS. As the original Elthos was designed to be modular to begin with, it wasn’t all that difficult a task, comparatively speaking.

The funny thing is, we never actually used it at the Literary RPG Society meetings, but once it was in rough shape and seemed to work pretty nicely, it gave me another idea.

What if I programed the One Die System into a Web Application using ASP.Net and SQL Server? The new Elthos ODS would be far easier to program than the original system, and it could form a code base that would have the virtues of compactness and simplicity. By making it a Web Application I could host it online on one server, and any updates would automatically propagate to everyone who might be using the system. It would give Gamemasters a way to be able to build their Worlds online from anywhere, and also provide a way to allow Gamemasters to share their creations with each other. Bingo. That really sounded like a great idea. Thanks Elthos!

The programming and design work went quite well between 2007 through 2013. Once the basic concept was fleshed out in 2008, I began Play Testing it with some friends. That went on for quite some time, and between 2008 and 2015 I have played somewhere around 300 games with it. During this period we ironed out various kinks and whatnot, and at this point, to be honest, I like the ODS better than the original system. It does everything that the original system did, only much more simply. It works very nicely for me and I’m pretty happy with it. The Mythos Machine has almost all of the features that the original Gamemaster’s Toolbox has, except for the Virtual Table Top mapping utility that lets you paint maps with different terrains that keeps track of movement, and the part of the original application that ran and tracked combat. I decided that I should focus the Mythos Machine on being a Gamemaster Prep Tool, rather than bring in the Virtual Tabletop aspect of the original Gamemaster’s Toolbox.  Good choice?  Bad choice?  Who knows?  But the truth is, I still have the original Gamesmaster's Toolbox code and it's really not all that difficult these days to convert over to the web.  So I'll probably get around to it, if I get far enough.  Of course since I function at museum speed it might be quite some time before I get around to that.  We'll see.

In 2014 all the features for a Phase I deployment were complete and I named it The Mythos Machine. I then upgraded the Mythos Machine in order to augment it with additional dice options which I named the Opti-Die System (still ODS), and added a number of other enhancements and features that were not part of the original Gamemaster’s Toolbox. Finally, I decided to go whole hog and share it with others on the Internet, and so it will go into a Rolling Open Beta in a few days. I’m pretty excited about it. For those who may be interested in what the Mythos Machine feature set includes, you can take a gander at this Diagram which outlines its primary features.

So, what do I love about Elthos RPG? Not only is she a great RPG system, and a wonderful World, but she’s the also been the foundation of my studies, my career, my writing, artwork and poetry, and as far as I’m concerned, in her totality she represents a solid step forward as a representation of the RPG as a new art form for the 21st Century. My hope is that she will continue to prosper and add many joys for myself and others in the years to come.
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